It was very sad news to hear of the death of Storm Thorgerson last month. Without a shadow of a doubt, Thorgerson was one of the greatest album sleeve designers ever and there are probably few record collections that don’t boast some of his work amongst their ranks.
It was refreshing to hear the reverence with which he was held in news reports and in discussions with friends. It was interesting to consider that some of those that mourned his passing may not even have previously known know his name, (nor that of Hipgnosis), but knew the work extremely well. This is testament to his enormous talent as much as because they recognised the work in relation to their favourite bands. It is also interesting to consider that during these pronouncements, Thorgerson has himself become a metaphor by which to mourn the ‘good old days’ of vinyl.
However, and here is where I commit graphic design sacrilege: I don’t actually like his work.
So there is a dichotomy at work here—how can I praise someone so much, admire their output and recognise its importance, while at the same time not actually liking it? This cognitive dissonance boils down to the fact of what Thorgerson was—a brilliant graphic designer. In an interview with Adrian Shaughnessy, of which aspects were reprinted in Thorgerson’s Creative Review’s obituary, he says: “All I try to do is represent the music.” In this one statement, he hits the nail on the head. As I don’t like the music he is designing for, it is only right, that if he is trying to represent that music, that I don’t like the imagery. But I can recognise its effectiveness all the same. Thorgerson has done his job brilliantly, and not attracted me, because I’m not the desired audience.
In reading through the discography on Wikipedia of the hundreds of album sleeves that Hipgnosis designed in their career—not to mention what Thorgerson did after their demise—I think I could list about eight records I actually like. Take Pink Floyd for example, I have never liked their post-Barrett output believing it to be pompous, cryptic, arrogant, nerdy, polished, and far too serious. I’ve always felt it to be stripped of the psychedelic drug induced experimentalism that made early Floyd so great with Barrett, (who also happened to write some killer pop hooks). And as I cut my musical teeth in the late 1970s and early 1980s during post-punk, where playful and experimental records could make it into the pop charts, where there was a broadening of musical horizons rather, such terms as pompous, cryptic, arrogant, nerdy and polished, collectively have negative associations for me. But Thorgerson brilliantly illustrates these in his cryptic, overblown set pieces full of knowing metaphors and forced school boy humour, yet devoid of any rough edges and any sense of irony. The one sleeve that Hipgnosis produced that stands head and shoulders above anything else they did during their reign, in my opinion, is XTC’s Go2. See previous Dubdog posts over on Blogger where I’ve discussed this sleeve extensively.
When thinking about album sleeve design, there are a few designers that have become synonymous with the medium that I really admire, such as Barney Bubbles, Malcolm Garrett, Stanley Donwood, and Julian House; but there are also many un-tutored designers who remain un-credited whose work I would just as easily hang on my wall. There are also plenty of examples of bands who have created their own artwork which are equally as effective as professional designers, and record labels, such as Constellation Records, who steer an aesthetic visual tone through the label’s output. Regardless of the scenario, if an album sleeve works, then it is generally because the author shares the same rationale as Thorgerson when creating the work—to represent the music. And as in book jacket design, if a graphic designer is doing their job properly, tutored or otherwise, you absolutely should be able to judge a record by its sleeve.
I saw Storm Thorgerson interviewed by Adrian Shaughnessy at D&AD XChange in 2009, and he proved to be a likeable rogue; slightly arrogant and antagonistic but a natural raconteur with a huge wit. The fact he wasn’t overly mobile, and that he needed several helpers to aid him on and off the stage, (as well as to give out postcards of his work to the entire audience, which was a nice touch), it was obvious that this larger than life character wasn’t in the best of health. Therefore I wasn’t completely surprised to hear of his passing. But regardless of my personal tastes dictating my knee-jerk reactions to the work he did for bands I didn’t like, his graphic design and music legacy is an important one, and I have nothing but utmost respect for the man and his enormous talent. The world is a poorer place for his passing and all music lovers, regardless of taste, owe him an enormous debt. RIP Storm Thorgerson.