You might not learn much new from this show, says Mark Hudson, but it does provide the most magnificent multi-sensory barrage of Stones 'stuff' you’re ever likely to encounter.
Rolling Stones band members Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts arrive for the gala opening of their exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery on the Kings Road.
The Rolling Stones have made a career out of pushing things to the brink. Those out to do them down have had no shortage of grist to their mill over the past 55 years: the narcissism, self-indulgence, greed and occasional plain cruelty; the atrocity of Altamont and the death of Brian Jones. It goes on.
But then, there’s the world-changing cut and thrust of the music: the timeless, exhilarating lift of Charlie Watts’s drums booting in behind Keith Richards’s jagged guitar on some of the greatest ever rock moments, matched, of course, with Mick Jagger’s physical and vocal posturing – ineffable at some moments, ridiculous at others.
In their behaviour, music, clothes and style, the Stones have scaled the heights and plumbed the depths like no other band. And for us onlookers, that has always been part of the pleasure.
Until recently, the best way of getting to grips with all this sort of rock’n’roll stuff would have been through an epic TV series (such as the Beatles Anthology), the odd scabrous book and endless articles in Mojo. But since the V&A’s spectacular Bowie exhibition in 2013 – which had more impact than anything (except perhaps his death) in launching the singer to a higher level of acclaim – we now have a potent new way of examining our collective musical navel: the rock’n’roll exhibition.
Far from following on from Bowie, this, the largest exhibition of Stones memorabilia ever mounted, has already been touring the world for four years, and the first room creates the suspicion that we’re in for an exercise in corporate self-satisfaction from what is, alongside its manifest cultural significance, a massively lucrative business. Maps of the world light up to indicate numbers of units sold year by year, countries visited and attendance at concerts in the millions.
Such concerns are immediately dispelled, however, by the second room, a breathtaking three minute audio-visual journey through the Stones’s career on 40 screens. A montage of constantly shifting and morphing images takes us from the early years, through the legendary drug-busts and Altamont (no avoiding the bad stuff) to the present day with the ever larger crowds seeming to roll out of the screens towards us. If it is essentially no less self-congratulatory than the first room, the sheer visual impact blows such thoughts from your mind.
Then we’re in the place where, according to legend, it all started: the flat in Edith Grove, Chelsea (not far from the Saatchi Gallery), shared by Mick, Keith and Brian Jones in the early Sixties, recreated in all its revolting splendour: beds unmade, cigarettes stubbed out in half-eaten plates of food, a filthy death-trap gas cooker and horribly convincing mould on the walls. The press of the time called the band “animals”, and looking at this grisly tableau you’re inclined to agree: never mind Altamont, these people can’t even wash up.
There’s another superbly atmospheric reconstruction, of Olympic Studios in Barnes, south-west London, during the recording of Sympathy for the Devil, but elsewhere the exhibition takes a more predictable, if never less than stylish, course, with displays of photographs, posters, concert programmes and other curiosities, such as Keith’s surprisingly literate and thorough diaries. Of a gig at Soho’s Marquee club in January 1963, he notes: “Brian and I somewhat put off by the lack of volume due to work to rule at power station” – which elegantly captures the feel of the time.
A selection of film clips introduced by film director Martin Scorsese immerses us in the rampant amorality and excess of the band’s late Sixties-early Seventies peak. Interesting though his comments are, you’re left wanting to hear less of him and see more of movies such as Robert Frank’s electrifying C**ksucker Blues (so raunchy the Stones themselves had it suppressed) and the Maysles Brothers’ still disturbing Gimme Shelter, in which a fan is murdered on camera by Hell’s Angels.
A mash-up of video clips chronicles the group’s rise or descent – depending on your viewpoint – from gritty teenage blues mavericks to leering, jet-setting self-parodists. In each film, Jagger’s lascivious lips seem to have got bigger and more self-parodic. Generally, in fact, this feels like Mick’s exhibition. There’s plenty of Keith and Ronnie Wood if you take the trouble to read the wall texts and listen to the interview nuggets booming from speakers, and a fair bit of Charlie (though virtually nothing of Brian Jones or Bill Wyman). But it’s Jagger’s spirit that dominates, with its still inscrutable mixture of corporate opportunism and unnerving animal energy. It was Jagger who turned the edgiest band in the history of rock into a world-beating business operation. But without him there would have been no exhibition – nor indeed any Rolling Stones, for the past three decades at least.
Where the great achievement of the Bowie exhibition was to take us inside the head of rock’s greatest enigma, this show takes us no closer to understanding what makes the Stones tick – or indeed to wondering if we should care what makes the Stones tick.
Yet while Exhibitionism won’t tell even the slightly committed Stones fan much they don’t already know, it does provide the most magnificent multi-sensory barrage of Stones “stuff” you’re ever likely to encounter. The fact that it’s designed and lit by the people who do their live shows brings a genuine whiff of the band’s world.
There’s a whole room on the development of the lips and tongue logo, with an enormous sculptural mock-up throbbing with projected colours and textures. There’s acres on the great artists, designers and photographers they’ve worked with, from Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton to David Bailey and Gered Mankiewitz, whose stark, mod-era photography played such a role in establishing the band’s early image. The potentially dull section on the clothes – which, without the band’s animating presence are just a load of, well, clothes – is a hoot, from the pink satin suit worn by Jagger on the legendary Top of the Pops recording of Brown Sugar to an extraordinary marabou feather cloak designed by his late girlfriend L’Wren Scott.
If the exhibition seems to stretch itself slightly thin in places, that’s largely due to the Saatchi Gallery’s layout, which takes us out of the show’s immersive environment to get to different parts of the building, requiring linking sections, such as a roomful of Warhol prints, that don’t feel strictly necessary.
Finally we find ourselves backstage in another brilliantly realised environment, surrounded by gear cases and racks of guitars, before we put on 3D glasses and head into a punishingly loud simulation of a recent gig. On one level, it’s a grotesque pantomime approximation of the immaculately cool Sixties performances seen on videos throughout the exhibition, and confirms our suspicion that the only real reason for the Stones to keep on going is simply to keep on going. But by this stage in the proceedings you’ll feel sufficiently won over to want to cut these geriatric, multi-millionaire bad boys a bit of slack.
Whatever misgivings you may have about the Rolling Stones, this show will make you realise how much you’ve had them in your life, through the magically funky riffs churning from the speakers as much as anything you actually see. As Scorsese says, when he watched the Stones’ films he realised their music was “part of me”. It’s a sentiment many will echo while walking round this hugely entertaining exhibition.
Exhibitionism is at the Saatchi Gallery, London until September 4. Book now to avoid disappointment. Visit Telegraph Tickets or call 0844 871 2118.
Telegraph Tickets also offer a guided tour with a Rolling Stones history guide, before lunch and then access to Exhibitionism. Visit tickets.telegraph.co.uk for more details.