Interview: Designer Storm Thorgerson Reflects on Pink Floyd and 30 Years of Landmark Album Art
An interview with Pink Floyd designer Storm Thorgerson, who died Thursday at age 69.
GW Is it important to start working on the album art at the gestation of the project?
THORGERSON It depends on what the gestation was. I didn’t have anything, really, to do with the start of Atom Heart Mother, and when I asked them what it was about, they said they didn’t know themselves. It’s a conglomeration of pieces that weren’t related, or didn’t seem to be at the time. The picture isn’t related either; in fact, it was an attempt to do a picture that was unrelated, consciously unrelated.
GW It’s a cow!
THORGERSON ’Cause that seemed to be the most unrelated thing it could be. Also, I think the cow represents, in terms of the Pink Floyd, part of their humor, which I think is often underestimated or just unwritten about. Not that their music is funny, but I think they have good senses of humor. Nick is very droll; he’s got a very good dry sense of humor. And Roger is very sharp. Dave has his own particular sense of humor, as well. I think that’s why they chose the cow. I think they thought it was funny.
GW Any rejections of your work that come readily to mind?
THORGERSON Yeah, for Animals in particular. There were two roughs for Animals, one of which was a picture of a young child, age three or four, with a teddy bear, opening the room to his parents, who are on the bed making love, being caught in the act, and appearing to be animals. I thought that was really good, but they didn’t like it.
For the same job, I also suggested this idea about ducks. In England, the essence of bad taste is to put plaster ducks on the wall. So I took that idea and put real ducks and nailed them to the wall to suggest that people are really animal in some of their artistic and moral decisions. I think they rejected that not because they didn’t like it—because I think they did—but because it was very heavy. These were ducks I bought at a poultry place and nailed to a wall.
So yeah, it happens. For Dark Side of the Moon, we did six or seven complex roughs of all sorts of different things that were eminently suitable. And we were very excited and looking forward to showing these different ideas to the band. At the actual meeting, we gathered around and…it took about a minute! They looked at all these things and looked at the prism and said, “We’ll have that.” We said, “Oh, there’s this and this, have a look at this.” And they said, “No, we’ll have that. Now we’ve got to go back and do our real job.” And they walked out of the room to continue recording.
GW You tell a great story in the book about shooting the pyramids in the middle of the night for the Dark Side poster.
THORGERSON I scared myself shitless doing it, too! I hired a taxi at 2 o’clock a.m. to take me out to the pyramids. So there I am, thinking I’ll be fine, and I put the camera on the tripod to do a long-time exposure. It’s a wonderful, clear night, and the moon is fantastic. So I’m doing it…and then, at like 4 o’clock a.m., these figures come walking across—soldiers, with guns. I thought, This is it. The game is up—young photographer dies a strange death in a foreign land. I was actually really scared. Of course, all my fears were unfounded. They were very friendly. They wanted a bit of bakshish, a little bit of money to go away. They kindly pointed out that where I stood was actually a firing range, and that they’d come to tell me it wasn’t very cool for me to be there. If I was there first thing in the morning, I might get a bullet up my butt.
GW It’s obvious from the book that you’re very fond of Wish You Were Here. Did you feel you had to one-up Dark Side?
THORGERSON Not really. Dark Side… I think it’s sort of goodish, good. Sort of. But I don’t think it’s a moving piece; I don’t think it’s as moving as I would like in terms of their music. So when Wish You Were Here came around, I was quite fueled up for it. In fact, I was even more fueled up for it. And I only suggested one thing to them, as opposed to several to choose from. It was quite nervy, ’cause normally for the Floyd and other bands I would suggest a few different roughs to choose from. But the one thing that was suggested to the band was what they used.
GW Those images were mostly inspired by “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” correct?
THORGERSON It was particularly to do with “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” yes. In a way, that theme could be expressed by one word: absence. It was absence in terms of relationships, absence in terms of previous members of the band. Also, absence in terms of a commitment to a cause or a project. This was a feeling that I think was in the air.
