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Yes artist Roger Dean talks about his career so far

Roger Dean with paintings in the Trading Boundaries art gallery
(Image credit: Future/Will Ireland)

A young boy is climbing a steep hill at night. Carefully, he makes his way through the tangles of sparse scrub that cling to the side of Lion Rock; from his vantage point he can see Kowloon spread before him, the name of which comes from the term for nine dragons. Immediately below, the very last house of the accommodation reserved for British army personnel in Hong Kong, where he lives with his parents, huddles into the mane of Lion Rock. Beneath his feet, time stands still, the passing of millions of years solidified in granite. Above him, a scattering of distant stars wink through the pearlescent glow of a glorious moonlit night. 

“It was just magical,” says Roger Dean with a sigh, he’s clearly moved by the memory of a night that in all probability sealed within in him a desire to connect with both the built and natural environment. It’s a passion that remains undiminished to this day. Leaving behind Lion Rock and the nine dragons at the age of 14, he returned to the UK in the 1950s, when the country was still dealing with the privations of post-war austerity, and fondly remembers walking in the countryside as a child. Later, as the 1960s got underway, he became a student at the Canterbury College Of Art and later still, joined the Royal College Of Art. Every available minute that wasn’t engaged with filling sketchbooks with ideas, would be spent outdoors with friends. 

“We climbed all over Scotland and Wales and I just loved pathways and landscapes. It was burned into my soul, if you like,” he recalls. 

Those landscapes made a deep impression on Dean, whose work in turn has made its mark on countless music fans since the late 1960s. His visionary worlds, where magic, nature and retro-future technologies combine with a poetic yet unwritten epic narrative, have been adopted and exploited throughout elements of popular culture. For more than six decades his designs have been part of the cultural terrain, a companion to record buyers through the covers of numerous albums and bands, the most important of which – Yes – began with 1971’s Fragile. His association has continued, with only a few interruptions, until the present day.  

“If it had been up to me, I would never have let anybody else do sleeves for us,” says Steve Howe. “But there were people in Yes at certain times who said, ‘We don’t want to go with Roger.’ I was like, ‘What?’ Well, we don’t do that any more. Roger is a loved, respected and admired friend.” 

For the Yes guitarist, Dean’s work is a kind of visual extension of a world they began terraforming soon after he joined Yes in 1970. It was important, he argues, to have their records dressed in imagery that at least reflected something of the ambitious sonic worlds they were attempting to create. “When we did The Yes Album, I mean, that sleeve is pretty lame, isn’t it? Everyone got used to it so now they kind of like it.” 

However, when Dean showed up, Howe recalls the impact of his work upon the group was instantaneous. “We were like, ‘Now, that looks different.’ Our music has always been unusual and trying to do something distinctive and we’re proud of that. But we’ve also lucked out with a guy who has something definitive going on as well. Roger gave our sleeves the wow factor. There’s always been a chemistry with Roger. He was touring with us last year and he’ll be with us this year.”

Dean has complete freedom to come up with whatever captures his imagination, says Howe. “Somebody might come forward with an idea and we will kick it about and Roger will listen. But he goes off and we don’t really have any idea what he’s going to come back with. Yes is so much part of his art direction, he’s closely involved with us.” 

Occasionally that closeness can get its wires crossed says Dean, recalling the band’s perplexed reaction to the completed artwork for 2014’s Heaven & Earth. “It’s not that they didn’t like it but rather that they were bemused. They weren’t unhappy, but it quickly became clear to me that they weren’t looking at what they were expecting to be looking at,” he says with a laugh. 

The band asked him to explain what he had presented. “To me, the title, Heaven & Earth is a partial quote from Hamlet, where he says: ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ What I wanted to achieve with the title was the idea of something massive and mysterious in some hidden place like the Arctic. Then they asked me, ‘Where did you get the title Heaven & Earth from?’ And I said, ‘That’s your title, that’s the title you gave me.’ And they said, ‘No, we didn’t! We gave you something totally different.’ They may well have given me something totally different because I got it over the phone and clearly I misheard but it made enough sense to me that I went ahead with it. At the meeting, they were very bemused but they said, ‘Well, let’s go with it!’”

To understand Roger Dean and his unique vision, it’s important to know his long-standing ire at the rigours of conformity and modern design. When he studied industrial design at the Canterbury College Of Art, he wanted to switch to architecture but was profoundly unimpressed by the Brutalist school of architecture’s dominance. “Why on earth do we design things for people that are
boxes? I was told I should read Le Corbusier’s The Modulor [series]. I read them and I thought, ‘What an astonishing load of bullshit!’ I used to tease architectural students and even now when I teach, I say, ‘You know, architecture is a theology, a belief system with delusions of rationality.’ And I could say exactly the same about graphic design. This addiction to the design with fonts like Helvetica.” 

