It’s hard to imagine a time when Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon didn’t exist. Its imagery has become so diluted into popular culture that it’s easy to forget its actual value as a rock & roll artifact.
Most of all, it stands as a beacon for an era of record cover design that we’ll never come into contact with again. Partly because artists and musicians have moved on to some other way to connect art and music, and partly because no label is going to hand over fifty grand for the artwork of the packaging if they don’t have to.
While any designer could probably have retired for the rest of their careers following the Dark Side cover, the thing is, it was just one in a number of celebrated sleeves designed by art house collective, Hipgnosis.
Hipgnosis was a trio made up of Storm Thorgerson, Aubrey Powell, and Peter Christopherson. Disbanding in the 80s, Thorgerson continued to work on record covers until his death in 2013, and Christopherson, who was a member of Throbbing Gristle, died in 2010. Powell now directs films, including Monty Python’s latest, Monty Python Live (Mostly). At the time, Powell and Thorgeson shared a flat with Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. Barrett inspired the name of the collective after he wrote “hipgnosis” on their front door. “Hip” referring to cool as a subculture, “gnostic” to organized religion, and “hypnosis” for the “artificially induced trance state resembling sleep characterised by heightened susceptibility to suggestion.”
From 1967 to 1982, they created cover art for Led Zeppelin, 10cc’s, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Scorpions, Paul McCartney & Wings, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, ELO, T.Rex, Yes, Black Sabbath, and many more, along with several other Pink Floyd covers. “Every Christmas we’d put all the artwork we’d done the whole year around the walls of the studio. It was extraordinary the output, what we’d managed to achieve between us,” says Aubrey Powell, speaking to me from London.
He describes the 15-year partnership as “very much like Andy Warhol’s studio in New York, where everybody pitched in,” whether that be coming up with ideas, or shooting scenes, and the vitality they shared as “extraordinary”.
“Storm had a young son, who he took care of and he generally stayed in England most of the time while I mostly spent my time out of England, photographing various ideas that we’d come up with Peter Christopherson,” he says.
“When we worked in England together and at the studio, the volume of work was so great during the 1970s that we couldn’t spend time designing at the same time as actually doing the physical work of photography. In those days, photoshop didn’t exist, and so our work was very much a very tactile business, very hands on.
“We used to meet very late at night. Probably two or three nights a week, til four in the morning sometimes, when we’d sit up and have design sessions — very much brainstorming sessions to try and create different ideas. We were very much in a lateral thinking kind of way, and often they were at Storm’s apartment and his apartment was always full of the most loose and loaded cannons you can imagine: there would be the guy in the corner throwing knives at a wall; there’d be a couple of Japanese groupies, drug dealers, all sorts of people and other designers, and it used to become free-for-alls. Probably Storm or I would come up with the initial idea for something and then other people would start throwing in ideas. It was hectic to say the least. At the very end it was always the same three of us left, and we’d hone it down to some succinct idea that made sense and would work, but it was a very free-for-all kind of atmosphere in those thinking sessions.”
It feels clichéd to reference Almost Famous in an article about 70s record covers. But the scene where William Miller flicks through his sister’s records in quiet awe paints a pretty good picture of how you imagine records and their sleeves were treated by music fans back then.
As Powell said in an interview several years ago, “In those days album covers were very important to the person who bought them because there wasn’t MTV, there weren’t music videos, and there wasn’t the saturation of YouTube or any other available source to learn about your favorite rock & roll star… You’d buy an album and scour the cover while playing it, looking for clues as to what made those artists tick.”
Before the 70s, most covers were just portraits of the artist or band, but as music became more abstract so did its cover art. In his book Classic Album Covers of the 1970s, Powell describes it as “the most important shot the artist had at getting across his self-image.”
And Hipgnosis’ style and designs were what these artists wanted. “The surreal photo designs that Hipgnosis produced were without any doubt what drew bands to us,” Powell tells me. “It was the salad days of album cover design… We could do what we wanted. We never took a brief from a band who told us what to do. We very rarely put photographs of the band on the front cover. We were almost always more interested in the design and what the design meant, and to make a design that was stimulating and interesting and enigmatic in some way.”
