Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Dark Side of the Earth

As the high-fidelity stereo arm gently touched down on the turntable, a diamond needle began tracking across a mint vinyl pressing. Wearing a pair of headphones bigger than my head, I heard a warmly pleasing sound: flawless, crystalline, entirely new to my ears. 

At first there was only a heartbeat, which I mistook to be my own it was so clear, then a voice followed by more voices, reverberating machinery, and a screaming that rose to a crescendo until suddenly one goodly chord rang out. And a young man sang, “Breathe, breathe in the air. Don’t be afraid to care…”

The record sleeve didn’t say much. Apart from a few liner notes, there wasn’t anything to look at, no photograph of the band, just a beam of light shining through a prism set against a plain black background. 

I couldn’t put it down. And over the next three quarters of an hour a medley of clever, bluesy tunes, each one about the lack of empathy in the modern world, kept me entranced. I was fourteen years old.

“Of minor significance was the simple, elegant layout against black. Standard textbook illustrations did not do this. Of greater significance was the art direction, or rather the fortuitous decision to listen to Rick Wright, who suggested we do something clean, elegant and graphic, not photographic - not a figurative picture. And then to connect this idea to their live show, which was famous for its lighting, and subsequently to connect it to ambition and madness, themes Roger was exploring in the lyrics...hence the prism, the triangle and the pyramids. It all connects, somehow, somewhere.”
Storm Thorgerson on the design of The Dark Side Of The Moon

On April 18th, after a long struggle with cancer, British graphic designer Storm Thorgerson died. He was 69. With his passing the world lost one of it’s most creative artists, the music business lost its best album designer, and I lost a friend. 

In a career spanning five decades he created over 300 album covers and imagined the dreams of a generation. He plumbed the psychic depths of rock and roll with weird runic pictographs and montages, images that became animated in our minds. He left a legacy we can pour over in solitude, two dimensional sculptures to hold and admire while the music they interpret fills our ears. 

His work with Pink Floyd, for which he’ll likely be best remembered, often involved conceiving and photographing elaborate ‘events’ that had been extrapolated from a single lyric on the record. 

Among his best work by his own reckoning is the design for Wish You Were Here, shot on location in California. It explores the abstraction of absence, a concept he returned to again in later designs. 

But now as I study his art I see only absence, of the extraordinary person with whom I had the good fortune of collaborating and forging an enduring friendship, and the artist who blew all our minds with graphic designs.

Don’t Walk Away Rene

Album artwork opened a door to great music for me. As a teenager growing up in Africa during the 1970s, I largely missed out on popular culture. LPs were hard to come by in socialist Dar-es-Salaam. There was just one record shop, a dusty, desolate downtown establishment owned by a wiry Indian merchant who stocked only Bollywood soundtracks. 

Occasionally he’d stock Top of the Pops compilations. These turned out to be fraudulent. The scantily-clad dolly-bird on the cover, done up like a bag of chips,  should have been warning enough. Inside was collection of songs by anonymous acts that mimicked the original hits. So instead of ‘Ballroom Blitz’ by The Sweet or ‘Son of My Father’ by Chicory Tip you got an imitation of a song that was not particularly good to begin with. This was teenage hell.

Not before I returned to Montreal on home leave did I get to hear the greats as they were meant to be heard, on my cousin’s high-end stereo. He had converted his basement into a progressive rock cave, painting the walls black and plastering them with dark posters of long-haired brooding rock bands. “Here, check this out,” he said, placing a pair of headphones on my head. And so it began.

That’s how I discovered Hipgnosis, who were credited with designing most of the albums I liked. Accordingly I picked up a copy of ‘Walk Away René’: The Work of Hipgnosis (Paper Tiger, 1978), an illustrated coffee-table book of their creations from the previous decade. The company was a collaboration between art school film graduates Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell, Peter Christopherson, and Storm Thorgerson. Before you knew it I was a Hipgnosis groupie.

The Eye of the Storm

“When asked what I personally do I reply in a variety of ways. For Her Majesty’s Customs I am a photographer. For the music press - a graphic designer. For film people I’m a director. For my mother an artist! For my loved ones, a pain in the butt. Sarcastic musicians see me as an organising ponce who doesn’t do much actual work. True believers, i.e. employees, however, know I make images. I think of ideas, often in collaboration, and turn them into tangible visuals, be they still photographs or movies.” 
- Storm Thorgerson, Mind Over Matter

After Hipgnosis disbanded, Storm Thorgerson continued working solo from a studio in Belsize Park. With the advent of the compact disc the music business had gone through a dramatic transformation. The switch from vinyl required a shrinkage in packaging. Record companies were no longer prepared to throw money at an album’s design and gone were the days of expensive location shoots in Morocco and doing things by hand. Still, there were plenty of back catalogues that needed repackaging.

