Roger Dean Interview (2007)

Roger Dean (photographed by Hugh Gilmour 2007)

Interview with Roger Dean conducted in May 2007, a small extract of which was published in Classic Rock magazine.

Long before the advent of digital downloads, MTV, compact discs and MySpace (ie; the 1970s), the prime marketing force for an album’s release was its LP jacket, and in an era when records were comparatively expensive to buy by today’s standards, but still shifted hundreds of thousands of copies with apparent ease, record companies were prepared to lavish large budgets on their artwork and packaging. Gatefold sleeves, inner bags, even posters and 12” square booklets were common, depending on the whim of an artist or their attendant record label. One legend of graphic art and design from this era is Roger Dean, who is possibly best known for his work with prog rock titans Yes. “Fragile”, the first Yes LP I happened to buy, was their first to feature a design by Roger Dean, certainly a master of the genre. Although this was their fourth long player since Yes’s 1969 debut, the accompanying artwork had not done justice to the symphonic structures their music was developing.
Roger Dean was so in demand as a record cover designer in the prog rock era, that his name has become synonymous with the genre. His sleeve artwork for acts such as Clear Blue Sky, Nucleus, Dr Strangely Strange, Keith Tippett, Gentle Giant, Patto, Ramases, Mike Absalom, Lighthouse and Magna Carta acted as a badge and beacon to a would be fan. All of those particular acts were on the Vertigo imprint, and now very collectible despite residing in the “where are they now?” file. But it is somewhat disingenuous to consign Roger’s work to one small area and period of popular music, as his influence and involvement has involved design for furniture, hotels, computer games (including artwork and logos for Tetris), opera stage sets and a highly prolific and successful career in book publishing with Dragon’s Dream and Paper Tiger.

I was in the privileged position recently to pay Roger Dean a visit to his Sussex home that has doubled as his studio for the last 10 years. Entering Dean’s large and secluded retreat, I notice parts of one of Roger’s legendary “pods” outside, half hidden in clumps of grass like remnants from a crashed spaceship, long since abandoned. As something one would almost expect to see in Roger’s home, it would appear rude to even acknowledge it. Dean’s actual training was in industrial and furniture design, receiving much acclaim for his initial forays into these areas. Roger became a record designer almost by accident, when he was asked to produce the artwork for the band Gun, who enjoyed a top ten hit with ‘Race With The Devil’ in 1968. “It was a logical step in a way. I’d designed the seating for the upstairs of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club. They liked it, but it was fairly formal, landscape seating. I think we did the whole thing in two weeks. I showed them my sketchbook to demonstrate how it could have been done, and (pointing at an illustration in his sketchbook) they went “Can we use that for an album cover?” Jimmy Parsons in partnership with Ronnie Scott and Pete King, was running their embryonic record label. They asked me to design the cover for their first band, who were Gun. After that I did a whole bunch of jazz covers, but Osibisa was the first of a new era. Iconic, if you like.” Featuring elephants with insect’s wings flying over an otherwise tranquil landscape, Osibisa’s 1971 LP was pivotal in establishing Roger’s name and style, featuring a quintessential Dean typeface, and just like the logos he designed for Budgie and Yes, it is still used to this day.
 “The kind of work I was into was architecture, but what I was doing was radically different to the mainstream. What I had studied was the psychology of the built space,  spaces that people would feel good in. But looking at it from the outside, I didn’t know what the public reaction would be.” In many respects, Dean is very much the product of a spirit of the age that was the late 1960s, where anything was possible as the rules had yet to be set. “The structure I was brought up in at art school struck me as extraordinarily austere, and religiously dogmatic, with no scope for softening or sympathy for any self expression. William Blake wrote about dark satanic mills, but at least a dark satanic mill has the devil living in it, if not God. What we’re building today has no life, no soul, no spirit. I hated the work of Le Corbusier. It seemed like the most inappropriate thing to build, for people to live in.”
Did Roger see architecture, painting and graphic design as three quite separate disciplines? “The differences are interesting, but the processes are surprisingly similar, with a terrific overlap. With hindsight the development of the very early album covers appear logical and planned, but it was more organic and intuitive. I did start to introduce pieces of my architecture into the album covers though, and people liked it.”
Reading through Roger’s best selling book “Views”, the 1975 compendium collection of his work to that date, which included his designs for housing and furniture, stage sets, book jackets, and of course many drawings, paintings and logos for album sleeves, one gets a sense that Roger is as much an inventor as he is an artist. Despite this, he prefers to avoid categorization. “If someone asks me what I am, I think of myself as an artist/designer. On the invention side, we’ve taken out patents over the years.” One has to wonder from where Roger’s rich imagination is fed. “One question I get asked a lot is where do I get my ideas from? What you have to do it back off, and trust that they will come, and that they will be there. One thing that doesn’t work is to sit there in a panic and try and force an idea. The harder you try the harder it is. What you need to do is calm down, relax, make space in your mind, and they’ll come in their millions. They’re there for everybody, in actual fact.”

