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Interview to Mr. Aubrey “Po” Powell about the Pink Floyd exhibition: Their mor …

Interview to Mr. Aubrey “Po” Powell about the Pink Floyd exhibition: Their mor …

Aubrey “Po” Powell
Interview in occasion of Mr Powell’s curatorial work for “The Pink Floyd Exhibition: their mortal remains” by Elena Arzani

Mr. Powell, Pink Floyd members and you, have been friends, and collaborators since the early days. No one but you, knows them better. They hardly exposed themselves to the public during the years, rather preferring to be seen only while playing on stage. It must have been a hard task, and responsability to select Pink Floyd’s most interesting memorabilia, and objects from those 50 years of spectacular career. What kind of inspiration, yet critiria did you chose to follow?

I’ve know Pink Floyd since I was fifteen years old. I was very close with Syd Barrett, and David Gilmour, particularly in Cambridge, when we were young, and we were at school. And when we all came to London in the ‘60s, we kept our friendship, we shared an apartment together, and all that kind of stuff, and we hanged out socially together. They started Pink Floyd, and so I’ve known them since the beginning very intimately.

And consequently working for them over the years with album covers, and films, and stuff like that. It’s a fact that I know pretty much the history, and pretty much a lot of the things that they participated inn in terms of big shows, and equipment they used, all these kind of stuff. So when we decided to do an exhibition – they had an exhibition in Paris in 2008, and this was done by Storm Thorgerson, that was my partner in Hipgnosis, and it was very successful, and they had intended at that time to take it further, but it didn’t have for all kinds of reasons, and Storm died in 2013. Before he died we all had a meeting, and everybody said “well, we’d like to have this exhibition together, will you do it?” And I reluctantly agreed that – because I make films, and I really didn’t want to get involved in such a big project, that takes so long, but I said ok. When I started this process, the first thing I decided to do was to create a plan, and my plan was the idea of starting chronologically, and I wanted to make it like an “Alice in wonderland” immersive experience for the person going there. And I actually drew it on a piece of paper, and the first thing that I drew is what you see in Rome now. It’s really strange, it’s almost identical. And the first thing I had to do was to get involved a team. I knew the team I wanted : Stufish, who are architectural designers, who have worked with Roger Waters, and David Gilmour, and signed stage shows, they designed The Wall; I wanted to work with Conservators, who are very good and professional, and they knew how to deal with old photographs, pictures, old posters, you had to frame things properly, they had to deal with humidity. I wanted to work with Patrick Woodroffe, a lighter designer, he is very famous with the Rolling Stones, for example, and another project I worked with him on is Monthy Python. So, I chose my team quiet carefully, and I also wanted to work with Paula Webb as co-curator, because she had worked on the Paris exhibition with Storm, and she had already quite a lot of knowledge of were some of the objects where. 

The next thing I did was to go to the Pink Floyd’s warehouse. They had this huge warehouse outside London, which is full of old pigs, hundreds of, all stage equipments. Because if you look back to the late 70’s and indeed to the late ‘80s, the stage shows that they had was enormous – I mean absolutely enormous – and these kind of inflatable objects they had, like the inflatable man in stripes that is now in Rome, were all in boxes, seated in boxes for over 30 years, more 35 years some of them. We started opening all these boxes, trying to look what there was inside, and it was incredible, some of the things were completely destroyed by time, and other things were impeccable, like the stripe man, like the Teacher in The Wall, we just blew them up and there they were. Amazing 30 years later. The fridge, the television, those are all originals in absolutely perfect conditions. 

I also went to Nick Mason, the drummer, who has an archive with photographs, and posters from Pink Floyd’s years, and I look through all of that. So, I had access to all sorts of things. Roger Waters said to go down to his place, where he has a huge space where he’s kept a lot of materials, from The Wall I’ve found all the original written lyrics, and stuff like that. I mean, it was just extraordinary, and also “falling”? Falling around some friends, and old girlfriends of the band, or ex wives, all kind of people, to try and find the most interesting things.  And I knew I wanted to make the exhibition chronological, in other words start from the beginning, and going through to now to the end. It took me 3 years to get all that stuff together, and the same time I had to design an exhibition, knowing that I was unsure where to go first. And originally we were going to open it in Milan, but Milan fell through, which was very depressing, because we were 6 weeks away from completing, and I went straight to the V&A in London then, ‘cause I have friends there and I thought they’d be interested. I walked through the door, and said: “I have a complete exhibition for you! I am ready”, and they said: “We’ll have it, and we want to open it in 18 months”; “ok” – I said and we had the exhibition in London, which was a fantastic “serendipity” we say.

