Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This massive exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, and debut single, Arnold Layne, way back in 1967. It follows last year’s big exhibition about the 60s (You Say You Want A Revolution) and 2013’s David Bowie exhibition, which broke attendance records. There’s gold in them thar 60s icons. ‘Dad Rock’, my daughter calls it.

Pink Floyd: a brief introduction

You can learn everything you need to know and more from their Wikipedia article or the band’s own website. Nice middle-class boys from Cambridge who met in London art schools in the mid-60s, they formed a four-piece band based round charismatic front man, guitarist and songwriter, Syd Barrett, released a couple of singles and their debut album – dominated by their trademark composition Interstellar Overdrive – and headlined ‘scene’-defining ‘underground’ gigs in the Summer of Love.

But Syd took too much LSD, becoming wildly unreliable, so in 1968 the band gently dropped him and replaced him with their friend and lead guitar supremo, David Gilmour. You can hear the change in the second album – A Saucerful of Secrets. Only one of the songs is by Syd and all the others lack his rackety inspiration. In its way it’s more experimental than their debut, with many more electronic soundscapes – witness the sustained weirdness of the title track, A Saucerful of Secrets. Conversely, other tracks sound much smoother and idyllic, and it’s notable how the lyrics fit smoothly into the songs instead of sticking out at unexpected angles, as they did in Syd’s songs. An example of this smoothness is See-Saw.

Between 1968 and 1973 the Floyd drifted, making a series of experimental albums and soundtracks to films. The film soundtracks are More (1969), Zabriskie Point (1971) and Obscured by Clouds (1972), the last one of which they knocked off in an intense week, apparently.

Ummagumma (1969) was an experimental double album, with one disk carrying a live album and the other featuring four tracks, each written by one of the band, and rarely listened to now.

Atom Heart Mother (1970) was a collection of so-so tracks on one side, including Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, in which one of their roadies is taped mooching about in his kitchen fixing a fry-up. The other side is devoted to the title track, a 23-minute-long piece in which the group integrate their sound into an experimental orchestral work by composer Ron Geesin. I’ve a soft spot for Summer ’68, written by the group’s keyboardist, Rick Wright.

Meddle (1971) follows the same formula with a side-long piece – Echoes – accompanied on the other side by a very uneven collection of songs.

So in the six or seven years of their existence they had morphed from being the soundtrack to 1967, all paisley shirts, purple scarves and Afghan waistcoats – to being long-haired purveyors of 25-minute-long ‘art’ pieces to the stonedocracy of the 70s.

Dark Side of the Moon and after

Then in 1973 they released Dark Side of the Moon and everything changed, big time.

As usual, at a bit of a loss for inspiration, they had the idea to write songs about the Big Issues of Life – like Death, Money, Madness – and link them using the panoply of tricks they’d picked up on their various experimental forays.

The album begins and ends with a (very slow) heart beat, on which are superimposed the sound effects of cash tills (used on the track Money) and snippets of interviews they conducted with roadies and anyone they could find around the Abbey Road studios, which leads into s suite of beautifully and imaginatively linked ultra-melodic tunes. The result is still astonishing, a smash hit ‘concept album’, combining ‘experimental’ features with Weighty Issues which make stone sixth formers feel intense, all on a bed of sumptuously slow and simple songs. It stayed in the charts for decades and still defines an epoch.

Listen to the opener, Speak to Me/Breathe. Isn’t it carefully crafted, with its multilayers beginning with the calming heartbeat (apparently, anyone with a heartbeat this slow, would be dead), then jingly jangly guitar, soporific bass and, beneath it all, the plodding drums continually on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel. Turn the lights out and pass me that joint, man.

1975’s Wish You Were Here is another combination of songs about Important Issues embedded between great swathes of multi-layered keyboards, swishing and swashing over your aural organs. They’re titled Shine on You Crazy Diamond parts one to 9 and remind me of a sand storm in the desert (probably influenced by the image on the back of the album cover of a mannequin in the desert.

Unhappy music

Something was happening to the boys, which became even clearer on 1977’s Animals – they were getting bitter and twisted. Dark Side of the Moon is full of sixth-form angst about poor people and war (unpleasant, apparently) but if you don’t listen to the words (as I’ve discovered over the years, plenty of rock and pop fans don’t) it is sweet and gorgeous to listen to.