Pink Floyd remained Storm’s main client, though they hadn’t given him any new work in a decade. What reason did they have to record anything new with the royalties they were earning? The Dark Side of the Moon had become a ‘platinum monster’ spending over 700 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts.  

Thereafter the Floyd entered a super league. But with success behind them, the band members soon lost sight of why they had started playing tunes in the first place. This darkened their outlook and contributed to the bitter departure of bassist Roger Waters in 1986, as prophesied in his lyric fourteen years earlier: “And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes, I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon.

Such was their inertia that whole generations passed between the Floyd’s trips to the studio. All those connected to the band, the so-called Cambridge Mafia who had been caught up in the eye of this phenomenal rock and roll storm since school days, soon starved. 

Although his designs contributed in no small way to the Floyd’s success, Storm was only ever paid a fee for his work on their albums. This caused some resentment, which he cheerily alludes to in his book Mind Over Matter (Sanctuary Publishing, 1997): 

Back in the mists of time, shortly after the release of The Dark Side of the Moon, Steve O’Rourke, fabled Floyd manager and Clark Kent lookalike, was walking down London’s fashionable Bond Street in a cheery mood. He put his arm around my shoulder and pointed out an expensive looking sports car and asked me why didn’t I have one of those. He knew of designers in LA who did, he added. I answered that I didn’t earn enough money. Come off it, he said. I might, I ventured tentatively, if the Floyd would pay me more - not that I’m complaining. He withdrew his arm. Not a chance, he said, and changed the subject. Bye bye sports car.”

Between Apes and Angels

“I don’t know many Hipgnosis groupies,” said Storm Thorgerson, tucking into his lamb shank. 

“You opened the door,” I said. “Back when I was building my record collection ‘Designed by Hipgnosis’ was my only hallmark.”

"You're too kind," said Storm. 

It was a sunny October afternoon in 1994 and I was lunching at Primates restaurant in Chalk Farm with my childhood hero. Our meeting was as a result of a science documentary Storm had produced for Equinox,The Rubber Universe, examining the Hubble constant. After watching it I'd contacted the production company who then put me in touch with him. 

“I don’t believe in charity,” said Storm. He wore a fixed expression of disinterest, which I soon discovered concealed a well of humanity. “If the gorillas need saving then it’s up to governments to pay for it. That’s why I pay taxes. Still, I am intrigued. Tell me more about this film you want me to make.” 

The year had begun well for the gorillas. Three years into a dazzling new career as executive director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, where my wife Jillian was also a director, I was optimistic. We had started from scratch, promoting an obscure cause in a far-flung place, but the future looked bright. Our positions opened many doors, and we took advantage of every chance we got to promote the gorillas.

NASA, the American space agency, having reneged on an earlier agreement, had just confirmed it was reinstating us to its Mission to Planet Earth. Two flights of the space shuttle Endeavour, STS-59 and STS-64 scheduled for April and August were to use a highly sophisticated spacebourne imaging radar to obtain data of the planet’s environmental hot spots, including the gorilla habitat in central Africa. 

Then one night in January, as the lights came up in Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, I spotted ape actor Peter Elliot in the audience and went over to say hello. Peter was the first to hear about any ape movies in the studio pipelines. “Just the man I want to see,” he said, with a high-pitched, gravelly cockney lilt. “Paramount Pictures is making a movie of Michael Crichton’s book Congo. You need to get in touch with Sam Mercer.”

The next day I bought a copy of Congo and started reading it. I couldn’t believe the serendipity. Crichton’s story incorporated high-tech space imagery of central Africa’s gorilla habitats. Wasting no time, I let Paramount know about the planned shuttle missions. 

“The studio executives love the idea of using your radar images in their movie,” said Mercer when he called back the next day, “because they want authentic and are willing to pay your organisation $10,000 for the privilege.” 

By Hollywood standards this was chump change, but considering NASA’s images would end up in the public domain, it seemed a pretty good offer at the time.

At the end of March, just days before STS-59 was due to launch, Jillian and I flew from London to New Jersey to meet Scott Madry, head of the Remote Sensing Centre at Rutgers University, who had first thought of using spacebourne radar to penetrate misty gorilla habitats. Hollywood's Mike Backes, a Congo producer, flew in solely to join our meeting, as did the heads of our conservation project in Africa. 

