RIP Storm Thorgerson. (and the End of Album Art)
Posted: Apr 29, 2013
APRIL 25, 2013
STORM THORGERSON AND THE END OF ALBUM ART
POSTED BY BEN GREENMAN
The death last week of Storm Thorgerson at the age of sixty-nine was both the end of an era and the reminder of the end of another era. Thorgerson was one of the premier rock-album designers of the seventies. His company, Hipgnosis, worked with dozens of artists, including Led Zeppelin (“Houses of the Holy,” “Presence”), T. Rex (“Electric Warrior”), and Peter Gabriel (the first three eponymous records), but they’re best known for their work with Pink Floyd: Thorgerson and Hipgnosis created the cover for the 1973 album “The Dark Side of the Moon,” first and foremost, but also “Wish You Were Here” and “Animals.” The Pink Floyd connection stretched back into childhood: Thorgerson was a classmate of both Syd Barrett and Roger Waters, and he was later the best man at David Gilmour’s wedding.
The story behind the cover of “The Dark Side of the Moon” is as unassuming as it is legendary: Thorgerson supposedly brought seven different designs to the band, who looked them over and, after a few minutes, pointed at the prismatic triangle. As the album became a classic-rock monolith, remaining on the Billboard chart for more than seven hundred weeks, the cover became an icon of classic rock—and of modern commercial art—in its own right. Here, in a short interview, Thorgerson discusses some of his most famous creations, including the “Wish You Were Here” cover, which was wrapped in black plastic to obscure the design.
Thorgerson’s death is a reminder of a larger transition in popular music: the fact that the visual accompaniment has changed drastically. During the nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties, the dominant language for LP cover art was portraiture. The vast majority of Frank Sinatra albums, for example, show Sinatra’s face, sometimes photographed, sometimes illustrated, with an eye toward the mood of the music. Some labels began to change the language of the LP cover, most notably Blue Note, which, under the direction of Reid Miles, used close-up, atmospheric photography (often by label co-founder Francis Wolff) and stark, bold graphic design. Things changed again in the late sixties, when Peter Blake created the high-concept cover for the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and even legitimate Pop artists like Andy Warhol supplied covers or concepts for bands like the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones. Thorgerson and other top designers of the seventies (Peter Corriston, for example, who was perhaps the most innovative of all, with his die-cut work for Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” and the Stones’ “Some Girls”) built on the backs of these innovations, and they paved the way for New-Wave and post-punk starts like Peter Saville.
That’s an incredibly incomplete pocket history of pop album covers, yet it still includes at least six big names whose work will persist for decades. It would be difficult to find even half that many important album designers now. This is not to say that there are not gifted visual artists working with rock artists, or bands who foreground visuals. John Baizley, the lead singer of the superb heavy-metal band Baroness, furnishes the artwork for his group and others. Gorillaz, initially a collaboration between Damon Albarn and the comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett, has always had a strong visual identity—in fact, you could argue that the band exists mainly as a set of illustrations that enable music.
But the centrality of album design to the process of making pop music has diminished considerably over the years. The reasons are simple enough. As the LP gave way to other formats, first the cassette and then the CD, the canvas available to visual artists shrank. The CD was especially ruinous to visual creativity. Longboxes, the cardboard sleeves in which discs were initially packaged—in part to allow retailers to reuse the same bins in which they had stocked LPs—were dismissed as environmentally unfriendly and phased out by the early nineties. The jewel boxes that replaced them had unfriendly clear plastic covers that came from assembly lines and tabs that made it difficult to remove liner-note booklets. And the more recent move from physical products into the entirely virtual world of downloads has driven an additional, final nail into the coffin of cover art, both by deëmphasizing the album in favor of singles and by reviving the need for simple portraiture: in an online retail environment, where display space is often postage-stamp-size, what’s often most important is to simply show the face of the artist. There are always exceptions—Phoenix’s “Bankrupt!,” released this week, has a nicely conceptual cover image of a sliced peach—but they are increasingly uncommon.
Last week was also the celebration of Record Store Day, which was an opportunity for bands to sell bespoke singles and one-off collaborations at higher prices to soft-hearted customers. I have gone on the record as being a skeptic regarding the holiday. But Record Store Day is an opportunity to remember a time when the process of listening to an album was not only aural, but also visual and even physical, and to confirm that such a time is no more. What is the solution? Technology moves these days toward portability and away from physical presence. The notion of being anchored to large square objects, even beautiful ones, seems preposterous. And while there are Web sites like the Album Art Exchange that preserve and share high-quality versions of cover artwork, they feel like they’re holding onto a past that will never again be the future. The worst part about the death of album art is that it’s not even a new death anymore. Music has buried album art and visited its grave regularly for more than a decade. But as other industries face similar evolutions—what will book design look like if and when the transition to e-books proceeds apace?—it’s worth both lamenting the passage of album covers and conceding at the same time that lamenting their passage can seem curmudgeonly, unintelligent, nostalgic, and sad.