Helen Donlon interviews Hipgnosis: Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell
Storm is based in Belsize Park, London, and Po divides his time between London and Formentera.
The interviews were done in Ibiza to coincide with a recent retrospective of the album art of Hipgnosis at the Club Diario de Ibiza.
They took place on a hotel rooftop overlooking Dalt Vila in Ibiza Town, and at Pike’s Hotel in San Antonio.
Storm’s current exhibition is on until 2 May 2010 at Idea Generation, London.
Po: Storm and I are definitely kindred spirits. We’re like brothers. He’s an only child and so am I, and we gravitated together and with our different skills somehow managed to make a reasonable marriage of it. He’s a very intellectual man with a very very good visual sense, in fact he taught me composition. I’m much better at hands on stuff, far more diplomatic at dealing with people and a very good businessman, and you need those ingredients to somehow make a successful company.
Storm: Po and I met in Cambridge in our teens. We were townies. Later we went to London and lived together with three or four others in South Kensington in the Swinging Sixties. We formed a design studio called Hipgnosis which was a word that had been scrawled on the door of our flat. [The building was also used in Roman Polanski’s film, Repulsion.]
Storm: We were asked to do Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets after a friend turned it down. The band didn’t have a lot of input in that time. We knew a little about film but not design, but we weren’t about to turn this opportunity down. To some extent you have to seize the moment, I believe. My career started by luck. By circumstance. When opportunity comes it may not necessarily come again. Anyway we tried it, and it worked out ok. But it wasn’t until we did the next one, Ummagumma, which featured the band but wasn’t really about the band, as it was a picture of a room in which a picture was hanging which showed the room in which the picture was hanging which showed the room in which the picture was hanging…ad infinitum. That one worked really well. We knew Pink Floyd. Roger had been at school with me, and his mother and my mother were friends. Syd Barratt was part of our gang in Cambridge. Rick and Nick came from elsewhere. They met Roger at architectural school in London.
Po: Storm and I started when I was twenty. I’d already been working for the BBC and during that time Storm and I were sharing a flat with Syd Barrett. Storm somehow or other got asked to design some book covers for Penguin. They wanted a new kind of look and we were all experimenting at that time, so this involved getting all our mates to dress up as cowboys and go to Richmond Park and re enact 3.10 to Yuma. And suddenly from this summer holiday job – even though I had a full time job – we’d made a few hundred quid which was a lot of money. Then Pink Floyd asked us to do their new album cover, Saucerful of Secrets, and their manager managed all these other people like The Pretty Things and Alexis Korner so by the time I was 21 by the end of 1968 and Storm was leaving the Royal College we suddenly had a business. So we borrowed some money from his mum and my dad, bought some cameras and set up a studio in Denmark Street, which became our home for the next fifteen years.
Storm: We borrowed money from our mothers, god bless ‘em. We had been working in Po’s girlfriend’s bathroom which was not very popular with her, and we moved to a somewhat dingy premises in Soho, which remained dingy for 15 years. But it was a very good place to be, being in Soho at the heart of things in London. Behind us was a rehearsal studio where the Sex Pistols practised before they ever got famous, and in the street there were guitar shops, and the premises being so dishevelled meant they had an unpretentious lure for musicians. They didn’t mind, whereas Po once told me a story about how we were approached by an advertising agency who came round and were so appalled that we missed out on a nice fat job from Mercedes, but maybe it’s just as well. We had an even more rundown darkroom. The studio was always a mess, it was always very busy. I mean we worked jolly hard. I have to say we had that vitality and energy that comes with being young. It was a lot of fun as well, terribly exciting. We were meeting people like Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, the Stones might be passing by … In that sense we were very lucky.
Po: We had two floors in Denmark Street which would be worth a fortune now, but we rented them out for a few quid a week and we turned them into photographic studios, design rooms and dark rooms. And there we were for fifteen years. All those album covers were done out of those little studios there. They were very adventurous times, because prior to Hipgnosis most album covers were portraits of the band. If you think of the early Beatles covers, early Stones covers, those classic studio shots moody, colour portraits of the bands looking grim. We didn’t want to be that. We wanted to do interesting, esoteric, weird, surrealist kind of pictures. And we both had that same vision, and it just came about.
Po: In those days album covers were very important to the person who bought them, because there wasn’t MTV, there weren’t music videos, there wasn’t the saturation of youtube or any other available source to learn about your favourite rock n roll star. So an album was very important. You’d buy an album and scour the cover while playing it, looking for clues as to what made those artists tick. We latched onto that early on, by including lyrics, by including postcards, posters and little clues. The images we designed were related with the band in mind. Led Zeppelin approached me for In Through the Out Door and I heard it and could hear it was their usual heavy rock style. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant never gave us any clue as to what they wanted, and we didn’t want that either. The one thing that they said is they don’t want anything too fucking weird because Presence, the previous cover we did for them was pretty far out with the black object. And Houses of the Holy with the children running up the rock which was all pretty science fiction in vibe … now they wanted something more back to their roots.
