Storm Thorgerson: Sheer Art Attack

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Music used to be a thing you could touch. And sometimes it’d touch you back. Music didn’t come down a phone line at all hours of the day, deposit itself in your ‘Purchased’ folder and cost you 79p a track. You had to wait for music. You had to go out – you know, hunting and gathering.

You’d pore over your haul on the bus back home. The grooves themselves could give some of the game away [“Look! Track seven is blacker than the others – it must be a slow one! Shit!”], you could look for messages in the run-out grooves [anything more than ‘A Porky Prime Cut’ taking on some kind of mystical significance] and you could read the record label itself, admiring the design, reading the writers’ credits and marvelling at the running times [“Six minutes, 43 seconds? Arse! They’ve gone prog!”].

But before you got to the vinyl itself, there was the record sleeve. You might have eyed it for weeks, saving up the money, wondering about the music inside. Or maybe it’d been an impulse buy: the sleeve itself had seduced you. You didn’t know the band but couldn’t resist the cover – an image that mystified, excited or maybe just evoked other bands you already liked. In the days before MTV, never mind YouTube, the album sleeve set the image of the band, revealed the direction of the album, unveiled the band logo that’d be drawn on a thousand school books.

The CD couldn’t match that. Not only was it smaller, you needed the eyesight and precision of a jeweller to get the booklet out of the jewel case [hence the name?] – and when you finally did, what was revealed was about as satisfying as pulling an inner sleeve out of an album to find nowt but a big advert for other titles in the Nice Price range, or a cassette-shaped skull claiming that home taping was killing music. What the CD lacked in size was compensated for by an [at least] perceived improvement in audio quality and dependability, not to mention the beauty of the ‘shuffle’ button, the convenience of the remote control, and the ability to programme the track list, thereby skipping the Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Hat’s Off To (Roy) Harpers of the world. Minidiscs shrunk the artwork even further and now downloads threaten to get rid of it once and for all, replaced by MP3 or an M4a file placed in folders that you can double-click on. Can album artwork survive?

“I would like to think so, obviously, because otherwise we would all be out of a job,” says Storm Thorgerson. “I can understand why people ask this question, but in a way it’s quite hurtful because if we suspected this was true we would go out and find another job, wouldn’t we? And I quite like this job.”

Thorgerson has been winding-up journalists and creating mind-bending sleeve art for decades now. As sleeve designer for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Black Sabbath, UFO, Scorpions and young pretenders like The Mars Volta, Muse and Audioslave, Storm and his partners [Aubrey Powell in his Hipgnosis days; Peter Curzon, Dan Abbott and photographer Rupert Truman in his present set-up] have been responsible for some of the most enduring, intriguing and just plain beautiful images in rock.

Collected together in a smart new book, Taken By Storm [published in 2007], they remind you of the power of album art and what could be lost. Classic Rock has been told that Storm wants to speak to the magazine to start a debate on the death of album art. In fact, Thorgerson is already tired of the whole debate, and the media’s assumption that he’s going the way of the dinosaurs.

“We say long live the album cover,” he harrumphs after a while. “We want to go down with the Pope… Can we move on? Get away from this insidious line of questioning?”

“I think,” says his more conciliatory colleague Peter Curzon, “that there’s always going to be space for an artist, because music goes with art very nicely. I would be more worried if I was manufacturing CDs – then you would be definitely out of a job.

“But at least for the next 20 or 30 years people who have grown up with covers, or some sort of artwork – whether it’s a cover or a poster or a T-shirt – they’ll probably always want something. But now you have kids that are downloading, and they might not want anything to go with it…”

They might not. Nowadays, kids can download, say, The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet for £7.90 [for 10 songs)]without having to leave the house. They’ll have no sleeve to peruse, but they can instantly stick the album on and then go online and find the lyrics. They can view the official website at www.rollingstones.com, read their entire history at Wikipedia, and hunt for a screensaver or desktop wallpaper – all before the album ends.

And then they can watch one of the 29,300 video clips that are filed under the heading ‘Rolling Stones’ on YouTube [including Sympathy For The Devil live at Altamont, and Hunter S. Thompson interviewing Keef], all for free. Are those kids really going to sit around moaning that they don’t have a cardboard sleeve to thumb?

“It raises a very good and complex question or issue about the need for objects,” says Storm. “That is, whether you live in a hut in Tanzania or a mansion in Malibu there are common characteristics: mementos, objects, possessions. It’s a really deep issue [going back as] early as man had the first bone collection. I think you would need to ask a psychologist or psychoanalyst about this need to have the entity, the real thing. When you have your own possessions it kind of defines your status or your personal space: ‘It’s my table, my bed, my desk and on it are a couple of things that are mine and nobody else’s’ – and that will include to some extent your books, your objets d’art and your record collection.”

