Raindog Films boss Ged Doherty has previewed the company's new documentary exploring the legacy of famed music art studio Hipgnosis.
The first feature documentary by revered Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, Squaring The Circle (The Story Of Hipgnosis) had its UK premiere at the Sundance Film Festival London ahead of a cinema release this month.
Featuring brand new interviews and never seen before footage with artists including Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Peter Gabriel, Graham Gouldman, and Noel Gallagher, the film tells the story of creative geniuses Aubrey “Po” Powell and the late Storm Thorgerson.
As Hipgnosis, the duo were responsible for some of the most recognisable album covers of all time, including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band On The Run, and Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy, all of which celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year.
"As a young manager, I gave Hipgnosis their first commission when they stopped designing album sleeves and started making videos in 1982," Doherty told Music Week. "When you see the film, you'll understand the characters - they were very different. Storm would go in and tear things up and then Po would come in afterwards and make peace with everybody, but both were absolutely brilliant and they were a super-talented team."
It's a story about two young men who take on the world and are still having an influence today, 50 years later
Former Sony Music UK CEO Doherty stepped down as BPI chair last year to focus on Raindog, the film company he founded in 2012 with actor Colin Firth. Squaring The Circle is presented by BMG and Merck Mercuriadis' Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which took its name from Powell and Thorgerson's brainchild.
Speaking to Music Week in 2019, Mercuriadis explained: "Storm and I worked together for many years on projects and he eventually became one of my clients. One day he said to me, ‘What do you want to call the new company?’ He caught me completely off guard, so I said, ‘Well, I’d like to call it Hipgnosis but that name’s already been taken’.
"A few days later I received a package from him saying, ‘I’d like you to use the name’, and he had designed all the logos for it.”
In the following Q&A, Doherty gives an insight into making of the film, which has been a surprise hit at the US box office, and shares his thoughts why album artwork still matters in the modern business...
Why did the project appeal to you?
"I gave them their first ever video commission with Paul Young, who I was managing in the ’80s for his first single, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home), which went on to be a No.1 all over the world. They then did our second video, but then we fell out with Storm, which is how most people's relationships were with him."
When did Raindog Films become involved?
"When I was at the BPI two years ago, I'd just been to see the Pink Floyd exhibition at the V&A that Po had done and we got him in for a meeting to talk about doing a BRITs exhibition. Everybody was running a bit late and I was sat next to him so I said, 'Why have you never made a documentary about Hipgnosis?' And he was like, 'Lots of people have talked about it over the years, but no one's put the whole project together.' So I said, 'Let me do it.' It's such an incredible story, but not many people know it. You get a taste from the trailer of the number of incredible acts they've worked with and I was like, 'I'll put the money together.'"
How did the production develop from there?
"BMG came on board to co-finance the film, along with Hipgnosis Songs Fund. Of course, that has nothing to do with Hipgnosis, the album art company, other than Storm designed the logo for Hipgnosis Songs. We were chatting to Nick Angel, a well known music supervisor who does a lot of our films, about who we should get to direct it and he said, 'You've got to get Anton [Corbijn].' I got Anton's email through a mutual friend, I emailed him and, then pursued him for about a year to make the film. He wasn't sure at first because he'd never made a documentary before, but I tracked him down in LA, we saw him in London and I took Po to meet him in Amsterdam.
"I remember we had lunch with Anton in Amsterdam. He went off to make a phone call and Po was like, 'How are we doing?' I said, 'At the moment we're 2-0 down mate, he's not going to do this film. We need to get back to at least 0-0 by the end of the meeting.' So we schmoozed him a whole lot more and by the end of it, he was like, 'I'll think about it.' We then had a meeting with Anton with Po, Nick Angel and my two partners in Raindog: Trish Chetty, who wrote the film, and Colin Firth, and I think that's what finally convinced Anton to do it. We were all set up to do it and then, of course, bloody Covid hit, so that was another story."
How crucial was it to get Anton on board?
"He was totally born to do this film. We kept saying to him, 'There's nobody [else] in the world who should make this film. Your whole career has mirrored what those guys have done.' And he was like, 'They were a big influence on me growing up' and so he eventually said yes, which was great. By this time, Trish had spent two years researching the story and did all of the interviews for the film, other than the main Po interview that runs through the body of it. She wrote all the questions for that, but [journalist] David Hepworth conducted the interview. Trish has been an integral part of making this film from our perspective."
