The Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘You Say You Want a Revolution? Records & Rebels’ covers the period 1966-1970, a time I recall as one of starting nursery school, learning to ride a red plastic motorbike and amassing a collection of soft toys. The music I probably took in by osmosis while still in the womb but the rest of it, I’m obviously grateful for exhibitions like this to show me what else I missed.
On first entering I’m slightly underwhelmed: displays of LP covers many of which I have in my collection and posters I’d seen many times before. Moving on, there’s numerous displays of Carnaby Street-era swinging sixties (that famous pink mirrored mini-dress that Sandie Shaw wore, a life-size re-enactment of the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover – with the actual fluorescent suits that John and George wore for the photo-shoot) and the exhibition begins to widen it’s scope. As well as fashion and music we get snapshots of the US civil rights and UK gay liberation campaigns as well as students in Paris in 1968 and the moon landing in 1969.
There’s definitely some fascinating exhibits but I’m still not exactly clear what the overall story is at this stage, other than lots of different and exciting things happened in this period of history: musically, culturally, technologically and politically. When I compared it to my experience of, say, visiting the Stax Studio museum in Memphis (where the interconnectedness of the fight for civil rights and the vision for making great music emanates from every single fibre of every single exhibit) or, say, the Rolling Stones exhibition where many of these issues are addressed through the eyes of a single band, I wasn’t experiencing the same visceral feeling in my gut.
That changed, towards the end of the exhibition, however, which looked at the festival culture of the era: specifically the gallery devoted to Woodstock with its huge screens showing clips of the festival, decked out in fake grass on the floor and even beanbags so you could lie back, soak it all in and be transported back to the fields of a New York State dairy farm in August 1969. Seeing scenes of Country Joe MacDonald singing the ‘Fixing to Die Rag’ and the hope, joy and genuine optimism of the young people in the crowd and comparing it to the scenes of utter despair among America’s youthful protesters this very week as they contemplate a future with Donald Trump as President was the moment the exhibition moved from being interesting to being genuinely moving and bitingly culturally relevant. I left with a lump in my throat.