Margo Nahas on her iconic cover for Van Halen's 1984
Few would argue that Van Halen hit their peak with the release of their sixth record, 1984. Aside from stories of band discord and Michael Jackson's Thriller preventing the album from reaching #1 on the Billboard Charts, everything related to 1984 was a massive success. Among the triumphs: four hit singles, a few wildly popular music videos supported by heavy promotion from MTV (remember the "Lost Weekend" contest?), sold-out concerts, and a significant crossover from straight rock radio to the Top 40 airwaves prompted by the synth-driven lead single, "Jump."
Then there's the album's celebrated cover art, which has landed on nearly every list of all-time greatest album covers and became as prominent a part of the band's legacy as Eddie Van Halen's Frankenstrat graphic. Although Van Halen initially attempted to commission creator Margo Nahas for an entirely different concept, her photo-realistic illustration of a cigarette-smoking cherub found its way to the band. It was remarkable twist of fate, given how well the image would later denote wholesome pop music fans crossing over into the more debauched world of hard rock.
Prior to working with Van Halen, Nahas had been creating album covers since the early seventies. As a member of the design firm she formed with her husband Jay Vigon and his brother, Larry, she collaborated on packaging for everyone from Stevie Wonder to Fleetwood Mac. After Larry Vigon left, the couple continued to design for the music, film and advertising industries, both individually and as partners. What was planned as a short interview on the story behind 1984's iconic cover image, stretched into a broader conversation about Nahas's and Vigon's long careers in the music industry.
LK: Let's start from the beginning. You married graphic artist and art director, Jay Vigon, and the two of you formed a design firm in the mid-seventies with his brother, Larry. How did you two meet and get your starts in the business?
MN: Jay and I met at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. I had graduated with a BFA from another college and he had received an AA degree from Santa Monica Junior College. At Art Center your portfolio qualified you for acceptance and placement, and ours qualified us to start at the beginning...sans academic requirements. Jay majored in graphic design and I majored in illustration. A year after graduation in 1972, we opened up the graphic design/illustration firm, Vigon, Nahas, Vigon, with Jay’s twin brother Larry, also a design major. We took just about any job that came along in the beginning, our biggest client being a shirt and tie manufacturer. We designed hundreds of tie patterns, I can’t remember if we graduated to shirts.
Jay and Larry were into great music, especially rock 'n' roll. Living in LA, they would attend tons of concerts and small coffee house performances. I knew virtually nothing about cool music and even less about the musicians. Lucky for me, Jay introduced me to some of his favorite music and special venues. When Jay studied under teachers at Art Center, who were also art directors for record companies, he said to himself, "What? This could be a job?"
LK: He wanted to work in the music industry.
MN: He really did. He couldn't believe that was a job.
LK: Jay designed the graphics for Prince's Purple Rain album and film, and your firm designed the famous Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers heart and guitar banner logo he still uses today.
MN: Our firm started getting small design jobs from the record companies in town. At first it was designing the artist's name on the album cover, a logo here and there, then the cover, then onto the entire package. One of the first albums was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They had just arrived in town from Florida and gave us a chance at the package. Jay designed the logo, and because I was in the beginning of teaching myself to airbrush, we gave the illustration to a guy in town who airbrushed it in automobile enamels. I can remember doing the photo shoot in this old movie theatre and one of them had this huge dildo. It was so old it had a crank and one of the guys kept messing with it the whole time. That day was one of my first introductions to rock 'n' roll! When they played the Superbowl, their stage was the logo. Jay got a big kick out of that.
Around 1983 or 1984 Warner Bros. needed a unique logo for the forthcoming Prince album and asked Jay to design it. Because of the usage in the movie and the album, Jay had to design an entire alphabet for Prince and Purple Rain. It came out great and after Prince’s death, resurfaced to a new audience.
LK: The longevity of your work must be rewarding. You said that Jay wanted to work in the music industry, but did you have any idea your career would go in this direction?
MN: Jay and I did a lot of work in different commercial fields for music, entertainment, advertising, magazines, movies, and corporations. He also directed television commercials for almost a decade. But the record covers had the longest life and the biggest impact on our careers. Together we designed around eighty or ninety albums. A good number of the most popular ones still survive today, but none more so than 1984. I never imagined that one illustration I did for myself - that didn’t come from an art director - would become one of the most iconic covers in the music world.
LK: What was the first album cover you designed and how did you get the assignment?
