–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Days of LPs Passed

by | Jun 15, 2023

If you bought record albums in the 1960’s or 70’s, Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) will superglue you to the screen. Let it be said there’s a vast difference in gleaming the cube as opposed to squaring the circle.

Art students Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell met at Cambridge and eventually moved to London where their roommates included Syd Barrett. They got started designing Pink Floyd album covers and over the period of a few years were charging top dollar to design some of the greatest LP covers of all time.

Storm Thorgerson [L] and Aubrey “Po” Powell [R]

There was no photoshop in the Swinging Sixties. The creative lads would take photographs and in some cases spend weeks manipulating the imagery. Their ad hoc company was called Hipgnosis. The word broken down means “hip knowledge.”

The documentary goes into episodic descriptions of various assignments, from Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, to Wishbone Ash’s Argus and Paul McCartney’s Band On the Run and Wings, Greatest Hits. That’s just the tip of the rock and roll iceberg as far as the creative output of Hipgnosis is concerned. 

Each successive job would be a chance to stretch the limits of financial credulity in achieving a unique look. Flying to a remote location for a tropical wave or a windswept peak that could easily be replicated in a studio with sand for snow and the British coast for Hawaii.

True artistry involves living in the moment of creation as opposed to showing up to click the lens on a pre-designed facsimile.

Each vignette reveals a wealth of information about the era as well as the logistical challenges each assignment entailed.

For instance the Animals cover shoot involved floating a giant balloon of a pig over a factory. On the first day, the equipment used to inflate the swine wouldn’t work. One crew member was a local constable specifically hired to shoot down the balloon if it started to float away.

On the second day, when they successfully inflated the hog, the main tether broke and the large inflatable did indeed float away, only they couldn’t shoot it down as the bobbie hadn’t shown up because he hadn’t been paid for the previous day. In the end, the image was fabricated in the darkroom.

Likewise retouching on Houses of the Holy took two months.

The list of living rock stars giving talking head testimony is impressive, perhaps mostly so for having both Roger Waters and David Gilmour (separately of course) recounting their friendship with the designers. McCartney discovers some facts involving rights that he never knew about up to the time of the interview. The cute Beatle keeps his composure but you can see the surprise in his eyes. 

Some of the other talking heads could be the subject of a similar doc like Roger Dean, known for his futuristic landscapes on multiple Yes records.

Director Anton Corbijn himself made his name as a rock photographer (U2, Echo & the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode) before helming such narrative films as Control and The American.

Despite being a documentary about Thorgerson (who passed away in 2013) and Powell, Squaring the Circle is really about a moment in cultural history. Those who lived through this time will want to watch the film, return home and pull out select records from their undoubtedly well-taken-care-of collection, spin said discs, and then watch the film again.

Squaring the Circle is currently playing at select theaters with a slow summer rollout in North American cities.