“Vinyl is the poor man’s art collection.” This remarkable statement appears to have been coined by Noel Gallagher of Oasis fame, however unlikely it seems to me he could ever come up with anything that clever.
There’s a lot of truth in that statement, regardless of who said it first. I know I have been obsessed with album covers as long as I have been collecting vinyl. When I finally had some money, my collection of art books extended this obsession, as I have volumes about Peter Saville (Factory) and Vaughan Oliver (4AD). I can also appreciate, though am not much of a fan of, Roger Dean’s fantasy art that accompanies many albums by Yes. But, in my books of album art, the works of the design film of Hipgnosis appear more than any other artist.
Everybody has some familiarity with their work, even if they may not know who the designers are. The prism cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The pig in the sky over Battersea Power Station on the cover of the same’s Animals. Naked children crawling on the octagonal rocks of Giant’s Causeway in Ireland for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. Peter Gabriel seemingly clawing his way out one of his album covers.
The core of the firm was Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, friends since their teenage years, when they would hang out with the people who would eventually become Pink Floyd. Though their firm would eventually have some staffers, the core was primarily Thorgerson and Powell until they added Throbbing Gristle’s Peter Christopherson as a partner.
The lineup of musicians sharing reminiscences here is stunning. These include Paul McCartney, David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and…um, Noel Gallagher. Even some fellow cover artists of renown pay tribute, including Roger Dean and Peter Saville.
Every anecdote presented is fascinating. I have always heard it was Syd Barrett who inscribed on a door what would become the firm’s name. I was startled to hear so many of the talking heads assembled here attribute that to different people, with each person firmly adamant their version was the correct one.
Regardless of who wrote on the door, that first building was simply where Thorgerson and Powell lived and operated their fledgling business out of. During that time, Roman Polanski filmed Repulsion in the same building. Thorgerson helped himself to the camera crew’s lighting gear that just happened to be in the hallway after shooting wrapped.
When they finally acquired a stand-alone office, it didn’t have a bathroom, so they used the sink for everything. At least the former owner of the space let them keep a piano they had left behind. They sold it to a piano store, who moved it out themselves. The sale of the piano enable Thorgerson and Powell to buy all the camera equipment they needed.
It sounds like they were able to get rid of piano more easily than Powell was able to dispose of a sofa. He chucked it off the roof and smashed a taxi on the street below. There were no repercussions. He relates this story as an example of how lawless London was back then. I don’t think I would be able to function in such an environment.
But the best stories are all about the various covers. Such as the small statue McCartney wanted them to put atop Everest and photograph for the cover of Wings Greatest Hits. Powell didn’t go there, but he did put it atop a mountain in the Alps and snapped the pic. Then McCartney complained about the results, saying the same photo could have been taken in a studio.
Then there’s the famous story behind the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals, artwork I believe is far greater than the album is accompanies. The inflatable pig got loose, resulting in the temporary stoppage of all air traffic. Eventually, a farmer called to tell them it had landed in his field and was scaring his sheep.
It is also fascinating how so many of the interviewees describe the deceased Thorgerson as the rudest person they’d ever known and yet, somehow, also nicest guy in the world. I love the way Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason describes him: “He wouldn’t take yes for an answer”. And yet, everything I have read in the past about Hipgnosis has been disproportionately about Thorgerson. This time, more of the focus is on Powell. History is told by the survivors, after all.
I loved every minute of Squaring the Circle, and only wish the blu-ray had included additional interviews as bonus material. At least we have the astonishing testaments here, capturing the craziness of the rock world at that time. It is good to have these memories preserved when so much else has been lost—such as Plant’s copy of the object from the cover of Zeppelin’s Presence: “It must be somewhere. It’s probably a doorstop.”
Dir: Anton Corbijn
Watched on Dogwoof UK blu-ray (region B)