(The Saatchi Gallery, London, 5 April-4 September 2016)
There’s plenty of satisfaction to be got at the Saatchi Gallery’s latest show on the Rolling Stones.* When my parents came to stay for a long weekend, I decided it was the ideal way for us to spend a morning and all three of us were blown away. The tickets aren’t cheap at £22 a head – Exhibitionism is an international touring show and very much a commercial venture – but it’s worth it if you have even the slightest interest in the Stones. Filling almost the whole Gallery, the show displays costumes, set designs, album covers, ephemera and the band’s own instruments, alongside video footage from the 1960s to the present day. This is less of an exhibition than an experience, not just for long-time fans but also for those (like me) who are only just beginning to discover their music.
The exhibition kicks off in a room with a large curved wall of screens, which sweep us through the Stones’s history from the neatly-coiffed boy rockers of the 1960s to the sinewy stadium-pullers of the present. The music pounds out from the speakers, heavy on the bass, and becomes a physical thing: the ground beneath your feet shudders and the beat travels up your spine. And that sets the scene for the whole show. No matter how big, flamboyant or controversial the Stones get, the music is always at the heart of it.
The seeds of the Rolling Stones were sown in 1960, when two old schoolfriends bumped into each other at Dartford railway station. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards fell into conversation and discovered, thanks to the records Jagger was carrying, that they had a shared passion for blues music. After a short stint playing as The Blue Boys, with Jagger’s existing bandmate Dick Taylor, they met Brian Jones and Ian Stewart and, on 12 July 1962, the quintet played their first gig as the Rollin’ Stones (a name taken from the title of a track by Muddy Waters). The exhibition starts off with this early period, featuring playbills and diaries along with photos of an unbelievably neat gaggle of young men with pudding-bowl haircuts and matching houndstooth jackets. That neatness didn’t last for long. While many of the bands at the time were considered to be nice, clean-living boys – if a bit rascally – the Stones swiftly got a reputation for dark, sexy, dangerous rock’n’roll. But in the very early days it was still possible to confuse them with the more boppy pop-moppets. My uncle became a lifelong fan of the Stones after he received their first album as a present from my grandparents, who’d been unable to find the Searchers’ most recent album and had bought the Stones as a substitute.
The first thing you see in Exhibitionism, after the video screens, is the reconstruction of two rooms from the flat in Edith Grove where Jagger, Richards and Jones lived in 1962. Imagine what the flat in Withnail & I would look like if trashed, and you’ve got a fair idea of what it was like. It’s a brilliant way to ground you in the modest world of a fledgling rock band, before you head on into the next room and evidence of their growing success: the first photo shoots, programmes from their shows, and a beautiful drum kit belonging to Charlie Watts, which gleams with a blue opalescent sheen.
From there you pass into an area devoted to recordings. An entire recording studio has been mocked up, full of the band’s instruments, and the information panels fast-forward to the early 1970s, when the band were already so successful that they moved to the more tax-efficient haven of the South of France. Next door, a dark room is lined with cases displaying electric guitars, mostly Richards’s and Jagger’s if I remember correctly, every one with its own shape and personality and sound. Panel texts and recorded interviews pick up on the memories associated with each instrument, and my favourite was Richards’s recollection of how he came to compose (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. He said that he’d been dozing off in bed, toying with his guitar. He always had a recorder set up beside the bed, so that he didn’t lose any good ideas, and when he woke up the next morning he found that he’d woken up for twenty minutes in the middle of the night, dashed out the song’s distinctive riff, and gone straight back to sleep again. Brilliant.
