The V&A’s latest rock music exhibition – after their hugely successful David Bowie show a few years back – is a vast and extraordinary thing, as befitting it’s subject. As performers, Pink Floyd might not have been the most visually striking of bands, but as pioneers as rock theatrics, creators of film soundtracks and a band at the forefront – with regular collaborators Hipgnosis – of visual design on album covers, theyare more than deserving of a show of this scope. And believe me, this is a huge, thorough record of their work. It took us two and a half hours to get around it, and we weren’t dawdling – in fact, our aching feet meant that we probably rushed stuff towards the end, and coming away, our immediate conclusion was that we have to visit this exhibition again – at least once, possibly more.
The exhibition take a chronologocal look at the Foyd’s career, and the culture that surrounded them. It’s beautifully curated, with red telephone boxes full of images setting the socio-political context for each era of the band’s existence, and space given to exploring the influences and cultural connections to their work, as the viewer wanders through a twisting, turning maze. The opening section, dealing with the rise of the psychedelic era in the 1960s, is arguably a more thorough study of that era than the V&A’s previous, somewhat disappointing Sixties exhibition, with club posters, underground magazines, Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland and more mixed in with the Floyd’s earliest work.
Throughout the exhibition, documentary clips fill in the details – like many a multi-media show, you are lumbered with headphones that feed you varying audio clips depending on just where you are stood, and in this case, it’s a boon, not a burden. Every clip hear feeds us a certain amount of information – not so much that we are overloaded, but enough to make the curious seek out more later. Early on, we are told about the tragedy of Syd Barrett, and some of the exhibits reflect this – a BBC letter complaining that one of the band members (Syd) had freaked out during a TV recording and vanished.
Scattered throughout the exhibition are glorious relics – not just posters, photographs and records, but recording / performing equipment (the synths used to record Dark Side of the Moon, Dave Gilmour’s guitars, Rick Wright’s keyboards, numerous pedals), letters (a charming, hand-written love letter from Syd to his girlfriend opens the exhibit) and diaries. We get to see Roger Waters’ scribbled designs and notes for The Wall alongside the gargantuan stage props, inflatables from the Animals tour, backstage riders and instructions, material from films like La Vallee and Zabriskie Point, the Pink Floyd Ballet with Roland Petit, the life masks from In The Flesh and much more. There are the circular screen projections of the animated film for One of These Days and the video for Learning To Fly, remarkable to stand in front of and experience so close that you could touch them. There is rare live and documentary footage, and an astonishing, three dimensional wall size animated version of the Dark Side of the Moon prism that accompanies Us and Them, and was so emotionally powerful that I felt as though I might cry.
The show could, admittedly, do with arrows to guide us, as at times you can take a wrong turn and find yourself out of sequence, and by the time it came to the last few, Roger-less albums, I began to lose interest – partly because I have no time for those albums, but also because I was getting pretty exhausted by this point. That was my fault – I hadn’t quite anticipated just how vast a show this would be. But things end on a high, with a few Floyd clips – Arnold Layne, the Live 8 Comfortably Numb – being projected in a separate room, the visuals split across four walls, with added effects, imagery and more, making it an overwhelming, sensory overloading experience. It’s hard to describe the power of this final room – you just have to experience it.
This exhibition is a genuine triumph – as theatrical as the best Floyd shows, as intimate as their most personal songs and as detailed as any fan could hope for. If you have even a passing interest in Pink Floyd, this will be an essential part of your summer.