The Golden Age of Rock Album Covers

During one 14-year span, album covers were at the center of the zeitgeist. How a small London design group seized the moment and brought avant-garde art to classic rock.

The golden age of the rock album cover, as I measure it, lasted exactly 14 years, 4 months, and 19 days. I can even give you the birth and death dates. My golden age started on March 12, 1967 with the release of The Velvet Underground’s debut LP (showcasing an Andy Warhol banana on the cover) and ended on August 1, 1981 with the launch of MTV.

GALLERY: Outtakes from Hipgnosis’ Iconic Rock Album Covers (PHOTOS)

Before 1967, most rock album covers featured boring portraits of band members. I love the music on the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath (1966) and The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today (1966), but the covers are a step below meh. (The Beatles, you may recall, pushed for a less conventional album cover, but the record label vetoed it.) Yet just a few months later, the more visionary rockers forced a change, and by the time school got out in 1967 and the Summer of Love had arrived, the transformation was almost complete.

Those boring publicity photos were pushed to the side, and album cover designers instead drew on the full range of avant-garde and contemporary art techniques. But we knew it couldn’t last, didn’t we? My golden age comes to a halt with the ascendancy of music videos. A 12-inch square image just couldn’t compete with the spectacle of all-singing, all-talking, all-dancing mini-movies. In the age of Madonna and Michael Jackson, the rock-pop album cover almost seemed like an after-thought, just one more piece of point-of-sale merchandising material.

But during that 14-year spell, something magical happened. Only eleven weeks after the Warhol banana hit record stores, the Beatles issued the greatest album cover (yeah, the music wasn’t too shabby either) of the era: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the first time in music history, fans sat around deciphering and interpreting the covers, seeking hidden clues and transgressive signifiers. How could you hope to understand the music if you couldn’t figure out the album jacket?

Almost at that same moment, the London design group Hipgnosis set up shop in a scruffy workshop at 6 Denmark Street. Founders Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell had bold ideas about album cover design that, only a short while before, would have been turned down by every record label in the industry. But now they were trendsetters. Hipgnosis drew on collage and cubism, body painting and latex masks, trompe l'oeil effects and a full-range of photo distortion techniques. During an age in which rock music charged ahead into uncharted territories, Thorgerson and Powell proved just as daring in their imagery—in fact, many of their covers were more radical than the music inside the sleeve.

Here’s one measure of how unconventional these blokes were. When Thorgerson and Powell interviewed Peter Christopherson, who eventually became a third partner in Hipgnosis, the newbie showed them photos he had taken of corpses while working at a hospital morgue. The Hipgnosis founders took a quick look at the strangely-lit photos of contorted bodies….and hired Christopherson on the spot.

Aubrey Powell is the only surviving member of this triumvirate, and he has now commemorated the history of their design house with a lavish art book entitled Hipgnosis Portraits. Consider it a coffee table book for edgy rock fans who bliss out on something stronger than coffee. Here are the classic images and behind-the-scenes stories from many of the seminal releases of the era—including projects by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney and Wings, 10cc, Peter Gabriel, Bad Company, Peter Frampton and Genesis. Readers also get a glimpse at various side projects, random encounters and failed initiatives with the Rolling Stones, The Who, Queen and Jimi Hendrix.

I’m sure you’ve seen many of these images before. Hipgnosis’s design work for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy resulted in iconic images of 1970s rock. But some of the studio’s most adventurous design concepts showed up in projects by lesser-known artists—perhaps because the almost-famous were the only ones willing to go along with the zaniest schemes.

UFO lead singer Phil Mogg later recalled one of these outré Hipgnosis photo shoots: “Entering the rear door to the University of Los Angeles and being directed to the Animal Surgery Department (dissection of course), we knew somehow that it would be different from the teen idol picture we had envisaged.” The resulting image of faces with orifices covered by ball bearings, looming in a ominous operating chamber, may not have sold many albums—the release never cracked the top forty—but it showed how far Hipgnosis would go to shock and awe its clients.

Hipgnosis were at their most subversive when taking photos of the band. In truth, they hated doing these shoots—they felt that ho-hum musician portraits represented the stodgy old school of album design. But labels repeatedly prodded them to feature band photos, and the designers exercised all their ingenuity in breaking the rules of the game. One example: Peter Christopherson took photos of Peter Frampton while Aubrey Powell threw buckets of water in the guitarist’s face. (Frampton eventually called a halt to the proceedings.) Other non-portraits include Bad Company shot with their backs to the camera, and Peter Gabriel’s semi-obscured face behind a dripping car windshield on his eponymous 1977 solo album. In other instances, they relied on photos of people wrapped like mummies in recording tape (for The Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination) or wearing bondage-style hoods and masks (on Never Say Die for Black Sabbath) or with body parts so distorted that the musician’s face is on his chest (Leo Sayer’s Living in a Fantasy).

Such iconoclasm inevitably runs it course, and by the early 1980s the partners at Hipgnosis were ready for a change. Thorgerson and Powell turned to video and film—a smart move given the emergence of MTV. Peter Christopherson made the leap to life on the bandstand and became a pioneer in the industrial music genre. With an uncanny sense of timing, Hipgnosis opened for business at the very dawn of the golden age of rock album covers, and closed shop just as the period was drawing to a close.

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Some creative spirits, I suppose, are destined to arrive ahead of their time or, perhaps more often, too late—but these visionaries showed up at the perfect moment, and also knew when to take their bows and move on to the new zeitgeist. Yet their work lives on, and hardly seems to have lost any of its vitality during the intervening years. If anything, gazing at the charged images from Hipgnosis’s glory days, I’m reminded of how much we have lost. Vinyl fanatics have succeeded in reviving the LP, but I’m not sure if commercial pressures of any sort could ever bring back the free-spirited covers that, for a brief spell, created much of the mystique of classic rock.