In the early 1980s, Aubrey Powell, the then 33-year-old co-founder of the pioneering British design company Hipgnosis, flew to Hawaii to photograph the cover of “Look Hear?” from british rock band 10cc. album.
Filming involved a specific sheep (there was only one available on Oahu, at a university farm) sitting on a vintage shrink’s couch (which had to be built by a Honolulu prop company) on the north shore of the island. The sheep, out of her element and frightened by the waves, ruined the first day of the session, so a vet was called in to calm the animal down for the second day. Success.
The final cost of the cover design, including airfare and a shepherd, came to £5,043, approximately $26,000 in today’s money and a large sum for the time. (But then again, as Powell, known as Po, said in an interview, the music industry “was awash with money” back then.) Ultimately, at the urging of other Hipgnosis co-founder Storm Thorgerson, the UK version of the LP sleeve was dominated by the words “Are You Normal” in large block letters. The picture of the sheep on the chaise longue shrank to the size of a postage stamp.
In an interview, 10cc singer/bassist Graham Gouldman admitted that although album art had been explained to him in the past, he couldn’t remember what it meant. “But I know it’s a brilliant image,” he said. As for all that expensive effort for such a small image? “It doesn’t matter, right?” Gouldman said. “It’s art. So you have to do it.” He added: “And in the case of Hipgnosis, if you can get the record company to spend the money, then good for them.”
Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn, director of “Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis),” a documentary about the design firm that opens in New York on June 7, had a slightly different take. “It’s just not normal to fly all the way to Hawaii to make that movie,” he said. “But it’s a good story.”
“Squaring the Circle” is full of this and other good stories about the often absurd paths London-based Hipgnosis traveled in search of the perfect LP sleeve in the pre-Photoshop era. Among the 415 album covers Hipgnosis made between 1968 and 1983 was Pink Floyd’s “Animals” (1977), for which a 40-foot inflatable pig was photographed floating between the chimneys of London’s Battersea Power Station. Unfortunately, the only cable attached to the pig snapped and the balloon went up into the flight area of Heathrow Airport.
“That was all very exciting and quite alarming,” recalled Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, whose bandmate Roger Waters came up with the idea for the session, “because it was obvious you could have a major airline disaster. that it happened to fly to the escaping pig.” No aircraft were damaged in the making of the LP cover, but in the end Hipgnosis had to resort to photo collage to achieve the desired effect.
Shot largely in high-contrast black-and-white by Corbijn, himself a rock photographer and video director known for his work with U2 and Depeche Mode, the documentary features new interviews with Powell, as well as a number of former clients. of high-profile Hipgnosis, including the three surviving members of Pink Floyd (David Gilmour, Mason and Waters) and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel and Gouldman are also among the talking heads. Noel Gallagher, a fan, provides modern context and comic relief.
Much of the film focuses on the close working relationship between Powell and Thorgerson, who emerged together on the Cambridge, England art scene in the 1960s, where they were friends with young members of Pink Floyd. (Peter Christopherson, a founding member of the British industrial band Throbbing Gristle who died in 2010, became a full partner of Hipgnosis in 1978.) The design studio would end up making almost all of Pink Floyd’s album covers, including “Atom Heart Mother”. (1970), which was simply a photograph of a cow in a field, and most famously, “The Dark Side of the Moon” (1973), with its iconic image of a triangular prism refracting light into a rainbow pattern. . (The second best-known cover of Hipgnosis also came out in 1973: Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy,” which features a group of naked children climbing basalt columns.)
The “Atom Heart Mother” jacket in particular represented a major departure from the style of the time, which Mason described as putting “a picture of the adorable mops on the front.”
“We started making demands, in which Pink Floyd fully supported us, saying ‘No title, no band name on the cover,’” said Powell, now 76. “This was unheard of in the world of marketing and record companies. .” He described the presentation of the “Atom Heart Mother” artwork to the suits: “When you’d go in there with long hair and earrings, showing them a picture of a covered cow, they’d go apoplexic.”
It tended to be Thorgerson, by all accounts a dogged genius, driving record executives to apoplexy. “The best line about Storm was, ‘He’s a guy who wouldn’t take yes for an answer,’” Mason said. “It was almost inevitable that whatever was done, particularly by the record company, would mean Storm would have to yell at them.”
Thorgerson, who died in 2013, could also be confrontational with the musicians. “It didn’t matter to him whether he was Paul McCartney or Roger Waters, he was pretty vehement about it,” Powell said. “And he often had to go around putting out fires to maintain some kind of credibility. At the end of the day, it worked because I was able to persuade the artists that it was the idea that was important. Forget about Storm’s personality.”
Corbijn said the documentary was ultimately a “story of love and loss”. Hipgnosis came to an end at the dawn of a new era, in which music videos ruled and compact discs, with their significantly smaller artistic canvases, became the dominant mode of distribution. (Of course, nowadays most people see thumbnail album art on their phones.) Thorgerson and Powell, who were moving on to movies, had a fight over money and didn’t speak to each other for 12 years after that. “It was like the end of a marriage,” Powell said. The two met after Thorgerson fell ill; He died of cancer at the age of 69.
In more recent years, Powell said, he has been heartened to see Hipgnosis album covers breaking “that barrier of being taken seriously as fine art.” He added: “A lot of thought went into those images. We didn’t take pictures of the band and paste them on the front with their big names and the title in big white letters. This was a job that he took very seriously. And I hope that’s reflected in the film.”
Powell pointed to Hipgnosis’ version of Led Zeppelin’s last studio album, 1979’s “In Through the Out Door,” which involved lovingly recreating a New Orleans juke joint in a London studio. He indicated that making the visuals for the album (which, after all that work, came wrapped in a brown paper bag) probably cost the band more than recording the music.
“You know,” Powell said with a smile, “that about sums up the time period.”