Aubrey Powell: Life, light and Formentera’s influence on Hipgnosis

September 25th, 2009 - 4:06 pm Posted in ibiza | Comments (0)

Pike’s Hotel, September 2009

Every time my friend Storm Thorgerson visits Ibiza we have the most powerful…storms. Two years ago our table got blown over in Sant Llorenc by the winds, and he claims the end was seriously nigh when the deluge arrived, while sailing to Formentera to visit his old buddy and creative partner, Aubrey Powell.

Last month Powell, or Po as he’s been affectionately known for decades helped organise a retrospective of the work he and Storm did on the beat as Hipgnosis, the design partnership responsible for hundreds of celebrated albums covers. Having had no real rain on the island since May, we weren’t prepared to be caught on opening night last week in wild rain torrents and strobe lightning. Is it because of his name that Storm is some kind of lightning rod playful weatherman…I wonder.

Apart from the striking imagery and composition of their work, Hipgnosis have now become part of modern art history. In the sense that cover art per se (both outer panel and gatefold) has become an artefact, a collectors dream. In the sense that their work defined the synthesis of rock music and its visual meaning. How many people think Pink Floyd created the Pink Floyd image? Those images come from the mind of Hipgnosis. In the sense that album covers did something else too, for a now hermetically sealed period in time: They were also a kind of magic eye. You rolled your own, and stuff like that, and then the music played with them. A few years ago I did an email poll with rock writers in London. “What was the first album you rolled your own on?”. Each reply came back – and guess who the artists were every time? That is art.

On the evening of the preview, thanks to the warm efforts of Toni Planells at the Diario, the ever-ready hospitality of Martin Davies, and the crew of friends from Formentera who piled on to ease the few days of preparation we managed to get ourselves together through the lightning and rain from various parts of the island for a cosy gathering which went on after-show till the small hours at our cherished El Brasero in Sa Penya. After not nearly enough sleep I drove to have breakfast with Po at Tony Pike’s. I already knew a lot about Storm’s work with Hipgnosis, being part of the publishing team for his last two books, but now I wanted to ask Po a few questions, including the all-important one: Why Formentera? Every artist I know mentions the light first when you ask them about the landscape. We all know it’s incredibly special here, and uniquely its own, with a very particular shadowplay that seems to define the Balearic visual tone. It was no surprise then that Po feels the same way. But till the moment he said so, it had never occurred to me that the Formentera light had played a part in influencing Hipgnosis images…

“I love it. I first came here forty-one years ago with David Gilmour, and then the year afterwards with Syd Barrett. The first year I came to Formentera I stayed about four months living like a hippie, and I just fell in love with it. It’s so beautiful. It is the light, and the water, and the general simplicity of Formentera. Also it was kind of difficult to get to. You had to get the plane to Ibiza and then the ferry which at that time was the only ferry that went between Ibiza and Formentera and that took about two hours to get across and it only went twice a day. So it was an effort to get there, you know, it was a rather remote place. But a lot of writers, painters and musicians gravitated there. David Gilmour still goes back and rents a house there every year. I was determined to move there. I went back every year after that until I could afford to buy my own house which was in the early 80s, and I’ve had my own place now for 25 years.

The light here was very influential for me in terms of what we did with Hipgnosis. It was something I saw very early on; the particular vistas and landscapes that you get here in Formentera which are very Dali-esque. You could see why Dali painted in Cadaques because it has the same kind of vibe and that incredible light that you get is very like what you see in Hipgnosis works, those particular types of landscape. Take ELEGY for The Nice with the desert and the beautiful sky behind, or the diver on the back of the Pink Floyd album cover WISH YOU WERE HERE, the still water with this incredible blue sky. Hipgnosis were very into landscapes. It would give the impression of an atmosphere as it happened. For me as the main photographer for Hipgnosis I was definitely influenced by what I saw here.

Hipgnosis was about Storm being very much the brains and me being very much the hands on. In those days there were no mobile phones, so I’d be in the middle of the Arizona desert and calling from a phone box shoving in dimes, trying to get through to him to report back on what I’d found location-wise and how it was going. It was a bit like two cocoa shells and a piece of string…discussing how to get the best out of a photograph. And the other thing I worked out very early on was how many creative people were coming to Formentera in the early days. People like James Taylor, Chris Rea and other musicians; painters like Erro, designers like Philippe Starck, who’ve all gone on to be incredibly famous. Somehow Formentera’s like a magnet for people like that. All the people I mix with in Formentera, who are my friends, and we’re talking across 40 years now, they’re all creative types; and when you’ve got a community of creative types you seem to stick together like glue.

