Part 1 of RockPoP Gallery's Mike Goldstein interviews film-maker Roddy Bogawa about his new film titled Taken By Storm
When filmmaker Roddy Bogawa was in his teens, a ticket to a date on Pink Floyd's Animals tour exposed him to full-scale examples of the work of Storm Thorgerson and that artist's unique approach to rock music-related design. In Thorgerson's forward to the revised (2008) edition of his book on album cover design titled "Album Cover Album", he posits that record sleeves were "often the first place where pubescents come across the visual arts - being reluctant to visit galleries or read art books while in the throes of hormonal disarray" and, in this case, his words seem prophetic when you now take into account the path that Roddy has taken to becoming the talented multi-media artist he is today.
A brief study of Thorgerson's own route to excellence in album cover design also shows how the trends of the day in popular culture/design present early on in his own career (beginning in the late 1960s - a time, to many, of great artistry in the album cover field) inspired both he and his partners at Hipgnosis (Aubrey Powell and Peter Christopherson) to produce a wide variety of ground-breaking designs for innovative musical acts including Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Paul McCartney and many others. Their approach to their compositions showed an understanding that, unlike many of the standard approaches to cover design (photos of band members standing on a cobblestone street, photos of band members holding their respective instruments on a raised platform, etc.), there was no real need to feature the players on the cover and that the designs could "illustrate the emotions and themes explored in the music".
Motivated by a desire to learn more about the man who'd created so many of the images that he'd seen over the course of his life as a dedicated music fan - without realizing that they'd all been done by one designer - Roddy took advantage of a connection through a colleague to pitch the idea to Thorgerson about working together on a film that would give viewers both a career retrospective and some insight into an artist's creativity and the hands-on/real-world development and production processes behind his instantly-recognized work product. I caught up with Roddy shortly after he premiered his film at this year's South-By-Southwest festival and, over the course of the next two months, worked with him to be able to bring you a story, told in his own words, about a film-maker's tribute to someone who has impacted his own appreciation of what it takes to make great art....
Interview with Roddy Bogawa (Part 1) on the making of the film Taken By Storm (interviewed April/May 2011) -
MG - You've said that the first live concert you attended was Pink Floyd during their Animals tour stop at Anaheim Stadium, so it seems that you've been a fan of Thorgerson's work for a long while now. Was there something about the visuals that accompanied that show that stuck in your brain all these years?
RB - In all honesty, I can’t remember if this was the very first concert that I saw, but certainly it was the one that really cemented my love of going to see live shows as a teenager. I remember that my father had to drive my friend and I an hour and a half to Anaheim Stadium at four in the morning, those being the days of “stadium seating” which pretty much meant you waited in line for hours to be herded into the grass in front of the stage. Considering it was Pink Floyd’s ANIMALS tour, this was quite funny, as I remember the underage kids being separated into different lines and getting different color bands put on their wrists – very Animal Farm-like. I still have this clear memory of the pig floating over the arena with red laser beam lights for eyes and that the sound system was quite phenomenal as I also recall the sound of barking from all parts of the stadium during "Dogs".
On the ride back home – you have to realize that my friend and I were dropped off in the parking lot at maybe “Section 27. Row M” and were instructed to meet again some seventeen hours later at the same spot – I spent the drive home describing to my father that the pig floating over us was maybe the same pig that was on the album cover and how society had made us all “animals”. Ahh - the innocence and beauty of the seventies! It is that notion though, that the LP cover was essentially the picture track to the soundtrack of the album that I think Storm inherently or intuitively understood, and that it was better and much more interesting if the album cover didn’t just illustrate the music but also gave you a parallel journey. Back then, the album package was an object passed between friends, explored and examined, being such an intense part of the whole music listening experience. Either sitting in someone’s house, playing each other specific songs from certain albums, or in your room by yourself with headphones, this experience was intertwined with the record cover artwork. I was one of those kids who always kept their records in plastic sleeves rather than the ones that wrote their names on the covers and inner labels to keep them from being snatched.
