Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hipgnosis Selected Album Covers Part 1: 1968-1973

So far on this too-infrequently-updated blog I've focused on particular artists. Meaning particular musicians. But since by and large musicians don't remain faithful to album cover designers (there are some exceptions, though), I'm not really looking at individual artists. After all, it's not the music that is the focus of this site.

So here's Hipgnosis, a three-man operation that in the 1970s made plenty of iconic album covers. In fact, they probably hold the trademark on the phrase 'iconic album cover'. Not everything they made is great, and not everything they made that is generally labelled as great is, in fact, great. But it inevitably tends to be worthy of a look or two. I'm dividing their work into three eras, and I'm not aiming for completeness. Also I'm not choosing 'their best' (some of the ones I've chosen I hate) so much as merely a broad cross-section. This 'early years' volume considers 25 of their covers from 1968 to 1973, including some of popular music's most famous album covers.

Warning: this particular entry is quite graphics-intensive, since in some cases I've chosen covers with particularly high resolution (blown-up once you click on them). It might take a while to load and it might take a Ctrl-R or two. Worth it, though.

The people in Hipgnosis were apparently friends of Pink Floyd, and Hipgnosis was apparently set up expressly for the purpose of making this cover. First time out is a success, then, with a really distinctive cover featuring the kind of elements you`d expect in 1960s sci-fi books blended together and with the band name made to look weird at the top. Memorable and distinctive.

This is also a success, I think: it takes the elements of 1960s album cover design (see any Motown release of the era) but weirds it up: that's certainly not Alexis Korner's band on the cover. Instead it's an enigmatic tableau of characters. Nice.

But Hipgnosis were capable of hackwork too, with the designers of Pink Floyd's second album cover merely cloning Pink Floyd's first cover.

Back to Pink Floyd, and a Dada cover that remains, forty years later, completely iconic merely because it is so devoid of any attempt at being iconic. A cow. In a field. That's all. No more, no less. But brilliant.

A lot of Hipgnosis's classics are gatefolds, and in fact seeing the whole cover 'opened up' is an important part of appreciating it. But I've limited myself to squares here, and this remains intriguing at half the size: a shot looking up between two skyscrapers. Several of these covers take commonplace items and turn them into abstract art through interesting camera angles. This is one, and the flying pterodactyls are a cute anachronism.

There's a whole photo shoot here, with plenty of female bum. But what's great about the cover isn't that potted plant or the way Barrett is squatting but the awesome composition, with that striped floor taking up fully half the picture. It takes a mere photo cover and renders it unknowable, mysterious.

Well, one bridge, really. Taken through a fish eye and mirrored for symmetry. Again it's rendering the commonplace abstract. I don't think it's a complete success, but it's still intriguing.

A nipple! Made to look like rolling hillside. We've seen this kind of thing done before, but it's still a nice job, perhaps a bit too close to mid-seventies budget-line German 'exotica', but that's okay. It is nudity after all. That's the important thing.

Another of the 'extremely iconic' covers Hipgnosis is responsible for. This album isn't actually 'heavy' in the Black Sabbath way, but it's almost as heavy as this beautiful cover suggests, Marc Bolan hunched over his guitar in front of Marshall Stacks, all barely visible if not for the hellfire halo surrounding them.

Fog on rocks. Maybe a bit too pastoral. Pretty, if hardly cutting edge.

This really heralds the nid-seventied Hipgnosis ethic. Sand dunes with evenly-spaced red globes must mean something, but hell if I know what. Still, a striking and thought-provoking image. 'Artistic'. What more can you expect, realistically, from an album cover?

I had this album, and I'd had it for years, played it a million times, stared at that abstract-art cover before I even realised what it was: a human ear, with water droplets superimposed over it. Beautiful, and deeply weird.

A 'shock' cover, and you don't see many of those from Hipgnosis that aren't Scorpions albums. Rows of meat, horribly in-your-face and graphic. It'd be a good PETA ad even if it didn't feature a human body in the mix. The human body is obviously the 'punchline', but it'd be a distinctive cover even without it.

