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Hipgnosis’ Aubrey Powell looks back at his iconic album designs

An updated version of Pink Floyd’s "A Momentary Lapse of Reason" marked an opportunity for Aubrey “Po” Powell, the band’s longtime visual collaborator, to revisit his cover art for that record. Moreover, it presented an occasion to take a look back at the groundbreaking and influential work he did as part of Hipgnosis, the leading album design group of the rock era.
A Momentary Lapse of Reason original artwork. Courtesy of Hipgnosis.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason original artwork. Courtesy of Hipgnosis.

By Bill Kopp

The October release of an updated and remixed version of Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason represented an opportunity to correct some of that album’s shortcomings, making it a truer example of the band’s strengths in the late ‘80s. It also marks an opportunity for Aubrey “Po” Powell, the band’s longtime visual collaborator, to revisit his cover art for that record. Moreover, it presents an occasion to take a look back at the groundbreaking and influential work he did as part of Hipgnosis, the leading album design group of the rock era.

More than any other artists or designers, the work of Hipgnosis defined the character of – and set a high standard for – rock album cover art. Between 1968 and 1983, the London-based art design group led by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell created a staggering body of work, developing iconic cover art and packaging for more than 250 albums.

Pink Floyd’s second LP A Saucerful of Secrets

Pink Floyd’s second LP A Saucerful of Secrets

Beginning with Pink Floyd’s second LP A Saucerful of Secrets and continuing through to Rainbow’s Bent Out of Shape, Hipgnosis worked with virtually every big name in rock (especially British artists) and played an important role in elevating album cover art into a creative discipline of its own. Powell explains that it’s in large part thanks to Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour that he ever got into album design.

Growing up in Cambridge, England, Powell was a childhood friend of Gilmour. A musician himself, Powell recalls asking his guitarist friend what he thought of his band, The Darktown Strutters. “I don’t think you should give up the day job,” Gilmour told his fellow teenage instrumentalist. “So that was it,” Powell says with a chuckle. “I decided to stay working in graphics, photographs and stuff like that. And it turned out to be pretty successful.”

Powell is greatly understating the matter. Browse the record collection of any aficionado of rock music and you’re likely to encounter dozens (if not hundreds) of Hipgnosis designs. From the “prism” cover of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon to Led Zeppelin album covers (Houses of the Holy, Presence and In Through the Out Door, to name a few) to Paul McCartney (Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound, Wings Over America and more), The Alan Parsons Project (I Robot, Eve and others), Hipgnosis has created the visuals that remain integral parts of those releases. They’ve also done the same for Emerson Lake and Palmer, Electric Light Orchestra, Bad Company, 10cc, The Hollies, Caravan, Al Stewart, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Todd Rundgren, Hot Chocolate, Bad Company, Scorpions and even Throbbing Gristle along with many, many more.

In 1968, Powell was working as a scenic designer for the BBC, and his friend Thorgerson (who passed away in 2013) was studying at the Royal College of Art. The two began working together on creative projects. “We’d been shooting book covers using infrared photography,” Powell recalls, “and David Gilmour had seen some. He said to Roger [Waters, Pink Floyd bassist and eventually lyricist], ‘Why don't we try with Storm and Powell, give them a chance to do an album cover, something different?’”

At the time, Pink Floyd was searching for a new approach and identity in the wake of losing founding member, guitarist, focal point and songwriter Syd Barrett. Part of their strategy was asserting creative control over all components of their work. But at the time, the idea was almost without precedent. “The only other band on [Harvest Records’ parent label] EMI that had creative control over their album covers was The Beatles,” Powell notes. So when Pink Floyd got their way, it was a big deal for them and the entire music industry.

It meant a lot for Powell and Thorgerson too, who named their new design outfit Hipgnosis, a pun based on the combination of “hip” and “gnostic” (spiritual learning). And the creative success of their cover art for A Saucerful of Secrets led to more work in a similar vein. Powell laughs at the memory: “Bryan Morrison, Pink Floyd’s manager, said ‘Ah, that’s great! It only cost me $50. I’ve got masses of other bands: The Pretty Things, Marc Bolan’s T. Rex. You can do their album covers, too!’”

Noting that his and Thorgerson’s fateful meeting with Pink Floyd was informal and not a “business meeting,” Powell emphasizes that had it not taken place, “we would never have gotten into the record industry.” He believes he would have stayed on his then-current path. “I probably would've gone on to be a production designer for movies,” he says. “And Storm would've probably gone onto a career in film or something. But by chance, that meeting changed the course of our lives.”

