Through the Prism: Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive
Let’s be honest—to really enjoy Through the Prism, Untold Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive by Aubrey Powell, it would help if you lived through the days of yore when rock album covers were things of beauty, mystery, and something to look at while indulging in your favorite drug.
If you’re of a certain age, you certainly will remember pouring over the words to the songs on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, reportedly the first rock album with the lyrics printed on the back cover, trying to decipher meaning in The Beatles psychedelic masterpiece.
But these days? Individual songs hold sway, and the last truly cool LP cover seems to Nevermind by Nirvana.
Through the Prism, a gorgeously designed book written by Powell, one of the founding members of the hippie graphic design firm “Hipgnosis” along with Storm Thorgerson, and Peter Christopherson, brings baby boomers back to their youth when those iconic rock covers ruled the day.
Certainly, at least in England, Powell and his mates were in the center of the cultural storm that was the ‘60s and ‘70s. They became friendly early on with Syd Barrett, co-founder of Pink Floyd, who asked Powell and company to design the covers of some of their legendary albums. One of those of course was Dark Side of the Moon, a mostly black cover except for a beam of light transforming itself into multiple colors as it goes through the triangular prism.
Everyone knows that cover but what about the inspiration behind it? This book contains the stories of how Powell and company got their ideas back in Swinging London and the decades after.
Powell says he never wanted to explain how he got the idea back in the day because “we wanted to keep an element of mystery, as with most things we designed for Pink Floyd.” The truth is rather mundane. Powell found his inspiration in “a cheap American book on the psychics of light called The How and Why Wonder Book of Light and Order.”
The idea may have been rather simple, but as usual in those days of excess, it didn’t stop the graphic designers from decamping to Egypt for ten all-expense-paid glorious days to shoot the Great Pyramids. When the classic LP was released, Powell writes: “It changed all our lives, and not just the fortunes of Pink Floyd.” The workload for Hipgnosis tripled overnight and the firm had to rent an extra floor for all the new hires.
Excess runs through most of these stories the way drugs flowed through the veins and lungs of the musicians back then. Powell designed many of the album covers for Paul McCartney and Wings in the ‘70s. As soon as Powell finished shooting the artwork for the cover of Venus and Mars, Sir Paul threw a party aboard the Queen Mary.
Hipgnosis designed the invitations, but it was the guest list that was most impressive: George Harrison, Cher, Bob Dylan, the Monkees, Marvin Gaye, Rod Stewart, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Rudy Vallee, Harry Nilsson, and the Jackson 5, to name a few.
Powell was the man of the moment whom for the world’s biggest rock stars looked toward to make the covers of their LPs special. Led Zeppelin was on top of the world in 1973 when they asked Powell to come up with a cover and inside gatefold for their yet-to-be-released album Houses of the Holy.
Powell left the meeting without discussing money and phoned the band’s manager. “We didn’t discuss budget,” Powell told him. “Whatever it costs—just get it done,” came the reply along with a warning: “And don’t fuck up.”
Powell drew on an idea from Arthur C. Clarke’s sci fi to come up with a design that would feature a naked family, shot from the back, who would be climbing up some rugged terrain, looking for all the world like they’d be sacrificed when they got to the top.
Unfortunately, Powell chose a location in Northern Ireland when the Troubles were still raging, and the weather was terrible. Two of the models were a boy and girl under 12 years old. It was rough going to get the equipment in place and the models there without injuring anyone. In the end, Powell decided he could shoot the cover just using the children whom he would copy over and over again in a collage. If you’ve ever seen that cover, you know he succeeded wildly and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Album Design in 1973.
It was just the beginning of a long career. In May 2017, Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum opened its doors to the exhibit Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, that started with sketches Powell himself made. To hear Powell tell it, the exhibit “opened to the public with rave reviews . . . it was the icing on the cake, celebrating a lifetime or work, not only for Pink Floyd, but also for Storm and myself, as many of the visuals in the exhibition were ours.”
Can’t ask for more than that. And if you’re a Baby Boomer of a Gen X’er, this book will bring you back to another time.