If I'd had space in Starman, I would have included an appendix devoted to the cover art of David Bowie's albums. Yet, with 180,000 words, I'd already pushed my publishers well beyond their endurance. Of all those albums, it is the cover art of The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that has become the most iconic. On Tuesday, 27 March 2012, the album art was celebrated with a plaque on Heddon Street, the location where Ziggy Stardust was first spotted on our planet. Sleeve designer Terry Pastor told me about the Ziggy iconography which – like so many landmarks in Bowie's magical year, 1972 – happened on the fly. Like so many songs on the album, the art was pretty much a first take.

Your decision to tint the cover has been much pored-over – was it something you thought about a lot at the time?

I often wonder if in black and white it would look very dead - or if it would look as good but different? I don't know. People have asked me recently, 40 years on, if I were to do it now, could I do it better. And I don't know if I could have done, I think it works, I don't mean that in a big headed way.

So it was one of those beautiful moments where things are done on the fly, impromptu?


Did you choose the two frames used for front and back?

It was a fait accompli, I was given two photographs and a photocopied sheet of text for the front and back cover and that was it.

Did you know  that the main image was the very first shot, on the roll of 12 exposures?

Again, it was a very impromptu thing. Brian [Ward] shot it, probably without thinking, particularly – and I did the same.

He'd only had his hair cropped a few days before. And then you coloured it blond, which became a key part of the iconography. So why blond?

I knew David when he was in bands around South London or whatever in the '60s. I didn't know him that well, but I'd met him a few times - and I always considered him a blond! So that was the reason for the blond hair bit. Also people mention about the turquoise jumpsuit, and again that was, let's do it in turquoise. I have no idea what colour it was in reality but I felt turquoise worked well against the palette of colours. Red wouldn't have worked, because you've got that redness in the brick, and there wasn't a lot of blue there so I thought, well, blue's good.

It's both post-apocalyptic, a bit Clockwork Orange, and Hollywood, with the hand-tinting.

And there's the fact it's  a rag trade area, companies making clothes, there was a lot of rubbish outside. It was interesting what Gary Kemp was saying at the unveiling [of the plaque], that London on the '70s was a bit grim. I never considered it like that... it was busy, I worked there, and always thought it was quite good. The other thing that worked in everyone's favour for that photo was it was a rainy night - look at the reflections on the pavement, if they weren't there it would have looked much less dramatic.

How much input did David have?

I remember getting a phone call from David when I was working on it, it was about 8 o'clock at night and  pitch black outside. [He was] asking how it was going, I said, Oh, it's fine, I'm working on the back cover. He said, Oh , is there one? From that I had the impression he had no real input into how it was going.

Interesting – right through his career, he's always been a genius at delegation.

Certainly I think that was the case, that he had no idea. Maybe the management had more control than he did at that time. I got on OK with Tony Defries…. although I do remember when I took the artwork in, I said, “When do I get paid?” And he said to his partner who was with him, “You hold him. I'll hit him.” Being a starving artist at that time I was most interested in getting my invoice paid. I don't actually remember how much it was, but it wasn't a great deal of money. Similar to Peter Blake and Sergeant Pepper, he got a couple hundred pounds and I think I got roughly the same.

How do you feel about it now, that it's still regarded as iconic, after all these years?

It's very interesting, 40 years on, I would never have believed that would have become such an iconic image. It's great that it has. It's linked with the fact that musically it's a very strong record, then there's the imagery, David Bowie, the whole concept of an alien visitor. It all worked together. I don't know really whether it was just immense luck that it all worked.

Or maybe the planets were all aligned?