Situated just a stone’s throw from the site of the old Chelsea Drugstore, my fellow Stones aficionado and I certainly got our prescriptions filled at the Saatchi Gallery. The depth and breadth of the exhibition as well as the consistently inventive design far exceeded our modest expectations. The only obvious antecedent is the 2013 Bowie exhibition at the V&A which may well have influenced the curators and inspired them to be similarly ambitious. ‘Exhibitionism’ may have adopted a less arty and intellectual approach but has successfully grasped the full cultural and musical significance of the Stones and illuminated all the key areas with flair, an eye for detail and humour.
We spent a good three hours trawling across the two floors and “nine thematic areas” but could easily have spent another hour or two if time had allowed. After having our senses assaulted by a multi-screen history of the band on fast forward, we proceeded to the first major room, ‘Edith Grove’ which was a vivid reconstruction of the dingey flat which Jagger, Richards and Jones shared with the legendarily sordid James Phelge (criminally misspelt as Phlege in the accompanying information), honing their blues craft whilst shivering, virtually penniless and almost starving, through the vicious winter of 1962/63. The wallpaper looked oppressively grimy; the ‘Withnail’-like kitchen sink was filthy; the food-encrusted plates strewn across every surface were covered in mountains of cigarette stubs. Thankfully we were spared Phelge’s soiled underwear. An absence of photographic record makes it hard to gauge the accuracy but it certainly felt authentic, not to mention slightly surreal, queuing to gawk at some perfectly recreated visceral squalor. Social historians would no doubt approve of the early sixties white Malteser packet laying amidst the debris.
You would expect to find some guitars in glass cases at a Rolling Stones exhibition and you would be right, but the sheer amount of instruments on display and spanning their entire 54-year career, was impressive. A particular highlight for both of us was Brian’s 1966 Vox Dulcimer played on ‘Lady Jane’, every night on tour. There was a sloppily part-painted Gibson Les Paul of Keith’s from 1968, which, as the notes helpfully pointed out, was the result of an acid trip where Keith started painting his boots then spread to the guitar: “I was bored, waiting to go to jail.” Another of Keith’s guitars (for the tech-heads, it was a Ted Newman-Jones custom 5 string from 1971) was decorated rather more sinisterly with transfers of swastikas and German crosses.
The ‘Recording’ room conjures up the recording studio experience at Olympic and Pathe-Marconi, where so many classics were laid down, and was both evocative and informative. A personal highlight was Mick Jagger’s notebooks with handwritten early lyrics including a strikingly different early draft of ‘Miss You’. Jagger told Mojo recently, “the items themselves are only part of it. It’s all about how the rooms connect… with each room illustrating a different area of your life.” There were pleasing imaginative touches like the constantly moving train indicator board displaying the towns the Stones played up and down the UK in 1965, appropriately reflecting the frantic pace and packed schedule of the tour.
Upstairs the ‘Film and Video’ section featured a fascinating insightful guide through the Stones cinematic history by erudite super-fan and occasional collaborator Martin Scorsese. I would only gripe about the neglect of Peter Whitehead’s excellent early tour documentary ‘Charlie Is My Darling’ and the lack of even a brief clip from ‘Performance’, admittedly a Jagger vehicle rather than a Stones one, but nevertheless one of the most significant and influential films of the sixties. This was followed by a breathless race through every Stones promo video since 1966. As a Stones video collector/trainspotter, may I just point out that my own biggest surprise of the exhibition was seeing a full colour extract of the ‘Child of the Moon’ promo which I gave up searching for years ago, convinced it no longer existed?
In the very extensive ‘Art & Design’ room you could trace the evolution of the iconic lips logo from the John Pasche original, sold for just £50, through endless variations right up to the latest fan design for this year’s South American tour. There was also a pretty comprehensive collection of tour posters and album launch posters as well as stage designs and drawings.
There is a lot of fun to be had in the ‘Style – Costumes’ section from the mod threads of swinging London and the outrageously flamboyant Ossie Clark jumpsuits to a red chicken feather suit and top hat from the Voodoo Lounge tour. As you would imagine there are a number of fashion faux pas, such as Mick’s 1966 green and purple tartan suit from Granny Takes A Trip. Sadly, hardly any of the arch dandy Brian Jones’s wardrobe made it to the exhibition, probably as most of it is rumoured to have been stolen from Cotchford Farm or inexplicably burnt following his death. Only a replica of Mick’s famous white dress, designed by Mr Fish and worn at Hyde Park, is present but one item that induced goosebumps was Mick’s actual black and orange cape worn throughout the 1969 tour, including that fateful night at Altamont.
I was initially underwhelmed by the backstage area, having seen the like countless times before on TV shows but it actually worked well as build-up, for the finale. We followed a sign saying ‘stage area’, through a door into the final ‘Performance’ section, where we stood and experienced the immersive excitement of seeing the Stones play ‘Satisfaction’ from the Hyde Park shows of 2013, in stunning 3D images. This was a well-planned crescendo to end the exhibition, one that sent us out buzzing, at least as far as the gift shop anyway, where the absurdity of a Turnbull & Asser lips-logo lounge suit costing a mere £1450 left a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.
Overall on reflection, there are so many rare and fascinating exhibits, that even the most jaded fan will find some satisfaction. There is enough depth of textual information for the academically-minded but there is also enough loud music, snappy visuals and garish colour to entertain the young, the uninitiated or merely curious gallery visitor. My friend said his mind was reeling all evening from what he’d seen and I cannot disagree. I will go again and take my family next time.
‘Exhibitionism’ continues at London’s Saatchi Gallery until September 4th.
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