It’s not just the record of Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn that makes it an automatic contender for the finest psychedelic album of all time. The cover of the album is also an iconic vision of psychedelia. It presents an altered perception of a visual image, in this case the band, as if you’re looking at them through a kaleidoscope.
Each member appears three or four times, blurring into themselves and each other. The effect is disorienting, striking, engrossing and stimulating, perfectly reflecting the musical contents within. But unlike the music, which has been endlessly analysed and adored, there is precious little to be found about the cover.
Which is strange when you consider that there are people out there who have dissected Syd Barrett’s every bowel movement in an attempt to explain the fragile genius who created the music on Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut album. And even among the plethora of books about one of the biggest-selling bands on the planet there’s virtually no mention of the cover, apart from one tome that is exclusively devoted to the album.
Are they all missing the bigger picture, so to speak? On the back cover of the album it states: ‘Front Cover Photo: Vic Singh.’ Apart from the band members there are only four other credits on the album and Singh comes below the producer (Norman Smith) and the recording engineer (Peter Bown) but above the rear cover designer (Syd Barrett).
It’s a more prominent credit than most photographers would expect to get, then or now. It’s certainly more conspicuous than the credit that artist Peter Blake received for his considerable efforts on The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, released the same year.
You’ll search long and hard to find Singh’s credit on another album cover. Pink Floyd used Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis for all their subsequent albums apart from The Wall and The Final Cut (although drummer Nick Mason illustrated the Relics compilation).
That’s because Singh was not a rock photographer, he was a fashion photographer. The Piper cover was a glorious one-off, a serendipitous collision in the febrile atmosphere that propelled London’s ‘Swinging 60s’. With a little help from George Harrison, as we shall see.
“It just happened,” says Singh, recalling both the era and the events that surrounded the making of the cover. “People would just come together. One thing would lead to another and they’d link up and do things. There was the feeling that you could try anything. It was such a creative atmosphere. Until finally it became this huge thing that made this country the forefront of music and fashion, even motor cars for that matter.”
Singh’s background is the kind of culture clash that flourished amid the new meritocracy that was another feature of the decade. His father was the Raja of Kalakankar, a province in Northern India by the Ganges. His mother was the daughter of an Austrian society photographer. At the age of six he was sent to boarding school in England and, after his mother moved to London, had a public school education at the somewhat progressive St Christopher’s College in Letchworth, Hertfordshire.
“My family background meant that work was not really on the agenda because we already owned everything,” says Singh with a smile. But after his Western education, a return to the stultifying privilege of the Raj was equally unthinkable. So he went to St Martin’s College Of Art in London where he became interested in photography.
He got a job, starting at the bottom – as a junior assistant at the Mayflower Studio in London sweeping the floor and making the tea – before moving on to Studio Five where he found himself working with David Bailey and his career as a fashion photographer took off, just as British fashion itself was taking off.
Within a couple of years he’d opened his own studio and was enjoying life at the hub of the Swinging 60s. “I was part of an influential crowd. I had a flat in the Kings Road and my girlfriend was a model. I would come home from the studio and there might be 30 or 40 people there – actors, musicians, models, designers, fashion editors, hustlers, dealers. It was a popular place to live. “
With fashion photography consuming his time, Singh admits he wasn’t taking much interest in the music scene – until one day when his friend and model Patti Boyd turned up with George Harrison in tow.
“There was this strange thing of meeting someone who was very famous and then going to the pub and having a beer with them and just being very normal,” he remembers. “George and I became friends and I used to go and hang out at his place in the country near Henley. We used to sit for hours and discuss mysticism because it interested us both.”
But apart from Beatles concerts “where we would have to run for our lives afterwards”, Singh didn’t frequent the London music scene – neither the trendy clubs like The Marquee, the fashionable late-night watering holes like the Scotch Of St James, nor the burgeoning underground scene at UFO where Pink Floyd were gaining a reputation as the unofficial house band. So when he got a phone call from the band’s management in the early summer of 1967 asking if he’d be interested in photographing the group at his studio it came out of the blue.
“I’d met the band at an event in Piccadilly a few weeks earlier – we used to call them happenings back then,” recalls Singh. “So I knew about them but I’d never seen them play. I asked whether they had anything particular in mind for the session but they said no, they’d leave it up to me.”
The management of Pink Floyd at that time can recollect very little about the events surrounding the cover of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. But then it was 1967 after all and co-manager Peter Jenner was preoccupied in the studio with Pink Floyd, shouting the names of planets into a megaphone at the start of Astronomy Domine.
