Album Cover Art’s Glory Days Recalled in ‘Squaring the Circle’ Doc

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In the history of album cover art, only two parties have become arguably almost as famous as some of the bands they shot or designed for: Hipgnosis, in the 1970s, and Anton Corbijn, from the mid-‘80s forward. Those two forces come together with a new documentary, “Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis),” directed by Corbijn, about the era of artwork that entranced him, like most music fans, as a youth. Forty years after Hipgnosis ceased to be a going concern as we knew it, the company’s covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and countless others continue to be collected in coffee-table books. And when it comes to the stories behind the sleeves, rock fans still just can’t get enough… to quote a band that Corbijn came to be associated with a little bit later.

Before the film hits home video, it will have a one-night showing in theaters nationwide on Tuesday night, at select AMC, Regal and Laemmle cinemas. “Squaring the Circle” is also having a normal weeklong engagement at the Film Forum in New York City and the Royal in West Los Angeles. It’s as compelling a portrait of a rock band as you’ll see this year — with the “band” in question just happening to be an art collective headed up by Aubrey “Po” Powell and the late Storm Thorgerson. Together, they came up with a disproportionate number of the greatest covers of all time — bold, vivid, often surrealist images in which extraordinary things happened against naturalist backgrounds and, for lack of a better term, Magritte happened.

Variety got Corbijn and Powell on a Zoom together to discuss the film, their appreciation for each other’s very different approaches, and why album art mattered.

Do you find, hearing from people who have watched the film, that there stories that viewers gravitate toward the most?

Anton Corbijn: You probably have a large amount of people that love the “Dark Side of the Moon” story because that’s a really good-selling album, and so more people will have the album and be more interested in the story behind it. All these stories on their own are great. I’m not sure if I myself even have a favorite story. I personally always have to smile when I hear Storm talking about taking a picture of the cow for “Atom Heart Mother” — you know, “We photographed the first cow we saw, and then went back.” Because it’s also a great cover to me. It’s one of my favorite covers.

Aubrey “Po” Powell: Yeah, me too. Unwittingly, that is a very Dadaist cover. It’s like Duchamp’s toilet bowl. It’s all about nothing, but it’s all about something. The cow is turning around and looking at you and you’re thinking, “What’s the story? What’s the narrative?” Storm demanded of the band and the record company that there would be no title of the album on the front cover, and no name of the band, so when you walked into Tower Records amongst a hundred thousand other album covers, there was just a picture of a cow in the field. And as Roger Waters says in the film, “Ha ha ha. I suppose we just went along with it.” Well, they did, but it worked. I mean, it was lateral thinking. But at the same time, it worked as something that was so radically different that it stood out a million miles from everything else. And this was done in an afternoon. It wasn’t as contrived a picture as “Houses of the Holy” or the sheep on the couch for 10cc.

(L-R) A member of staff poses in front of the back cover image outtake of the album ‘Wish you were Here’, a photograph by Storm Thorgerson featured on the inside of the album ‘Wish you were Here’ and the front cover picture of the album ‘Wish you were Here’ by Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell in Hollywood during a photocall at the ‘The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum in west London on May 9, 2017. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images

I’d hate to think about how many hours I spent staring at those covers, thinking, “What does it mean? What does the cow mean? And how does it relate to the music?” I may have spent more hour thinking about it than the creative team did at the time, because I was sure there was deep meaning in every part of every image, convinced the symbolism always meant something. And sometimes it did. Obviously with “Wish You Were Here,” the shots of businessmen spoke somehow to the themes of the album. Other times you could just go with the surrealism of it.

Powell: I think like everything else, when you are working in a creative world like that as a kind of art studio, as we were, you clutch at everything you possibly can. I think Storm describes in the film how he plundered things, and he worked from his dreams too. And when you are seeking to come up with an image, whether it’s from the band or not, it doesn’t matter, if it’s an image that’s gonna work. And I think “Presence,” with the black object for Led Zeppelin, is a perfect example of that. Why would a heavy rock band have a picture of a family sitting around a table with a black object in front of them at a boat show? Well, that was designed specifically like that by us. And Jimmy Page got it immediately when he saw it, that it was about power.

Corbijn: I think that that object is so strong, it would’ve worked also on its own, on the cover. That’s how strong that is.

