After Londoners were treated to the wonders of such rock n roll ephemera as a cocaine spoon and the Eno suitcase synth on display at the Bowie V&A exhibition a few years ago, the Rolling Stones had a challenge on their hands.
What would this new Rolling Stones Exhibition – entitled “Exhibitionism” reveal?
I wondered whether a visitor might enter through a giant pair of lips, to find the coconut tree from which Keith Richards fell in 2006. Perhaps a re-creation of the Swiss clinic that allegedly gave Richards a heroin-addiction-curing blood transfusion. Or even a collection of Mick and Brian’s Top Ten favourite paternity suits? Perhaps the wall Bill Wyman urinated against that earned them a sixties court appearance?
At least they didn’t ask a Hells Angel to do the security…
However this new exhibition perhaps understandably skates over past controversies, instead celebrating the longevity and legacy of The Rolling Stones. Exhibitionism packs The Saatchi Gallery’s graceful walls with enough guitars, scribbled lyrics and ill-judged costumes as you could shake one of Charlie Watts’ sticks at.
But with five hundred artefacts to choose from, what are the highlights? Here are just ten of the best:
1. The Introduction: Brian Jones’ passing is but briefly referenced during an entertaining fifty-screen video montage in which the fifty year career of The Rolling Stones is neatly encapsulated into less than five minutes. It flies so quickly you could watch the introduction five times and still see new things.
2. Edith Grove: here we have the sight, sound and smells of the Early Years: a recreation of the flat in Edith Grove that the boys shared in 1962 with flat mate James Phelge, and written about lovingly in Phelge’s book “Nankering With The Stones”. It’s filthier than Jagger’s dreams.
As Keith says in an accompanying voice-over “The kitchen you didn’t go in – that was worse than the bathroom.”
Moving to the Edith Grove living room we see a period record player with Chess label 45s and albums by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Bobby Bland scattered haphazardly.
3. Early artefacts: The Stones’ first recording and first contract is on display, revealing they agreed to be paid 6% of 90% (so 5.4%) of the wholesale price of their records. Also present are tiny diaries dating to January 1963, just three inches high in which are written Keith’s enthusiastic reflections on a Marquee gig, “Received with very good applause. 612 people attended”. “Second set didn’t quite click” he notes elsewhere. You can’t help thinking the diaries from ten years later might have been interesting: “Jan 1973: er, what happened to 1972?”
4. Guitars: The guitars are here: Ronnie’s ’55 Strat, Mick’s Gibson Hummingbird, used to write Sympathy For The Devil and Dead Flowers, and Keith’s ’57 Les Paul (which he decorated with paints supplied at her Majesties convenience whilst he awaited a prison sentence).
Many of the guitars are as dinked, chipped and grizzly looking as the musicians who play them.
5. Interactive mixing: One fun thing to do is to play sound engineer and split songs such as “Rocks Off” into eight separate instruments / channels and see who played what, or just listen to the back up vocals from Keith and Mick – Keith’s are surprisingly harmonic.
6. Album art: Here we have proofs of album covers, art from unreleased LPs and unused art from LPs that did get made. The inspiration for the pop art that is the Some Girls album cover came from an advertisement for wigs in Ebony magazine. The original magazine and album cover is here, the latter complete with the faces of famous actresses. The eventual cover had to be changed after many of those featured objected.
7. Style. Brain Jones’ dogstooth jacket is here – a uniform swiftly discarded after a TV appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars in 1963 as The Rolling Stones became the anti-Beatles, eschewing the suits and identikit appearance. Mick’s Prada “Devil” feather coat and hat from 2005 is also pretty spectacular.
8. Rarities: Keith’s leopard skin travelling wardrobe suitcase is here, but of more interest is a letter from Keith Richards giving his view on whether a show should go ahead in Slane Castle, Ireland four days after the 1982 IRA bombing in Hyde Park.
Keith blends statesman with rock n roll rebel with his advice to either:
- Blow out the gig (“with all that entails” he warns),
- Throw the ball into the Eire prime minister’s court officially asking if the show should go ahead” or
- “I ain’t going in unless ALL proceeds go to the victims”…
9. A Backstage Recreation Area is fun. All lights, tour packing cases and makeshift dressing areas before a 3D cinematic performance by the boys.
10. And finally perhaps the gift shop is an exhibition in itself.
A Stones-branded football table is offered for £4,750, there’s a £2,500 backgammon set, a £940 record case and the most appalling smoking jacket based on Exile on Main St from Turnbull and Asser – a snip at £1,450. For those on relative budgets but still with money to burn there are Smythson notebooks (£50 each or £265 for a set) a £42.50 Steiff teddy,
Lulu Guinness clutch bags (£295), or suitably gaudy Villebrequin swimming trunks (£180) and t-shirts (£85). Thank goodness there hasn’t been a global financial crisis and period of austerity recently…
So do The Rolling Stones belong in a museum? They might not believe so – the exhibition defiantly opens with the statement that The Rolling Stones’ legacy will be their showing just how long they can continue playing for.
However this is a successful and exhaustive celebration of a great band, and it is clear that it comes with their blessing and full involvement. You may not gather any fresh insights into the motivations of Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood,* or learn as much history as you might by reading one of the many excellent books about The Stones, but there’s plenty to enjoy here.
To put it another way, It’s only an exhibition, but I like it, like it, yes I do…
* until you see the prices in the gift shop perhaps…