MN: At Art Center our instructors were also working professionals. One of Jay’s teachers, Roland Young, happened to be the Creative Director at A&M Records. I was assembling my portfolio and Jay suggested I show my work to Roland. After browsing through he said, “Let me give you a few places to go and you can use my name." That was a golden moment. My first call was to Ed Thrasher at Warner Bros., where I got my first job for the cover for Seals and Crofts' Unborn Child. But first he wanted me to meet their manager! Well that was such an eye opener for me, and it was the strangest introduction I could have ever received. I was young, nervous and trying to act like a professional. I was invited into her office and offered a seat in front of her gigantic desk in this gigantic room - and this lady pulls out a gigantic cigar and starts smoking it. I literally felt that I was now in a different world.
LK: What happened during that first meeting?
MN: She started talking about the religious aspect of Seals and Crofts Baha’i religion. I honestly had no idea what she was telling me as I was totally distracted by the weirdness of the room. Afterwards, the art director talked to me a little more, and I felt a little bit safer. I did understand the title song on the album was an anti-abortion message. “Unborn Child” was a pretty song, but the album was controversial and enlisted protests. All I cared about was doing a great illustration.
LK: Was that typical of the way that the labels would integrate you into the process? Did you initially meet with the manager and art director to discuss the concept? Or was it random, where sometimes you met the artists, rather than the manager or art director first?
MN: Random. I would always meet and talk to the art director but never had a need to talk with the musicians. The art directors had a clear idea of what kind of illustration they wanted and that was the level of communication I needed. Later on my husband would become my art director on staff 24/7.
LK: Throughout your careers, what were some challenges you faced when designing artwork for musicians?
MN: I am a conceptual artist and to me every picture should tell a story. But to many musicians, music is the only art they understand and most just want their photo. That's all many ever cared about, and I thought it was so much cooler to have something unique. Every musician loves the design or illustration until they start showing it to their cousin or friend, and then a wonderful idea gets compromised. I remember Jay was working on some concept that was just great. I can't remember who the artist was, but the record company's art director came to him and said, "This guy's cousin doesn't like it and so he wants to do it himself."
Once Jay put together the most elegant black-and-white photo overlooking Central Park for Simon and Garfunkel's Concert in Central Park. The duo rejected it immediately in favor of one of the worst covers in the world with pictures of themselves. This was long after they were famous...it didn't mean anything.
Another was when we were doing a Rod Stewart album and Jay took five or six comps over to Rod’s house to show him and pick one as the cover. Jay laid them out on the bench in the backyard and Rod had his three year old daughter pick out her favorite to use. I was happy she chose mine, but it didn’t get used.
LK: Let's talk about Van Halen's 1984 cover. The cover is one of the most iconic of its decade, if not all-time. I was delighted when you agreed to the interview because we wanted to have a piece on an album cover that is recognizable to nearly every music fan.
MN: I meet so many people who say, “I know exactly what I was doing when I first saw the 1984 album." People also remember the impact the album made on them when they first listened to it. For many years, I had no idea about the impression it made on people at all. I never realized the influence or popularity of 1984 until twenty years later when publications from all over the world started contacting me for interviews. My neighbor found out and bought albums for everyone. When I hired a young man in town to do a web site for me, all he could talk about was the impression the album and its cover made on him when he was fourteen years old.
LK: I understand the band originally requested a design of four chrome dancing figures. Even though you were known for that style, which is showcased on Autograph's Sign In Please and That's The Stuff album covers, you didn't feel that was something that you could render for them the way they wanted.
MN: I never thought for a second I couldn't render their chrome concept with the complexities of the reflections. By 1983 I had a reputation for my ability to illustrate chrome, so I knew what their idea entailed. I think my answer when Jay asked was, “There is no way in hell I would render that."
LK: What was it specifically that made you back away from that concept?
MN: Chrome is reflective, like a mirror. Now think of a chrome woman having a round surface and reflecting 180 degrees of the three other chrome women dancing around. Then think of their reflections. All I could think of was the technical issues of having the multiple reflections of four dancing women, since they wouldn't have been independent. They wanted them all dancing together. The imagery was beyond where my mind could go. So, I said no. I would do one chrome woman, but I was not going to do four dancing chrome women.
LK: The image that appears on the cover was something you created before being offered the Van Halen cover. How did they find out about it?
MN: They found out about it by looking though my portfolio. Jay and I worked for all the record companies in LA and some in NYC, so everyone pretty much knew us and knew what we specialized in. Being a photo-realistic artist, I would draw something that was supposed to look better than it really was. This is why Warner Bros.'s Art Director, Rick Seireeni, came to me when they wanted chrome. When I declined, Rick turned to Jay and asked if he would take my portfolio over to the band the following day. It was Eddie, Alex, David and their manager. They were looking through the portfolio, and all the sudden they stopped at the angel with the cigarette I had done ten months earlier for another project. They landed on it for a while, but he couldn't remember them saying much other than, "We'll keep this one in mind." The next day, they called up and said, "We want that picture."
