Hip to be Square
Over the years, I have acquired a few too many Hipgnosis photo books, starting with Storm Thorgerson’s Walk Away Renée and ending with Aubrey Powell’s Hipgnosis Portraits (simply named Hipgnosis in the French edition, which has an extra boobylicious picture because French will be French). I may even have skipped a few, as they all have the same pictures and roughly the same text.
In 2022, Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell wrote an interesting (and funny) autobiography that was reviewed here as well: Through The Prism. (See: Cows, Pigs, Sheep...) This was followed by an ‘authorised story of Hipgnosis’, Us and Them, written by Mark Blake, that gave more saucy details about the Hipgnosis trio. (See: Un Orage Postmoderne) In between those two, a Hipgnosis documentary saw the light of day, Squaring The Circle, by Anton Corbijn. It was shown at a few movie festivals and streamed on several channels, but a physical release could not be found. Until now, although, at the time of writing, it can only be found on Amazon UK, where they have a ‘Collector’s Edition’ version. Probably it’s called that way because it has a DVD and a Blu-ray with the same content.
Squaring the Circle
The movie starts with Po Powell walking through an old cemetery, carrying a huge carton folder on his back. Apparently, it is the same portfolio Hipgnosis used in the sixties. It is a powerful scene, obviously augmented when Shine On You Crazy Diamond chimes in. I know it is a cinematographic trick to make our eyes water, but it is damn effective.
The first talking head is, weirdly enough, the nincompoop known as Noel Gallagher, but it has to be said that his interventions are cool and to the point. He has aged gracefully.
Starting in Cambridge in 1964, Po tells us how he met Storm, who would soon become his blood brother. David Gilmour and Roger Waters comment that Storm was the leader of a bohemian pack of hipsters who listened to jazz, smoking joints.
Storm Thorgerson gets some words in as well, not fully grasping why some people think he has an ego the size of a small planet. These archival snippets have been shown before, in Roddy Bogawa’s Taken By Storm, but more of that if you keep on reading.
Storm teaches Po how to become a photographer, a trade that is, according to Po, close to alchemy.
The documentary jumps to the first Hipgnosis album sleeve, A Saucerful of Secrets. It tries to emulate a space rock kaleidoscopic drug experience of sorts. (Actually, the duo did some book covers before, but that isn’t mentioned.)
The name Hipgnosis came from Syd Barrett, says Po, although other witnesses deny that and give the honour to Dave Henderson or Adrian Haggard. It will be forever shrouded in mystery.
LSD changed a lot, and Po testifies how Syd reacted: "There was a fear that emanated from him." Storm and Po also witnessed the dark side of LSD, and they both needed therapy to get rid of the spectres haunting their brains.
The movie has been going on for about 20 minutes, and all they have been talking about is the Cambridge mafia connection between Hipgnosis and Pink Floyd. But then the subject broadens.
This is a release suited for minors aged 15 and older, and as such, it tends to go soft on certain subjects. An example is the snippet of the archive video of the Edgar Broughton Band slaughterhouse sleeve, which shows more (male) buttocks in the Bogawa documentary than in Corbijn’s version.
There is the anecdote that Jill Furmanovsky was hired by Storm because she had nice tits, and obviously, that doesn’t make the Squaring the Circle final cut either. It was no secret that Storm liked the female body, and several of his Hipgnosis sleeves show that, not always in good taste.
The ‘We piss in the sink’ story does pass the censor; apparently that one was too good not to mention.
The tipping point of Hipgnosis was not Lulubelle the Third — sorry to disappoint you, fellow Pink Floyd fans — but 1971’s Elegy from The Nice. Suddenly, Storm and Po realised you could put a piece of land art on a sleeve and sell it as an album cover. This culminated in 1973 when Hipgnosis became the go-to studio: Band on the Run, Houses of the Holy, and The Dark Side of The Moon.
By the mid-seventies, money is gushing in and Po travels around the world. In a shot that takes a split second, we see some lines of white powder on a mirror. It is the only suggestion that something was going wrong with them.