From here, band begins its transformation into myth and, as you go upstairs, you find yourself drawn onward by the slow, irresistible beat of bass. The first port of call is a video room devoted to the films made about the Stones, from Cocksucker Blues to Shine a Light, introduced by Martin Scorsese, who directed the latter. Afterwards there are glimpses of the band’s music videos, before you emerge into a dark room devoted to design. Posters for the Stones’s fatiguing tour schedule hang alongside designs for the iconic album covers: the Sticky Fingers cover with the real zip, and Let It Bleed with its cake baked by the young Delia Smith. Some of the designs are picturesque, some bizarre and some playfully bordering on obscenity, but all fizz with verve and imagination. And I think that must be one of the secrets of the Stones’ success: they haven’t just got it sorted musically, but they’ve also managed to hone their visual brand so that it always feels creative and always fresh. Of course there’s a whole section devoted to the famous lips motif, which apparently was not based on Mick Jagger’s lips as the popular rock legend would have it.
But the visual brand isn’t just about album covers and posters. Next you get a glimpse of stage designs for the tour concerts: epic, dazzlingly ambitious constructions which tower over the singers and draw on every possible effect for maximum impact. The one that sticks in my mind is the set for the 1997-8 Bridges to Babylon tour, where in mid-performance a cantilever bridge extended out from the main stage to another smaller stage in the middle of the audience, arcing over the heads of the concert-goers below. Even in the form of a small scale model, it boggles the mind. Beyond, just to hammer home the drama, you find the costume section. From demure 1960s to crazy modern day, via the questionable glitz of the 1980s, you see a veritable sea of original outfits worn on stage by the band – mostly by Jagger. The man clearly stops at nothing to create an effect, although this section should probably come with a health warning: some of the trousers may make male visitors’ eyes water.
And at the far end are a selection of the outfits worn by Jagger for his most theatrical and imposing persona: that assumed for Sympathy for the Devil. Velvet jackets, capes and a cloak of red feathers are the most memorable components. These costumes are bizarre and flamboyant, but they also show a delightful disregard for what anyone else thinks about a septuagenarian swaggering around in skintight trousers: two fingers up to the establishment. The result is beguiling. I’ve never been to see the Stones in concert and, considering the prices they command, I doubt I ever will, but I can well imagine it would be one of a lifetime’s highlights.
However, Exhibitionism does give you the chance to do more than imagine. As you come to the end of the show, you wander into a backstage area, cluttered with crates and boxes and all of the ephemera of a tour. An exhibition warden hands out 3D glasses. You have to wait, in steadily mounting anticipation, by a pair of big closed doors with a ‘stage’ sign overhead and then, suddenly, they swing open and you’re ushered into a big black room. When the doors close again and the lights go down, a vast screen leaps into life – it’s like being at close range in the cinema – and you’re plunged, thrillingly, onto the stage at the Stones’s Hyde Park gig in 2013. The crowd stretches away in front of you, you see each of the band members playing as if their lives depended on it, and Jagger struts out towards you in 3D, while the inimitable strains of Satisfaction shake the walls and get even the most hardened of feet tapping along. It’s a weirdly exhilarating end and, by the time I tumbled out into daylight again, I decided that I had to buy every single album the Stones had ever released.**
Ultimately, this exhibition is expensive but a must-see if you have any fondness for classic rock. You have until September: there’s no excuse. Well designed, with a vast number of exhibits – most from the band’s own archive or the collections of its members – it gives a real insight into the hard work, chameleonic ability and sheer, bloody-minded, hard-rocking endurance that have come to characterise the Stones over the course of five decades. Five decades! The only disappointment I faced was that the gift shop wasn’t better stocked. There are only a few postcards and there didn’t seem to be much in the affordability range between said postcards and vast, eye-wateringly expensive signed posters. I wasn’t completely won over by the catalogue either, which looked a bit too glossy and not quite informative enough for what I wanted. But I’m not going to hold the gift shop against the awesomeness of the exhibition as a whole. As I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t know much about the Stones at the moment, beyond what my parents and my uncle have given me, but I now have an urge to go out and listen to more of the music and to get to know them in all their moods.
* Yes, I know that every other review of this exhibition has used the same pun, but it’s too good to resist.
** After some further research, I may hold fire on Their Satanic Majesties’ Request which, no matter what my mum says, is just 1970s weirdness at its height. Sorry Mum.