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Through the Prism: Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive

Behind the scenes of rock's premier sleeve design outfit
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Through the Prism: Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive

By Aubrey Powell

Thames & Hudson ISBN 978-0-500-25237-6

The story of Hipgnosis - probably the best known, and certainly the most distinctive, of all the rock era’s leading cover art designers - has been told on several occasions in the past.

Usually it is in the form of vast coffee table exercises, reproducing sleeve designs that can readily be described, instead, as icons - Pink Floyd’s cow, prism, pig and beds, Led Zeppelin’s object and naked children, 10cc’s diver, Peter Gabriel’s scratch marks and so forth. The stories behind the pictures are barely granted an anecdote; it’s the art that matters. (Well, apart from piggy’s escape.) As for the men behind the stories, they’re little more than names.

Through the Prism: Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive is one of those men, photographer Aubrey “Po” Powell, redressing the balance across 300 pages, luxuriously bound between sturdy boards one-eighth of an inch thick, and littered with color photos. And it’s a glorious tale.

Hipgnosis was formed by long-time friends Powell and Storm Thorgeson in 1968. The company name was gifted to them by Syd Barrett, whose own band, Pink Floyd, were among the pair’s closest friends. No surprise, then, that Hipgnosis’ first major commission should be the jacket to Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets.

Indeed, Floyd remains the band with which Hipgnosis are still best associated. They were, however, by no means the company’s only headline act. Hipgnosis were responsible for four Led Zeppelin sleeves, all but one of 10cc’s covers, a clutch of Paul McCartney jackets, and thereafter… you name them. Bad Company, Hawkwind, Yes, Genesis, Wishbone Ash, UFO, the Strawbs, the Pretty Things, Black Sabbath, Caravan, Quatermass, the Alan Parsons Project. And, without ever repeating themselves, you usually know when you were confronted by a Hipgnosis creations.

It might be the exaggerated presence (pun intended) of an unusual object… the distinctive sculpture on Wings Greatest Hits, the Pretty Things’ silk torpedo, the whatever it is that Bunk Dogger’s uniformed schoolgirl is indicating to the boggle-eyed amazement of her friends.

It might be an unusual costume - 10cc’s diver, Caravan’s absurd jacket, Space’s naked astronaut, Pink Floyd’s burning businessman. It might be a hideously distorted face - Peter Gabriel melting, Sad Cafe stretching, the Fabulous Poodles cracking. Few bands ever knew what Hipgnosis were going to scheme for them, but they knew the results would be staggering.

Regretfully, one must acknowledge that if Powell set out to tell every story behind every sleeve Hipgnosis designed, this book would be beyond endless. He focuses, then, on what we could probably describe as the obvious ones… Floyd, Zeppelin, Gabriel, 10cc, McCartney… with detours into deeper corners of the portfolio when the occasion demands it.

His personal life then slides effortlessly in around these tales, although readers will quickly realize he appears to have spent more time working than anything else, whether it’s seeking out ever-more bizarre sites for a photo session or dealing with the weather once he’d found them. He might be hanging out with a paranoid Peter Grant as Led Zeppelin came to a close, or taking one picture every hour, on the hour, on the road with Wings in 1976. Or hunting out a stuffed crocodile for a Brand X album cover; or dealing with the disappointment of having the Stones reject Hipgnosis’s proposed Goat’s Head Soup design. And so on.

All adds up to an utterly enthralling read, and one that you can only wish was longer, with even more stories… how some “backstage” photos from the Animals shoot wound up gracing the sleeve of Hawkwind’s next album. Where he found the icky something that graced the jacket of Toe Fat’s Two. How it felt when the Bunk Dogger album art caught the eye of the same Mary Whitehouse who is so gleefully speared by Roger Waters on Animals.

Or maybe he’s saving them for volume two? Goodness knows there’s enough tales to fill it.