The cover and packaging for 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon is perhaps the best-known Hipgnosis project. By that point, Powell and Thorgerson were well established, having already designed more than 60 album covers. “Our career went into a trajectory that was absolutely off the block,” Powell says.” He still marvels at the path his life and career has taken. “I had no idea that 53 years after forming Hipgnosis that I’d be talking to you about album cover art,” he says. “I had not even the faintest thought of that.”

Powell and his creative partner (and their team of photographers, artists and designers) were afforded extraordinary creative latitude. “Very rarely did any band we worked for give us a specific brief,” he says. “Most of the time we had carte blanche.” Recording artists like Led Zeppelin and 10cc would ring up Hipgnosis, ask them to take on a project, and leave them to come up with their own ideas. “They’d say, ‘We’ve seen something you’ve done. We want to work with you,’” Powell says.

Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy album cover art

Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy album cover art

In some cases, there wasn’t so much as a kernel of an idea from the musicians to get Powell and Thorgerson started. “With Led Zeppelin,” Powell says, “there was no music to listen to, no lyrics to read. Jimmy Page would say, ‘Come up with something that’s going to really turn us on, and we’ll talk about it.’” He says that when it came to 1973’s Houses of the Holy album project, “we didn’t even know the name of the album!”

Thorgerson and Powell would then develop ideas making the most of that creative freedom. Houses of the Holy’s package features a distinctive photo of naked children crawling on Ireland’s most famous natural landmark. And Powell notes that today’s post-production trickery using tools like Photoshop wasn’t an option in those days. “I had to go to Giant’s Causeway and do all that as a real picture,” he emphasizes. And they really did set a man on fire for the photo that adorns the cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (1975).

Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album cover 

Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album cover 

“Everything in the 1970s was done by hand,” Powell says. “Taking a photograph, of course, was a process of loading film into a camera and having to choose your F-stop and focus and everything. There was no automation at all. Then, afterwards, there was all the processing of the film on negatives, there were contact sheets to be made, darkroom work to be done.” After all that, dozens of photographic prints would have to be made in hope of finding just the right one. Powell says that an album cover project routinely took six weeks’ time.

Some clients did have specific ideas; they looked to Hipgnosis to bring those ideas to fruition. “Paul McCartney was one of those,” Powell says. “Peter Gabriel was another.” He recalls Hipgnosis’ work on the ex-Genesis artist’s first three solo albums, all titled Peter Gabriel but known among fans by nicknames (Car, Melt and Scratch) that relate to their Hipgnosis cover art.

Peter Gabriel's Car, Melt and Scratch album covers

Peter Gabriel's Car, Melt and Scratch album covers

Powell recalls Gabriel’s instructions. “For each of those, he said, ‘I want to be on the cover. I want a portrait, but I want it to be very very different from anything that's been seen before. I don't just want a pop record cover. I want a Hipgnosis record cover!’”

And an enduring characteristic of Hipgnosis album covers is that they remain open to interpretation. They’re playfully arty in a way that’s never pretentious, but often enigmatic. A prime example is the packaging for Led Zeppelin’s 1976 LP Presence, featuring a collection of surreal photographs that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, much less the music contained therein. The unifying element appearing in all 10 photos is a black sculpture dubbed “The Object.”

Some 45 years after its completion, Powell remains amused by the project. He muses on how patently absurd it would be “if you said you were going to give Led Zeppelin – probably the most successful heavy rock band in the world – a cover of a family sitting around a table at a boat show with a black object!” He gives great credit to guitarist Jimmy Page for having faith in Hipgnosis and their sometimes quirky, idiosyncratic ideas. “I take my hat off to Jimmy Page for having the foresight to think that a surrealist picture would be far more interesting than the traditional fare for heavy rock album covers,” he says.

Led Zeppelin’s 1976 LP Presence

Led Zeppelin’s 1976 LP Presence

While Powell is justifiably proud of the work he did with Hipgnosis, he doesn’t make outsize claims as to its importance. “I think that many of the artists that we worked with were simply drawn to us because the work was good,” he says. “I don't mean to blow my trumpet by saying that, but I think we delivered some interesting concepts.”

And he’s the first to admit that not every Hipgnosis album cover was a classic. Though he demurs when asked to cite a specific example, he allows that “not everything was great. It was no question that Storm and I did what we used to call ‘turkeys.’ There were some ideas that you think, ‘It's going to work out well,’ and actually looked terrible at the end.” And in some of those cases, it was too late to turn back. “Sometimes,” Powell chuckles, “people were very polite and used them anyway.”

