How Pink Floyd were Hipgnotised
- Credit: Archant
As the V&A opens its audio-visual Pink Floyd exhibition, a complete catalogue of album covers by legendary studio Hipgnosis reminds us of the genius of late Belsize Park album sleeve designer Storm Thorgerson
Aubrey Powell dates the heyday of the album cover from Peter Blake’s 1967 design for The Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper to the advent of CDs in 1982. Those were exactly the 15 years that saw Hipgnosis become one of the world’s most influential design studios, creating iconic sleeves for Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, T Rex, and Peter Gabriel.
It was Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, during an acid-induced psychotic episode, who coined the name, etching it in biro on their shared Kensington flat at the height of London’s swinging sixties.
Later when Powell founded the firm with “creative visionary” Storm Thorgerson at offices in Denmark Street “it was the invention of a crazed genius that we adpoted as a name for our company.” In his foreword to The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue by Powell, (Thames&Hudson £24.95) Peter Gabriel writes that at the offices “you would be insulted, laughed at, entertained and challenged but you could be certain Hipgnosis would deliver.”
Gabriel describes the three partners as “the wild, the weird and the wonderful”. Storm (pictured in 1977 far right) was the wild one “spewing an endless stream of insults humour and a limitles source of unorthodox ideas, he was sharp as a whip.”
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Peter Christopherson (left) who joined later was “weird, intense, and polite”, while Powell was the master photographer who charmed and unruffled the feathers ruffled by the argumentative Storm.
Thorgerson had gone to school in Cambridge with Floyd members Barrett and Roger Waters and they shared a London flat. When the band were looking for a sleeve design for their second album he offered his services. A Saucerful of Secrets featured an infrared photograph of the band taken near Hampstead Heath ponds and led to a string of more commissions.
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In his essay in the book, which features all the company’s album covers, Powell describes Storm as difficult, combative and hyperactive but with an endless source of ideas that were the unorthodox driving force behind their success. In the days before CGI, he would set up complex photographs; hundreds of beds on a Dorset beach for A Momentary Lapse of Reason, or a burning businessman for Wish You Were Here. The Dark Side of the Moon’s iconic prism he told the Ham&High in 2009 “was cobbled from a standard physics textbook, which illustrated light passing through a prism,” and sprang wanting a simple graphic that connected the ambition and madness explored in the lyrics.
The 70s was a time when artists enjoyed rare creative control says Gabriel: “Storm saved his best punches for the record company, they would love to have gone elsewhere but this was a time when the artist not the accountants had the power and they could insist.”
Powell agrees that working mostly for bands not labels, Hipgnosis could put forward far-fetched ideas and knew they’d be considered.
“The packaging of vinyl became a big part of the music industry. The album cover became a signpost for the music inside and a visual interpretation of each band’s image,” he writes.
Im the days before MTV or YouTube, the record sleeve was not only a band’s chief marketing tool that had to stand out amid the racks of record shop vinyl, but the fan’s main connection to its idols.
With their disdain for advertising, Hipgnosis often featured no title, text or band image on the sleeves, letting their eccentric, innovative images speak for themselves.
“Our mantra was that a good design would always create interest as long as it was eye-catching and told a fascinating narrative,” says Powell, pointing out that the record company hated the cow on Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother but it became their first UK No1.
In 1982 The company disbanded and started making music videos. Thorgerson who had bought his studio on Haverstock Hill in the 70s had a falling out with Powell over money and went on to make videos for Paul Young, Nick Kershaw, Bruce Dickinson and Dave Gilmour before continuing with his Storm Studios which continues despite his death in 2013.
Powell calls him “my surrogate brother, early mentor and near nemesis”. Colleagues hailed him “blunt, bullish sweet and caring and Gilmour called him “a great friend and constant force in my life”.
In a 2009 Ham&High interview Thorgerson, who lived and worked around Belsize Park and West Hampstead raising his son Bill as a single dad, said: “If I hadn’t known the Floyd then I’d probably have done something else, if not better. Sometimes the Floyd say ‘We think you owe your career as much to us as we do to you... or more. Well, I wonder.” He compared the creative process to “a mental journey”.
“Most of it takes place at the beginning - the conceptualising of the ideas. It’s like a flight of the imagination, and it’s very pleasurable indeed.”
Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains opens May 13 at the V&A an audio visual journey through their music, design and staging. vam.ac.uk