LK: The combination of innocence and mischief worked well with the slight change of musical direction on the album. They incorporated a more commercial pop sound, but still kept the their edge.
MN: Perhaps that is why they chose it, knowing it suggested just the right combination of innocence and edge. I am not sure they thought that deeply about it. I didn’t when I created it for the Los Angeles Workbook.
LK: What was the Los Angeles Workbook?
MN: It was a large reference book for the commercial art industry. Every industry that hired out for photography, design or illustration used it. Companies would use these books to find out who the best art directors were, who the best illustrators were, and who the best photographers were. Lexy Scott was the principle and her husband, Craig Butler, was the head creative. He would pick out who he thought were the best in the industry and ask them to do what they call a divider page. In 1983 he asked me to do a divider page based on a style of art.... cubism, pop, abstract, etc. I chose photo-realism, since that was my type of illustration. I wanted to paint something that looked real, but could never be real. Always loving angels, the idea of a cherub smoking cigarettes popped into my mind. What I didn't have was the positioning or the child. All I knew was that I wanted to do a little cherub - an angel - smoking a cigarette.
LK: How much earlier was this from the time Van Halen requested to use it for 1984? And did you have any reservations about turning the artwork over to them?
MN: I illustrated it in the spring of 1983. The Los Angeles Workbook was published in September of that year and the band saw it in my portfolio around October. Their album came out in January 1984...hence the name.
I had no reservations and was happy about getting my favorite piece on a cover. I retained the ownership and just sold the rights for the album cover and t-shirts.
LK: That was so smart and forward thinking. Many designers sign work-for-hire copyright agreements and never consider maintaining ownership.
MN: Usually when an illustrator sells a picture it's considered “work-for-hire” and the buyer owns all the rights and can use the piece forever. Everyone is so anxious to get their work on an album cover, they'll sell their lives away. I have sold my work away hundreds of times. Regardless of whether Van Halen used it or not, they weren't going to own the artwork. They have been so loyal to that over the years. Their manager refers everybody to me.
There are times when an artist feels taken advantage of. Jay designed Bon Jovi's lettering for their first album and for the next twenty years it was on every consecutive album - they actually used it as a logo.
LK: You photographed your friend's toddler, Carter Helm, and used those images as the basis for the artwork. Tell me about the photo shoot that day. Was he agreeable? That had to have been an interesting day.
MN: It was a serendipitous day. The concept was not a fully realized visual in my head, yet I had to start working on it. I needed a baby and my best friend's son was the only baby I knew. Carter was happy to see me when I arrived, but had a tantrum when I tried to style his hair with Dippity-do to make it a little punkish. My all-knowing, brilliant friend and Carter’s mother, Colleen, suggested I “give him a few more minutes to get comfortable." And she was right. I gave him an hour, and I got out my candy, which was this bag of candy cigarettes. Then he was just ready for me to do it.
LK: Was he actually in that pose where he's kind of looking over with his chin resting on one hand?
MN: Yes, that was the position he put himself in. When Carter was ready, we went outside and it was a beautiful day in Malibu! He sat on one side of the picnic table and I was across from him. I began sharing the candy cigarettes and snapping pictures. The candy cigarette packages in those days looked real - the top one was supposed to look like Kent and the bottom one looked like Pall Mall. But they were named something different entirely. In a lot of the pictures he had a little polo shirt on, which I had him take off. As children do, he changed positions quite often. After running out of candy and film he was still a willing model. Going through the photos back at my studio I was happy to see I had captured the perfect pose.
For the illustration I added more blue sky and a few clouds to make the background look heavenly. Then I turned the wooden tabletop into marble, added reflections of the candy cigarette packages and added his wings.
LK: Speaking of the cigarettes, I was surprised to find there was more controversy about the cover in Europe than there was in the U.S. They actually covered the cigarettes with a sticker on the cellophane wrapping. Were you alerted to this at the time or was it something you found about later, and were you surprised?
MN: My mother was traveling through Europe right after the album came out and purchased an album with no sticker. It wasn’t until Carter grew up and attended Oxford University that he told me about the sticker. Jay said that nowadays it would be a non-issue in Europe and in the U.S. the PC Police would be all over it. Had they only known the cigarettes were candy. Look Ma, NO SMOKE!!!!
LK: As an artist, did you have conflicting feelings about it being considered provocative?
MN: It didn’t bother me. I thought it was weird because during that time in LA and in NYC you could paste one-sheets everywhere. People would see them in areas where they were building something. Posters of the album cover were plastered on buildings for blocks and blocks and blocks. I was just happy to see it was so popular and literally plastered up all over LA and New York and of course other towns - on fences, walls, billboards, and record stores. You name it. I didn’t feel the popularity or negative attention was for me. It was really all about Van Halen.
