Undercover: Hipgnosis and the Power of Suggestion (1/25/79)

Rock & roll books continue to hit the market. Anthony Fawcett’s California Rock/California Sound (Reed) is the worst I’ve seen: glossy, puff piece interviews with the Malibu crowd, plus Henry Diltz’ even glossier photos. The best is David Henderson’s enormous Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child of the Aquarian Age (Doubleday)*, surely the most serious attempt yet to make sense of the life of a Sixties icon. Unfortunately, because I’m several hundred pages away from the end, I won’t be able to report on whether it’s also the most success­ful since it has been decided that “Undercover” will no longer appear after this issue.

Walk Away Rene (Paper Tiger/A&W Visual Library, 159 pp., $ 10.95 paperback). A superb­ly printed collection of the work of Hipgnosis, the English outfit that designed many of this decade’s memorable album covers, from the “flaming man” sleeve for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here to the robot fantasy that jacketed Black Sabbath’s Technical Ecstasy. Hipgnosis takes off from British art-rock: like the various styles of that music, their work is impersonal; kinky, not sexy; self-consciously futuristic, and effectively so.

Though at times dully sexist (talk about an American breast fet­ish!), Hipgnosis has developed a remarkably clean, focused visual approach, guiding the eye in order to displace the viewer, to skew perspective by setting up and then subverting expectations. Often you have to look twice to register what you’re seeing, and that draws you in. Hipgnosis can make you buy albums by groups you couldn’t care less about, just be­cause their covers (the Strawbs’ Deadlines, which shows a phone booth on a deserted road, and inside, a man drowning, is the one that suckered me) implicitly promise that the music can’t fail to live up to what presents it.

Often, Hipgnosis goes for a subtle but insidious sense of dread, perhaps playing off images from such British horror/sci-fi movies as Quatermass and the Pit. The artists abjure the bug-eyed monsters and catch the feeling on the faces of the people looking at them—or about to turn into them. The coolest (and most spectacular) work in this area is the series of shots used for Led Zeppelin’s Presence: those pictures of nice, banal Fifties folk (a doctor and a baby, a family, a schoolteacher, two golfers) gathered around a little abstract black sculpture—clearly a power source, a kind of satanic battery. The photos suggest a bizarre and threatening secret biding its time just beneath the safest images of the recent past—they suggest you didn’t come from where you thought you came from, that you aren’t who you think you are. It’s as if the Body Snatchers won.

Falling Angel, a novel by William Hjortsberg (Harcourt, 243 pp., $8.95). It opened as a snappy post-Chandler detective story, set in New York in the late Fifties; the writing was good and the scenes moved well, so even though the turns of the plot were pretty conventional, I read on. After a bit an unusual occult theme was introduced, linking a midtown astrologer with Harlem voodoo followers, so I thought, ah, a new wrinkle, and kept going. Then the occult began to take over, and despite my knowledge of the rules of the private-eye genre, I started to get nervous, unsure of where the story was going. Finally I reached the climax, a reversal that had, I realized later, been building throughout the book, but one so horrifying and ugly I refused to believe it. The last couple of pages, I thought, will get me out of this—with one more flip-flop, Hjorts­berg will take it all back. But he didn’t. This is the most shocking book I’ve read in ages, and after I closed it I walked around the house for half an hour, scared to death.

TV Movies: 1979-80 Revised Edition, edited by Leonard Maltin (Signet, 801 pp., $2.95 paper­back). Since it was first published, Maltin’s book has been the clear champ of TV-movie guides—he includes info on year of release, original running time, director, stars, notable songs, good plot summaries, occasional wit and a starred rating—but with this edition, which takes in nearly 13,000 films, he’s produced one of the most useful movie reference works of any kind. Because of the advent of cable TV, Home Box Office and the like, X-rated films, silents, and lesser-known classics from the Thirties are now “TV movies”; Maltin doesn’t have them all, but he’s getting there. What’s more, he obviously gets a kick out of seeing the greatest movies ever made listed right next to the worst, and you will too.

A Companion to California, by James D. Hart (Oxford, 504 pp., $19.95). The ultimate reference book, and a magnificently readable encyclopedia, taking in everything from Mexican bandits to the SLA, Mark Twain to Rolling Stone, John Muir to Ross MacDonald, plus basic information on all towns, newspapers, major film stars, political figures, etc. upon etc.

* Later reissued as ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix

Rolling Stone, January 25, 1979

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