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Hipgnosis’ Life in 15 Album Covers: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and More

Upon release of new book ‘Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art,’ studio co-founder Aubrey “Po” Powell unpacks striking images created for Wings, AC/DC and more

Hipgnosis gallery talk vinyl record covers

Hipgnosis co-founder Aubrey "Po" Powell tells the stories behind 15 famous album covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and others.

Imagine record sleeves without the advent of Hipgnosis, the photo-design company responsible for Pink Floyd‘s mysterious black prism, Led Zeppelin‘s flaxen-haired nudist children, AC/DC‘s censored everyday villains, Black Sabbath‘s copulating escalator robots and Peter Gabriel‘s melted grilled-cheese face. Although the psychedelic era produced beautifully filigreed LP sleeves like Love’s Forever Changes and, of course, Sgt. Pepper’s, album covers largely were portraits of the bands and artists. Hipgnosis – cofounded by artists Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgerson in 1967 – flipped the script on rock art.

A new book, Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue – due out May 16th – will celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. It collects the 373 sleeves Powell, Thorgerson and their compatriots made together between ’67 and 1982 with commentary by Powell and Thorgerson, among others, and a foreword by Peter Gabriel. “You can see the development of Hipgnosis, and how we got more sophisticated, more sleek and clever at photography, graphics, lettering and text,” Powell tells Rolling Stone. “We didn’t have Photoshop. Everything had to be shot on film and done by hand. And average artwork could take three to six weeks, whereas you could do some of these album covers in an afternoon now.”

As Powell looks back on the history that he made with Thorgerson, who died of cancer in 2013, he’s most proud of the creativity they shared. “We always tried to think laterally and not go for the obvious,” he says. “When we saw Sgt. Pepper’s, we went, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s another way of doing this.’ We were both fresh out of art school, and we said, ‘We can do this, but let’s think differently.’ By 1973, when we did Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy and Band on the Run, we had discovered our métier, and we had the great privilege of being trusted by the bands we worked for. It was amazing.”

He recently took some time out from working on an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum celebrating Pink Floyd, for whom he is the creative director, and picked 15 covers he felt were turning points for the company. Here, he tells the story of Hipgnosis – which, he points out, is still a functioning company, making designs and films – through some of its most brilliant album sleeves.

A. Powell/ S. Thorgerson Graphics: G. Hardie NTA Retouching: R. Manning © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

Genesis, ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ (1974)

This was very much a radically different approach than the others, because I went to see Peter Gabriel, and Peter said, “OK, here’s the lyrics. This is the story about Rael,” the character in the album. “I want you to illustrate the story.” Now we wouldn’t take that from anybody but Peter Gabriel. We didn’t like being dictated to.

But the story was so fascinating and so interesting and the music was so good, Storm and I went, “OK, let’s go and work out a way to do it. But we’re not going to do it as a comic strip,” which is what Peter wanted. So we took the best bits of the story and just created vignettes for each part of the story. You have the guy breaking through the glass, or the symbolism of where he’s unable to speak, where people have no mouths or he’s being pulled into his own image. All of this was directly related to the lyrics.

Each vignette had to be done by hand, and we didn’t have the advantage of Photoshop, so it took weeks to do that cover. But I’ll always remember taking it down to Peter Gabriel and the band in the studio, and just putting it up on the wall, because the artwork was quite big. I remember them just going, “That’s unbelievable. How did you do that?” It was a great compliment. 

We sold Peter the original artwork some years ago. Storm was ill with cancer and a stroke, and he needed money so we decided to sell off some of the artwork to the original artists, like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Peter to raise money to help storm out of his predicament, and they really were willing to be very generous about that too. And Peter was so moved, emotionally. He hadn’t seen the original artwork for, I suppose, 25, 30 years. 

A. Powell Graphics: G. Hardie Retouching: R. Manning © Pink Floyd Music Ltd

Pink Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975)

The idea for the cover came from the band talking about the insincerity of the music business. You know the lyric on “Have a Cigar,” “Which one is pink?” That was a true story of a record company asking, “Well, which one of you guys is Pink?” So the album’s lyrics were all about insincerity and absence, the latter particularly in the sense of Syd Barrett, like how the industry is a movable beast that actually takes casualties with it. Syd Barrett was one of them, and inspired “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”

So the band and Storm and I thought about ideas related to absence and insincerity in terms of business. There was a great expression at that time, “Man, I’ve been burnt,” like ripped off. Storm said to me, “Why don’t we set something on fire?” You know, it was kind of like, one of those mad ideas. “What about two businessmen shaking hands, and one of them is on fire.”

