Floydian Slip (FS): If there ever was a sixth member of Pink Floyd, it might have collectively been Hipgnosis, the design collaborative responsible for making just about every Floyd album cover. Founded in 1967 by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, the team went on to design hundreds of sleeves for some of the biggest bands in the history of recorded music: Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Genesis, Peter Frampton, 10cc, Al Stewart, Black Sabbath, Yes, Bad Company, and, of course, Pink Floyd.
Aubrey Powell, known to everyone as Po, has put together a new book of the team's portrait work called "Hipgnosis: Portraits." And we're glad to welcome him to the show this week.
Aubrey Powell (AP): How are you?
FS: Great, thanks for talking with us. I presume putting together this book involved piling through loads of archives, and I'm wondering what that process was like, especially on an emotional level — looking over things that you might not have seen in decades.
AP: Going through the Hipgnosis archive was extremely emotional for two reasons. One is that Storm Thorgerson, my partner in Hipgnosis right from the '60s, was dying. It was a sense of urgency about finding the pictures that we thought were appropriate. Sadly, he was not able to make that decision. He went before that process. The second thing was that some of these folders that I found had not been opened for over 40 years. It was like a continual flashback going into sort of a memory bank of what it was like working with those artists and the surprise at the quality of the negatives and the transparencies that I found were absolutely pristine. There's a sense of joy so it was a mixture of joy and sadness, and also very nostalgic.
I think also, a realization of just how trusting all those big artists — you know, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel — how trusting they were in Hipgnosis to do their artworks for them. I'm not sure that creative people these days would have such freedom or have the money to do the sort of artworks that we did.
FS: You guys sort of got a reputation pretty quick for doing stuff that was unconventional — not just photos of bands posing for the camera, that kind of stuff. I think that really synced well with the Pink Floyd mindset, the mindset of its fans, but you write in the book that many times it did not please the record companies.
AP: When we started Hipgnosis, it was traditional for album covers to have a photograph of the band on. Peter Blake, who designed Sgt. Pepper for the Beatles, completely broke the mold in 1967, and that was the date Hipgonsis started. We realized instantly that we could think laterally. We could think out of the box. We could look sideways. We didn't have to conform to having a portrait of a rock and roll band on the front cover of an album. Because our instincts were anyway in a kind of a different space and time completely, and we weren't about to conform to the rigid confines of a record company and their in-house art departments, we began to think immediately of surreal designs. We call then surreal photo designs, and this didn't go down well with record companies.
I mean particularly if I take Pink Floyd, let's look at say "Atom Heart Mother." A picture of a cow in a field on the front cover, this was just unacceptable for a record company. No name of the band on there. No name of the album, just a picture of a cow. This was a very sort of what I would call Man Ray, sort of Buñuel, Salvador Dali kind of influenced image. Of course, the record companies, they didn't want that. They wanted a picture of Pink Floyd. By the way, which one's Pink? This was their whole kind of ethos and insincerity that went into that.
Actually, it worked phenomenally well. It was the first Pink Floyd number one record in America. When people saw this image of a cow on Billboard or Rolling Stone or saw it in a record shop or saw it on a billboard on Sunset Strip, they immediately said, "Who's that? What's happening?" It had the reverse psychology attached to it. It was the reverse effect. It wasn't a lack of interest, it was all interest and this album helped tremendously to sell Pink Floyd.
FS: "Wish You Were Here," I know that you put all this work into this mind-blowing cover, but in the end you guys wrapped it up in black vinyl.
AP: Precisely so. Again, it sort of had to do with psychology. There's nothing better at Christmas than you get a present that's wrapped up and you tear off the wrapping paper, you look inside, and then the box, and you open the box and there's your present. Well, the same thing applied when we did "Wish You Were Here." We designed this very intricate and very expensive album cover with man of fire on the front, the diver in the water on the back and the postcard with the swimmer in the dessert, all these kind of things. Then we wrapped it up in a black plastic bag and we put a logo on the front of it — a kind of detail of two people shaking hands.