Powell: Yes, I think it would. Funnily enough, I happened to see on YouTube the other da, an interview where somebody had put all of Genesis together — Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Tony Banks, everybody in a room. And of course we know that they famously fell out too and are not exactly best of friends. And they started to talk about Hipgnosis, and I remember Steve Hackett says, “That black object, I think they showed that to us too.” [Laughs.] But that’s a figment of his imagination. We didn’t; we designed it specifically for Led Zeppelin.

Corbijn: Question: Do you actually have quite a few in your garage, Po?

Powell: No. [Laughs.] I have one, and it was at an exhibition in Holland a couple of weeks ago. I take very great care of it. But it’s interesting, that black object, because many times people have come into the archive of the studio and asked to touch it. For some reason, it seems to resonate a power on its own, and people want to touch that power. It’s very odd. And I never let them touch it because I don’t want to dilute that enigma. I think Jimmy Page recognized that, being the dark horse that he is, the instant he saw it, and he felt he knew what that was about.

That it was about power?

Powell: About power, yeah. Just like the black obelisk in Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001.” You don’t really know what that is, but you know that it’s a symbol for the universe goes on elsewhere, and it’s a symbol of power, the same kind of way.

Thinking about the rarity of that object, you could compare it to the Maltese Falcon, where there are thousands of fake Maltese falcons out there in the world, but everybody wants to own the few that were made for the movie.

Powell: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, there are hundreds of fakes. You could go on the internet and there’s dozens of ‘em sold at $9.99. But with the real one, here were only eight made. There were two for Storm and myself, and four for the band, and one for Peter Grant, who was the manager of the band. And I love how Anton drew out of Robert Plant, “So where is yours?” and he said, “I think we use it as a doorstop.” I thought, that absolutely sums it up. It’s a very ordinary thing, but actually at the same time, it’s got this power about it. It’s wonderful.

Aubrey “Po” Powell and Anton Corbijn, subject and director of “Squaring the Circle”
Anton Corbijn

Anton, how did you get involved with the film?

Corbijn: I met Po in Amsterdam. Po came to Amsterdam to talk to me about this and asked me to do the film, and Po was a very persuasive character. And the stories were abundant and fun, and I said, yes.

Powell: From my point of view, I was asked by Colin Firth and by Ged Doherty, who were the producers of the film, who would I want to direct this film? Right from the start, I said, “I want Anton Corbijn to direct this film.” And I had no idea if he would say yes or no, because I didn’t know him, but I knew his history, I hoped he knew a bit about mine, and I felt that he would empathize with the work that we’ve done, and that he would understand the world that I’ve been living in. And of course he did. So we hit it off, and that was fantastic for me that he graciously accepted to do it.

The styles of the respective work you’ve done over the years is so different. Po, as different as Anton’s work is from what Hipgnosis did, is it fair to say you were an admirer of his aesthetic, then?

Powell: With no question at all. The thing is that Anton’s career came slightly after Hipgnosis’, and his style was so radically different from ours, I felt there could never be a clash of… How can I put it? He would never be sycophantic about Hipgnosis, which I didn’t want. One of the briefs that I talked to him about was that I wanted Hipgnosis to be seen warts and all. Tell the truth. I don’t care what it is, just tell it how it is. And that was very important. And knowing his style of photography and how brutal it can be, I felt, I know this guy will do that for me.

Corbijn: I’m not sure about the word “brutal”…

Powell: Well, some of your black and white photography is fairly uncompromising, let’s put it that way. And some of the artists that you work with are uncompromising. And I feel that when you see those pictures, oh, boy, they stand out. And sometimes there’s a lot of pain in those pictures as well as a lot of joy. But your way of doing things is very real. I think one of the beauties of Anton’s style that is so different is that his pictures are rarely — sometimes, but rarely — contrived, where Hipgnosis was nearly always contrived. They were always designed pre-photography stage, and designed specifically in a surrealist way that had to work with many combinations of photographs and collages, etc. And it’s a completely different style of work to Anton, and part of me was drawn to that, because I was interested in his focal point of view about Hipgnosis — whether it worked, whether it didn’t, whether it was good, whether it was bad, whatever.

Corbijn: Hipgnosis made very different kinds of things than I did because they thought of sleeves, but I always thought of a photograph, and then other people made it into a sleeve. At some point I started doing a lot of my own designs, because I was disappointed in how other people used it. But not in the case of, say, U2’s “Joshua Tree,” which I think it’s a great design. But I did so many record sleeves where I had nothing to say about the design. That’s quite frustrating. But Hipgnosis did it quite well: They positioned themselves as designers, and then delivered their own photographs. That’s a different setup than mine. Smarter. Control is what you want over your work. That’s why for Depeche Mode, I do everything – I do the logos…

You have the title creative director with Depeche Mode, right?