Powell and Thorgerson would sometimes come up with a good album cover concept even before they had a specific use for it. He relates a story of one such design. “When Robert Plant made his first solo album, I presented a load of ideas to him, because we used to have them all sketched on little 12-inch pieces of paper and stuff like that. I remember he picked up this card, and he turned it over on the back.” There he saw the names of several other bands, each with a line through it.

Plant was aghast. He said, ‘Have you been showing this idea to other people?’” Powell admitted that he had. “And Robert said, ‘What a bunch of chancers! I thought it was designed especially for me!’” In the end, Plant didn’t go with that design, either. But Powell remained philosophical about the whole affair, reminding himself of a kind of Hipgnosis mantra: “Look, a good idea is a good idea. If you don't want it, we'll sell it to somebody else.”

That happened when Powell was asked to design a cover for XTC’s 1978 LP, Go 2. “Andy Partridge came to Hipgnosis’ studio,” he recalls. “We showed him a bunch of things that we designed for them, and he didn't like any of them.” At one point, Partridge cast his gaze across the room, spying another design idea of Thorgerson’s. “It was a typewritten sheet that said, ‘This is a RECORD COVER,’ and it described all the things about the record cover,” Powell explains.

The XTC singer and songwriter inquired for whom that design was intended. Powell says that Storm replied, “Well, it's just an idea. We'll sell it to anybody.” Partridge responded, “I love it. I'll have it.” The finished design includes the band’s name and the album title only once amid the some 500-plus words that fill the 12x12 space.

In fact, it’s a mark of Hipgnosis’ stature in the music world that their designs often appeared without any kind of logos, band names or titles superimposed over them. One has to look closely at the Presence LP cover to find the band name and album title, subtly embossed near the top right-hand corner. And on many other classic covers – Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, starring Lulubelle III the cow, for example – there’s no lettering at all.

“I remember the record company completely freaking out at me about that one,” Powell laughs. “I said, ‘'Well, that's what the band wants, and that's what the band gets!’” And he notes that the bizarre cover photo worked in the band’s favor. “Because in the record stores [among] those huge towers of records with a million albums, everybody saw a picture of a cow,” he points out. “It looked so different that they were thinking, ‘What's that? Who is that?’ It worked as an alternative to taking the commercial route.”

Hipgnosis ceased operations right around the time of (and largely because of) the dawn of the CD era and twilight of the vinyl record. Powell remembers the day. “I remember Storm and [Hipgnosis’ third partner] Peter Christopherson turned up at my house one afternoon in about 1982 with a bunch of flowers. He said, ‘We want to stop doing album covers. There's nothing in it for us anymore when we're working in a format that's 5 inches by 5 inches. The end is nigh; Let's get out.’” Powell was initially against the idea. “We were so successful by that time,” he recalls.

But the Hipgnosis principals were savvy enough to make a smart pivot. “Storm said, ‘We need to get onto the MTV train and start making films.’ And he was quite correct.” Within a year, Powell and Thorgerson were deeply immersed in music videos, working for many of the same clients who had chosen them to create album art: “The Paul McCartneys, the Robert Plants, the Paul Youngs,” Powell says. “Consequently, we had a very successful company called Greenback Films.”

Even though he and Thorgerson made their mark using old-school technology, today Powell has long since totally embraced the digital medium. And in his current role overseeing the visual elements of Pink Floyd reissues and archival releases, he uses the tools that are at his disposal.

New cover artwork for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason

New cover artwork for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason

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The new release of Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason is revisionist in a number of ways. It removes the drum parts played by session musicians – Carmine Appice, Jim Keltner and others – replacing them with new parts played by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, the only musician to appear on every single one of the band’s releases. And many of the session keyboardists’ parts have been replaced by recordings of Richard Wright. The result is a record that sounds much less “1980s” and more a piece with the rest of the band’s body of work.

And for this new version, Powell took the opportunity to revisit his haunting cover art, featuring countless hospital beds arranged on a British seashore. He considers the project a privilege. “Having the opportunity to work on Pink Floyd re-releases – or any other band's re-releases – allows me to indulge myself in two ways,” he says. “One is to make the quality of the pictures better than they were before, and another is to add additional information – unused photographs, unused graphics, new rediscovered things in the archives – to make them far more interesting than they were when they were first released.”

That’s a tall order indeed. Because if there’s one characteristic that unifies all of the hundreds of Hipgnosis album covers, it’s that they’re never less than interesting. “The gem of the idea behind the design is the most important thing,” says Aubrey Powell. “How you get there is [to] use the best people and the best tools you can.”