It smells like fresh paint in the Groninger Museum. While finalizing the exhibition The Art of Hipgnosis is laid, Aubrey Powell (76) strolls through the halls. He and Storm Thorgerson formed the English design team in 1967 that designed a few hundred record covers during the 1970s, including many that would become iconic.
The most famous adorns the exhibition posters: the Pink Floyds rainbow prism Dark Side of the Moon (1973). Album art became an art form. A cover by Hipgnosis was the pinnacle for many artists. ‘Po’, as he is called, is the only living founder. Thorgerson passed away in 2013; Peter Christopherson, the third partner from 1974, already in 2010.
Po is impressed. Even moved. There are books with Hipgnosis covers, his own Hipgnosis memoirs Through the Prism have just been published and there were regular exhibitions, but such an impressive retrospective as this one, covering the entire glory period 1968-1982?
‘This is of a different order. Please write down how grateful I am to Andreas Blühm and the people from ‘The Groninger‘ am that they have dared to do this. Have a look around, I’ll talk to you in fifteen minutes, here’ – his walking stick points to a bench in the black room dedicated to the design of Dark Side of the Moon.
Large halls are dedicated to the artists for whom Hipgnosis was most active: Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney (and Wings), 10cc and of course Pink Floyd, the band that more or less founded Hipgnosis in 1968.
‘We were friends, first in Cambridge, then in London. The original singer, Syd Barrett, was my roommate for a while. At a party that also included Pink Floyd boys, I met Storm, a photographer and graphic designer, just like me, though we were amateurs still learning everything. We immediately moved towards each other, but it took a while for that to gain direction.’
Dark Side of the Moon
In 1967 a band like The Beatles made with the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band clear that an album cover could be art, could do something for the music. The following year, Pink Floyd asked us to make one for them. Something about psychedelic photography. That became A Saucerful of Secrets (1968). Then it started running.’
Bands like Toe Fat, The Gods, The Pretty Things and Wishbone Ash ended up in Hipgnosis’ portfolio, but an international breakthrough did not come until 1973, the year in which they ‘did’ a few albums that would sell tens of millions of copies, most notably Houses of the Holy of Led Zeppelin and Dark Side of the Moon.
‘From that time on we became a large company. Storm and I were the creative leaders, we never outsourced artistic decisions, but we had a building full of staff.’ It was the time when the album replaced the single as the most important format in pop music. LP sales skyrocketed. Hipgnosis benefited. The gate fold sleeve (gate cover) was their canvas.
‘Certainly in the beginning we often said: pay us what you think it’s worth. That was almost never disappointing, because it was a period in which the music industry was booming with money. It couldn’t end. Take the album Elegy from The Nice (1971). I wanted to photograph a trail of red soccer balls in a desert. Well, then we went with a team to the Sahara and we laid a trail of red footballs. For a photo. Something like that cost tens of thousands of dollars, but record labels put it down without batting an eyelid.’ Did it really matter to Hipgnosis whether the music matched their taste? “No,” says Powell. ‘We wanted to make and sell beautiful artwork.’
As a result of the increasing name and fame, some artists believed that Hipgnosis could make their album a commercial success. ‘Of course it doesn’t work that way. The music has to sell itself. If I had to name one case where we pushed an artist, I would think of the time when Pink Floyd was on the verge of breaking through.’
For the album Atom Heart Mother (1970), the band wanted a cover that would stand out in a huge record store. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s cow wallpaper, Storm Thorgerson drove to a pasture to photograph a cow.
‘The cow was called Lulubelle III. Pink Floyd was immediately enthusiastic: a cover that had nothing to do with the music, they understood that. We also thought it shouldn’t have a band name or album title on it, just that cow. EMI thought that was madness, but Pink Floyd kept its leg stiff. We even made billboards with just that cow on it, without any text. Only a few days later we stuck band name and album title over it. I think that cover drove sales. Other than that, there are few cases where I dare say so.’
Maybe that’s too modest. That prism? Or Wish You Were Here (1975), one of Powell’s favorites, in which two men shake hands while one of them is on fire? Or Animals (1977), on which an inflatable pig floats between the chimneys of London’s iconic Battersea Power Station? That photo session generated a lot of publicity because the helium-filled inflatable pig broke loose and floated to Heathrow airport. Flights had to be canceled and diverted.
