Storm Thorgerson, Hipgnosis and the art of the album cover

By  David Tosh

Back in 1969, at the tender young age of 16, I was about to first experience the otherworldly sounds of a British rock group known as Pink Floyd. It was the age of Woodstock, and I had moved with my parents from the sweltering big city of Houston to the pastoral charms of rural Arkansas.

Despite the laid-back vibe of the country, as a passionate young record fan, I still sought out the most unusual sounds I could find, and the album cover for Ummagumma was too intriguing for me to pass up. At first glance, it seemed normal enough — four long-haired young men inside a room, in various positions at an open doorway. But on the wall of the room was a framed portrait of the same scene, only now the order of the men had changed.

Without changing the original positions (one in a chair, the next at the steps outside, further out one looking up, and the farthest member on his back, legs up), the group had switched with one another. And within the picture was yet another repeated picture, and within it another, so that in the course of the views within views, each member of the band was in each of the four positions. I was floored by this concept, and rushed home with the double vinyl album. After absorbing the spacey sounds, I went back to the cover art and discovered that it was designed by “Hipgnosis” — another fascinating concept. I started noticing more Hipgnosis covers on what usually turned out to be the most cutting-edge rock albums coming out of the U.K. at that time.

Hipgnosis was the title of Britain’s coolest art collective. It consisted of two school chums from Cambridge, Storm Thorgerson and Audrey “Po” Powell. Storm and Po were also friends with the lads from Pink Floyd, who came from the same area, and Hipgnosis (the double-meaning name combines “hip”, or to-the moment, with “gnostic,” relating to ancient learning; it came from graffiti found scrawled on the door of their apartment) began their career by designing the Floyd’s second long-player, A Saucerful of Secrets, in 1968.

Within time, their list of clients included some of the top acts in England, including Genesis, Yes, Black Sabbath, Alan Parsons Project, Peter Gabriel, 10cc, Led Zeppelin, UFO and Paul McCartney and Wings; Hipgnosis were also responsible for designing the cover to the groundbreaking novel, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Their approach to design was based largely on photography, and by utilizing many pre-Photoshop tricks (including airbushing, multiple exposures, etc.), their designs were decidedly surreal.

A quirky sense of humor was also a hallmark of their work. This was not your usual ad agency to be sure. Even their method of billing clients — “pay what you think it’s worth” — was more in keeping with the free-spirit feeling of the time, rather than the hustle-for-every-buck attitude of corporate America’s Madison Avenue ad agencies. And as former film students, Storm and Po tended to use models as actors, with cover designs looking like selected scenes from a movie.

Some of their most creative work was produced for their Cambridge pals in Pink Floyd. Album after album, including solo projects, bore the unmistakable stamp of the Hipgnosis team, and with the Floyd’s 1973 classic, Dark Side of the Moon, practically everyone in the world seemed to have a Hipgnosis cover or three lurking within their record collection. The concepts continued to amaze and confound, and with Animals and the infamous floating pig they made international news as well, when that giant pig floated off from the photo shoot at Battersea Power Plant, resulting in a frantic search (it finally deflated and landed in the driveway of a private residence).

The business grew, and more partners and collaborators were added, but by 1983, the partnership was dissolved, and Storm moved on to design covers on his own. As with his earlier Hipgnosis work, his new designs were always a step-ahead of the crowd, and the best and brightest of each new crop of musical acts sought his magic touch. Just check out some of the mind-blowing covers for groups like Mars Volta, Catherine Wheel, Anthrax, Umphrey’s McGee and The Cranberries to feature the Thorgerson touch.

Storm continued to work with guitarist David Gilmore, who had taken over the reins of the reconstituted Pink Floyd (after an acrimonious split with bassist Roger Waters, whose compositions once dominated the band’s output). For the Floyd’s 1987 release, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, Storm created one of his most fascinating — if not exhausting — concepts, creating a seaside scenario of 700 hospital beds, stretching as far down the coast as the eye can see. These were all real beds, each one complete with mattresses, blankets, and pillows — none of its tricks created in the computer. “700, yes 700”, Storm was quoted as saying, “wrought iron hospital beds separately made up and positioned on the beach. Madness to do it at all, but we had in fact to do it twice cos it rained suddenly the first time, dank grey drizzle, and we couldn’t see the distant half of the beds. “

The work of Storm Thorgerson, both with and without Hipgnosis, is filled with classic, iconic album covers, including such favorites like Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy; Deceptive Bends by 10cc; The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett; T. Rex’s Electric Warrior; Argus by Wishbone Ash; Al Stewart’s Time Passages; Wings’ Venus and Mars; Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap by AC/DC; I Robot by the Alan Parsons Project; Todd Rundgren’s Back to the Bars; Bad Company’s Rough Diamonds; Def Leppard’s High n Dry; David Gilmore’s About Face; Pieces of Eight by Styx; Rainbow’s Bent Out of Shape and Owner of a Lonely Heart by Yes.

