I can’t honestly say I had a conversation with Syd Barrett. We had a few shots at it, but it really didn’t work…
“I have often said, I wish Relayer wasn’t called Relayer, I wish it was called Gates of Delirium,” muses the artist Roger Dean, sitting at a huge wooden table in a large old house in East Sussex. He is signing prints, LPs, CDs and books, taking a personal interest in each supplicant who proffers an item, while keeping up a steady stream of information for my digital mini-recorder as we discuss our favourite prog rock works. “My favourite Yes track is Gates Of Delirium,” he says, “so I would have to go for Relayer. But Fragile though…”
Roger Dean’s art and design career has spanned a wide array of genres, but most of those reading this article will know him primarily through the visually stunning artwork that adorns many of the albums by Yes and related bands: Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, Asia, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman’s later solo albums, plus Greenslade, Budgie, Atomic Rooster and others.
The old house is a shop, gallery, restaurant and music venue called Trading Boundaries on the border of East and West Sussex, half an hour’s drive through rural splendour from the south coast. It is the only place in the UK to house a permanent exhibition of Roger’s art, but it also hosts an annual, themed display which he often attends to meet the public and sign memorabilia. Yes had included the track The Gates Of Delirium in their 2019 tour set and had just announced that they would be playing the 1974 album Relayer in its entirety on the 2020 tour. Roger’s camp had recently produced a limited edition fine art sikscreen print of the Relayer album artwork, a swirlingly surreal fortress scene named The Gates Of Delirium after the track itself. Consequently this year’s exhibition virtually named itself, as he explains, “The exhibition is an annual event and every year it has a different title. I don’t know if exhibitions need titles, but they do have them, or they tend to. For a number of reasons this was named The Gates of Delirium, one of which was because we did the print; the other was because Yes had just done a summer tour where they were playing The Gates of Delirium.”
In this case, there seems to be a clear correlation between music and artwork, but it’s not always as clear to see. His lush forest scapes are dense enough to lose oneself in, but don’t always relate directly to the content, so I ask if he gains inspiration from the album title or whether the art selection is sometimes random? “No, Close To The Edge was absolutely based on the title. Fragile was based on the title. But very often I talk to the band about whatever themes and ideas they have, and Tales From Topographic Oceans came from that, more than from the title itself. So it’s all kinds of things – but it is almost never directly from the music. Music doesn’t make images for me, but the ideas behind the music do.”
Whatever inspires him to produce the visually arresting scenes he is known for, it’s important to note that Roger has never pinned himself down as an album cover artist, nor was it his original direction. Initially in fact, he studied furniture design and architecture; one of his successful early projects was the innovative ‘sea urchin chair’, a soft globular object that moulded itself to the sitter’s body shape – “designed to be approachable from any direction and to provide comfortable, stable and supportive seating to the occupant,” to quote the published description. Ironically, it was these specialisms that led to his induction into the music industry, via a convoluted route in the late ‘60s .
“I was moving towards doing architecture when I was at the Royal College. My Masters thesis was on the psychology of the built environment; my Masters design piece was a domestic building, the model of which took me pretty much my whole final year. So my first job on leaving college – in fact I got the job before I left college – was a mix of architecture and furnishing; I was designing the upstairs of Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, and all the seating that went with it. We had no time to do that; I think we had to design it and build it in three weeks! No time at all. It’s a very interesting lesson in how to get things done.”
He relates an amusing tale of rival building contractors promising the earth and very nearly providing it. “When the winner signed the contract with the insurance company, they said OK, so when are you going to start? So he turned to his partner and said, are the trucks ready? And he said yes, we’ve got five trucks blocking Frith Street now! They didn’t finish, but Ronnie Scott’s had got Dizzy Gillespie booked in two weeks and it was being filmed by the BBC, so they had to pretend they were finished. Giant holes in the floor covered in stuff so people didn’t fall through, hoping they didn’t trip over it.”
For an art student to land a high-profile, urgent design job such as the famous London jazz venue says a lot for Roger’s reputation even then. He goes on to describe how he first came to album artwork design. “Working at Ronnie Scott’s, with musicians around, they asked me if I could do an album cover for a band they’d signed a management contract with, which was not a jazz band but a rock’n’roll band, called Gun (not to be confused with Scottish rock band Gun, formed in the late ‘80s). They had a hit single called Race With The Devil, and that was the idea behind the cover. I did do a bunch of jazz covers, but I wasn’t so fond of jazz.”
Gun’s eponymous debut album, with Roger’s demonically-themed cover art, was released in 1968. The band included two brothers named Paul and Adrian who were using the stage surname of Curtis; later they reverted to their legal surname of Gurvitz and found fame with drummer Ginger Baker as the Baker-Gurvitz Army. Anyway, we digress. Recognising that no artist appreciates being typecast any more than anyone else, and that Roger would almost certainly resist being pigeonholed as an album cover artist, I ask him how he would categorise his own work.
“I think of myself as an artist and a designer, both,” he says. “I have people speak to me who have no idea I do album covers. My first major exhibition – and the response was huge – was when I was still a student. That was a furniture exhibition and I exhibited the sea urchin chair, so it depends on the audience. I was approached by a museum in Vienna, and they wanted to know if I had another prototype of the sea urchin chair; that’s all they knew about me.”