Po: Storm and I came up with the idea of creating the perfect honky tonk bar which was their roots. Their roots come from rhythm and blues after all. So we thought about creating almost a film set, a bar where a story would be told, with characters in the bar within that story or narrative. I went along and told the band what I wanted to do, and they thought it was a good idea. So in order to do that I needed to do some research. I first of all flew to Martinique where Jimmy Page had told me he’d seen a perfect bar. But I got there and the bar we’d been looking for was closed. So I then went on to New Orleans where there were plenty of down home funky old bars which had been used a lot by musicians, and they were still intact. I photographed the bars in every detail and came back to England and got an art director to build me the bar with all these ingredients and get the best props. He built this incredible set and this bar was viewable 360 degrees when you were inside it. We chose a bunch of different characters and we wanted them just to represent the atmosphere; there’s the guy standing there drunk with his hat on his head counting his money… the bartender who looks as though he’s been around the block (he might have been a sailor at some time)… We then told Led Zeppelin we had six characters, so why don’t we shoot six different angles on them and create six different album covers? It will be the same album but each cover will be different. So when you’re in a store the person has the choice of six different front covers. It was a phenomenally successful marketing tool for Led Zeppelin and it was the first time it was ever done.
Storm: The process of designing an album cover is more or less the same. The designs always start from listening to the music. That is a combination of the music itself, the lyrics and then of course the people. The people often have things to say. Musicians always have things to say but they don’t often get publicised. Back in the old days Po and I would get to hear stories from musicians that nobody else would. I think I got better at asking appropriate questions. I tend to try and tease, or browbeat or seduce thoughts and feelings about what their work is, and as you know artists are notorious for not wanting to talk about what they’re doing. They have this superstitious fear that if you talk about it, it’ll go away. Which I don’t have actually, but I know it very well having met lots of musicians like that. We got what we called a brief, and then we tried to dig inside that and come up with concept, colour, design, object, animal, thingy… and they’re often wildly different because the music is wildly different.
Po: Those ideas were thought up by Storm and me together. We used to have late night meetings twice a week till about four in the morning. We worked very hard. They were very intense creative meetings and often the room would be full of other people; hangers on, the local tramp, the drug dealer would come round, Japanese groupies, a couple of other designers there… and Storm would be having a meeting about the album cover and other people would all chip in with ideas. It was sometimes helpful because people would suddenly throw a different light on something but primarily the meeting would be just between Storm and myself and later with Peter Christopherson, who became a third partner. Sometimes it would just be an intense cocaine binge, but other times the meetings would be so productive we could come up with ten album covers.
Storm: I suppose I believe that the best design is going to come from a combination between us and them. Us because we’re visual and them because it’s theirs. We’ve tried to strike up relationships of some duration. Get to know them better so it can be easier for us to represent them. I’ve always seen the main task as an attempt to represent the audio by a visual. Sometimes I call myself a translator. We’ve struck up relationships that have lasted several years. It doesn’t matter to them whether I’ve worked for somebody else, because I’m going to do something different each time. I wouldn’t expect a band to have a strong visual sense. I’m a great believer in the idea that work begets work, not only from an artistic point of view but also from a commercial point of view. With the Led Zeppelin relationship which Po was much more part of than I was, in relation to the band that is, I think they saw a cover we’d done for Wishbone Ash. I remember our work with 10cc certainly started by word of mouth. The somewhat infamous Jonathan King referred us to 10cc.
Po: Hipgnosis was about Storm being very much the brains and me being very much the hands on. In those days there were no mobile phones so I’d be in the middle of the Arizona desert and calling from a phone box shoving in dimes, trying to get through to him to report back on what I’d found location-wise and how it was going. It was a bit like two cocoa shells and a piece of string, working out how to get the best out of a photograph.
Storm: For The Nice’s album,Elegy, we set up an extended line of red footballs in the desert. It was a completely preposterous idea, but a seminal piece for me and Po because it was so outlandish. We went off to the Sahara to set up that photograph. For 10cc’s Look Hear, the one with the sheep on the couch, Po went to Hawaii. He called up first to see if there was a spare sheep there but forgot to ask about couches. So he had to have a couch made there and then. It’s a great picture and it worked, and the same with the picture in the Sahara. It often paid artistically and emotionally to bother. When we did the pig for Pink Floyd we had an absolute disaster of course. The pig flying over the power station from Animals, which was an idea from Roger himself, it was like Spinal Tap. Totally absurb. It took us three days instead of one. That shoot is very well documented already. The wind blew the pig away. It was on the front page of three national newspapers the next morning.