So I flew to Los Angeles and found this guy, Ronnie Rondell, who was a stuntman. He agreed to be set on fire a number of times. So we did it on the back lot of Warners in Burbank. As you can imagine, it’s a very unpleasant experience being set on fire, and it’s very dangerous because you’re standing still. Normally, with a fire shot, somebody’s moving. They’re running away from your face. But we were lucky that afternoon. There was no wind. I shot it 14 times. On the 15th time, a gust of wind caught up and blew the fire straight into his face. Immediately, his team jumped on him, sprayed him with extinguishing foam and saved his life. He just got up from that and said, “That’s it. I’m never doing this again.” But I had it in the can.

The singe on the corner of the cover was just an added little trick. That was Storm. I personally preferred it without that, but we worked as a partnership. Lots of people like the singing on the edge. It makes it another dimension. Yet another world.

The photograph that I love more than anything on Wish You Were Here is the diver, which is on the inside cover. I’d done a reconnaissance with a plane over Lake Mono in Northern California, and I thought, “This is an interesting place with all those incredible stalagmites and stalactites and that.” And we had to get a special yoga chair made to sit in the mud, and I got a stuntman who could hold his breath for a long time. It had been windy all day, and as he went into position, the wind dropped and the lake went flat. And it was the most beautiful, beautiful, calm evening. And I got the shot. That stillness, without any ripples, is about absence. There’s no sign of any splash.

Cover Design: P. & L. McCartney Cover Photography: L. McCartney with A. Powell © MPL Ltd

Wings, ‘Venus and Mars’ (1975)

We’d done some work for the Beatles, and then after Paul did Red Rose Speedway, he came along to Band on the Run with us. Then he came up with Venus and Mars.

Storm and I flew to California to meet with him where he was recording. We had loads of ideas and, typical Paul, he said, “Great ideas. I love those, but you know I went to art school and I’ve got some great ideas too.” He pulled out this piece of paper and said, “I see two snooker like this, red and yellow, Venus and Mars, and I want this shot on a bay’s table, and that’s what the front cover is going to be and then you put the rest of it together.” Storm said, “I’m going home. There’s nothing for me to do here. You deal with it.” Paul was always slightly affronted with Storm. They didn’t get along at all. And he said, “That’s fine. You get out Storm and I’ll just deal with him,” meaning me.

So I stayed in California probably six weeks working with Paul and Linda. I got a billiard hall hall in L.A. I set the shot up, because Linda was wanting to photograph it. … So she’d come in and take the shot. It was a concerted effort by both of us. 

But the interesting picture for me was the inside cover, which is this landscape way out between Lone Pine and Death Valley. There’s this amazing talcum powder lake there and I said to Paul, “Listen, I found this incredible location.” And he said to me, “Actually I’ve got another location. It’s just outside of Palm Springs.” So I drove to Palm Springs that night and met Paul, Linda and Wings in a Winnebago outside a hotel there. When I got there I opened the Winnebago door, and the place was absolutely trashed. I honestly thought there had been a Charles Manson situation. It completely freaked me out.

As I walked away from it, suddenly from the back of the Winnebago, where there was a private room, out jumps Paul who said, “Oh, man, I’m so pleased to see you.” I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “The other guys were all in that hotel that we’re parked outside of. Me and Linda are in the back here. [Wings guitarist] Jimmy McCulloch got totally out of it last night and trashed the interior the thing. Let’s drive back to L.A.” I had just driven for eight hours across the desert to get there in a Mercedes sports car, and I said it’s going to be cramped, so Paul and Linda said, “I don’t care. Let’s just drive straight back to L.A. We’ll do this another day and do it properly.” I said, “OK.”

So we got in the car. We’re going through Cathedral City, which is just outside of Palm Springs when a cop stops us. “You’re speeding.” I said, “I’m really sorry. We’re very tired. It’s a long story.” And then he went, “Who’s that in the back of the car? Is that John Lennon?” I said, “No, not exactly. It’s actually Paul McCartney.” So immediately our signature was required, an autograph and we were let off on our way. It was a great moment when he said, “Is that John Lennon?” I just thought, “Oh, here we go.”

