Hipgnosis made indelible album art for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and many more – now it’s immortalized in a documentary

With the doc Squaring the Circle and Pink Floyd exhibit Their Mortal Remains in Toronto,

founder Aubrey “Po” Powell feels Hipgnosis is getting its due.

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

British progressive rock legends Pink Floyd may be known for such masterpieces as Dark Side of The Moon and The Wall, but they also were directly responsible for launching the most distinctive, popular and influential creators of memorable album artwork: Hipgnosis.

Between 1968 and 1983 – at a time when vinyl was king and 12″-x-12″ artwork was a key part of the packaging – the British art design group co-founded by visual artists Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell created more than 250 album covers for rock superstars ranging from Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney to 10 c.c. and The Alan Parsons Project.

Led Zeppelin’s 1973 classic  Houses Of The Holy cover? Hipgnosis.  Paul McCartney and Wings‘  brilliant Band On The Run artwork? Hipgnosis.  The illustrated magnum opus that is 10 c.c.’s The Original Soundtrack?

You guessed it – with the birth of Hipgnosis stemming from Pink Floyd’s numerous counterculture hangs with Thorgerson and Powell during their art school years. 

“I’ve known them since I was 15,” said Powell, 76, during a recent phone interview from New York, where he was helping to promote a new documentary directed by acclaimed Dutch photographer and director Anton Corbijn called Squaring The Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis), currently playing in Toronto at Scotiabank Theatre.

It was an experimental time for Pink Floyd, when founding guitarist and singer was pretty much out of the band and guitarist and singer David Gilmour was working his way in: Gilmour’s debut, 1968’s A Saucerful Of Secrets, was Hipgnosis’ first commissioned album cover.

It was also a scene where, at first, experimenting with drugs such as LSD was common, although Powell insists that the intake of chemicals by Thorgerson and himself was short-lived.

“The fact that we were in that counterculture at the time, when many people were taking LSD in London, and embracing what I would call the alternative lifestyle – culturally the hippie subculture of people like psychiatrist R.D. Laing, or (American poet) Albert Ginsberg with Howl, or  (Jack) Kerouac  – LSD was a part of that. 

“I don’t suppose for one second that Hipgnosis couldn’t have done what we did without LSD,” Powell continues. “I think that would be too presumptuous. and too pretentious. But what LSD did – the trips that Storm and I took together – was to just sort of open one’s mind to alternatives and to a different way of looking at things.  I don’t promote LSD. I think it’s a very dangerous drug and if used in the wrong circumstances, can be extremely damaging.”

Hipgnosis were indeed different: Thorgerson – the graphic designer, who passed away at the age of 69 from cancer, after being partially paralyzed by a stroke, in 2013 –  and photographer Powell were embraced for their out-of-the-box thinking, especially by the artists to whom they sold their concepts. 

Case in point: The Pink Floyd album cover for 1970’s  Atom Heart Mother, which is simply a photo of a cow in a barnyard…and no indication of  the record’s artist or title found anywhere on the artwork (subsequent later editions of Atom Heart Mother,  – especially when CDs came along – provided both).  

 “When we started to do album covers, the first thing that we said was, ‘no  pictures of the band on the front; no titles or credits; no names.  Let’s go lateral and think completely differently ‘,” Powell explained. 

“And many of the images that Hipgnosis designed were not necessarily designed for the band.  We would design something and say, ‘this is a great image, now who can we sell it to? Led Zeppelin might reject it; but then 10 c.c. might buy it.”

 The art designers’ way of conducting business was often the bane of record company marketing departments, because Hipgnosis’ objectives were opposite the label’s task of selling albums. 

 Thorgerson and Powell were more interested in good art.

 “A good image for us was a good image,” Powell insisted. “Our way of thinking was that we were not going to be commercially minded. We’re not going to design things as if it was for a product and we weren’t going to be influenced by record companies. And we never worked with record companies – we always worked for the artist.”

 There were other provocative covers that prompted mystique: original shipments of Pink Floyd’s 1975 gem Wish You Were Here were enshrined in black shrink-wrap – you had to buy the album to see the cover – while Led Zeppelin’s 1979 album In Through The Out Door sported six different covers, but all of them wrapped in a brown paper bag to promote even more mystique.

 Powell said an air of mystery was always part of the equation – and used Led Zeppelin’s cover for 1976’s Presence as an example: a nuclear family of four is sitting around a table with a monolith-like object sitting in front of them.

