It’s a bit of a sad image: this elderly man attending a matinee performance alone in the tiniest room of an old cinema in his hometown. I went to the cinema with some degree of embarrassment, but luckily I wasn’t the only one; about a dozen diehards attended the documentary film Squaring the Circle with me. The embarrassment quickly gave way to a broad smile as the first notes of Pink Floyd accompanied the largely black and white images.
Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis, as the full title reads, is a brilliant documentary by Dutch photographer/filmmaker Anton Corbijn about the rise and fall of the pioneering designer collective Hipgnosis. This is the definitive story of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell, told by the latter in great detail and emotion.
The brilliant but unpredictable visionary/designer Storm Thorgerson and his creative companion, photographer/designer Aubrey Powell – friends, business partners and brothers – are key to this documentary. The red line is Powell’s story, ‘Po’ for friends and intimates. The history of Hipgnosis is explained with him as a guide.
The story begins in 1964, in Cambridge, where a group of young people, including a young Pink Floyd, find themselves in the middle of the psychedelic scene. An accurate picture is painted of a period with extensive drug (LSD) and drinking abuse and the lawlessness of London at the end of the 1960s. Friendship with Syd Barrett but especially David Gilmour leads to a first assignment: the cover design for Pink Floyd’s sophomore 1968 album A Saucerful of Secrets.
This is followed by a musical journey through time using these iconic covers while the accompanying legendary music blasts from the speakers. With a central role for Pink Floyd, of course, but Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin are also featured.
Pièce de résistance Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd naturally takes a central place in the whole. The world-famous cover design would propel the creative designer collective with rocket power into the world. It’s all there: the money, the excesses, the drugs, the travels to exotic locations such as the Sahara, Hawaii, the US and the snow-capped mountain peaks of the Alps, all for that one ultimate shot.
We are treated to beautiful black and white images of the sculpted and weathered heads of Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney, almost like Corbijn’s photography. Graham Gouldman (10CC) and Roger Dean (designer of covers for Yes, Uriah Heep and Asia, among others) are also given a chance to speak. The same applies to Storm Thorgerson, via archive footage, as well as conversations with illustrators George Hardie, Richard Evans and Richard Manning, and third partner in crime Peter Christopherson.
Hipgnosis only existed for a short time, between 1968 and 1983, after which the end of the story came quickly, partly due to the rise of punk; there was simply neither money nor interest in expensive covers from designers linked to the ‘dinosaurs’, as the big bands of that time were called. In many respects, Po and Storm’s split is somewhat parallel to the falling-out between Waters and Gilmour, in both cases a separation of exceptionally creative minds.
There is emotion on the face of Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason as he tells the well-known story about Syd Barrett suddenly appearing in the studio during the recording of Wish You Were Here from the eponymous album. Powell also sheds a tear when the final break between him and Thorgerson is discussed, after which there would be no more contact between the two former best friends for 12 years. Storm Thorgerson died in 2013 at the age of 69 from cancer.
The stories are well known, but this time straight from the mouths of the protagonists makes it extra interesting and powerful. The latter also applies to the unique images of the inflatable pig above Battersea Power Station and the old studio on Denmark Street in London. Oasis guitarist/singer Noel Gallagher gets to the heart of the matter with his statement that cover designs ‘artwork is the poor man’s art collection’.
I had a great time, there is nothing to be embarrassed about, on the contrary: for anyone who loves the music of the ’70s, this is an absolute must-see. Happy to have gotten over the initial shame, I button up my coat, put on my hat and gloves to beat the freezing cold outside. This was by all accounts an afternoon well spent.
Let’s face it: what could be better than watching images of your favourite artists in the plush comfort of a small theatre on a cold day in November, while enjoying legendary music?