In an emotional introduction, Aubrey Powell tells how David Gilmour was sitting at Rick’s deathbed (2008). At a memorial party, where Roger Waters was absent, old surviving friends from the Underground days were present. Jon Lord and Jeff Beck played some songs and David and Nick, with Guy Pratt, Jon Carin and Tim Renwick remembered Rick with Great Gig and Wish You Were Here.
Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell was sitting next to Storm Thorgerson, who was in a wheelchair after a stroke, and both men realised that they were in the autumn of their lives. Powell knew that if he had to write some memoirs, he had to get on with it. It still took him more than a decade but in 2022 he published Through The Prism: Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive.
Through The Prism is, for once, not a coffee-table photo extravaganza, but a 320 pages book filled with anecdotes and stories about Hipgnosis and their many friends, who were often also their clients.
The first chapter 'Laying Ghosts to Rest' is about Cambridge and the boy/man who started the career of Pink Floyd and indirectly Hipgnosis as well. An autobiography is based on memories and not always on facts and as such we forgive that Po repeats the story that Syd Barrett was an admirer of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. In a previous post on this blog, Step It Up And Go, we have stated that there were no easily obtainable records of these two bluesmen, certainly not in the UK. The chance that Syd Barrett listened to one of their songs is very, very close to zero. And, contrarious as we are, Syd didn’t contrive the term Pink Floyd either, one of his beatnik friends did: Stephen Pyle. Syd borrowed the line when he had to improvise a new name for his band.
Through The Prism is not a Pink Floyd biography, but a story about a man called Po. Syd happens to be present from time to time. One day, he takes some LSD in Storm's garden and is fascinated for hours by an orange, a plum, and a box of matches. This event, ‘small as a molehill’, has grown into a mountain over the years, but of course, Hipgnosis is to blame for that. Storm turned the anecdote into a record cover (photo).
In late autumn 1969 Powell visits Syd's flat to take some publicity shots for Madcap, the so-called yoga pictures. Aubrey writes that Storm had taken the album cover shots a few weeks earlier. That is not wrong if you go by Vulcan logic, but it has been established that the cover shoot dates from April 1969. That is about 20 to 24 weeks earlier, not 'a few'. Not a word about Iggy the Eskimo, nor about the presence of another photographer who was still their friend, but not for long: Mick Rock (see also: Rock of Ages).
The Syd chapter ends with the invention of the name Hipgnosis. Powell testifies how they almost catch Syd red-handed, a pen in his hand, seconds after he wrote HIP-GNOSIS on the white front door. I always believed this was something of an urban legend, invented by Storm and Po to give the name extra cachet, but if this testimony is accurate it leaves no doubt that Syd was behind it.
As a young man, Aubrey Powell is more a hoodlum and a swindler than an artist. Peter Jenner even has to bail him out of jail, but slowly he finds his way as a photographer, helped by Storm. When Pink Floyd asks them for the cover of A Saucerful Of Secrets their career lifts off. That cover, actually a collage of pop culture and esoteric images, is photographed in black and white and coloured by hand afterwards (photo).
For Atom Heart Mother the Floyd want a non-psychedelic cover, so nothing like Saucerful, More or Ummagumma. The solution comes from conceptual artist John Blake, whose path they will cross several times. Why not a cow? A cow it is (picture).
Equally uncharacteristic is the cover for The Dark Side Of The Moon. Again it is Pink Floyd who want something else, much to the annoyance of a stubborn Storm Thorgerson who tries to push a picture of the Silver Surfer. They find the prism concept in a popular science book and because Storm and Po can't draw they ask George Hardie to finish it (photo).
Dark Side is much more than a record, it is a worldwide recognisable symbol and Powell gives some examples of how the record (and its sleeve) have become instruments to protest against censorship and war.
Here, there and everywhere
For Wish You Were Here Hipgnosis devises some art, built around a theme of absence and the number 4. Four like 4 members of the band, 4 elements (earth, air, fire, water) and the 4 panels on a gatefold sleeve. Only, the final product is packaged in a single sleeve, but one with a twist.
One day, it must have been the 5th of June 1975, an almost unrecognisable Syd Barrett enters the office, asking where the band is. Richard Evans, of the Hipgnosis crew, replies that they are probably at Abbey Road. Po accompanies Syd to the street where he walks to Soho, ‘a confused and forlorn figure’ (see also: Shady Diamond).
The concept of the burning man puzzles Aubrey. How can he take a picture of that? For Storm, the solution is simple: set him on fire. Even better, set him on fire in America (photo).
