Why is that cow staring at me? The album cover designs of Hipgnosis have an enduring, surreal charm.

Mother, 1970, Photography: S. Thorgerson © Pink Floyd Music Ltd

Pink Floyd, Atom Heart

The town I grew up in didn’t have an art gallery but it did have a record store. When I went there—as I did for many years every Saturday—I went to look as much as I did to listen.

Though you were there ostensibly to find music, you did most of your searching with your eyes—and fingers. Record stores were a non-exclusive and particularly intimate kind of art gallery: you were invited to riffle through the collection and actually touch the artworks. They weren’t fragile and, produced in unlimited editions, they weren’t expensive, so you could even take them home with you if you chose.

It was there that I first encountered Magritte and Man Ray, not to mention Cecil Beaton and Helmut Newton. Or at least I encountered their shadows, refracted darkly through the surreal, idiosyncratic lens of Hipgnosis, sleeve designers to 10CC, Peter Gabriel and—most famously—Pink Floyd. (Their name was given to them indirectly by original Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, whom founder members Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgersen met as youngsters in Cambridge.)

Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (I), 1977, Photography: A. Powell/S. Thorgerson © Peter Gabriel Ltd

Hipgnosis were fun-loving, good-time cousins to the Pictures Generation, allusive, appropriative, offering intriguing, subversive reflections on the broader art and media landscape. Their text-only design for XTC’s Go 2 (“This is a RECORD Cover. This writing is the DESIGN upon the record cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record…”) is meta avant la lettre.

They didn’t do band portraits, and they didn’t necessarily need to listen to the music before coming up with a sleeve to contain and help sell its vinyl incarnation: ideas rejected for one project would reappear elsewhere. 

The Nice, Elegy, 1971, Photography: A. Powell/S. Thorgerson © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

The best of the work reproduced in Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue is the product of a highly privileged kind of patron-client relationship. The most characterful sleeves often came out of explicitly not working too closely with bands’ own ideas. Paul McCartney, who has always fancied himself as a bit of a painter, liked to develop his thoughts before contacting his designers, so Hipgnosis’s work for the ex-Beatle isn’t their best. It isn’t their worst either. This is a complete catalogue so there’s no hiding place for the more cringe-inducing work such as Roy Harper’s awful, literal Lifemask: as Powell’s text makes clear, Harper was to blame for that one.

A lot of ideas began with wordplay, not all of it great: the naked light bulb adorning the cover of the Electric Light Orchestra’s first album is 1% perspiration, 0% inspiration; the phallic taps poking out from the shower scene on the sleeve of UFO’s Force It (a visual pun on the US “faucet”) aren’t much better.

Syd Barrett, The Madcap Laughs, 1970, Photography: S. Thorgerson © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

But then there’s the mise en abyme of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother’s mystifying cow portrait (the eyes just follow you around the room), the arty conceptualism of Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. As budgets grew, so did the ambition; this was the age of prog rock excess. For The Nice’s Elegy the team headed off into the Sahara with 120 inflatable red balls. The cover of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door emerged from weeks of research and laborious, exacting set-building.

10cc, How Dare You!, 1976, Cover design: Hipgnosis/G. Hardie, Photography: A. Powell © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

That said, one of my favourite album covers, not by Hipgnosis, lacks both image and clever text: it’s just a simple black square. (Malevich was a big influence on AC/DC.)

Hipgnosis’s heyday extended from 1967 (when rock went Pop and Peter Blake designed the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to 1982 and the advent of the CD, with the diminished canvas it offered cover designers. The upside was the simultaneous arrival of MTV—Powell and pals moved seamlessly into video.

Yes, Going For The One, 1977, Photography: A. Powell, Graphics: G. Hardie ‘Yes’ logo: R. Dean © 2017 Hipgnosis Ltd

Vinyl has made a renaissance of late, as have record stores. But as part of that return the 12-inch has acquired an unfortunate Benjaminian “aura”. Venerated and precious, with its physical properties trumpeted (180g! first pressing!), the twenty-first-century vinyl album is at least halfway to enjoying the status of an art object. By contrast, what’s so beguiling about the work here is its indeterminate status, somewhere between marketing campaign and art; its occasional accidental surplus of value, throwaway with a glint of gold; its very occasional unplanned sublimity.

Pink Floyd, Ummagumma 1969, Photography: A. Powell/S. Thorgerson © Pink Floyd Music Ltd

‘Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue’ by Aubrey Powell is published by Thames & Hudson, £24.95.

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