The Cover Uncovered: Behind the iconic artwork of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’

Through The Cover Uncovered, we will look to reveal the creative decisions behind the artistic direction for some of the music world’s seminal albums. This week we delve into the warped and wonderful minds of Pink Floyd and dissect the brilliant 1975 issue Wish You Were Here.

Released on 12th September in 1975 via Columbia, the album has gone down in history as one of the greatest in rock. Expertly performed by David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright, the record is arguably Pink Floyd’s finest work—and that passion and poignancy extend to the artwork too.

Wish You Were Here was sold in one of the more elaborate packages to ever accompany a Pink Floyd album. Storm Thorgerson, the renowned graphic designer, has worked with everyone from AC/DC to XTC and all those in between. He was tasked with the creation of an iconic record sleeve and he didn’t disappoint. But to find an idea that matched up with the band’s intellectualised sound was going to be a difficult one.

The designer decided to accompany the band on their 1974 tour and had given serious thought to the meaning of the lyrics of the band’s new songs, eventually deciding that the tracks were, in general, concerned with “unfulfilled presence” rather than Barrett’s illness as suggested latterly.

This theme of absence was reflected in the ideas produced by his long hours spent brainstorming with the band. Thorgerson had noted that Roxy Music’s Country Life was sold in an opaque green cellophane sleeve—censoring the cover image in the process—and he copied the idea, concealing the artwork for Wish You Were Here in black-coloured shrink-wrap and therefore enacting his vision and making the album art “absent”.

Thorgensen also looked to the tracks to help solidify his thoughts on the project. The concept behind songs ‘Welcome to the Machine’ and ‘Have a Cigar’ suggested the use of a handshake (an often empty gesture), and George Hardie designed a sticker containing the album’s logo of two mechanical hands engaged in a handshake, to be placed on the opaque sleeve. The mechanical handshake logo would also appear on the labels of the vinyl album this time in a black and blue background.

The album’s iconic cover images, featuring two men standing across from one another while one is on fire, were photographed by Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell, Storm’s partner at the Pink Floyd design studio Hipgnosis. The striking image was inspired by the idea that people tend to conceal their true feelings, for fear of “getting burned”, and thus two businessmen were pictured shaking hands, one man on fire.

“Getting burned” was also a common phrase in the music industry, used often by artists denied royalty payments by the greedy record execs. Two stuntmen were used (Ronnie Rondell and Danny Rogers), one dressed in a fire-retardant suit covered by a business suit. His head was protected by a hood, underneath a wig. The precautions allowed for Thorgensen’s idea to come to fruition.

The photograph was taken at the Warner Bros. studios in Los Angeles and added an extra dimension of phoniness. Initially, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and the flames were forced into Rondell’s face, burning his moustache and presenting a far more impending danger. The two stuntmen changed positions to avoid any further issues and the image was later reversed.

The album’s back cover is just as interesting as it depicts a faceless “Floyd salesman”, in Thorgerson’s words, “selling his soul” in the desert. It was an image shot in the Yuma Desert in California again by Aubrey ‘ Po ‘ Powell, once again. The absence of wrists and ankles signifies his presence as an “empty suit”.

The inner sleeve shows a veil concealing a nude woman in a windswept Norfolk grove, and a splash-less diver at Mono Lake – titled Monosee (the German translation of Mono Lake) on the liner notes – in California (again emphasising the theme of absence).

The decision to shroud the cover in black plastic was not popular with the band’s US record company, Columbia Records, who insisted that it be changed (they were later overruled). EMI were less concerned; the band were reportedly extremely happy with the end product, and when presented with a pre-production mockup, they accepted it with a spontaneous round of applause.

By Ti Fore
Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content