Now, this you could say was extravagant. We could be extravagant. Pink Floyd could afford to be extravagant, but at the same time, there was a deep psychological process behind it which was you get the album. You don't know what the cover is. You got the excitement of tearing off the wrapping, and looking inside, wow, there's your new album cover. It's the new Pink Floyd album. There was motivation behind it. This wasn't just random thinking.
FS: I think one of the best things about the book is that all of the alternate takes and different versions of photos that you have in there, people like myself who only know the cover of "Wish You Were Here" and the photos that are inside of it as the ones that were published, to see alternate takes of those is mind-blowing. One in particular struck me, the invisible guy with the record standing in the desert.
FS: You got photos of him in the book where before you've airbrushed him out so you can actually see what he looks like.
AP: Yeah, this was the whole purpose of the book actually. I mean when I went through the old files and I pulled out all these extraordinary negatives and transparencies, I found all these outtakes as I call them, and why it's called "Hipgonsis: Portraits" is because Hipgnosis did not do portraits. We didn't do album covers with portraits on. When I found all these bits and pieces, I just thought you know what? Let's put into the book things people have never seen before and that business man from "Wish You Were Here" which on the cover is all airbrushed out so he's invisible and it's to do with "Have a Cigar," the track, the invisible business man, the insincere character dressed up in this suit who doesn't really care about the band, all he cares about is the money, it would be nice to see the guy as I photographed him. You see this — actually it was a male model from Los Angeles in the Yuma desert and he's holding a cigar and he's dressed, he's got a mustache, and I took those photographs with the views that we might use those on the cover just in case we didn't like the invisible man. As it turned out we did, but these were outtakes.
I think that's what interesting about the book is there's a lot of photographs in there that nobody's ever seen before. Pink Floyd particularly because with Pink Floyd if you look at say The Belsize Park as we call it which is where they're all sitting on a bench or they're camping around or they got their hands in front of their face or they're eating sandwiches and drinking cups of tea. You see a band in their absolute hay day. It was just before they left to go on their first tour for "Dark Side of the Moon." Before the album came out, and you see a band with a chemistry so locked together, they are absolutely best friends, best buddies, they're on a roll, they know they've made a great album, and it's all about fun. You never ever saw Pink Floyd like that. There was this enigmatic band that hid behind their spacey music and hid behind their light shows.
For once, I decided okay, let's show them in the book as they really are. Let's see them how they were at that time, because we know, once they got down the line after "Dark Side of the Moon," and "The Wall" came along, there was a very big disintegration in the relationships of Pink Floyd, particularly David Gilmour, Richard Wright, and Roger Waters. There was a separation process, but the moment I caught them at that time, you see them at their very best.
FS: I wanted to get back to "Wish You Were Here" for a just a second. The guy who was the record executive who you airbrushed out, was the same model as the guy who was swimming in the sand?
AP: Yes, the record executive in the book and the model in the sand are the same person. We couldn't afford two different models!
FS: See now, people like me we never knew that because we've never seen the guy's face. That was one thing that struck me flipping through the book.
AP: Yeah, sure.
FS: We're taking with Aubrey Powell — "Po" to his friends — co-founder of Hipgnosis, which designed loads of album covers from the '60s to the '80s — some of the most familiar images in the history of recorded music. His new book is "Hipgnosis: Portraits," a beautiful coffee table book. We have copies we're giving away. Details on how you can register to win, are at floydianslip.com.
What was it like working with Pink Floyd? I've gathered that they're a fairly hard to read group. They kind of kept their cards close to their vest.
