“The Music Is Free, But You Have to Pay for the Plastic, Paper, Ink, Glue and Stamps.”
― Los Angeles Free Music Society
“If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”
— Nancy Andreasen, The Creating Brain
ROCK 'N' ROLL MYTHOLOGY ISN'T A SIMPLE CONSTRUCT. Bands don’t rise to Rock Valhalla on sheer will and talent, and they certainly don’t bask in eventual glory on the basis of merit. Just ask Sky “Sunlight” Saxon, who ascended to anonymous immortality on the same day as the petrochemically distorted and pharmaceutically engorged Michael Jackson, with none of the corresponding pomp (and grotesquely obsequious) fanfare. Their justice resides in the next world, not ours. Fare thee well, Sky. Nope. Rock & roll conjures its inscrutable favors with mysterious spells and arcane imagery. It embodies grandeur and legend in blindingly epic pyramids, and the jewel-encrusted, gilded riches of the cognoscenti, the elite, and the divinely ordained. Sneak within the footsteps of Albert Goldman, the Howard Carter of rock’s secret invocations; crack open the Gehry-designed sepulcher; ask Annie Leibovitz above a silver-emulsified sarcophagus: What is the key? Whither the wonders of Stardust Hermeticum? The answer, kids: It’s all in the packaging. Case in point: Hipgnosis.
It’s difficult to fathom today. The maturation of rock ‘n’ roll happened with immeasurable velocity. It was a subatomic chain reaction. In the blink of a mind’s eye, music exploded from Elvis 45s to Sgt. Pepper’s; from “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window” to “Interstellar Overdrive.” One moment there was just the 45 RPM disk in a plain paper sleeve, dutifully waiting to inseminate a malt-shop jukebox; then there were phonograph albums, issued strictly as knock-off asides and cash-in novelties; and then, in a mushroom cloud of self-awareness and self-realization and self-actualization and self-indulgence, the album was The Album, the means to the end, The Alpha and The Omega of Rock. And they saw that the LP jacket and its inner sleeve were naked, and the Children of Rock were ashamed.
But Technicolor Dreamcoats are easier said than sewn, my neophytic disciples. “Artistic Control” was oxymoronic as late as 1966. Just ask the Beatles. How big of a dick could John Lennon be once he really set his mind to it? Reference 1966’s Yesterday and Today, a total BS hackjob by Capitol that mutilated the original format and track listing of Revolver in order to squeeze an extra buck in the US. “You want a new cover? We’ll give you a cover.” Hence the notorious “butcher” artwork. After that fiasco, the Beatles said Fuck You and took control. The elaborate, uncompromising, and defibrillatingly expensive artwork of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band changed all the rules. If you had clout, the sky was the limit.
Enter one of the coolest names, organizations, and scenes in all of rock, Hipgnosis. They were graphic designers, sort of, like how Pink Floyd were studio engineers and Led Zeppelin were balladeers. These yobs were off- the-charts mad. Brilliant. It was primarily Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, two London art-school students with verve, plus bollocks enough to appropriate school darkroom equipment and resources, and savvy enough to exploit connections with classmates in rock bands. In 1968, when friends from local act Pink Floyd asked them to devise a cover for a forthcoming LP called Saucerful of Secrets. The lads obliged, and dubbed their enterprise Hipgnosis.
This will undoubtedly sound and read like aphasic gibberish to ears deafened by mp3 files and eyes glazed and shuttered by Photoshop ubiquity, but before bits and bytes, technology was analogous. What you saw was what you got, and it was up to Thorgerson and Powell—and subsequent addition Peter Christopherson (who reset the margins with his own band in the late 70s, Throbbing Gristle)—to transport you beyond sight. This required a near-genius level of theoretical engineering and rainbow abstraction. Chained, for the most part, to a two-dimension plane and standard printing processes, Hipgnosis plunged through a seemingly placid surface to plumb fathoms of high-concept three-dimensional depth. While illustration was still the norm in the staid gray-flannel corridors of commercial art, these guys would push photography to unprecedented f-stops of creativity and abject surrealism.
After Secrets, the jobs started to flood into the shabby studio in London’s version of Tin Pan Alley, the notorious Denmark St. And while Hipgnosis transcended in all aspects of visual collision and quixotic effrontery, their skill in photo manipulation was nothing short of spectacular, especially given that they were using scissors and paste and airbrushes and light- sensitive films and papers – hands-on technologies now as lost to the mists of time as coopersmithing or astrolabe navigation. These guys rocked it, intrepid, photovoltaic sorcerers in the ultimate realm of fantasy and magic, and all of the rock stars came knocking. Even enumerating a brief role-call of clients and projects is a disservice to the breadth of the Hipgnosis vision.