Although it’s easy to spot the far ranging influence Roger’s work has had, spotting his influences is not so clear-cut. In an age many years before the advent of desktop publishing and computer aided design, his distinctive, hand rendered typefaces and logos were an invention borne from necessity. “When Gun asked me to do their album cover, I’d done the painting already, but they also wanted a logo. The advantage of the words GUN and YES is that they are short, three letter words. At the time I knew nothing about typesetting, but I had a friend who was a graphic designer, and she helped me lay it all out. The record label liked it, and thought I was very professional, so gave me more work. Subsequently I was doing a sleeve for Clear Blue Sky, where I had figured out the painting, and had a couple of strong drawings, but I hadn’t done anything about the typesetting, so to bluff my way through the meeting I had to handwrite it all and hope they would never ask about it. They loved the painting I did, but were also enthusiastic about using the handwritten sleeve notes too. They thought it looked cool.” Thus Roger felt encouraged and confident about developing his handwritten approach to logos and graphics.

Apart from Hipgnosis, a company who formed in 1968 when Storm Thorgerson was asked by his school friends in Pink Floyd to design their second LP cover, Roger Dean was very much a pioneer in the field of graphic art for album jackets. “I would definitely say that when I was doing my first album covers I had very little competition of any kind, so I was allowed to learn my craft in public. I learnt how to get typesetting done, and I learnt to develop my handwriting as well. When Marc Bolan started Fly records, he asked me to handwrite every label for every one of his releases.”

Although Roger had devised the classic “Yes” logo prior to the release of “Fragile”, it wouldn’t be ready until the release of “Close To The Edge” in 1972. The logo has a satisfying balance and readability to it, with an Art Nouveau quality that was enjoying a renaissance during the psychedelic era. “The handwriting bit was amusing to me. The process of designing something like the Yes logo was like a puzzle. You have a couple of elements and you have to lock them together in an elegant way, so it was very similar to, say, laying out a hotel. You have some elements and you put them together in a way that works.” Although the logo and title designs on albums such as “Tales Of Topographic Oceans” or “Drama”, perfectly synthesize with the background paintings and designs, they are always produced quite separately, in almost different mindsets. “They are still separate processes. I’ve never done a combined painting with graphics; they’re always done separately. Design is a different sort of process to me from painting. One of the key aspects of design is the communication, to pass on that information to someone else.”

One important factor in Roger’s trade is the facility to create recognizable trademarks and brands for a band, and where the logos and typography become pictures in themselves. Replacing Alan Fletcher’s much more pop art orientated design, the classic Yes logo’s debut appearance on “Close To The Edge”, up to recent releases such as “Essentially Yes”, demonstrate that it can stand alone, with or without one of Roger’s mystical and mythical creations behind it, but still look very much like a quintessential Yes record. “When the Yes logo was initially accepted by the band, there was a small amount of fuss created by the label, but not a lot. But when I first designed the Asia logo, there was a terrific amount of resistance from the record company, who felt it wasn’t legible. The band stuck with it despite a lot of pressure from the label. I remember having this long discussion with John Kalodner, and he said “I can’t read this,” but I said if someone has to read it, you’re in trouble. They have to recognize it, not read it. Once you’re reading something, it’s too slow a process and you’ve lost your audience. What I claim to be able to do is to make them a logo someone would recognize. Legibility has its place, but much less a one that what you would expect. Recognition is what it’s all about, and of course recognition works without it being a word; a symbol will do. A lot of my logos are comprised of a heraldic device, a shape and lettering, but the Yes logo is a stand alone example.”

