Storm Thorgerson, 1944–2013

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Wish You Were Here (outer and inner sleeve, 1975) by Pink Floyd.

Whenever people ask questions about your work at some point the subject of influences always turns up. Influences for me are usually few, they’re those things which skew your perception to such a degree—or which enlarge the range of possibilities—that they make you follow a path you might otherwise have never pursued. I’ve said on many occasions that the window of our local record shop in the 1970s was an art gallery whose contents changed every week, with gatefold sleeves offering an endless variety of fantastic visions and smart designs. I was often indifferent to the music the sleeves were intended to advertise, if a favourite band happening to have a great record sleeve then so much the better. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a record sleeve designer as such, more that the views (as Roger Dean called his first book) were incredibly stimulating, and they excited me enough that I wanted to have the creation of images like that in my future.

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Wish You Were Here shrinkwrap and George Hardie’s sticker design.

I’ve written at some length about Roger Dean and Barney Bubbles but it was Hipgnosis that dominated those window displays during the golden age of record sleeve design. Obituaries of Storm Thorgerson have rightly been acknowledging the contributions of his Hipgnosis design partners Aubrey Powell and Peter Christopherson, but Thorgerson always came across as the driving force, a position reinforced by his text for the group’s first book collection, An ABC of the Work of Hipgnosis: Walk Away René (1978), and by his post-Hipgnosis career which continued to generate even more startling images. Walk Away René is like the designs of Hipgnosis themselves: witty, clever, and beautifully produced, while Thorgerson’s commentary is refreshingly honest both about the details of album sleeve production, and in its lack of the affectation which afflicts many design books. Working in the music business probably helped maintain a no-bullshit attitude; it’s difficult to imagine many other designers cheerfully announcing in their first public showcase that their studio is so primitive that everyone has to piss in the sink. Or, as I noted in December, drawing attention to your least favourite covers in an even more lavish showcase.

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The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) by Pink Floyd.

The cover examples here have been chosen via the essays in For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis (2008) where several people were asked to choose their favourite sleeves. I’d find it impossible to choose a favourite although at a push I’d probably go for Wish You Were Here. With its absence/four elements concept, in its original package—the postcard insert, the unlabelled sleeve shrink-wrapped in black cellophane then stickered with a George Hardie drawing which I once laboriously copied—it comes close to perfection when you’re discussing album covers as works of art.

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Presence (1976) by Led Zeppelin.

The Hipgnosis Covers site is the place to see more work by Storm Thorgerson and company.

Storm Thorgerson, Pink Floyd and the final secret of the world’s greatest record sleeve designer
The Guardian: “The best album designer in the world”
Storm Thorgerson remembered by Aubrey Powell
Adrian Shaughnessy at Creative Review
Mark Blake at MOJO
Telegraph obituary

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Go 2 (1978) by XTC.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The record covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Hipgnosis turkeys
Peter Christopherson, 1955–2010
Storm Thorgerson: Right But Wrong
Battersea Power Station

Hipgnosis turkeys

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Here in Britain there’s no Thanksgiving so turkey as a seasonal meal is a Christmas dish. Turkey also has another meaning which the OED can supply:

6.6 U.S. slang. a.6.a An inferior or unsuccessful cinematographic or theatrical production, a flop; hence, anything disappointing or of little value.

This post concerns the latter—turkeys for the turkey season—being a series of bad or merely lacklustre album covers produced by the Hipgnosis design partnership throughout the 1970s. If the label seems unfair it should be emphasised that “turkey” is the designation applied by Storm Thorgerson himself in the appendix to the third Hipgnosis book, For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis (2008). The following are all covers that he says Hipgnosis disliked, although not necessarily because they were bad designs:

There are some designs we would rather like to forget altogether and have been awarded turkeys to denote — no disrespect is intended for the blame lies mostly with us, save for the twin spectres of release schedules and rock egoism — “That’s a jolly interesting idea chaps but… hmm… actually we’d rather have a picture of our good selves.”

A consistent feature of the Hipgnosis books is a refusal to adopt the Olympian attitude that radiates from many design monographs. Thorgerson has always been happy to describe the history of Hipgnosis, and the practice of album cover design, in warts-and-all anecdotal detail, so it’s no surprise if he also admits to failings. You’d be hard-pressed to find other designers who would draw attention to poor work in this manner, especially in a book dedicated to the highlights of a lauded career. Most designers are self-conscious types who can be relied upon to bury their mistakes as thoroughly as possible.

