Review: Through The Prism by Aubrey Powell

NB/Disclosure: I was provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.


Hipgnosis. That’s a name you’ll know if you’re well-versed in classic rock history, especially if you know your album covers. But in case you don’t, you definitely know their work. That rainbow prism album cover on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon is arguably the most famous, iconic album cover in rock and roll and that’s one of many of Hipgnosis’ greatest hits. They’ve also done work for Led Zeppelin, T. Rex, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Paul McCartney & Wings, ELO, Yes, Genesis, among others. They’ve worked with a lot of classic rock bands and chances are a lot of your favourites, if you’re reading this blog. As you can imagine, as artists who worked with so many famous rock stars and rock stars being interesting characters, they must have so many interesting stories to tell. I say this over and over again but I am always amazed at how there’s so many connections between classic rockers. First, a little background information on the person behind this book, named after you guessed it, the iconic Dark Side of the Moon album cover.

The art design group were formed in 1968 by two friends from Cambridge, Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson. They got the name Hipgnosis from some graffiti they saw near the door to their Egerton Court flat in South Kensington. They loved the play on words, with it sounding like hypnosis but with hip, meaning cool, and gnosis as in the Greek word for knowledge. They were friends with Pink Floyd, also from Cambridge, and the band wanted them to design the album cover for their sophomore album A Saucerful of Secrets. From there, they got more work through EMI Records, the label Pink Floyd were signed to. What’s interesting about their approach is they didn’t have a set fee for their work, but rather told the artists to pay them what they thought the work was worth and for the most part, it worked for them. I think because musicians, as fellow creatives, have an understanding of what the value of creative work is. While they never won a Grammy, they were nominated five times (what do the Grammys know? – just my two cents).


With this being a book by a graphic artist and that being a visual job, expect to see a lot of pictures throughout the book, which will enhance the reading experience and give context. The book is beautifully put together – not just the pictures, but the typography too at the beginning of each chapter. This is no generic memoir, and that’s something I expect from a great artist like Aubrey Powell. As Pink Floyd’s creative director and one of the people behind all those famous album covers from the band’s golden age, expect there to be multiple chapters on Pink Floyd, and not just the prog rock lineup of the band, Hipgnosis also worked with Syd Barrett, so there is a chapter on him. In fact, it’s the first chapter. Prominent/longtime collaborations like Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, and 10cc get multiple chapters each. What blows my mind throughout the book is how each of these iconic works of art came together – I always have to keep in mind that this was in an analogue era where you developed photos in a darkroom – with no idea how the pictures would turn out, had to cut things out to make collages, using prisms and gels for special effects, no computers or software to help them (absolutely no undo button in those days – what would I ever do without the undo button)! And more than that in the early days when they were broke, Aubrey had to be resourceful and develop photos in the bathroom! As well, it’s important to remember that in those days, an album’s packaging was a whole experience that goes with the music. Vinyl’s a lot bigger than a CD and it’s physical, unlike streaming or MP3 downloads, so it’s not just about the cover artwork, but also gatefold artwork and photography and posters and things that come with the album. I think it’s something that’s missing in music nowadays. The packaging and the experience is part of the magic and another layer of creativity.

Overall, this book is a fun journey from the Swinging Sixties through the rest of the classic rock era with lots of stories and insights behind the artwork – always fun to find out what was going on inside the artist’s head when they create artwork and what it means and symbolises. It really is incredible how art took Hipgnosis all over the world, literally! They did photoshoots all over the world for these album covers. Makes you think. Not only can Aubrey Powell create stunning visuals, he can paint scenes with his writing and storytelling – he has a huge vocabulary and is very smart. There’s so much I’ve learnt from this book and I think even the most die hard classic rock fans who collect factoids like vinyl records will learn something too. Po has a very unique perspective that is under-appreciated and I think any classic rock fan will enjoy the stories behind these iconic album covers. No doubt he has many more stories that didn’t make it into the book. He’s written other books about his album cover photography such as Hipgnosis Portraits and Vinyl: The Hipgnosis Catalogue. I strongly recommend Through The Prism, not just to Pink Floyd fans, but fans of classic rock who love the history of it.