Yes - Relayer

(Image credit: Atlantic Records)

The excuse for using such fonts in graphic design, he argues, is that it’s thought to be clean and legible. “It doesn’t look clean and modern. It looks boring, grey, dull and corporate,” he says, his voice filled with disdain. “Graphic design was stripped to a boring minimum. I mean, I walk around stores like Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, which are celebrated for their modern design. Half a century ago maybe, but they haven’t changed one iota since. What’s this look got to do with making things look attractive or appetising? It’s just boring as hell.” 

Nobody could accuse Dean’s work, or the handwritten script that so often accompanies it, of being corporate or boring. When Dean returned to the UK as a schoolboy, the impact of two world wars could still be felt in the way art and design were taught. “Everywhere you looked was a grey and sterile world and what was coming down the pipe – the very colourful clothes, the fantastic music, the whole Age Of Aquarius thing that was in the air at the time – brought colour and hope. On the technological side, things were equally exciting. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was being made when I was a student and Concorde was about to fly. As students, we went to Bristol to look at it being built, and of course, very soon after leaving college, men were walking on the moon,” he says, still galvanised by witnessing first-hand these hallmarks of an intense social, political and artistic revolution. For him, it was about fulfilling one’s potential rather than being boxed in. 

“As a student, besides all the art and design things that fascinated me, I never really got why they were separate skills. It seemed to me I could paint like any painter, I could design like any designer, I could design graphics, I could design architecture, I could design furniture. I did all these things. And it wasn’t because I had millions of different talents, it was because to me they were all one thing and something I absolutely loved and that I just did.” 

Dean’s work first came to the attention of record buyers with the release of British rock trio Gun’s 1968 self-titled debut album on CBS. In 1970, he began creating a series of striking covers for the Vertigo label, opening with a die-cut gatefold sleeve of Nucleus’ Elastic Rock. Even more elaborately, Doctor Strangely Strange’s Heavy Petting featured two folding flaps die-cut in three places. You might think that Dean would look back on his time with Vertigo fondly but he wasn’t entirely happy with the relationship with the label’s art director, Mike Stanford, which he describes as being oddly dissonant.

“I liked him by the way, quite a clever guy. He wanted radical and interesting album covers but he wouldn’t let me have my head and do what I wanted. So the way he got radical and inventive album covers was through paper sculpture. I knew that whenever I had a suggestion that involved paper sculpture, it would work for him.” 

These days Vertigo label covers from the period have become highly prized collectors’ items, changing hands for eye-watering amounts that increase exponentially if the cover has a credit to Dean. 

Dissatisfied, Dean went knocking on doors asking for work, with his Royal College Of Art sketchbooks tucked under his arm. There’s an old saying: ‘Keep a diary, and someday it’ll keep you.’ One of the doors he knocked on belonged to David Howells at CBS, and he gave him a job for the little-known Afrobeat outfit Osibisa. If he regarded some of the Vertigo album sleeves as dull with not much impact to them, the airborne elephant that adorned Osibisa’s 1971 album Woyaya certainly caught people’s imagination and was a personal turning point for Dean, who was then aged 26. “I remember going down Oxford Street and seeing a record store window full of that Osibisa cover. On the strength of that, the people at the Big O Posters company gave me a contract to do posters and that really changed my career.”

However, the truly life-changing moment came that same year when Phil Carson, the senior vice president at Atlantic Records, peered inside Dean’s RCA sketchbook. Though enthused by what he saw, he told Dean that he only had two bands – Led Zeppelin and Yes – and when one of them needed a cover he’d give Dean a ring. When the call came it took him to Advision Studios to meet up with the members of Yes, who were recording Fragile

“Working with Yes was a fantastic treat,” he recalls. “At Vertigo I didn’t really have that close relationship with the bands. With Yes it was full-on and it was interesting and exciting. What made it wonderful was there was no art director involved and they trusted that I knew what I was doing. There was no invigilator saying, ‘Maybe you should do this, maybe you should do that.’ It was all down to me and then talking with the guys. 

“They had the title Fragile and Bill Bruford said the idea was to put the ‘fragile’ label that you would see on instrument flight cases on the album cover. I didn’t want to do anything so literal. I wanted to do something that took the idea of fragility and wrapped it around the world, which would be very relevant in these days. It was more of an abstract idea then. They liked it and it worked.” Dean’s sleeve added to the sense of growing confidence around the band. The booklet stitched into the inside of the gatefold reinforced the sense that this was a band to taken very seriously.