Anyway, about a week later, I said to Paul, “Listen, I have this amazing location. Trust me. Believe me. It’s incredible.” And he drove out the next day, and we stayed overnight in Lone Pine, in a little motel. Such fun. We had dinner together. It was great. We did that shot and then later on Paul sent out for some firewood and some steaks and stuff like that and we had a barbecue in the middle of the desert. That was a magical day. It was just one of those days where he wasn’t Paul McCartney, the Beatle; he was just Paul and Linda and the kids. It was just family and it was beautiful and it was fantastic. I remember it so fondly doing that photograph. And we got the snooker balls in there. I’ve still got those deep in my archives.

Cover Design: Hipgnosis/ G. Hardie Photography: A. Powell © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

10cc, ‘How Dare You!’ (1976)

These photographs were inspired very much by the band and their lyrics. 10cc wrote the most extraordinary lyrics. I mean, who writes lyrics like, “Life is a minestrone”? These guys were so smart lyrically and Graham Gouldman, who I’m still great friends with, is a really sharp guy and they were interested in the visual covers. They were always interested in visual puns, and a lot Hipgnosis work is about visual puns. 

So we imagined a whole set up for How Dare You! almost like a soap opera, where you had a series of pictures of people who were all on the phone literally saying, “How dare you?” And if you look at the front cover, you’ve got the woman who’s obviously been jilted in some way who’s clearly saying “How dare you?” And you’ve got the businessman who she’s talking to who is her husband probably – there’s stories that go along just because that’s what we did. He’s saying, “How dare you?” On the back cover, you’ve got a dirty old man with a handkerchief in a phone box talking to some poor air hostess desk who’s sitting in the hotel and she’s saying, “How dare you?” It’s inspired by old 1940s movies where they used to do a split screen when people talked on the phone to each other. 

On the inside was a premonition of what was to come with all these people on the phone. There’s 50 people in the room and they’re all on telephones. It was just a surreal idea that Storm had. It’s hilarious. It is funny now because, how many times now do you walk into a room and everybody is on their mobile phone? I’ve always felt somehow that this was a premonition.

Robots Design: G. Hardie Robots Illustration: R Manning Graphics Design: G. Hardie © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

Black Sabbath, ‘Technical Ecstasy’ (1976)

We had the title, and I remember sitting around with Storm and George Hardie, talking about it. This was before artificial intelligence, so we were thinking, “‘Technical ecstasy’ – what is technical? Well, robots, and what’s better than two robots falling love?” So we came up with two robots passing on an escalator and they’re falling in love. What’s interesting about it is that it’s part-photographic in the background, and part-illustration by George Hardie.

I remember going to meet Black Sabbath which was always an interesting experience. They could be quite vocal; let’s put it that way. When I presented the idea, they absolutely loved it. It moved away from what you’d normally associate with Black Sabbath, which is black guitars, dark lyrics, heavy rock, themes of devil worship, and blood and daggers. It was a picture of a love story. I was pleased. Then Ozzy came over.

We were at Tony Iommi’s house in the studio, and Ozzy comes in late after the other guys have already chosen. The door flung open and there was this guy, dark glasses, as you see Ozzy, all in black with a hat on, absolutely drunk as a skunk. He walked over and said, “What’s going on here?” “We’re choosing the album cover, Ozzy.” And you could feel the tension in the room. It was really unpleasant, and he just looked down and said, “That one. That’s the one,” and I think Tony Iommi said, ‘That’s just as well, because that’s the one we’ve all chosen” in that great Birmingham accent. And Ozzy suddenly turned on him and completely flipped. They started fighting. I was by the manager and I’ll never forget when he said to me, “I think that went rather well, don’t you?” I said, “What do you mean? It was mayhem and chaos in there. It was horrible.” And he said, “Well, we got an album cover out of it.” It was so rock & roll in a way. It was fantastic.

Pho

Cover Design: Hipgnosis/ G. Hardie Photography: A. Powell © Mythgem Ltd

Led Zeppelin, ‘Presence’ (1976)

At that point in Led Zeppelin’s career, things were getting quite dark. They weren’t getting along quite as well as they were around Zeppelin III or Zeppelin IV, and Jimmy was in quite a dark space, I think. But it was the same story as with Houses: I got a call from Jim; he said, “We need ideas.” “Do you have a title?” He said, “I’m not telling you. Haven’t any music for you to listen to.” I think they were recording in Stockholm or somewhere like that and I always remember he said, “See me in three weeks and come up with some ideas.”