Let’s remember folks, these are the golden days of rock. You wanna take a pic of a pyramid. Fly to Egypt. You want to check a few lakes out. Fly to California. All expenses paid, including the huge bill of ‘special medicine’ to get through those lonesome nights.
Dark Side and Houses of the Holy (Led Zeppelin) make Hipgnosis nearly as big as the rock stars they graphically represent (photo). On a trip to Vegas Po stays in Frank Sinatra’s personal suite at Caesars Palace. Escort girls and coke (not the soft-drink variety) are included in the service, although Po claims he declines both offers.
Po loves the wide American scenery and trips to the USA are regularly made. Hiring a plane to fly over the desert to find a great location: no problem. Hiring a helicopter to shoot some pictures from the air: no problem. Hiring figurants, actors, stuntmen, and props: no problem. Rock ‘n’ Roll pays well in the seventies.
Hipgnosis not only make fantastic covers, but they have some duds as well. Al Stewart is so angry about the Time Passages sleeve that he will never speak to Po again. Needless to say that Hipgnosis lose a client that day (photo).
Obviously, the memoirs aren't about Pink Floyd alone. Peter Gabriel, Wings, and 10CC all have their entries. Po's stories about Led Zep, who have some gangsters refurbished as bodyguards, are so unbelievable you might think you have ended up in The Godfather. There’s some weird occult shit as well, Jimmy Page was called the Dark Lord by the other members of the band.
The sleeve for Animals is Roger Waters’ idea to begin with. Storm Thorgerson is (again) pissed when his idea for a sleeve is downvoted and refuses to speak to Waters. When Storm (in the book Walk Away Renée) calls the Animals sleeve a Hipgnosis project it is up to Roger to be offended. The next Pink Floyd albums, with Roger Waters at the helm, no longer have a Hipgnosis sleeve.
Despite the friction between Storm and Roger, Po Powell is commissioned to supervise the shoot. He hires 8 photographers and asks Nigel Lesmoir Gordon to coordinate some filming from a helicopter.
On the first day, Algie (the pig) refuses to soar to the skies and they postpone the shooting for the next day. When the pig breaks free on day two Powell suddenly realises he has forgotten to rebook the marksman to shoot it down. It could’ve been a disaster, but luckily it isn’t. Although unwanted, it will go down in history as the biggest rock publicity stunt ever (photo).
The thing with Hipgnosis is that they want to realise their surreal ideas in the real world. For a Wings Greatest Hits album, it is Paul McCartney’s wish to have a picture of a Demétre Chiparus statue standing in the snow on top of a mountain. Hipgnosis flies the statue to Switzerland where it is transported by helicopter to the Gorner Glacier. The team consists of several photographers, mountain rescuers and a pilot.
For a 10CC cover, Po wants to put a sheep on a sofa, by the sea. He flies to Hawaii, where there is only one sheep on the entire island. He has a sofa custom-made by a film props company (photo). Powell shows his expense sheet for the shoot. It is £2,280 in 1980 money or over £10,000 ($12,800/€11,800) today. The invoice to 10CC is double of that.
No wonder Po starts behaving like the rock stars he frequents, including a nasty habit with cocaine. Everybody who works with Storm Thorgerson knows that he can be incredibly stubborn. With the rise of MTV, Aubrey and Powell start a film company, but cracks are appearing in their relationship. The amicable banter of the past is gone and Po goes his way, becoming a successful filmmaker and creative director.
A New Machine
Years later they reconcile and when Storm realises he has not a long time to live he suggests that Po must be the Floyd’s art director. Powell is responsible for the successful Their Mortal Remains exhibition and book. Internal Floyd wars make it impossible to release a Mortal Remains compilation (not that anybody needed an extra Pink Floyd record). We finally get the confirmation that The Early Years box-set was going to include a miniature car but alas the band has always been known for its greediness (my comment, not Po’s).
Through The Prism is not a detailed autobiography but a collection of many (funny and interesting) anecdotes about Po’s graphical output and his wacky clients. Powell stays rather vague about his personal life and the relationship with Storm Thorgerson that was very troubled for a couple of decades. Attentive readers though will have the impression there is a new girlfriend or wife in every second chapter. Rock ‘n’ Roll!
For the Pink Floyd, Led Zep, 10CC and Macca anorak there is more than enough material to like this book, about those days when rock still was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Many thanks: Hipgnosis
♥ Libby ♥ Iggy ♥