Legendary UK graphic designer Peter Saville, creator of groundbreaking covers and graphics for Factory Records, New Order and Joy Division (amongst many others) tells the story behind the design of Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So.
I had heard of Peter Gabriel back in 1986 but I wasn’t a fan. I didn’t actively dislike him. He was just not somebody I knew that much about. It was my assistant and creative partner Brett Wickens who was terribly excited about Peter and I became aware that Brett and Gail Coulson, who was Peter’s manager at the time, had started collaborating on some visuals for a new Peter Gabriel album. At the time it was going to be called ‘Good’. Brett actually got as far as a proof which I saw and I thought “God, this is awful!” Then when Brett and Peter got together to discuss the proof, suddenly there was a crisis. They didn’t like it. They’d used up the time, spent lots of money and it wasn’t ‘good’.
Brett called me and said, “We have a problem.” The result was that Brett and I drove down to Bath one evening to see Peter. This was my first meeting with Peter and he was lovely. This is often what happens with musicians. You may not be a fan of theirs but you meet them and they’re kind of engaging. I said, “Look I don’t really like this. Can we just start again?” I guess I came across as fairly positive so Peter said, “Ok, let’s do it. Let’s start over.”
What happened next was very strange. It was actually a very important day in my life. At that time Peter lived at the Old Farm which was on that high ridge between the M4 and Bath. I have some very personal affiliations with Bath and back in ’85 it was a very, very sensitive place for me to go. It was like the scene of the crime. We left the Old Farm at about six in the evening and I think it must have been winter because it was dark and misty. During our conversation Peter had said that the album might be called ‘So’, instead of ‘Good’, and as we were leaving he gave Brett a cassette and said, “I think it’s finished.” So we drove off towards the M4 and the first thing we saw was a crash, which happened right in front of us. Someone went right off that curvy road and into a copse of trees. We stopped. The police came and eventually we were able to leave. But it shakes you up when you see a car crash. I’m already feeling a bit edgy and then this happens. It was like “fucking hell!”.
We were driving towards the motorway and Brett put on this cassette and I said, “Oh God, please, I don’t want to listen to Peter Gabriel right now.” But Brett said, “Come on, it’s work,” and I acquiesced. The first track was ‘Red Rain’ and if you’re in a sensitive mood and you’ve just seen a car crash and you hear ‘Red Rain’ for the first time… it’s quite like, woooaaah! There was a real passion in Peter’s voice and it was very listenable. I didn’t mind it. As we approached the motorway ‘Sledgehammer’ came on. We stopped the fucking car ON THE SLIPROAD! You know when you’re hearing something important. It was like hearing ‘Blue Monday’ for the first time. Brett and I just looked at each other and then looked at the cassette player and almost simultaneously we said, “That’s a number one single!” It was fucking brilliant. By the time ‘Don’t Give Up’ came on I cried a little bit. I hadn’t got far away enough from Bath and that just completely did me in actually.
Doing the cover for a record that you know is going to be a hit is really exciting. We didn’t have much time left but we kinda knew what our duty was. Gail Coulson had briefed me privately that Peter had to come out of himself for this record. She knew that he had made an emotional album and that he’d written songs and made music which crossed over to other people who were not Peter Gabriel fans. We had to give a face to that. Of course Peter’s natural inclination was towards shyness and not showing himself. But that wasn’t going to do the job because this was 1986, you know. We had about two weeks to deliver the cover.
So we started. Trevor Key was going to help me take a photo of Peter. Trevor was my best friend and we shared the studio together. Twelve months earlier we had done a portrait session, a very unusual and exciting one, for New Order. It was for ‘Low Life’. There’s nothing worse than taking a picture of New Order. They can’t bear it. But to get a photo session out of them we had used a new invention… Polaroid roll film. It had come out in 1985 and as well as being instant, it had some very special qualities. It was black and white with weird tones and you could push it and do funny things with it. It was very graphic and very dynamic. The grain and the texture made everything look like a movie film. New Order were so totally and utterly disinterested in presenting their own identity but I wanted to do ‘Low Life’ with them on the cover because I was tired of concept covers that year. 1985 was called my year zero essential year. New Order didn’t want to do the session but because we used this magical Polaroid film, each of them was able to engage in the grooviness of their own picture and perform. When they saw themselves looking a bit groovy they thought, “Hey! This is fun. Let’s do another roll.”
And that’s exactly what happened to Peter that day. At first Trevor sat Peter down to do a traditional tripod portrait and it looked lawful. To be honest, Peter came out looking like a middle-aged Wiltshire farmer. So I said, “Look, get the Polaroid out.” So Trevor reluctantly put Polaroid roll film in his 35mm. I reckon we had the cover of ‘So’ in two rolls. That’s the brilliance of this film. It looks great and the person having their picture taken SEES the result instantly. Peter’s a good performer. If you give him something to aim at he’ll deliver. He saw himself looking cool, looking groovy and he and Trevor got it within an hour. Personally, that picture is, well it was anyway, for many years, the public image of Peter Gabriel, the benchmark image that lasted Peter for nearly 10 years. It made him look contemporary, young but grown up, mature.
Originally I didn’t want to put a name on the cover. Brett had been working on this fantastic lettering for the title ‘So’. A quite beautiful, brilliant piece of typography. At the time my biggest artistic influence was the ’60s period. It was black and white, kinda reportage photography and Yves Klein. The Yves Klein bit comes in the blue box and the blue is Klein blue. But I didn’t want to put anything on the picture. I mean I hadn’t on ‘Low Life’. But in the end the record company insisted on it. So we had the blue box which was kinda like a brand logo. I mean I wouldn’t do it now but 17 years ago the idea of a brand logo on a record cover, which I knew could repeat across everything to do with this album, was quite groovy. Basically the picture and the lettering are the logo types. Blue box, this iconic picture of Peter Gabriel and this amazing lettering saying ‘So’. That was it. It was a benchmark picture but that album deserved it.
Edited by Andy Morgan from an interview he conducted with Peter Saville for issue 16 of Real World Notes.