Saturday, May 18, 2013

RIP Storm Thorgerson

Storm Thorgerson was a graphic designer who was perhaps as well known in rock geek circles as he was amongst designers. At a time in which the visual creativity of music is shrinking, the news of his passing a month ago made me particularly sad.

As part of the design company Hipgnosis his visual style defined rock aesthetics from the late-60s until today. I won’t go into a long laundry list of the great artwork that he generated – if you want or need such a thing, go to Wikipedia.

Rock design has become incredibly stunted and self-referential. The literal real estate of rock visuals has been reduced down to the size of (at most) a 200 x 200 jpg. Album artwork means less and less to the current generation whose rock music no longer has the mystery of coded semiotics that it once had.
Take for instance, the cover of the recent album by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito. The cover is not just superficially ugly (in rendering as well as subject), but lacking in any sense of purpose or meaning on its own. It is simply a literal visual take on the album title and given a moronic, Garbage Pail Kids interpretation. Now, I’m not particularly a fan of this group, but this is cover, to me, is a poor representation of the music contained. It looks cheap and fake. It repulses in all the wrong ways. The YYYs have had mostly poor album art (It’s Blitz being the exception). Unfortunately, this has become the norm for groups nowadays.

This wasn’t always the case. In fact, there was a time when really mediocre groups had phenomenal artwork for their very pedestrian records (Wishbone Ash, cough cough, Uriah Heep). Storm and his associates (including Aubrey Powell and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, of TG and Coil fame) produced great artwork no matter how good the band was. Often the art was worth more than the music.

I can remember a friend being excited about a poster he saw for a new album by a band he had never heard of, The Mans Villa. The poster featured the Thorgerson-designed album artwork for their new album, Frances the Mute. He was disappointed to learn that the band was, in fact, The Mars Volta, the typeface having obscured the truth of the band’s identity. I don’t know if he was more disappointed that such a great cover belonged to a band that didn’t interest him, or if the cover drew him in to reconsider a band that he had previously dismissed. Either way, it is a great cover, one that arguably has outlasted the music.

Hipgnosis’ photos and design were generally simple in terms of concept, but grand in the scope of their execution and imagination. They were unafraid to take the long way around to get striking images that today people would use computers to generate, traveling to exotic locations or going to great lengths of labor to stage one photo. For example, consider Thorgerson’s cover for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Those beds on the beach were real. Someone took the time to set all of them up and then tear them all down once the (more-than-likely) half-hour photo session was over. The result has a reality that computers can’t duplicate. The shear lunacy of the idea is what makes its production so amazing.

Thorgerson’s images gave the music a mystery and a dimension missing from most rock today. His album covers could be scary, sexual, humorous, cheeky, beautiful, elegant, trashy, earthy, otherworldly, spiritual, or stately – sometimes all at once. This was multidimensional artwork which could be taken any number of different ways. This sometimes made them controversial – targets of the easily-offended. The punning cover of UFO’s Force It could easily be accused of being sexist in a ridiculous Spinal Tap fashion, but when you learn that the man and the woman on the cover are none other than Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti, it somehow takes the sails out of the accusation while simultaneously ratcheting up the perversity factor.

The background stories behind these covers and behind Thorgerson’s adventures creating them are as interesting as the stories behind the music themselves. The book, For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis, is well worth reading for anyone wanting to know more about Storm Thorgerson or great album art in general. I’d like to hold out hope for a return to the same kind of strong visual aesthetic in rock that Thorgerson’s legacy leaves behind, but I feel that an era has passed and we will never see its like again.

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