Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Pop art in the era of the pixel


Pink Floyd's designer Storm Thorgerson on highlights of his career

By James Alexander
BBC News

It is 70 years since the first album cover. But, now that discs are giving way to digital downloads, what is the future for album art?

For generations of music fans, the album cover has a special place. We all have our favourites (and least favourite) - images stared at and studied in teenage bedrooms the world over.

Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album cover is iconic

From Andy Warhol's banana on the front of the first Velvet Underground record to the underwater baby pursuing a dollar bill on the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind, these were pictures that teased and intrigued.

They offered a tantalising glimpse into worlds that seemed glamorous, exciting and strange. But the once vast canvas is shrinking - whereas on glossy LP covers these images enjoyed a full 12 inches of sleeve space, this reduced to five inches with the advent of the CD.

And now, with the shift from discs to downloads, the space allotted to album art is even smaller. On many MP3 players the sleeve appears not much bigger than a postage stamp - so can the album cover survive?

Album cover reform

It was in 1939 that young designer Alexander Steinweiss persuaded Columbia Records that the use of original artwork might attract more buyers.

Previously records came in drab brown cardboard covers with little to mark them out except the name of the artist and the album.

The change was a big hit. Label bosses soon found the extra sales more than made up for the added printing costs.

In the 1960s the Beatles took album art to a new level - Sgt Pepper, with its colourful cast of characters, came in a gatefold cover complete with a psychedelic inner sleeve and even a cardboard moustache to cut out and keep.

In the years that followed, no expense was spared in creating ever more extravagant and experimental designs.

The golden age of the album cover is pretty much over
Simon Warner, lecturer in popular music at Leeds University

The multi-layered artwork for New Order's 12-inch single Blue Monday cost so much to produce Factory Records claimed it actually lost money on every copy sold.

Of course not every sleeve was memorable for the right reasons - some were tacky and cheap, others were simply bizarre. Even a classic like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds suffers from a cover photo that takes a horribly literal approach to the album's title.

The art of Storm Thorgerson is as famous as the music it accompanies. A childhood friend of the founding members of Pink Floyd, he went on to become their designer-in-chief, fashioning a string of eye-catching creations.

There was the mournful-looking cow on the front of Atom Heart Mother, the burning businessman on the sleeve of Wish You Were Here, the giant pig flying over Battersea Power Station and - most famously of all - the prism spreading a spectrum of colour across The Dark Side Of The Moon.

'Cool graphic'

"It's a nice but simple idea," Thorgerson explains, surrounded by books and sketches in the same North London studio where the design took shape three decades ago.

Pulse, Pink Floyd
Storm Thorgerson created a string of Pink Floyd covers including Pulse

"Refracting light through a prism is a common feature in nature, as in a rainbow. I would like to claim it, but unfortunately it's not mine!"

The idea was sparked by Pink Floyd's keyboard player, the late Richard Wright.

"He said, somewhat provocatively, 'Let's not have one of your photos, we've had your photos before. Can't we have a change? A cool graphic - something smart, tidy, elegant.'"

Thorgerson responded with seven rough suggestions that he pinned to the wall of Abbey Road studios.

The band took just seconds to plump for the prism, an image that seemed to perfectly embody the stark themes that underpin The Dark Side Of The Moon.

Design matters

Although Thorgerson remains best-known for his collaborations with Pink Floyd, his design credits also include albums by Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel and Muse.

Now he has collected his favourites into a limited edition box set, alongside signed prints and previously unseen drawings.

He continues to be in demand and says he's untroubled by the shrinking space given to album art.

Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel
Thorgerson's design credits also include albums by Peter Gabriel

"I think it's more about the design that matters. So, once that has been uncovered, then you have an image that will hopefully work everywhere and always," he says.

"I don't worry if it's an LP, CD or MP3 - I always see it as very big. Even though it may be very small, it will get used big somewhere - a hoarding or a poster or an advert in a magazine."

And this may be the future where designs are experienced less as album covers and more as billboards, concert images, screensavers, even as framed pieces of art.

"The golden age of the album cover is pretty much over," says Simon Warner, a lecturer in popular music at Leeds University.

"There has been a revival in vinyl sales the last few years driven largely by nostalgia. But, in overall terms, the era of vinyl - the era of the album cover - has gone," he says.

"We live in an age when you can download videos to your computer or iPod. We can still enjoy a wide range of imagery associated with an artist, but that idea of the static 2-D work of art is no longer necessarily the only way to enjoy an artist's essence."

It is doubtful the traditional album sleeve that has excited generations of music lovers will hold the same fascination for fans of the future.

But it seems likely the magical marriage of sound and vision, music and art will continue to colour the songs we hear.

Taken by Storm - album art by Storm Thorgerson is published by Genesis Publications.

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