Several months ago The Rolling Stones Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts were walking around Pentagram’s London office looking at plans of how a new exhibition charting the band’s 50-year career might look.
Pentagram partners Will Russell and Abbott Miller have led a project to design The Rolling Stones: Exhibitionism, which opens at London’s Saatchi Gallery this week and sets out to be the most comprehensive and immersive Stones exhibition to date.
Miller says: “The first time they came into the studio it was Mick, Charlie and Ronnie and they stayed for four hours. The second time it was all of them.
“They were completely involved. Mick’s an incredible critic, with a critical mind. At first he wasn’t completely in love with it – he said, ‘If this was for me, perfect’ but he felt a sense of obligation to the fans and wanted more tactile elements included.”
Jagger’s suggestion was taken on board and played a part in the recreation of the band’s squalid Edith Grove, Chelsea flat within the space.
Incidentally it turns out that this wasn’t drummer Charlie Watts’s first introduction to Pentagram. His first job was as a graphic designer working with Pentagram founding partner Bob Gill in the 1960s.
The show has been curated by Ileen Gallagher and produced by Tony Cochrane and Thea James-Cochrane of iEC.
Working alongside Gallagher, Russell says: “We approached the space as if it were a set list for a concert, viewing it as a performance rather than an exhibition.”
Miller adds: “Each gallery starts a new chapter – you won’t see all the instruments in one place for instance, they pop up all over the place depending on the theme.”
If there is one clear story that the designers have looked to tell across the exhibition it is – an arguably subjective one that – “The band never pursued a zeitgeist but remained relevant across generations by showing the power to reinvent and revitalise,” according to Miller.
However he also says that the show helps us “appreciate the band’s extremely catholic tastes”; that is to say, their broad mindedness, their inclusiveness and willingness to collaborate, whether through music or art and design.
What can visitors expect?
The exhibition begins with a giant neon sign illuminating the words, “Ladies & gentlemen” – a nod to the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen – The Rolling Stones”, which rings out before all of their gigs.
Typographic and geographic projections on adjacent walls show the records the band have made and where they have played. “We say it without spelling it out,” says Russell.
This gives way to a large composite, multi-screen video wall snaking through the next space to give a sense of the history of the band.
It is designed to be a visceral immersion of footage, photographs and news clips. Russell says his team collaborated with filmmaker Sam Pattinson – who has worked with the band before – on the installation.
Visitors are released into the exhibition in waves and for the most part you’ll travel from one section to the next with your group.
As our group approaches the Edith Grove section we can see the folk tale of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards first meeting on the platform of Dartford train station visualised.
In front of us is The Stones’ very first press photo, life size, and above our heads is a list of blues records Mick and Keith were both carrying on that fateful day.
Then we enter the Edith Grove flat the band shared in the early 1960s. Ashtrays overflow and the general detritus of an all-male flatshare is all around us as we wander through a very lived-in kitchen along jaundiced and blackened walls complete with rising damp, and finally past several unmade beds.
Russell says they had to actually go easy on the fag butts and empty beer bottles at Mick’s discretion – “He told us, ‘We never had that much money’.
An audio of the band reminiscing about their time in the flat can be heard in the background. This gives way to a room dedicated to The Stones’ punishing, almost daily, touring schedule from 1963-66. Some of their early instruments are presented including the Vox amp used by Brian Jones when he first auditioned for the band.
Given that the Saatchi Gallery’s galleries are spaced out around a large central staircase you have to pop out into the light occasionally to shimmy into the next space or change floor but this helps emphasise the distinct feel of each section.
The gallery devoted to recording hosts a whole studio complete with analogue equipment and reassuringly loud audio. Recording sessions Olympic Studio, Nelcotte, and Pathe Marconi are all explored and the appeal of their sound explained.
Interactive points allow you to trawl through the back catalogue and play video interviews with the producers who worked with the band.
Best of all, in a room displaying Keith and Ronnie’s guitars you can don a pair of headphones and remix a track – or at least fade each instrument up and down and isolate individual channels such as vocals and lead guitar.
Film is a chance to see gigs, feature films and music videos, as part of a seven-minute documentary narrated by director Martin Scorsese, who also discusses how the band have influenced his own work.
A second film in the adjacent room is a more playful mashup of the band’s music videos cut with MTV and VH1-style graphics, revealing plenty of outrageous costumes and haircuts.
Towards the end of the show Art and Design has been given its own section. One of the clear messages here is that the band are actively involved in their own image making and not in a single-minded dictatorial way, but in a collaborative way.
The story of the John Pasche-designed mouth-and-tongue logo is explored. (Pasche was then an RCA student who won a competition to design the work). It’s shown in various forms, including a giant 3D version, which is projected onto with all sorts of wild skins. You can also see the latest version by Shepard Fairey alongside Pasche’s.
There are signs of collaboration with Andy Warhol, graphic designer John Van Hamersveld and many other big names of the day.
Russell says: “They always picked the designers,” as we walk over to some sketches by Mick and Charlie. “They developed this bird aeroplane hybrid poster for their tour of America in 1972 and they sketched it out before handing it to an illustrator to make it happen.”
The space is full of sketches, original prints, reproductions, and even correspondence between the band and artists and designers.
There are also models of some of the most memorable stadium show designs complete with hydraulic sections ready to spring into life – in some cases remade by model makers for the exhibition.
There’s a gallery devoted to style and we see how the early days of each band member wearing the same gear soon gave way to a prevailing sense of individualism.
Dozens of costumes are displayed and you can get up close. None of them are behind glass. Street style, King’s Road boutiques of the late 60s and later bespoke pieces made by the likes of Alexander McQueen, LeWren Scott and Prada can all be explored.
“They’re nearly all from the band’s private collection” Russell tells us. Apparently the band have hung onto most of the costumes from the 1970s onwards and store them in an archive.
It was leafing through this archive that inspired the “Rare” section. Apparently Jagger envisaged this as a “cabinet of curiosities” and this space is clad in light wood, featuring large wooden boxes, making it feel a bit like an attic.
We’re sent once more into the light before ducking into a backstage area complete with flight cases and racks of guitars, primed and ready to go.
It leaves us only to don a pair of 3D glasses for the encore of the exhibition, a 3D gig.
We’re left thinking of one thing in particular that underscores the band’s intimacy with their own image and willingness to collaborate. When we were wandering through the band’s flat Russell told us that Jagger personally recommended set designer Robin Brown to work with Pentagram on the Edith Grove mock up.
Russell said: “He’s done some amazing work for film and commercials and some incredible installations for Frieze of really realistic room set ups. Mick remembered that and remembered his name and said ‘You should work with this guy.’”