Just as we’ve all bought albums we already had copies of on cassette because we wanted the real thing, the download generation may still want something – something to have and hold and collect that represents their tastes.

“Packaging might make a comeback,” says Storm, by way of illustration. “You can’t get a virtual rendition of fancy packaging – very hard to do. We’re about to do a special pack in remembrance of Syd Barrett, which will include, dare I say it in advance of the situation, a piece of original Syd artwork in the form of a little booklet which he made. It will be a replica of that and, for those who love Syd, it’ll be great to have in their hands. We haven’t done anything to it – it’s all Syd, as close as possible to what he did. But you can’t get that down the wire – so maybe in a way there are some things that won’t be invalidated by downloading.”

Classic Rock points out that iTunes, for example, has a function called ‘Visualiser’. Choose it when playing music and it generates a mess of fractal-like images. Maybe areas like this could have custom- made imagery that came with each download. Have they looked into new ways of making the music come to life?

“We are about to,” says Storm. “We can’t tell you about it, but there is a big project for our favourite clients – and I can’t tell you who that is either – not favourites, exactly. Well, sort of favourites – oldest. [That’ll be Pink Floyd, then.] Which would involve a complex set of items or the usage and exploitation of the magical web and computer. So watch this space. We don’t know what we’re going to do because we don’t know what’s actually technically possible. It’s in the process of being worked out – what we can and can’t do. How can we stretch the medium to its limits?”

Record companies [who, let’s face it, specialise in repackaging the same old thing over and over] are currently working out ways to make downloading more attractive, whether it’s through including interviews with the artists, ‘spoken word’ sleevenotes, videos or interactive art, bundled with each downloaded album. For although the download has its advantages [once you’ve ripped your CDs on to your computer you’ve got a jukebox that doesn’t take up any physical storage space and will keep you entertained for months] they threaten not just album art but the album itself: now that you can buy songs individually, why buy Maxwell’s Silver Hammer if you don’t have to?

Meanwhile, a whole new generation of vinyl buyers are out there scooping up seven inch singles and old albums where they can. They’re a minority, but vocal and passionate and know what they like. And they’re buying records because they like having hard product, they like looking at sleeves, and they like having a record collection. And also, in the words of 17-year-old James Hatch of Watford in an email to this magazine, ‘because MP3s sound fucking terrible’.

“YOU CAN’T BUY A DOWNLOAD FOR SOMEONE FOR XMAS!”

Roger Dean’s insightful take on CDs and downloading

Storm Thorgerson’s friend and contemporary Roger Dean also holds strong opinions about how his art is represented and displayed. Dean’s main concern for the past few years has been that his artwork is reproduced with the integrity with which it was originally created.

“For 10 years Atlantic issued Close To The Edge [by Yes] without the painting from the middle of the original gatefold sleeve. How cheap can that be to do? One tenth of a cent? It shows such contempt for the customer. They are not being responsible guardians of the music. That doesn’t mean to say that I feel that way about the small [CD] format though. On the contrary, when they do it properly, it gives me as much satisfaction as the bigger sleeve. I like the small format if it’s done with care and attention.”

There is currently a trend, especially in Japan, to reproduce CDs in miniaturised five-inch square replicas of their original LP jackets, something Roger evidently approves of.

“The quality of those are all there, there’s nothing that’s been chucked out. It’s small, but it’s solid value.”

For someone who paints on such a large scale, doesn’t Roger find CDs disappointing in terms of the size the artwork is reproduced?

“I used to collect stamps as a kid,” he says, “and they’re really tiny. If the label has taken care, and as much love and attention has gone into producing the small format, then I’m all for it. Right now we’ve got a publisher who’s going to republish [his book] Views, and they said to me would I be interested in making the format the same size of a CD, because when I did the books originally they were the same size as an LP. I thought, ‘Neat – I can put it in my pocket!’.”

And does downloading worry him?

“Music is essentially abstract. You can’t hold it. You can hold a vinyl album because that is how the music’s been stored. That in itself is nothing more than the access and storage mechanism. So how music is stored is irrelevant, but when you package it, you make it a gift, and if the record company treated it as a gift, and then presented it to the public as a gift, it would then be treated as such. Your grandmother might buy you a CD or an LP for Christmas, but they’re not going to buy you a download, are they? How are you going to wrap a download? I think if it’s properly packaged, properly presented, you’ve taken an abstract thing and made into something tangible, because music makes a wonderful gift, but to make it a wonderful gift you have to package it with love and affection. While music has this role as a gift, the tangible version of it will always be critical.”