The Stories Behind Iconic Album Covers By The Man Who Designed Them

Co-founder of the design company Hipgnosis, Aubrey Powell helped create some of the most iconic music imagery ever made. He talked me through some of the best, and gave his thoughts on some modern classics...
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Co-founder of the design company Hipgnosis, Aubrey Powell helped create some of the most iconic music imagery ever made. He talked me through some of the best, and gave his thoughts on some modern classics...

Four long-haired men in suits on a zebra crossing. A giant pig soaring over Battersea Power station. A submerged baby reaching for a dollar bill. Images so iconic that to many they are better known than the music inside the sleeves and boxes they adorn.Such is the power of the record cover that photographs are no longer just photographs; instead the images capture an essence of the band that words fail to, and even remain potent symbols when the music-makers themselves are six feet under.

Get your cover right and your record will be remembered forever. Get it wrong and it’s doomed to gather dust on the back shelves of record stores. So what makes an album cover great? Who better to answer this question than Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell, the man who, as part of visionary trio Hypgnosis, has been responsible for creating some of the most revered album sleeves of all time. I met this living legend to talk me through the remarkable stories behind the making of some of his most iconic images of all time, and give his take on some modern classics.

PINK FLOYD - DARK SIDE OF THE MOON (pictured above)


Po: ‘In 1974 we got our break when we did Dark Side of the Moon. It sold 45 million copies, and it’s been labelled one of the most iconic album covers of all time. The band just came to us said they wanted something that was very simple, very plain, very brandy, very symbolic. We knew the title but we hadn’t heard any of the music. We came up with loads of different ideas, then one day we were flicking through an old photographic book and in there was one of the first colour photographs, and there was a picture of a prism sitting on some sheet music, and there falling across the sheet music, were all the colours of the rainbow.

So that was it. We came up with this idea and did it, and for whatever reason it’s just iconic, and everybody knows it. What’s that got to do with the music? What’s that got to do with the album? Absolutely fuck all, but somehow this very simple image just summed up Pink Floyd.’

LED ZEPELLIN – HOUSES OF THE HOLY

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‘The phone rang one day and it was Jimmy Page. I’d never spoken to him and he just said ‘I’d really like you to have a go at doing the album cover for Led Zeppelin.’ I asked him if he could give us a clue of some sort and he said ‘no’. Then I asked if there was any music we could listen to and he said ‘no’. All we knew is that it was called Houses of the Holy, and that we had 3 weeks to put some ideas together.

So we did, and we went to the meeting and they loved the idea we had, and when we asked about a budget, they told us that money was no objective and that we could spend whatever we liked. So I went to Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and it pissed with rain. Non-stop. For five days. And after five days of this absolute nightmare, and money just being haemorrhaged away, we finally shot the whole thing, took it back to London, and made a montage up of the children standing on the rocks. When we finished it, we went to meet Jimmy Page at Victoria Station. I drove up, opened up the boot, and there’s Jimmy Page in all his finery – long hair, beads, velvet trousers, looking like the rock star -  and he said straight away that he loved it. By this point about 200 people had gathered around to see what was going on, and when he left everyone gave me a round of applause.

PINK FLOYD – ANIMALS

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One day Roger Waters called me up and said ‘I’ve got an idea for an album cover’. We’d showed them some ideas already - one of them was a child discovering their parents fucking in bed, which the band had rejected. He said: ‘You know we’re building this big pig in Germany, how about flying that over Battersea power station?’. So he and I set off that afternoon, brought the pig down to Battersea, plated with helium. It was absolutely massive – about twice the size of your average Victorian house. We sent it up and it hung between the two chimneys.

The sky was fantastic when we got there - it was like a Turner painting. Then just as we were about to take the photograph, the anchoring broke and the pig sailed off up into the sky. As we watched it go, we realised it was heading up into the airspace around Heathrow, so in an absolute panic we phoned up the police, and within an hour, all aircraft to Heathrow were diverted to other airports. By this time it was starting to get dark, and they ended up stopping all flights from Europe to Heathrow; they even sent up jet fighters.

I was promptly arrested by the police, and it was broadcast on national television and radio everywhere that anybody who sighted the pig should phone in. It was on the front page of every newspaper and I was in deep trouble – I was charged with possession of a flying pig without due care and attention. Next thing, the phone rings and this country voice says ‘Hello, are these the people looking for a pink pig? That fucking thing is scaring my fucking cows’. It was a farmer down in Kent, and the pig had landed in his field. So we went and got it and went back to Battersea the next day, and there was a big police presence there. Thankfully everything was fine, but funnily enough the sky from the first day was the image that we wanted. So in the end, we took that picture and we put the pig from the final shot into the first shot – so it never was a whole picture. It’s made up of two photos. It was fun and of course Pink Floyd made a lot of mileage out of it, it was amazing how much publicity they got from that.

Po’s take on Modern Classics:

NIRVANA – NEVER MIND


Whoever came up with this idea is a genius. Babies, being taught to swim – they throw them under water – they seem to be totally intimidated and rather enjoy the experience, and lots of people have photographs taken of their babies going through this process. Whoever came up with the idea of putting a dollar bill at the end of a hook – it completely sums up the whole attitude of the Rock and Roll business, and what it’s like to be a rock and roll star. It’s basically an infant rock and roller swimming for the dollar and trying to make a living – it’s an absolute work of genius. And it’s got a willy on it, which is even more important – you could just about get away with that now, but only just.

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE – RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE

          
It suited them because somehow their music is so intense, so violent and you get this sort of feeling from the flames that there is a lot of anger and protest and deep sincerity of rage. For somebody to set themselves on fire like that takes a tremendous amount of courage and I think it sums up the band really well. Courage and selfishness. It’s a shocking image, but it suits them. I have no problem with people putting shocking images on their album covers, and in this case I find it a very potent symbol for their kind of music.

THE STROKES – IS THIS IT?


Alan Jones - a painter from the 60’s - used to paint women on all fours with glass tabletops on the top of them and the lower part of their body would be swathed in leather – this album is the photographic version. Just the feeling of a beautiful curvy bottom with a latex glove - it gives you the feeling that something is about to happen. It’s sexy and perverse, without actually being so – you’re not seeing fisting, you’re not seeing some unpleasant sexual action, it hints at it. It just grabs your attention. I love the shape of the bottom. Graphically, it’s very striking, and it’s quite ambiguous too, because you’re not sure if it’s a man or a woman.

BLUR - PARKLIFE 


It’s a great record, and with Blur having that London attitude – what’s more London than White City and the dogs? The image of dog racing is brilliant – it’s also a great picture, I don’t know who photographed this - it looks like a shot maybe taken from a library or from Racing Weekly, but it’s got a fantastic atmosphere to it, it’s a really great cover. It’s nothing to do with rock and roll, and that’s what I like about – it’s very typical Blur in that they didn’t write traditional pop lyrics, they wrote about social situations – boys who like girls who like boys who like girls – very sexual lyrics. Living in housing estates in London – these are not pop lyrics so it didn’t deserve a pop cover.

THE LIBERTINES – THE LIBERTINES


The thing I like about the Libertines is that they are expressing a social period of time, a cultural movement. ‘Parental advisory, explicit content’ - I mean that says everything doesn’t it. You look at the relationships there: Are they junkies? Have they been shooting up? They have tattoos, and they’re kind of hip and youthful looking. I love the quality of the hair and the red shirt and the red lipstick – it’s very sexually ambiguous – are they boys are they girls? There’s something about to happen or just has been happening. They’ve just been caught on camera and you want to know - where are they? I like it a lot, because you don’t really know what’s happening, but there is a story there.