Review: Us & Them: The Authorised Story of Hipgnosis by Mark Blake

NB/Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!

Time flies! Can you believe that The Dark Side of the Moon came out 50 years ago? I know I can’t. As you may already know, the artists behind that iconic album cover among many others are Hipgnosis, formed by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, and later including Peter Christopherson. But first before we get to the review, here’s some background information on the book:

Mark Blake’s Us & Them is an authorised biography of Hipgnosis, which came out on February 2, 2023. With this being a book about artists behind many of your favourite album covers, it’s no surprise that the chapters are laid out like a record with a side one and side two with side one covering the period from Storm & Po’s youth in Cambridge to 1974 and side two covering working with Wings in the mid 70s to Hipgnosis’ breakup in the 80s and their solo projects. I also appreciate that there’s a list at the beginning of the “cast of main characters”. Admittedly, I’m not always the best with remembering names, so it’s nice that it’s there to refer back to. I would have liked to see a whole list in the book (maybe in the appendix) of all the album covers Hipgnosis designed and the music videos they directed.

The author, Mark Blake, met Thorgerson and Powell in 2006 while writing a biography about Pink Floyd and interviewed them to get some insight about the rock band that they worked with for a long time. It wasn’t easy for him to get an interview with them, with many roadblocks: cancellations, calls that went straight to the answering machine, and reluctance to speak about Pink Floyd, but with some persistence, the ice started to break and Blake got to know Storm and he opened up and the two interviewed each other for various projects. Finally, in 2017, Po called Mark Blake and the two started talking and interviewing each other for various projects they were working on. This rapport developed organically and Po called him during lockdown asking if he could write a biography on Hipgnosis and so Us & Them was born.

Meanwhile in a town 14 miles away from Cambridge called Ely, Aubrey “Po” Powell was attending a boarding school and was expelled at just 16 years old. From there, he made his way to Cambridge, where he met and befriended Storm. Po also befriended Syd Barrett, who stopped by his market stall. He later moved to London and worked various jobs: window dressing for a department store, designing sets for BBC shows, and transporting Pink Floyd’s light show equipment, which wouldn’t fit in their van. Storm got him into LSD (just the beginning of his rock and roll lifestyle) and soon after they started working together.

Finally in 1968 Storm and Po joined forces and formed Hipgnosis, inspired by the Sgt Pepper album cover and the student protests of 1968. Po said of the lightbulb moment: “When Storm and I saw what Peter Blake had done with Sgt Pepper, it changed our thinking overnight.” The college educated Storm taught Po everything he knew about photography. During the student protests of spring 1968, Po managed to sneak into photography classes at the Royal College of Art even though he wasn’t a student, one of those act like you belong scenarios. Storm though ended up graduating from RCA with an MA in TV and Film Production. One thing was very important to Storm and Po, they weren’t going to work for any record label. They worked for the musicians, but Po later on took on commercial work because you gotta pay the bills. Easy to say it’s selling out, we live in a society and we all need money to live.

What made Hipgnosis special? Well, for starters, they didn’t follow trends and do what everyone else was doing. Instead of shots of the group or psychedelic illustrations, they took a more artistic approach and created album artwork that evokes an intellectual image: images that made you think. These LP sleeves were like the mid-century version of a book cover – the album you carried around says something about you. It’s art that you can hang on your wall that doesn’t necessarily shout album cover. Something you can see both in a record store and an art gallery. A lot of their art had some throwback influences from all over the place: a fusion of different things.

With Syd Barrett’s mental health and drug habit worsening and Pink Floyd finding success, Storm and Po moved on from the Egerton Court flat. Success and wealth didn’t come straight away and in the early days they had to have help from their parents to afford to rent a studio space. They couldn’t even afford insurance and they had equipment stolen, a major blow! So they took photography and design gigs outside of the music industry to pay the bills. Their bread and butter were the album covers they designed for Pink Floyd, which boosted their profile and prestige as artists. Starting in the transitional period for the band, they designedthe covers for A Saucerful of Secrets, More, Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, and Obscured by Clouds as well as the covers for their most famous albums The Dark Side of the Moon (with George Hardie), Wish You Were Here, and Animals. Through their work with Pink Floyd, they did photography and design work for other musicians signed to EMI’s Harvest label, other prog rock bands, as well as a lot of other musicians. As they became more established, they looked further afield for photoshoot locations and inspiration – taking photos in exotic locations to make the album covers stand out – of course on the band’s dime – as Roger Waters would put it a “free trip to Timbuk-fucking-tu”, look impressive, and have a story. It’s not just about the look, it has to have a meaning too.

One mistake they made was not knowing what to charge for their work, only making anywhere from £120-250 for most album covers (though they got £5k for DSOTM in 1973) and that’s where a lot of arguments begin, over money. While Storm prioritised art and didn’t think about money (possibly because of his communist upbringing), Po was thinking more practically and business minded and insisted the financial aspects can’t be ignored in their business. 

