Pink Floyd exhibition at the V&A review ***

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Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains

V and A, 4th August 2017

Now I have always been slightly suspicious of Pink Floyd. I was only a nipper for the first few “psychedelic” albums pre and post Sid and whilst the classic trio of Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals, could and should have featured in the musical palette of me and my friends in the mid to late 1970’s, they just didn’t really. That is not to say we didn’t have diverse musical tastes with, I seem to remember, champions of Genesis, Yes, Hawkwind, Kiss, ELP, Rory Gallagher, Todd Rundgren, and even, through my mate Sparky who always exhibited the most developed musical taste, Krautrock. but the thing that held us together was heavy rock, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple (and the various offshoots) and, best of all, Led Zeppelin. No namby pamby pop or disco for us, or any of that suspicious androgynous stuff like Bowie, and certainly nothing bang-on cool like the Velvets.

As for me, well I was even more devoid of taste. Lank, long greasy hair, velvet loons, cheesecloth shirts and a penchant for the likes of Rush, the Eagles, Barclay James Harvest and Wishbone Ash, with the only saving grace a bit of reggae and soul. Now, of course, in the late 1970’s our salvation came along in the form of Punk and Peel and I was able to selectively erase this woeful past and successfully complete a course of cultural re-education. So, whilst I can’t pretend that some of the 1970s excesses haven’t found their way back into the CD collection, (yes kids, I know, CDs – what are you thinking granddad), I have also filled all the canonic gaps from first time around. Which includes those three classic Floyd albums.

Yet I still don’t really listen to them, nor do I particularly like them. Which is strange as I have a moderate passion for the likes of Porcupine Tree whose architect Steven Wilson has drawn on Floyd in the past, a developing interest in psychedelia from the late 60s and I get fairly excited when I play Genesis (obviously avec Gabriel not the novelty outfit they became after he left) who I couldn’t bear first time around. But Floyd, no, not really.

One more anecdote before some comments on this exhibition. It is August 1980. I seem to remember it was pretty warm. Me and some of the aforementioned mates have come up to London from our lairs in Yokeland. I think by now I am sporting a passable haircut and have ditched the flares but I might still be guilty of re-writing history to hide my shame. Anyway, we have been to a giant record shop (only vinyl kids though obviously you know all about that now). I have purchased two albums, Joy Division’s Closer and Echo and the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles. These will literally change my life. I cling to the bag all through the afternoon and into the evening. As we go to ….. would you believe it, Earl’s Court to see Pink Floyd as part of the Wall Tour. I probably enjoyed it, though the footage from this very exhibition of the start of these very gigs suggest it was all a bit daft what with the inflatables and the like. But I know that the future is in the carrier bag and not the old hippies droning on on the stage.

Please Tourist, enough of the cut price Salinger and tell us about the exhibition. Well it follows the well-tested V&A formula used in the marvellous David Bowie Is from 2013 and the You Say You Want A Revolution which ended earlier this year. Slip on the headphones, hear the music, listen to the interviews and then soak up a wealth of material, posters, album covers, artworks and the like. And in this case an awful lot of instruments and technology and, as the pomposity ramped up, a lot of stuff explaining how the certifiably over the top live performances were created.

Things are, unsurprisingly arranged in rigid chronology and tied to the official albums, studio and live. Now I have to say the first seven albums, the poppy, psychedelic stuff, was of most interest, firstly because I don’t really know it, and secondly because the mythology of Syd Barrett is just so powerful. The period of the three classic albums along with The Wall is given all due ceremony though it does all feel a bit grandiose. The last few albums are as dire as I thought they were so I upped the pace here. It is a mystery to me why progressive rock groups, who were at the forefront of electronic music technology in the 1970s, with Pink Floyd right in the vanguard, then went on to balls it up in so spectacular a fashion when this very technology became more mainstream in the 1980s. Think Genesis, Yes, even Rush as well as Floyd. Especially surprising in their case as, unlike many of their peers, they disdained shifting units (though they certainly possessed that knack. TDSOTM still sells several thousand copies a week even now).

Now to be fair my chum TMBOAD who came with me put in a lot more effort, as is his wont given his intellectual curiosity, but he formed broadly the same opinion with the first part holding his attention more than the rest. There is no doubt that this exhibition gives a comprehensive view of what, when and how PF produced their music though there is a little less insight into the why. And they do come across as anally retentive and sententious as received wisdom demands. If there is one thing I love about all these ancient old bands, it is their ability to hold a grudge. It’s just work lads. You will fall out. Lighten up eh.

Right I can see that sarcasm has got the better of me. Despite my snarkiness there is no doubt you should get along to this if you have any interest in the band or indeed the history of popular music. There is much excellent material to digest and the curation is off the scale superb. It is bloody crowded though, as the other similar exhibitions have been, which can be frustrating. We tried the early evening Friday slot but that didn’t seem to help. I personally think the aforementioned Bowie exhibition (GRHS) was better because he was a way more interesting bloke, as too was the Say You Want A Revolution just because they was way more social and political context to chew than here. Music and performance alone, which is what was being documented here, can only go so far in terms of enlightenment.