Sometimes the Hipgnosis vibe was transformative, an unscheduled teleportation into a bizarre landscape, equal parts Hollywood decrepitude, British nostalgia, and Venusian, extraplanetary dread. See the marionette machinations of Pink Floyd’s A Collection of Great Dance Songs, or the mindblowing spread on the Strawbs Deadlines, in which, alone in a desolate, arid landscape, a man drowns in a water-filled phone booth. Again, it’s darkroom wizardry par excellence. Styx’s renowned Pieces of Eight with its icy, Easter Island matrons and flattened perspective is downright unsettling. The back-lot, business-suit immolation of Wish You Were Here is rock iconography at its finest—as is the 40-foot floating pig above London’s Battersea on Floyd’s Animals.
And as if the titanic imagery couldn’t get more pronounced, there’s the controversial Middle Earth-themed hallucinatory Om of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, wherein a hoard of nude, blond cherubs ascend the stonework of an alien pyramid, basked in sickly, spectral hues, grasping for Odin-knows-what. It can’t be good. Bear in mind, the hoard? It’s just two kids. The illusions are all done in the darkroom, by hand. When it came to sheer Magick, Aleister Crowley had nothing on Hipgnosis. The list goes on and on and on: Band on the Run; Venus and Mars, Deceptive Bends, Year of the Cat, The Madcap Laughs, Presence, Atom Heart Mother, Electric Warrior. Oh. And maybe we shouldn’t forget this one: Dark Side of the Moon.
However, amid the wild imaginings, surrealistic pillow fights and psychedelic hubris, one design defeats all challengers. Never before and never again will any band go so far, to prove so little, to the satisfaction of so many. We have Hipgnosis to thank for the greatest LP cover of all time: Led Zeppelin’s final masterwork, 1979’s In Through the Out Door. Legend has it that Zep’s notorious manager/henchman/enforcer Peter Grant secured a clause in the band’s contract with Atlantic through physical intimidation: No matter what the expense, when it came to design and packaging, what Led Zeppelin wanted, Led Zeppelin got. And for all of their albums from 1970 on, Led Zeppelin wanted Hipgnosis.
Thorgerson and Powell had an idea for subtly elaborate, intellectually baroque photo session, located in the sort of seedy juke joint to which any self-disrespecting bluesman would immediately cotton. Accordingly, they pitched Zeppelin; Zeppelin twisted arms at Atlantic; the initial round of location scouting was budgeted and approved. Hipgnosis flew from London to the Big Easy, where they trawled from one dive bar to another, searching for the perfect mise en scène, a gumbo of alcohol-saturated desperation and humid, New Orleanean decay. When they found perfection, they lunged. Bristling with cameras, they documented every last square inch of the place, then returned to London.
What happened next is a perfect encapsulation of the sheer, unchecked, brute power of Led Zeppelin, the staggering opulence and decadence of rock in its ultimate, sun-king reign, and, above all, the unquestioned cachet of Hipgnosis. Thorgerson and Powell didn’t propose flying a crew, staff, and phalanx of rock stars to New Orleans to commandeer a bar for a few weeks. Such lackadaisical repose and ease was beneath them. Fuck that. They insisted that Atlantic purchase a soundstage in London, and recreate the entire bar from scratch, as a 360-degree set. The Powers That Be capitulated, and faithfully fabricated New Orleans squalor in Shepperton splendor. It was a move without precedent. A Hollywood set is just two or three walls, no ceiling. But Hipgnosis got reality to the Nth degree: wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling hyperreality.
The insanity doesn’t stop there. Upon successful construction of the microcosm, Hipgnosis assembled a squad of actors, each a carefully positioned participant in a deceptively Byzantine tableau. Centrally plopped at the bar is a man in a rumbled white suit and fedora. Armed with whiskey and smokes, he burns a mysterious piece of paper in an ashtray. There are six additional, apathetic characters: a drunk, the bartender, a barmaid, the piano player, a whore, the dishwasher. They each watch White Suit from various locations in the room. No single image reveals them all, but the aggregate collection of six images shows the perspective of six individuals as they eyeball the customer at the bar. That’s right, six. There are six different point-of-view photographs, and six different LP covers for In Through the Out Door.
