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Judging by the Cover

Posted on 10 Aug 2017

Founded in 1967 by Storm Thorgerson, Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and Peter Christopherson, Hipgnosis gained legendary status in graphic design, transforming the look of album art forever and winning five Grammy nominations for package design. This is the story of how art invaded the world of vinyl albums in the late 1970s.

Hipgnosis worked with the biggest rock stars of the 1970s, including Led Zeppelin, whose 'Houses of the Holy' album art remains immediately recognisable.

In Eisenhower’s America, there were few bigger stars than Jackie Gleason, whose screen persona as a blustering big guy turned shows such as The Honeymooners and the eponymous Jackie Gleason Show into huge hits. In the mid-Fifties, he was the man of the moment and, alongside his screen work, he started churning out a series of schmaltzy albums of orchestral easy listening. The cover of one of them, 1955’s Lonesome Echo, is unexpected, a strange, sun-baked desert-scape featuring a butterfly on a pole casting its shadow onto yellowed, ancient ruins. The surrealism should not be unexpected, given who Gleason had asked to create the image: his friend Salvador Dali.

Such an album cover was the exception to the rule in the Fifties but, just over a decade later, with the advent of rock music, vanguard art and album design collided, then exploded. The Beatles hiring Peter Green for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band set the trend but, before long, there were designers who majored in album art work, riding the post-psychedelic mindset that ran parallel to a time of particularly extravagant music business spending power. Creatives such as HR Giger and Roger Dean made their names as the Seventies absorbed and applied the out-of-the-box ideas of the previous decade. However, the biggest name in the game was soon Hipgnosis.

'Animals', one of Hipgnosis' many iconic Pink Floyd covers.

Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell were mates of Pink Floyd in Cambridge, before Pink Floyd were actually called Pink Floyd, and that’s what gave them their start. The band asked them to do the cover for their second album A Saucerful of Secrets, before Thorgerson had even finished at the Royal College of Art. Powell meanwhile had been earning his keep as a photographer, just about, taking any commission that came his way. As the Seventies dawned, the pair, who had by then turned out a few more covers, thought they might be onto something. They were.

Hipgnosis may now be most famous for the iconic prism on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon but, for just over a decade, they were the go-to cover artists for a whole range of the era’s biggest music stars; Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, 10cc, Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel, etc. Powell’s Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue showcases that time with aplomb.

Three aspects resonate. Firstly, how much money there was swilling around the music industry then. It became quite normal to take a week in Hawaii for a small insert of a sheep sitting on a beachside couch for 10cc, or to have an extended trip to New Orleans ‘researching’ bars for the cover for Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door. Secondly, the zeitgeist of the decade is so juicily encapsulated via the collection of contemporaneous stars on the cover of McCartney’s Band on the Run, or the non-PC imagery utilised to promote unsavoury sounding (and now long forgotten) bands such as Fumble and Bunk Dogger.

The Nice's 'Elegy' - Dali would surely have approved

Thirdly, finally and most importantly, the work of Hipgnosis shows wild imagination and wily artistry, even on those occasions when the resulting images misfire. Whether the eye falls on the hideous cover for Toe Fat’s second album, a resonantly ugly collage of maggoty-looking food, or, by contrast, the mesmeric line of red balls in the Moroccan desert that adorn The Nice’s 1971 Elegy, the overall impression is of artists pushing at the boundaries, aiming to give both the eyes and mind a feast. Indeed, spending time with the latter image, especially, one can’t help but think that Dali himself would have approved.

Thomas H Green

Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art

The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue Aubrey Powell