Wish You Were Here had the ultimate symptom of rock star ennui, a song about how awful it is being a rock star – Welcome To the Machine – but still has swathes of beautiful music, not least the simple but affecting title track, Wish You Were Here (everybody at school taught themselves how to play guitar by copying this).

But by Animals three things were clear.

  1. Almost all the writing was now being done by Roger Waters.
  2. He was really pissed off. On Animals he has divided the human race into three types, dogs, sheep and pigs and written a ‘track’ about each. Pigs is a virulent attack on the Christian campaigner, Mary Whitehouse. It was Waters who had had the idea of songs about Big Issues for Dark Side and who wrote the jaded songs about the rock biz on Wish You Were Here, but both albums still contained significant contributions from the rest of the band, not least in the linking sections between the songs. Animals feels like pure Waters, in concept and execution, and it’s miserable.
  3. The paraphernalia, the concepts, the marketing and staging of each album had got more and more elaborate.

And it’s this third element which is the basis for this exhibition – the paraphernalia of performance.

Right from the start the Floyd were interested in using lightshows to amplify the trippy experience of their underground gigs. Apparently they pioneered the use of large lighting rigs and special visual effects. As early as 1969 the cover of Ummagumma featured a photo of the kit their roadies had to unload, set up and then dismantle before and after gigs.

By the mid-1970s stadium rock had become well-established, with other groups like Led Zeppelin or Wings crating round huge amounts of equipment, lights, mixing desks and special amplifiers, but the Floyd were always seen as technical pioneers, for example in the use of quadraphonic sound.

But with Dark Side, music, concept, images, design and presentation was brought together. Previous Floyd album covers (MeddleAtom Heart) had been jokily ‘conceptual’. But the art work on Dark Side, specifically the idea of the beam of white light going into a triangular prism, designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie, formed the basis for the stage show and merchandising.

The art work for Wish You Were Here was also of a new order, something distinctive and unseen before. The original album cover was covered in black plastic which you had to tear off to reveal the image of two men shaking hands in a Hollywood studio vacant lot, one of them bursting into flames – presumably a reflection of Water’s bitter disillusion with the record business.

It was Animals which took this to a new level when the central image used for the photo shoot, a huge pink inflatable pig suspended by a cable from Battersea Power Station, broke loose and caused enough havoc among planes landing at Heathrow Airport to become an item on the news. This pig, along with sheep, dogs and other characters from the songs now made their appearance at the Floyd’s enormous sell-out stadium tours.

The Wall

Waters’ bitterness reached unparalleled heights in 1979’s The Wall, a concept double album (always a bad sign) featuring the adventures of ‘Pink’, an idealised version of Waters’ own life, a baby in the Blitz whose dad is killed in the War, growing up in austerity England, bullied at school and pushed around by an uncaring society.

Just as Genesis’s concept double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) represented the end of their most creative period, The Wall is a dire, apocalyptic vision of Waters’ unhappiness and alienation. The album spawned the wretched single Another Brick in the Wall, which, God forgive us, made it to number one in the charts. ‘We don’t need no education’, yes, easy to say when you’re a multi-millionaire from Cambridge.

In 1982 they made a full-length feature film out of the album, featuring young punk singer Bob Geldof as the wretched ‘Pink’, thus immediately and forever losing any credibility he ever had.

It was with The Wall that the band’s use of props and imagery in their live shows went off the scale. The band commissioned well-known English satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to devise illustrations for the album’s artwork, for its promotion and marketing, for short videos accompanying tracks, and illustrate the characters which infest the storyline. Hence the screaming head, the cartoon schoolteacher, and the menacing hammers which feature albums went off the scale.

The stage show featured enormous blow-up versions of these figures at the relevant parts of the narrative. Early on an inflatable fighter plane screamed along a wire from the back of the auditorium to crash on stage. At the end of the show an enormous wall is built between the audience and the band, which is eventually blown up and knocked down.

What pretentious twaddle. A friend has all the Pink Floyd albums, has been to gigs launching each of the albums, and his wife hates them. ‘They’re just so depressing,’ she moaned. It’s really that simple. If you listen to their albums in order you find yourself being sucked, step by step, into this nightmarish, paranoid, solipsistic soundworld.

Yet the irony is that as the music grew grimmer and grimmer, the scale and ambition of the artwork and the stage shows escalated to gargantuan proportions.