Dean’s impetus for Close To The Edge came from wanting to paint a world that was magical, miniature and like a Bonsai; seemingly impossible but totally credible to the eye. “The landscape was absolutely inspired by the title. I was painting landscapes to look real and in the most literal sense of the word, enticing. I wanted them to pull you in and make people want to imagine what it would be like getting on a boat to that island.” 

Surprised that this floating world was chosen to reside on the interior of the gatefold, Dean came up with the simple yet distinguished green leather-bound look for the front. Warned by someone in the marketing department at Atlantic that “green doesn’t sell,” not for the first or last time in his career, Dean ignored such advice and trusted his gut. 

The now-famous logo adorning the front began life on a train ride from London to Brighton. “I started with a notion that you can put these three letters together in an interesting way and by the time I got to Brighton I’d pretty much done it.” The design and its durability validate Dean’s bugbear that distinctive design need not be bland or boring. Inspired by his own visits to the Scottish Highlands and England’s Lake District, the inner painting of Close To The Edge not only encapsulates the environments implicit in the music and lyrics but offers a fictional world that’s big enough to allow listeners to project their own stories and interpretations.

“People have told me that they’ve found members of the band in the rocks on Tales From Topographic Oceans, or that they can find most of them but not Alan or Chris or whoever,” he says. “I do remember somebody asking me about some symbolism in my work and me saying that it isn’t there and that basically they were imagining it. This person’s reaction was, ‘How the fuck would you know? You’re just the artist!’ (Laughs) In a way I know what he meant because it’s almost like automatic writing: you’re the tool of another power.” 

Patterns in the land, those made by man and the forces of nature, such as dragon or ley lines, have always had a place in Dean’s interests and were part of his thinking for Yes’ most controversial album to date. 

“I remember in 1973, on a flight to Japan, Jon came and sat next to me to talk about what Tales From Topographic Oceans would be about. All the way from London to Anchorage [in Alaska] I was stoned. I couldn’t talk and Jon was the same, both of us sat staring. But after Anchorage, I couldn’t stop talking. We were flying over Northern Siberia and it was just magical out of the window and I couldn’t stop enthusing about a book I’d done the cover painting for, which was John Michell’s The View Over Atlantis. It was about patterns in the landscape, hence the title. Topography is about maps, a topographic view of the landscape. That was my take on it.” 

When it comes to choosing a favourite Dean cover, one he might want to put on the wall of his living room, Steve Howe laughs. “I’ve already got the original painting Roger did for the Beginnings album on the wall,” he reveals. “But of those he did for us between 1971 and 1974, I’d have to go for Tales From Topographic Oceans. I think in a way it’s the most classically intricate and varied of them all. It’s so grandiose and with the earth and oceans on it, for me it has that sense of balance. I would say it is one of the most incredible sleeves of that era.” 

Working on 1974’s Relayer cover was hard, admits Dean. “It was a lot of very precise drawing. It’s so minimalist in colour with just the faintest water-colour tints, but it’s not minimalist in ideas. The potential for narrative in that painting is enormous. I remember Jon looking at the painting and saying he wanted to call the album Relayer, pointing at the riders and you know that image of the messenger. I’d never heard it at that point but I saw the title, The Gates Of Delirium. I thought that should’ve been the name of the album, for Christ’s sake! I’ve just done a limited-edition print of the cover after being pressed to do one for 40 years. I’ve called it The Gates Of Delirium with Relayer in brackets.” 

Asking Dean to chose a favourite out of these particular covers is a bit like asking a parent to chose one of their children over another. Dean laughs wryly when asked to do just that. “Well, I would have to say that the one that’s closest to my heart is what I’m going to call The Gates Of Delirium. But, week to week it changes. I can go for weeks, a month thinking, ‘Wow, that was a bloody amazing piece, I’m so proud I did that.’ But it could be something totally different, I was going to say a week later, but it could be a day or even an hour later!” he says with a laugh. 

When Prog caught up with Dean, it was in the dark of January 2020. He was preparing for an exhibition at the Los Angeles Art Show the following month. “But what I’ve spent most time doing this year is [talking] on the phone and presentations. What I expect to spend the most time doing for the rest of the year is working on architectural projects and close on the heels of that, a story with interactive elements in it. This is a virtual project but the architecture is meant to be completely for-real. It will be all curvilinear with spires and all the things you would associate with my work.” 

As he talks about this as-yet-unnamed and fully explorable virtual experience, one gets a tangible sense of the sheer creative energy that’s driven him throughout every one of his 75 summers around the sun. That young boy who climbed Lion Rock on his own, who gazed at nine dragons, who filled his head with fantastical landscapes and artfully charted the magical topography of those lands and oceans he imagined, all these years later, is still brimming with the visions he desperately wants to carry on exploring. We are very lucky to be able to join him as he keeps on climbing.