Going by the trailer, the film is clearly not an uncritical portrait...
"I think the best documentaries tell the truth about the subject matter, warts and all, and they are depicted in the film exactly how they were in real life. We've had lots of people - whether it was Jimmy Page, Robert Plant or McCartney, or those who worked for the company at the time - all talking very honestly about them. And the first thing they always said was, 'Ged, Trish and you captured exactly how they were and what it was like to work with them.' To me, that's what makes it interesting: it's a story about two young men who take on the world and are still having an influence today, 50 years later."
So why did Hipgnosis get out of music?
"They decided in the early '80s that it was time to move on. The MTV generation came along, but the first nail in their coffin was punk coming along. Their office was in 6 Denmark Street, and at the back of Denmark Street was a rehearsal room where the Sex Pistols rehearsed when they first formed. You could immediately see the clash between what the Sex Pistols called the 'dinosaur rock bands' that Hipgnosis worked for, and this new wave of of new artists coming through. And then in the early '80s, pop music arrived: big padded shoulders, Flock Of Seagulls haircuts and after punk nobody wanted to spend any money on album covers anymore, so they decided to go into film. I won't ruin what happens, but they did very well in film for a couple of years."
Physical music is obviously a far more niche concern now than in the '80s. What is the relevance of album artwork in the streaming age?
"Personally speaking, I think it's incredibly important because we live in a world today that is so fragmented, so if you've got some kind of visual image that gets people's attention, immediately, you're starting to cut through. The challenge for new artists is that no one wants to spend any money on that anymore from the beginning, which is completely understandable. So if you're a new artist, the challenge is to try and do something that's not been done before, which is very difficult.
"Noel Gallagher talks about it in the film. He was late home from the office one day and his daughter was staying for the weekend and he says to her, 'Sorry I'm late. I've been in a meeting about the [album] artwork.' She said, 'Artwork, what's that?' And then it dawned on him that she's grown up with the phone, so he says, 'Well, do you know on iTunes when they have a picture that big? Well, that's the artwork. I've been in a meeting about that.' And she said, 'They have meetings about that?!' Which kind of sums it up. When the image is that small, it's very difficult to justify people spending a lot of money. For new artists, it's very tricky, but then you've got artists like Lady Gaga who will do an installation for her covers. And look at the incredible artwork that goes around Beyoncé's releases, so it's great to see artists like Beyoncé and Gaga still doing installations, which is what Hipgnosis used to do."
How would you sum up Hipgnosis' legacy?
"Well, the legacy is still there today. This year is the 50th year of Dark Side Of The Moon. It's the 50th year of Houses Of The Holy. It's the 50th year of Band On The Run. You still see T-shirts with one of those covers everywhere you go. The image from Dark Side Of The Moon was used on a flag by Syrian freedom fighters recently, it's everywhere, and so I still think they very much have an influence. I grew up with a lot of those sleeves, but I've talked to a lot of my friends' teenage kids, who've grown up with their parents listening to those records and looking at those artworks. And Noel has another brilliant quote in the film, he goes: 'A poor man's art collection is on the floor - it's vinyl.' Noel's very funny in the film, as they all are. Every one of the artists talks very lovingly and very fondly about them."
Ultimately, what do you hope people take away from Squaring The Circle?
"Firstly, it's a time capsule for a period in time of what was happening in London in the late '60s: the lawlessness, but the opportunity for young people to make a difference. We had a screening the other night and about 15 young people from The Music Works charity in Gloucester came to see it. And they came out of it so blown away and so inspired by the fact that 50 years ago, when Po and Storm were doing it, they were in their early 20s. And their takeaway from the film was, 'Don't be afraid to be creative. You'll get some things wrong, but try things.' And I don't think young artists get enough of that messaging these days. Back then, there were no barriers to anything.
"The other thing I promised Anton from the beginning was that we'd make a film that would be in cinemas first. The film came out in the US four weeks ago and last week, it was No.17 at the US box office, which is a complete mindbender for a small, independent British documentary about an album art company in London in the '70s. To be in the Top 20 of the American box office after week three is just amazing. It will move to streaming platforms in later summer/early September."
Squaring The Circle (The Story Of Hipgnosis) screening dates and times are here.
Read our feature on another hit music documentary – David Bowie film Moonage Daydream.