Storm, myself, George Hardie, Richard Evans, a couple of other guys who used to work with us sat around and got a bit stoned to think up ideas. Somebody said, “Imagine a party where everybody has a black cat, because people love stroking cats. Imagine if people stroked cats and they got an energy from it, like a battery or something like that.” Black cats – it’s too silly, it’s too obvious. So we said, “Let’s think of something else that’s not a cat that will be kind of interesting.”

I said, “What about a black object?” The film 2001 has the black slab at the end of it when he’s going through space. And it just fit into place. The original black object that we made up was made up of cardboard and black velvet, and actually it was straight; it wasn’t twisted. I went to see the band, and I had the object sitting on a table in the hotel room. Robert and Jimmy walked in, and Jim took one look at it and went, “That is it. That represents everything that I feel right now.” And I had a series of pictures that I had torn out of National Geographic magazines from the 1950s and just painted in black paint that exact shaped object with ordinary people in ordinary situations. In other words: This was something you needed to live. It was food. It was a symbol of energy, of power, which is what Led Zeppelin were. 

It was so brave of a very, very heavy rock band to take such a surreal idea. I mean, a family sitting at a boat show with a black object on the front is that Led Zeppelin? I don’t think so. But if you take it another way, yes, it is Led Zeppelin. On the back cover, you’ve got a school teacher with a child with a black object on the desk teaching the child. The power of teaching. You know, it’s all there. Again, I take my hat off to band for having the balls to take such an outrageous idea. It’s all about power. That’s what Led Zeppelin were about: power. 

Photography: A. Powell © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

AC/DC, ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ (1976)

I remember two skinny little Australian guys coming into Hipgnosis’ studio, and I thought, “These guys aren’t going to amount to a hill of beans.” I really did. They were funny little guys and they started saying, “We need an album cover.” I was going to L.A. the next day and I said, “Well, why don’t I shoot something in L.A.?” And Storm called me when I got there and said, “I’ve got an idea. Remember those exposé magazines like National Enquirer, where they used to black out people’s eyes so you wouldn’t know who they were but you did really?” I said, “I’m just down the road from Sunset Strip where there’s sleazy motels. Why don’t we shoot something there and we’ll get a load of characters?” I shot the background there, flew back to England, and we hired a bunch of models and dressed them up in different stuff, outfits, put them in Hipgnosis studios and then created this collage all the way across, as they are standing in front of it. And it’s absolutely a perfect example of Hipgnosis work where everything is shot front to back, not how the eye sees it. So everybody is in sharp focus, yet the composition is as if they were there for real. That’s what gives it that surreal, almost painted kind of atmosphere to it. 

And again, I don’t think these two Australian kids, Angus and Malcolm, really understood it, and in fact they changed the cover later on to something that I would consider a bit more vulgar, a bit more obvious. But nevertheless, for me it went pretty well. It sold six million albums [in the U.S.]. 

A. Powell Graphics: G. Hardie “Yes” logo: R. Dean © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

Yes, ‘Going for the One’ (1977)

Yes were managed at
that time by a friend of ours who also
managed Tom Petty. They had been through some ups and downs, but they got [guitarist] Trevor Rabin into the band and things were changing, moving into a
more modern phase. [Artist] Roger Dean had fallen out with
them, but when they were looking for a new album cover, Roger
kindly suggested that perhaps we’d like to get involved. I told them, “Look, I don’t want to do anything like Roger
Dean,” and Jon Anderson said, “But we love his landscapes with amazing kind of
buildings and stuff like that.” So I thought, “I’m
stuck in this a little bit.”

It so happened that earlier in the year, I had
been with Paul McCartney in Los Angeles and I happened to go to Century City, which has got these amazing buildings. There’s two skyscrapers there that are absolutely spectacular. I said to Storm, “Those buildings could
look pretty amazing if we made a collage and had something going
on within that.” So I went and shot these buildings, came back,
and we decided on a naked figure swimming up through them with all these trails. It was just graphic design, really; there’s
no hidden meaning to it at all. The
most important thing is the shape of the buildings. When you put them together
like that it’s just impactful. 

If you see the cover opened out as a whole piece, he color jumps out at you. When I showed it to Jon, he
just said, “You’ve interpreted Roger Dean photographically.” I said, “That’s what
you asked for; that’s what you’ve got.” So they were very pleased with that. It
gave them a modern image, because Roger’s illustrations, as much as I love them, at
that time started looking slightly retrospective, whereas our photographic
images were moving forward. That’s no reflection on Roger. He just wasn’t
doing appropriate work for Yes moving into a new phase of their career, but it
all worked out very well.

