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.
OK, so Black Sabbath may have played its last ever tour, we have seen one devastating rock star death after another and a number of acts are no more. But, in spite of all that, have we been witnessing a real renaissance for some of our classic rock and metal bands in recent years? I would contend we have.
After some difficult years in the late eighties and nineties for many of our much loved rock giants, one band after another have been releasing albums that stand up really well against their early classics. The aforementioned Black Sabbath released the brilliant 13 album in 2013, which in my view can happily sit alongside the first four Sabbath albums as a genuine bona fide classic. Uriah Heep’s Outsider released in 2014 can unashamedly sit alongside the David Byron-era material in terms of Heep’s unmistakable brand of melodic hard rock. Girlschool’s Guilty As Sin is every bit as good as their era-defining early albums, with lead track Come The Revolution a match for any of their well-known classic tunes. Saxon’s Battering Ram from 2015 and Judas Priest’s Redeemer Of Souls from 2014, each reviewed elsewhere here, both stand up well and offer everything you’d want to hear in a new album from either band. Even The Stones have got in on the act with their critically-acclaimed back-to-basics Lonesome & Blue album celebrating their R&B roots.
My theory is that all of these bands have reached a stage in their musical careers where, unlike some often painful attempts a decade or two ago, they have more than proved themselves. They now no longer feel obliged to sound contemporary or try to keep up with modern trends but can simply concentrate on sounding like themselves and producing the kind of music and the kind of albums that brought them to the public’s attention in the first place.
Of course, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be championing newer rock acts and none of the bands I’m talking about here are going to be around forever. However, I think we could still be seeing a few more classic releases yet from some of our favourite rock veterans over the next few years.
I’ve been to a few rock music archive exhibitions over the years and thought I knew the score. A room or two of old programmes, concert posters and record covers, a few old stage costumes here and there, perhaps a guitar or two and then you’re ushered into a room to watch an video that you could probably have found at home doing a quick search on Youtube.
With Exhibitionism, however, The Stones have set the bar extremely high and in the process of taking over The Saatchi Gallery have utterly rewritten the template for what a successful rock memorabilia exhibition should look like. At £24 per ticket it’s not exactly cheap but for any Stones fan, or indeed any follower of rock history, it represents excellent value for money. Room after room after room is laid out with absolutely fascinating archives that go way beyond the old “concert posters and record sleeves in glasses cases” approach. It’s beautifully themed and gives a fascinating insight into the life of one of the world’s most iconic rock n roll bands over the past five and a bit decades. There’s a recreation of the Edith Grove flat that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones shared in the early days, gloriously capturing all the hideous squalor of sixties bedsit-land. There’s a recreation of the recording studio where they recorded some of their classics and there are huge and extensive displays of guitars and other instruments, meticulously archived original recording contracts and legal documentation and a fascinating display of stage costumes through the decades. I was struck by how pristine and smart the bands sixties suits still look compared to how bedraggled and tatty some of Mick Jagger’s nineties stage outfits now appear. Clearly, they don’t make em like they used to.
For me, however, one of the most poignant moments was walking into the room set out as an exact replica of the Stones backstage area: the admin, the technical gizmos, Mick Jagger’s make-up tent… For a minute it really felt like you had walked in on something very, very private that few get to see.
Allow at least ninety minutes to properly take in all of the exhibition. If you are so inclined you can then spend an exorbitant amount of money in the gift shop but I consoled myself with a £3.99 branded re-usable Exhibitionism shopping bag. A little souvenir of an exhibition that has set a new global standard in rock ‘n’ roll archives.