Peter Christopherson, the third Hipgnosis partner, brought an element of darkness to Hipgnosis. He had a music career as well, joining Throbbing Gristle and starting Coil and Psychic TV. Apart from that, not much is revealed about him in this documentary. Most of it isn’t suited for minors anyway. For one thing, he was aware of the changes in the music industry with punk, après-punk, and the birth of MTV.
In the early eighties, Storm and Peter believe there is no future in record sleeves any more, and they decide to start a music video company (Greenback Films). Po reluctantly joins them. In Po’s words, this made Storm think he was the master of the universe. He was always going over budget, making the company bankrupt in a couple of years.
Po Powell breaks down when he talks about the Hipgnosis collapse and their lost friendship. It is a powerful image, and putting Wish You Were Here on top of that adds to the sentiment. The screen turns black.
After the message that Storm died in 2013, the camera points back to Po, still crying over the death of his friend. In my opinion, Anton Corbijn crosses a voyeuristic line there. Chasing for cheap sentiment.
The epilogue has Po, with the carton portfolio on his back, walking towards the horizon, carrying the weight of the world. One of the best documentaries I have ever seen, with a more than excellent soundtrack.
One point of criticism, though. Squaring The Circle has one of the most underwhelming extras I have ever witnessed, consisting of a superfluous slideshow of merely 20 ‘iconic’ Hipgnosis covers. That's why we will give you a special feature at the bottom of this page.
Taken by Storm
Taken by Storm is a 2015 documentary by Roddy Bogawa. It takes off where Squaring the Circle ended, with Thorgerson’s photoshoot for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987).
This documentary isn’t as streamlined as the über-slick Squaring the Circle and has a ‘home movie’ vibe all over it. It uses a lot of archival material and impromptu interviews with Storm. The interesting thing is that it also has a healthy interest in Storm’s projects after Hipgnosis, with interviews of musicians of the post-2000 era.
As usual in these documentaries, there are a bunch of talking heads telling us what a genius Storm was. There is diversity among the guests from both documentaries, which is a good thing.
After a 15-minute introduction with Thorgerson’s later work, the documentary jumps to Cambridge in the sixties, with Storm and Roger Waters playing on the same rugby team. It starts the story of Hipgnosis, as told by Storm and Po. This time Po does mention that Hipgnosis started by making pictures for book covers, but of course, it doesn’t take long before he turns to A Saucerful of Secrets. It is noteworthy that Po doesn’t link Syd Barrett with the Hipgnosis name this time. It’s just a name they found on the front door.
Atom Heart Mother gets mentioned, as does Elegy, as a pivotal point in Hipgnosis’ career. Then it’s up to Led Zep and Houses of the Holy. Storm and Po talk about the philosophy behind their record covers while Squaring the Circle is more anecdotal.
The Animals debacle (or publicity triumph, if you will) gets mentioned, this time by Storm. This isn’t a chronological overview. The Dark Side of the Moon gets mentioned after Animals, and it takes them half a minute to get rid of it. Then the documentary wooshes back two years earlier to the Edgar Broughton Band, and this time we do get to see the model’s buttocks.
Storm starts a hypocritical, poor artist’s sermon by saying how he never made money out of his work. From the Mark Blake biography, however, we know that Po bought a villa with a swimming pool and a speedboat in Florida. Storm was not only the last living surrealist, to quote David Gilmour, but he could also be quite surreal in his testimonies before a camera.
The Sex Pistols used to have a rehearsal studio next to the Hipgnosis offices. The long-haired hippies slowly started to understand there was a musical revolution in the air, especially when the Pistols came in wearing their I Hate Pink Floyd t-shirts.
After a sabbatical, a music video company sees the light of day: Greenback. Storm and Po get the chance to make a video for a new artist, whose Wherever I Lay My Hat reaches the top of the charts. Suddenly, they are recognised as the movie company for the stars. Within two years, they turn over 6 million dollars a year, according to Po. Storm has the opposite opinion: "It was totally disastrous" and tries to blame the others.
