Jonathan Meades

Facing the Music

Vinyl.Album.Cover.Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue

By

Thames & Hudson 320pp £24.95 order from our bookshop

Three hundred pages of photographs of egomaniacal longhairs trying their utmost to look insolently delinquent (as only the alumni of Harrow, Charterhouse, Haberdashers’ Aske’s, Oundle, the Perse and numerous other public schools can). An introductory essay weighed down by cliché. A commemoration of the last century’s over-denimed, over-flared sartorial nadir. A vanity project that exhumes ephemera – mere record sleeves! – and binds them boastfully in hard covers. That’s one way of looking at this book.

Another is to consider this doggedly thorough doorstop as a comprehensive celebration of a gloriously impure mix of photographic surrealism, graphic ostentation, inventive mise en scène, darkroom experimentation (Photoshop was far in the future), palaeo cut and paste (using cowgum, of course), hoary jokes, bricolage, inspired ad hocism and, above all, sheer cleverness.

The 12-inch 33rpm vinyl LP began to oust the 45rpm single in the later 1960s. Peter Blake’s endlessly imitated design for the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Andy Warhol’s banana for The Velvet Underground & Nico were as inspired as the music itself, and inseparable from it. These were, however, exceptions to the general rule that the cover should be little more than a flattering publicity shot, even if those depicted were dressed in Alphonse Mucha’s clothes. During the bad-hair decade and a half of its existence, from 1967 to 1982, the prolific design studio Hipgnosis seldom succumbed to flattery. Instead it relentlessly exploited the freedom and limits of the format in multitudinous ways.

It shunned the creation of a house style or ‘signature’. The quality of the work collected here is, then, inconsistent. If you are the kind of artist who insists on starting from zero over and again, it is inevitable that there will be failures. Nevertheless, the triumphs are many. As much as, or perhaps even more than, any of the musicians and borderline-psycho gangster-managers who gave them pretty free rein, Aubrey Powell (who answers to the name ‘Po’), the late Storm Thorgerson and the late Peter Christopherson embellished their era with a mix of thefts, ‘appropriations’ and so on.

At their best they created utterly memorable and oddly moving images. Whenever they could, they did something other than litter their work with mugshots of hirsute interchangeables. The images they created were swift, crisp, neat. These are not properties that can be ascribed to most of their patrons. Popular music by the 1970s had bifurcated. Rock bands were as often as not composed of leaden, ponderous, pretentious ABs who had dispensed with received pronunciation and with the ideal of a tune that could be whistled in favour of plod rock. Proletarian pop groups were composed of graduates of the University of Butlins put together by end-of-pier chancers who did not allow their charges to diverge from moon/June rhymes. With their matching outfits and close to clog-dancing routines they were throwbacks. Both camps were of course fabulously self-important. Selling fifty million copies of a record really does help with self-importance, even if most of them end up in teenagers’ bedrooms.

Nearly all of Hipgnosis’s work was for the first camp, which was the studio’s natural habitat. Powell, just out of King’s School, Ely, in the mid-1960s, describes summoning up the courage to ingratiate himself with the slightly older Thorgerson and Cambridge’s arty, dope-smoking, acid-dropping, I Ching-inspired, Kerouac-reading caste of middle-class Beatniks. In that era every small town had a resistible coterie of solipsists who seldom recognised how orthodoxly unconventional it all was. The difference with the Cambridge chapter, which included the nucleus of Pink Floyd, was that its members were the offspring of academe and prospective multimillionaires who were able to give their tyro friends some of their earliest commissions.

Among them was the cover for Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma (an onomatopoeia supposedly representing a sound of sexual congress). This was the first time Hipgnosis’s technical skill kept up with its imagination. The image is a kind of brain-hurting trompe l’oeil, fascinating and maddening: a photograph within a photograph within a photograph, and so on and on. What distinguishes it from similar designs is the fact that while each photograph retains the same form, its subjects move from one to the next, like pieces in a game devised by Lewis Carroll for a sunny garden. Ummagumma was released in October 1969; the cover was shot in the summer of that year.

In the early spring of 1969 there had been a revelatory and widely influential retrospective of René Magritte’s oeuvre at the Tate. Two years after his death he was hardly unknown, but he was far from the canonical figure he is today. His posthumous popularity is partially due to his visual trickery and image-making having been stolen by graphic designers and the advertising industry, in which he himself had worked as a young man. Stolen, but not necessarily cheapened, for his ideas succeed as well in photography as they do in his lifelessly painted canvases. He was no master of ‘the mark’. Hipgnosis was one of the earliest – perhaps the very earliest – studios to feed off his work, which would subsequently be employed to sell Citroëns, Volkswagens, Volvos, scent, floor cleaner, Magnum ice lollies and cigarettes.

Hipgnosis synthesised much that was in the air forty or fifty years ago: the critical re-evaluation of film noir, its English derivative included; the kindred re-evaluation of American 1950s kitsch and diner architecture, celebrated in different ways by Tim Street-Porter and Robert Venturi; the fashion for typefaces such as Dymaxion and Airstream, created in the approximate style of that decade; Richard Gregory’s Eye and Brain, which was an obligatory text for art students.

Add to this a marked taste for the gleefully tasteless, which caused the busybody Mary Whitehouse to persuade the BBC to ban First Offence by Bunk Dogger, subsequently never heard of again (‘subsequently never heard of again’ applies to 90 per cent of Hipgnosis’s clients). The cover of Bunk Dogger’s album shows a uniformed schoolgirl holding her hands apart, presumably to demonstrate the length of a penis. Powell, an improbable victim of the Age of Apology, regrettably counts it an ‘embarrassment to the Hipgnosis catalogue’. Thankfully that mood of contrition rarely afflicts him. Had it, he’d have spent much of the book repenting his energetically un-misspent youth.

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