By this stage the band themselves were falling out, Roger Waters’ attitude (which some called megalomania) alienating the others. Symptomatically, Waters wrote all the songs, lyrics and music for the next album, 1983’s The Final Cut. Keyboardist Rick Wright had been sacked from the band. Singer and guitarist David Gilmour performed but had no songs ready. So was it a Pink Floyd album at all, or – as many have commented – essentially a Roger Waters solo album. In fact, it was solo album time for all. Gilmour made a solo album, About Face. Waters, for his part, made and toured a solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.

The band then spent 1984 and 1985 briefing lawyers and issuing writs against each other as to who owned the name ‘Pink Floyd’ and trying to untangle contractual obligations, royalty payments and so on. By 1986 Waters had legally left the band, though retaining rights to perform The Wall (which he has gone on to do extensively, around the world, in sell-out shows).

Now the band consisted of singer-guitarist Gilmour, drummer Mason and keyboardist Wright. The trio released A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987. By this stage most normal people had long ceased caring. In 1994 the trio released The Division Bell and the tour to promote it was the last Pink Floyd tour.

Since then, for the last 23 years, Gilmour and Waters – respectively the singer-guitarist, and the conceptualiser-songwriter-lyricist – have been fending off rumours of a reunion. They were offered a reputed £150 million to tour the USA, but turned it down. The general idea is that Gilmour can’t bear to be in the same room as Waters. In an interview with Mojo magazine, Mason said Waters leaving left the others feeling like members of the Soviet Politburo after Stalin died. Wow.

In 2005 the band members were persuaded to reform to play the Live 8 Charity concert, performing Speak to Me/Breathe and Money from Dark Side, Wish You Were Here from the album of the same name, and Comfortably Numb from The Wall. In 2008 the gentle, often overlooked keyboardist Rick Wright passed away. So no complete reunion is now possible.


The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains

And it is this long colourful journey, from rackety underground psychedelic pioneers, through uneven experimentalism, to producing one of the great rock albums of all time which catapulted them into a series of overblown stage sets and middle-aged rock star angst, which this huge, imposing exhibition chronicles in impressive detail.

It is mainly a collection of hundreds of artefacts, from the venue posters and newspaper photos of the early days through to rooms full of enormous props from the final albums, interspersed with TV screens showing clips of the band performing at various stages of their career, and interviews with the growing group of collaborators, producers, designers, illustrators, cartoonists and so on who worked with them – including illustrator Gerald Scarfe, architect Mark Fisher, engineer Jonathan Park, animator
Ian Emes and lighting artist Marc Brickman.

You’re given headphones at the start so you can listen to the hour-long mix of tracks and interviewees’ words. It is a little like walking through a BBC Four documentary on Rock Greats.

Installation view: left, a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Installation view: from left to right – a case about A Saucerful of Secrets; a TV monitor showing Syd Barrett; centre the clever-clever artwork for Ummagumma

Having staggered to the end, I turned round and walked through the show backwards, following the story of a group of squabbling middle-aged men who worked with a wide range of similarly-aged male figures in art, design and illustration to produce vast, overblown slabs of narcoleptic music, but who pared away the amount of equipment, the unnecessary props and the middle of the road rock sound to produce some interesting and experimental work in their mid-period, before shedding all the unnecessary clutter to write lovely songs about lazing around in English fields, and then put all their differences aside to come to late fruition as the hyperactive, guitar-driven soundtrack of a small group of underground hipsters in swinging London.

If only.

Props and shops

It is an exhibition of things, some of staggering size. Big props include:

  • a massive representation of ‘The Wall’ stage with the giant inflatable schoolteacher looming over
  • a house-sized recreation of Battersea Power complete with towering chimneys
  • a room devoted to a pitch-black space containing a holographic image of The Dark Side Of The Moon’s famous prism
  • the inflatable TV and refrigerator used on the 1977 In The Flesh tour
  • band face masks from ‘The Wall Live’, 1979
  • the 6-metre-high metallic heads created for the cover of 1994’s The Division Bell
  • a flower petal mirrorball stage prop, 1973 – 5
  • the ‘lightbulb suit’ pictured on the sleeve of 1988’s Delicate Sound of Thunder live album
Props from The Wall

Props from The Wall

More discrete pop trivia includes:

  • The punishment book and cane from the Cambridge And County High School for Boys, original guitarist and vocalist Syd Barrett and bass guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Roger Waters were pupils in the late 1950s.
  • Waters’ and Mason’s technical drawings and sketches from the Regent Street Polytechnic where they both studied architecture.
  • Nick Mason’s annotated gig diary from the early years, playing London’s underground music club UFO and touring Britain’s circuit of Top Rank ballrooms and college halls.
  • Roger Waters’ handwritten lyrics for the songs Wish You Were Here and Have A Cigar.