This is where Squaring the Circle stops, but Taken by Storm continues with Thorgerson’s solo adventures. Storm’s initial rescue lies in the fact that Pink Floyd does a Waters-less comeback and they want the Hipgnosis grandeur back. The documentary turns to the many post-Hipgnosis record sleeves and has interviews with collaborators, musicians, and even a psychoanalyst.
In 2003, Storm suffers a stroke in Paris. Nobody admits this happened while supervising a Pink Floyd exhibition. During his recovery, he manages to bring up an idea for a Mars Volta cover that comes out of his situation.
In the last quarter of the documentary, an EMI manager says cover art will be pushed away, not realising that there will be a vinyl renaissance. It’s the proof that record people haven’t got a single idea what they are talking about.
An Epic Epilogue
Squaring the Circle is a film about Hipgnosis, narrated by Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell. Taken by Storm is a film about Thorgerson's magic, narrated by Storm. As such, they are complementary.
One of the things I noted is that people have aged a lot between these two documentaries. It’s the Mortality Sequence all over again. Watch them both, if you can.
For those who kick on those things, here is a list of the talking heads
in both documentaries. It shows that both have an exclusive list of
guests. How many of these people do you know?
TBS = Taken By Storm, STC = Squaring The Circle.
|Adrian Shaughnessy (TBS)||⚛|
|Alan Parsons (TBS)||⚛|
|Alex Henderson (STC)||⚛|
|Alex Wall (TBS)||⚛|
|Andrew Ellis (STC)||⚛|
|Aubrey Powell (TBS, STC)||⚛||⚛|
|Carinthia West (STC)||⚛|
|Cedric Bixler Zavala (TBS)||⚛|
|Damien Hirst (TBS)||⚛|
|Dan Abbott (TBS)||⚛|
|David Gale (STC)||⚛|
|David Gilmour (TBS, STC)||⚛||⚛|
|Dominic Howard (TBS)||⚛|
|Fergal Lawler (TBS)||⚛|
|George Hardie (STC)||⚛|
|Glen Matlock (STC)||⚛|
|Graham Gouldman (TBS, STC)||⚛||⚛|
|Humphrey Ocean (STC)||⚛|
|James Johnston (TBS)||⚛|
|James Roberts (TBS)||⚛|
|Jennifer Ivory (TBS)||⚛|
|Jenny Lesmoir-Gordon (STC)||⚛|
|Jill Furmanovsky (TBS, STC)||⚛||⚛|
|Jimmy Page (STC)||⚛|
|John Woods (TBS)||⚛|
|Josh Cheuse (TBS)||⚛|
|Merck Mercuriadis (STC)||⚛|
|Mirelle Davis (TBS)||⚛|
|Nick Mason (TBS, STC)||⚛||⚛|
|Noel Hogan (TBS)||⚛|
|Paul Fletcher (TBS)||⚛|
|Paul McCartney (STC)||⚛|
|Paul Rappaport (TBS)||⚛|
|Peter Blake (TBS)||⚛|
|Peter Curzon (TBS)||⚛|
|Peter Gabriel (TBS, STC)||⚛||⚛|
|Peter Saville (STC)||⚛|
|Richard Evans (STC)||⚛|
|Richard Manning (STC)||⚛|
|Rob Dickinson (TBS)||⚛|
|Robert Plant (TBS, STC)||⚛||⚛|
|Roger Dean (STC)||⚛|
|Roger Waters (STC)||⚛|
|Rupert Truman (TBS)||⚛|
|Simon Neil (TBS)||⚛|
|Steve Miller (TBS)||⚛|
|Tony May (TBS)||⚛|
Special feature: Hipgnosis Covers with a Pig
Pictures taken from the (deleted) 'Records My Cat Destroyed' Tumblr. No pigs were harmed during these photo sessions.
Many thanks to: Hipgnosis
♥ Iggy ♥ Libby ♥