You know it’s just a fantastic opportunity, and that’s how it happened – really. But what’s most important, is the Pink Floyd did not interfere at all with my design, my decisions, what I wanted to do, they just said “if you can do this, fantastic”. And that was amazing for them, because they are very difficult, they never agree about anything, and it’s complicated, but I was lucky. Because David Gilmour was touring, and making a record, and Roger Waters was touring, and making a record, so they didn’t have any time to concentrate so I was flying to wherever they were, flying to Chicago to see Roger, and NY to see David, and I had this big book, which I called the Bible, which had all the architectural elevations, had all the drawings, all the photographs of everything we wanted to show, had all the illustrations, everything. It was a huge thick piece of document, and I would go and show it to them, saying “look this is what I am doing”, and it looked very professional, and they could absorb it, in the space of a couple of hours (smiling), and  they just said: “Ok, if you can do it, do it!”  I am really lucky they didn’t want to get involved, and appreciated and trusted me, and luckily it all looks rather good!

I’ve visited both exhibitions, the one in London, and this one in Rome. They are different in some ways, at the V&A there was much room, and at MACRO the feeling is on the contrary much more of a full immersion, they are both awesome.
Personally, I prefer the Rome exhibition, funnily enough, because I had a big space with very high ceiling which allowed me to make The wall much higher, and to have the pig in there, things like that and somehow it worked better. The problem with the V&A is that it is an old victorian building, and you have to use the corridors, all small rooms. You see, I had to built round there, which is very complicated. And I actually think that the fact that the Rome exhibition is slightly smaller, makes it an exhibition that it’s easier to go around, whereas the one at the V&A was too big. 
I mean, it took 2 h 30 mins to visit, people’s attention bounce. An exhibition is generally no more than 1.30 hour, this is a fact. 

The title. I know that the first title for “The great gig in the sky” was “The mortality sequence”. Yeah, no, it has nothing to do with that. “Their mortal remains” comes from a line that was in a lyric from The Wall. I wanted a title for the exhibition, and I came and ask Roger, ‘cause Roger is very good with words, and titles, and he just said: “what about. Their mortal remains”. And I thought it was just a brilliant title, ‘cos that’s what this exhibition is, it’s “their mortal remains”. The remains of Pink Floyd, ‘cause Pink Floyd doesn’t exist anymore really, I mean it exists in the name, but it’s unluckily they’ll ever tour again. 

Do you think there might be a sort of connection with “The dark side of the moon” in terms of the Egyptian’s pyramids. No, people loves to see all sorts of things, but it definitely comes from the song “Nobody home” in The Wall. A line almost at the end says: “I’ve got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains.”

How did you deal with the different periods related to the Syd Barrett’s era, the David Gilmour’s one, yet the diparture of Roger Waters? Many fans for instance believe Syd Barrett being the most iconic element of the band, the one who embodies the Pink Floyd.
I disagree with that, I am afraid. The things is that one has to be realistic about this matter.