A strange one, this. A strangely-cropped duo-tone picture of a bare, leafless tree - brick red on yellow. The text seems arbitrarily thrown on the image. It looks like it was whipped together ten minutes before a deadline.

I can't make out what's happening here - is it a hand crushing something egg-like (say, an egg) so that goo shoots out? It doesn't have much to do with the chemical weapon that serves as the name of the band (by the way, who?), but it looks interesting. In an early-seventies way.

Flying seagulls. Is this really Hipgnosis? It doesn't really look, or feel, like them.

And we're back to loveliness. This is a great colver - a great picture, well-composed and using the square format well. A medieval warrior looks over a valley. It's nice. The text is nice too. It'd look good on a university student's dorm wall.

This is nice, too. Could be a punk cover, except that this is 1972. It's obviously very working class, but though it's gritty and realistic, it's also enigmatic: who are these people, where are they, and what are they doing? And why, for the love of God, is the sky so strange?

God, this is dreadful. This is the 60s becoming the 70s, though even the Bee Gees didn't release covers this tacky. It's the band members crammed into a car, but it's all just really, really cheesy.

And then... this. What can you even say about this? It's like discussing 'Stairway to Heaven' or Casablanca or the Mona Lisa. Too much has been said about it. What's left? It's probably the single most iconic album cover of all time. You know it. You've seen it. You've thought about it. I have nothing to add.

But this is what album covers looked like in 1983, for the most part. Lots of detail, a skywriting biplane, a rainbow, two-dimensional plants. It's cartoony, not in a Yellow Submarine way but not too far removed either. And not especially iconic.

This one is iconic. It's Led Zeppelin, of course. I have no idea what it is supposed to be, and I doubt Hipgnosis does either: it's a strange vision from a dream, maybe: naked little girls crawling out of a swamp onto dry land, scaling a hill of evenly-spaced moss-covered rocks. While an atomic bomb falls, I guess, judging by the colours. It makes no literal sense but on a purely sensory level it works very well. It's beautiful.

Also a nice one. Apparently the album is a contemplation on mortality, and its title, a variation on 'death mask', is reflected in the cover, which evokes the plaster 'death masks' they really did once upon a time make. Creepy, but modish in a way that reminds me of European minimalist jazz records. Clean and dry but still intriguing.

I had this album when I was a kid too. Never listened to a single note, I don't think. But the naked lay-dees on the inner sleeve served all kinds of... inspiration back when I was ten or whatever it was. Doesn't mean that the die-cut keyhole cover isn't ugly, though, voyeuristic but not sexy (that's a toilet she's sitting on). Juvenile.

And sweet Jesus, how horrendous is this? Horribly enough, Wikipedia says this long-haired Cerebrus is meant to represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. How bombastic is that? Yeah, I know: this is ELP, and bombast is par for the course. Still, ewww....


  1. Meddle's front sleeve wasn't designed by Hipgnosis. It was photographed by Bob Dowling. The band pic in the gatefold is Hipgnosis however.

  2. @ becks - Meddle's cover art WAS designed by Hipgnosis. Storm Thorgerson originally suggested a close-up shot of a baboon's anus for the album cover photograph. He was overruled by the band, who informed him that they would rather have "an ear underwater". The cover image was photographed by Bob Dowling. The image represents an ear, underwater, collecting waves of sound (represented by ripples in the water). Thorgerson has expressed dissatisfaction with the cover, claiming it to be his least favourite Pink Floyd album sleeve: "I think Meddle is a much better album than its cover". So, it was really a Hipgnosis-Pink Floyd co-designed cover, however Aubrey Powell describes it as the worst they've ever produced for the band. —"Meddle was a mess. I hated that cover. I don't think we did them justice with that at all; it's half-hearted."

  3. On the Electric Warrior cover Marc Bolan is not in front of a Marshall stack - it's a Vampower stack (amplifiers made in Bromley,Kent between 1968 and 1973)