I also believe that some of the designs that Storm is responsible for are also definitely responsible for some of my adolescent fixations. For instance, I didn’t know that Hipgnosis had done the Black Sabbath cover for Never Say Die. I was pretty heavily into Black Sabbath at one point and, that being a late LP, it only had a few songs on it I remember liking, but I was totally obsessed with the cover image of the two WWII pilots in these pressurized suits with colorful tubes from their helmets. They looked like bugs, like some kind of weird insect cocoons. I just bought the LP again recently while working on the film and had a complete flashback, only this time I noticed images in the clouds of other pilots and UFOs which I have no memory at all of seeing before. Now I realize that maybe it all had something to do with the squadron of WWII pilots who disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle - "Never Say Die" - ha! - so it’s funny that I’m still seeing things in Storm’s imagery. I’ve joked in interviews, when asked how long the film took to make, that if you count the pre-production of my teenage memories, the film has taken some thirty-three years to complete. And maybe it’s not yet done…
MG - Why do a film now on Storm Thorgerson/Hipgnosis? How and when were you finally introduced to Thorgerson? Had you worked with him or any of his associates before?
RB - This is a really interesting question and, perhaps, deceptively deep, both personally and emotionally. I think that, first and foremost, the design work that Storm and Po - Aubrey Powell, working together as Hipgnosis - truly was simply incredible. Later on, they also worked with Peter Christopherson, who also was a founder of the industrial band, Throbbing Gristle, and this group then and redefined many things that reverberate even today in marketing, art and culture.
Back then, there was no internet, no blogs or fan sites and not really many music magazines, so the album artwork was essentially the main visual element that linked the fan to the music group. The parallel story to that of Storm’s life and work is the decay of the physical via technological changes. This applies as well to my practice as a filmmaker. I still love shooting in 16mm film – I shot and edited my early shorts and my previous three feature films in 16mm. Until this film, I even cut the 16mm picture as physical work print, splicing and taping without computer based editing. This was, until recently, a conceptual decision and methodology of working and of loving filmmaking - having to reel the film, watch it with a projector and so on - and not because I’m an anti-technological mole. So the parallel story is not only of the vinyl album disappearing from the distribution and reception of music and that of Storm’s life work, but also my own. I’m not nostalgic about this, though I do feel the growing void that technology is leaving in its wake.
Honestly, editing a film with a keyboard and mouse while sitting in front of an unblinking computer monitor isn’t half as engaging as spooling film and cutting with a tape splicer. These moments when you were doing these other physical activities were actually the instances where your brain would drift and you’d come up with ideas – what some people think as the “slowness” of old film editing was perhaps when you were most creative. Editing today has become much more like word processing, while editing for me was always much closer to sculpture than writing. Copying over someone’s IPod music library is the same - sure you get the music but it doe it thrill you? As we move to file-based systems of information, images, and sound, what do we miss in this cold reproduction in lieu of “speed”?
Storm is an artist that is working against this void – not really against the clock – and is someone who is trying to reach a poetic and lasting meaning with his images. He talks a lot about his work ethic as an "implied contract" – that if a band spends their time and effort to make the music, that it is subsequently part of his end of the bargain to work just as hard. I admire this commitment greatly on one level, but also wanted to make a film that talks about image making or, rather, the importance of image making at a time when this effort is so overwrought and commonplace, with everyone making films with their cell phones and your nephew editing his first feature film on his laptop. In my mind, the kind of art making that Storm does is even more important now than ever because of the overload of images in culture. His images have lasted the test of time and will outlive the context of their production precisely because of his belief in the power of the image. In many ways, covers such as Houses of the Holy or Presence for Led Zeppelin, Animals, Dark Side of the Moon or Momentary Lapse of Reason for Pink Floyd, Venus & Mars for Paul McCartney and Wings, Wake Up & Smell The Coffee for The Cranberries or Deloused in the Comatorium for The Mars Volta seem as contemporary now as the moment they were made. In fact, it seems as though they haven’t yet even found the moment where they’ll be "dated".
I really fell into this documentary and didn’t know Storm or anyone in his studio before deciding to pursue the film project. Chris Brokaw, who was in the bands Codeine and Come and who did the original score for my previous feature film I Was Born, But.. had come through New York and mentioned that he had visited his friend Dan Abbott in London, who happened to work in Storm Thorgerson’s studio. I joked to Chris that the name sounded like a singer from one of the new Norwegian "Black Metal" bands, but when he mentioned Hipgnosis and record cover design, I immediately remembered some of the covers.
