LONDON—After blockbuster rock ‘n’ roll exhibitions celebrating David Bowie and the Rolling Stones took London by storm in recent years, the spotlight now switches to Pink Floyd, a band who have never been quite comfortable in the glare of the lights.
The Bowie show focused on the iconography of a mysterious superstar while the Rolling Stones’ bombastic retrospective revolved around the swaggering personalities of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards—so, who would be the star of this show?
The first recognizable face as you walk into The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains, which opens at the Victoria and Albert museum this weekend, is that of Jagger. His face is featured on one of the contemporary, underground magazine covers displayed on the wall of a small room designed to transport you into the psychedelic sixties.
For the most part, Pink Floyd were never the fashion shoot sort kind of band. Of course, there was one true rock and roll star in their midst and Syd Barrett’s absorbing, melancholy allure dominates the early sections of the exhibition.
In video interviews and inscriptions, members of the band recall the genius of the man who wrote their first songs, including the early semi-hit single “Arnold Layne.” “Apart from looking good and playing guitar, he wrote songs and that was the unique and special thing,” says drummer Nick Mason. “You can’t overestimate his influence.”
Once a recording contract and cult stardom had been secured, Barrett was forced to quit the band as he struggled with mental illness and the effects of LSD. The band’s greatest music was still to come but they would never replace Barrett’s enigmatic presence.
With no obvious cover star, Pink Floyd’s majestic sound would become intertwined with their grand stage designs, props and arresting album art.
Those iconic album covers were the work of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was these visual artists who were behind the idea for a Pink Floyd exhibition. Thorgerson died in 2013, leaving “Po” to curate the show at the V&A.
The exhibition opened to the media this week and members of the public are allowed in at the weekend, but the surviving members of the band have yet to visit, Powell told the Daily Beast.
“they’ve not seen it at all, which is good because they don’t want to be seen to be blowing their own trumpet they want to step back from it,” he said.
The difference between the Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones exhibitions could not be more stark: it was clear the Stones’ exhibit was very much their own show.
“Pink Floyd are not like that, never have been. If you remember Dark Side of the Moon when they released that they sent cardboard cutouts of themselves to the planetarium—it was the same thing,” Powell said.
The artist did, however, admit that he had been running all of his ideas by the band and there is a sense as you walk through the rooms that this is clearly a sanitized, authorized account of the band’s history. Powell was not a member of the band but he has worked closely with them for 50 years.
That tension is where some feel, this exhibition is an awkward fit for the V&A, which is renowned for its independent experts and rigorously curated shows.
Powell said there had been disagreements between himself and the museum’s staff as the show was being created.
“It was quite up and down because I’m a bullish person and I’m like, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this and that.’ And they say, ‘Well you can’t do that because there’s fire doors there and there’s an archway here, and by the way: we have to have our say in this.’ And I’m like: ‘Whaaaat? This is all me.’ And they said, ‘No it isn’t all you.’”
After a maze of rooms and small artefacts in the first half of the exhibition, the scale of the show increases exponentially with the 20ft-high metal heads from the cover of Division Bell and a giant double-height recreation of the wall from The Wall, complete with a 40ft disapproving teacher (“Leave us kids alone!”).
Powell said, “When I said I wanted to use the whole of that wall and go right up to the ceiling they were like, ‘But we’ve never done that before,’—and I said, ‘Well, now’s the time.’”
In London’s art world circles the debate will rage on over whether it’s right for venerable institutions to be putting on shows like this.
“There’s a lot of conversations within the museum itself, if they are becoming a pop culture sort of museum or are they sticking with Etruscan vases—and I think there’s a place for both,” said Powell. “Museums have to move on; they’ve got to make money there’s no point in walking into a museum that’s all musty and covered with cobwebs and nobody’s in there.”
The V&A said that the opening days of the exhibition sold out instantly, and the London Evening Standard is already comparing this show with the smash hit Bowie exhibition, which attracted over 300,000 visitors.
It remains to be seen whether this show—which is full of letters, instruments and memorabilia as well as the giant stage props—will generate the same red-hot word of mouth buzz that had people lining up round the block to get into the Bowie show.
As you watch the band interviews on screens, which are dotted throughout the rooms and activated in your headphones by motion sensors, it’s obvious that they are nowhere near as compelling as their soul-stirring music.
The last room of the show features a stunning 3D immersive soundscape—with video on four walls—that places you right at the heart of the huge crowd at charity gig Pink Floyd played in 2005. Because this recording wasn’t from one of their epic tours, there is no set, no dramatic inflatables or vast replicas like those we’ve just seen celebrated in the preceding rooms.
It’s just one of the world’s greatest bands and Dave Gilmour singing “Comfortably Numb”—a slightly overweight bloke in a black t-shirt and jeans who just so happens to have the voice of a bona fide rock god.
It’s an experience that puts the rest of the show totally in the shade.
The exhibition is undoubtedly good fun—and it’s a must for Pink Floyd fans—but you can’t help feeling it might be more rewarding to lie down, turn your speakers way up, close your eyes and spend 42 minutes 49 seconds being overwhelmed by Dark Side of the Moon one more time.