With a free afternoon in London before heading off to Minehead for the Butlins rock weekend I thought I’d take a look at the V&A’s Theatre and Performance exhibition. This permanent exhibition is about stage performance in its widest sense, but amidst the magnificently ornate costumes from nineteenth century productions of Shakespeare, a sparkling line-up of pantomime dame outfits and Dame Edna’s famous Sydney Opera House-shaped hat, there are a number of exhibits that are of particular interest to rock and pop enthusiasts.
From a small display devoted to Madness memorabilia, to stage outfits worn by the likes of Elton John and Jimmy Page, to a ukulele played by George Formby, there’s some interesting artefacts, even if the selection seems somewhat random.
L-r: Jimmy Page's peacock suit, Elton John's bicycle outfit and George Formby's ukulele
However, the exhibition really needs to be seen in it’s wider context to properly appreciate it and the way that twentieth century rock and pop acts fitted into a tradition of stage performance stretching back centuries.
Recreation of Kylie Minogue's backstage dressing room
If you are taking a trip to London’s museum quarter in South Kensington anyway it’s definitely worth taking a look at – and like all other permanent exhibitions in the capital’s main museums it’s completely free.
L-r: Coldplay's Chris Martin's stagewear and Adam Ant's Dandy Highwayman outfit
Moving out of London four years ago if I find myself at a loose end for a couple of hours on my visits to the capital these days I often try to fit in an exhibition. And as far as music lovers go there have been plenty to choose from in recent years, giving me opportunities to enjoy the Stones and Pink Floyd exhibitions, not to mention the exhibition on late 60s counter-culture ‘So You Want a Revolution?’ at the V&A and the ‘Rebel Sounds’ exhibition on music in war-zones at the Imperial War Museum. For that archetypal London band, the Clash, though there can only be one venue. So in the lull between Christmas and New Year I found myself getting a tube to the Museum of London to check out the ‘London Calling’ exhibition.
At first, seeing all the information panels about the band in 1979 and I thought I’d started at the wrong place. Other band exhibitions I’d seen always tended to feature some ‘early days’ displays – but then it dawned on me that the entire exhibition was dedicated to celebrating the Clash’s era-defining London Calling album rather than the entire band’s history. Released in December 1979 the exhibition celebrates the album’s fortieth anniversary. Ah, it all makes sense now!
It’s a small, compact exhibition taking up just a single gallery at the museum but it’s packed full of memorabilia: Paul Simonon’s smashed-up bass and Joe Strummer’s notebooks along with lyrics, stage gear, photographs and artwork. The latter looms large. With an album cover as iconic as this they absolutely go to town on the familiar pink and green typeface (borrowed from Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album for RCA) and grainy black and white photos. There’s a nice little section on album producer, the late Guy Stevens, whose insane approach to production on the early Mott The Hoople albums so impressed Mott mega-fan, Mick Jones.
You don’t really need more than thirty minutes or so to take it all in but it’s an insightful exhibition that’s well worth taking a look at – and it’s all completely free.
The Clash: London Calling exhibition runs until 19th April 2020
Walking into an exhibition and hearing ‘Teenage Kicks’ blasting out at full volume as you step through the door is probably not the typical visitor experience at the Imperial War Museum – but my trip coincided with the museum’s ‘Culture Under Attack’ programme. With a free day in the capital and browsing possible exhibitions I might take a look at I happened across the IWM’s ‘Rebel Sounds’ – one of three concurrent exhibitions that form the Culture Under Attack season.
The exhibition is intended to illustrate how music can be a force for resistance and rebellion – even under the most desperate of circumstances. From undercover jazz nights in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, to the burgeoning cross-community punk scene in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s, to Serbia’s underground B92 radio station challenging the violent nationalism of the Milošević regime in the 1990s, to the artists making a defiant cultural challenge to Islamist extremism and its ban on music in modern-day Mali – the exhibition is testimony to the power of music to lead us out of darkness.
The exhibition is not a particularly large one and it focuses solely on the four snapshots in time and place listed above. However, while I’ve seen far more extensive music exhibitions with a far bigger range of exhibits, few have left me feeling as moved as this one. A wonderful celebration of the beauty and determination of the human spirit, even in the grimmest of times, this exhibition is well worth a visit. What’s more it’s completely free of charge, as is access to the other two exhibitions in the series – one looking at how British museums and galleries protected works of art from destruction in the Second World War and the other examining the destruction of cultural heritage during times of conflict, whether a deliberate strategy or collateral damage. And, of course, if you still have time to spare after that there’s all the usual tanks and medals and wot-not to see.
Rebel Sounds – part of the Culture Under Attack programme runs until 5th January 2020. Entrance: Free
I was raving about the Rolling Stones exhibition last year, saying they have utterly rewritten the template for what a successful rock memorabilia exhibition should look like and set a new global standard. So when a Pink Floyd exhibition was announced at the V&A I was expecting something really creative. Surely, an arty band like Floyd, and one that has always loved spectacle and grand statements, wouldn’t allow themselves to be outdone by the Stones?
The Pink Floyd exhibition is meticulously curated and a fascinating insight into the band’s history but for the most part I found it very, very traditional. Whereas, the Stones went for breathtaking recreations of their squalid Edith Grove flat, of the studio where many Jagger/Richards classics were laid down and of the very private world of the Stones’ backstage area, Floyd have gone for things displayed neatly in glass cases in chronological order. Don’t get me wrong I loved seeing these items but an exact recreation of the interior of the UFO Club in 1967 or a mock-up of the studio where Dark Side Of The Moon was recorded there was none.
Towards the end of the tour we did get some 3D installations of images from The Wall and Battersea Power Station – and the room devoted to the sculpture from the Division Bell album cover was particularly poignant. Overall, however, while I felt with The Stones I was being taken on a very personal journey through the life of the band, with Pink Floyd I never really felt much more than a visitor to a museum looking at some artefacts, albeit very, very interesting ones.
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.
Rolling Stones “Exhibitionism”
Sun Studios tour