The name Hipgnosis may not be familiar to even the most ardent of music fans, but the small British company’s work has had a global impact, helping to sell tens of millions of albums.
Hipgnosis was a London-headquartered design group that specialised in creating inventive album covers for some of the largest bands of the seventies.
Iconic album covers including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals as well as Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, The Songs Remains the Same, Presence, In Through the Out Door and Coda were all Hipgnosis creations, along with covers for AC/DC, T. Rex, Wishbone Ash, Genesis, Wings and many others.
A new book from author Mark Blake tells the authorised history of Hipgnosis and the personalities behind it. “Us and Them: The Authorised Story of Hipgnosis” was published in February and Blake spoke to LedZepNews about the book, his recent interview with Jimmy Page for it, as well as his time covering Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin fans will already know Blake as the author of “Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin and Beyond”, his excellent 2018 biography of the band’s manager Peter Grant.
Paying subscribers to the LedZepNews Substack can listen to our full audio interview with Blake and read the complete transcript of our interview here. They can also read the entire archive of LedZepNews emails sent since 2015.
Hipgnosis didn’t set out to be legendary designers
Blake explained that despite their impact, Hipgnosis didn’t set out to create iconic imagery that lasted for decades. “I got to know Storm [Thorgerson] and Po [Aubrey Powell] in 2006, I finally actually met them when I was researching a book about Pink Floyd,” he says.
“In all the conversations I had with them, they never imagined this stuff would have any importance 40, 50 years down the line. Not at all. It was another day, another dollar, I think, for them at the time,” Blake explains.
Despite this mercenary approach, Hipgnosis’ work continues to demand respect. “The cultural impact of it is such that now this artwork is being displayed in exhibitions and in museums, which is something Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell would never have imagined when they started the company in the late sixties,” Blake says.
“I think for me, the fact that you see some of this imagery referenced in films and so on, you can hold up a cover of Dark Side of the Moon and people will know what it is even if they don’t know the songs. They will know the artwork.”
Jimmy Page is still appreciative of Hipgnosis’ work
Hipgnosis’ work for Led Zeppelin played a vital role in building up the band’s mysterious image through album covers like Houses of the Holy and Presence. Blake interviewed Page for his new book and found the musician remains appreciative of the design group’s work, even if he still bears a grudge.
“He was very keen to talk and gave up a lot of time for this,” Blake says of Page. “Jimmy Page’s attention to detail is second to none, nothing gets past him. And that’s why those Led Zeppelin records sound as good now as they did in 1974 or 1975. They sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. And I think he respected that same attention to detail in Hipgnosis.”
But Page clashed in the seventies with Storm Thorgerson, Hipgnosis’ often-abrasive co-founder. “He didn’t get on with Storm,” Blake says of Page. “Storm pissed him off quite early on in their working relationship by suggesting he put a tennis racket on the cover of a Led Zeppelin album because the music was a racket. And Jimmy Page was still smarting about this when I spoke to him about it. And it’s like, this is nearly 50 years ago. Let it go, Jim. But he wouldn’t let it go.”
“But in the same breath, he completely recognised that they were artists that would go to the end of the earth to do what they wanted to do,” Blake continues. “And that’s why they had such a great relationship with Led Zeppelin and with Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant who’s a big part of this because they pissed off Storm, ‘get rid of Storm, we’ll have Po’, and he took Po under his wing and Po got a lot of work and Hipgnosis did a lot of work for Grant and for Swan Song.”
Houses of the Holy caused an urban legend that intrigued Jimmy Page
The album cover for Houses of the Holy is one of Led Zeppelin’s most enigmatic album covers. Shot at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland in November 1972, the cover was somewhat of a happy accident that emerged thanks to Hipgnosis’ willingness to go the extra mile.
“They were literally told ‘here, take some money, here’s some money, just go off and do it.’ There was no question of budget, you know, how much is it going to cost? It was going to cost what it was going to cost,” Blake says of Hipgnosis’ commission.
“What they ended up with on Houses of the Holy wasn’t the original cover idea, anyway,” he adds. “They wanted a family. So Po’s wife at the time was out there to play the mother. And one of their dodgy mates, I think from around the Kings Road or somewhere, was there to play the father.”
“And then it’s a guy who was an alien. And you see him, he’s on the inside holding the child up, they’ve made him put a bald skullcap on. Everyone’s naked, crawling over the Giant’s Causeway in November in a storm. And of course, it didn’t work. And so they just decided to do the thing with the brother and sister.”
The brother and sister seen on the cover of the album are Stefan and Samantha Gates, but urban legends about their identity have persisted for years.
“It was going around in the eighties that the little girl on the cover of Houses of the Holy was Samantha Fox who of course later became a Page Three topless model. It isn’t, but for years everybody believed it was,” Blake says. “Jimmy Page asked me if it was Samantha Fox because he’d heard the story. I think he was disappointed to find out it wasn’t [her].”