I didn’t know Storm was still active, though Chris told me about a shoot that Dan and Storm’s photographers and assistants had just done where they dug out a stairway into the sand on a beach in Devon, then laid storm doors around the opening and simply photographed it. I thought this was quite an interesting way to work considering the ease at which this could all be done in Photoshop, and Chris mentioned that Storm was still interested in the “truth of light” and the “believability of the image”. It reminded me a lot of art installation work like that of Robert Gober and for a few weeks I couldn’t shake this image. I went online and bought a book about Hipgnosis and when I casually flipped through it, I literally freaked out when I realized just how many covers they had designed that I had in my record collection.
I then became obsessed with the idea that some person or a few people had shaped so much of my teenage psyche. I was working on a narrative film script idea but I dropped it and started emailing Storm. I wrote him for several months and sent numerous proposals – some with lots of pictures, some with academic "art speak", some long, some short – all to no response other than Dan emailing me a reply saying “Yes, Storm read your last proposal and seems interested. He didn’t write you?” I kept at it and then wrote a short narrative story about the ANIMALS show and maybe my persistence paid off - or maybe this particular proposal tapped into some emotional register - but I got a four-line email back from Storm simply saying “Hi Roddy. In Ibiza on holiday and read your proposal. Sounds interesting. Doing lecture at BAFTA in three weeks, want to come?” I packed some 16mm film stock, a camera, and made for London not knowing if in fact, I could even shoot anything.
When I arrived at Storm’s studio on the day of the lecture, he took me to the grocery store next door to his studio, where he picked up a bunch of cabbages and asked me to inspect and buy them. He then said “I can’t talk to you right now, you’ve got to go with my assistants”, and so I was roped into buying up cabbages for the rest of the day and running framed images over to BAFTA. That night, at the point during Storm’s lecture where he was showing images of his work on the screen and was having a naked woman body painted on stage, he had his assistants pass out all the cabbages to the audience and directed them to hold them in front of their faces while Rupert Truman, his photographer, took a picture from the stage. At that moment, I had this feeling this was a bigger story then I had envisioned originally...
The next day, back at Storm’s studio, he spent most of the time working while I sat and observed him. He then asked me to help him clean an upstairs room, lugging out an old drafting table and organizing prints in flat files. Maybe this was some kind of test, or maybe he wanted to get some work out of me while I was there while he got to know me but, at the end of the day, we had a tea together and he turned to me and finally said “OK, tell me what you want to do”.
MG - Tell me about some of the things that you and Storm discussed regarding the relationship between fine art and music...
RB - One day, when I was interviewing Storm, he and I spent a lot of time talking about the difficulties of creating an image for music, an art form that is essentially intangible. It was at the end of the day and, although we were both quite tired, we were riffing off each other, with it going into abstract terrain, and so we kept the sound recorder rolling. The discussion really focused on the idea that even though music is a sound and may have emotion and you may have some physical relation to it if you dance or sing or screw to it, it doesn’t have a physical presence. It may fill your room or your emotions and thoughts but it’s not something you can grab a hold of. We spoke about how the record cover functions along with this as the object that creates some type of presence to this other thing which is abstract on many levels, and he focused mainly on his driving instinct to make this imagery layered and not literal or, as he puts it, “a parallel to elements of the music within”. My take on it was that when you are listening to music - even though you're feeling air moving physically from the speaker cones to your eardrums - essentially it’s about a presence that is entering into your consciousness in a non-physical way. It’s one of the beautiful things about music for me – the fact that you can’t put your finger on it and that sometimes it is something as simple as suddenly hearing a small guitar riff or drum fill that you’ve never heard before - and keying into that one thing from a song you’ve listened to a hundred times before. Perhaps a large part of it has to do with the actual moment of listening, what you’re feeling at that instant or why you choose one song over another. In college, I was one of those people who had to hear a certain song in the morning to set the day off right and many people, of course, listen to specific songs when they’re sad or when they want to drift away during a summer afternoon.
Storm and I talked more about this experience and then, more specifically, about Pink Floyd. I’d only seen them twice - once on the Animals tour and again on the original show of The Wall - and one could say they didn’t jump about much. By that time, they had already realized to make the show larger than their own presences on the tiny stage via projections, lasers, and the massive props and balloons. As Storm and I talked about this, I had an epiphany of sorts which was, simply, that if you have a band like Pink Floyd, who don’t call attention to themselves while they are playing live, then the LP cover becomes even more important as a unifying image internalized by the audience. It’s like hypnotic repetition – you listen to the album over and over in your home and stare at the cover graphics and then, when you go to the show, you hear the songs again live and you become a tribal mass with certain images that the crowd attunes to. That’s always really been an interesting thing about the live concert experience, the gathering of the tribe around the record player again, tracking your favorite songs and singing together. This carries through to then other aspects of it all – how you dress, style of your hair, buttons you pin to your jacket and so on.