The final covers are all rendered in an antiqued, sepiatone brown, but each has a smear of color, as if the bartender had wiped his rag across the surface grime of the photo itself. The meaning is opaque, as is the mysterious central character. Who is he? Why has he come to this far end of the Earth? What is he burning? What is his secret? What about the characters viewing him with studied nonchalance? Are they duplicitous? Pull out the printed inner sleeve. It depicts a hidden, seventh perspective, the missing point-of-view shot: that of the man at the bar. It shows a close-up of his crumpled smokes, a broken whiskey tumbler, and, revealingly, the ashtray with his burnt piece of paper. Most of its original text is gone; only the “Dear J—“ of "Dear John" remains.
Again, the outer jackets, all six of them, are monochromatic, but with a smear of color. The inner jacket is monochromatic, too, in black and white. Is there a final key to the puzzle, or even another riddle? The answer to both is Yes. It’s the stuff of secret, astonished stoner lore, an essence of arcane knowledge passed in whispers through wood-paneled, black-lit basement abodes since time immemorial (i.e., 1979). What would the bartender do? The clues are all there in front of you. Dude, just open your mind. Take a rag, a real rag. Dampen it. Then wipe it across the photo of the bar surface on the inner sleeve. There are minuscule, invisible dye packets embedded in the weave of the paper. When they get wet, the packets burst and release the dye. Moisten the inner sleeve of In Through the Out Door, and the black-and-white photo blossoms into full color. I shit you not. I told you these guys knew their magick.
Oh, and to top it all off, the entire album, regardless of the jacket image, is sealed inside a plain brown wrapper. Want to own all six and see the Big Picture? You just need to buy more copies and take your chances. It’s sheer, depraved, sadistic genius. In Through the Out Door is the Citizen Kane of graphic design. Oh, and there’s an LP in there, too. With music and stuff. You know. Zeppelin.
Ultimately, it was punk rock that ushered the end of the Hipgnosis reign. Thanks to Jamie Reid’s prescient appropriations of Situationist rhetoric, bald sloganeering, ransom-note pseudofonts, and barricade-tumbling, graffiti-tinged artwork, an overt cut ‘n’ paste aesthetic was the New Boss. Glossy, airbrushed wit and big-budget, high-concept decadence were out. The Hipgnosis vision was abruptly déclassé.
Or was it? Check the cover of XTC’s Go 2, released in 1978. The cover “art” is text and only text, and it bluntly proclaims the following:
"This is a [ALBUM FORMAT] COVER. This writing is the DESIGN upon the [album format] cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the [album format]. We hope to draw your attention to it and encourage you to pick it up. When you have done that maybe you'll be persuaded to listen to the music - in this case XTC's Go 2 album. Then we want you to BUY it. The idea being that the more of you that buy this [album format] the more money [record company], the manager Ian Reid and XTC themselves will make. To the aforementioned this is known as PLEASURE. A good cover DESIGN is one that attracts more buyers and gives more pleasure. This writing is trying to pull you in much like an eye-catching picture. It is designed to get you to READ IT. This is called luring the VICTIM, and you are the VICTIM. But if you have a free mind you should STOP READING NOW!..."
It continues to bloviate at length, elongating the reader’s tumble with various shoves of misdirection and general Jabberwockiness, before admitting:
"What we are really suggesting is that you are FOOLISH to buy or not buy an album merely as a consequence of the design on its cover. This is a con because if you agree then you'll probably like this writing - which is the cover design - and hence the album inside. But we've just warned you against that. The con is a con. A good cover design could be considered as one that gets you to buy the [album format], but that never actually happens to YOU because YOU know it's just a design for the cover. And this is the [ALBUM FORMAT] COVER."
This is plainly the advance creep of high post-modernity, years before post-modernity got, well, creepy. The fundamental tenets of Guy Debord’s hoary critiques of consumerist folly are displayed here with suitably arch humor, vivified nerve, and French-tickler subterfuge: It’s product as provocation, retail merchandise skinned alive, with deteriorated musculature and sagging tendons on gruesome display. Hipgnosis mounted capitalism for a two-decade ride, and trampled amok over any convention that dared stray under foot. In an era of excess, they excelled. Sure, they were doomed to perish as surely as the cumbersome, satin-hidebound, silk-winged, and rhinestone-toothed dinosaurs they served. But while they stomped the Earth, Hipgnosis were conceptual behemoths of the first order. Pity any puny, mammalian budget that tried to stand in their way.