“What has a black object on a breakfast table with a family at a boat show got to do with anything?” Powell rhetorically wondered. 

“Now, the thing for me is the mystery and the narrative… and Storm and I would never explain that:  we’d only discuss it with the artist. We never talked to the press about what it all meant. 

“And many of the bands we worked for – I don’t care if it was 10c.c. or Zeppelin or Pink Floyd – embraced that secrecy. It was sort of like this private society: they didn’t want to give any of it away.  When somebody listened to  Wish You Were Here, the message was, ‘work it out for yourself.'”

The actual cover artwork of  Wish You Were Here features two men shaking hands, with one of them aflame.

“It’s about absence. It’s about insincerity – all those things –  which is what the man on the front cover is all about,” Powell clarified. 

“It’s two businessmen and one is getting burned. It’s insincere and absence of caring. We weren’t about to explain that, nor were Pink Floyd. But the person that bought the record and looked at the lyrics we hoped would identify with the images that we made.”

The duo’s brilliance and their tendency to work directly with artists gave them unlimited budgets – covers cost anywhere from £50,000 to £100,000 (1970s figures worth approximately (US) $885,000- $1.77 million today) – and kept them in demand.

“When Hipgnosis was in its prime and during the salad days of album covers, we were so busy,” Powell noted. “I was out of the country 200 days a year shooting; we were working non-stop and the excitement of it all was  overwhelming. We worked very, very hard for the first 10 years…14 hours a day, seven days a week. it was all consuming and obsessive. It wasn’t about success – it was the excitement of doing it.”

By no means were Thorgerson and Powell an island: a few years after its formation, Peter Christopherson, founding member of industrial band Throbbing Gristle and outfits Coil and Psychic TV became a full-time partner and was responsible for taking some of the first promo shots of punk icons The Sex Pistols; and Hipgnosis also employed a team of artists, illustrators and photographers throughout its history.

But the team definitely left an impression: the most famous and successful being, naturally, the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon.

“That’s the only album I can say where the album reflected definitely what was inside –  and definitely helped sell it,” said Powell. “It still sells because of that –  the music  and the association between the two that still applies 50 years later.

 “I find it very difficult to walk down a street in any city  and  not see a  Dark Side of The Moon t-shirt or jacket: it’s all very flattering to me.  This has stood the test of this time and it’s wonderful:  I think it’s inconceivable you can have Dark Side without the prism.”

Powell said that presentations of Hipgnosis work in four different museums this summer, as well as the Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains exhibition opening Friday at the CNE, offers validation of Hipgnosis’ work as “fine art.”

“I’m incredibly privileged and deeply touched by the interest in it.  That to me, is an acknowledgement. I wish Storm was here to see it.”

And that endorsement includes the brilliant documentary Squaring The Circle – executive produced by Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth and Canadian Merck Mercuriadis, who considered Thorgerson a close friend –  Powell thinks that Corbijn has produced “a work of genius.”

“The one thing that Anton Corbijn has done with the film is tell a very truthful and fair story as to how Hipgnosis operated and how we came up with some of the ideas,” Powell praised. “I find it illuminating – even to myself. I think the film explains Hipgnosis very clearly and very honestly.”

The 1-hour, 40-minute documentary offers rare footage, candid interviews with artists Dave Gilmour, Roger Waters and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd; Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin; Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, 10 c.c.’s Graham Gouldman and more, and portrays Thorgerson as a difficult individual who could care less about bottom line costs.

In the end, business differences led to the breakup of the business founded Thorgerson and Powell and the two didn’t speak for a dozen years

“He was difficult,” Powell confirmed.  “He was cantankerous. He was obstinate.”

 However, what the film doesn’t show is an eventual reconciliation between the two.

 “In  the last five years of Storm’s life, when he was dying from cancer and from a stroke,  he and I were as close as we ever could be,” Powell said. ” We never worked together again, but we used to go for lunch once a month or whenever we could fit it in,  and nothing had changed. The humour – he had such an amazing wit. His deadpan humour would have me in fits, and that’s one of the things that glued us together, because he was so cerebrally bright and had such a good wit about him that you couldn’t help but love him. 

 “On the other hand, he could turn on a sixpence and I would throw a Hasselblad across the studio because he frustrated me so much. But as I said in the film, he was my brother. I loved him like a brother and I miss him terribly.”