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Judging an album by its cover

Judging an album by its cover

How Hipgnosis, the London studio which designed artwork for everyone from Pink Floyd to Peter Gabriel, transformed the look of the record

How Hipgnosis, the London studio which designed artwork for everyone from Pink Floyd to Peter Gabriel, transformed the look of the record

Mark Ellen | April 18th 2017

“Why not?” That was Storm Thorgerson’s response when he was asked why the cover of Pink Floyd’s album, “Atom Heart Mother” (1970) featured nothing but Friesian cows. This bold approach was typical of Hipgnosis, the design studio Thorgerson formed with Aubrey “Po” Powell in London in 1968. The sleeve was gloriously oblique, funny and confusing. It didn’t even mention the band or the title of the record. Before Hipgnosis, sleeves had been regarded as promotional tools and they were largely the work of record labels’ in-house designers, who favoured straightforward photographs of artists. Thorgerson and Powell created complex, highly stylised images that featured wordplay and mind-bending graphics. They transformed the look of the album. Nearly 500 examples of their trail-blazing sleeves, made from 1968 to 1982, appear in a new and lavishly executed chronicle, “Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art”.

Cowabunga! “Atom Heart Mother” (1970) by Pink Floyd

It was Pink Floyd’s frontman, Syd Barrett, who coined the word “hipgnosis”, a portmanteau of “hip”, referring to the voguish counter-culture he was advancing, and “gnosis”, the knowledge of esoteric spiritual matters. He’d scrawled the word in biro above a door in the South Kensington flat he shared with Powell and Thorgerson while they were working on their first commission: the cover of Pink Floyd’s second album, “A Saucerful of Secrets”. It was streets ahead of convention. They set an infra-red photo of the band on Hampstead Heath in a strange and exotic collage inspired by books on alchemy and images of space exploration in Marvel comics – a magical expression of the psychedelia inside.
 
Thorgerson and Powell had good timing. They set up shop just as listeners’ relationship with rock music was changing. Once merely a collection of hit singles and unrelated tracks, albums became increasingly experimental, exploring grand subjects over the course of an entire record. The further these explorations went, the greater the fascination the music held for fans. The artwork became the portal through which listeners entered the world of the band. They could fire up the record-player, drop the needle in a darkened room and stare intently at the sleeve – the last link in the circuit that lit the fairy lights of the imagination.

Powell took most of the pictures and Thorgerson created the graphics. Both were inspired by the surrealism of Man Ray, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, the films of Luis Buñuel and Fritz Lang and the photographic experiments of Bill Brandt. They enjoyed experimenting with different media. Working on Peter Gabriel’s third solo album “Melt”, Thorgerson ignored Polaroid’s warning not to touch prints as they developed and, with burnt matches and coins, manipulated the shapes and colours into grotesque images. They sought to create visual drama in a variety of ways, often, as with “Atom Heart Mother”, striking a particular tone without a picture of the band. Their designs were so effective that they framed listeners’ perceptions of the act, making them seem sexy, profound, enigmatic, other-wordly or impossibly cool – usually all at the same time. 

Simple, clinical and precise “The Dark Side of the Moon” (1973) by Pink Floyd

Their most celebrated work came in 1973 with “The Dark Side Of The Moon”, another milestone in their long-running collaboration with Pink Floyd. The band had asked for something “simple, clinical and precise”. Hipgnosis proposed a beam of white light refracted into a rainbow by a prism. It’s hard to imagine a better sleeve: it captures the drama of their laser lightshow; it leaps out of the racks and suggests the vast and vividly colourful scope of the themes explored on the album. It is the front window of a record which has now sold over 45m copies.  

 

“On the Shore” (1970) by Trees 

The press would often talk about “demystifying” musicians. Hipgnosis thought it their mission to do the opposite. When they were commissioned to design an album cover for Trees, an ethereal folk-rock act who ploughed the same furrow as John Lennon had with the whimsical songs, “I Am The Walrus” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, they asked their friend John Blake, a conceptual artist, what he thought would make an arresting picture. He said, “How about a girl throwing a glass of water?” This image, a hand-tinted black and white photograph shot in the grounds of Kenwood House in north London, demonstrates Powell and Thorgerson’s ability to depict a great idea when they heard one. It captures the topsy-turviness of Trees, a group that had something of a Lewis Carroll fantasy about it. 

 

“Go 2” (1978) by XTC 

Nothing seduced the discerning record buyer more than being treated as though they possessed an above-average intellect. This knowing sleeve for XTC, which made complex, post-punk art rock, informs listeners interested in purchasing the record that they are consumers being targeted by a marketing strategy that depended, in part, on the design of the album cover to sell the product to fans. This bald statement of fact, hammered out on a typewriter, worked for everyone in the equation: it made Hipgnosis and XTC seem both clever and cunning and made the person who bought the record feel superior: “I’m being exploited but, unlike those hopeless dim-wits who buy Black Sabbath records, at least I’m aware of it”. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. 

 

“The Edgar Broughton Band” (1971) by The Edgar Broughton Band

Among the many carcasses hanging from hooks in this freezing industrial hangar is a human. To take this photograph, Powell had to persuade a friend to strip off and be dangled from a rod, his ankles in manacles. The group wanted to express their belief that capitalism dehumanised the individual. Does that come across in this cover? Not so much – but it is still a dramatic, bizarre and unsettling picture.

 

“20 Jazz Funk Greats” (1979) by Throbbing Gristle

Throbbing Gristle’s act involved spoken word, extreme sonic distortion, synthesizers, tapes and the screening of disturbingly violent, sexual images. Their music was not “jazz funk” and they certainly did not belong to the supper-club cabaret circuit. Even if they did, why were they being photographed on a flower-filled strip of windswept hillock, an obvious setting for a folk group? Anyone au fait with the group’s harsh, industrial performance art knew that the band was being presented in the least Throbbing Gristle style imaginable. 

 

“Ummagumma” (1969) by Pink Floyd

Much of Hipgnosis’s best work involved their collaborations with the Floyd. This is the most revered and endlessly scrutinised of their covers. Floyd’s music was multi-layered and they wanted to demonstrate this visually. At Thorgerson’s girlfriend’s house near Cambridge, they took four different photographs of the band, rotating the four members’ positions in each – suggesting that no one in the group was any more important than any other (though the biggest image, sensibly, was of the band’s charismatic poster boy David Gilmour). The idea of a picture appearing within itself recursively came from a design on a cocoa tin in 1900 by the Dutch chocolate manufacturers Droste – it’s known as the Droste Effect. 

Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art: The Complete Hignosis Catalogue by Aubrey Powell (Thames & Hudson), out now

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