Derek Riggs: Iron Maiden Album Cover Artist Interviewed
“I never got very much feedback from Iron Maiden about what was going on. I just spent my time at home painting pictures.” Come inside for an interview with the legendary Derek Riggs, the artist behind Maiden’s The Number Of The Beast album cover artwork – and a whole lot more besides.
Generally when it came to artwork for Iron Maiden, were you given free reign to do what you wanted, or did the band give you any sort of steer?
I have ideas that work the way I see them; they have a song. Usually I just got the song title and some idea of what it was about, I very seldom got any lyrics, usually lyrics are not very helpful anyway. The pictures and the songs have to come together in some way, so the pictures have to be slanted so that they fit in with the song title. Sometimes that means changing it a lot, sometimes surprisingly little.
For the first two albums there was no direction from the band at all; the pictures were just what I had in mind. For the later albums the band developed directions for each album, giving them each an identity of their own, rather than just being the next album in a long line of albums. I always tried to reflect this in the direction and integrity of the album/single cover designs.
For example, for Somewhere In Time they said they wanted a picture of a city like the one in Bladerunner. The rest was left up to me, including the design for Eddie. The main exception to this was the cover for Piece Of Mind, which was entirely Steve Harris’ idea, but I ended up re-designing it my way anyway in the end because the way Steve wanted it really wasn’t correct. You can see the original, half-finished version in the book Run For Cover: The Art Of Derek Riggs [available from www.derekriggs.com]. Sometimes the brief was even more vague than that. For Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son they just said: “We want one of your surreal things” and left it at that. Mostly I got the title and they said: “We need a cover for this” and I just did something.
Where did the inspiration for The Number Of The Beast artwork come from?
The manager phoned me up and said they wanted a picture for a single cover that was about the devil and witchcraft and was called Purgatory. There was a Doctor Strange comic which had some big villian with Doctor Strange dangling on some strings like a puppet, it was something I read as a child back in the 1960s I think. The picture came to mind right away. I thought I could do a very effective heaven and hell thing using Eddie. Most of those hell backgrounds were taken from my knowledge of medieval European Christian art which was full of such scenes.
They phoned me up on the Friday night and they wanted the picture by Monday morning, so I only had two days to get the whole thing finished. So I had to work for two days and nights without any sleep to get it done on time. Because of the tight deadline I had to use a kind of shorthand for all the figures. I had to get them in but I didn’t have time to paint them. So I drew layers of black silhouettes with a pen and separated them with layers of airbrushed mist to try to give the picture some depth. It was quite a fast way to do it so I managed to get quite a few in there. I even got an H.R. Giger Alien in there as well.
So it’s true that it was originally meant to be the cover for the Purgatory single?
Yes. The manager asked me to do a cover for the Purgatory single. I spent two days and nights painting it, I took it into their office and when he saw it he smiled and said: “That will be great for the album.” He put it away into a cupboard and locked the door and asked me to do another one for the single. I asked him if I could take it home and do some more work on it, it was really a bit rough, having been done so quickly. But he was adamant that it was OK, and so that was what you got.
What were the early sketches like – were there any different versions before you settled on the final image?
There are no early sketches. Where do you get the idea that I had time to sit around doing sketches? I had two days to finish and deliver a painting. I had the idea, I drew the figures in rough and then I started painting. The only sketches are underneath the painting.
People always say that to me: “How many preliminary sketches did you do?” “How many versions were there?” I don’t know where they get this fantasy about how I work. I get an idea, I do a light sketch on the drawing board, then I start painting on it. The sketch is underneath the painting. There are a couple of exception to this, but only a couple. Really I don’t get time to sit around mulling over different ideas, I get the one that works best and then I try to make it work in paint. that’s all.
These days, with digital artwork, I don’t even do a sketch. I just start drawing or modelling or whatever I need to do. All details were, and are, always made up and worked out as I go along. I never waste time doing it beforhand. It won’t work like that and it’s a waste of time.
It all starts from the image in my head. I just don’t begin until the one in my head looks right. When that one is right, all the other versions are just copies of it. So when I start sketching or painting, all I am really doing is copying the finished picture that I have in my head as well as I can do it at the time. All the variations I have already worked out, so there is no real need for a lot of detailed sketches for me. Sometimes I will do a little rough sketch to show other people what it might look like, but that’s just for their benefit, not for me at all.
How long did it take to actually paint the cover – days? Weeks? And did you listen to Iron Maiden while you were painting it?
It took two days and two nights. I worked right through a weekend without any sleep to get it done. They phoned me on Friday night and it was delivered on Monday morning. Nearly all of the albums and singles were done at that kind of speed. Deadlines were tight and I had to work fast. I don’t work that fast any more, I really don’t want to. Actually, if you work it out, I used to pull a standard 48-hour week in two days and nights. And then I would spend three days recovering from it. Because it’s really a bit gruelling to keep doing that.
No, I didn’t listen to Maiden whilst I was working. Working at that speed I didn’t have the time to listen to anything except my own frenzied heartbeats. Also, as I was working right through the night, Maiden blaring out would have upset the neighbours no end. I lived in a little rented apartment at the time.
Do you think the artwork influenced The Number Of The Beast album title?
I have no idea. I do not believe that the album had a title by the time I had done the picture, because the picture was for the single really. But you will have to ask Maiden about that.
Did you know the artwork would cause such controversy among religious groups?
No. I never got very much feedback from Maiden about what was going on. I just spent my time at home painting pictures.
How did you feel about some of the pastiches it inspired – ie, S.O.D.’s Bigger Than The Devil album cover, and Diamond Supply Co’s T-shirts?
Well, I don’t feel anything about them because I haven’t seen any of them. I guess it’s flattering and at the same time it’s copyright theft, but I can’t really complain about that because I stole the basic idea for it from a comic book anyway.
How do you feel about The Number Of The Beast sleeve 30 years on? Many people would say it’s the definitive Iron Maiden artwork – would you agree?
I turned out a lot of pictures back then. I did them and they shot out the door, then I never saw them again. Really that picture is just one more in a very long line of pictures that I did in the 1980s. I am a professional illustrator and I don’t get emotionally attached to my pictures. They are just the means for me to earn a living. For me to become attached to a picture would be rather like a carpenter getting attached to a chair. It’s a bit ridiculous really.
I don’t know if it’s the definitive Maiden cover. That’s not my call really, that’s up to the fans. I did a load of pictures for Maiden, they covered a vast area of subject matter. I am not sure what would make one definitive and another one not. What defines Maiden’s covers? I don’t know, the first one I guess, the one set the place for Eddie. All the others followed that first one.
I wish I had more time to paint it, I could have done a much better job. Maybe I should do a new version, now that I have more time to do it. I could do it the way I really wanted to. Or maybe I can’t be bothered… What do you think I should do?
Interview by Dave Everley
The Derek Riggs online portfolio is at www.derekriggs.com
The new Classic Rock (No.170, cover date May) includes a multi-page feature on Iron Maiden’s The Number Of The Beast album. This issue is on sale now.