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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 / 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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