 Syd Barrett was with the Pink Floyd about 18 months, 2 years maybe. Because he made one record with them, “The piper at the gate of down”, and then he wrote a tiny bit “A saurceful of secrets”, and then he was gone, ‘cause he went crazy. He had too many drugs, he couldn’t cope with the pressure of the music industry, he didn’t want to keep writing, and have to write his songs all the time, so he couldn’t cope. He and I were living together in an apartment in London, and he had a nervous break-down. People would think of the beginning of Pink Floyd  with Syd Barrett, and of course it was absolutely true. He was the song writer, main singer, he wrote all the songs, and wrote very beautiful, and very english style fairy tales (influenced by what was going on at the time – Alice in Wonderland, and so on), and there is no question he was incredibly invented, however his period with Pink Floyd was very short, and if I am honest – from my personal point of view – he nearly destroyed the band. Because he took a lot of drugs, and consequently when he left Pink Floyd, they had nobody. They had no song writer, nobody to continue with, and in fact it’s a miracle that Pink Floyd survived. And David Gilmour when he joined Pink Floyd, saved Pink Floyd. Although he wasn’t a song writer, and Roger had to start writing, he picked up the guitar from Syd, and saved the band. So I don’t think with the fans, that the period with Syd Barrett is necessarily the greatest period. Syd started Pink Floyd, with some interesting ideas, but then when he left, and the band carried on with David Gilmour, and they went on doing things like “The dark side of the moon”, and well this has nothing to do with Syd Barrett. This was to do with David Gilmou’s voice, with his guitar. He is an incredible guitarist, and Roger Waters lyrics. I don’t think if Syd Barrett would stay with the bad, they’d ever done The dark side of the moon, ‘cause the whole of the band changed. Then when Roger left the band, after The final cut, and David Gilmour decided to carry on, he had to change the band completely.  He owns the name Pink Floyd, with Nick Mason, he was not naturally gifted as song writer, but he a virtuoso on the guitar, ad certainly has a beautiful voice, so he had to call in other people to write songs, and The division bell is definitely the second best album after The dark side of the moon, so I think the success that he had in later years with his version of Pink Floyd is fenmenal, and they are still so fenomenally popular, and I do not agree with the fact that Syd Barrett was all Pink Floyd, he nearly destroyed them, so I don’t have a sympathetic idea as the fans may have it, and I was there, I saw it, I witnessed it. He was not great, this was not something to be admired. A lot of people admires Syd Barrett, regarding him as a sort of God. He wasn’t as such. He was just a very nice guy who was too sensitive, and too gentle for the rigours of the music business. It just seemed to me. He just wanted to be a painter, he didn’t want to be a pop star or things like that.  So, I don’t have the same view at all, I am afraid, and probably Pink Floyd’s fans would be upset for that. But I know the reality.

Without mentioning the worldwide famous image of “The Dark Side of the Moon”, among the Pink Floyd cover albums, three of them are particularly interesting from the point of you of their working process. “A saurceful of secrets”, “Ummagumma”, and “Atom heart mother”. The first two, contrary to present times, were completely artisan, no photoshop, and computer graphics was involved. The last one instead, with its visual, and minimalist layout, broke the boundaries, and limits imposed by the record label. Would you like to tell us something more about them, and their creations?
As Hipgnosis, the design Company of myself and Storm Thorgerson, we designed all things for my friends Pink Floyd. They were very good to us allowing us “carte blanche”, allowing us to come up with ideas that we liked, and obviously because we where friends, we were all on the same “surreal level” of thinking, and the kind of books, films, paintings, poetry, we all liked together as growing up together, were all the same kind of feelings. Where it was Salvador Dalì, Magritte, Ginzburg, Curzon, the american poet, children’s books, Marvel comics, we had a natural synergy between us of understand. Which is very important in your peer group, when you have the same kind of understanding. So, the cow, which is personally my favourite album, more than The dark side of the moon, came about because we knew the title Atom heart mother, but we had no idea at all, and we were seated with Storm, and some friends of us, and one who was a very good sculpture called John Blake, an American guy, and we were saying how stuck we were with the iedeas, and he was saying “well, just do something very very ordinary”, and somehow someone said: “What about a cow”. It was just spontaneous. So the next day Storm and I drove our car, and we went outside London. Walked through the fields, all of those fields full of cows, took many photographs, and there was one in particular. We drove back to London, processed the film, we looked at the picture, and took it up to Abbey Road Studios, where the band was recording, show them the picture with the cow, and they all went
“that’s it!”.