AP: Working with Pink Floyd was always an interesting experience partly because there was a slight confusion there. One, we'd all grown up together in Cambridge so we were all friends, but two, Roger Waters particularly had quite a cynical view about life and about the business and about how things should be. He wasn't about to kowtow to the feelings of a record company or what they wanted. It was all about him and the band. The other members of Pink Floyd were also exactly the same, followed on with that view. Actually, we had a very good working relationship with them, because they were chums, but on the other hand, we were very aware that we had to be right on the money politically and also I would say in terms of the visual image represented Pink Floyd as this enigmatic force not something — they would never want something that was obvious let's put it that way. One had to be quite careful with the way you balanced this, but I wouldn't say from my point of view particularly, my relationship with Roger was very good, and with David and Nick and Rick. I wouldn't say that I ever had any issues with any of it at all.
In fact, we always came up with the goods or in the case of let's say something like "Animals," this was Roger's idea. There's a great story behind that about how that came about, but Roger was very convinced that Battersea Power Station with a pig flying over it was the way to go. What a great cover it turned to be.
FS: I have to ask you what the story is.
AP: I had a phone call from Roger one afternoon and he said, "What are you doing? Come over and have tea." At that time, he was living in South London and he was living in a house that overlooks Battersea Power Station, which is the huge Victorian brick building which is in the "Animals" cover. I got there. He said, "Come with me. Let's go down there. Let's take some photographs and look around. I've got an idea that I want to fly the pig above the power station." Now, the pig they just had made in Germany for their tour. I said, "Sure, we can do that. We should put it between the chimneys. I'm sure it would look good."
Anyway, we prepared the whole thing. We did everything absolutely right. We got to the power station with the pig. The first day, beautiful sunny day, everything ready, the pig wouldn't inflate. It wouldn't work. That day was cancelled, however, I shot on a 10 x 8 camera this extraordinary sunset that happened that evening without the pig in the power station. The following day, the pig inflated, Pink Floyd were there, up it sails between the two chimneys and the holding sails broke and the pig sailed right into the air lanes flying into Heathrow Airport. The police were called, immediately all flights in London were cancelled, all flights from Europe, from everywhere. Fighter jets were sent up to try to find this pig. It was last seen by a pilot, that was 747 at 40,000 feet. You can imagine the publicity the next day in all the news papers, "Pink Pig Spotted at 40,000 Feet."
We had a lot of problems. I was arrested by the police, taken to our studio. Pink Floyd needless to say disappeared from the scene. That night we put out on the radio and television if anybody spotted this pig, they should report it immediately. About ten o'clock at night, the phone rang, and a farmer said to me, "Are you looking for a pink pig?" I said, "Yes." He said, "It's frightening my cows. It's in a field at the back of my farm." And it had landed in a farmyard in Southern England. It had come down with the cool air of the night, reducing the helium, and hence it flopped to the ground. We retrieved the pig that night.
The next morning, with the permission from the police and a marksman to shoot it out the sky in case it escaped again, we arrived on the scene, inflated the pig, it flew between the power station. We had double horsaws on it this time. It worked perfectly, and we got the most amazing photograph of the pig; however, the sky was as dull as dishwater. It was just not interesting at all. When I got all the photographs back from the three days of filming, we matched the photograph of the pig from the last day to the beautiful sky from the first day and stripped them together. We could have done that in the beginning without all the hassle. I mean these days you do it in Photoshop in five minutes. In those days it wasn't so easy, but nevertheless, it's a pretty spectacular cover and Roger needless to say was over the moon about it.
FS: We wouldn't have such a great story if you had just done it in the darkroom.
AP: Well, absolutely. Absolutely and luckily, the police forgave us and Heathrow Airport forgave us and everybody was happy, but for a moment it was touch and go. I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison for flying an object without the correct license.
FS: You write in the book that so much has been said and written about Syd Barrett that saying anything else would be superfluous, but nonetheless, I've got you here, I have to ask: What was he like?
AP: Syd was a very close friend of mine and we knew each other in Cambridge before Pink Floyd even started. He was playing all sorts of little bands, the Hollering Blues and other local bands really sort of cutting his chops. He use to play with David Gilmour a lot. They used to teach each other guitar and stuff like that. I mean nobody could have foreseen later on that Syd would disappear from Pink Floyd and David would be his replacement.
