When Pink Floyd formed in 1964, they started with rhythm and blues covers among a handful of original compositions, but it wasn’t long before they set about sculpting a new abstract sound that would warp the formalities of rock music. Under Syd Barrett’s captaincy, the band emerged as one of the earliest and most prominent psychedelic rock bands. By 1966 they had ditched the word ‘Sound’ from their original name ‘Pink Floyd Sound’ and began making a name for themselves in the underground music scene in London.
The early signs of psychedelia would be most notably expressed in long, drawn-out instrumental excursions accompanied by rudimentary light shows achieved using colour slides set over domestic light bulbs. During this early period, a Sunday Times article stated: “At the launching of the new magazine IT the other night, a pop group called the Pink Floyd played throbbing music while a series of bizarre coloured shapes flashed on a huge screen behind them … apparently very psychedelic.”
The band took this mystical image and sound into their first recording contract with EMI. In 1967, they enjoyed burgeoning popularity with their first singles’ ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’, shortly followed by an appearance on Top of the Pops and their seminal debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
At this stage, the band seemed ready to take on the world; however, Barrett’s mental state had begun to spiral out of control. By the end of the year, the band brought in guitarist David Gilmour who would take the reins as Barrett became increasingly estranged and unreliable.
Barrett was finally ousted from the band in January 1968 while the group were working on their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets. Upon its release on June 29th, the album only contained one original Barrett composition, ‘Jugband Blues’, yet because Gilmour had learned to emulate Barrett’s style, the album maintained the early Pink Floyd’s mysterious, space-rock DNA.
Pink Floyd’s peak success in the 1970s was highlighted by some seminal albums which were accompanied by equally jaw-dropping sleeve designs. Early in the decade, we had refracting prisms and burning men; later, we had pigs flying over Battersea Power Station and brick walls. These designs were the fruit of London graphic designers Storm Thorgerson and partner Aubrey Powell, the founders of Hipgnosis.
A Saucerful of Secrets was the first of Pink Floyd’s album covers to be designed by Hipgnosis. While it’s certainly not among the band’s most iconic covers, it is one of the most accurate visual representations of the early Pink Floyd with its dark ether of otherworldly mysticism.
Pink Floyd commissioned Thorgerson and Powell directly in 1968; after The Beatles, this marked only the second time EMI had permitted one of their acts to hire outside designers for an album cover. To create the fittingly psychedelic image, Thorgerson layered symbolism within a misty, superimposed collage that attempted to represent the swirling, dreamlike visions of three “altered states of consciousness” – religion, psychedelic drugs, and Pink Floyd’s music.
The cover includes merged images, some were drawn, and others were taken from pre-existing images. In the small circle near the centre, the band members can be made out in a silhouetted photograph. The encircling diagram depicting planetary phases to the left was mixed into the design from an image that features Doctor Strange taken from issue #158 of the Marvel comic book Strange Tales. Doctor Strange’s body can be made out on the right of the front cover.
From a distance, the A Saucerful of Secrets album cover may look like a dark green mirage, but up close, the psychedelic design can keep the eyes busy for hours. Complete with cosmic imagery and Marvel superheroes, this is one of the most befitting and intriguing of Pink Floyd’s impressive album cover arsenal.