MG - As a player - I'm a drummer - I have to say that music is often embodied in players, and that embodiment is evident when you see players who seem to have music surging through them, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carlos Santana, Billy Cobham and Aretha Franklin. Album covers featuring photos of these players capture the physical aspects of music, don't you think?
RB - Yes, there’s the utter thrill of seeing bands play live and, having been an avid concert-goer for most of my life, I like that experience. Fundamentally, though, there’s always this strange push/pull between “Will they play the song note for note or will they change it live?” and “What songs will they play and how close will it be to your ideal choices?” added to which is, as you mention, the excitement of seeing the physical presence of the musician creating the sounds and the simultaneous reactions of the audience. I think it’s complicated, but Storm’s determination to not have the bands on his covers immediately pushes him into a different arena where he has to grapple with the question “well then, what the f**k do I put on the cover?” That challenge is something that engages his intellect and emotion.
I think that image-conscious musicians who have featured a photograph of themselves on their albums and advertisements reduce the possibility of more interplay between the music - and/or the images culled from the music - and themselves. I like David Bowie’s album covers but, in the end, they’re more about his character and history rather than an image that tries to parallel the artistry of his music. I know added to all this is ego and money, so it becomes quite muddled in the end. I like photos of musicians performing, but do they really give a sense of the physicality of the music? I’m not sure. Seeing a picture of Jimi Hendrix playing, for instance, on Rainbow Bridge, though it’s such a beautiful enigmatic double exposure full of emotion and style, for me, it doesn’t come within miles of ten seconds of what I’m hearing on the tracks.
MG - Along that same line, your 2005 film I'm Simply Overwhelmed... focused on the attendees at rock concerts. It was, as you put it, an "anthropological study of faces, fashion and culture". As a music fan and avid concert-goer, I've always felt that the visual aspects of the rock music business - the stage props, lighting, video and the graphics developed to promote and sell music - at least the most-iconic examples, such as Jamie Reid's imagery for the Sex Pistols, Mouse and Kelley's imagery for the Grateful Dead and, of course, Gerald Scarfe and Storm Thorgerson's imagery for Pink Floyd - in many ways had a noticeable effect on Pop culture. What's your take on this - is the imagery and music providing the direction, or is it reflecting the culture, or ??
RB - This is absolutely the case for me. That piece was what, I even termed at the time, a “compilation film” a la a compilation record. It was a conceptual re-editing gesture, where I purposefully only showed the audiences from live concerts and not the band, so it was a simple reversal of spectacle. When I did that, it was truly a beautiful thing for me…just to study faces and expressions. It’s hard to say if imagery is driving popular culture, but I think it really must be part of it since music, at times, has driven culture.
Storm has had an incredible run with this. I would say that he’s designed dozens of really iconic images for bands. Atom Heart Mother was the first number one charting record for Pink Floyd and it worked without having the name of the album or Pink Floyd’s name on it. I always really liked the cover Storm and Po did for Floyd's A Nice Pair. It was so playful and evocative via puns, word games and the use of symbols. Once again, it wasn’t just a picture of the band, and it gave you another level to explore meaning and, subsequently, perhaps, one’s identity while listening to the music. On A Nice Pair, there was that picture of the zoned-out hippie with goofy glasses, so already Storm was becoming self-reflexive as well, poking fun at everyone under the sun. Do we have the equivalent in design now to the likes of Jamie Reid, Mouse and Kelley, and Storm? Or Big Daddy Roth or R. Crumb? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Maybe this kind of iconographic design moved into architecture or industrial design or the art world, but I don’t think there’s the same type of identification of an album with a designer that there used to be.
End of Part 1
In Part 2 of this interview (to be published next week), Roddy will tell us more about his film - how he put together both the crew (and the financing to pay the crew) and more details about the meeting some of the musicians who partnered with Thorgerson and Hipgnosis to bring their fans some of the best-known album covers of all time - and gives us some insight into how he feels about the ongoing relationship between music and the visual arts...
All images featured in this UnCovered story are Copyright 2011 Roddy Bogawa - All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2011 - Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery (www.rockpopgallery.com) - All rights reserved.