Creative people all have similar interests. It’s a community spirit, that’s why the exhibitions have been here rather than on the mainland. I had an exhibition in Formentera last year and that was an overwhelming success, and I felt like I was giving something back to an island which has given me a lot. From that event the Diario de Ibiza asked me to do an exhibition here this year, and again I feel like I’m giving something back. I’ve taken a lot of things out of the island in terms of inspiration, and I’ve now put something back and hope people will enjoy the pictures that I’ve taken over the last forty years. Anyway that’s why Formentera is so important to me.

Storm and I started when I was twenty. I’d already been working for the BBC and during that time Storm and I were sharing a flat with Syd Barrett. Storm somehow or other got asked to design some book covers for Penguin. They wanted a new kind of look and we were all experimenting at that time so this involved getting all our mates to dress up as cowboys and go to Richmond Park and re enact 3.10 to Yuma. And suddenly from this summer holiday job – even though I had a full time job – we’d made a few hundred quid which was a lot of money. Then Pink Floyd asked us to do their new album cover SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS, and their manager managed all these other people like The Pretty Things and Alexis Korner. So by the time I was 21, by the end of 1968, and Storm was leaving the Royal College at that time, we suddenly had a business. So we borrowed some money from his mum and my dad, bought some cameras and set up a studio in Denmark Street which became our home for the next fifteen years.

We had two floors in Denmark Street which would be worth a fortune now, but we rented them out for a few quid a week and we turned them into photographic studios, design rooms and dark rooms. And there we were for fifteen years. All those album covers were done out of those little studios there. They were very adventurous times because prior to Hipgnosis most album covers were portraits of the band. If you think of the early Beatles covers, early Stones covers, those classic studio shots – moody, colour portraits of the bands looking grim. We didn’t want to be that. We wanted to do interesting, esoteric, weird, surrealist kind of pictures. And we both had that same vision, and it just came about.

I went on the road a lot with the bands. Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Pink Floyd. Generally not for very long. It was probably just two or three weeks. I also did Paul McCartneys first world tour which was in 1975, and I did a book on it called Wings Over America. I stayed with him and Linda wherever they went.  I have an intimate relationship with all the bands I work with, like now with The Who I travel with Pete and Roger. But this book I did with Paul was fantastic. It was the first time he’d toured the world since he left The Beatles. I was on the starship 707 with Led Zeppelin which was a quite different experience from going on tour with Pink Floyd, where we had to stay near the squash court …so they were all different experiences.


In those days album covers were very important to the person who bought them because there wasn’t MTV, there weren’t music videos, and there wasn’t the saturation of youtube or any other available source to learn about your favourite rock n roll star. So an album was very important. You’d buy an album and scour the cover while playing it, looking for clues as to what made those artists tick. We latched onto that early on, by including lyrics, by including postcards, posters and little clues. The images we designed were related with the band in mind.

Led Zeppelin approached me for IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR, and I heard it and could hear it was their usual heavy rock style. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant never gave us any clue as to what they wanted, and we didn’t want that either. The one thing that they said is they don’t want anything too fucking weird because PRESENCE, the previous cover we did for them was pretty far out with the black object. And HOUSES OF THE HOLY with the children running up the rock which was all pretty science fiction in vibe… now they wanted something more back to their roots.

Storm and I came up with the idea of creating the perfect honky tonk bar which was their roots. Their roots come from rhythm and blues after all. So we thought about creating almost a film set; a bar where a story would be told, with characters in the bar within that story or narrative. I went along and told the band what I wanted to do, and they thought it was a good idea. So in order to do that I needed to do some research. I first of all flew to Martinique, where Jimmy Page had told me he’d seen a perfect bar. But I got there and the bar we’d been looking for was closed.

