From 1972 to 1986, London-based photography and design studio Hipgnosis–made up of Aubrey “Po” Powell, Storm Thorgerson, and Peter Christopherson–created some of the most recognizable album covers in rock music history. Their rainbow-through-a-prism graphic for Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” became a logo of sorts for prog-heads, plastered on the T-shirts of Syd Barrett-worshipping teenagers to this day. From the gold-toned collage of children clamoring over the Giant’s Causeway on Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” to Peter Gabriel’s creepily disintegrating face on “Melt,” Hipgnosis’s hallucinatory imagery was the visual equivalent of these bands’ maximalist riffs and psychedelic explorations.
When Storm Thorgerson died last year at age 69, Po Powell, now the last living member of the design collective, began to trawl through the Hipgnosis archives. He ultimately compiled this treasure trove–including unseen photos of the Rolling Stones and of the original Giant’s Causeway shoot–into an epic new book: Hipgnosis|Portraits, out this month from Thames & Hudson.
On the occasion of the book’s release, we caught up with Powell to discuss the genesis of some of 20th-century rock music’s most iconic art. Here, Powell dishes on the design process behind legendary covers like “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “Houses of the Holy;” how Johnny Rotten and the digitization of music killed the album cover; and which bands were most difficult to work with.
Co.Design: How has the digitization of music affected the art of the album cover?
Aubrey Powell: In the 1970s, the album cover was what people looked at to get a visual resonance of their favorite band. Hipgnosis got to work on a fantastic 12-inch-by-12-inch canvas, or 24-by-12 if it was a gatefold. How privileged were we to be able to work that big, and to sell so many copies. “The Dark Side of the Moon” sold 64 million copies. Today, with digital imagery, album covers are rarely seen at that large scale or held as a tactile piece. Digital phenomena–downloading, streaming, YouTube–has, in a way, completely destroyed the album cover. There will always be music and visuals together–there always has been–but the digital has destroyed the relevance and prominence of the visual.
When did this paradigm shift in cover design begin?
Powell: In 1976, we had our studio in London’s SoHo. Underneath that studio was the Sex Pistols’ studio. We got on very well. It was before they were famous–God Save the Queen came out in 1977.
The day I realized album covers were over was when Johnny Rotten was walking down the corridor wearing a T-shirt that said “I hate Pink Floyd.” At that moment, I knew covers were dead. There was a new enemy at the gates, and it was the Sex Pistols. Their cover was just a pink card with bits of yellow newspaper stuck to it. I was used to spending $50,000 on an album cover, but revolution was in the air. When punk arrived, people wanted to do something more streetwise, more working class, not so pretentious. Punk was very much the music of the man on the street. It had to do with impoverishment, in England, and not that big prog rock sound of bands like Genesis, with huge, maximalist album cover ideas. Hipgnosis ran and made album covers until 1986, but then we moved onto music videos.
How did you create Peter Gabriel’s “Melt” cover (1980)?
Powell Peter Gabriel wanted to be involved in the process. He was very tactile. For the picture from Melt, I showed Peter how, in those days, the chemicals in a Polaroid could be easily warped. If you immediately took a pencil after printing the image and started to move the chemicals around, it could disfigure and misshape image. He liked this idea for an album cover. He was very brave–for a rockstar to allow his face to be disfigured was extraordinary.
He came to the studio, and we had 10 Polaroid cameras, and we all took pictures of Peter and all got pencils and pushed around the chemicals on the images. He did it, too. Then we pinned all the warped Polaroid photos to a wall, and I asked him which he liked, and he said “That one, that’s the front cover.”
What was the inspiration for Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” cover (1973)?
Powell: We went to see Pink Floyd with a bunch of ideas for “The Dark Side of the Moon,” but they all said “no, no more of these photo designs.” Richard Wright, the organist, said, “Come up with something simple, a simple graphic, like a chocolate box.” This was insulting to us, but we said, “Okay, we’ll think about it.”
I was looking through an old French book of early color photography from the ’50s, and in this book was a photo of a prism on a piece of sheet music and sunlight coming in through the glass window. It was creating this rainbow effect. Storm said, “This is interesting. It sums up Pink Floyd. I’ve got it–we’ll do a triangle with a prism shape coming through it as a graphic, not as a photograph.”
“The Dark Side of the Moon” sold 65 million copies, which means a billion people have probably seen that image.
What’s the story behind that photo of Keith Moon on a couch, naked but for a fur boa?