GW How involved did you get in those inner-band Floyd politics that started to surface during the mid Seventies?
THORGERSON The divorce, you mean? Quite a lot on Dave’s side. Roger has not spoken to me since 1980. I was not privy to meetings they had. I just know that there was a very, very hard time indeed, with a lot of fighting.
GW Did you have a falling out with Roger?
THORGERSON I don’t know whether it was a falling out. He didn’t want to use me on The Wall, which is understandable. He was also supposedly cross with me for something, for a credit I’d given him in a book I’d done called Walk Away, Renee. An illustration of the Animals cover appeared in the book, and Roger didn’t like the credit I’d given him. I corrected it on a reprint, so I don’t know whether that was really what upset him.
GW How do you feel about doing album art in the CD age?
THORGERSON This is a continuing debate. The usual response of graphic designers is that the CD provides you with less of a graphic canvas to work on. But it has its own challenges. Also, designers are, to a great extent, realists; you’ve got to function, you’ve got to work. CDs are here. You’ve got to learn to like them. Obviously, though, I would rather have a bigger canvas. That’s probably why I build big things sometimes. For Phish, I built this ball of yarn that is the size of a small house.
GW Part of the challenge seems to be in packaging, too, rather than simply designing a cover or a booklet.
THORGERSON I think designers are driven to do that because there’s less of a canvas to work on with just the booklet. So where are they going to get their rocks off? Because it’s smaller, it becomes more touchy, more of a tactile thing so that you can play more with textures and boxes and fold-outs and Digipaks—this pack, that pack, see-through trays, embossing, etc., etc. I have obviously indulged myself; I enjoyed greatly doing Pulse for the Floyd.
GW A spectacular CD package. How did that come about?
THORGERSON I think it came about for two particular reasons, one of which was that it was a live album. I wanted the package to be live, so we came up with a list of things that included balls and mazes. We had some that made a noise when you opened it, squeaked at you, some that smelled, others that you could see in the dark. And this one that had a flashing light thing, which reflected the heartbeat in Dark Side. And also it was a light, which is really handy ’cause obviously the Floyd have a really good light show. The other thing was that I was also fed up with having to squint at spine details. I thought, I’m going to make something that I know where it is when I want it. It was about a spine that was completely and utterly unique and recognizable, that says: “Here I am. You want to play me? I’m over here.” I think it works really well. Mine still blinks.
GW I take it from your continued involvement with the Floyd that you view the current incarnation of the band as legitimate.
THORGERSON Yes, because Roger resigned. If you leave a band, I cannot see the moral imperative that would allow you to presume it finished. If you leave, you leave. And presumably a man of Roger’s standing and intelligence left because that’s what he wanted. I think it’s peculiar because if it’s not what he wanted, why did he do it? Nobody asked him to. Nobody pressured him to. So I presume he wanted to. But there was a lot of fighting afterward, so you have to presume that something went astray.
GW You chose the cover of The Division Bell to be the cover of your book. What’s the special significance this piece has for you?
THORGERSON Obviously, we were tempted to choose Dark Side because of its success, but we eschewed that choice in favor of art. I hope it doesn’t sound over-pretentious to say that. On a more simple level, this is the picture I have liked the most. It is the image I’m proudest of—at the moment. I think it says a lot about the Floyd. I think it says a lot about past Floyd. I think it says a lot about Roger. I think it says something about the layers of meaning, the elegance…the ghost, the spirit of Floyd. It says something about their ambiguities. It says all those things. It most particularly says something about departed friends.
GW And from your vantage point, do you think there is any truth to the rumors that Roger and the rest of the Floyd will be playing together again in the coming year?
THORGERSON [laughs] I’ve heard that. It sounds like bull to me. Although I think it would be quite interesting and dynamic if it did occur. I think you’re talking about two huge talents here. And as much as there may have been friction, there’s mileage to be made out of friction. But if you ask me if I think it’s a reality—I don’t think it’s a reality. But then, of course, what’s real and what’s not with the Floyd?
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