Last Sunday I went to see the new exhibition ‘You Say You Want a Revolution: Rebels and Records, 1966-1970’ which has recently opened at the V&A. For students of the 1960s, like me, this has been much anticipated, although with equal measures of hope and anxiety. As Alexis Petridis wrote in the Guardian a few weeks ago, the V&A’s treatment of the end of a ‘radical decade’ is not particularly revisionist. The curators Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes give us a rollicking ride through the more notorious happenings of the 1960s. In the words of Martin Roth, the Director of the V&A, the aim is to frame the counterculture in a way that “shows the incredible importance of that revolutionary period to our lives today”. But by maintaining the focus on the music and the ‘rebels’ of the decade, there is little real room for critical thought about the ways that music and rebellion were often uncomfortable bedfellows. After all, this was also the period when the modern music industry was born, and anti-establishment figures like Bob Dylan profited greatly from a new music capitalism and the cultural appropriation of African American musical genres. This is not to say that the exhibition is badly organized, or badly curated: it is not. Quite the opposite: it is a completely immersive experience of music and 60s nostalgia, and it is thoroughly enjoyable. But if you say you want a revolution, well, it doesn’t really give you that.
The first thing to say is that the exhibition is sponsored by Levi’s and Sennheiser. The product placement is everywhere. If one of the legacies of the 1960s is the monetization of what Tom Wolfe called ‘radical chic’, then the V&A have captured the sentiment perfectly. Several corridors before you get to the entrance of the exhibition space proper, a V&A assistant gives you a pair of Sennheiser headphones, and once they go on, you enter into a totally individual experience, with few points of communal reprieve. My wife Fiona was with me, and as soon as she put on her headphones she blew me a kiss goodbye from the tips of her fingers. Well, it wasn’t quite as final as that, but if we wanted to exchange any commentary as we walked around, we had to yell at each other. As we walked towards the entrance, stories of community and shared experience streamed through these personal headphones, a strange contradiction between the notional shared trip of the decade and the isolation produced by Sennheiser.
On Sunday afternoon, the V&A was already busy. The exhibition space itself was packed. As you enter, the first section is an assault of nostalgia: perhaps unsurprisingly, Beatlemania reigns supreme, and there is an impressive selection of handwritten Beatles lyrics and notes. Of course, all of this coincides nicely with the London opening of Ron Howard’s new documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: a veritable cocoon of sixties nostalgia. An array of LP covers juxtaposed with paperback novels attempts to set the ideological tone of ‘revolution’. All the usual suspects are there: Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Marcuse. Not many women: the exception is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which shares a display case with Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, symbolizing an ideological mishmash that we often forget was part of the youth experience. John Peel’s musical soundtrack is fabulous, but everybody was on their own individual trip (as Ken Kesey might have said), bopping to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel or clips from Radio Caroline or Radio Tiger, ‘the radio that listens to you.’ I felt controlled by the curation: the music transitions as you move from one part of the space to the next. It is relentless. It is inescapable. To paraphrase Kesey again, you are on the bus and you can only get off by throwing off the Sennheiser.
Around the corner in the next section, a large poster of a Blow Up magazine cover, featuring Vanessa Redgrave, reminds us how the 60s generation continues to occupy a significant place in today’s cultural imagination. While Redgrave kept her radical and left-wing credentials, many others did not. Most of the hippies grew up and got jobs in the new corporations of the 1980s. Jerry Rubin of the Yippies became a banker. Tom Hayden of SDS went into mainstream politics. In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee asked whether the baby boomers brought revolution, or neo-liberalism: the display of the first Barclaycard credit card is perhaps a nod to the answer. Not far away from the V&A, the gentrification of King’s Road is a testament to the failure of revolution.
There is no denying that the exhibition is slick. It is beautiful. It holds over 350 items, including album covers, books, posters, letters, clothes, furniture. It is incredibly impressive in its breadth, and it is visually impressive. There were some things that I hadn’t seen before. In the Psychedelic section, a poster for the AntiUniversity of London reminds us of a time before mass-availability of education raised the technocratic university to an art form.
Against the strains of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, I could hear well heeled ladies in their sixties discussing which of the wide array of albums they owned. Ravi Shankar, Syd Barret, Black Widow’s 1970 Prog Rock album Sacrifice. Album covers are placed alongside iconic novels of the era: Hunter S. Thomson, Erich Von Daniken, the Children of Albion’s Poetry of the Underground, Theodore Roszak’s Making of a Counterculture. The maleness of it all is overwhelming. The women, in keeping with almost all narratives of the 1960s, have their own space towards the ‘end’ of the decade, alongside the gay rights section, and near the black power section. This is a classic sixties: the ‘identity politics’ that emerged towards the turn of the decade. It was an international movement: Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Angela Davis and her raised fist: the movements that transcended and sought to undermine borders. This is further underscored by materials relating to the student movements in France and Germany, accompanied by the wonderful soundtrack of Claude Nougaro’s Paris Mai.
Two of my favourite objects are in this part of the exhibition. The first is Huey P Newton’s throne, immortalized by Sam Durant’s famous photo. I have seen reproductions of the photo hundreds of times, but the empty chair was striking.
The second item that really caught my eye was the papier-mâché figures of Lyndon B. Johnson and a Vietnamese mother and baby, which was produced and used by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. No photo: there is a strict no camera policy.
The rest of the exhibition asks us to think about the ‘defining moment’ of the 1960s. Is Robert Poole right when he says that the space programme was the ‘defining moment of the twentieth century’? Did Al Aronowitz get it right when he wrote in the New York Post that Woodstock was ‘probably the single greatest moment of the sixties’? Festivals, the space race, the Oz trial, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup: idealism gives way to consumerism. The ‘recreation’ of the Woodstock festival space is the only part of the whole exhibition that is designed to be experienced communally: time to ditch the Sennheisers, sit on bean bags and experience images and sounds of Woodstock via huge cinema-style screens. Country Joe’s anti-war anthem was accompanied by karaoke lyrics, but I think it was just me and a couple of old guys who were singing along. By the time we arrived at this point, all the bean bags were already occupied. Some people were having a better version of the sixties than others.
The experience ends as it begins, with a nod to the Beatles. Or at least, with the remnants of a split Beatles. John Lennon’s Imagine plays unironically at the end, juxtaposed by newsreel catastrophe: Donald Trump, Wikileaks, the Paris attacks, Police brutality and #blacklivesmatter in the US. Did these things start in the sixties? Are they the legacy of the ‘excesses’ of the decade? Or did the revolution simply not happen? Even as the screens remind us of the important legislative changes (civil rights laws, the Equal Pay Act, decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality, among others) we are painfully aware that we are nowhere near the alternative that Lennon imagined. And as we emerge into the shop at the end, we could hear the woman ahead of Fiona say to the assistant, as she handed her Sennheisers back, that the whole experience was exhausting. It was. Relentless, immersive. But really worth a visit. #RecordsandRebels