Selected stories of five classic rockers Po worked with:

In my book reviews, I like to do some sort of takeaways from the book, but in this case, I’m going to share some of my favourite stories about five different rock acts he worked with:

Syd Barrett: Po met Syd in Cambridge when he was running an op art market stall modelled after the famous Swinging London boutique I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. Syd visited the market stall and he and Po hit it off very quickly. Po’s first impression of Syd was that he was rational, articulate, funny, great guitarist and songwriter, and a ladies’ man. He never imagined when he first met him that he would become an acid casualty just a few years later. Syd Barrett and Roger Waters were school friends and were trouble makers at the grammar school. Later, Syd became good friends with David Gilmour – the guy would replace him in his own band – and the two would jam and busk together. The scene Pink Floyd and Hipgnosis were involved in in Cambridge was really bohemian, arty, freewheeling, and philosophical – all things you can describe the 60s counterculture as being – those beatniks and mods. Sometime in 1967, Syd lived with Storm and Aubrey and they already saw that he was acting erratic and abusive towards his girlfriend. Their opinion of him soured. Friends tried to get Syd some professional help, but a mentally ill person has to realise there’s a problem and has to want help. By 1969 when Mick Rock and Hipgnosis took pictures for The Madcap Laughs, Syd was not the same person Po met at that market stall. He was distant, quiet, and not charismatic like he used to be. While he looked slim and beautiful with his curly hair, he was clearly not all there. They took pictures as he was doing yoga. Still, Syd Barrett’s presence was important for Pink Floyd and he played an important role even though he was only there for the beginning. He continued to inspire the band even after his departure and you can hear that influence in the themes of DSOTM, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall – some of Pink Floyd’s greatest works. He also was the one who gave Hipgnosis their name, because it was him who did the graffiti. He had a way with words!

As for the rest of Pink Floyd, here’s something really special and revolutionary about them. Historically, musicians were forced to use their record label’s in house art department. That all changed with The Beatles, who didn’t just take creative control over their music, but also the album artwork. Pink Floyd wanted to follow The Beatles’ footsteps, but in the late 60s, they were a newly signed band and it’s hard to get the record label to do it your way. That’s why it’s important to have supportive managers and to be assertive. Because Pink Floyd stuck to their guns, EMI allowed them creative freedom and they chose to work with Hipgnosis all those years. Their persistence paid off because all their albums went top 10 in the UK. Atom Heart Mother and Wish You Were Here topped the albums charts, while Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, and The Wall were very close to topping the charts.

Fun fact about DSOTM: seven designs were presented to the band and they unanimously picked the prism and rainbow, much to Storm Thorgerson’s dismay. Storm did not like that design very much and wanted something with a comic book character surfing in the cosmos with the moon in the background. This was one of those cases where the customer is always right – Dark Side of the Moon is arguably Hipgnosis’ best known work and the success of the album led to more work for them. Oddly enough, it was a black sheep hit, an outlier, for the design group because graphic design was not their specialty and they were more into photography.

Years later in 1975, Syd Barrett showed up to Hipgnosis’ studio asking where Pink Floyd were. Po was shocked at Syd’s appearance: he was bald, fat, and shaved off his eybrows. Two hours later, he showed up at Abbey Road Studios.

Led Zeppelin: A superstar rock band with a reputation for decadence and debauchery. What added to their mystique was a carefully controlled image and access to the band. Their manager Peter Grant was smart, large, intimidating, good with money, and an excellent negotiator that worked hard to make deals that were favourable to the band. Po’s first impression of Jimmy Page was that he was skinny, aloof, handsome, and a bit dandy like. His first impression of Robert Plant: funny, smiling, down to earth, and has beautiful curly blonde hair. Bonzo: affable, heavy Brummie accent. John Paul Jones: small guy with a blond bob. Hipgnosis famously did their Houses of the Holy album cover, shot at the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. Led Zeppelin being a bit of a bookish, nerdy band, the album cover appropriately has sci-fi influences, inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Another possible option was to shoot the album cover photo in Peru, recreating the Zoso logo on the Plain of Nazca, but that was too expensive and the concept was too unrealistic as that was a sacred site. However, the Houses of the Holy shoot didn’t come without problems because it was done at the height of The Troubles and Ireland isn’t exactly known for having the nicest weather so they went out multiple times to the Giant’s Causeway to take pictures, and they didn’t get the perfect shot they were looking for! But with some collaging and colouring, they got the album cover art! When Po showed it to Jimmy Page at a train station, he liked it. Peter Grant was very supportive of the band and Hipgnosis and was willing to delay the album’s release by a few months to get the cover artwork right. The perfectionism paid off and Hipgnosis were nominated for a Grammy for Best Album Cover Design of 1973. Hipgnosis also designed the album cover for Presence and In Through the Out Door.

