Monday, September 4, 2017

Reviewing Pink Floyd at the V&A: Their Mortal Remains

We don't need no Edu-cashun
The enduring nature of classic rock music and its connection with popular culture is reassuring for an aging hippy like me. While my kids may mock a lot of the Dad Rock I still listen to, they do actually listen to it of their own accord and with open ears. That's what brings us to London's Victoria & Albert Museum to see the exhibition Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. It was my daughter's idea, so I'm curious to know what she will make of it, especially the early stuff. 

As we enter the exhibition, headphones up high, we are transported into the world of the 1960s, passing into a psychedelic subterranean scene, with exhibits from the band's earliest days, including examples of Syd Barrett's art and writing. Even for a seasoned Floyd fan such as I, there are some fascinating exhibits and each phase of the band's career (especially the classic period) is brought to life with dramatic set-pieces, interviews and live footage.
Syd Barrett's guitars from 1967
Nick Mason's drumkit from 1974

Throughout, we get to see the actual instruments used during their career, including Syd's mirrored Telecaster, Rick Wright's various primitive electric pianos and Nick Mason's tsunami double bass drum kit. Naturally, Dave Gilmour's guitar playing features prominently throughout the exhibition, including the finale.

If you weren't familiar with the arc of their career, you might miss the significance of the developments that led to The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here. The demise of Syd due to his over-indulgence in LSD and the band's fragmented journey to their second wind in the 1970s are rather glossed over, which is a shame because these are important aspects of the story. But there are illuminating interviews with Waters and Gilmour scattered around to keep the narrative going.

The role of Hipgnosis is highlighted through their cover art, with an infinity mirror used to particularly good effect to accentuate the impact of the Ummagumma cover image from 1969.

Since Dark Side is such a pivotal album, and an image that resonates even for my daughter's generation, the making of the record is at the centre of the exhibition. Again, the technology they used is on show and the band members describe how the recording developed. There are also candid photos from the sessions. We then pass into a room with a 3-D depiction of the pyramid prism image, while The Great Gig In The Sky plays through the 'phones.

The increasingly dark nature of the Floyd's album concepts and lyrics around the time of Animals and The Wall is explained in the context of the social and cultural changes that occurred in the 1970s, particularly in the UK with punk rock and the economic blight that ushered in Thatcherism. The set pieces include giant stage-size versions of the Gerald Scarfe characters from the Wall, a recreation of Battersea Power Station and the flying pig, plus various other props from the Animals tour.
A contact sheet from the Animals cover shoot at Battersea Power Station
For me, post The Wall, there is little of the Floyd's music that grabs me in the same way their classic 1960s and 70s albums and shows did. I was lucky enough to see them playing Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and Animals live in the 70s, topped off typically by an encore of Echoes from Meddle. Nonetheless, the Gilmour-led Floyd era is handled well and there is a touching section just before the end dedicated to the Rick Wright tribute album, The Endless River, which is my daughter's favourite.

The final room is an immersive 3-D effect experience with screens on all four walls showing the reformed original band's last performance together at Live-8. You are welcome to sit, lie down or just stand and watch as the band plays Comfortably Numb. It's a fitting way to end an absorbing show. (if you find this clip is unavailable for copyright reasons, there are other similar ones to be found on youtube).

It's difficult for me to assess what a young person or someone unfamiliar with the Floyd would make of it. I would like to have seen them go into more detail on the early phases and explore the music in more depth. But I'm pleased to say my daughter wasn't overawed by it. Even though I'm sure a lot of the earlier experimental stuff was not to her taste, she picked up a lot of cultural references from the exhibition. She seemed genuinely interested in the Floyd's story and eager to understand their place in the history of classic rock music.

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains at the V&A in London, is open until 15 October.

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