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