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many labels and imprints were formed to specifically cater to the new “progressive” pop bands. Roger Dean was responsible for the actual corporate identity of many of these new record companies; “I did the Virgin logo, the Harvest logo and the second Vertigo label.” Between the actual record sleeves to the labels on the actual LPs, Roger’s influence on the prog rock era is omnipresent. “But no one thought of it as progressive rock back then. I never heard that phrase at the time.” But his influence is pervasive. “I once tried to count how many copies of my work is out there and it’s a ridiculous number. Not counting just the labels, but books, posters, cards and album covers, it’s well over a hundred million. That’s nice to know.”

Roger does recognise, and appreciate, that “prog” has facilitated a healthy cross pollination in music and art. “My view on art is this; it’s idiotic to put art in to categories. The sort of work that is dismissed by the current art establishment, would include Rembrandt, Michelangelo, El Greco, Bosch, which is all illustrative, figurative work.”
Roger has always been very passionate about how his art is represented and displayed. It is of paramount importance, above any concerns of commerce, that his artwork is reproduced with the integrity with which it was originally created. “For ten years Atlantic issued “Close To The Edge” without the painting from the middle of the original gatefold sleeve. How cheap can that be to do? One tenth of a cent? It shows such contempt for the customer. They are not being responsible guardians of the music. That doesn’t mean to say that I feel that way about the small format though. On the contrary, when they do it properly, it gives me as much satisfaction as the bigger sleeve. I like the small format if it’s done with care and attention.” There is currently a trend, especially in Japan, to reproduce CDs in perfectly miniaturized 5 inch square replicas of their original LP jackets, something Roger evidently approves of. “The quality of those are all there, there’s nothing that’s been chucked out. It’s small, but it’s solid value.” For someone who paints on such a large scale, certainly in comparison to the finished product, doesn’t he find the finished format of CDs disappointing in terms of the size the artwork is reproduced? “I used to collect stamps as a kid, and they’re really tiny. If the label has taken care, and as much love and attention gone into producing the small format, then I’m all for it. Right now we’ve got a publisher who’s going to republish “Views”, and they said to me would I be interested in making the format the same size of a CD, because when I did the books originally they were the same size as an LP (so as to be racked in record shops). I thought, neat, I can put it in my pocket!” I sincerely miss the relevance and dominance of the 12” LP, but Roger’s attitude is refreshing. “Music is essentially abstract. You can’t hold it. You can hold a vinyl album because that is how the music’s been stored, but the music can be stored in any matter of ways. That in its self is nothing more than the access and storage mechanism. So how music is stored is irrelevant, but when you package it, you make it a gift, and if the record company treated it as a gift, something worth honouring, and then presented it to the public as a gift, it would then be treated as a gift. Your grandmother might buy you a CD or an LP for Christmas, but they’re not going to buy you a download, are they? How are you going to wrap a download? I think if it’s properly packaged, properly presented, you’ve taken an abstract thing and made into something tangible, because music makes a wonderful gift, but to make it a wonderful gift you have to package it with love and affection. While music has this role as a gift, the tangible version of it will always be critical.”

1973’s live opus “Yessongs” was three LPs housed in quadruple gatefold sleeve, and, incidentally, featured a cover painting that was originally commissioned for Pink Floyd. “I did that painting for “Dark Side Of the Moon” actually. (Floyd manager) Steve O’Rourke asked me. He fell out with Storm (Thorgerson) one day, and asked me to do it, but the band had already asked Storm to do it.” “Yessongs” represents a perfect and completely realised synthesis of an alternative world, and on a huge scale if you own the original vinyl pressing, which is typical of Roger’s collaborations with Yes. It not only has the function of carrying three records, it is an experience in itself; a very tangible artefact you could take home and lose yourself in. By comparison, a compact disc in a jewel case is just a utilitarian vessel for containing music. One satisfying aspect to the body of work he has produced is the thread of continuity that permeates much of his work, certainly for Yes. “Before I started painting “Fragile”, I had already written a story about it. So “Fragile” was the world within which this story took place, and the story continued through “Yessongs” and other Yes albums. Right at this moment we have a movie based on it, which is currently in development, though the story of those early albums is a story within a story. The visuals are stunning, the music of course will be predominantly Yes, but it will work well because it’s got a great story. We have a working title of “Floating Islands”, but that won’t be the title of the film. I guess it goes back to what you said about you picking up an album and you go into a new world, and we thought it was about time we did make that new world, immersive as well as accessible.” One wonders why such a task had not been approached before, but evidently the possibilities of technology have caught up with the breadth of his imagination.

