A Chat With Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell, One of the Designers Behind the "Dark Side of the Moon" Cover
As part of the Hipgnosis studio Powell was responsible for some of the most defining rock imagery of all time.
Every Christmas, from 1967 to 1982, the walls of design collective Hipgnosis' London studio were covered with the artwork of classic record covers.
Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, 10CC, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Paul McCartney & Wings, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, ELO, T.Rex, Yes, and Black Sabbath plastered the walls. These weren't for just decoration or inspiration for the collective either.
This was the studio's portfolio.
In fifteen years, Hipgnosis (Aubrey 'Po' Powell, Storm Thorgerson and Peter Christopherson) established themselves as one of the most important design collectives in music history. Their innovative cover art - which included Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy and The Who's Who's Next - defined the imagery of the biggest names of the late 1960s, 70s and early 80s.
With the recent publication of Hipgnosis Portraits, written by Powell and Thorgeson, we caught up with 'Po' to find out more of the studio and it's art.
Noisey: So you guys would stay up all night and people would be coming and going, fielding ideas?
Aubrey Powell: Yes. It was very much like that… the volume of work was so great during the 1970s that we couldn't spend time designing at the same time as actually doing the physical work of photography.
Photoshop didn't exist so our work was very much a very tactile business. We would meet two or three nights a week sometimes until four in the morning where we'd sit up and have design sessions, brainstorming and trying to create different ideas.
They were often at Storm's apartment which was always full of the most loose and loaded cannons you can imagine. There'd be the guy in the corner throwing knives at a wall, a couple of Japanese groupies, drug dealers, all sorts of people and other designers.
Storm or I would come up with the initial idea for something and then other people would start throwing in ideas. It was hectic to say the least. At the very end it was always the same three of us left, and we'd hone it down to some succinct idea that made sense and would work, but it was a very free-for-all kind of atmosphere in those thinking sessions.
I read that you haven't picked up a camera since those days.
These days I direct films. I just finished the new Monty Python film and the process is the same in some respects. I found still photography very frustrating, because the format was either 12 inches square for a record cover or 24 x 12 inches for a gatefold. They were big pieces of artwork compared to CDs or MP3s but after 15 years of having a camera strapped to my neck, I wanted to be a director. It's true that since 1982, I haven't picked up a stills camera. I can't even bear to shoot family snaps (laughs). I obviously love the medium, and I'm extremely proud of what Hipgnosis produced. I thought in those days I took some pretty good photographs.
So film gives you a greater opportunity to tell a story?
Well, one of the tricks was to create narratives in the imagery that people cold interpret in their own way. If you look at Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, the children running up the rocks at the Giles Causeway in Northern Ireland, you can think what you like into it. Or the picture of the cow on the Pink Floyd cover. Everyone has a different interpretation but what's a cow doing on an album cover with no band name. What's stimulating you? The viewer can make what they want of it, listen to the and the album and make the connections between the two. If they don't get it right it doesn't matter.
Was it this thinking that drew bands to you?
Yes. There's no question. It was the salad days of album cover design. Basically, we could do what we wanted. We never took a brief from a band. We very rarely put photographs of the band on the front cover, we were always more interested in the design and what the design meant, and to make a design that was stimulating and interesting and enigmatic in some way. I think because we persevered with that… putting the art first drew the attention of other bands.
It certainly helped working for a band like Pink Floyd who were on the up in the early '70s. When we peaked with Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, it sold 55 million copies. Immediately our design was everywhere and that changed out fortunes. We were very much in demand.
In the '70s the Sex Pistols covers, were less abstract but just as challenging. Similar as to why would you put a cow on the front of an album why would you put some torn up newspaper on the front of an album?'
When the Sex Pistols came along in 1976-77 everything changed radically. Jamie Reed, the designer of Never Mind the Bollocks came up with the idea to tearing up bits of newspaper and sticking them on a piece of pink cardboard. It cost about two dollars. The album covers that we were doing at the time cost about $50,000. Punk was on us and we knew that our days at Hipgnosis were numbered. The people who were going to afford the kind of interesting designs that we were doing were unlikely to continue spending that kind of money. By the 1980s, it had stopped.
Reed's version of an album cover was extremely valuable, as valuable as anything Hipgnosis did. We were very fortunate to be in the time and place that we were because budgets were good, bands had creative control and it allowed us to be what we wanted. The flashback from that, if you like, the fact that the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and all those punk bands did something that was much cheaper and much more urban, did not take away in any way from the fact that they were doing interesting designs. It was just coming along under us, and taking the baton. I think their album covers that they designed in that punk generation were as valuable as the ones in our generation.
'Hipgnosis Portraits', co-written with Storm Thorgeson and with a forward Robert Plant is available now in Australia, the UK and Europe, and November 11 in North America.