One day I am sure the V&A will get round to something major on Punk and its descendants (I don’t think this has happened yet). Then I suspect I really will wet myself with excitement. I note there were a couple of twats jigging around to the music here and generally getting in the way. It would get a bit tasty if we had some “silent disco” pogoists at any future punk retrospective !!

My Top 10 progressive rock albums

Just for a bit of fun and in the spirit of the exhibition I thought I would list my favourites from the genre. Not sure there is anything here (with one exception) that should surprise. This is ranked but only one entry per band/artist. See what you think. If anything.

1. Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

There was a time when when I wouldn’t have been caught dead saying this, but it turns out that Genesis are my favourite progressive rock band. Well at least the Genesis that genuinely were a prog band. Which means Messrs Gabriel and Hackett still alongside Collins, Banks and Rutherford. And The Lamb is Gabriel at his bonkers best with its “conceptual” story of Raul in NYC, plainly made up as Gabriel went along. No matter. Everything about this is terrific, with some tight arrangements, banging tunes, and the minimum of meandering, the classic tic of prog rockers everyone.

2. Rush – A Farewell to Kings

I was terribly keen on Rush when I was a nipper. No one else I knew was. Never fashionable but never properly unfashionable, and one of those outfits labelled “the world’s biggest cult band” of which there are now thousands. They have matured into grand old rockers and ambassadors for Canada and I own, but don’t really care for, quite a lot of the 1980s and 1990s stuff when the synths got too involved. For me though the quartet of 2112, A Farewell To Kings, Hemispheres and Permanent Waves, represent the sine qua non of the boy’s oeuvre with Farewell the best. Obviously Geddy Lee’s squeaky voice takes a bit of getting used to and Neil Peart’s lyrics are very, very dodgy, (all those Ayn Rand references), but his drumming and Alex Lifeson’s guitar playing are about as good as it gets. I know all this muso stuff about just how technically proficient they are is another prog rock tic but it still amazes me just how much sound three badly dressed, dodgy haircutted Canadians can rustle up.

3. Supertramp – Crime of the Century

It would seem I am determined to embarrass myself further for Supertramp, like Rush, were a big favourite before Punk came along and set me on the path to righteousness. It took many years before I allowed them back into my ears and heart but I am glad I did for, at their best, when Rick Davies and Rodger Hodgson weren’t at each others throats (another prog rock tic – the personality clash – true of other pop/rock genres but prog turns it up to 11), they were wonderful. Probably not definitively prog. In fact dangerously close to pop. No matter, just great songs. Once again the mid/late 1970s quartet of this album, Crisis What Crisis, Even in the Quietest Moments, and, just about, Breakfast in America, mark the high point. After that they really did balls it up.

4. Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet

Most middle aged blokes with poor dress sense and questionable grooming habits will be all over Porcupine Tree and the brains behind it all, Steven Wilson. Self taught, genius, carrying the British flag for prog for more than three decades with PT and other projects and now his solo work, he is hugely important but largely unknown outside his field. And all kicked off by his listening to Dark Side of the Moon in his bedroom. If you happen to read this because you went to the Floyd exhibition, and are not up to speed on PT, please seek out Fear of a Blank Planet. I guarantee you will love it.

5. Soft Machine – Third

Now I don’t really know what all those bearded, Shoreditch hipster types listen to. But if they really want to impress their mates they should learn to fall in love with Soft Machine. At first all the alarming shifts in texture and doodling around, with the permanent threat or actuality of some jazz jamming, takes a bit of getting used to. You might even be tempted to laugh. It is well hippy. But it will get under your skin and I warn you that repeated listening will eventually lead to a permanent love-in. And it will make you feel so cool. Third is normally taken to be the best of the bunch but there is something in most everything they recorded. Now there have been multiple line-up changes and the latest line is soldiering on but the reality is that Soft Machine proper needs the mighty Robert Wyatt in the band to be the real deal.

6. Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom

Robert Wyatt is just about the only rock/pop performer I will see live these days. Most music is just too loud so its classical for me now all the way. I don’t believe in God but Robert Wyatt is the closest thing to what I imagine people who do believe think God is. He lies right at the beating heart of prog. Though frankly his music is entirely his own. Just try it. It may take a few listens but once you get it you will never look back.

7. King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King

The granddaddys of prog. No list would be complete without this. Still going, still experimenting. Robert Fripp is probably the cleverest man in the history of popular music since the 1950s.

8. Can – Future Days

I saw this in a list of progressive rock best of albums. Obviously it isn’t prog. But I am taking some dodgy punter’s opinion on the web as qualification, so here it is. Without Can and Kraftwerk most modern popular music would be even worse than it is. Simples.

9. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

See above. I am still not entirely persuaded but it would be extremely churlish not to include this. And generally I am not churlish. Rude, misanthropic, curmudgeonly, opinionated, yes. But churlish, no.

10. Yes – Close to the Edge

So the final piece of the jigsaw. Once again this appears more because of Yes’s reputation than any real passion on my part. Don’t get me wrong, there are passages of Yes that are wonderful (from the first few albums up to Relayer – after that you take your chances), but equally there is some grim stuff with all those overworked time signature changes. Still it would be churlish once again not to see them on this list and this is my fave of their albums.