So I then went on to New Orleans where there were plenty of down home funky old bars, which had been used a lot by musicians, and they were still intact. I photographed the bars in every detail, and came back to England and got an art director to build me the bar, with all these ingredients, and get the best props. He built this incredible set, where the bar was viewable 360 degrees when you were inside it. We chose a bunch of different characters and we wanted them just to represent the atmos; there’s the guy standing there drunk with his hat on his head counting his money… the bartender who looks as though he’s been around the block (he might have been a sailor at some time)… We then told Led Zeppelin we had six characters, so why don’t we shoot six different angles on them and create six different album covers? It will be the same album but each cover will be different. So when you’re in a store, the person has the choice of six different front covers. It was a phenomenally succesful marketing tool for Led Zeppelin, and it was the first time it was ever done.

Compsition and WISH YOU WERE HERE

The Album covers in the 80s, particularly after DARK SIDE OF THE MOON cost a lot of money. WISH YOU WERE HERE was shot all over America, and took a month to shoot here there and everywhere . The album is primarily about absence, and about their disenchantment with the music business and record company executives, one of whom really did ask the group – By the way, which one’s Pink? And they’d be asked so many stupid things like that. The business of the record companies at that time was far from scrupulous and songs like HAVE A CIGAR are very much a comment on the times. The other thing was that Syd Barrett had a lot of problems by then, so the album was also about his absence. Because it did create a huge vacuum for them, and Roger Waters especially. Storm and I came up with the ideas for each of the four panels, and on the front cover panel we decided to create an image which was about big business and about being burnt. So we came up with two business men in suits shaking hands, and one of them was on fire – he was being burned. I went to Los Angeles and we decided to shoot in the back lot of Warner Brothers at Burbank. I got a very famous stuntman called Ronnie Rondell …he worked on a load of James Bond films and he still says everybody knows me for that fucking album cover. Very famous stuntman. He had a special suit covered in inflammable liquids and we had a crew of hundreds to put him out, and I shot only about six takes at it because the fire was so incredibly intense. He was wearing this suit and this wig and on the seventh take the wind blew all the fire in his face and he got burned and he wanted to stop immediately. I had the shot though. Then when we came to preparing the shot for the cover we decided to put it in a frame and just burn the edge of the image, as if the fire had actually taken hold of the album

Those ideas were thought up by Storm and me together. We used to have late night meetings twice a week till about four in the morning. We worked very hard. They were very intense creative meetings and often the room would be full of other people; hangers on, the local tramp, the drug dealer would come round, Japanese groupies, a couple of other designers… and Storm would be having a meeting about the album cover and other people would all chip in with ideas. It was sometimes helpful because people would suddenly throw a different light on something but primarily the meeting would be just between Storm and myself and later with Peter Christopherson, who became a third partner. Sometimes it would just be an intense cocaine binge, but other times the meetings would be so productive we could come up with ten album covers.

Storm and I consciously decided to stop Hipgnosis in about 1983 and the reason for that was first of all we’d been doing it for fifteen years, and we’d been very much strapped to a working canvases, which is twelve inches by twelve inches or twenty-four by twelve if it was a gatefold album cover, and we’d made our money and reputation from that of course, so it was time to move on. MTV had become fashionable at that point, and I realised that, well, we had to reinvent ourselves. The days of album covers were gone. Actually the instant the Sex Pistols brought out NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS with the cover done by Jamie Reid which cost about tuppence, we realised that our extravagant and expensive pieces of surreal output were going to to a die a death. So we consciously stopped doing it at the zenith of our career. We said ok, lets stop here.

It was hard for me. I didn’t want to do it. I really didn’t. I could see us never ending by that time. We were also into advertising and I thought well this is going to go on. Storm being Storm convinced me quite rightly that we should stop Hipgnosis for a year, and turn down any album cover offers, and go into a film venture. For six months we didn’t work. I was going round all the record companies trying to get work, then somebody gave us a job. It was Paul Young. We filmed WHEREVER I LAY MY HAT and it went straight to number one. Within three years we were turning over about three million quid a year in films, and then of course we did rock videos for all the clients we had at Hipgnosis. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, all those clients came with us. I’d been for two years at London School of Film Technique and Storm was at the Royal College of Art studying film. When you’ve got a good eye for composition the moving image is the release.

