If an exhibition can illicit a Proustian Rush then the new homage to the legendary rock band Pink Floyd at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum did it for me. The opening bars of Wish You Were Here, a simple guitar riff, were enough to send me right back to my black beret-wearing teens, lying on my bedroom floor immersed in the Floyd’s long-form tracks.
Immersion is what this new exhibition is all about – visual and aural immersion. Strip away all the carefully-designed AV tech and you have a simple, but vibrantly-designed walk-through of the history of Pink Floyd, one of the most iconic prog rock bands of the twentieth century, from their beginnings in Cambridge in the mid-60s to their last ever live performance (presented as a completely immersive audio-visual experience using Sennheiser’s ground-breaking AMBEO 3D audio tech). It’s a straightforward chronology presented through album covers, notebooks of lyrics, scores, sketches, gig posters, handbills and all the other myriad ephemera (some never before displayed) of a band whose creativity was in a constant state of flux – and made them all the better for it. In addition, there is a whole room devoted to the band’s instruments and technology, heaven for the rock tech geek and a reminder of how their pioneering use of technology in the 1970s and 80s shaped Pink Floyd’s distinctive sound as much as their musical vision. There’s a mini Moog synthesiser and a veritable treasure trove of effects pedals, hand-painted drum heads, echo chambers (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) and much more. It’s all beautifully, thoughtfully laid out, with mirror floors, light shows and even a hologram of the iconic Dark Side of the Moon album artwork – but it’s also very dark, so watch your step as you walk around…..
Later on, recreations of The Wall and Battersea Power Station (which features on the album cover of ‘Animals’) and giant custom-made props (built by Stufish) from the stage shows of The Wall and later albums illustrate the band’s use of dramatic visual imagery to create their grandiose, uber-theatrical live concerts which were the epitome of “stadium rock”. The work of the many engineers, producers, designers, architects and artists who worked alongside the band are celebrated in drawings, blueprints, notebooks and video interviews (including one with Gerald Scarfe who drew the illustrations for The Wall’s album artwork and the subsequent film of the album).
If you, like me, felt the band was never the same after Roger Waters left (after The Final Cut album of 1983), there is plenty to engage the visitor in the early part of the exhibition. In fact, this is probably the best part and the very earliest displays focus on Syd Barrett’s unique contribution to the band’s original artistic vision and earliest songs (whose lyrics were drawn from children’s literature, fantasy and folk lore). In the 1970s, the band became more preoccupied with the larger exigencies of human existence – politics, conservation, capitalism and the oppressive class structures in Britain at the time – and the exhibition explores how the political and musical landscape of Britain changed, heralding the emergence of Punk, on first sight the polar opposite of Pink Floyd’s conceptual, complex music created by “filthy rich, tastefully bearded” educated people. Yet the two genres had more in common than first appearances as both railed against an increasingly divided class system in Britain and beyond.
The band members remained largely enigmatic, hidden from the public gaze unlike their near contemporaries The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, and today the remaining band members, such as lead guitarist David Gilmour, live in comfortable secluded retirement in the home counties. The exhibition reflects this – only the first room which focuses on the contribution of Syd Barrett offers a real sense of a personality behind the music and the lyrics. Barrett’s absence – he left the band after a disagreement about their creative direction and with concerns about his increasingly erratic, drug-fuelled behaviour – was sorely felt and later albums, most notably ‘Wish You Were Here’ pay tribute to his role in shaping the band.
The early rooms are all psychedelic swirls and trippy lighting effects, while the latter part of the exhibition attempts to convey the vast scale and drama of the band’s live shows. It’s pretty convincing and all fabulously, beautifully presented. But don’t forget to pick up your special audio headset on arrival – without it, the exhibition can seem rather lacking, despite the fancy lighting effects, groovy artwork and giant models. Only the last room, the band’s valedictory performance of Comfortably Numb (from ‘The Wall’) in 2005, delivered in extraordinary Sennheiser surround sound, can be experienced without the special audio headset – and what a room it is. It’s incredible, placing you right in the centre of a truly great piece of music, replete with stunning light shows. Wish You Were Here? Well, get yourself to the exhibition which runs until early October 2017.
It was my loss to view the exhibition first without the interactive headset. I refused it initially because I thought it would be a straightforward audio guide, something I usually find very distracting when most exhibitions are all about visual impact. But you really do need it: thanks to Sennheiser’s bluetooth technology, you are treated to a stunning, ever-changing soundtrack as you move around the exhibition, with songs interspersed with interviews with band members, and many others who contributed to the creation and appreciation of Pink Floyd the legend.
The exhibition marks 50 years since the 1967 release of their first album ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ and debut single Arnold Layne, and is co-curated by Victoria Broackes, who was also responsible for last year’s So You Want A Revolution? and the exceptional David Bowie exhibition.
I cannot claim to be an avid Pink Floyd fan. I liked their music – especially the long-form nature of it and its preocccupation with more profound or philosophical topics, rather than the usual love songs of pop – and I still hold that Wish You Were Here is the best thing they did, but I really enjoyed the exhibition, not least for the rush of nostalgia it provoked. It will appeal to hard-core Floyd fans and the culturally curious. My hip-hop loving son might even go and see it……
The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains, 13 May – 1 October 2017
FW (reviewed 9 May 2017)