US AND THEM: The Authorised Story of Hipgnosis by Mark Blake

… And after all, we’re only ordinary men. Well, not according to Mark Blake. There was nothing ordinary about Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell, ying and yang, friends and enemies, partners in the design team Hipgnosis, responsible for some, if not most, of those magically surreal LP covers designed for close scrutiny after smoking something unavailable at the corner shop. Back then cover art conveyed a message about the music inside and those who created it, an intrinsic component of the package that is dearly missed by those of us a bit long in tooth. 

“Storm was the rough and Po was the smooth,” writes Blake. “Storm’s maddening, brilliant artistry was enabled by Po’s practical nous and Olympic gold medal-standard hustling. Had you removed one or the other, the whole thing would have collapsed.”

        “The double act was amazing,” recalls Robert Plant. “The charming, amiable bonhomie of Aubrey and the belligerent ‘Do I have to deal with these scum musicians?’ approach from Storm. It was marvellous.”

I can vouch for these sentiments. Twice I tangled with Storm, over the books Taken By Storm and Mind Over Matter, the former a Hipgnosis retrospective published by Omnibus and the latter a Pink Floyd art book that Omnibus acquired and updated through buying out its original publisher. In both cases, negotiations, production and delivery were fraught with issues brought about by Storm’s intransigence, his often maddening I Know Best stance that, admittedly, worked out in the books’ favour in the long term. 

        As Us And Them makes clear, all those weird, surreal, thoughtful images created for Floyd and everyone else weren’t done by Photoshop or by faking it as computers enable today. They were real photographs for which he’d assemble the props, the models, the lighting and the backdrop, which invariably involved travel to exotic locations at considerable expense, and it often took him ages, like weeks, to get it right. He was a stickler, a perfectionist, an artist, and that’s why it was both a privilege and – occasionally – a pain in the neck to work with him. I probably wasn’t the only one to mutter ‘Storm by name, Storm by nature’ under my breath. 

        So, Mark Blake’s illuminating book tells Storm’s story, which begins in Cambridge where he befriends some of those who will become Pink Floyd, and that of Powell, born in Worthing but raised largely in the Middle East where his dad served with the RAF. Both had uncommon, Bohemian upbringings and, separately, discovered abstract art, beat poetry and cool music. They met in Cambridge and bonded at a party that was disrupted by the unwelcome arrival of policemen looking for drugs. Most of the guests fled but Storm, his girlfriend and Po stood their ground. “By staying behind, I’d passed a test,” says Po. “After that, I seemed to spend every other day with Storm and his friends.”



        They got into a good deal of trouble, especially Po who narrowly avoided jail over a financial scam, but in 1968 were asked by their friends in the Floyd to produce a cover for their second LP, A Saucerful Of Secrets. Storm’s belief that there was nothing more boring than a photo of a band on a record cover was Hipgnosis’ mantra. “All of us, including the Floyd, shared the same interests,” he said. “Atmosphere, emotions, space, politics, the war, drugs, girls…” 

        The Saucerful design, which looked a bit like the bottom of a fish tank, was sufficiently weird to cement a relationship that lasted years and led to everything else. The two non-Cambridge Floydians, Rick Wright and Nick Mason, were as nonplussed by the duo as everyone else. “There was one slightly oddball character in Storm and one slightly more measured character in the shape of Po,” recalls Mason. “And it stayed that way for the next fifty years.”

        While the early chapters of Us And Them double as a fairly detailed study of the comings and goings of those connected with the early Floyd, to a certain extent reiterating the same material found in Blake’s definitive Floyd biography Pigs Might Fly, the next fifty years become the meat and potatoes of his book. Alongside his accounts of the weird and wonderful ways of Hipgnosis, we read about other developments in the realm of LP cover art, and interactions with their many clients, prominent among them Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney, the cue for page after page of inside stories, all of them hilarious, eye-opening and, often, unflattering. The same applies to Hipgnosis’ involvement in making a promotional movie for Now Voyager, the 1984 solo LP by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. Without giving away too much, Storm threw a wobbly over Barry’s beard.

        In their heyday the money rolled into Hipgnosis’ coffers and both Po and Storm drove Porsches but in 1985 they fell out over debts incurred by their film company and didn’t speak for 12 years. What finally got them back together, loosely, were offers from publishers to compile books of their work but the friction was still there. Storm had the same careless disregard for money as our last-but-one Prime Minister, and was wilfully reckless when it came to selling off potentially valuable artwork. “Storm was selling loads of Hipgnosis’s work to collectors,” says Po. “People were wandering into the studio – ‘Can I have this?’ ‘Yes, five hundred quid, please.’” When he sold some Led Zeppelin artwork that the group owned – or thought they owned – Jimmy Page was not pleased.

Nick Mason, for one, was probably aware of Storm’s predicament. When Taken By Storm was published in 2007 an exhibition of Hipgnosis’ work was held at a gallery near Denmark Street. On opening night Mason arrived in his leathers having biked in from somewhere and wanted to buy a book. I was manning the sales counter at the time and told him he could have it for free because he was, well, Nick Mason. He wasn't having it. From his bulging wallet he produced a £50 note, handed it to me and said, simply, “Its for Storm.” 

        Storm died in 2013 but Po is still with us and contributes a Foreword. Like many of the best rock books, Us And Them recalls an era long before corporate interests had the final say in what they now call ‘product’. As Po points out, it was a time when nobody ever said no. It was better then, believe me. 


Anonymous said...

A beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.

Colin Harper said...

I believe you. But then again, a lot of people got a lot of money to make rubbish too...