Roger’s reputation for design may even take his work into space. “I have been asked to join a team designing a moon base! And the reason I was asked is that there is a lot of knowledge about the dangers on the moon, you know, the fact that it’s a vacuum and physically very dangerous; the radiation will kill you, the heat can kill you, the cold, the vacuum, mini-meteorites, even moonquakes can kill you. The range of things that can kill you is enormous. The dust on the moon, if you inhale it, is so sharp, it will cut your lungs to shreds. So the dangers of living on the moon are enormous, and they’re dealing with them. They have swarms of engineers working on all those problems. But they asked me to be involved in the project because I did my Masters on the psychology of the built environment, and they are aware that people being on the moon will be in a hi-tech prison effectively, so mental health is an issue. So looking for people who are very stable will be key, but making an environment where they can thrive is also key.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Roger states that most of the people he met at the ensuing conference didn’t know about the album covers either.
Surrounded by walls adorned with Rogers’s fantastical designs, it is impossible not to be taken with their imaginative nature: Forested islands drift in mid-air high over the sea, or through the blackness of space; waterfalls flow in full force over cliffs set in a circle with no apparent water source, exquisitely-scaled dragons soar over primeval landscapes with futuristic buildings looming distantly in the mist. The whole dreamscape atmosphere of his depictions marries up pleasingly with the aesthetic of prog rock, with its tendency to deal in fantasy and science fiction. Despite working with many other musical genres, notably Afrofunk band Osibisa, he has become almost inseparably linked in the public consciousness with the prog rock genre. Many if not most would categorise Roger’s work as fantasy, but he is known to shy away from that definition. I suggest that whatever the case, it seems clear that his designs benefit from fantastical elements and influences. It turns out that his objection to the term depends on its common usage. “Well, yes… and yes…” – he screws up his face to emphasise his distaste – “I don’t use the word fantasy, or fantastical. I don’t like that word, because one associates it with something that’s trivial, like – and it shouldn’t be, but it is – it’s like comic art, it’s for children. Fantastical art is for children, it’s not serious in any way.”
He has evidently thought about this extensively over the years. “In actual fact, if you go back to the roots of the word fantasy, it means created from the mind as opposed to from observation. But every designer who’s designing something that doesn’t exist, whether it’s a box of matches or a city, it’s created in part from the mind, so in that case all designers are working fantastically. So in the very literal meaning of the word, I’ll accept it, but in its common usage, ie: something akin to comic and therefore trivial, which I think is a shame and nonsense, but nevertheless, without going into a great deal of explanation, it’s simpler for me to say, no. That’s not what I do.”
One of Roger’s early album works was for a far-out psychedelic performer named Kimberley Frost, who had taken on the name Ramases after the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh and recorded as a duo with his wife Selket. The pair produced an album at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, instrumentally backed by the studio staff Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart and their associates, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. The album has therefore been historically recognised as the first time the four members of 10cc recorded together. In fact the album scored in other ways too; they were reportedly the first studio in the UK to lay their hands on a monophonic Moog synthensizer, and Roger Dean designed the album cover, a sprawling, complex fold-out that depicted a church steeple that doubled as a space rocket. The cover features the misty, dreamlike washes of colour that Roger would become known for; fire spurts from the engines, swathing the church and its environs in smoke and golden light as the steeple lifts off into the stratosphere. It’s an arresting cover to be sure, and showcases many aspects of Roger’s signature style that shouldn’t be called fantasy, despite every temptation to do so. “Ramases was an amazing person,” he reminisces. “I really enjoyed working with him. You could say that Ramases’ backing group became 10cc; that’s how I see it. I don’t think they’d tell the story quite like that, but I think it’s a fair enough assumption, that they put together a backing group and they became 10cc.”
Past the Fragile earth and the Alpha pyramids of Asia and down the stairs surrounded by red and green dragons…
By this time of course, the table is starting to get a bit crowded and Roger is hemmed in on all sides. He is sketching in the margin of a signed Gates Of Delirium proof print – this is a common practice among artists who attend events such as these and is called re-marking; the purchaser gets, not only an autographed copy of a famous artwork, but some actual original pencilwork in the margin to boot. I decide it’s time to withdraw from the fray, so Roger asks if there are any last questions. A voice from the crowd asks him what it was like living with Syd Barrett. Indeed, Roger had inhabited the same building as Pink Floyd’s famously tragic crazy diamond for a short period as the ‘60s drew to a close. “Brief!” he answers with a wry smile. “I can’t remember how long, but it was not long. A few weeks. I can’t honestly say I had a conversation with Syd Barrett. We had a few shots at it, but it really didn’t work. He was living with a very nice lady called Lindsay Korner; clearly she was able to talk to him.”
The conversation starts to wander around the table as interested onlookers venture their comments: “Yes, Lindsay. She did the Cadbury’s Flake advert.”
“Really? Was that her?” Roger again. “I had no idea. I think there’s a picture of her in that book…”
“Well as they say – if you remember it, you weren’t there.”
Time to bow out gracefully I think, as I flip off the recorder and thank everyone for their kind co-operation, seeing as I had been hogging their host for half an hour. Out of the room, past the Fragile earth and the Alpha pyramids of Asia and down the stairs surrounded by red and green dragons and outlandish mechanical creatures. Multi-media entertainment is not a product of the digital age; even the analogue era of rock music always had a strong visual aspect, and the evidence is all around me before I turn up my collar against the late November dusk and head out into that glorious Sussex countryside.