The whole of the Sloane Square Saatchi Gallery has been given over to this major exhibition of one of the UK’s most enduring bands, The Rolling Stones. Even the area outside the gallery on the King’s Road is home to a group of ceramic tongue logos for the six month duration of this hot ticket.
Stones’ fans will know the basics about how the band was formed (although here the focus is on Mick and Keith’s childhood friendship, rather than Brian Jones and his advert for band members), and how they grew from Edith Grove flatmates to billionaire corporate businessmen over a period of fifty years.
Even casual observers will know the iconic logo, the album covers, and the songs which, for their first twenty years at least, were part of the regular musical tapestry we all grew up with. It’s no surprise that the final showpiece in this exhibition is a performance of ‘Satisfaction’ from Hyde Park in 2013, rendered into ‘Real 3-D’. We pass from a mock-up of the backstage area through to a darkened room where, with the help of strobe lights, we feel kind of part of the show itself, with a strutting Jagger, a wrinkled Keef, and a crowd bordering on hysteria.
By this time we’ve watched a video wall retrospective of concerts, news items, interviews, press footage, and more; seen guitars and stage costumes up close; experienced recreations of that first filthy flat with its death-trap cooker, mouldy wallpaper, and half-eaten tinned goods; played producer with a mix-desk mock-up; seen a set of artworks which became iconic album covers, and models of sets such as the Lotus Flower and the Bridges of Babylon (a laconic quote on the wall states this cost a cool £1million); and squinted at documents such as Keith Richards’ surprisingly articulate diary, that first contract signed by Brian Jones as group founder, and handwritten lyrics by Jagger.
The sense one gets is of a slick, corporate machine with no personal insight whatever. This is a money-making enterprise which long ago moved away from ‘six boys playing the blues’. The exhibition has more of Mick and Keef than anyone else, although Brian is there if you look for him (there are clothes of his, and he is in photos, and notably looking spaced out and bored in the clips from Godard’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’). Bill and Charlie are there, but they were the quiet ones, and it shows, although interestingly early fan club guff on the band claims Wyman was born in 1941, when it fact it was 1936.
Collaborators get their own small gallery, too, although the story around Ian Stewart’s demotion from full band member to road manager and session pianist is not fully explored (he was inducted with the rest of them to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Was he really deemed too square, or too old (he was younger than Bill)? I would have liked to have seen more about how Brian Jones’ vision of the band gave way to Mick Jagger’s, and the story around how the rebellious young men got to the point that the souvenir book which accompanies ‘Exhibitionism’ has an insert which is a letter from the corporate sponsor, DHL.
There’s also little on the women who were alongside the Stones. Marianne Faithfull and Mick’s wedding to Bianca is on the video wall, and Anita Pallenberg is namechecked in the costume section alongside two of L’Wren Scott’s creations, but the women you might go away remembering the most are the groupie who cavorts naked in the clips shown from the film ‘Cocksucker Blues’, and the lady whose full frontal inspired an album sleeve.
Video and film get relatively short shrift: promos get a confused compilation and the concert films and documentaries get a hagiography from uber-fan Martin Scorsese, who caught them himself in his own ‘Shine A Light’ (2008). The Stones are two things, when it comes down to it, a slicky protected image (no photos allowed throughout the exhibition) and a vibrant live presence, although this has both faded and tipped into caricature over the years.