Peter Gabriel: After the success of DSOTM, Hipgnosis became more in demand. Aubrey Powell was pleasantly surprised to get a phone call from Peter Gabriel one day. He wanted them to design the album cover for the Genesis concept album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, which as you can guess from the title takes place in New York and with it taking place in America, there are some American pop culture references. Appropriately, Hipgnosis combined the aesthetic of comics and film noir in their design for the album cover. Peter Gabriel loved their work so much that he worked with them again on his three solo albums released between 1977-1980. His face is more obscured in the album covers and this was to signify his transition away from being a stereotypical rock star with pinup good looks, as the trope goes in music when you’re seen as eye candy, you’re taken less seriously. However, there were a few nude photos Peter Gabriel had taken in 1977 as potential promo sleeves for the single “Modern L, but his label, Charisma rejected that and the photos were put on the centre label on the single.

Paul McCartney: The other big musician that Hipgnosis worked with extensively was Paul McCartney. Hipgnosis did the album art for Band on the Run (while Clive Arrowsmith did the photography, Hipgnosis casted the actors and directed the photoshoot), Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound, Wings Over America, and London Town, among others, so like in the case of Pink Floyd, Hipgnosis worked a lot with Paul McCartney so there are plenty of stories in their history of working together. Po was in New Orleans with Paul McCartney on Mardi Gras 1975. Storm was worried that Linda McCartney, as a photographer, would try to take over control of designing the cover for Venus and Mars, and even considered not taking the job because he didn’t want to sacrifice his artistic integrity. Linda ended up overseeing the photoshoot, which featured the iconic pool balls. For the photos of the band themselves, to fit in with the album title, they wanted to shoot in a location reminiscent of outer space. After looking through a book of beautiful scenery in California (there’s a lot of choice there!), Po settled on the foothills of the Sierras near Lone Pine, four hours away from LA, and noted he had a great time doing the shoot. With it being the 70s, there was no GPS, MapQuest, Google Maps, or smartphones, they had to find their way around the good old fashioned way, with a map! Meanwhile, Storm worked with George Hardie on graphics for the album.

The Who: As a big Who fan, of course I have to talk about them. While they didn’t get a chapter, they’re one of my all time favourite bands and a huge inspiration to me overall. Aubrey Powell put his story about working with The Who in a chapter about concert tours, which he opens with a fact about his family. His grandfather Felix Powell and his brother George (who wrote the lyrics), composed the music for a famous WWI song called “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag”. The song won first prize for best morale-building song. The two brothers toured the world and had the same manager as Charlie Chaplin. As happy as the song sounds, Felix wasn’t happy. He didn’t get along with his brother afterwards because they had a disagreement with how the song was used in WWI. George was a pacifist, while Felix was in the army and formed a band there, singing songs to boost the troops’ morale. Sadly, he was traumatised after the war and his mental health went downhill. Decades later, he borrowed money from a loan shark to put on a theatrical production called Primrose Time, but since he couldn’t pay him back and the show would never go on, he killed himself. Aubrey Powell was lucky to be close to Paul McCartney and Wings on tour and have the privilege to take pictures of them. For The Who, he helped create a visual experience for a musical stage play for The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia, which was toured all over the US and UK. When you go to a concert, it’s not just about the music. A great concert has visuals and is an experience (greatest example of that is Roger Waters). Visuals help people understand the meaning of the music and in America, people don’t know about the Mod subculture, so it was really important to have the visuals there to help the audience understand and feel like they are in Brighton in 1964. Po notes that Roger Daltrey loved spending free time on the tour going to fancy restaurants with a good selection of wines and going to arthouse cinemas. Pete and Roger travelled separately, and with it being the 90s and not the 60s, there was a healthier, calmer, more lavish lifestyle on the road. Pete was recovering from alcoholism so he had to stay away from the booze as much as he could. Still, Po said he had a blast on The Who tours. He said after the 2006/2007 Endless Wire tour, he retired for the road… until nearly a decade later when he joined David Gilmour for the Rattle That Lock tour in South America, filming the tour using GoPros as an experiment, can he capture good footage of a big tour on a low budget? As you know, GoPros have the ability to do unique shots and give unique perspectives, they can be mounted anywhere, and they’re so portable. Po said that experiment was a success and shows you don’t need to spend big bucks to get good footage and get the job done. Sometimes those big fancy cameras and lenses are really just a flex.

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