His partner Andrew King, however, had a vague recollection that Singh was recommended to them. “I think it was another brilliant Hoppy suggestion,” he says. John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins was a radical photo-journalist who was a prime mover in the London underground scene, co-founding the UFO Club and the hippy house newspaper International Times.
“We didn’t want to use the normal hacks at EMI and we were sort of asserting our independence,” says King.
“It was a great time for English photography and the sort of pictures that were in Vogue and other fashion magazines at the time were excellent,” remembers King as the mists of time briefly clear. “Fashion photography was moving at a rate of knots but showbiz photography wasn’t. I have a feeling that Hoppy knew Vic Singh and we thought: ‘Great, let’s use somebody exciting and young because it could be fun and unusual and interesting too.’”
Meanwhile, Singh was looking for something fun and unusual and interesting for the photo session.
“They’d sent me an advance copy of the album, and I was amazed by it,” he remembers. “It sounded very alien to begin with but then I began to understand the kind of thing they were aiming at and I wanted to come up with a picture that reflected that. “I had this prism lens that George Harrison had given me one day when I was at his house. We were watching his home cinema and just messing around. He’d said: ‘Take it, because I don’t know what to do with it and you might find some use for it.’ The prism lens splits the image but you have to set up the shot carefully in advance because if you just point the camera and take a picture with it, it comes out looking weird. Everything looks mushy because the lens softens the image.
“I thought it might be perfect for the sleeve. So I set up the studio and tested it and it seemed to work. But it was still quite soft so I asked the group to bring some colourful clothes with them because I thought that would provide a bright contrast, especially if the lighting was right. So they arrived on the day with all these clothes and after we’d had a coffee they changed into them.
"I then had to position them against this white background to get the picture I was looking for. The positioning was crucial because the image was going to break up and they all had to be in exactly the right place if the final picture was going to work.” These days such a shot would be approached quite differently. In fact you probably wouldn’t even try to shoot the band together. It would be easier to take individual shots and then superimpose them. But that was not an option back then.
“Once I showed them the Polaroids and they could see how important the positioning and the lighting was, they started to get into it, particularly Syd,” says Singh. “They could see that if everything was done right it would look really good. And we had the Piper music blasting out of these big speakers I had in the studio. You could hear it right down the street."
"Then it was just a matter of taking the proper shots. There weren’t too many ways to take it because of the overlapping and everything, and if one of them moved it changed the whole look of the shot. I ended up taking about four or five reels – 40 to 50 shots – so they had plenty to choose from and there would hopefully be one in which they all looked good.”
For the record, there were no filters or other effects, apart from the prism. “It was straight through the Hasselblad on to Ektochrome, “ states Singh.
And no stylists or make-up artists in attendance either. “Certainly not. Even the models did their own makeup back then.”
The session lasted for the whole day and after Singh had sent the pictures round to the management a few days later he phoned to find out if everything was OK. “‘Yeah, they’re great,’ I was told. They said they’d be using them and that Syd was designing the back cover, so I said ‘fine’ and went back to doing my thing and left them to choose the shot.
“A while later I saw the cover and it looked fine. I can’t remember whether I saw it in a shop or if somebody showed it to me. Not only does everybody look OK in the shot but the lettering of the word Pink Floyd fits perfectly in the middle of it. Some of the other pictures were just as good but there wasn’t the space to put the lettering in. That’s why they chose it.”
He didn’t hear from Pink Floyd again and he didn’t go to a gig. And he didn’t get paid either. “So the copyright is mine. I own that shot but I’m not making a big deal out of it. Because as far as I was concerned they were skint at the time. And soon after the album came out they started having problems with Syd.
"Then he left and the management changed and apparently all the pictures were sent to Storm Thorgerson at Hipgnosis when he started doing all their graphics. And he’s done some brilliant work for them but by then I’d moved on."
In fact, the Swinging 60s came to an abrupt end for Singh. “I got involved in films and I went skint. So then I got pissed off with everything and went and lived in the country. I became a father and raised a child. I worked to pay the rent, nothing more, just living day to day with nature.”
He’s back in London, still living just off the Kings Road, working in digital photography and film, more interested in street and club fashion than the major label fashion industry: “Unless you embrace the time now and embrace what is happening today, then artistically you’re dead”. But he maintains that “the work I’m doing now is based on psychedelia. Because that attitude is as relevant today as it was in the 60s”.
And he’s still proud of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn cover. “That record and the sleeve have come to represent the roots of Pink Floyd and the picture still communicates that era to people.”