Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis): a nostalgic ode to the album cover

Anton Corbijn’s documentary presents the story of the ‘hipster-hucksters’ behind Hipgnosis, a design studio that created iconic album covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and many more.

13 July 2023

By Leigh Singer

Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) (2022)
Sight and Sound

For Noel Gallagher, the LP cover was “the poor man’s art collection”, something once pored over, maybe even framed. Now that they are shrunk to disposable thumbnails on music streaming platforms, he moans, it’s something that Kids Today simply don’t get.

One can perhaps see why aggrieved dad-rockers fret that the glory days of LP artwork, even the LP itself, have been swallowed by the internet’s endless multimedia churn. The apotheosis of the rock album in the 60s and 70s as a central artistic statement often went along with extravagant, experimental iconography. Would The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band be as significant a pop-culture artefact without Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s celebrity collage? Or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon without its prism and rainbow light-beam logo? 

The latter was just one of the groundbreaking album covers designed by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell , co-founders of the design studio Hipgnosis, now celebrated in this all killer, no filler documentary from Anton Corbijn. With their hipster-huckster approach, Storm (insufferably rude, aesthetically driven) and Po (affably ambitious, financially motivated) cornered the market in providing music behemoths with a veneer of artistic mystique: in rapid succession they conjured up the literal man on fire for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Wings’ Band on the Run prison break, Led Zeppelin’s sci-fi inspired Houses of the Holy, and many more.

Rock royalty (Paul McCartney, Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Floyd survivors, Peter Gabriel, Gallagher) offers wild tales – eyewitness and anecdotal – of Hipgnosis’s unorthodox rise and fall. In effect, it’s the film equivalent of a Greatest Hits tour: Po freezing atop the Alps to grab the Wings Greatest summit shot; or the inflatable pig for the Floyd’s Animals sailing untethered into air-traffic lanes above Battersea Power Station. 

Corbijn, whose own high-contrast monochrome shots have decorated album covers for the likes of Depeche Mode and U2, has a feel for connecting the aural (and oral) with the visual. Expert testimony – Thorgerson died in 2013 but left plenty of bolshie archive interviews – blends with behind-the-scenes stills and footage. Fans may already know the various bands’ lore, but appreciation of Storm and Po’s innovative design practice counterbalances the outrageous Concordes-and-coke lifestyle antics. While it’s easy to challenge Gallagher’s reactionary view of album art’s dwindling stock (see classic modern covers for Kendrick Lamar or Beyoncé), it’s not hard to look back in ardour at the first flourishing of the excess-all-areas communion – between rock and art.

 ► Squaring the Circle is in UK cinemas from 14 July. 

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