Hipgnosis always set out to “create narratives in the imagery” but also allow music fans to interpret it however they liked. “If you look at Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, the children running up the rocks on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, you can think what you like into it, or the picture of the cow on the Pink Floyd cover for Atom Heart Mother, you can think what you like into it,” he says.
According to John Harris, author of a book on Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s label EMI were baffled by Hipgnosis’ out there designs. For example, Atom Heart Mother had no lettering or words — the band name at least was expected to be on the record sleeve. (You can just picture the confused look on a music exec’s face when presented with the cover design.) Hipgnosis and the bands they worked with instead wanted to challenge their fans.
“Everyone has a different interpretation… What’s a cow doing on an album cover with no name of the band or anything; [the viewer is asked:] ‘What’s stimulating to you?’ It’s an abstract idea; we know what it’s about because we designed it. But the viewer can make what they want with it and listen to the music, and [look at] the album, so make the connections between the two. And if they don’t get it right, it doesn’t matter.”
Every Christmas, from 1967 to 1982, the walls of design collective Hipgnosis’ London studio were covered with the artwork of classic record covers.
But after a decade and a half, this approach was about to change, and the abstract album cover was about to be put to sleep.
You can thank punk music.
“The thing is, in 1976–77, everything changed radically in the whole world of rock & roll because the Sex Pistols came along,” says Powell.
“Jamie Reid, who was the designer of Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols, came up with an idea which was just to tear up bits of newspaper and stick them down on a piece of pink cardboard. Now that cost about $2 to do. The album covers that we were doing at the time cost about $50,000. Suddenly the world changed, punk was on us and at that time we knew that our days were numbered at Hipgnosis.
“The people who were going to afford the kind of interesting designs that we were doing were unlikely to continue spending that kind of money. By the 1980s, it had stopped.” And he admits, “At the end of that, in many respects, I was very happy to put down the Hasselblad [camera] and never pick it up again.” (Powell has, in fact, never picked up a stills camera since, saying, “I can’t even bear to shoot family snaps, let’s put it that way. It almost became an anathema to me.”)
That’s not to say Hipgnosis shouldn’t have stopped. The era of abstract and enigmatic designs was clearly over. Just like with every other aspect of music and society, punk shook down the foundations of the album cover and reassembled it into something else.
“I think that Jamie Reid’s version of an album cover was extremely valuable, as valuable as anything Hipgnosis did,” Powell says. “The fact that the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and all those punk bands did something that was much cheaper… did not take away in any way from the fact that they were doing interesting designs. It was just coming along under us, and taking the baton. I think their album covers that they designed in that punk generation were as valuable as the ones in our generation.”
It was around that time as well that new formats began to emerge for recording and listening to music. First with the cassettes that experienced a boom in the 80s, and then CDs in 90s, and now with online streaming and MP3s. Pair this with the proliferation of music videos — which are arguably the most important visual platform for musicians today — YouTube, and “visual albums,” and the record cover as a canvas has lost its impact.
“The format was either 12 inches square — for a record cover — or 24 by 12 inches — which was for an open out gate folding cover. Now obviously they were fantastic canvases to work from, they were big pieces of artwork — not like the current CDs or MP3s or whatever you have now,” says Powell. But he became frustrated by the limitations of the cover. Powell “wanted to move on with the narrative, and, of course, film is the obvious place to create that in a more fluid way.”
“It was a great traditional landscape to work with, but… after 15 years of literally having a camera strapped to my neck, I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
And you can see how musicians might feel this way too. Once the record cover was the only canvas they had to communicate a visual element to their music, but now there are so many more effective ways to get a message across. Just look at the emergence of gifs and 15-second Instagram videos.
While we won’t see another vinyl record cover like Dark Side of the Moon again, that doesn’t mean we won’t have another iconic visual moment in music. No doubt there are plenty to come in the future, but it’s fair to say they won’t come in the form of a record sleeve. But, you know, that’s pretty exciting.
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You can order Aubrey Powell’s latest book Hipgnosis Portraits, co-written with Storm Thorgerson and with a forward Robert Plant, here.