Corbijn: I think so, yeah… There’s no salary attached to that. [Laughs.]

What was the main attraction for you when you were offered the film?

Corbijn: The attraction to me, I think, was that it was a story that needed to be told. Because it’s a different landscape these days. In the ‘60s and ‘70s and early ‘80s, album sleeves were really important for people who love music. And now, there’s an upsurge of vinyl buyers again. But the importance of the record sleeve has gone, and you won’t get that back. So it was a unique era that shaped many of us in terms of how we perceived the music from that era. That’s what I thought was important — and the stories are great. You know, there’s decadence, there’s integrity, and there’s love and loss between the two (Hipgnosis founders), Storm and Po, and that’s of course an emotional thread throughout the film.

Powell: I described it to Anton once as a kind of love story between Storm and me. It was a brotherly love. Both of us were single children, and when we fell in with each other, creatively, there was a brotherly bond between us that was incredibly strong and supportive. And we worked out the creative relationship about who was better at what and who did what.

Of course the film gets into how opposite the two of you were sometimes in terms of him being the troublemaker and you being the guy who kind of mopped things up sometimes in the wake of some damage he left behind. So it’s a good study of complementary personalities. Sometimes collaborations need that, where there’s gonna be one person who’s a little more emotionally volatile, or sometimes a good cop/bad cop dynamic. That keeps the human part of the story interesting, as something that we’re not necessarily going to get in a Hipgnosis coffee table book.

Powell: I think that one of the skills that Anton has is he was able to show through interviews with people — and I don’t care whether it was with Paul McCartney or whether it was with somebody who worked in the Hipgnosis studio — that there was friction between us, besides brotherly love. I think Anton got the right balance of that, because — and Anton and I discussed this the other day —he works alone. He doesn’t have somebody else to bounce off in that sense. Whereas Storm and I bounced off each other, and it was like a game of ping-pong, and that’s what created the best ideas, because we would fight tooth and nail to get the best art out of it. And I was discussing with Anton because he’s a man on his own. I’m not invidious of that position, actually, to be in solitude when you’re working, as he is.

Corbijn: But the thing is, I’m always right in this position. [Powell laughs.] No, it’s a big difference, but of course you were a design studio. I’m not. I’m a photographer and a filmmaker, so there’s a real difference in how you set off. My aim was to get photographs I’d taken on a cover, whereas I think Hipgnosis set out to make a cover and then look at how to achieve that, whether it’s through photography or drawings or magic.

Powell: We went after the money as well as the pictures, whereas you were far more pure, Anton, I think is how I would describe it.

Corbijn: Well, I want them to pay me. I’m not so pure. [Po Laughs.] I don’t think I thought very big when I started. I was happy to get a picture in a magazine. But I’m quite ambitious in the end. I recognize that in myself. But I want to be able to sleep well. I want to be able to know that I made the best picture possible for myself.

Powell: Making a documentary as such was not your normal metier, was it?

Corbijn: No. And I’m still not sure if I’m a good documentary maker. But this documentary is very fun, I think. And, you know, Trish (Chetty, a producer who conducted the interviews) did really great questions. It was a great team around us. I had no idea how it was gonna work out when I said yes to it. I’m really happy with it. Po is just a great storyteller, and he carries the film, and he carries the past on his back.

There’s so much great lore that you explore in this film, and one of the things that makes for so many great stories is the fact that these photo shoots were happening in real life, and in unusual circumstances. Probably the youngest people today could look at some of the elaborate shoots Hipgnosis did on location and go, “Why didn’t they just use Photoshop?” It was very practical the way that all these kind of surreal effects were brought off, whether it’s the people on fire or standing on their head in a lake for “Wish You Were Here,” or… Maybe “Animals” was the closest thing to modern-day Photoshop, because you did have to superimpose the image of the pig on the photo after the pig went off flying prior to getting the sky the way everyone wanted it.

Corbijn: I have to say that “Animals,” just the original picture of the power station in color, is a really amazing, amazing shot.

Powell: I was lucky.

Corbijn: Yeah, some days you’ve been given the heavens, you know?

