Alan Aldridge

"The Who came to see me for a job. Then Cream. Then the Stones. And then The Beatles." Tom Dennis talks to the man John Lennon called 'His Royal Master Of Images'.

Alan Aldridge never wanted to be an illustrator. He wanted to be a poet. Instead, he took a job designing covers for Penguin Books, became art director at The Sunday Times, and created record sleeves and posters for the cream of 60s London. But it was Aldridge's appointment as design consultant for The Beatles' label Apple Records and the release of his book The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast that sealed his reputation as one of the UK's leading creative talents.

We interviewed this legendary artist on the eve of a Design Museum retrospective and the release of a tie-in book celebrating his career.

CA: Does a retrospective at the Design Museum mean you're now part of the art and design establishment, after making your name as an underground artist?
I hope not! I've always felt I was an outsider. I was when I first started scribbling. I had no art training, so right away I had all kinds of insecurities when I was being asked to paint book covers and all the other stuff.

I'm sure people never felt they were dealing with an establishment guy, so when The Who or The Beatles or whoever asked me to do an album cover, it was because they bought into my look and my own particular style.

CA: Has the Design Museum exhibition helped you recognise how your style has changed over the years?
Yes, absolutely. It's so easy, in fact. In all my early work for Penguin you can see me flying by the seat of my pants; a non-educated, creative person who wanted to be a poet, but who ended up doing Penguin covers for money. But I always gave my best shot each time, even if the results aren't my best works.

Then I moved to The Sunday Times. The drawings are still quite rough but you can see I was picking up new techniques and introducing new elements.

Then I moved to Penguin full time as art director, commissioning and planning book covers myself. I think my graphic design work really came on in this period and the drawing took a back seat.

This was when The Who came to see me for a job, along with Cream, then the Stones and The Beatles. By the time I reached doing work for Apple and the Beatles, not only did I have a good reputation, but I also had a particular style which was hot at the time. 'Beardsley in Blue Jeans' is what I was called.

Then there's work like Chelsea Girls for Warhol. It still upsets people today, that piece of work, but it's a creative piece of graphic design - slightly experimental and edgy, but considered at the same time.

CA: Has selecting works specifically for the exhibition brought back any memories of creating them?
It's been quite a painful experience. I've been back to lock-ups to look through bags of work that haven't been opened for 15 years - just discovering stuff I'd forgotten about. Ten years of work, bagged up, sealed, forgotten about. I've discovered all kinds of bits, including a movie that I wrote about Edgar Allan Poe and which I've been working on for years. I did about 250 storyboard images for this movie that I've just discovered.

CA: What was the most exciting project you worked on and why?
Being design consultant over at Apple and working with The Beatles was an absolute pleasure. I did The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, worked for Lennon - absolutely loads of stuff. Then when Apple folded I founded Ink Studios, bought a beautiful house in Norfolk and wanted to try something different.

CA: Do you see a split between your graphic design and illustration work?
No. I have the same style whatever I'm working on. Take Light Grenades for Incubus, for instance. At the time I was groping for a new illustrative look - something more immediate - but instead I really enjoyed that series. I was knocking out eight pieces a day. I just couldn't stop.

CA: Your work came to stand for a psychedelic style of artwork. Do you think it left you pigeonholed?
I'd become known as a drug-induced, psychedelic artist, and really there were a lot of other projects and styles I wanted to explore that were more pastoral.

The style was changing, though. The frenetic style of the 60s that I did for The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin and others was changing, and so moving to a new environment in the countryside was the perfect antidote for me.

CA: When you started work on a commission for The Beatles, The Who or the Stones, what did you use as a starting block?
My third eye [taps forehead gently]. It sounds pretentious, but I'm a very visual artist. I've never been a scribbler. Take the Chelsea Girls poster, for instance. As soon as I got the brief from Warhol I had a visualisation of how I wanted it to look. And that's precisely how it panned out.

It's like the Lennon piece for There's a Place. I had a real idea for this of John's body like a caterpillar, snaking round and going into his own head. So I told John about the idea and he showed me the lyrics, which went: 'There, there's a place/Where I can go/When I feel low/ When I feel blue/And it's my mind'. And I just thought, 'Fucking hell, this is weird!' Because it was talking about exactly what I had in mind for the piece.

CA: The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast has been described as the most beautiful book ever produced. What makes it so special?
I think that if you look at the children's illustrations of the century, Butterfly Ball breaks the mould. In terms of the colour, the shape and roundness of the creatures, the care and love put into producing it - it's very unusual.

The pictures were done first, and then I went out to find a poet to write the words. I tried W H Auden! I absolutely loved his poems. T S Eliot and Dylan Thomas were dead by then, so getting those two to do it would have been difficult. Then Sir John Betjeman became involved for a little while. All we ever did was drink, though, rather than talk about the work. 'I'll show you some Victorian drains and we'll go for a port in this nice pub I know.' That's what he used to say. We had to sack him in the end because he didn't really do anything.

CA: Do you use a digital workflow?
Oh yeah, I have been for years. My actual style hasn't changed - I've always used Japanese brush pens on vellum, which is so far removed from the finished drawing you can't imagine. It's then scanned in. I next work on the outlines in Photoshop, print it out and work on the initial colouring. Then it's back into Photoshop for a touch-up and tone work, and it comes back to me for comments and mark-up. We make the changes then produce a final digital version.

CA: How have your working practices changed over the years?
I always start in the bottom right-hand corner of the page - always - then I build the work from there. Even if the main focus of the piece is central, I'll start in the right-hand corner and work towards it, working in a diagonal to the top left-hand corner. And people often say it adds symmetry to my work. I always know exactly what I'm going to do up to a point. Harold the Herald from The Butterfly Ball - I knew exactly what I needed, but had no idea what a herald should look like, so it's a question of stitching the whole piece together.

CA: What do you think about illustrators who rely on software?
Fine by me. I buy Computer Arts, and it's obviously a really popular way of working for a lot of people. What I like is being able to really work on the colouring. A pen is great for the initial idea, for getting what's in your head into the world, but Photoshop lets you do so much with the colour and tone of a piece. It's a revolutionary way of working.

CA: What's your favourite record ever and did you illustrate it?
It's Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. There's a fantastic, typography-driven cover I did for it that was never used, so yes, I guess I have illustrated my favourite record cover!

The book The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes is due from Thames & Hudson in October.