As with the Mona Lisa, I’ve no idea when I first saw the cover of Dark Side Of The Moon, so ubiquitous is its presence in popular culture. The Floyd prism is one of the most recognisable record sleeves in the world and was the work of designers Hipgnosis, who are now the subject of a new book, Us And Them by Mark Blake. I’ve written about Hipgnosis before – in a feature for Uncut, in my book on Battersea Power Station, and in my next book too, a forthcoming musical history of Denmark Street as Hipgnosis’s office was at No 6, a space they shared with the Sex Pistols.
One of the reasons the Hipgnosis story is so interesting is that the company – founded by Floyd associate Storm Thorgersen and Aubrey Powell – came from exactly the same 60s scene as the bands they worked with. They loved rock and roll and Beat poetry, went to the UFO and the Technicolour Dream, watched the Beatles change music and saw first-hand as their friends in Floyd developed from a blues band into a psychedelic all-conquering world-making powerhouse. They were flatmates with Syd Barrett, took drugs, dated models and had huge ambitions – so when Paul McCartney wanted to take a photo of an Egyptian statue on top of a mountain for a Wings compilation, that’s exactly what they did, flying to Switzerland and hiring a helicopter rather than simply mock it all up in the studio – even if the final cover did actually look like a studio mock-up.
You can’t get them all right.
That thinking is what led to so many memorable covers from Presence to Ummagumma, including Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy – which I write about in more detail in my Led Zeppelin cover story for this month’s Uncut. It also meant rock stars enjoyed the process, particularly the likes of 10cc and Peter Gabriel, who really embraced the debate about art and commerce and meaning and surrealism. Not everybody was happy. Storm was a difficult customer and fell out with several of his clients, including heavy-hitters like the McCartneys, Zep manager Peter Grant and Roger Waters. But all of them kept coming back to Hipgnosis because they knew they had the best ideas and the chutzpah to carry them out.
Like all great bands – Floyd especially – the key figures in this story had an epic falling out. When I interviewed Suede in 2015, Mat Osman took a moment to reflect on his band’s journey: “I always thought we had such an interesting story – what we’d done was so different,” he said. “But then I looked at the shape of the story and it was every band ever: hard work, success, hubris, drugs, fights, coming back together a bit wiser. It’s been done a million times, it’s almost Shakespearean, but every generation has to go through it.”
The Hipgnosis story has exactly this shape, and it is one that naturally lends itself to biography. The 70s yarns are all well told but Blake’s book is particularly helpful in exploring Storm and Po’s origins in the Cambridge/London counterculture, as well as extending the gaze beyond the Hipgnosis era and looking at what happened when they stepped away from cover art and began to make pop videos and adverts in the 1980s. He also diligently explores their eventually falling out and reconciliation. Storm died in 2013 but Powell continues to work with Pink Floyd – he designed the new cover for the remixed Animals – and is surely one of the only human beings who has the confidence of both Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour.
Us And Them: The Authorised Story Of Hipgnosis by Mark Blake.