An interview with one of the most prolific designers in music, Roger Dean
- Liv Siddall
- 10 April 2015
The phrase “they just don’t make ’em like they used to” is almost absurdly fitting when it comes to the work of Roger Dean. The visual style and typographic skill on the album artwork and logo design created bands like Yes, Uriah Heep and Asia defined an entire era and bred hundreds of imitators. Roger, who describes himself as a “landscape painter,” was once commissioned by Ronnie Scott himself to paint a mural inside the famous jazz club, and more recently redesigned the Tetris logo.
Only creating around four paintings a year, Roger is a true craftsman, believing firmly that hard work, practice and concentration is the key to making challenging, unique artwork that will drive the world culturally forward rather than just pottering about. In fact, he’s got some quite strong opinions about art school. “In fine art there is a strong drive to avoid any evidence of craftsmanship and skill. You can actually do better things if you acquire a skill and do it properly, and stop dismissing skilled work as a bourgeois affectation. That in itself is an affectation.” Below is an interview with one of my biggest heroes, and one of the most thrillingly skilled artists and designers working today, Roger Dean.
I wanted to talk about the difference between designing now and before computers. What do you think about that transition?
When I started doing album covers it wasn’t the province of graphic designers at all. Storm (Thorgerson) who was Hipgnosis, did Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin covers, he wasn’t a graphic designer and neither was I. I suppose the inspiration for me was an artist called Rick Griffin who was not a graphic designer either but one of the things I found fascinating about his work is he kind of tore up the rulebook on font design and was doing something amazingly extravagant. It looked like it came from an utterly other place, and I wanted to do that too.
I wanted to achieve a visual integrity, so the logo, the visual and the text looked like it came from the same place but somewhere else. The example I would give is imagine if you go into some kind of small rural grocery shop in Italy and you are looking at cans of olive oil, they look exotic and strange, but imagine doing the same in somewhere non-existent like Xanadu or Shangri-La or whatever, and everything will look very, very strange.
I like that otherness, and I try to achieve it. When you look at a lot of modern album covers, the art school obsession with the Helvetica kind of undermines it. So instead of looking at an artefact that comes from another place entirely, you are looking at an artefact that has been caught and tamed and made corporate.
The thing I am concerned about is the very simple dogma of modern design, and how it undermines quality in a surprising way. And it applies to graphic design, architecture, everything: that unbelievable necessity to strip everything down to its simplest form. I think it’s against nature. It’s a kind of religious zealotry.
"It was a very, very brief period in history when the album cover art and the music came together to make something that was the perfect gift. And it was, a perfect gift."Roger Dean
I completely agree. I love how you say it’s the “otherness.” It’s a good thing to tap into and give the music what it deserves. Can you tell us about your time at art school?
It was full on non-stop, and the teaching was good too. I learnt to be a draughtsman and doing it over seven years at art school, and doing it in my spare time, was important.
If people want to play a musical instrument, they are taught about the instrument and how to play it properly. The same doesn’t go in art school. Imagine wanting to play guitar like Steve Hackett, and you go to a music college and you are told “that’s a bourgeois affectation” and then you have to stand your guitar up in the corner and throw ping pong balls at it. You’re going to come away somewhat confused, and that’s how art schools are. It’s going to be looked back on in history as a period of total nonsense.
"If people want to play a musical instrument, they are taught about the instrument and how to play it properly. The same doesn’t go in art school."Roger Dean
I was thinking about the famous Yes logo, and about how bands these days don’t really have logos, or at least not strong ones. When you made the Yes logo was that a rather new thing?
It was a new thing, yeah. If you think of bands up to then, like The Beatles, Stones, The Who. The Who hardly had a logo but they had the word “who” with an extension of one of the letters. The Stones didn’t have a logo until much later, after Yes had theirs. The Beatles really never had a logo and nor did any of the other bands. So I wouldn’t say it was the first but it was the first really high profile, identifiable and obviously designed one rather than an accidental one.