However, in those early days, Syd was this kind of elfin-like character. He was very skinny. He walked on the balls of his feet. He was very creative, very artistic. I remember walking into his mother's house one day and hanging from the ceiling were all these decahedrons he'd made out of balsa wood. I mean they were beautifully made. It must have taken him hours, and I said, "What are they for?" He said, "Nothing. I just like the look of them." He was like that. He was just endlessly creative. He liked to play Go, the Chinese puzzle game. He liked to read the "I Ching." He was very much a sensitive, intelligent, artistic man, very popular with the girls, beautiful looking. He, I think, was not cut out for the music business. A part from all these stories about overdoses of LSD and stuff like that, which are probably true, he took quite a lot of LSD, I think that he really did not like the music business in the sense that he felt he was having to pander to it.
I mean he was the writer of the songs of Pink Floyd. He was under immense pressure to keep coming up with the goods. At the same time, he didn't particularly like the whole thing of having to dress up and be a pop star. There's a classic story which Roger Waters always tells which just before we went on "Top of the Pops," which was a big English rock show in television, he said to Roger, "I'm sure John Lennon doesn't have to do this." Roger said, "Syd, this is what we've been aiming for all along. This is what we do. This is what we want." It wasn't for Syd. He didn't want it. I think that view and sensitivity combined with LSD just made his mind slip away.
At the time when he was at his worst, he and I were sharing a flat in South Kensington in London and it was just awful to see this person who could be violent one minute, I mean extremely aggressive and then passive with completely a dead look in his eye the next. It was frightening and I watched this person just sort of slip away into somebody who could no longer play the guitar even. He would sit there with a guitar in front of him, try to strum it, but his fingers wouldn't touch the strings. It was tragedy beyond, and then he left London and went back to live with his mother in Cambridge.
I only saw him once again after that when he arrived at my studio just prior to going to Abbey Road Studios where he saw the band while we were making "Wish You Were Here," which was the most bizarre coincidence. I hardly recognized him when he arrived at Hipgnosis. He was very bloated. His hair was completely shorn. He was wearing a white trench coat, and I remember one of my assistants said, "Oh, by the way, Syd Barrett's at the door." I walked there to the front door and I opened the door and I couldn't believe what I saw. He was sort of incoherent rambling, "Where are they recording? What's happening?" I said, "Go to Abbey Road." He went there and even Pink Floyd didn't recognize him when he arrived there.
It's a very sad tale and a very personal tale. I think in the book you see these photographs that I took of Syd just around about that period of time where he's doing yoga. You can see in his eyes there's a deadness. They're completely hollow. There's no emotion, nothing there. I'm sure he was doing yoga to try and keep himself together. Trying to keep himself centered, but it just wasn't working.
FS: Syd actually gave Hipgnosis its name right?
AP: Syd Barrett was living in our flat and we were trying to think of a name for our new found photographic company. Storm and I wracked our brains, we thought Consciousness Incorporate, that sounds pretty cool. That was all hippy days, but that wasn't so good. Anyway, walking up the stairs one day, there on the door written in biro was the word "hipgnosis." Hip meaning cool, groovy and gnostic meaning wise. We thought that's a very great name for a company. What a great title, who wrote that? Where did that come from? Open the door and there was Syd standing looking very sheepish and I said, "Did you write that on the door?" 'Cause we were really kind of upset about it in a way. And he looked at the floor, and he said, "Well, you know me and words." He was a wordsmith. He loved to tear up newspapers and tear up the words and throw them up in the air and wherever they land he'd create songs out of them. All those wonderful sort of little ballads that he made up that were very much kind of fairy tale songs were often formed from things that he found just by throwing newspapers up in the air. Yeah, he gave Hipgnosis its name, which makes me think of him with great affection.
FS: From reading your bio, it sounds like you stay very busy, but it sounds like you spend a lot more time doing film projects today rather than static design work. I'm wondering what do you think of the status of album cover design today? We use to have LPs, and then they shrunk down to CDs, and now if you believe the pundits, those are going away, too.