Powell: We did a lot of work for The Who–I’d known Pete Townshend since I was 20. They were doing a big concert to premiere Quadrophenia, and they wanted to have a concert program a bit like a Playboy magazine. They wanted to have a centerfold image of a naked Keith Moon, [drummer of The Who].
Storm went along to shoot the photo. When he got to the hotel, there was an upturned chest of drawers sitting on the bed, and all the clothes inside had been stuffed down the toilet bowl. Keith didn’t answer any questions. He just took all his clothes off, put his girlfriend’s fur boa over his private anatomy, and posed on the couch.
Which artists were the most challenging clients as a designer and photographer, and what were they like to work with?
Powell: The Rolling Stones were probably the most challenging band to work with. What’s amazing about that photography session [pictured] is that those negatives remained sealed in an envelope for 45 years. I opened that manila envelope last year, with sellotape completely cracked. After Storm died, I’d decided to look through all our old files. Can you imagine what a treasure trove I found? There were 156 pristine negatives and transparencies of the Stones, never published, never processed. They’d decided to use a photo by David Bailey for the cover of “Goat’s Head Soup” instead of ours.
What I’m pleased about is I got pictures of the Stones in their prime, when they looked and were their best–the moment they’d released “Brown Sugar.” They had a sort of beauty about them. Keith [Richards] looks like an incredibly handsome gypsy.
How did Hipgnosis create the cover for Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” (1973)?
Powell: I got a phone call from Jimmy Page, asking if Hipgnosis was interested in designing a cover for “Houses of the Holy.” I agreed, and asked to hear the music and see the lyrics. He said, “No, just turn up in a few weeks with some ideas.”
When we showed up, Storm and I basically just had a sketch on a napkin. That’s how we did things in those days. Not very high-tech. The sketch was from an idea that came from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s novel At Childhood’s End. At the end of the book, all the kids in the world go up into space in an enormous column of gold fire. I drew that on a napkin and Jimmy Page loved the idea. Then Robert Plant suggested we find some “interesting rocks,” and I said, “How about we go to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland?” They gave us carte blanche to shoot there for as long as we wanted, even though it would be expensive. At that time, bands had all the creative power–more power than record companies.
We went with a family–three adults, two kids, up on the rocks–and it poured rain for five days. It was absolutely miserable. I needed to make this cover extraordinary, but there was no chance of sunshine. The photos we took were in black and white, in the pouring rain.
Finally, I decided to cut each individual child out from the various black and white photographs and created a montage. I hand-tinted it in bright orange and gold and red, rich colors, with 11 gorgeous children running up these octagonal rocks. The image is completely made up. That’s the cover you buy in record stores.
I put the original black-and-white photos in this book because no one’s ever seen them before. I’ll always remember when I showed the final cover to Jimmy Page in the parking lot of a train station in England as he was returning home from tour. I opened up the car trunk, and there was the artwork. He said, “That looks incredible–that thing will gather a crowd.” Within 10 minutes, 200 people were gathered round, looking in the car trunk and at Jimmy Page, dressed in all his finery with long hair and a lot of jewelry.
What was the design process like for Hipgnosis album covers in general? How much input did musicians have?
Powell: Each album cover had a totally unique design process. Working for Paul McCartney was very different from working for, say, Pink Floyd. What the working processes had in common was the bands all had a trust in us, an amazing trust that we would deliver something interesting to them. In terms of our actual modus operandi, when working for Led Zeppelin, for example, we wouldn’t hear the music or lyrics or title of an album before designing a cover. I would present an idea to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and they’d say yes, we like that, do it, and they didn’t want to see anything else until it was completely finished.
Paul McCartney, on the other hand, would have a title, music, and lyrics for me to absorb before designing. We would trade ideas for art–he’d tell me his and I’d tell him mine–and he’d say, “I like that idea of yours, and this one of mine,” and so I’d do both. And at the end, after I’d done both, he’d say, “I told you my idea was better.” He’d almost always choose his idea.
What images in this book do you associate with the most memorable experiences of your career?
Powell: [Shooting Paul McCartney in the Mojave Desert] was one of the best days of my life in photography. I’d arranged to meet him by a salt lake below Mount Whitney. Paul arrived in the early morning, with the most beautiful light. The pictures are very surreal, more about the atmosphere and the environment than about him. He looks a bit like a mystic. It was brave of him as a Beatle, after being photographed a million times, to allow me to do what I wanted and make more of the landscape and less of him.
Hipgnosis|Portraits is available from Thames & Hudson here for $55.