Po: I went on the road a lot with the bands. Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Pink Floyd. Generally not for very long. It was probably just two or three weeks. I also did Paul McCartney’s first world tour which was in 1975, and I did a book on it called Wings Over America. I stayed with him and Linda wherever they went. I have an intimate relationship with all the bands I work with, like now with The Who I travel with Pete and Roger. But this book I did with Paul was fantastic. It was the first time he’d toured the world since he left the Beatles. I was on the Starship 707 with Led Zeppelin which was a quiet different experience from going on tour with Pink Floyd, where we had to stay near the squash court …so they were all different experiences.
Storm: Houses of the Holy was shot in black and white and coloured in because the weather was awful and so was the light. The kids are a brother and sister. The boy turned up in Po’s house in London recently. He’s now 40. Outside shoots can be so cruel.
Po: The album covers in the 80s, particularly after Dark Side of the Moon cost a lot of money.Wish You Were Here was shot all over America and took a month to shoot here there and everywhere . The album is primarily about absence and about their disenchantment with the music business and record company executives, one of whom really did ask the group, “By the way, which one’s Pink?” And they’d be asked so many stupid things like that. The business of the record companies at that time was far from scrupulous, and songs like Have a Cigar are very much a comment on the times. The other thing was that Syd Barrett had a lot of problems by then, so the album was also about his absence because it did create a huge vacuum for them and Roger Waters especially.
Storm and I came up with the ideas for each of the four panels, and on the front cover panel we decided to create an image which was about big business and about being burnt. So we came up with two business men in suits shaking hands and one of them was on fire, he was being burned. I went to Los Angeles and we decided to shoot in the back lot of Warner Brothers at Burbank. I got a very famous stuntman called Ronnie Rondell … he worked a load of James Bond films and he still says, ‘Everybody knows me for that fucking album cover’. Very famous stuntman. He had a special suit covered in inflammable liquids and we had a crew of hundreds to put him out, and I shot only about six takes at it because the fire was so incredibly intense. He was wearing this suit and this wig and on the seventh take the wind blew all the fire in his face and he got burned and he wanted to stop immediately. I had the shot though. Then when we came to preparing the shot for the cover we decided to put it in a frame and just burn the edge of the image as if the fire had actually taken hold of the album.
Storm: I think Po’s personality and mine are quite different. We’ve just written a book together and it’s quite interesting how much it told us about each other. I learned things about him I never knew. Just things he had done or been involved with. The book is called For The Love of Vinyl, and the exhibition here came about as part of the book’s process. Our personalities being quite different did mean it couldn’t last forever, but it lasted for quite a long time nonetheless. Fifteen years. It’s a long time for two artists. So in that sense I think our two personalities, especially in retrospect, seem to work very well and as you can imagine that combined with the extremely volatile and somewhat immature emotional outbursts and distress of the world of rock n roll musicians … but on the other hand of course we loved it.
Po: It wasn’t all happy families. We had some dreadful fights and several times I thought Hipgnosis would grind to a halt and we’d go our separate ways, but somehow we always managed to apologise to each other and get on with it and it’s shown the passion with which we both cared. If we were at loggerheads, it was nearly always about the creative side of things, so it was a very successful partnership and I’m very happy to say in the last ten years Storm and I have rekindled our friendship. Hence this new book that’s just come out, For the Love of Vinyl, which was the definitive history of Hipgnosis. It’s great that in our twilight years we’ve become chums again and been able to do something successfully and do exhibitions together.
Storm: After fifteen years we decided we’d done enough album covers to last a lifetime and decided to make films instead. We dissolved Hipgnosis then. Our personalities clashed to a certain extent at that point and the film company went bust, and we didn’t talk to each other for quite a long time. The films were fun though. But it was a very sad time for me.
Po: Storm and I consciously decided to stop Hipgnosis in about 1983 and the reason for that was first of all we’d been doing it for fifteen years and we’d been very much strapped to a working canvas, which is twelve inches by twelve inches or twenty-four by twelve if it was a gatefold album cover, and we’d made our money and reputation from that of course, so it was time to move on. MTV had become fashionable at that point, and I realised that, well we had to reinvent ourselves. The days of album covers were gone. Actually the instant the Sex Pistols brought out Never Mind the Bollocks with the cover done by Jamie Reid which cost about tuppence, we realised that our extravagant and expensive pieces of surreal output were going to do a die a death. So we consciously stopped doing it at the zenith of our career. We said ok, lets stop here.
