One day, the phone rang, and it’s Jimmy Page. He said, “I’ve seen an album cover that you’ve done for a band called Wishbone Ash,” which was Argus. “Would you like to do something for Led Zeppelin?” I said, “Sure. What’s the title?” He said, “Don’t have one.” I said, “What’s the music?” “Um, I’m not telling you.” “What’s the lyrics?” “I’m not ready to share those with you.” Very Jimmy – very esoteric and weird. He said, “Meet me in three weeks, and come up with some ideas. You know the kind of band we are.”
So we went to their office on Oxford Street, and there was the massive Peter Grant, who was their formidable manager, and the band was sitting around. In those days, we used to sketch things on a piece of paper. And one of the inspirations for them was [sci-fi author] Arthur C. Clarke. He’d written a book called Childhood’s End. And in the end of that book, there was this image of all the children of the Earth rising up in this great firestorm and going up into outer space. Storm and I were very interested in that kind of thing. We loved William Blake, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – surreal imagery and esoteric writing. So we presented Led Zeppelin that and some other ideas that day.
For some reason or another, Robert Plant had been to the island of Staffa, which is in northern Scotland. It’s at the other end of the Giant’s Causeway and of the North Sea, where there’s all these octagonal rocks. And he said, “That’s it. The Giant’s Causeway. These children running up the rocks at the Giant’s Causeway.” And Jimmy went, “I can see it. Magical.”
But at the same time, we presented another idea, which was set on the plains of Nazca, Peru. We wanted to bulldoze out the “Zoso” logo there, which I don’t think would have gone down to well with the Peruvian authorities. But because we did everything for real – we didn’t fake it – we were prepared to do that and risk it. And we’d shoot the shot from a helicopter. So they were so trusting. I remember Peter Grant said to me, “You decide which one you want to do. We’re going on a tour of Japan. We’ll see you when we get back in about six weeks.” And in his very formidable way, he said, “You better fucking have it done.” I was like, “OK, Peter. What about a budget?” He said, “Whatever it costs. Just ask the accountants for the money. Just get on with it.” It was unbelievable.
So I went to Northern Ireland with a crew of children that we’d chosen, the mothers of the children, chaperones, makeup people. Originally, it was going to be a family. We were going to have a mother and father, naked, and a Silver Surfer–type character, and two children, who were going to be on the rocks.
But it poured rain for a week, and I couldn’t shoot the photograph. So I said, “OK, I’m going to create a collage in black and white, all made out of children, exactly the same as Arthur C. Clarke’s imagery.” And I realized that, because it was all octagonal rocks, you could actually cut around the rocks and stick them all together and make this montage that never necessarily joins. Then I hand-tinted it. The inside shot is an old castle, very close to the Giant’s Causeway, and the image of the man, who’s completely silver, is holding up the young girl, like a sacrificial thing. So Led Zeppelin. So suitable.
The retouching took about two months, so I was late for the album cover, and I had Peter Grant shouting at me. They were doing a gig somewhere in the north of England, and Peter Grant said, “You meet me at the railway station in your car, and have those artworks ready. I’m not waiting anymore.” I said, “OK, Peter.” So, I picked him and Jimmy up, and we drove to Victoria Station. I opened the trunk of my car, and I had the two artworks in there. Jimmy took one look at the outside and said, “That is amazing.” I said, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t have a family. But the kids look better.” He said, “Unbelievable.” I showed him the inside cover, and he said, “That should be the outside cover.” I said, “No, no, no, no.” Peter Grant, who’s a mountain of a man, standing there, poking me in the chest going, “We’ll have what we want.” In the end, I persuaded them that the outside should be the outside.
So, we’re standing there, and Jimmy’s Jimmy, cigarette in his mouth, smoking profusely, long hair everywhere, still dressed in his stage outfit. About 200 people had gathered around the car looking at the artwork. It was surreal. And I got a round of applause form all the people in the station. It was fearsome and extreme. So bizarre.
Anyway, so it worked out really well, but it was a nightmare to shoot, and the kids got so cold. It was two siblings, Stefan and Samantha Gates. The boy, Stefan, now has a TV show, and he’s a celebrity chef. He told me a while back, “It’s the weirdest thing to be on an album cover like that. You couldn’t do that now.” And I said, “No, you couldn’t. If you did an album cover like that now, you couldn’t release it.” Naked children on the cover? But it was done with such innocence.
In fact, in America, we had to put an obi, which is a strip of paper around the album cover, in order to hide the kids’ bottoms. In the Midwest, it as considered “not appropriate.” Even then, there were people who were concerned about it. But I always used the adage, “When you look at the Louvre’s paintings, it’s full of naked children. Nobody complains about that. So this is a piece of art. It’s not something that was, in any way, devious.”