Each of us was keen to capitalize on the publicity that two space shuttle missions and a new feature-length movie would bring to the gorillas. We had no idea about what was about to go down, in a ball of flames.

At the time few people had even heard of the green and hilly landlocked nation wherein we carried out our work protecting mountain gorillas. Even I’d seldom heard the place mentioned while growing up in Africa. Cartographers were never sure how to spell it. ‘Ruanda-Urundi’ as it was known during German colonial rule would sometimes turn up on modern maps. That it was the setting for Gorillas in the Mist was the extent of most people’s knowledge of Rwanda.

All that changed on April 6th 1994 after the Rwandan president’s plane got shot down and the country quickly descended into bloody anarchy. In an effort to wipe out an entire ethnic group, for the next hundred days bloodthirsty vigilante groups hacked to death hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children, in what became known as the Rwandan Genocide.

We feared the worst when we were unable to reach wildlife veterinarian Dr Louis Nzeyimana, who was trapped in Kigali with his wife and seven month-old baby. For the first few days we remained completely powerless. 

Meanwhile the space shuttle Endeavour was in orbit, doing what it was sent up to do, scanning the gorilla habitat. Astronaut Rich Clifford who was on board at the time recalls the operation. “Radar imagery of the gorilla enclave in Rwanda during the STS-59 mission proved the value of the Spaceborne Imaging Radar... Visual observations of the enclave during the mission were usually obscured by clouds or darkness. The imaging radar could ‘see’ through the obscuration and thus valuable information was obtained.” 

Although undetectable from space, and invisible in the resulting images, Endeavour’s radar could also ‘see’ the killing fields of Rwanda, where one of the most horrifying acts in human history was unfolding. Consequently NASA refused to give us the data fearing they may be accused of spying.  

Suddenly our little organisation was in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to promote an obscure cause which seemed inappropriate during such a time for Rwandans. Gorilla conservationists argued that as incongruous as they may seem in the midst of war and genocide, these large charismatic mammals could one day be a boon to the effort to rebuild this country. And they were right.

It was one of the lowest points in my career. Often during office hours I would head to the local pub in the afternoon and start downing whiskeys. 

But my dramas were of no account compared to the human suffering in Rwanda. On the Friday morning after the bloodshed began, Louis Nzeyimana finally reached me by phone from the hotel Mille Collines (later immortalised in the movie Hotel Rwanda). 

“I’m taking my family,” he said, voice quivering as he struggled with his English, “and we are fleeing Kigali today in the 4x4 vehicle.”

“Where will you go?” I asked.

“To Goma,” he replied, “in Zaire, where hopefully we can get on a plane to Nairobi.”

“Listen," I said. "There’s an eight-week conservation education course starting in the Cotswolds next month. I’ll enroll you and hopefully that will enable all three of you to get UK visas.” 

It seemed an impossible journey, along a road littered with dead bodies and barricaded with more than sixty road blocks manned by murder-drunk vigilantes. Louis was from the right tribe but his wife was not, though her papers stated otherwise. And although she was uncharacteristically petit, his tallness made him suspect to pig-ignorant vigilantes. At times it was only the gorilla logo on the side of the charity’s car that saved them, provoking cheers of solidarity from genociders who then allowed them to pass. 

It took them ten hours to drive 200 kilometres. They crossed the border at 6 o’clock arriving at Goma International Airport barely in time to make the last flight out. 

I called the British High Commission in Nairobi and convinced them to issue Louis and his family visas on a Saturday, which kept immigration off their backs when they arrived at Heathrow the following morning. I’ll never forget the look of utter release on the Nzeyimanas' faces as they pushed through the gates. They lived with us for the next month in our small council flat in north London, and I never once saw her put that baby down. They never returned to Rwanda. 

Meanwhile gorilla patron Arthur C. Clarke was urging the American space agency to hand over the habitat radar data, saying, “I’m sure if this information is released properly, it will bring the best possible publicity to Nasa.” 

NASA wrote back, “We are happy to report that data were successfully acquired on two passes over the site, on Orbit 58 and Orbit 171. Images have been processes at JPL for the first data take and will be transmitted to the research team at Rutgers for analysis… We look forward to attempting to image the Karisoke site on our second flight in August.”


“You mean you’ve never seen the Floyd in concert?” asked Storm, with perfect nonchalance. It was Saturday afternoon, the day after our lunch at Primates, and he had called me at home.

“No, never,” I replied.

“Tonight’s their last performance at Earl’s Court,” he said. “There’ll be an access all areas pass waiting for you at the door.” 