“that’s incredible, that’s Atom heart mother”.
And the reason why, it’s because it was so anti-establishment, so anti the record company. The record label hated Hipgnosis, they just wanted the picture of the band on the cover, with the name on it in big letters. They didn’t want any of our weird wonderful surrealist ideas. And when Roger Waters said yes to our picture of the cow, we then said “no name, no title”, and he said “yes”. And I remember walking down Sunset Boulevard before the release, and there was a huge billboard on the wall, which was just the picture of the cow, no writing, absolutely nothing. And I remember people were talking about this, saying “what is this, a new book? a film? a new album?”. And of course before the release, a big blank board went next to the cow, and he normally said just “Pink Floyd Atom heart mother release today” on Sunset street. And this happened in New York as well as in London. And What I saw was that there was just so much interest, because it was such a lateral way of thinking, different way of thinking. It was the opposite way of advertising, people were attracted by bizarre. You know, you design something bizarre and people are just drown to it naturally.
​It’s like Duchamp’s lavatory bowl, people were just drown to it because of his strangeness.
What does it mean? I doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a cow, it’s Atom heart mother, but for Pink Floyd was absolutely perfect, and it’s my favourite album cover, and I think I nearly did it just because it’s so obscure. It’s real “camera obscura”, that’s what it is.

“A good idea is a good idea” was Storm Thorgerson’s motto. David Gilmour described the Hipgnosis as art itself. Meaning that the quality of your ideas, and creations, stood far from the market’s logic. Nowadays do you think that something similar can still be achieved? Yes, I do. You know if I look at Hipgnosis career, the days were from when we started in 1967 to 1983, and we were lucky, because this was the period of huge album sells, Pink Floyd sold 45 millions album with The dark side of the moon, Peter Frantom sold 18 million album, Stevie Wonder sold 25 million albums, I mean albums sold in millions. And there was a huge amount of money in the record business.​ And it was the first time that bands like Pink Floyd, when they went to play in 1977 the Animals tour in America, they were playing to 19.000 people, this was unheard, bands like Led Zeppelin, this was the audience they’d played to in enormous stadium. And this was something new, so the money was everywhere.

So we were lucky, and when we worked for bands like Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, the Genesis, all these huge bands, Yes, Peter Frantom, we could come to them with any idea we wanted to. I could come and say: “Look I wanna go to Australia to take this photograph. I have an idea, I wanna go Hawaii”. And they would go just saying “yeah, go, fine”. And we would just work for the band, and never worked for the Record Companies. We were very privileged, and often were regarded as a sort of another member of the band, we were treated the same, we would hang out with the band, stay at the same hotel, we flew with them on their private plane. 

And one of the reason was that in our own way visually, we were doing exactly what they were doing. They were creating the music, we were creating the visuals, and the Record Company Covers were very very important, because they were the translation between the band and the public. Because there was no VH1, there was no Spotify, no YouTube, so in those days there were just a few Magazines, and Newspapers about music, but the real emphasis of transmission from the band image to the public of their fans, was the album cover. It gave an hint, an information of what the band was up to. So, we ere very lucky, but there is no reason it couldn’t happen again, and there is no reason why people should not have interesting ideas, There have always been interesting ideas visually that goes through music, I can never see that happening, it would jus be different. When we did Hipgnosis our ideas where big canvas, a big piece of open cardboard that was called a record cover, and it was generally – what they call it – a gatefold sleeve, it was really a big canvas, which we were so lucky with that, and we had a lot of money to spend, because the budgets were unlimited for us.

Now Record sells have gone, DVD sells have gone, CDs have gone, so the budget for the people to do any visuals to music is very law right now, but I am sure that will change, and something else will happen. But sure as anything visuals and music will always go together. So I am sure in the digital world, there will be a revisions of some other ways of doing things where people wants to see visuals with music, let’s say Beyoncè wants to make an album with 16 songs, and there will be 16 videos that come out of it for someone to watch. So there will always be photographs that will be required, and still are. Anytime I look at the released albums, they all have interesting ideas.  I think the problem with the music industry right now is the lack of money, lack of finance. So, unless a band is very established, like Madonna, Pink Floyd or Beyoncè or someone who have unlimited money to spend on visual projects, it’s quiet difficult for a young aspiring graphic artist or photographer to get in the business of music. And obviously there are so many people doing it at the moment, anybody can take a picture, and travel the world, whereas nobody could do that in the ‘60s. And at the time of Hipgnosis it was just perhaps 20 people in the business, and we all knew each other. But there will always be visuals with music. Always!

– by Elena Arzani


Elena Arzani
Art director, fotografa e giornalista. Masters di Laurea in  Communication Design, and Arts (Central St. Martin’s di Londra). Esercita da oltre 20 anni nei settori della moda, pubblicità ed editoria dell’arte contemporanea e musica. Vive a Milano e Londra.

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