Completed its run at Saatchi Gallery, London. Due to open in New York.
I’ve loved the Stones since I was about 13. My rather liberal English teacher realised I wasn’t getting very excited about Shakespeare so instead he grabbed my attention by lending me his copy of The Stones’ ‘Rolled Gold’. I was hooked immediately and have loved them ever since, however I almost didn’t go to this exhibition. Even a geek like me couldn’t get that excited about looking at a load of guitars in glass cabinets and £25 (NZ$50) is a lot of money for an exhibition when there are so many alternative ways to spend money in London.
But there’s something about the Stones. They just do everything on such an epic scale that I found it hard to resist being swept along with the hype. It was a classic lesson in promotion – powerful design communicated with style in multiple channels. I read about it on Facebook, saw the ads in print and online, saw the posters on the tube, watched the trailer and eventually I just had to go.
This of course is one of the recurring criticisms of the band – that they are more marketing machine than music makers. And the exhibition tackles this paradox well. You see Mick’s detailed notebooks and hear him talking about organising meetings with everyone from retailers to fashion designers juxtaposed with videos where every member of the band overflows with boyish enthusiasm for the artists who inspired them. There is a great film of them playing alongside Muddy Waters, where Mick and Keith are clearly in awe of being on stage with their idol. We all know Keith lives the rock ’n’ roll pirate lifestyle. But he’s also an absolute perfectionist in the studio. He’s the one who will insist on 16hr non-stop sessions to get a song just right. And this isn’t getting a producer to tweak the Auto-Tune and fiddle with Pro Tools, this is getting the whole band to play a song over and over again, in as many ways as possible, to achieve that one magic take. My favourite part of the exhibition is a recording studio mockup where you hear them stumbling through alternative takes and experimenting with their instruments.
Another great mockup is a two room set of the house they shared in the early days. There is brilliant attention to detail. You walk through rooms with ashtrays spilling over, a carpet of beer bottle caps, unmade beds with dubious linen, piles of Blues albums and a tower of dirty plates rising out of the sink. “The kitchen was hilarious – Brian would ‘grow’ milk bottles … penicillin,” Charlie Watts tells us over a voiceover.
In the exhibition there is much discussion of the relationship between music and design. One room is devoted to graphics with many of their tour posters and album covers dissected. We see proofs, rejected ideas and photographers’ contact sheets. We also get to see the evolution of the famous tongue logo. There are even several original Andy Warhols. There is another room dedicated to the design of the stage shows where we get to see sketchbooks and design developments and hear interviews revealing the briefing and decision making processes. It’s clear Mick and Charlie put many, many hours into the visual side of the Stones. The largest room is dedicated to their clothing, on and off stage. We see their first matching suits which are soon cast aside for button-down shirts and desert boots. We move through psychedelia, velvet jackets and flares and on into the ridiculous spandex jumpsuits of the stadium era. Again videos reveal much – fashion designers discuss individual costumes and commentators talk about the way they reflected and often led the look of their time. It’s the story of one band but it’s also a great snapshot of social history.
The reason this exhibition is so impressive is also down to design. No doubt the band picked over every detail of this too. It could have been a static exhibition simply showing the thousands of artefacts such as diaries, guitar collections, letters, contracts etc. A lesser design team would have put them in glass cases with a label and it still would have been an interesting, if slightly dull, exhibition. But with the use of lighting, video screens, pertinent interviews, voice-overs, room sets and great sound systems pumping out the music it totally came to life.
The final set is a backstage area where you wait for a few minutes in a ‘dressing room’ amongst guitars, checklists, costumes and make up. Then you are led into a dark room and put on 3D glasses. A huge screen shows them performing at a vast outdoor concert and you are standing in the front row. The band roar through Jumping Jack Flash. Sure, you can laugh at them as geriatrics dressing up in pirate costumes to play songs that were ‘important’ 40 years ago but that’s missing the point. It’s loud, it’s big and it’s fun. Every single person in my showing walked out grinning from ear to ear.