Possibly because Roger’s influence is so far reaching and far ranging, he isn’t credited often enough for many of his achievements. “We did probably the first States-wide merchandising, for “Tales From Topographic Oceans” (1973), which eventually became Brockum, a 400 million dollars’ worth business when it was sold. Up until that time, different promoters in different parts of the States ran the merchandising. Brian Lane, Yes’s manager at the time, was very angry with me for putting together all of the merchandising, as he said it was going to cost him $1,000 a night, but I did it because I hated the look of the stuff that was out there. I wanted my stuff to look as good as it could, so we designed it all. The band was of the same view; they didn’t think there was enough money in it to worry about anything other than the quality. We had no experience of doing it and we did everything the wrong way around; we shipped in tonnes of posters from England, where as most people in America wanted t-shirts, and even the t-shirts we made in England and reshipped to the States, but even so I think they netted something like $250,000 so it was still five or six times as much as they usually did. It was an interesting process but the driving force, the driving motivation, was not to make money, but to do it properly.” Tour merchandise is now taken for granted as one of the key ways for a band to generate income to fund expensive tours, but prior to Roger’s involvement on these early excursions, there was little thought or science about what should be presented and how it should be designed. “There was a tour where Yes wanted to use a different logo, which I had designed, and their merchandise company offered them another million dollars advance on the tour merchandising if they stayed with the classic logo. It was very flattering that they would think it would have that much value. But the merchandising serves obviously a role of making money, and that clashes with the role of reinforcing and establishing a brand image of the band. I say brand image, and that’s a very marketing phrase, but what you are talking about really is the core identity, and the visual expression of that identity.”

Through the design of record sleeves, merchandise, and in collaboration with brother Martyn, Yes’s stage sets, Roger was intimately involved with the whole production of the visual identity for the band. Although Roger was not involved with the covers for 1977’s “Going For The One” or 1978’s “Tormato” (though both retained the classic logo), he did return for 1980’s “Yesshows” and “Drama”, but for the remainder of the 1980s, a revamped Yes abandoned even their classic logo for a decidedly more “contemporary” approach. It must be with some vindication that for the “Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe” album in 1989 followed by Yes’s 1991 “Union” album, that Roger was invited back to design the sleeves and graphics, just like a long lost, but very much cherished member of the group. It wouldn’t have been a real Yes album without a Roger Dean cover. “I was very busy doing other stuff, so I didn’t feel abandoned by the side of the road. But when “Magnification” came out I did feel indignant because not only had I done a lot of work, but the record company hadn’t shown the band what I had done either. It was a matter of courtesy that they requested that I show them and they distribute it to the band, when in actual fact they hadn’t. I was talking to Doug Gottlieb about it, and he was very indignant on my behalf, and said “Don’t you feel really upset about this?” He thought they would have treated me better, and I said, well actually this is like they’re treating me as a member of Yes, as they sack themselves all the time! That did bother me, but usually it didn’t. If they want to go with a particular direction, then that’s fine. I obviously feel it works better if it’s mine, but I don’t feel that they have to feel obliged to.”

“Magnetic Storm”, the 1984 follow up to “Views” produced in collaboration with Martyn Dean, demonstrated that Roger was moving away from designing record jackets, as his work had moved further into developing architecture, stage set productions, computer game technology and virtual reality in the form of the familiar sounding “E-Pod”, the Electronic Personal Orientation Device. “We’ve now finished that project, and unfortunately finished it too early, in 1991, when the only computer’s that would be able to generate images on screen, which was essentially a virtual world, a virtual vehicle, was a quarter of a million pound Evans & Sutherland computer. Nowadays a £300 Playstation 3 will do 10 times what that would have done. In a way now’s the time to do it. You probably didn’t notice, but the original tools and patterns that were used for building it were in the garden outside, and we’re just finishing off the first two revisited prototypes. It’s one of our ongoing projects.”
How does Roger feel about his name and his art acting as a kind of visual currency for the face of prog rock? “It’s nice, but it’s weird. I’d say my graphics, as opposed to my paintings, have made a terrific impression across a lot of heavy metal bands, because they’ve used copies of my lettering. I never thought of myself of working in an area of progressive rock. Looking back in history, it’s all clear and defined, and you can say that these three labels did it, and blah, blah, blah, but it never felt like that at the time. I think progressive rock is a very interesting door opening process because all kinds of musicians have been given freedom because of it, which would have probably been much harder otherwise. I jokingly talked about John Cage’s music, but I think if he’d have come after progressive rock, then he would have had a bigger audience. People like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Brian Eno and David Byrne. I saw an amazing film on Scott Walker the other day, and what he did was really amazing, and I think progressive rock made all that possible, it really opened the door to all kinds of music. There’s practically nothing now that doesn’t get absorbed into modern music. From a Japanese orchestra through to “Tubular Bells”, it’s all embracing and I think it’s an important process to explore all of the nooks and crannies of music.”

