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Cover version: How former Leicester student Storm Thorgerson changed the face of rock

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Storm Thorgerson, whose artwork graced some of the most iconic albums in the history of rock, has died aged 69. In 2007, features writer Lee Marlow interviewed the University of Leicester graduate. We are running the piece once more, in tribute to the man hailed as the best album designer in the world.
It is, when all is said and done, just a cow, a big, slightly angry-looking, black-and-white Friesian. In a field. "A cow?," spluttered the managing director of EMI, Pink Floyd's record company, when it was presented to him in 1970. "What has a cow got to do with anything?" At that moment, says Storm Thorgerson, the cover for Pink Floyd's fifth album – Atom Heart Mother – was born. There was no title on the cover. The band's name was also missing. Just that picture of a cow, in a field, with more cows on the back. "It was spectacular," cheers Storm today, officially a pensioner at 65, but still hanging out with rock bands and designing memorable album covers. "The cow was a mystery, a conundrum – and yet it's not, is it? It's just a cow." He designed more iconic covers – Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, with its instantly recognisable refracted light through a prism – but the cow seems to best sum up what he does – striking, original album covers which delight guitar players and bemuse record company executives. Designing album sleeves is a funny way to earn a living, admits the man who has been designing them for 35 years. "I hang out with musicians – and then dream up visual ideas which best describe their music," he says. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Muse, Black Sabbath, 10cc, Peter Gabriel, Rainbow, The Mars Volta, The Cranberries, Scorpions – they've all hung out with Storm so he can dream up way of describing their albums. Born in Potters Bar, London, during the war, Storm and his family moved all over England. It was the kind of frantic childhood that would make anyone slightly unhinged, he says. He arrived in Leicester in 1963, studying for an English degree at Leicester University. He left in 1966 with a degree, a broken heart after an unrequited love affair with a Yorkshire lass called Lizzie and a lifelong love affair with Leicester. "I loved my time in Leicester," he says. "It was a vibrant, colourful, multicultural city – even then. I felt at home there. "It was such a friendly city. I felt part of it. "As a student, you're always slightly removed from everyday life as it affects most people – but I shopped at the market, went to the Phoenix, drank in the pubs. I loved it." He returned to Leicester a few years ago to track down his old student digs. They had been knocked down and replaced with smart starter homes. After a spell at the Royal College of Art, he was asked to design the cover for Pink Floyd's second album, Saucerful of Secrets. He was second choice, he found out later, but it didn't matter. He impressed the band with his original ideas and a friendship was born. Album covers, he concedes, neither help nor hinder sales. The Beatles' plain White Album sold millions. Yet, he says, we all judge books by their covers. "I'm a translator. I translate an audio event, the music, into an artistic event." You must have a favourite cover? "You can't ask me that. I like them all," he says, snappily. "Well, I like most of them." He doesn't like the famous woman with chewing gum cover he did for the Scorpions' 1978 album, Lovedrive. "My theory is, why have a bad album sleeve when you can have a good one? Why have a dull thing in a world of dull things." He likes his album art to be real. So, for instance, the man who appears to be on fire on Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here album really was on fire. So is the Tree of Half Life – a Pink Floyd T-shirt of a face made from the branches of an old oak tree – real too? "Ah, maybe not. I should tell you to mind your own business here." Amid his arsenal of anecdotes about working with rock superstars, some of his best tales concern the bands who turned him down. Foreigner hired Storm's company, Hipgnosis, to design the cover for an album called Silent Partners. The band hated it, rejecting it as "too homosexual". They changed the name of the album – to "4" – and sold millions. There's no accounting for taste, says Storm. "We were turned down last year by Red Hot Chili Peppers for the cover for Stadium Arcadium," he says. "They went for something old-fashioned and trite, I thought, but it's their choice. "We have a good relationship with Muse (in the preface to Storm's book, Muse's Matt Bellamy describes him as "stubbornly grumpy and bloody- minded") but they turned us down for something last year. You have to click." Anyway, he says, that's enough. He doesn't like going public with stuff like this. Did you, by any chance, take a lot of drugs in the late '60s and '70s? This, you sense, is a question he's been asked before. "I have worked hard and I have played hard but, no, drugs are not the inspiration for my art. "They're not useful. They're recreational, not creative. It would be impossible to work as a graphic artist on acid, for example. You need to focus." Twenty years ago, Storm fell into a financial abyss. He still had work, but there was more going out than coming in. He says: "Financially, I was on the edge. It was a tricky time, one of the worst of my life." Graphic design, is not well paid. "Do I get royalties? I wish I did. It's a one-off payment." His book – a pricey but impressive coffee table collection of album covers three generations of fans have known and loved – was released this week. "I think we've done a good job with the book. We tried to make it flawless but nothing is flawless, is it? Except maybe a bungalow."

Cover version: How former Leicester student Storm Thorgerson changed the face of rock


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