A Look Back at Hipgnosis, Pioneers of the Avant-Garde Record Cover
The English design group dreamed up iconic covers for Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin, and more.
A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey Italy.
In my opinion, the most illustrious and tragic victim of the digital revolution in music is album art. It's hard to think of a classic record without thinking of its cover design; in any case, it wouldn't have any history. Album art on the internet is weightless, intangible, and scentless. What about the dimensions? What about the back of it? This is one reason why vinyl is making such a masterful comeback in sales—having a tangible design is almost more important than sound quality itself. The packaging of a vinyl record is essentially a square with two (or more) faces, and you get to savor everything about the graphics. So this strikes me as an appropriate occasion to talk about Hipgnosis, a London-based design group that pioneered avant-garde album art and which is, in 2018, celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first cover.
Hipgnosis was founded by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, Syd Barrett's roommates during his earliest days in Pink Floyd. One studied film while the other studied photography at the London Royal College of Art, which meant they were able to use the darkroom on campus as they were starting out. While admiring some fresh graffiti outside the entrance to apartment—in which the words "hip" and "gnosis" magically melted into one another in a surreal, esoteric word game—Thorgerson and Powell decided to adopt the term as a sort of social cause. They believed Barrett himself had written it, since no one else was living there at the time (the "crazy diamond" denied this, of course).
This is how the covers for Saucerful of Secrets, Ummagumma, and The Madcap Laughs were born, in an escalating effort that swiftly launched the studio to success and resulted in the iconic prism of The Dark Side Of The Moon. Hipgnosis' designs used innovative photographic techniques, resulting surreal images that were packaged in a surgical way—the covers opened to a world of musical content that was all at once incredibly crisp and delirious. In 1974, the collective began working with Peter Christopherson, a commercial artist and designer who would later become a founding member of acts like Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and Coil. His experience complimented Thorgerson and Powell's, and the design group was well-equipped to make a fortune in the biz.
In addition to Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Yes, the Hipgnosis catalog includes commissioned works by less famous or entirely forgotten groups, but the designs represent controversial motifs and visual experimentations that remain unrivaled even today. We've collected a dozen of them for you below:
Quatermass - S/T (1970)
Building on the mighty and the catastrophic, this deadly image graced the first album from Quatermass back in 1970. Skyscrapers being swarmed by pterodactyls stand in contrast to the music, which—riding the post-rock beat—layered fireball synthesizers against the first cries of progressive metal. The cover looks like it could've been produced today, with dystopian imagery that calls to mind terrorism and environmental disasters alike.
Toe Fat - Toe Fat Two (1971)
Unidentifiable organic matter and rancid food remains dominate the cover for Toe Fat's second record. The English psychedelic rock band is mostly known for the founding members, lead guitarist and keyboardist Ken Hensley and drummer Lee Kerslake, both of whom later joined Uriah Heep. The members of the band appear as miniature figurines, planted throughout the disgusting pile as if they were keeping lookout. Some of them have an "anthropomorphic toe" instead of a head, the very same that graced their first record cover which was also designed by Hipgnosis. The record itself was a flop, but the album art anticipated the anti-art, "junk culture" sound that was prevalent in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Renaissance - Prologue (1972)
Renaissance—a band born from two former members of the Yardbirds, prone to prog and symphonic rock with evident influences of folk and classical music—commissioned Hipgnosis for their third cover. The trippy design features UFO-like figures hovering over the Arctic Sea as though they were the new Tables of Law (are those little black dots an unknown languages? Is that orange sphere on high some version of God?), and almost calls to mind Magritte. The record is difficult to find nearly 50 years later.
UFO - Force It (1975)
The cover for UFO's fourth studio album depicts two people intent on making out in a bathtub surrounded by shower fixtures. At the time, both figures were censored, making it hard to discern the genders of the couple—but the nudity and ambiguous sexual identities being implied made the record a cult classic that sold well in America (the two people are actually Genesis P. Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti, both of whom later joined Throbbing Gristle with Christopherson). The art marries an industrial aesthetic with pop gusto, in which even the faucets are erotically charged. UFO was an influential band that marked the passage between hard rock and heavy metal, but perhaps it was the merits of this cover that helped them find their way onto the US charts for the first time.
