Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Tuesday Tuneage
UFO - "Lights Out"

A) Excitement and Euphoria
B) Disenchantment
C) The Search for the Guilty
D) Punishment of the Innocent
E) Distinction for the Uninvolved
 - Aubrey Powell

As a young lover of vinyl albums and their packaging, I was incredibly naive about how album artwork was conceived. If I had a working theory, it was probably thought that each record company had an arts department, and a person or people in that department would deliver artwork after conferring with the recording band or artist. But as a big teenage Pink Floyd fan and a compulsive reader of liner notes, I would always see "Sleeve Design By Hipgnosis" noted on the Floyd LPs. I conjectured that there must be some cool company in the UK somewhere that specialized in trippy Floyd LP art. Later, I would see the Hipgnosis acknowledgement on other bands albums and figured Hipgnosis was some big design company that specialized in album art. I was only half right in my guess.

Last winter, I bought For The Love Of Vinyl: The Album Art Of Hipgnosis by Hipgnosis founders/main collaborators Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell. Every Wednesday morning for a stretch of weeks this past spring, I would drink coffee and flip through the book for thirty minutes or so and enjoy the ride. This coffee table book is crammed with album art - front covers, back covers, liner sleeves, posters, outtakes, rough takes - and Storm and Aubrey each provide a few paragraphs telling the story of how they came up with the design. You are in the hands of a couple of highly entertaining guys, they yukk it up through the narratives and sometimes draw a blank with a "that's all I remember, hopefully (the other guy) can provide more detail" confession, and then The Other Guy always does deliver the goods.

I can't do their storytelling justice, but a certain singer is referred to as "Olivia Neutron Bomb" and the tale where Storm jokingly pre-caller-ID answers the phone as Groucho Marx to a quick-to-anger Peter Grant - Led Zeppelin’s notoriously feared and violent manager - has to be in any Hipgnosis biopic. (I may write its script on spec!)

Paging through this book, I fell in love with their approach to their craft. While the Hipgnois album covers are hip, winking, cool; the way they put together album art was the DIY ethic at its best:  Two (later three) guys working in a small London studio. Stock photography stills for background. Get a car, round up some friends to be the models, head to the countryside or an old house for a shoot. And this was all done pre-Photoshop; one of the guys refers to Hipgnosis as "masters of scissors and glue", using montages to great effect.

While Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon is their best-known work, it isn’t “typical” Hipgnosis. Floyd's Wish You Were Here is more representative of their aesthetic. A few more examples:

- The effect for Peter Gabriel’s “melt” album cover was obtained by taking a Polaroid and then applying a blunt pencil to it while it developed. The book is full with anecdotes like this: A make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach unleashed for maximum effect.

- The Strawbs' Deadlines album. Yes they actually filled a phone booth with water and put a (non-stunt man, yikes) guy in a suit in it upside down. (Then there's the inside sleeve, ha!)

- Compare AC/DC’s original Australian cover for Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap to what Hipgnosis came up with for the international version. Storm came up with the design in London, Aubrey was reached by phone in Los Angeles on a different assignment and shot a still of a no-tell motel in LA for a background, then shot models back in London to be the characters in the photo. And I just noticed - there's a dog on the cover! (Aubrey deadpans: "We didn't meet the band and never heard from them again.")

- The UFO Lights Out album. Some guy wearing a jumpsuit, he’s down by where the power works are. But wait: The jumpsuit is zippered down uncomfortably low. And in the background is another person - whether it’s guy or gal isn’t easily identifiable - slipping on his/her jumpsuit. Did they trip out London’s power supply just to have a rendezvous? Or did the hanky panky occur after they fixed a power outage? During? These are the types of stories that form in your mind while gazing upon Hipgnois album covers.

I felt genuinely a bit down when I got to the end of this book, that there were no more pages to flip through and study. Like Rock Dreams and Stairway To Hell, it will likely become one that I occasionally grab to page through, to reference, to allow me to daydream/write/give a damn. As Adrian Shaughnessy writes in the opening commentary, Hipgnosis's work "speaks to people who normally don't care too much about visual expression, in other words ordinary people."