Friday, January 3, 2014

In Memoriam: Storm Thorgerson and Arturo Vega

[purchase The Gathering Storm - The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson]

[purchase the iconic Ramones T-Shirt]

They were both artists, they were both influential in the music world, and they both died in 2013. But Storm Thorgerson and Arturo Vega were also very different, in their lives, in their art and in the music that they were associated with.

Thorgerson was born in England in 1944 and was a friend of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and David Gilmour. He was a graduate of the University of Leicester and obtained a Master of Arts degree from the Royal College of Art. In 1968, he founded Hipgnosis, a graphic arts company, and Thorgerson and the company designed many of the most iconic album covers of the 1970s and 1980s, regularly for prog rock groups. The cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, designed by Thorgerson, is often considered to be the greatest album cover of all time. Thorgerson’s work frequently was surreal, with sharply focused and well lit figures in bizarre or unexpected situations. Back when an album cover was a relatively large surface, Thorgerson’s designs were definitely a lure to record store browsers. And if you were someone who partook of psychedelic substances, they could be looked at for hours in an attempt to unlock their meaning. Or so I have been told.

It would take too long to list all of the incredible covers that Thorgerson had a role in designing and creating, but to list a few (other than most Pink Floyd covers)—Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and Presence, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Yes’ Tormato and Going for the One, the first three Peter Gabriel albums, and albums by Renaissance, Brand X. 10cc and The Mars Volta. And I am probably leaving out your favorite. It was not, however, all classic rock or prog—his portfolio included covers for Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Cranberries, The Cult, Megadeth and The Offspring.

In addition to designing album covers, Thorgerson directed music videos for artists such as Yes, Robert Plant, Pink Floyd and Nik Kershaw.

Thorgerson suffered a stroke in 2003 and later battled cancer, which claimed his life in April, 2013.

Arturo Vega’s career may not have had the same broad scope as Torgerson’s, but his work, primarily for The Ramones, who rejected all of the pomp and excess of many of the bands that hired Torgerson, may well be as influential, and probably sold more t-shirts. But art isn’t a competition (unlike, apparently, cupcakes).

Vega was born in 1947 in Chihuahua, Mexico, but moved to New York in his early 20’s to try and become an artist. New York at that time was not the chain store paradise that it is today, and the early-1970’s music scene that grew out of bands like the Velvet Underground were spawned from grungy, dangerous downtown neighborhoods which are probably remembered more fondly now than they were back then.

While living in a loft in the East Village in 1973, Vega met Douglas Colvin, who complemented the music on Vega’s stereo. Colvin later morphed into Dee Dee Ramone, and Vega became known as the “Fifth Ramone.” In addition to often feeding, housing and supporting the band, Vega was what would now be called a branding consultant. He helped to develop their look, their lighting, and, most of all, designed one of the truly great rock band logos ever. The faux presidential seal, featuring an eagle holding an apple branch (to signify that The Ramones were as American as apple pie) and a baseball bat (in honor of Johnny Ramone’s favorite sport), with a “Hey Ho, Let’s Go” banner in its beak, surrounded by the names of the members, is not only instantly recognizable, it represented a subtle, if unmistakable “fuck you” to the establishment.

Vega claims to have seen all but 2 of the bands 2,200 plus live shows and sold t-shirts with that logo, which helped to support the band when they weren’t selling that many albums or tickets. He continued to sell Ramones shirts and memorabilia, and his logo became a badge of coolness, even with people who weren’t even born when The Ramones broke up. Although Vega worked with other musicians, he will always be identified with The Ramones, and without Vega, The Ramones might never have survived to become a force that changed music forever.

He died, of undisclosed causes, in June.

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