As the son of an army engineer, Roger’s youth was spent in Greece, Cyprus, and later Hong Kong. Did living on such islands help conjure the dreamlike utopias of floating rocks and disembodied cliff faces that he renders on paper? “You asked me if Hong Kong was an influence on my paintings, and it was two ways; the landscapes were an influence and of course, Chinese and Japanese art was an influence.  Chinese drawing is taught in a different way to Western drawing. We’re taught to draw, if we’re lucky enough to be taught at all, which doesn’t happen much in art schools anymore, but if we’re taught to draw we’re taught in a hand-eye-brain co-ordinating way; you look, you observe you make a mark, you look, you observe you make a mark, and you train the co-ordination of those different bodily functions if you like, but the Chinese way of teaching you to draw it much more like calligraphy. You keep repeating brush strokes. The fact that calligraphy has a critical role in Chinese education, calligraphy in the sense of lettering, all of their kids are learning a very important skill. That very process took them a great deal closer to performing as an artist than we are now. The lack of calligraphy combined with a lack of drafting skills is very devastating.”
With such a huge and growing body of work, it would be churlish not to find out what, if any, were his favourite album covers. “I have a few actually. I liked the Badger album (a Yes offshoot band), because of its simplicity. “Relayer” I would say was my masterpiece of drawing, a pencil drawing with thin, barely perceptible, watercolour washes, then ink drawing in the foreground. So that’s a highpoint of my draughtsmanship, if you like. The second Asia album, “Alpha”, was pretty much a drawing, but much more colourful. You can’t really see any pencil work because it’s mostly done with ink.” “Relayer” is much less colourful than much of his other work, especially for Yes. “Strangely enough I do a lot more monochromatic things than people realise, and “Badger” was very monochromatic too. Then there’s a whole bunch that are essentially paintings and not drawings at all; “Floating Islands”, “Sea Of Light” (for Uriah Heep), the Yes “Symphonic” album…they’re all big paintings, and they were great fun to do, and were done in a traditional way with no drawing at all, just painting straight on to canvas.”

With a band featuring as many eccentrics as Yes, one would hope there’d be a few funny stories worthy of repeating. “It’s really a strange thing, because I’ve toured with Yes a lot and the stories are legion, and where as I don’t think Spinal Tap was written about Yes, there is a certain familiarity about that…bless them.” It was a 1972 tour supporting Black Sabbath that broke Yes Stateside, quickly elevating them to headliners of arenas that would hold 20,000 or 30,000 people. So that the fans at the back would have some sort of show to focus upon, huge and elaborate stage sets were built for their successive tours. Did any band member ever get trapped inside a pod whilst on stage? “We never had a pod that the band stepped out of, but we did have fibreglass shapes that they walked through, which also moved about on stage. We built our own so we never had the problem of doing a drawing that was supposed to be 18 feet high and came back as 18 inches!”

Dean has been working professionally for around forty years, but there’s no apparent sign that he plans to hang up his pencils and paintbrushes in any way whatsoever. What drives him in his work today? “What I strive to do is get more insight into the imagery.” As I packed away my tape recorder and collection of Dean related books and records, Roger was generous enough to let me have a leaf through one of his sketchbooks where many of his ideas begin life. He also shows me a brochure featuring some of his latest ventures. “This is my new company, Curved Dimensions, and we have a hotel project in development, and also currently working on four houses in Hawaii. We have a university campus, which we’ve just started design work on. So at this moment I have one stage project, which is for a Pucinni opera, and we have at least three active architectural projects that we’re currently working on, and a bunch more we’re negotiating in development stage.” It’s clear that Roger is a very busy man, but gratifyingly he has found time to devote to his first passion of architecture. But what about the album covers that have given him a worldwide following? “I still paint, and if I’m asked I’ll still do album covers, but I’m very happy to be doing buildings, and I think the next step for me really with the album covers is the movie.”

Roger should have a new book, as well as a reissued “Views”, published in 2007. To see more of Roger’s work, and to be kept up to date on his film, architecture and album projects, log on to