A. Powell / P. Christopherson Graphics: Hipgnosis/ C. Elgie © Peter Gabriel Ltd

Peter Gabriel, ‘Peter Gabriel’ (1978)

We loved Peter because he was such fun to work with, but he is a person who can’t make up his mind about anything. He’s a person who will pontificate and think about things for years if he possibly could. So working with him was always an interesting experience because you’d come up with an idea and he’d hem and haw about it for weeks and weeks until the album was virtually on the release date and then decide to do something. He used to have arguments with Storm, because they were two intellectuals and disagreed on just about everything, but they always came to a fantastic conclusion. 

Peter was always insistent with us with having a portrait on the front. We didn’t like doing portraits but we said we’ll only do it if we can do it differently. Storm came up with this idea of Peter creating this scratch with his hands but he’s creating it for real on the picture of himself. Peter said, “Great, let’s go with it.” What I loved about him is he was so self-deprecating. He was never interested to play the pop star, ever. He had the chutzpah to allow you to do something interesting with his face. He wasn’t interested in looking attractive, he just wanted to have an interesting idea surrounding it and “Scratch” was the title so scratch is what he got.

A. Powell/ P. Christopherson/ S. Thorgerson © Peter Gabriel Ltd

Peter Gabriel, ‘Peter Gabriel’ (1980)

Peter always liked to have an image on the front cover, and he was happy for you to do something with it that would distort it or destroy it. “Melt” is a Polaroid image that makes him look like some deformed person. It was made by accident. This guy called Krims, who used to play with Polaroids, and we saw some work he’d done on landscapes where he pushed the undeveloped polaroid chemicals around. Polaroids take awhile to set, and in those days, Polaroid made the images on different layers, so you could push around each layer and create odd shapes. Storm experimented with this, and Peter said, “I love it. Let’s take a thousand Polaroids in your studio and let’s just all get together and have a go it and see what happens.” That session was such fun, because it lasted all day with just about and everybody in the studio – about 15 people – all taking polaroids of Peter and pushing things around. Peter said, “OK. Let’s all put them together, and we’ll choose which one is the best,” and it was a huge argument between Storm and Peter of which one he liked the best. Peter wanted to use all of them and Storm wanted to use one. Anyway, we had the best fun. It was like being back in art school all over again.

A. Powell Graphics: G. Hardie © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

10cc, ‘Look Hear?’ (1980)

Look Hear? is a Storm title. That cover was also called, “Are You Normal?” What Storm wanted to do was create a series of large, singular graphic letters that had all sorts of words and puns like those. I can’t remember all the other ones. It was very much all about the graphics. 

If you look on the front of it, you’ll see a little tiny picture which is a sheep on a sofa. I said to the guys, “I would prefer that the front cover was not the big letterings.” We had a huge argument and they said, “Well, OK, what do you see about this sheep on the sofa?” I said, “Really, it’s the ‘Are you normal?’ We’re talking about madness here, because if you’re not normal you’re nuts, so maybe we should do something about psychiatry. So the sheep represents people going to psychiatrists to repair themselves. The sea in the background represents the mind. The psychiatrist couch is very Freudian, and I want to go and shoot it in Hawaii where the biggest waves are.” It was the 1970s, and everybody was making lots of money because selling records was going out of fashion so he went, “Fine. We better go off and do it.”

So I got to Hawaii and there were no sheep. I should’ve called ahead I suppose [laughs]. I found out that the University of Hawaii had one sheep. So I managed to commandeer the sheep, but there was no Freudian couches to be found. Psychiatry was not prevalent in Hawaii at that time, so I had one made and took it to Sunset Beach. We put the sheep on the couch but of course when those huge waves came rolling in the sheep kept jumping off the couch in fear and trying to swim out to sea. It was a nightmare. Again, never work with animals and children. 

I managed to persuade the vets from the university to give him a shot of Valium to calm him down and put him on the sofa. I took this picture. It was just absolutely a one-off picture. The great thing is, if you see that picture blown up that sheep is looking at me with the most devilish eyes you’ve ever seen. It was really, really unhappy. Anyway, we used that as all the posters and everything else and stuck to Storm’s idea with the very large graphics all over it, with the pun, “Are You Normal? Look Hear!” But it was fun to shoot. 

Covers like this don’t happen anymore. The golden age of album covers is gone. We had the best 15 years of it. The money was there. We were so privileged to be able to go and do a picture like that.

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