Of course. So how did that come about, did the band come to you?
I was introduced to the band by Phil Parsons who was the boss of Atlantic in Europe. He was very keen to get me to do something but he said he only had two bands, Yes and Led Zeppelin. He said he’d introduce me to the first band who needed a cover, and that was Yes. And we got on really well. The first cover I did for them was Fragile, and the idea behind it was to make it have the look and feel of a turn of the century illustrated book.
Where were you in the mid 1970s?
Um, I finished at the RCA in 1968 so I finished the 1960s and I kind of drifted to Brighton in the early 1970s, going down for a day, then a weekend, then a week and ending up thinking that perhaps I could work there. Frankly I could work on the moon, it didn’t really matter. I’ll be fair, I suppose Brighton was quite exciting. All the markets and the Laines. We had about five or six people in the studio in the 1970s and we published about 100 books. We did six volumes of a book on album cover design called Album Cover Album and we published Storm Thorgerson’s book Hipgnosis.
"I drifted to Brighton in the early 1970s, going down for a day, then a weekend, then a week and ending up thinking that perhaps I could work there. Frankly I could work on the moon, it didn’t really matter."Roger Dean
So you’ve been very involved in album covers through your career, making them and also publishing books about them. Are you still as involved, do you still care and keep an eye on record sleeves?
Well there’s so many more now. Keeping an eye on something when they are in the thousands is easier than when they are in their millions.
It was a very, very brief period in history when the album cover art and the music came together to make something that was the perfect gift. But CD isn’t. The CD jewel box looks so tacky, and the record companies took an incredible opportunity to save money on packaging, and that combination of music and art disappeared and it just became a crude access to the music, and then of course you’re only one step away from digital downloads. It’s no longer easy to give it as a worthwhile gift, it’s like book and iTunes vouchers, it’s not the same thing. You can’t wrap it up and give it.
Or hand it down or pass it on.
Exactly. It’s become too ephemeral. I have a friend who publishes Tetris, I designed the Tetris logo and I got very involved in that, and now Tetris is so cheap to download people don’t even keep it, they just download it every time they want to play it. So there’s nothing anymore. It’s an interesting experience but doesn’t go beyond that, and I think music has gone that way. The vinyl was fantastic but was brief, 25 years at the most where that combination of art and music was really there. Interestingly bands have been releasing vinyl and putting the CD in the package, and sometimes putting a download code in the sleeve.
"When you look at a lot of modern album covers, the art school obsession with the Helvetica kind of undermines it. So instead of looking at an artefact that comes from another place entirely, you are looking at an artefact that has been caught and tamed and made corporate."Roger Dean
I’ve been surprised lately whenever I buy records at the lack of detail on the inside sleeves and back cover of albums?
Sleeve notes used to be an integral part of the information you were getting when you bought it, if you were lucky you’d get art on the cover, a logo, an identifying thing, photographs, interesting notes and information about the tracks: where it was recorded and how long it was and all that sort of stuff. The information gets left. One of the things that really upset me when CDs first came out is that Atlantic Records in the States released Yes’ Close to the Edge which famously had the logo on the outside and the painting on the inside, and they didn’t bother putting the painting on the inside of the CD for ten years! It was just white with black and white text on the inside.
I mean you’re talking about saving such a small amount of pennies that you have to think, did these people really didn’t know what they were doing? And in a sense they didn’t, because it showed no respect for the music or the customers or the project or the art, and no self respect either. And consequently the industry went away from them. I’m giving you a very sombre interview aren’t I?
Art + Music
This month we will be looking at the infinite, somewhat holy connection between art and music in all its different genres. Spanning an enormous amount of ways music and art come together, this feature will take a closer look at stage design, record sleeves, music videos, zines, rock star painters, band merchandise, music at fashion shows and much, much more. Now put your hands together for Art + Music.
About the Author
Liv joined It’s Nice That as an intern in 2011 and worked across online, print and events, and was latterly Features Editor before leaving in May 2015.