I wrote a brief post years ago about bad cover design but I usually try to avoid such things, there’s already enough junk in the world without compiling lists of it. But this post is instructive for showing that not everyone gets things right however good they might be, and also that everyone has to start somewhere. Most of my early album covers are various degrees of terrible so I try to spare others the accusatory finger. That said, you have to wonder what on earth Thorgerson and partner Aubrey Powell were thinking of with some of these designs.

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Genesis (1968) by The Gods.

Thorgerson’s introduction to For the Love of Vinyl explains the haphazard beginnings of Hipgnosis, pretty much two guys and a couple of cameras. They had no design training but a lot of luck (not least having Pink Floyd as friends), and were learning on the fly, something you can see happening with these early covers. It’s unfair to compare a design like the Gods sleeve to work they were producing a few years later when they had access to a range of professional illustrators, retouchers and models, and also budgets from record companies that paid for flights to exotic locations.

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Gun Sight (1969) by Gun.

This was Gun’s second album. The cover for the first happened to feature the first album cover art by Roger Dean whose career in the music business would run parallel with that of Hipgnosis. Most of the early Hipgnosis covers are simple photos that are occasionally processed in some way. This one didn’t really work out, however, the Roger Dean cover is better.

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Parachute (1970) by The Pretty Things.

But at least the Gun cover doesn’t look like this bizarre attempt at Surrealist collage. Hipgnosis often tried to illustrate the album title but I can’t see how you get “parachute” from this one. The collage approach worked a lot better on the Quatermass album produced the same year.

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Till There Was You (1970) by Pepe Jaramillo.

This was the only cover singled out in the first Hipgnosis book, Walk Away René (1978), as something they didn’t like:

…straight down the line and utterly tasteless as a result — it doesn’t even work as a genteel piece of middle class tweeness.

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Peter Christopherson, 1955–2010

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Coil, circa 1984. John Balance (left) & Peter Christopherson (right). Photo by Lawrence Watson.

The depths of the night sky
Reflects in his eye
He says “Everything changes
And everyone dies.”

Coil, Blood From The Air (1986)

Yes, everyone dies but you don’t always expect it this soon, six years after the sudden loss of John Balance. Coil and Throbbing Gristle were refreshingly direct about the transience of existence so we should no doubt regard these moments with the necessary degree of philosophy. And yet… I’ve said for years that we lack an adequate complement of innovators, genuine creators, rare minds, and what Robert Anton Wilson used to call Intelligence Agents; such people always seem too few, especially in a world where hatred and ignorance are encouraged by those eager to keep us unfulfilled, the easier to manipulate and control. There’s a natural desire each time you discover a like-minded soul to want them to stay around for as long as possible, to help shine a thousand lights in a darkened room.

I never met Peter Christopherson but I saw him on stage with Psychic TV in Manchester in 1983, and as part of Coil for their thrilling performance at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in 2000. We corresponded sporadically via letter and email throughout the 1990s, and spoke on the phone a couple of times. Coil wanted me to create a cover for one of their releases and we talked about this on and off for several years but nothing ever came of the plans, something I regret to this day. Peter bought a drawing off me ten years ago (this one), and he remains one of the few people I’ve sold any artwork to. I broke my usual rule on that occasion out of respect for his work. That work is mostly acknowledged as being musical, and it’s the music—as a member of Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Coil, and TG again—that other obituaries will rightly celebrate. But he was also a talented photographer and graphic designer whose earliest public works were for the design group Hipgnosis in the 1970s. He joined Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell as an assistant in the mid-70s and became a full partner in 1980. As a freelance photographer he shot the first promo pictures of the Sex Pistols in 1976, photos which (if I remember correctly) Malcolm McLaren decided not to use because they looked too heavy. Or maybe too queer…see this appraisal by John Gill from his book Queer Noises. It was Peter Christopherson’s design authority that gave the Throbbing Gristle releases a quality many other independent productions lacked in the post-punk era. He brought the same visual finesse to Psychic TV in 1982 and it was painfully obvious when that finesse was withdrawn after he and John Balance left PTV in 1983 to form Coil. I owe Coil more than I can easily articulate. I’ve spent hours and hours listening to their music whilst working; the full range of their interests probably matched mine more completely than any other group I’ve encountered. It was a real shock when everything crashed to an end in 2004. It’s good to know that the Coil site at Brainwashed has a wealth of interviews and articles going back through the years. And there’s still the music, of course.

Fellow TG members Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter issued some words of remembrance a few hours ago which they end by saying: “Peter was a kind and beautiful soul. No words can express how much he will be missed.” A few examples of his photography and design work follow.

Update: Full Guardian obituary by Alexis Petridis | Genesis P-Orridge Pays Tribute To Sleazy.

Continue reading “Peter Christopherson, 1955–2010”