Introduction: Popular Music at the V&A
Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains is the most recent V&A temporary exhibition to cover popular music, but it is a topic that one of the world’s leading museums of art and design has been covering in a serious manner for over a decade. In 2008, to celebrate 50 years of Motown, the V&A opened a temporary exhibition the Story of the Supremes, which displayed not only a sparkling array of dresses and costumes, from Mary Wilson's own collection, but also addressed issues of social history, civil rights and Black performance in theatre, music and dance.
Since then the V&A has added to its analysis of popular music, in 2013, with a touring exhibition David Bowie Is and more recently on the Rolling Stones.
Their Mortal Remains
How then can an exhibition bring something as immediate as music, and as personal as fandom, to a wide audience. What is in the exhibition for those who are not fans? In some senses the opening and introductory elements repeat cliché’s of the swinging sixties, when the band formed, as a vortex of swirling psychedelia. Historians now generally agree that the sixties did not swing for everyone in Britain, particularly those outside of the major urban cities, in the same way and relatively late, from 1968 onwards. So it is questionable if, for some people, the sixties swung at all. The figure of founding member Syd Barrett has a conflicted place in the band’s history because although regarded with huge affection, he struggled with the demands of fame and had a psychological collapse, largely attributed to drugs, and was removed from the band in 1968. However, he continued to be influential to many artists, and to condense this to some rather simplistic psychedelia seems disrespectful to his continuing career. Certainly, The Beatles had moved from their pop roots to something more experimental, and the Rolling Stones became more influenced by Rhythm and Blues, even Elvis Presley producing more progressive records like In the Ghetto and Suspicious Minds in 1969. So signaling a broad experimentation with music in the decade, red telephone boxes are filled with contextual material to suggest direct, and potential, influences.
After this, the exhibition improved as it sought to explain how progressive rock used non traditional technologies such as synthesisers, alongside drums, guitars and the more traditional instruments, along with recorded noises to create a new genre. Pink Floyd innovated new electronic technologies in its music, and also new touring technologies in which to reach the widest possible audience. For those who are fans of the band or the ‘prog. rock’ it perhaps addressed the myth that ‘middle-class noodling’ as the music has been called was exclusive in approach. Remaining band members Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Richard White and new recruit David Gilmore make the point that they negotiated lower Royalties for their albums, in exchange for more time in the studio, so the level of experimentation and the development of musical ideas was absolutely central to their ethos. Similarly, the album format, as opposed to the creation of singles for chart success, allowed the development of a concept, in which Storm Thorgerson’s cover designs were integral. From here, chronologically, the band then took on developing increasingly complex stadium architecture as a way of touring that concept to as wide an audience as possible.
There were many highlights of the exhibition for me, and I guess that you will have guessed that I am a fan of the band. Firstly, in the section on The Dark Side of the Moon, the track Money has a number of looped sounds such as a cash register being rung and the sounds of coins jingling together. Several individual mixing desks were available in front of which a video of the song was running in a screen and it was possible therefore to mix your own version of the various instrumentals and effects, such as reverb and echo. Secondly, the section on the history of Storm Thorgerson’s cover design ideas, and the role of the Hipgnosis company in conujuntion with photographer Aubrey Po Powell. In the days before computers and Photo-shopping, it was necessary to use other means to produce such iconic images: especially those that sought to depict the soul-less executives running record companies. ‘Sticking it to the Man’ has long been a theme of rock, progressive and otherwise. Wish You Were Here was the bands ninth studio album, released by Harvest in the UK and Columbia Records in the US. The US cover cannot fail to have spoken to those who ran the labels as it depicts two sales executives in a film studio shaking hands on a deal while one was on fire. ‘Getting burned’ by deals in the music business was a common turn of phrase. However, in order to get the shot the stuntman Ronnie Rondell had to be on fire during the handshake with his colleague Danny Rogers. Due to the length of the shoot, Rondell was set of fire fifteen times, before a gust of wind really gave the flames some height. Only due to the fire retardant suit he wore underneath, and his own expertise was he not badly hurt. Only an in depth exhibition could explore the evolution of these concepts in such depth.
Should I go?
The exhibition ends 1 October, and is currently free to Museum Association members and V&A members. On the day I went there were problems with the sound for about 30 minutes and so I was pleased that my entry was free. If I were in London I would make a second trip, to see things I maybe missed first time and to see if I could pick up those pieces of audio that I missed. So yes, on balance go. On the whole this was a bit static compared to the outstanding Bowie exhibition, and the historical context was not as good as the Story of the Supremes. Not did it have the sense of theatre that the 2015 fashion exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty had in the same space. Perhaps the layout mitigated against a more uplifting experience. But we each take something different from an exhibition so probably best to make up your own mind.