AP: When Hipgnosis was working flat-out between 1967 and 1982, those were the salad days of album covers. An album cover was 12 inches by 12 inches or 24 inches by 12 inches if you opened it out with a gatefold sleeve.
Now of course you don't have that. But I think the thing is, and this is very important, that imagery with music has always been put together. I don't care if it's a court jester at the time of Henry the VIII making a fool of himself, but there was always music from the lutes behind. It's always going to be joined at the hip
And I think album covers also were a measure of who you were when you walked into somebody's house, there might be two hundred album covers on a shelf and depending what that person had in his collection would define the person.
In the 1970s there were no MTV, there was no VH1, there was no YouTube, there was none of the easy access that one had to know something about your favorite bands so album covers were a gateway into that. You waited eagerly for the next album to arrive. You listened to the album. You looked at the cover. You poured over it while you played the music to find out clues about your favorite band, whether it was the lyrics, whether it was postcards or posters that were inside or whether it was real photographs with the band or if it was something like I said we did for Led Zeppelin "Houses of the Holy." What did that mean? What was it all about? How did this relate to the music?
There were clues that were given to fans to enjoy. I think that experience has gone away especially with advent of CDs because of the size of them. I mean you can barely read lyrics on CD let alone see anything else on them. Also with downloads, of course all of that ritual if you like of opening up this surprise package is gone.
FS: Getting back to you going through the archives to put this book together, am I to believe that there's a closet somewhere that has the original mechanical artwork for all the Pink Floyd albums just sort of wrapped up in paper bags?
AP: (Laughs) Yes and no. I have to say that when Hipgnosis started, I don't think Storm or I took much notice of the importance of the work we were doing. I say that not wanting to sound ego-centric, because we worked so hard and such long hours and many days endlessly for about 15 years and we were almost like an art house like a Warhol factory. We turned out album cover designs one after the other. It was extraordinary. The archiving of that work was not important to us. It was on to the next thing, who cares? It was disposable as far as we were concerned.
The answer to your question, "Is there an archive of Hipgnosis artwork?" Yes, there is and there are quite a lot of the original artworks about. There is the original artwork of "Dark Side of the Moon," "Ummagumma," for example, but if you ask me where "Atom Heart Mother," the cow is, I couldn't tell you. Actually, I do have it, however, it is faded to insignificance. The negatives and transparencies of those sessions are well gone. Who knows where they went to? I have no idea, but other things like in the book there's the photograph of "Ummagumma" that is also a contact sheet. It shows you very clearly how we took those photographs and interchanged the members of the band in order to create that Pink Floyd cover.
What's interesting about that is you can see very much how it was the days of film and having to collage and stick things together, not the world of Photoshop as we know it today. And how much easier our lives would have been if we'd had Photoshop in the 1970s.
FS: Tell me about the big Pink Floyd retrospect that was suppose to open in Milan this past fall. You're the curator of that, aren't you?
AP: Yes, I'm the creative director for Pink Floyd and the curator of the Pink Floyd exposition. It's going to be called "Their Immortal Remains." This is a huge exhibition. It's some 30,000 square feet and covers the Pink Floyd history right from the very beginning right through to the present day. There are a lot of artifacts, and it's some 600 ranging from musical instruments to artwork to original notebooks to all sorts of stuff. I would say that it will probably be the most defined exhibition of it s age ever. We were due to open in Milan last year in September, but we weren't ready and the promoter concerned was not ready for us so we postponed it by a year. Now it's proposed that this exhibition will open next December, 2015, and we are currently negotiating with the venues and countries where this is going to happen, because obviously it's going to travel.
FS: The book is "Hipgnosis: Portraits." Thank you so much for talking with us, Po, I appreciate it.
AP: Thank you.
Recorded Jan. 30, 2015
Aired Feb. 16-22, 2015
Interviewed by Floydian Slip's Craig Bailey
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