Over the years, most of Storm Thorgerson’s archives have remained with the artist, locked away from the public eye. Other than a handful of beautifully produced art prints of selected album covers and CD reissues of the individual albums, there has been little of the actual artwork of Hipgnosis and Storm’s solo career to make into the hands of collectors.

This year, all that has changed as Heritage Auction Galleries has been awarded the honor of bringing some of these classic Rock images to the auction floor. Thorgerson, along with former Hipgnosis partner Powell, have selected some of their favorites from this massive archive of material, to be auctioned at Heritage’s headquarters in Dallas June 5-7, 2009.

Among the items in this first offering are original hand-drawn concept sketches for Pink Floyd’s Animals — a pencil sketch showing a young boy entering the bedroom of parents involved in the act of love-making (a concept later rejected by the band, and never before seen); a set of two photo collages from the Animals Battersea Station shoot, created for the CD reissue; the original photo print for Mike Rutherford’s Smallcreep’s Day 45 sleeve, using an innovative technique of splattering developer on the print, so that the only images of Mike are seen through the splatters (“one of my favorites”, recalled Storm in a recent phone conversation), and several sets of fine art prints, each one personally selected and personalized by Storm, using thumbprints, Hipgnosis logo stamps, and on one set, the individual letters H I P G N O S I S, one letter per print. The oversize prints either silkscreen or giclée high-quality prints.

Garry Shrum, now a consignment director at Heritage, has been a longtime fan of the work of Storm and Hipgnosis, and along with several other Heritage staffers, was instrumental in getting Storm to open up his archive. Shrum owned and operated a music shop, Blue Meannie, for many years.

“The first Hipgnosis cover I became aware of was Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon,” recalled Garry, “one of our shop’s best-selling records ever. There was something about the cover art that worked so well with the music — it made people want to buy the T-shirts, posters, buttons, and hats. The art was cool, and it matched the mood of the music so well. Our customers couldn’t get enough! In fact, people loved these images so much, they started coming in with fresh tattoos based on the designs!”

Speaking of Thorgerson’s designs as seen on skin, I asked Garry about the famous poster illustrating Pink Floyd’s back catalog, showing a lineup of shapely young women sitting nude, with their backs to the camera, and on each one was intricately painted one of the classic Floyd cover designs.

“Oh yes, of course!” laughed Shrum, “That was our best-selling poster of all time! We couldn’t believe how many of those we sold, and we were constantly ordering more. We often had to wait months to get more copies from our wholesale dealer because of the demand. Without a doubt, it was the best-selling poster in our 30 years of owning a shop!” That image appears as part of one of the fine art print sets currently offered in the Heritage sale.

Another groundbreaking album cover was Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door. “When that album came out, it was released with six different front covers” recalled Garry. “The album came wrapped in a plain brown wrapper, so it was hard to tell which version you got. Finally, I realized that on the top of the spine edge, there were a set of letters — A through F — so you could tell which front cover you were getting .”

The cover was set inside a barroom with a character identified as “John” at the bar and six other people around; each cover was set up to show us the view from the eyes of one of those six. In addition, the back cover showed another scene in the bar, this time showing you whose eyes you were looking through on the front. Embellished on the front was a design that resembled a large paint stroke over “John.” The whole thing was pretty mind-boggling, and fans were frantic to obtain a complete set.

“Most of our customers didn’t really notice until we put up all 12 front and back covers on display” said Garry. “And then, everyone wanted them. Storm’s covers had that effect on people. Whenever we would put up promo posters of new releases, whether it was Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Black Sabbath, or newer bands like the Cranberries or Mars Volta, our customers wanted to buy those posters, because the art was so fantastically different.”

Thorgerson is officially retired now, but interest in his art continues is a strong way. Two recent books on his incredible designs are available; “For the Love of Vinyl, the Album Art of Hipgnosis” and the limited-edition “Taken by Storm” are both currently selling on the Internet.

“We’re very honored to be able to offer this unique collection” stated Doug Norwine, Director of Music and Entertainment at Heritage, “and we hope for this to be the beginning of a long relationship with such an important figure in the world of rock.”

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