Portals and Presences: The Surreal Landscapes of Hipgnosis

Michael Grasso / September 16, 2020

Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue
By Aubrey Powell
Thames & Hudson, 2017

There’s always a danger of excessively romanticizing the era of the vinyl LP. Issues of sonic fidelity and durability aside, though, there’s one aspect of records on 12-inch wax that seemingly everyone does miss, and that’s the full-size record cover. Album covers during the heyday of psychedelic rock and roll were gateways to other worlds, their art often the province of esteemed painters and illustrators, their cryptic surrealism often filled with esoteric codes and symbols. Probably no other artistic collective was more famous during this decadent era than the London partnership known as Hipgnosis. From its edenic origins palling around with the rising stars of the late-’60s London psychedelic underground through to its mature period making iconic platinum album covers for global sensations like Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, and Led Zeppelin, the creative forces behind Hipgnosis gained a rightful reputation as artistic visionaries whose work didn’t merely create identifiable brands and images for a musical group. Hipgnosis covers added to the mystique of the music, creating a visual component that rendered itself an indelible part of the listening experience.

“Album covers… defined you,” says Hipgnosis founder Aubrey “Po” Powell in his “Welcome to Hipgnosis” history in 2017’s Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue, a 300 plus page full-color hardcover monster that reproduces the collective’s entire album cover output from 1967 to 1984. “The covers gave an inkling of your personality, your musical tastes and preferences, and just how up to date and hip you were.” Powell, Hipgnosis’s photographer, met his creative partner Storm Thorgerson at a hashish-suffused party across the street from his rooming house (that was suddenly raided by the police) attended by much of Pink Floyd. In that afternoon, a bond was formed between Powell and Thorgerson, a graduate student in film at the Royal College of Art. In these swinging, soon-to-turn-psychedelic times, Thorgerson and Powell were at the center of a music and art scene that would break out of the cozy confines of a few odd students and onto the global stage. Named after a piece of graffiti that Floyd’s Syd Barrett scrawled on the door to their apartment in pen, Thorgerson and Powell’s partnership (Throbbing Gristle member Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson would join in the mid-1970s) created some of the most memorable album covers of the era.

Hipgnosis’s first rock client was Pink Floyd: seen here are three of their Floyd covers: the Dr. Strange-meets-real-life-alchemy of 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets, the recursive design of 1969’s double album Ummagumma, and the iconic 1973 cover for The Dark Side of the Moon.

Vinyl . Album . Cover . Art . itself is equal parts fond (post-)hippie memoir and hard-nosed realistic account of what it was like to run a business in the often high pressure, big-money business of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll. The book contains a brief—if frank and fascinating—foreword from Peter Gabriel, who worked with Hipgnosis while leading Genesis and for his first three solo album covers. Throughout the hundreds of album covers, Powell provides a wry and informative running commentary on the personalities, problems, and sudden moments of inspiration—provided by both musicians and the cultural and natural environment—that contributed to Hipgnosis’s success. The Surrealist movement of the 1920s and specifically photographer Man Ray get quite a few name-drops in Powell’s assessment of the Hipgnosis catalog, and it’s easy to see why. The nude human form, out-of-place manmade objects juxtaposed with the organic, obvious, and often unnatural-looking photo collage: all of these definitive Surrealist techniques appear with frequency in Hipgnosis’s early output.

Much of the overall aesthetic of psychedelic rock took its inspiration from long-past artistic movements with Romantic, back-to-nature overtones: Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts, notably. With the surrealist edge of Hipgnosis’s designs, however, a flash of danger and alien weirdness was added to rock’s visual lexicon. Hipgnosis’s efforts at whimsical storybook-style covers for the Hollies and Genesis stick out like sore thumbs: solid efforts, but very much against the subversive grain of most of their work at the time. The covers where Hipgnosis unites Victorian twee with counterculture edge—such as using century-old techniques to hand-tint pastel color on Powell’s contemporary photos—do provide a pleasing synthesis of old and new. 

Gentle nostalgic folkie Al Stewart’s understated style might not seem like it jibes with the fantastic scenes conjured on Past, Present and Future (1973) and Time Passages (1978). On the other hand, Dark Side of the Moon producer-turned-bandleader Alan Parsons’s 1978 album Pyramid was directly influenced by Parsons being “preoccupied with the Great Pyramid of Giza,” to the point of “obsession” and “out-of-body experience.”