Hipgnosis shut down in the eighties and its founders fell out
Blake’s book examines the atmosphere of Cambridge in the sixties, including the social group whose members formed both Pink Floyd and Hipgnosis. “I think they were a very precocious group of young people. Others tend to sort of say ‘oh well, it’s nothing out of the ordinary’. But I think they were,” Blake says.
Thorgerson, in particular, emerges from the book as a fascinating character who was often difficult to deal with. “You had to tune in to Storm’s way of doing things,” Blake says. “Storm was an artist and he had an artistic temperament and sometimes he was just plain old-fashioned rude and a pain in the arse.”
“What I tended to find is you just go ‘oh fuck off Storm’, just carry on, sort of thing. You had to stand up to him a little bit. You had to be patient and you had to stand up to him. But he was very good to me and I enjoyed it. I miss him. I enjoyed the time I spent with him, which wasn’t a huge amount of time at all.”
Hipgnosis shut down in the eighties as the era of music videos and CDs dawned and Thorgerson was accused of overspending.
“This is the mid eighties,” Blake says, “this is the cocaine years. This is another era of excess in the world of filmmaking and video. And they sort of disappeared up their own fundament, I think in that sense. And yes, they fell out over money and didn’t speak for 12 years. So it’s very much like a band.”
Peter Grant co-operated with plans for a film about his life
Blake says he began work on what became his 2018 authorised biography of Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant by approaching Grant’s son, Warren: “I approached Warren Grant, his son, that was the first person I spoke to because I’d interviewed Warren on the phone very briefly for something for a magazine and I just went back to him a few years later and said ‘what do you think?’ And he was like ‘yeah, okay, if you’re gonna do it properly.'”
Before his death in 1995, Grant spoke to journalists as well as filmmakers about his life and career, a resource that helped Blake write a biography of the larger than life character.
“For the last few years of his life, he was being interviewed for … a biopic about him. Malcolm McLaren was involved in this for a while [with] Mike Figgis the director,” Blake says. “I was shown hours of footage of Peter being interviewed in a hotel room, I think in Eastbourne, by Malcolm McLaren which is really interesting. I mean, not all of that stuff could be broadcast while members of Led Zeppelin are alive, certainly.”
“This is in the late eighties, early nineties, pre-internet age,” Blake continues, “he was also still quite cagey about things, though, which I found interesting.”
“The relationship was a little tense between Grant and the ex members [of Led Zeppelin] because he took his eye off the ball as a lot of managers do. He was making it up as he went along and then the business changed, he changed the business,” Blake says.
“But then towards the end of the seventies he lost control himself and his own personal problems and drug problems, but he lost control of Led Zeppelin also, financially and business wise. Some of which, to this day, I don’t think I’m ever going to find out what happened. But it’s very, very murky. And I know that there was a lot of ill feeling,” he continues.
Other film projects about Peter Grant have been in the works
That film project never got made, but Blake says he’s still contacted by people keen to make film’s about the remarkable life of Grant.
“The film business is full of ‘we got a great idea’, and then you don’t hear anything,” Blake says. “Someone contacted me and wanted to make a film about Peter Grant. They contacted me ages ago. I’ve had three people contact me: ‘we’re gonna make a film about Peter Grant’. ‘Great, great, okay’. And you never hear from them again. It’s bullshit.”
Peter Grant’s life is a happy story, according to Mark Blake
Blake’s 2018 book paints a candid picture of Grant’s life, examining the drugs and paranoia which affected him. Despite this, Blake is keen to point out that Grant relished his later years and says his life was ultimately a happy story.
“This is a really important thing for me and it’s funny how people perceive this differently,” Blake says. “At the end of his life, he walked away from the business. Alright, the business walked away from him. And he talked about managing other groups…he never did, not really.”
“But you manage Led Zeppelin, where do you go from there? You can’t, you know, and he had enough money to carry on living,” Blake says. “He lived in a nice house. He sold the big manor house and moved off on his own and walked his dog and he had a few vintage cars which he hired out to people that wanted a chauffeur-driven vintage car at their wedding, classic Bentleys and things like this. And he was happy doing that. He had grandchildren then, he looked after his grandkids.”
“I think at the end of his life he found some peace. He cleaned up his act. He was a proud grandfather and he was still a father,” Blake continues. “I think it was important that there was a happier ending to the story. I didn’t have to create one.”
“But what was interesting is the perception of it, because when we were selling the book, in interviews I did, particularly with American writers, they saw it as a tragedy. They went ‘why did this guy that managed Led Zeppelin end up running a company that hired out vintage cars for weddings?’ And I’m like ‘because he wanted to’.”
Mark Blake’s new book “Us and Them: The Authorised Story of Hipgnosis” is available to purchase online. In 2018 he published “Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin, and Beyond“.