Famously, the band worked with the Hipgnosis design partnership of Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and the late Storm Thorgerson. There are sketches and early drafts of what became the iconic covers of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here.

Since the band are also a little tiny bit about music, there are also some of their actual instruments, including several of David Gilmour’s guitars, including his famous Black Stratocaster, alongside Richard Wright’s early-‘70s era Mini Moog synthesiser.

Not one but two rooms are completely filled with amplifiers, speakers and shelves full of all the effects pedals and mixing desks in between. It feels like walking into the basement of a guitar shop. Oooh treasure! Visitors are encouraged to twiddle and play with in order to mix your own customised version of Money. There’s a lot here for sound technicians and hi-fi nerds. The final room is ‘the Performance Zone’, where visitors

“enter an immersive audiovisual space which includes the recreation of the last performance of all four members of the band at Live 8 with Comfortably Numb. The track was specially mixed using Sennheiser’s ground-breaking AMBEO 3D audio technology.”

Interviews with technicians who’ve worked with the Floyd over the years bring out the fact that they pioneered a lot of technology which went on to become standard – the trajectory from shaky psychedelic floorshows to flawless stadium theatre, was mirrored by pioneering of musical sounds to be extracted from synthesisers, innovations in recording techniques, new ways of designing and lighting live performances and a minute attention to the quality of the live sound.

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

Display case of guitars and technical equipment

There’s less sex and drugs in it, but there is a fascinating history of the technology of rock music to be written and the Floyd would play a central role as catalysts and visionaries.

Iconic Entertainment Studios

Interestingly, the exhibition is only part-curated by the V&A (to be precise by by Victoria Broackes, Senior Curator, whose previous exhibitions include David Bowie and You Say You Want a Revolution?). The exhibition is presented in partnership with Michael Cohl’s Iconic Entertainment Studios, led by Pink Floyd’s creative director Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell (of the design partnership Hipgnosis) and Paula Webb Stainton, who worked closely with members of Pink Floyd including Nick Mason (Consultant For
Pink Floyd). Also contributing are “designers Stufish, the leading entertainment architects and the band’s long-serving stage designers, and interpretive exhibition designers Real Studios”.

In other words, the show is a natural extension of its previous product design, marketing and display. This aspect of it, the way it can be staged without any of the musicians due to their extensive music recordings and interview material, suggests the possibility that bands from this era (and maybe later, but these 1960s bands are the classic ones) will potentially have an endless afterlife, even after all the band members are long dead which is, well… eerie. What was once so full of life and warmth and energy becomes… mummified.

Early and late

An exciting three minutes from 1967 – I love Syd’s rackety, scratchy guitar sound:

A very boring ten minutes from 1994, featuring David Gilmour’s trademark, flawlessly soaring sound, sending centrist Dads everywhere into ecstacies of air guitar.

Pink Floyd in photos

Pink Floyd 1967 – left to right keyboardist Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason, bassist Roger Waters and visionary acid casualty Syd Barrett.

Pink Floyd 1973 – l to r: Rick Wright, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters. Far out, man. This is how everyone wanted to look in 1973.

Pink Floyd 1985 – l to r: Wright, Gilmour, Mason. Snappy 80s threads.

Pink Floyd 1994 – Dad Rock epitomised by Mason, Gilmour and Wright.

Pink Floyd 2005 at Live 8 – still crazy after all these years: Gilmour, Waters, Mason, Wright.


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Other V&A blog posts

You Say You Want A Revolution @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

‘Your generation thinks it’s just bloody immortal… you just want to go on perpetuating your horrible 1960s culture into the next century…’ (teenager Belinda Weber moaning to her environmentally friendly, socialist ex-hippy parents in Bumping Along the Bottom from the Posy Simmonds collection of cartoon strips, Mustn’t Grumble, 1993

Surround sound

This is the only exhibition I’ve ever been to where the audioguide is compulsory and starts playing while you’re still in the corridor outside the show. Also you don’t have to stop in front of an exhibit and punch in the corresponding number on the device – instead you wander at will through the exhibition and the player senses where you are and automatically plays the relevant soundtrack for wherever you’re standing. Groovy, man!