And while we’re on the topic of money, one of the saddest things is how undervalued the arts are and how no one seems to be paid fairly for their work. Hipgnosis themselves weren’t paid the best for their album covers and the low pay was passed on to photographers and designers who worked under them. Sure they had no problem getting people to work for them anyway because of their prestige in the industry, but when you’re talented and not getting what you’re worth, it’s not hard to bounce when you finally get another offer with some Hipgnosis work under your belt. I really appreciate that this book talks about the other artists that helped realise Hipgnosis’ creations – it really was more than just Storm and Po. Sure, it was a roundabout and rotating cast of characters, but they were all important. People like Marcus Bradbury, Andrew Ellis, Richard Evans, and Richard Manning were an important part of Hipgnosis’ story.

As we all know, all good things come to an end. What led to the end of Hipgnosis? The discussions about money certainly didn’t help, but ultimately it was the pair’s very different personalities. Storm, although he was talented, creative, and intelligent, he was argumentative and difficult to work with (what an apt name he had) and he paid the price for that when Paul McCartney excluded him from invitations to a party he was throwing. Musicians found Po easier to work with and he’s a talented photographer, but his constant jet-setting caused problems in his personal life: cheating, living a rock and roll lifestyle and letting it get to his head, and being surrounded by sketchy people. Another thing that led to the dissolution of Hipgnosis was technology – in the early 80s, the world was moving on from vinyl and its beautiful packaging and glamorous experience to the more portable, shiny compact disc – a revolution no doubt. We all have our opinions on what the best music format is, but no doubt this change in technology was a big blow to these artists who were known for their album art. With CDs, the album cover and packaging wasn’t as much of a focus because it was smaller. Around the same time, you had MTV and the focus shifted more to video with the bands and songs coming to life like never before. And so Hipgnosis split up as MTV was on its meteoric rise as a Gen X staple. Storm, Po, and their business partner Peter Christopherson each pursued solo projects, but they also directed music videos, a dream come true for Storm, who always wanted to be a filmmaker. It didn’t take long until that crashed and burned. They were big spenders and their venture, Greenback Films, failed in 1985: they were in six figures of debt. The breakup was nasty and Storm and Po didn’t speak for over a decade. Meanwhile in Pink Floyd, Roger Waters split from Pink Floyd and so began a decades long beef with David Gilmour. To quote a Taylor Swift song “we are never ever ever getting back together”. They all went on and did their own thing in the 80s and 90s. Po continued directing music videos and making TV adverts and Storm paid off Greenback’s debts and continued making pop music videos and worked with the new sans Roger Waters Pink Floyd – designing the cover for A Momentary Lapse of Reason and doing visuals for their live shows. 

The two continued to argue in the new millennium, this time over the name Hipgnosis itself. Po registered Hipgnosis as a company decades prior to this and Storm sold the rights to use the name to a man named Merck Mercuriadis, a Canadian man who befriended Storm while working for Iron Maiden’s management company, Sanctuary Music. When Mercuriadis started his own company he asked Storm for permission to call his company Hipgnosis, and Storm approved. As you can imagine, Po was livid because he wasn’t consulted and all those years as Hipgnosis and it’s all thrown away and given to someone else? Po’s anger is understandable because when you google Hipgnosis, the first thing that shows up is Mercuriadis’ company Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which causes confusion. While not an excuse, Storm being all sell-happy with all things Hipgnosis was because of his health problems: recovering from a stroke and cancer – even if you live in a country with universal healthcare, expenses add up – sure you may have no medical debt, but you still have living expenses. Storm passed away in 2013 of cancer. In his last moments, he and Po hugged and he said he didn’t want to die and Po and their friend John Whiteley said they loved him.

Overall this book is an adventure of a read that takes you from the beatnik early 60s to Swinging London to the psychedelic late 60s to the cocaine-fuelled 70s to the “video killed the radio star” 80s and beyond. It’s easy to tell that they deserve a book all about them. It’s raw and real with many stories of psychedelic trips and people saying, doing, and thinking things while high that they may or may not regret later, but also a worldly story with the main characters travelling the world, living the dream. There’s also a lot of darkness in the story with Syd Barrett’s mental health worsening and people around him trying to help, but the sad reality is you have to want help in order for it to work.

There’s a lot of interesting quotes about the time from Hipgnosis themselves and people who knew them. As you can expect from any story about Swinging London, it’s a small world and you see how tight knit the scene was and how everyone knew each other: musicians supporting other musicians by going to their shows and getting to know each other and musicians getting to know the creatives and intellectual minds they’d encounter and work with. It’s a great book for Pink Floyd fans and people who want to know the story of the people behind many of the most iconic classic rock album covers in history. As you can expect, the story is very Pink Floyd dominant because of how close they were to them, but there are plenty of stories about other rock bands, especially Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney and Wings. It’s also a good companion to Aubrey Powell’s books, such as Through The Prism, which I also reviewed on the blog. You might recall quite a few of the same stories about their most famous album covers from that book in this one, but there’s still a lot of stuff I learnt from this one and many more stories about the deeper cut album covers. This book would make a great basis for a documentary – I’d totally watch a documentary about Hipgnosis: the visuals, the artwork alone would make it a compelling watch!

Let’s conclude this review with one last interesting tidbit from the book related to The Prism: When a friend of Pink Floyd’s, Nigel Gordon and his wife Jenny went to India, they sent a letter to Storm and his flatmates with a drawing of a pyramid and next to it reading “Remember that triangle, Storm”. That triangle would change the life of Hipgnosis.

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