But it’s not just the art movements of the past that provided Hipgnosis with ambient inspiration. The counterculture’s well-attested conscious fusion of old and new, of the esoteric with contemporary pop and outsider culture, including science fiction and comic books, is on display throughout the Hipgnosis corpus. One of their very first commissions, Pink Floyd’s 1968 A Saucerful of Secrets, very obviously embodies this fusion, with its mixture of images from “Marvel comics and alchemical books.” Powell and Thorgerson attest to their being “avid followers of Stan Lee… Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby,” all while recognizing that “in those heady days of 1968—a man was soon to land on the Moon, alchemy was a hot topic, extraterrestrials were a certainty, Tarot readings and throwing the I Ching were de rigueur—the search for enlightenment in the East was a definite must.”

Whichever way the cultural winds were blowing, Thorgerson and Powell always forged a link to the music in their designs. Even in cases where the imagery looks too mystically epic or weird for the music on the disk, such as the covers for Scottish folk musician Al Stewart’s Past, Present, and Future (1973) and Time Passages (1978), the music’s overall themes—remembrance, nostalgia, prophecy, and folk memory—contain a tenuous throughline justifying figures leaping through strange mystic portals or tuning into a radio station that glitches out all of reality. All these strains of the magical and surreal, from Renaissance alchemists to haunted Victorian portraitists to avant-garde plumbers of the post-World War I collective unconscious to Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer—Hipgnosis synthesized these with the subconscious themes of the music to create visions that defied reality. Powell’s photographic eye and Thorgerson’s dreamlike visions found common cause in composing images that looked like set pieces on strange alien worlds or in magical faerie realms. But even with all the photographic trickery and post-production flourishes available to them as they moved out of student darkrooms and into their own studio, Hipgnosis still found inspiration out there on our Earth’s weirdest real-life spots. From the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland to a cracked, dry Tees estuary in the North of England to deserts in North Africa and the American West, Hipgnosis’s most memorable landscapes are worlds where something has gone awry, where weird monuments, alien beings, and strange hauntings abound.

Hipgnosis had a knack for using unique real-world backdrops to create eerie scenes for their album covers. Italian rock progressivo group Uno’s self-titled 1974 album depicts a mysterious hieratic harlequin with a glowing geodesic dome for a brain emulating the pose of the famous English chalk figure, the Long Man of Wilmington.

Of course there are the usual stories of rock star excess in the book, with the personnel from Hipgnosis being flown all across the world for photo shoots and consultations with the biggest names in ’70s corporate rock. In many cases, the musicians and managers themselves couldn’t resist being part of the process. Paul McCartney enjoyed hamming it up on the cover of Band on the Run, and a few years later Macca wanted to be the one to personally place the giant letters on a London theater marquee for the cover of Wings At The Speed Of Sound. Noted hard case Peter Grant, the imposing manager of Led Zeppelin, was giddy—he “burbled with glee,” according to Powell—over Hipgnosis’s proposal for a worldwide scavenger hunt of a thousand replicas of the eerie totem from the cover of 1976’s Presence. One could argue that Hipgnosis, Led Zeppelin, and Peter Grant invented the music industry alternate-reality game in 1976 (sadly, the surprise Presence publicity stunt never got off the ground after it was leaked by the music trades).

Powell is honest throughout the book about the various misfires; he finds some of their ideas in ridiculously poor taste upon reassessment and most modern observers would be hard-pressed to disagree. The collective’s pinpoint arch visual humor certainly sometimes misses the mark. If I were to sum it up: the Hipgnosis catalog contains a few dozen stone-cold classics, a bunch of forgettable designs, and a few that look like rejects for Spinal Tap’s album Shark Sandwich. Hipgnosis’s wit was used to best effect when channeling those common cultural currents mentioned above: for example, 10cc’s classic cover for their album Deceptive Bends—the creation of which is broken down in great detail by the late Thorgersen in a contemporary piece from 1977 included in the book—talks about the physical and logistical challenges in place from the beginning but also places the imagery of the diver carrying the helpless damsel in its proper context with “monster” B-movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Robot Monster (1953). Trawling our collective pop culture unconscious, Hipgnosis called forth all kinds of creatures from the deep over their less than two decades on Earth, creatures that walk amongst us long after the collective’s demise.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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One thought on “Portals and Presences: The Surreal Landscapes of Hipgnosis

  1. Worth mentioning an earlier version of Hipgnosis work called ‘Walk Away Rene’, published by Paper Tiger in 1978, a very idiosyncratic version by Storm Thorgerson. My copy is now falling apart. It has to be said that some of the Hipgnosis covers are bad (such as Toe Fat), or a bit dodgy (such as Montrose’s ‘Jump On it’). But the cover for LP by Trees, ‘On The Shore’, is a masterpiece.

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