LK: You'd be driving down the street see your artwork everywhere during the day?
MN: It was great. I loved it. But very few people knew I did it, mainly people in the industry and my friends. I wish I had documented all the sightings. I was busy and never thought about documenting much of anything. But it was everywhere and no one here made a fuss.
LK: Speaking of art depicting children engaging in adult-like behavior, I thought the same thing about Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher" music video...that it probably would cause a stir nowadays. I wonder if the cover art helped inspire the idea for the band to have young versions of themselves in the video.
MN: I watched the video after you mentioned it to me and asked Jay what he thought. Of course he said he couldn’t have gotten into their heads...such a guy answer! It may have had some influence on the video. I go back to one thing. When the album came out, everyone seemed to think that was David Lee Roth as a baby. That was omnipresent everywhere. On the other hand it is the music video designer or director who usually comes up with the idea, not the band.
LK: Right. It was a rumor forever. I wondered if he started that rumor?
MN: Perhaps! I have no idea, but Carter looks like he could easily have been a baby David. When I started thinking about how everyone thought that was David Lee Roth as a child when the album was released, I thought, "Well why wouldn’t they have thought to use that - go back to all of them as kids." And it's a good a concept.
LK: Are you still painting? I know you later moved into ceramic jewelry design.
MN: I haven’t for many years. Twenty months ago I moved to Sacramento to be with my mother, who passed away in January at 100 years and 83 days old. That space of time gave me hours and hours to think about what I wanted to do next. I do have a new desire to go back to painting as well as continue my jewelry design and ceramics. We will be moving soon and I look forward to a new adventure.
LK: Are you thinking in similar terms as the Van Halen cover? Depicting a real looking, but completely unreal situation?
MN: To me the main conceptual component of my art is telling a visual story. I am not sure just what story I will tell but I have quite a few ideas. I like to make my work fun and fantastical, if that is a word! If one thinks about commercial illustration it is pretty much all make believe - make this radio zoom down the street, or paint this shoe or ice cream better than it actually looks, or put an Amtrak Train speeding down the tracks under a Christmas tree! It’s just like writing books or poems or movies.
LK: I like to wrap up by talking about favorite album covers. Do any come to mind?
MN: After 1984 my next favorite album is Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, by Mark Ryden. He is one of my favorite fine artists. Talk about telling stories...he is awesome in that genre.
LK: Does he mainly paint children? I feel like some of his work is a little subversive.
MN: I have never thought about his work in that way. I just love the visuals. He was the first to paint a figure wearing a sliced raw meat gown. Lady Gaga ripped that off years later.
LK: Of course she did!
MN: I like her so I don't care what she does, but I noticed immediately she did that. Another favorite album is the Rolling Stone’s Sticky Fingers by Andy Warhol. He created a ton of covers, but it seems to me that was his best. Another favorite album is the Purple Rain cover that Jay did for Prince.
LK: Can you tell me a particular favorite you have collaborated on?
MN: As for collaborating on pieces, Jay and I have always had an inside track to each other’s work. The best was Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants. When it was originally released, the album was so impressive. The cover visuals were all in relief, and at the bottom of the album was an explanation in braille of what was on the cover. Then when the album package was unwrapped - it was a double-fold - there was a beautiful floral scent embedded inside.
LK: That was a different level of pressure altogether. You were creating album artwork for a person who could not see it. Few designers run into that.
MN: The preliminary one was raised out much higher. I set everything out on boards, covered it with a piece of paper and then burnished everything down. He could feel it all. Stevie could run his fingers over the surface while Jay and I explained the design to him. Just another way of communicating.
LK: The interior is all your design, too. It's a beautiful, colorful floral design. I like how you blended your name in with the drawings of the different flowers in the bottom corner.
MN: The inside is a unique illustrative style, but still my illustration. It was meant to depict the history of plants from the beginning of time. It was fun package that we took the liberty of experimenting with.
LK: While looking through your work, I was thinking how different your experience was, as opposed to what you think of now. Now you've got people hunched over computers, designing on graphics software for digital packaging, or CDs - which are dying out. The effort and imagination you put into your work was often much more intensive. Luckily, we are starting to see the art form return with the resurgence of vinyl records.
MN: Now I buy my music on iTunes. Then, a photographer or illustrator was given this 12 x 12 inch blank canvas that they filled with art, which represented the musicians and their music and would be directly shared with millions of the band’s fans. People couldn’t wait to get home and open the package, put the record on, sit back and read the liner notes and look over every inch of the cover, the sleeve and the back photos. They often printed the lyrics so you could sing along, or for me, understand the words. This was done while many a fan was stoned and feeling at one with the music.
Prints of Margo Nahas's original 1984 are available on her website.