Sunday, August 15, 2010

Houses of the Holy

Lovers of Covers: The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson
San Francisco Art Exchange

August 14, 2010

Sometimes my job has its advantages. A colleague is an old friend of the artist Storm Thorgerson, who was a member of the legendary English art design collective Hipgnosis. For the newbies: Hipgnosis designed an insane number of the iconic album covers in the 70's and 80's. The company's influence and portfolio is beyond staggering and includes classic albums by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, T. Rex, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Nazareth, Styx, Wings, AC/DC, and Scorpions among MANY OTHERS. Every Music Geek probably has more than a few albums in their collection that features Hipgnosis' cover art... and Storm Thorgerson created some of their most famous works.

Joining me on this excellent Music Geek Saturday adventure were Skychick and Sensory Abuse. Prior to the exhibition's opening we met for a drink at Storm's hotel and were introduced to Storm privately. It was pretty surreal meeting a legend under such casual circumstances; as I introduced Sensory Abuse and Skychick to Storm he said with dry English wit "You brought the whole family, didn't you?" HAHA.

After our meet 'n greet we were able to walk around the gallery privately while the staff did last minute setup and before the invited guests arrived. Seeing so much of his work gathered together had my Music Geek mind reeling from the overload of his contribution to Music / Rock History. In recent years, Storm has created well known album covers for Audioslave, Muse, and the Mars Volta. However, as part of Hipgnosis in the 70's and 80's, Storm was PERSONALLY responsible for creating SO MANY iconic album covers!! Albums such as:

Dark Side of the Moon > Houses of the Holy

In Through The Out Door > Wish You Were Here


Since we had over an hour to kill before the exhibition started, we hiked over The Irish Bank for food, pints, and conversation. Upon returning to the gallery we found the space to be filling up quickly with the 200 or so invited guests. I was so glad we'd had our private time with the collection earlier, because it was harder to appreciate the art in the same way with the space crowded with humans. However, Umlaut was still able to geek out on some of Storm's other iconic works. Albums such as:

Black Sabbath - Technical Ecstacy

Rainbow - Difficult To Cure

During our earlier private viewing of the exhibition, I was very disappointed that none of Storm's iconic art for UFO's albums were included. However, upon our return to the gallery we noticed a dark hallway at the back of the room... and in that dark hallway was hung:

UFO (!!!) - Phenomenon (!!)

We couldn't believe that the legendary UFO art was hung almost as an after thought in the back hallway where the light didn't even work! Shocking...

Storm held court behind a small table in the middle of the gallery and he was given constant attention by guests. Thankfully, Umlaut was able to have some quality one-on-one time with Storm to follow up on some things we'd talked about in our earlier meet 'n greet and also to go off on a Music Geek rant about how his work with UFO and the Scorpions were incredibly iconic with people. He didn't seem to believe me... but when I said I was saying this because I'm mainly a "Hard Rock / Metal" person Storm looked me in the eyes and said "I could tell..." WOAH!

At one point in our conversation we were interrupted by Aubrey Powell, who was one of Storm's creative partners in crime at Hipgnosis. Powell was personally responsible for the design and all the photography for some Led Zeppelin album called..... Physical Graffiti. Maybe you've heard of it?

Umlaut geeking out > Aubrey Powell with Storm Thorgerson

Umlaut is from the generation of Music Geeks that learned about Rock Music via the radio and record albums. In a lot of ways, the cover art of record albums was as important as the music because it was something else that engaged your imagination. Music was an all encompassing escape from reality as you listened to the music (preferably on headphones) while you stared at all of the details of the album art. Here in the 21st Century, simply downloading an audio file is not the same experience.

I was completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of seeing so many iconic album art pieces in one space... and realizing that they all came from the crazy creative mind of one man... and that man was in the same room as me.

Unlike other iconic album cover art from the early days that were taken from paintings (most of which were done in the same size as an album cover), Hipgnosis art was photography-based so "original artwork" doesn't really apply since they used darkroom tricks, multiple exposures, etc. and not paintings; their "original art" would be a film negative and not a drawing or painting. The mindblowing thing is that Hipgnosis did all of this decades before computers and Photoshop; chew on THAT for awhile!

There were some pieces that you could call "original" art but they are closer to being mixed media pieces because they had elements taped onto the photo element. Because of the technique and medium, all of the pieces are big and the pieces on display were made from the original photo negatives. The images were sharper with more depth then you'd ever get from an album cover. Also, seeing some of the images in their original size and layout (such as Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Zeppelin's Presence albums) instead of on a 12"x12" album cover was a revelation. I didn't recognize The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway until I read the placard next to it because I was so used to seeing the images individually on the album's gatefold sleeve and not combined together. Amazing stuff.

The only bummer of the night was that Umlaut's favorite Storm album cover wasn't included in the exhibition: The original "bubblegum" art for the Scorpions' Lovedrive album... but it was represented in the exhibition's poster art.

I did talk to Storm about the Lovedrive art and while it's NOT one of his favorites (he made a face when I told him it was probably my favorite cover that he's done) he admitted that he did think "it was funny".


Dude, it was an insanely magical night standing so close to what is left of the original fire that was Rock 'N Roll in its glory days... before imagination and creativity was neutered out of so much of it. To quote Zeppelin:

"Let The Music be your master... Will you heed The Master's call?"

(Photos 1-3 by Skychick and Umlaut. All other photos courtesy of Sensory Abuse.)