Hipgnosis: The Art of Rock Covers

We had pending to write about this documentary by the great Anton Corbijn about the talented and prolific creative duo formed by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, who were behind the iconic design studio Hipgnosis. And it’s not just because it pays tribute to the authors of mythical album covers like Pink Floyd‘s “The Dark Side of the Moon”, but because it’s very interesting to see how they valued the art, creativity, and handcrafted design of album covers. They were the first to change the trend of covers, which were only dominated by artist portraits.

“Hipgnosis is responsible for some of the most iconic album covers of the 70s.”

This documentary, “Squaring the Circle” (The Story of Hipgnosis), was screened in the Spotlight section of Sundance, and to show who these creators were, Anton Corbijn interviews Aubrey “Po” Powell, the surviving member of the original Hipgnosis duo, and Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, or members of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, who were clients of the studio. They all speak to the camera about their experience and share some very curious anecdotes.

“Roger Waters, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, or Noel Gallagher are some of the testimonies in this documentary.”

Storm Thorgerson, Aubrey “Po” Powell, and Peter Christopherson

They met by chance at a party in Cambridge, and after a police raid, they sympathized and decided to work together. So after designing their first cover for their friends from Pink Floyd, they founded their design company in 1968, and they wouldn’t stop creating for great musicians.

Together, they worked well and complemented each other. Powell was more pragmatic and ambitious in economic matters, while Storm was too idealistic and uncompromising. Later, in 1974, Peter Christopherson joined them. And the truth is, from Hipgnosis, they created some of the most iconic and memorable covers of all time, such as Pink Floyd‘s “A Saucerful of Secrets” (1968), “Ummagumma” (1969), “Atom Heart Mother” (1970), “Meddle” (1971), and “The Dark Side of the Moon” (1973); T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior” (1971); Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” (1973) and “Coda” (1982); UFO’s “Strangers in the Night” (1979); Def Leppard’s “High ‘n’ Dry” (1981); Wings’ “Band on the Run” (1973) and “Venus and Mars” (1975); Electric Light Orchestra’s “The Electric Light Orchestra” (1972); 10cc’s “Sheet Music” (1974); AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (1976); Peter Gabriel’s “Peter Gabriel” (1977); Dire Straits’ “Communiqué” (1979); or Paul McCartney’s “Tug of War” (1982), among others.

In 1982, the trio decided to part ways, marking the end of Hipgnosis. Therefore, this documentary is so important because it pays homage to geniuses who merged art and music, leaving behind a beautiful legacy long before Photoshop or AI existed. Everything they did was done manually, and besides the complexity of that, they had such brilliant ideas that when immortalized, they became an epiphany.

Perhaps the new generations may not fully appreciate the significance of Hipgnosis in music history, and they may find it paradoxical that we attach importance to something that has lost much of its essence today, as music is primarily consumed through platforms like Spotify or YouTube.

Nevertheless, curiously, there has been a revival of vinyl records lately, and hopefully, this could lead to a resurgence of this kind of art that elevates music and its musicians to the highest level and connects us much more with them. Food for thought.

Fun facts:

– The name “Hipgnosis” comes from graffiti they found on the door of their apartment, and since they liked the powerful force of its meaning, they adopted it and named their company that way. Thorgerson also liked the word because it reflected a “pleasant sense of contradiction” to him, “for its coexistence”. On one hand, “Hyp” which meant new, cool, and groovy; and on the other hand, “gnosis” a broader concept defining spirituality or its absence outside the sustained and historical duality.

– The cover image of Pink Floyd‘s album “Animals” (cover of this article), depicting a pig floating between two of the chimneys of Battersea Power Station, was designed by composer and bassist Roger Waters and produced by Hipgnosis. The recording took place at the band’s studio, Britannia Row, in London. “Animals” is based on George Orwell‘s political fable, “Animal Farm”, where various societal castes are represented through different animals: dogs as law enforcement, pigs as ruthless rulers, and sheep as mindless pawns. While the novel focuses on communism, the album is a direct critique of consumer society. Additionally, since Roger Waters lived at the time in Clapham Common and passed by Battersea Power Station frequently, which was about to close, they decided it would be the perfect location for the cover. The flying pig (named Algie) was designed by Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw, and the German company Ballon Fabrik was responsible for producing it. On the “D” day, December 2, they inflated the pig with helium and placed it in front of the building, with a trained shooter ready to fire if it escaped. Unfortunately, the weather delays postponed the photo shoot, and the band’s manager, Steve O’Rourke, had not planned to hire the shooter for more days. So, against all odds, the pig balloon broke free from its moorings and landed in Kent, thanks to a farmer. They eventually superimposed the image of the pig in front of the power station, as they considered those to be better photographs.

(*) Cover photo “Animals” by Pink Floyd. Inner photo 1: “Dark Side of the Moon”; inner photo 2: “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd.