For the first time this year, the legendary George Hardie has contributed a sleeve – a man who made his name working with Storm Thorgerson’s Hipgnosis studio. During his time there he designed album covers for Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin among others, helping to define the visual language of 1970s Rock. Despite all this he’s disarmingly humble about his output, and insists we all stop referring to his images as ‘iconic.’
George, you’ve worked for some of the biggest names in 20th Century rock and roll, but managed never to get caught up in the hysteria of that scene. How come?
There was a lot of what used to be called ‘starfucking’ going on, but that never interested me, although I’ve met quite a few famous people in the music business I suppose. I was taught at The Royal College that the idea was everything, people like Bob Gill would say that if you’ve got a good idea you can just ring me up and tell me over the phone, I won’t need to see it. So it was quite aggravating really that after such strict training and tough teachers, you could come up with a white horse as the answer to a record cover and the band would say, “Oh we quite like it but Bill’s wife doesn’t like white horses.” Working for bands always had an element of taking a running poke at a rolling donut, in the sense that one could sweat blood trying to think of something that was totally appropriate and then someone just wouldn’t like it. It was a very different kind of work than anything else I was doing.
On the other hand one could get away with amazing things if a band did like an idea, quite wonderful things that were almost like trying different ideas on for size. The best bands would get really enthusiastic about it and go with it.
Were you reading lyric sheets then, instead of listening to the music? I heard you never even owned a record player at one time…
I fell back a bit on enjoying the words of bands, which puts me in a very bad category in terms of taste. I like 10cc because the words really mean something. It was lower grade pop, or at least lower grade than some of the other bands, but they were funny and you could make pictures about them.
Very early on I had my cassette player stolen in the burglary of my flat and I never bothered to replace it. Most things I never listened to until after I’d made the imagery, which really influenced the way I used to work with Hipgnosis. They would say, “Hey, we’ve got this sleeve to do,” and I’d ask them to tell me what the music was like, and they’d go; “Well it’s a bit like Led Zeppelin but more raunchy and there’s a bit more of a western edge to it,” and I’d say, “Yes but what does raunchy mean, and what does Western mean?” I was lost without a vocabulary really, without a dictionary. I’m no good with music. But in some ways that frees one up to have abstract ideas and just go on trying them until they’re accepted, which did happen quite a lot.
Did that lead to eureka moments where you would finally hear the music and everything all made sense?
Yes, and of course the great advantage of working with Hipgnosis on so many of those projects was that they had that yardstick to judge things by. They’d tell me if I was completely wrong in what I was producing. It’s not a great moment in my life though, talking about music…
What are your musical tastes if Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd aren’t for you?
Oh gosh! My tastes are strange and I have no depth of knowledge, but I enjoy things like Kurt Weil and Cole Porter, whose lyrics I think are amazing. An album that I absolutely adore is ‘Red Hot and Blue,’ which is a compilation album of all Cole Porter’s best songs, but sung by people like The Pogues and Talking Heads. I like that a lot.
Outside of music, you always produce imagery with strict sets of rules to govern them. Was that the same when you worked on album art?
Yes, because I have to have that back story to make something work I think. The problem with music is that the back story can be wrong for the band, but I still had to know in my mind that there was a rationale for doing everything. I think it’s about puzzles and playing games and that awful graphic cliché that goes right back to my training of solving the problem. Once you’ve solved the problem you can hide all the evidence of it, but I need to do it before I can make an image.
For example I’m doing a menu for someone at the moment and I’ve realised that I think we’ll make a pattern, so that’ll be one set of rules, and then I’m thinking that the client is a conjurer in the kitchen, so it’ll be about connecting cooking with magic. That gives me quite a good story to work on, and then because I admire cookery in the way that I admire some music, I’ll try everything on and see what feels right for his particular area of expertise. I suppose that’s what I did with bands too.
That’s a huge amount of narrative focus for someone who trained in graphic design…
My life has changed from plain ideas, stated as simply as possible to much more complex images that have some time built into them. The other great thing about a good record cover is that someone’s got to be able to discover something about it a year or two later. The classic example of that kind of imagery is the calendar page that hangs in someone’s office for a month. You don’t want something simple for that; it needs to be an image that can be explored over time and continue to offer something new with each viewing. You need to keep getting lost in it.
Was there ever a feeling that you were creating imagery that would simply be overshadowed by the success of the music?
I suppose so, yes. It all became clear to me the other day when I read something about the designer of the ‘iconic HSBC logo.’ You know that logo, everyone knows that logo. But if you have a client who has more banks in the world than there are churches, then anything you do for a logo will be iconic, in exactly the same way that the cross is iconic. I’ve written about all of this very recently, because I don’t think that any of my two ‘iconic’ record covers are that iconic. They’re only described that way because they sold a lot of copies. The actual images – the prism or the crashing Zeppelin – are borrowed images, not original ideas. The whole thing is nonsense I think, calling things iconic.
Once Pink Floyd accepted the prism we just went away and did the rest. I don’t suppose we went back to the lyrics once. The interesting parts about that project for me were things like creating the stickers for the front cover, or when we did ‘Wish You Were Here,’ that was very collaborative. I think we thought about doing the four elements somewhere on the record – earth, wind, fire and water – which may have been my contribution or not. Once we’d decided on that we had to solve that problem, which wasn’t a problem given to us by the band. We were kind of making up the job as we went along. All of this work was just done by discussion, we’d have the most wonderful evenings solving what to do for people.
How did you solve the problem of what to do for your own Secret 7” sleeve?
It’s an absolute monster bit of work actually. I don’t know why I started on it. I’ve been at it for days. It’s a narrative curled up in the form of a groove.
It’s exhausting! I’ve made several mistakes already, some of which I’ll leave in because I keep on forgetting which way round I’m doing it. It’s complicated. It might be good…. I mean it has to come good in the next few days. I’m enjoying it and it’s beginning to work. But it’s one of those ideas that develops as you go rather that one that’s immediately in your mind and you replicate on paper. It’s unravelling as I make it!