Powell: Yeah. One of the things that used to happen with Hipgnosis is somehow God often smiled kindly upon us, and one would find yourself in a location, which I’d carefully chosen, and then suddenly everything just fell together. You know, the picture you mentioned about the diver on the back of the Pink Floyd “Wish You Were Here” cover, what makes that so perfect is the stillness of it — the absence of any splash, or any ripple. With that shot, for real, a guy had to hold his breath for two minutes, and it just happened so beautifully, in a matter of moments. Prior to that, an hour before, it was a howling gale, and it was a rough sea that was happening all around me.

Sometimes those moments are critical to getting the right shot, and it’s serendipity. . Like you said about “Animals” and the shot of Battersea Power Station — you know, we didn’t fly the pig that day, but it looked like a Turner painting. It was so dramatic, I thought, “I have to take this picture, even though there’s no pig in it, because it’s just a beautiful shot anyway.” And it turned out that when we collaged the pig in that actually it looked fantastic.

Funnily enough, I always remember, Paul McCartney used to say to me, “Why don’t you just do the shoot in the studio?” We never did. We all believed in doing things for real, and we didn’t have Photoshop or the privilege of any digital work in those days. And so it was a natural thing. “You want a man on fire? Well, let’s just set a man on fire.” That’s how it worked. We never thought any other way. And that was how Storm and I were, and Anton has captured that beautifully.

Corbijn: I also like to do things in front of the camera. I like imperfection, really, because that’s so human. Photoshop takes that away.

Powell: As you rightly identify, Anton, sometimes imperfection gives it the emotional quality for me. And the man on fire is a perfect example of that. There’s an imperfection in that photo, and not many people would notice that, but I do. And it gives it that sense of reality: This happened for real. It’s cinema vérité.

You’ve got such a incredible list of people interviewed, from Roger Waters and David Gilmour to McCartney and Page. Was there anybody who was sort of most difficult to get and/or who was kind of most enthusiastic?

Corbijn: Po was the most enthusiastic.

Powell: Yes, I was. The thing is that I still have all those phone numbers in my book, and I’m still friends with all the people that were interviewed. Funnily enough, the only person who I hadn’t spoken to for about 10 years was Jimmy Page. Not because we had a serious falling out, but just through circumstance. And I think you called him, Anton, and then I called him, nd Jimmy said to me, “Anton Corbijn, Hipgnosis, Led Zeppelin — I have to be in the film.” That was it.

Corbijn: But you can also tell how much the people love what Po and Hipgnosis had done for them. There was a real love, and that’s why they said yes.

Powell: In the 1970s when we did all these album covers, relationships grew. It wasn’t just sort of, “Oh, we need an album cover; come and photograph this and do that, and then see you.” I went in on tour with all those bands. I became intimate friends. Like Paul McCartney, I’ve gone on holiday with him to Barbados, to his house in Scotland. Pink Floyd, I’d go to St. Tropez with them on holiday. It was a friendship, and a trust. And in those days, rock stars were very reluctant to let people into their inner circle, and Storm and I both were very privileged to be let into that inner circle of all those people we worked with. Not only was the work good that we were doing, but also, we were very sincere about the work, so a trust grew out of it.

10cc is a perfect example, with the sheep on the couch. When I said, “I want to shoot this shot,” and they said, “Well, you can go down to the south of England,” I said, “What, in January? No, I wanna go to Hawaii.” And they went, “Oh, okay.” There’s this kind of trust that the shot needed it, and it was an incredible thing to have, that relationship, and I still have that relationship with all those people to this day.

Album cover shoot for 10cc in “Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)”

When you look back at the 10cc story now, does it sometimes boggle your mind, even though you were a part of it, the lengths you went to to put a sheep on a couch in the sea?

Powell: No, it doesn’t, because with Hipgnosis, right from the start, everything was an adventure. You know, when you have the adventurous spirit, and both Storm and I had that spirit, you wanted to do something, you went out and did it, and you took the risks. One thing I do know is, you could not afford not to come back without it done properly and looking great. “Houses of the Holy,” for example, where you had the children running up the rocks, that was supposed to be shot in a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Well, it poured rain for seven days. I had to think on my feet: How am I going to deal with this? Led Zeppelin and their manager, Peter Grant, were not people that you turned up and said, “Oh, sorry, guys, I didn’t get the shot.” You had to work out how to do it on the spot. It was a privilege to be able to work like that. It was wonderful times, actually.