I gasped. I had just been invited to the inner sanctum of a rock phenomenon that famously walled itself off from its fans. My excitement grew as I rode the Tube into town and a cascade of images from the band’s discography came to mind: a cow standing in the English countryside / a man diving into water without causing a ripple / rays of light / cathedrals / a floating pig / balls / coins / ticking clocks - every one a Storm Thorgerson invention.

Kensington High Street, one stop before my destination, where the band’s loyal following began in 1965 after they performed at the Countdown Club. An obscure sometimes frightening manifestation of the new psychedelic culture, the Floyd would play until dawn, set after set of eccentric rhythm and blues songs extended with lengthy solos and accompanied by mind-blowing light shows. 

While fame did not grow overnight a seed was certainly sewn, or rather a magic bean, for when it did appear it was colossal. To date the Pink Floyd have sold more than 250 million records worldwide.

Expecting the clouds to part, I gazed upward as I emerged from the Underground. Masses of people were queuing outside the venue. After a record thirteen nights at Earls Court tickets were a premium for this final performance of one of rock’s most monumental acts. 

Eventually I located the stage door where I was meant to pick up my pass and stood in line with Mike Rutherford, the bassist from Genesis. Smiling, I said, “Loved your album Smallcreep’s Day.” He smiled back.

Uncertain what an AAA pass meant at first, I quickly discovered I could to go absolutely anywhere. Soon I was backstage watching a roadie hand spool a 70 millimetre film to be back-projected onto a giant circular screen behind the band on stage, for ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’.  

After a whole set of greats, the band broke for intermission. I wandered around the vast venue holding a plastic pint glass full of lager and whenever the whim took me, swanned through barricades manned by surly bouncers who never so much as batted an eyelid at me. I was astounded by the number of eighteen-wheeler trucks parked indoors behind the stage. 

Then I heard it - a heartbeat followed by voices, machinery - and I hurried back. An unexpected treat: for the first time in many years Pink Floyd was performing The Dark Side Of The Moon in its entirety. 

Storm had decamped to the mixing desk with the rest of the Cambridge Mafia, but I spent the duration of the concert riveted to the stage, standing amidst fifty thousand enthralled fans, transfixed by Rock’s supreme son et lumière. I had been waiting for this moment for twenty years. And I got to tell this to the band in person after the show. ("C'mon it's time to go...")


“What’s the point of having a dream team if you’re not prepared to fucking listen to them?” scoffed Storm. It was the following Spring and we were making a short film together, a goodwill message from Arthur C. Clarke to be shown at the London premiere of Congo. It wasn’t the film I had originally envisioned Storm making, but there wasn’t any money for that.

With Clarke’s greeting from Sri Lanka in the can, he now wanted to shoot a closeup of the author’s books but I objected to the additional cost. Storm did not back down. After thirty years of explaining his vision to music industry morons, he was hardly going to yield to a neophyte like me. Moreover he was my hero. “Alright!” I said, “we’ll do it your way.”

The next morning, I carted a stack of science fiction paperbacks down to King Studios in Soho and found him at the controls of a 35 millimetre rostrum camera, which had been designed to animate still objects. Silently, between sips of tea, he arranged the books on a table beneath the camera, then rolled the film and slowly panned the books. Moving diagonally and capturing every tear and dog-eared corner, he told an unexpected story, different than what was written in the books, or I had envisaged. It was freaking alchemy.

We became good friends. His studio in Belsize Park was a mere ten-minute walk from my office, and I’d often visit and watch him work. I loved listening to his stories and found his mordant sense of humour an antidote to the terrible things that were happening in my life. He shone a light.

My chance to return the favour came on New Year’s Day 2001. Storm was writing a book called ‘The Book of Black Things’ and wanted Arthur C. Clarke to write the forward. Arthur was in London on a rare visit to Britain. He'd come for a special screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the National Film Theatre, a new 70mm print with digitally remastered sound.  

After the screening we were invited to meet Arthur at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair. He wasn't feeling too energetic and chose to receive us upstairs in his suite. Brother Fred ushered us into the room. There beneath plush covers, a stack of satin pillows propped up behind his magnificent bespectacled head, was the world’s greatest futurist, cracking asides with pinch-me-I’m-famous incredulity. 

“I feel as though there should be a monolith in the room,” quipped Arthur with his arm outstretched, aping the rapidly ageing Dave Bowman in the penultimate scene of 2001.

Arthur agreed to Storm’s request for a forward, though in the end ‘The Book of Black Things’ was never published.