Storm and I parted company in 1985, because basically I wanted to be a director and there wasn’t room for two directors. I went on to form a film company, Aubrey Powell Partnership, and I moved out of music videos and into a lot of TV commercials in the 80s and 90s, and made a lot of money, but then got fed up of that and moved into making documentaries which was far less lucrative but far more stimulating. I also then got rid of the whole corporate company I’d built up, and became a gun for hire as a director in about 1994. I’ve done a 3d IMAX film which is about bulls in Pamplona – another Spanish connection, and I’ve just finished the last six months working on a documentary about AIDS. I do quite a lot of stuff for the Nelson Mandela foundation, shooting big live concerts for him and so on. I made the definitive documentary about the Kray Twins which was a two part BBC series. I’ve done films about the miners of South Africa, I’ve done dance, a film on Francis Bacon and lots of stuff. A lot of respected documentaries. It’s a million miles away from doing album covers.

A couple of years back I was asked by the Mandela Foundation to write a script about AIDS, which I did, and now that the disease, which sort of disappeared for a while, is back on the rise again, they want to make it. The HIV virus is now spreading very very quickly. People have become complacent everywhere, and in places like Russia particularly, and also within the hetrosexual community all around the world. It’s not really taken seriously. The warning signs have gone. So they came back to me told me that wanted to change the slant of the script and to film it around the world, gave me the money and said off you go. So I’ve spent the last six months doing that. I’ve finished it now, and it’s out all over the world on World AIDS Day. I’m also doing a Monty Python film. It’s a live concert. They’re doing the Albert Hall on October 23rd. It’s called NOT THE MESSIAH and it’s THE LIFE OF BRIAN set to a 106-piece orchestra, with them all singing

Nevertheless, the influence of Hipgnosis follows me everywhere, because obviously that was my grounding in composition, in style and all those things and that’s been with me all the time. Storm and I are definitely kindred spirits. We’re like brothers. He’s an only child and so am I, and we gravitated together and with our different skills somehow managed to make a reasonable marriage of it. He’s a very intellectual man with a very very good visual sense, in fact he taught me composition. I’m much better at hands on stuff, far more diplomatic at dealing with people and a very good businessman, and you need those ingredients to somehow make a succesful company. It wasn’t all happy families. We had some dreadful fights and several times I thought Hipgnosis would grind to a halt and we’d go our separate ways, but somehow we always managed to apologise to each other and get on with it, and it’s shown the passion with which we both cared. If we were at loggerheads it was nearly always about the creative side of things, so it was a very succesful partnership, and I’m very happy to say in the last ten years Storm and I have rekindled our friendship. Hence this new book that’s just come out – FOR THE LOVE OF VINYL, which was the definitive history of Hipgnosis. It’s great that in our twilight years we’ve become chums again, and been able to do something successfully and do exhibitions together.

I haven’t picked up a camera since Hipgnosis days, not even to take my family photographs. It was an entirely professional part of my life and I can’t now enjoy it. I had a camera stuck to my chest for fifteen years, and when we gave it up I was so relieved. I wanted to go into moving pictures and that was that.

Now when I stand in front of a Hipgnosis album cover, each one is a very emotional story to me. I have no favourites. I can remember exactly how each piece was done, when it was done, how I was feeling, and then there’s the emotion I see in it. They all touch me deeply. It was a very very very important part of my life. It was such a productive, exciting, stimulating period of time that affected me very deeply and I’m proud of it. Sso I love every single one.

I have favourites outside of our work. I love Andy Warhol’s STICKY FINGERS. That is a brilliant, brilliant piece of art. I also very much like SGT. PEPPER, which was a turning point for us too. It gave us the introduction to be able to go and do interesting designs. Peter Blake was the first one that did something so different. The third one I love is by Bob Seidemann. It’s an image of a young girl holding a silver aeroplane for BLIND FAITH. Those are my three favourite covers by other artists.

My office is based in my house in London, but when I’m not working I’m in Formentera. I’ve just bought a new house there and I want to make it a centre point for artists. I keep a lot of the Hipgnosis work there. And I want to start having forums of artists that come in and have symposiums where we can actually have discussions or lectures, given by well known artists in Formentera…for the people of Formentera. I think this would be very well attended, and again, it’s giving something back. I know so many creative people there, and as foreigners we’ve fallen in love with the place, so let’s pass along the knowledge we have to the locals…That’s my current philosophy .

The exhibition HIPGNOSIS: FOR THE LOVE OF VINYL runs at the Club Diario till October 2nd.

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Interview by Helen Donlon

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