That soundtrack consists of a non-stop montage of 1960s rock, speeches, TV broadcasts, film clips etc, so that you are hearing tracks by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, speeches by President Kennedy or Martin Luther King (he had a dream, apparently), Neil Armstrong jumping onto the moon or John Lennon at his bed-in at the Montreal Hotel, clips from movies about Swinging London or Antonioni’s classic 1960s film Blow Up, and so on and so on.

Not having to stop and select a track but letting it all wash over you makes for a much more relaxed, surround-sound experience than at most exhibitions – in fact makes it much like walking around with your own headphones on playing a groovy 1960s playlist.

The content

There is absolutely nothing new or unexpected in the show, which amounts to a Greatest Hits of popular culture from the second half of the 1960s. If you had never heard of The Beatles or Beatlemania or their album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, if you didn’t know that The Rolling Stones had a bad boy image and got arrested for drugs, if you didn’t know that Bob Dylan caused a scandal by ditching his folk sound at the 1965 Newport Festival to go electric, if you didn’t know that London was declared ‘Swinging London’ by American magazines or that Twiggy became an emblem of the new waif-look, that mini skirts were popular – if you hadn’t heard of the Oz trial, of Black Power, or know that Germaine Greer wrote The Female Eunuch, that lots of people didn’t like the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon, if you hadn’t heard of hippies or Flower Power or of a big outdoor festival called ‘Woodstock’, then this exhibition will come as a surprise and a revelation to you.

If, on the other hand, you do know all this, have read umpteen books and watched numberless documentaries about the period, as well as having a passing familiarity with the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, The Who, Pink Floyd and so on – then it is a little difficult to figure out what this exhibition is meant to be telling you.

At various points the guide says that the show is trying to trace back to their origins a number of ‘issues’ which are still with us. Well, OK, Women’s Liberation/feminism is still with us, as are problems with race, especially in the USA, whose activists can trace their lineage back to Martin Luther King or the Black Panthers. And environmentalism is still with us, as an ongoing concern for the natural world, which we really do seem to be destroying.

In a more indefinable way ‘deference’ to authority in the form of the police, the courts and politicians was permanently weakened and we are nowadays generally as suspicious of authority figures as most hippies were in 1969.

Again, the way people dress underwent a decisive move away from the formal suits and dresses which had dominated the West for a century or more, towards the casual jeans and T-shirts look which is now pretty much universal.

All of these issues are referenced and described a bit, but not in any great detail.

Art and design

So it’s all sort of interesting, and lots of fun to saunter around ogling the very chair that Christine Keeler sat on for that photoshoot or looking at the very outfit that John Lennon wore on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, along with alternative photos from that photo shoot and hand-written lyrics for The Fool on the Hill or Strawberry Fields Forever.

But a lot of this is just pop trivia. In the big room dominated by vast screens showing clips from the Woodstock festival and playing rock music very loud, there are also cases displaying a Stratocaster guitar which Jimi Hendrix smashed up at a performance at some London club, along with the battered Les Paul guitar played by the rhythm guitarist in his scratch band at Woodstock. There are some notes scribbled by dazed festival goers and pinned to the noticeboard asking for the phone number of the pretty girl they chatted up by the burger stall. All very chilled, man but… in a major exhibition?

The Victoria and Albert Museum on its website says it is the world’s leading museum of art and design. A major aspect of this is fashion and clothes design so I totally accept that the mannekins displaying outfits worn by Twiggy, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, John Lennon and so on fit into its remit.

But a display explaining the historical roots of the Vietnam War along with a random montage of newspaper cuttings about it, including for some reason a letter about his draft papers written by the student Bill Clinton? This is just social history, and very pop, superficial social history at that.

One of the most consistent threads of the show is the hundreds of LP covers pinned to the wall in almost every room, giving a tremendous sense of the outpouring of fantastic rock, pop, jazz, soul and other forms of music from the era. Apparently, they are all from the personal collection of legendary BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel.

What I would have found fascinating and, arguably, more relevant to the V&A’s remit would have been an analysis of the evolution of LP cover art, giving lots of space to pioneering designs and designers, explaining the movements and trends in what came, during this period, a well-defined art form in its own right.