Po: It was hard for me. I didn’t want to do it. I really didn’t. I could see us never ending by that time. We were also into advertising and I thought well this is going to go on. Storm being Storm convinced me quite rightly that we should stop Hipgnosis for a year and turn any album cover offers down and go into a film venture and for six months we didn’t work. I was going round all the record companies trying to get work, then somebody gave us a job. It was Paul Young. We filmed Wherever I Lay My Hat and it went straight to number one and within three years we were turning about three million quid a year in films, and then of course we did rock videos for all the clients we had at Hipgnosis. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, all those clients came with us. I’d been for two years at The London School of Film Technique and Storm had been was at the Royal College of Art studying film. When you’ve got a good eye for composition, the moving image is the release.
Po: Storm and I parted company in 1985 because basically I wanted to be a director and there wasn’t room for two directors. I went on to form a film company, Aubrey Powell Partnership and I moved out of music videos and into a lot of TV commercials in the 80s and 90s, and made a lot of money, but then got fed up of that and moved into making documentaries which was far less lucrative but far more stimulating. I also then got rid of the whole corporate company I’d built up and became a gun for hire as a director in about 1994. I’ve done a 3D IMAX film which is about bulls in Pamplona – another Spanish connection, and I’ve just finished the last six months working on a documentary about AIDS. I do quite a lot of stuff for the Nelson Mandela foundation, shooting big live concerts for him and so on. I made the definitive documentary about the Kray Twins which was a two part BBC series. I’ve done films about the miners of South Africa, I’ve done dance, a film on Francis Bacon and lots of stuff. A lot of respected documentaries. It’s a million miles away from doing album covers. Nevertheless the influence of Hipgnosis follows me everywhere because obviously that was my grounding in composition, in style and all those things and that’s been with me all the time.
Po: The light here in Formentera was very influential for me in terms of what we did with Hipgnosis. It was something I saw very early on; the particular vistas and landscapes that you get here in Formentera which are very Dali-esque. You could see why Dali painted in Cadaques because it has the same kind of vibe and that incredible light that you get is very like what you see in Hipgnosis works, those particular types of landscape. Take Elegy for The Nice with the desert and the beautiful sky behind, or the diver on the back of the Pink Floyd album cover Wish You Were Here, the still water with this incredible blue sky. Hipgnosis were very into landscapes, it would give the impression of an atmosphere as it happened. For me as the main photographer for Hipgnosis I was definitely influenced by what I saw here.
Storm: Very ironically my kind of work is becoming more popular again. There are certain things that cannot be passed on via internet. There are certain things that people like to possess or touch or have in their house and this is quite an interesting debate. This exhibition is living proof of that for me and Po. We’ve learned to do these fine art prints wherein we take the artwork and turn it into something bigger and better. Much better than on the vinyl, no image or branding crap on it. And the design remains as it was originally intended for the band so it has a certain sort if purity I suppose. They look great.
Storm: I’ve just done something for Muse in a very short time, and that was extremely strenuous and very difficult. It was an outside shoot, and took about two weeks and that’s very rushed from start to finish. Normally speaking it might take another six. And that is because it takes us about three weeks to think of something.
Storm: Ideas have a certain immutable quality and they survive the smallness. I’ve spent most of my life designing things that are too small, far too small for my ego, so it’s only because I believe that ideas survive the smallness and survive mass production that I continue. The Dark Side of the Moon prism was always a good idea. It’s not even my idea, it’s back to nature, isn’t it, but it survives as an idea.
Po: Now when I stand in front of a Hipgnosis album cover each one is a very emotional story to me. I have no favourites and I can remember exactly how each piece was done, when it was done, how I was feeling, and there’s the emotion I see in it. They all touch me deeply. It was a very very very important part of my life. It was such a productive, exciting, stimulating period of time that affected me very deeply and I’m proud of it, so I love every single one.
interviews conducted and composed by Helen Donlon
Storm’s more recent work includes the album art for Muse, Ethnix, Phish, Your Code Name Is: Milo, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and Audioslave.
Hipgnosis (as Green Back Films) also created many music videos including 10cc’s Dreadlock Holiday, Paul Young’s Wherever I Lay My Hat and Yes’ Owner of a Lonely Heart.
Storm also filmed both The Division Bell and Momentary Lapse of Reason tours for Pink Floyd.
Right but Wrong
The Extended Album Art of Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis & StormStudios
at Idea Generation
11 Chance Street
London E2 7JB
2 April – 2 May 2010
Tel: +44(0)7749 6850
An exhibition of installations, sculptures, illustrations, graphics, roughs, working models and fine art prints including designs for
The Mars Volta
Catherine Wheel and
The Steve Miller Band –
see photo (above) for
the album cover of
Let Your Hair Down (2010)
Saturday & Sunday 12-5pm