Storming in: From Ummagumma to Elegy

Storm Thorgerson, the designer of over 400 album covers, whose iconic artwork plotted the aesthetics of Pink Floyd, talks to Matilda Battersby about his creative journey.
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Designing album covers is like one form of art paying homage to another. One is for the eyes and one is for the ears, but what is common to them is invariably what the music is about.

Sometimes the musicians don’t even know what the music is about, which makes the design process a bit difficult. For instance: “Wishing You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. When I said to the guys “What’s it all about?” they said “We don’t know”. So we spent a month trying to work it out. Well, not a month continuously, but on and off. They were recording at Abbey Road and I’d pop down to hobnob, have a beer with them and talk about it. After a while we actually found the answer. It was about absence.

All artists are preoccupied. Van Gogh may have been preoccupied with madness; Picasso preoccupied by sex; Rothko was probably preoccupied with depression. They’re all obsessed by something. That preoccupation is what I try to find out. When we [Storm Studios] take on a project we play the music constantly and write out and rewrite the lyrics, trying to work out what the artists are obsessed with.

Click here or on the image above to see Storm Thorgerson's album art

At the moment I’m working for a drum and bass band called Pendulum; a jam band called Disco Biscuits from Philadelphia; Biffy Clyro, a really good band, except we are just about to have a large disagreement. They are one of the few bunches of blokes I have ever met who are prepared to expose their gentleness. We’re also currently working for Pink Floyd, Powder Finger and an old rocker called Steve Miller.

Music is a very special “commodity”, as you put it [Looks at me as if it was a dirty word]. The reason it is very special is that the item that you’re buying or downloading is something that might change your life. It’s not entertainment. It’s the most precious commodity you could buy, and it costs just a few quid. Was it Shakespeare that said music is the food of love? This is a firm belief of mine. Even though I can’t sing a note or play a guitar. Music is the greatest thing.

I started doing what I do through luck and being pushy. In 1968 the Floyd were about to ask an artist friend of mine to do their album cover. I knew the band because I’d been at school with Syd Barrett and Roger Waters in Cambridge [You can see Ely Cathedral in one of their later collaborations ‘Division Bell Stone Heads’]. We began socialising once we’d all moved to London. So anyway, I was eaves dropping nosily at the door when they were talking about the album cover and I arrogantly said “Why don’t I do it?” This was during a difficult time for the band as Syd was going bonkers. They’d recently asked me whether David Gilmour, (who joined the line-up as Syd’s replacement), who I also knew, was stable and I told them that he was. And he, in turn encouraged them to use me.

Po (Aubrey Powell, of Hipgnosis) and I did the cover for Pink Floyd’s first album with Gilmour, ‘A Saucerful of Secrets,’ not having a fucking clue what we were doing. I was maybe 22 or 23-years old. So that’s how we started out. Through being a bit pushy and full of ourselves.

The second Floyd album we did was ‘Ummagumma’ in 1969. (See above right) This was the time when I realised I could really do it. It gave me confidence. After all, why is anyone’s idea better than anyone else’s? In fact the idea for Ummagumma came from my former girlfriend. I was trying to tell her what it was about and getting tangled up with all the different levels I wanted to express. And she said what about doing a picture within a picture, which was quite common. What we did differently was the picture on the wall. It works because it’s real. This was before the days of Photoshop.

Another key cover for me was ‘Elegy’ by The Nice (above left). Normally when you’re designing there’s a long creative process and you have an idea of where you are going with it. But the image for Elegy came directly through the music. Listening to the music conjured an image of sand dunes with a winding trail of red orbs. Going to the Sahara desert with hundreds of bright red footballs was totally preposterous. The record company just looked at me like I was bonkers. But Po had taken the trouble to draw it out on a napkin and the band liked it. They liked it, and that meant was could do it. I always like it when musicians like it. So, we’d said we were going to the desert with a bunch of footballs. We laid them across the sand dunes till they stretched all the way to Cairo. Then we waited until the sun had set and when we looked at the creation glowing red in the distance we thought, “That looks fucking great.”

An exhibition of Storm's work will be at the Idea Generation Gallery 2nd April – 2nd May