Cover Story: ELP - Tarkus

Artist William Neal reveals how the creation of the legendary armadillo-tank creature almost drove him to distraction


(Island, 1971)

Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus was the band’s first concept album and would firmly establish their credentials both in the UK and overseas. With one side of the album taken up by the expansive Tarkus – with such recognisable tracks as the clattering Eruption, Stones Of Years and the grandiose Battlefield – and the second side more song based, it remains a career high point to this day. The album cover was designed by Scottish artist William Neal, who effectively created that prominent armadillo-tank character by mistake whilst working on other concepts for the cover.

How were you approached to work on the album?

“I was involved with a company called CCS design associates in the West End of London in around 1969 and we did a lot of stuff for the recording industry, notably for Trojan and Island Records. We were laughed at really because we were always given reggae albums, which were really happening at that particular time. So we would get fed the odd album if none of the other artists could come up with something, and that was how it happened for us with ELP. So as a company we were given the task of coming up with something, which we didn’t! However, on one of my drawings, there was a small doodle at the bottom of the page. This was of an armadillo with tank tracks on it but it was just an idea that wasn’t really going anywhere. Keith Emerson saw it, liked it and it went from there. He asked if it could be developed into more of a cartoon story, as he had that piece of music that turned out to be Tarkus which he felt it would match. I worked with Keith throughout that and I thought that it would really be the end of it but we really hit it off. I was due for a change then and as I was the number one ELP fan, they asked me to do their next album and that’s what I did.”

(William Neal by Kim Ayres)

The artwork closely matches the lyrical concept, so I assume that you worked together to create the final piece?

“Yes we worked very closely on that and it was six of one and half a dozen of the other. I have to say that I excel with musical links and I always have. I loved it and that’s my thing. Even at school when we were in art class when we were asked to draw whilst they played Peter And The Wolf. So I do find that, like for so many other people, music does give me pictures. I love that and it’s what I do.”

Apart from Keith, do you recall the rest of the band being pleased with the final cover?

“Yes, they were all delighted and the excitement at that particular time was tangible. We all felt that there was something pretty big going on. It’s extraordinary that something as innocuous as a little drawing turned out to be an album cover. It’s still talked about in an affectionate way and it seems to have, even if people didn’t like the band it seemed to typify an era and I think that is probably what it is.”

There were a lot of groundbreaking artists working on cover art at that time. Were you all trying to outdo each other?

“Well, we were all looking for doors that were slightly open as artists and would then be going through them to see how much noise we could make. There were people like Roger Dean and Storm Thorgerson around at that particular time, and we were all in that melting pot then.”

After designing the cover for the band’s Pictures At An Exhibition you disappeared off the radar. Why was that?

“Well it’s alright for a band to party as they don’t have to get up until three in the afternoon. I was running around printers, trying to come up with masterpieces and spending the evenings up with them until four in the morning. After a year of that, when you felt that you were always indestructible, I had to admit that I wasn’t. I was on a self destruct thing and didn’t exactly sit around and drink lemonade. I started to lose it in a big way and the kind of images that I was producing were becoming more scary. They were getting nasty so it was a dark period of my life. So I moved away from it and dropped out, had no desire to go back and lost all contact with the band. In fact, until a few years ago, the band thought I was dead or committed suicide or something.”