From Dark Side of the Moon Incidentally, Powell admits that it’s not his personal favourite: ‘It’s an iconic design, but it’s an outsider in a way, because it’s graphic. Most of our work was photography, or at least it was based on photography.’
With Hipgnosis you could go in any direction. If you gave them a license, they would come up with something completely separate from the music. An own, absurdist interpretation, like the diver in front Deceptive Bends (1977) of 10cc. But it could also happen that an artist came up with a specific request, such as Paul McCartney before Tire on the Run (1973), a story about a group of escaping prisoners.
Powell: ‘Storm said: we don’t do such assignments. I said: of course I do man, this is a Beatle! Paul then asked me if I wanted to continue doing his artwork for the rest of the decade. I designed Venus and Mars (1975), I went on tour with him and made a photo book of it. In 1982 we got into a big fight. Paul fired me, but from 1989 he took me on tour again.’
That too was Hipgnosis: quarrels. Powell sometimes bickered with artists, but he was a diplomat compared to the legendary difficult Thorgerson. It could also crackle between Po and Storm. ‘Storm was a friend, my mentor in the early years, but he was also a jerk. He insulted and provoked. Peter Gabriel adored him, but Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page never wanted to work with him again. I did the customer contact.’
Powell’s favorite cover from those fifteen successful years? ‘Presence (1976) by Led Zeppelin. We developed an idea for a sculpture: ‘They black object‘. For the album we shot pictures where that thing kept coming back. On the cover came a family that is staring at that statue. Alienating. You can guess at a meaning. I love that.’
The original ‘Black objects‘ can be seen in Groningen. Hipgnosis remained at the top for fourteen or fifteen years, although the exhibition also offers a room with outtakesbecause something was sometimes rejected: a cover design for Goats Head Soup of The Rolling Stones (1973) or artwork for a television series about The Beatles that never materialized.
In 1976 Powell believed that the end of the heyday was in sight. Near the Hipgnosis building on Denmark Street in London, a rock band called the Sex Pistols took up residence. ‘Johnny Rotten wore a T-shirt with the print’I hate Pink Floyd‘. I spoke to him about that. He yelled, “I hate that band and I hate you too, you fucking hippies.” Their debut album had a cover with cut-out letters, which may have cost a few pounds at the most. I thought: another time is coming.’
It didn’t go that fast, Hipgnosis remained much in demand. XTC, The Police, Bad Company, Status Quo, they kept reporting. The real reason why Hipgnosis stopped was ultimately another: the introduction of the compact disc in 1982.
‘We lost our canvas, we weren’t interested in those little CD booklets. A sad moment? No, because we had become fascinated with MTV and the music video. We just went with that. Under the name Green Back Films we have made hundreds of video clips and longer videos. The first wash Wherever I Lay My Hat from Paul Young. That was a healthy change of course. I now use the name Hipgnosis again for my photography and artwork, but the profession has changed a lot. It used to be: photograph, develop, enlarge, edit, cut, paste, photograph again and develop. What you can now do in a few hours with Photoshop sometimes took six weeks in the 1970s.’
The Art of Hipgnosis. Groningen Museum. On view until 14 May.
BOOK: Aubrey Powell. Through the Prism. Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive. Thames & Hudson, 320 pages.
From the successful year 1973, Hipgnosis also received Dutch orders. The first was by Cyril Havermans (ex-Focus), but in 1974 leader of his own band Cyril. Hipgnosis designed the cover for mind wave (1974).
Hipgnosis made two album covers for Solution, a symphonic band from Groningen: Cordon Blue (1975) and Fully Interlocking (1977).
“The Cordon Bleu cover was supposed to be about contrast. We wanted to photograph the red-hot, spiral-shaped element of an electric hotplate, with a delicate butterfly on top. I can still see myself hanging above that red-hot coil with my camera.’
The most famous Dutch Hipgnosis cover is To the Hilt (1976) by Golden Earring, with the cover photo of a chained man lying with his head on the railway tracks, while the steam train already looms behind him. The gatefold sleeve contains three more photos from the series.
‘That series has the atmosphere of a Casablanca-like film, in which a man ends up in all kinds of life-threatening situations: head on the rails, head with a circular saw, underwater with a shark. Very expensive, very laborious, very nice. The band came to see us to see the designs. I remember the enthusiasm of the singer, Barry right? Who shouted: ‘This is exactly what we’re about!’ I remember when they wanted to get rid of the Radar Love-association. They were looking for something bizarre and they got it.’