Through The Prism: Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive by Aubrey Powell – book review –

There’s been something of a vinyl revival in the last few years and, although streaming of music continues to grow, it seems the bubble is far from ready to burst for those who still favour a physical format over the likes of Alexa.

By Craig Fleming
Tuesday, 12th April 2022, 12:35 pm

There’s been something of a vinyl revival in the last few years and, although streaming of music continues to grow, it seems the bubble is far from ready to burst for those who still favour a physical format over the likes of Alexa.Long before those shiny spinning coasters called CDs shrunk the album cover to an almost unreadable, less than favourable size, design agency Hipgnosis dreamt up some of the most memorable cardboard creations to ever grace the LP record racks.From its start-up in 1968 and for the next 14 years or so, the partnership of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell – Po to his friends and clients alike – saw the quirky scene-setters provide the perfect backdrop for the often quirkier sounds that lay within.Storm passed away in April 2013, succumbing to cancer ten years after being partially paralysed by a stroke, and although Po remains active as a film maker, he has decided the time is right to write about those glory days ‘when music met visual art and enjoyed an unprecedented heyday.’Hipgnosis will forever be associated with what was wrapped around almost the entire Pink Floyd album catalogue, from their second LP Saucerful of Secrets onward. Up until then, within their record company EMI, only the Beatles had been granted the freedom to design their own artwork instead of using the in-house art department.Pink Floyd put their foot down and Hipgnosis went to work, their eye-catching sci-fi collage put together in a dark room with a difference. It was the bathroom of Po’s then girlfriend, late at night after she had gone to bed, white light bulb replaced with red and photographic prints washed in the bath before being hung up to dry on a line between knickers, tights and socks.This really was a shoestring operation but those early experiments with collage got them noticed and this design approach became something of a signature look for Hipgnosis, who moved out of the bathroom on acquiring a studio in Soho.Although they employed other techniques, collage was still being used to good effect – and encouraging sales of albums – half a decade later, notably with Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and the following year's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis.Appropriately, the title and cover of Through The Prism is a reference to Pink Floyd's most successful release, The Dark Side of the Moon, from 1973.Po admits that he and Storm invented many stories over the years about how they came upon the design, whether it be a prismatic reflection in the revolving door of a local chemist shop, floating oil refracting off a pool of water, or a picture in a French photographic book of sunlight shining through a glass paperweight.He says: ‘The image became so iconic we wanted to keep an element of mystery, as with most things we designed for Pink Floyd. We rarely gave explanations when asked and made it up as we went along.‘But the secret is finally out with Po revealing the agency's real influence behind this particular Pink project. And, as is often the case, the truth is far less exotic. He shares photographs of the cover and interior pages from the swotty-sounding The How and Why Wonder Book of Light and Colour, an American educational reference manual. Dating from 1963, it was published a full ten years before Dark Side came mooning into view.He readily acknowledges that Hipgnosis was in the right place at the right time, posing the question: ‘I often wonder if Dark Side had stiffed and sold only 1,500 copies, would the image still be revered today?‘Po needn't worry. To date it has sold more than 45 million copies worldwide, one of the best-selling albums ever, behind Michael Jackson's Thriller.The list of musicians who saw Hipgnosis as their ‘go to’ designers reads like a who’s who (including The Who themselves!) from Wishbone Ash to Wings, 10CC to Yes, Electric Light Orchestra to Olivia Newton-John, and Black Sabbath to The Hollies.In these digital days it is hard to credit the lengths that Hipgnosis had to go to in order to create those glorious gatefold sleeves that transformed album art; not only in the off-beat locations visited – from the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland to an empty film studio backlot in Burbank, California – but also back in the studio later, working their design magic without the aid of today's computer technology. Photoshop eat your heart – or rather your art – out!The book is illustrated with the cover art of countless albums along with unseen photos taken at the various sessions, documents, artefacts and artworks from Po's own archive.(Thames & Hudson, hardback, £30)

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