Subject: Re: jungle love

hi greg

my my its you
didnt know you'd left gorillaville
but not before time i guess

why uganda?

glad to hear about writing...keep at it
if it were easy everybody would do it

my life has been plagued with illness
first the stroke rendered me disabled
a barrel of laughs to be sure

take care

With Storm’s passing there remains only absence, a sustained chord searching for accompaniment, as palpable as his creations, the perplexing album sleeves he designed, the superfantastic films he made, the larger-than-rock events he staged, from Marrakech to Battersea, proving pigs can fly. 

He was a pillar of strength to me when the temple came tumbling down around me. He understood that there is a dark side to everything but that it’s not all dark. 

Shine on Storm!

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Blinding Geezer from Carlisle

Looking back, I can now make sense of that bleak semester I spent alone at the Quarry in Surrey. The previous six months I had witnessed a military coup in Thailand, famine in Ethiopia, and been arrested for espionage in the Yemen. The 17th century cottage on the estate of Lady Bronwen Astor proved the perfect sanctuary. 

I’d been almost everywhere yet belonged nowhere. Born in an affluent North American city, shortly thereafter I was dragged off to live in hot, difficult places. This made me an outsider, a ‘reverse-refugee’. The move to England was meant to straighten me out. But shell-shocked, disorientated, and in low orbit around London, I seemed incapable of kick-starting that career in journalism.

One blustery night in May, on the eve of my twenty fourth birthday, I was in my room listening to the wireless. Storm clouds were gathering and the treetops teetered back and forth. The antique wooden writing desk opposite my bed, its bevelled top slid open to reveal an untidy array of handwritten notes and unfinished stories, and my Canon Typemate portable electronic typewriter were all covered in a layer of dust.

I was studying the world map on my wall, searching the continents between the Tropics for somewhere warm and exciting to go next, when the door bell rang. A visitor, now?

I hurried down the stairs to the front door and opened it. There stood a wiry young man, his face covered in self-styled anarchic tattoos. “Hiya,” he said grinning. “I’m Andrew. I’ll be staying for the week.”

I scratched my head. “Ah, Andrew. Lady Astor said you might be coming, but I wasn’t expecting you for a couple more days.”

“Well here I am. Fancy a pint?” Looking up at sky I wondered if the idea might be a bit rash, but he insisted. “I‘d really like to celebrate. It’s my first night out of prison.”

I grabbed my coat and an umbrella and we headed to the nearest pub. The look in his eyes as he tasted his first glass of Chippington’s is still fresh in my mind. He couldn’t say enough about how good it felt to be free.

Andy was a kindred spirit, another lost soul confined to the periphery of society. Our paths could not have been more disparate - his eighteen month in prison for assault and car theft began about the same the time I dropped out of university to conquer the world - but now they had crossed, at the gates to the asylum.

“Her ladyship asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” he said, eyes darting around the pub. “What sort a question is that for a twenty year old Guilford punk from Carlisle, just out of prison? I’m happy if I get a job as a street sweeper and somet better than a squat to kip in.”

We shot a few games of pool, sized up the talent, then headed back to the Quarry. On the way home I let slip my birthday was tomorrow. “Blinding!” he said. “I’ll bake you a cake.”

The next morning I found him in the kitchen whipping up the icing. He had already baked a dozen cup cakes and prepared as many sandwiches. “I hate the bloody Queen!” he said, frantically beating the bowl. “I mean, why should she have two birthdays, eh? Why not one, like with everybody else in the world, you know.”

I was touched. Someone I hardly knew putting all this care and attention into celebrating my birthday. “I’m throwing you a party. Already invited some people. We’ll need supplies.”

In town we picked up a litre each of whisky, vodka. and scotsmac. Andy tried to score some gear from an old mate, offering him an invitation to our party as payment, but the geezer said he had a wife and kid to think about now. In the end only Sister Andrew dropped by the Quarry, briefly for a nip of whisky and a piece of cake.

As the night progressed Andy acted out stories from his ‘jack up days’ in Guildford. “I was living with Sharon, beautiful Sharon, hooked on smack and fixing in squat toilets. I remember her shuddering in my arms like a kitten. I brought my hand back to give her a slap, like. But it was too hard. I couldn’t hurt a girl like that. It was like she wanted me to hate her, you know.”

We talked until dawn when I bid him good night. It was the last I ever saw of him. Later I was awakened by the police. Lady Astor’s BMW had been stolen. They found it wrapped around a tree a few miles away. And Andy was on the run.

Bronwen blamed me, said I must have encouraged him. I was heartbroken. Why hadn’t the blinding geezer from Carlisle asked me to come with him?