Golden Earring - To The Hilt (1976)
Thorgerson and company were famous for snapping photos of real things when they wanted to capture, paradoxically, the highest concentration of surrealism (for example, see Wish You Were Here and the poor stuntman who was talked into lighting himself on fire). In the case of To The Hilt, let's imagine the poor guy in chains has his head on the tracks when a train is actually heading towards him. It's a macabre cover, but one that perfectly captures the prog-rock vibe of these Dutchmen.
Hawkwind - Quark Strangeness and Charm (1977)
Hawkwind doesn't need an introduction. While Lemmy wasn't yet a member back in 1977, you can trace the influence of this record to the work of Gary Numan and throughout the post-punk genre in general. You can see the band's sci-fi themes in Hipgnosis' cover, which depicts a strange reactor conspiring against the scientist who's supposed to be in control of it, emanating suspicious beams of energy. On the back of the cover, the crime is committed—the scientist lies on the ground unconscious, as the reactor seems to laugh at him in a grotesque manner.
Strawbs - Deadlines (1977)
Deadlines presented listeners with a concept album from which there was no turning back. The design creates a state of irreversibility; a tragic, surreal scene played out against a desolate landscape, in which the sunset is so picturesque it's almost mocking the viewer. Strawbs started in the 1960s as a bluegrass band, but this record found them shifting to a mix of synth pop, Supertramp, and prog in a way that channeled Genesis post-Peter Gabriel. They adopted a punkier sound following this record and definitively disbanded shortly thereafter.
Synergy - Cords (1978)
Given how into sci-fi imagery they where, it's so surprise that Hipgnosis collaborated with Larry Fast on this collaboration album filled with masterful synthesizers and tense imagery of the year 3000. The cover shows a thread of light wrapped around a naked human who wanders about in a neo-primitive urban landscape, one that's haunted by hostility and forlornness.
Ashra - Correlation (1979)
This album marks Ashra's pivot from his solo project (previously he'd been Manuel Göttsching, veteran of the German krautrock outfit Ash Ra Tempel) to a full band that floored everyone with their sound and strangely erotic, alien cover. On the back, a photograph captures a stream of water right at the second where it resembles an exposed penis. Call it vulgar if you want, but it's pretty damn impressive that they were successful in capturing the desired effect. It also matched the musical content of the record, which grooved between the alien, the "space kraut," and the sexy.
UK - Danger Money (1979)
After English prog-rock band King Crimson disbanded, bassist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford assembled this supergroup with nationalist name. UK was atypical in that they blended hard prog-rock with fusion and then added hallucinatory synthesizers and wisps of violin for good measure. The designers at Hipgnosis decided to play with the album's title rather than the weight of the band itself: The art shows a man washing his well-manicured hands over a sink with marble countertops, in a moment of luxury after having handled dirty money. It's one of the images that best demonstrates how Hipgnosis succeeded in capturing the intentions of an entire project with one powerful design.
Wishbone Ash - Just Testing (1980)
The 80s marked the swan song for Hipgnosis and they ceased activity in 1983. After the emergence of punk, the idea of designing costly, specialized covers like theirs was antithetical to surviving in the music industry, given the legions of kids ready to tear down the dinosaurs of rock for a fresher and bolder sound. This Wishbone Ash record marks the firm's attempt to adapt their designs to the new music landscape, channeling the rock band's swelling vocals and ostentatious synth-guitars with a cover that depicts scientists testing a new electric guitar model behind laboratory glass. It looks vaguely like the spaceship from Daft Punk's Interstella 5555, but either way it marks Hipgnosis' shift towards the video game aesthetic that was typical of 1980s MTV.
Yumi Matsutoya - Sakuban Oaishimasho (1981)
Hipgnosis also accepted design commissions in Japan, specifically from city pop pioneer Yumi Matsutoya. The cover captures the singer-pianist's double mood—situated in a remote landscape, she looms inside a double-exposed beam, rendered in cool tones against her red surroundings. The liner beautifully cuts Japanese techno-fantasy with a Mars-like environment, resulting in an image that's all at once tranquil and lonely. The design came in 1981 towards the end of Hipgnosis' tenure.
Special thanks to Jonida Prifti for the assistance. Dedicated to the memory of Antonio De Vincenzi.