AN INFLATED PIG FLIES OVER a disused power station; two men shake hands, one with a burning arm; a fleet of hospital beds lines a beach; a sadhu levitates next to an ancient water tank. And then light is diffracted through a prism on a black square.
THE WORKS OF HIPGNOSIS, a London-based art design group, fit the surrealist bill. Yet the Hipgnosis oeuvre notably differs from typical surrealist imagery in that it contains real constructions—no Photoshop, no nothing. The group denied the ease of making impossible images with mediums that could readily accommodate fantasy, like painting or collage. Instead, its process involved creating improbable mise-en-scènes: flying to the Sahara, painstakingly constructing the vista, and then taking a picture. This was the craft of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, the men behind the company who devoted their careers to dreaming up the covers of rock music’s greatest albums. Thorgerson passed away last spring, keaving behind an enduring visual legacy.
“Hipgnosis never thought about what was happening at the time,” Aubrey Powell told the Independent. “Sure, we were influenced by our upbringing—Fellini, Alan Watts, or Dali—and we probably subconsciously plagiarized the works of others, stamping it with our own identity. But current affairs never entered into the equation. No anti-Vietnam or Down With Margaret Thatcher images for us—the album cover image should be able to transcend any era.”
Their iconic visual language shied away from politics, instead rooting itself in cultural allusions. René Magritte’s “Son of Man” echoes in the faceless figure on the inside of Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here. Andy Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper reflects in the bovine cover of their 1970 release Atom Heart Mother. Their canvas was the big juicy sleeve of a vinyl record, their fuel the wacky material of a booming sci-fi age. And with Pink Floyd, Hipgnosis conjured up their most powerful symbol.
THORGERSON MET ROGER WATERS and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd at school in Cambridge as teenagers. They played rugby together, sat around by the river along with Powell and David Gilmour. The friendship stuck. They shared an apartment in central London, and one day Barrett scrawled the word HIPGNOSIS on their apartment door in a fit of elegant wordplay: hip (cool) + gnosis (mystical knowledge). In 1967 Powell and Thorgerson returned the favor, designing their first cover for Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets.
Amidst stacked guitar shops on London’s Denmark Street sat Hipgnosis’ studio, from which a steady stream of album art flowed. To them, designing cover art was more than advertising a product—it was about creating an accompaniment to an immersive musical experience. It was about strangeness, and the strangeness caught on. “Enigmatic symbolism as a representational icon became preferable, even if it had nothing to do with the music inside the cardboard package,” says Powell. “Pink Floyd with a cow on the cover and no signature to say who they were or what the title of the record was...unthinkable. But successful.”
In early 1973, it took Pink Floyd about five minutes to select the cover amongst several options for their forthcoming album, The Dark Side of the Moon. The diffracting prism stood out from the rest for its boldness and simplicity. “Some things took us weeks of deliberation, but DSOTM came quite easily,” Powell reflects. The image’s enormous success, however, paved the way for a new era of brand exploitation, as it began to be slapped onto every sellable object in sight. “I am flattered that people still walk around with DSOTM tee shirts and can buy flip flops and alarm clocks and coffee cups with the image on them. But it breaks my heart that rock and roll bands will sell their souls for another buck,” laments Powell.
Perhaps this proliferation was due to the fact that cover art back then was the sole visual tether between musicians and their fans. Before the advent of the music video or the Instagram feed, album art dominated the music world. And the power of the LP sleeve stretches far beyond the reach of Hipgnosis and other album designers. In 1969, The Beatles take a nonchalant stroll across a zebra crossing on Abbey Road and decades later tourists still exasperate motorists with mimetic performances that pay homage to that legendary scene. In 1967, Andy Warhol screen prints a banana for The Velvet Underground’s debut album and decades later there are copyright suits about its use on unlicensed merchandise. Andy would be proud, because consumer culture has proved him right: The banal object he picked was elevated to iconic status, reproduced by the millions, and became banal again.Do these images really represent the music they brand? Many seem to detach from their musical counterparts to float away into a realm of their own significance, and with it, their own commercial value. The Dark Side of the Moon may just be a fortuitously rare case where both design and music redefined their genres. But Powell believes that the seemingly delicate balance between music and image actually tilts in his favor. “The Rolling Stones’ Andy Warhol zip cover,” he challenges. “Ask someone in the street if they know that image and I would bet nine times out of ten they recognize the album cover but couldn’t sing a note off the record.” Try again. “Take John Pasche’s Rolling Stones red tongue logo, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy—same deal. Given the test of time, if you are not an ardent fan of the band, I believe the visual image will more likely stand up.”
So on one hand, we have cover art that far surpasses its musical accompaniment in reach and recognition. But on the other, we have a digital age that has shrunk cover art to reflect its lessening significance. We are now in “the age of the thumbnail,” Thorgerson declares in an uncredited YouTube interview, an age where the forms in which we consume music have drastically changed. Powell reminisces about the days of a vastly different consumer culture: “You’d go to a record store on a Saturday afternoon to buy your favorite band, but then you would have enough money to buy another record, and often the second album was bought on the merit of the cover alone.
“Your album collection defined who you were—cool or uncool. The greater the collection lining the walls of your flat, the more upstanding a person you were. And you could roll joints on them, sniff a line of coke off them, and then spend hours studying the nuances of what was displayed throughout the album cover design.”
FORTY YEARS LATER, this experience has been digitized. An August 2013 Rolling Stone article recounts plummeting album sales—both physical and digital—this summer, while streaming services like Spotify and Pandora continue to grow. Music producer Nigel Godrich speculates: “If people had been listening to Spotify instead of buying records in 1973, I doubt very much if [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side would have been made. It would just be too expensive.” With very few people buying physical albums today, musicians are beginning to explore new formats in which to present their work. Jay Z’s much-awaited July release Magna Carta… Holy Grail was introduced to the market via a Samsung Galaxy app that prompted social media users to share redacted lyrics in order to reveal more content. iTunes LP is an attempt to preserve the album booklet online, providing purchasers with multimedia to peruse while listening.
But despite the richness of content, it lacks the intimacy and tactility that remains an exclusive quality of physical packaging. When we listen to music online it’s often tucked away in a minimized tab, and even if one looks at the cover, it’s hard to be excited about a pretty but tiny square in the corner. And we don’t necessarily want the album—playlists now offer a personalized alternative, which reduce cover art to a bunch of pixels on a grid of many. Nevertheless, Dan Abbott of Thorgerson’s later design company StormStudios remains hopeful about the status of his field: “When we design an album cover it also gets used for posters, print and web ads, iTunes thumbnails, on the band’s website and so on,” he tells the Independent. “One might say it has even more uses these days!”
THE ALBUM COVER IS NOW one of many ways in which we interact with artists we love. But like most forms of art, it will one day lose its potency; and as it does, it graciously makes way for more experimental forms of presentation. The focal point of music’s visual culture has long evolved into its more dynamic incarnations—the graphic t-shirt, the music video, the website. While physical packaging has become a vestigial element, Powell is right to believe that music will always require a visual counterpoint. Whether the cover art for an EP or the video for a single, music and image are inextricably linked. And though Powell began our interview with a deterministic statement—“the role of the album cover no longer exists”—he ended on an optimistic note. “I would love to be around in 100 years to experience a re-release of The Dark Side of the Moon and see what the clever clogs come up with then,” he muses. “Mind blowing, I’m sure.”
MAYA SORABJEE B’16 has an album collection that would make her uncool.