Corbijn: You wouldn’t go to a Swiss mountain with the statue to photograph it nowadays (as Hipgnosis did with the cover for “Wings Greatest Hits”). And the sheep in Hawaii… it was a crazy idea. When money is no object, you start to think of things that are slightly over the top.

It’s interesting hearing Roger Waters talk about Storm in the film, because so many people talk about what an alienating pain in the ass he was, but Waters seems the most sympathetic to Storm of almost anyone in the film. And this is despite them having the most serious falling out of anyone, after “Animals,” because of a dispute over who deserved credit for the idea. Waters has what most people would probably consider an irascible personality, so maybe that’s why he identifies with Storm, even though they fell out.

Powell: Yeah, it’s absolutely true, and you’ve got to remember that Storm and Roger’s mothers were best friends and members of of the Communist Party. They both lost their husbands, one in a divorce and one in the war. Storm stayed with Roger’s mother for a long time, and they went to school together, and this bond grew between them and they are similar people in that sense. As much as Roger is an activist, the way that he is nowadays, and he has always been, Storm was defiantly against conformity of any kind. And I don’t know what you’d call that — whether you’d call it a touch of Asperger’s or just the personality default or whatever it is. I don’t think you can define it exactly, but the two of them did have this very strong bond in their relationshipand it was very sad that it all fell apart.

And actually it was more about Storm’s unbelievable ability to be late for everything. And Roger got really fed up with him turning up late to playing squash. [Laughs.] And I mean that! Roger got absolutely fed up with him and in the end stopped playing squash with Storm, and that was actually the beginning of the end of their relationship, funny enough. Until Storm was dying, and I went to see Roger and I said, “You have to see Storm. You were thicker than thieves. Your mothers were besties, and you need to see him.” And Storm flew over to America to see Roger, and somehow it buried the hatchet.

Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis in the 1970s

The way the film ends, it ends with MTV ushering in an era where the aesthetic got brighter in the ‘80s and videos taking priority over album covers. Anton, you use a clip of a Depeche Mode performance to illustrate that, presumably with a sense of irony, given your 40-year association with them.

Corbijn: That (clip) is just a “Top of the Pops” thing, but I didn’t direct that. That was before I met them. But it ushers in a new era, yeah.

The film ends with you, Po, and Storm falling out in the ‘80s as the transition to video was not going well. Even though Merck Mercuriadis is interviewed in the film, it doesn’t get into how the Hipgnosis name was acquired by him and now Hipgnosis Songs Fund (a financier of the film) is one of the world’s foremost music publishing concerns, with the name living on in headlines even as the art part of it is 40 years in the past.

Corbijn: Yeah. I didn’t want to go into that story.

Powell: Merck was a close friend of Storm’s too. He liked Storm so much that he even called his own son Storm. And he’s an eloquent fellow, so he had something to say, even though he wasn’t there, so I think it was a valid point to have him in there because of that. As you say, he was an investor in the film, but I think the decision was because he was close to Storm. And it’s a bit like the wonderful moments that Noel Gallagher has. It was Anton’s idea to bring Gallagher into the film, and the beauty about that was that you’ve got somebody who wasn’t actually at Hipgnosis in those early days, but he is so eloquent and has come up in a world with Oasis where album covers ceased to be important. He expresses that, and his sadness about it, as somebody standing outside of that world, as an observer. And I think what he says is incredibly valuable to the film to understand how important album covers were and how they’ve lost all of that. Even as Anton says, besides the return of vinyl, album covers never will have the salad days of the 1970s. They just simply won’t.

Noel Gallagher in “Squaring the Circle”
Anton Corbijn

It’s not a stretch to think that Hipgnosis’ work is maybe part of the vinyl resurgence. We keep hearing stories of people who don’t own turntables who want the album art as totems in their homes, whether it’s “Houses of the Holy” or “Animals” or “Wish You Were Here.” The album covers are almost like the “Presence” object. Younger people, too, want these things in their homes.

Powell: A lot of people grew up and their parents, of my generation or Anton’s generation, played that music incessantly in the homes. There were racks of vinyl in the house and that’s rubbed off, and they’ve sort of gone and reinvestigated that as they’ve grown older and said, “What was so important about this?” I do think that that has caused this resurgence in the back catalog of vinyl, because back catalog sells like hotcakes these days. And it’s a privilege for me that people are recognizing album covers as being an important cultural icon for the 1970s, in parallel to the music. I couldn’t ask for more than that.

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