There was some explanation of the way non-commercial posters – as a form of cheap, mass producible communication which weren’t adverts, newspapers or billboards – could be used by all kinds of groups from underground music clubs to radical communist or Black Power groups. In sections like this I felt the V&A was beginning to fulfil its emit but I could have done with a more coherent explanation of the theory and practice, the origin, development and evolution of ‘the poster’ during this turbulent time.

Fun

But this is carping. No cliché is left untapped, no obvious reference point goes unmentioned, no iconic track goes unsampled, in this hugely enjoyable, big warm bath of nostalgia for a period which most of us didn’t actually experience but which all of us, because of the power of its music, films and iconic imagery, feel like we know intimately.

Images

Just as the music is a collection of ‘Sounds of the 60s’, so are the images a familiar collection of great ‘shots of the 60s’, bringing together many of the most iconic, shocking and memorable images of the decade. Thus: Anti-war.

ARLINGTON, VA - OCTOBER 26 1967: Antiwar demonstrators tried flower power on MPs blocking the Pentagon Building in Arlington, VA on October 26, 1967. (Photo by Bernie Boston/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

ARLINGTON, Virginia, October 26 1967: Antiwar demonstrators tried flower power on MPs blocking the Pentagon Building in Arlington (Photo by Bernie Boston/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Woodstock.

15 Aug 1969 --- John Sebastian performs at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in Bethel, New York (Max Yasgur's 600-acre farm) on Friday, August 15, 1969. --- Image by © Henry Diltz/Corbis

John Sebastian performs at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in Bethel, New York (Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm) on Friday, August 15, 1969. Image by © Henry Diltz/Corbis

Posters.

E.1704-1991 Poster UFO coming; Psychedelic poster entitled 'UFO coming' by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (Michael English and Nigel Waymouth), published by Osiris Agency Ltd. London, 1967. Michael English (1941-2009); Nigel Weymouth Hapshash and the Coloured Coat; Osiris London 1967 Silkscreen

Psychedelic poster entitled ‘UFO coming’ by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (Michael English and Nigel Waymouth), published by Osiris Agency Ltd. London, 1967. Silkscreen

The Christine Keeler photoshoot.

Photos of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley © Lewis Morley National Media Museum Science & Society Picture Library

Photos of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley © Lewis Morley National Media Museum Science & Society Picture Library

Installations

Swinging London (note the phonr box and bus stop at the back). The cat suit on the right was designed specially for Mick Jagger.

Swinging London installation. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Swinging London installation. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band display case.

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band display case. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band display case. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Woodstock room with massive multiscreens dwarfing Keith Moon’s drum kits and a selection of costumes worn by performers on the raised platform. Note the display case at bottom left which contains the hand-written notes and messages by festival attendees.

The Woodstock room. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Woodstock room. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Reviews of other V&A shows

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More (2009)

24 January 2012

‘If the British Prime Minister’s Cabinet could co-operate on the same level as the great Miles Davis quintets, we’d be experiencing a different form of government altogether.’ (page 142)

This is an absolutely brilliant book. It is a rare example of an autobiography by a musician who’s got something interesting to say – about making music, about his own feelings and ambitions in music, about the bands he’s played with, about the enormous changes he’s seen over the past 40 years in the music ‘business’ and wider society – and who says it with intelligence and dry humour. The only comparisons I can think of are Mile Davis’s and Bob Dylan’s autobiographies, but Bill’s has intelligent and thoughtful points to make about a much wider range of subjects. And he’s English (hooray!)

If you’re interested in the music of the 70s, if you’re interested in progressive rock music, if you’re interested in jazz, if you want to know how albums are actually pieced together, how bands behave on the road, how the recording studio works, what managers are like, the cost to a person’s private life of being a working musician doing gruelling foreign tours, if you want tips on how to survive in the music business, or if you’re just interested in the social, political, cultural and economic history of the last 40 years, then buy this wonderful book!

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More

Review

Bill Bruford, son of a vet from Sevenoaks in Kent, was a teenage prodigy of a drummer, as soon as he could taking the train up to London to see American jazz drummers performing at Ronny Scott’s and other Soho jazz clubs in the mid-60s and learning from everyone. By 1968 a series of chance encounters led him to land the gig as drummer in the new progressive band, Yes, his extraordinary technique propelling the band through their first five albums: Yes, Time and A Word, The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971) and their masterpiece, Close To the Edge (1973).

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

At which point, just as Yes were about to tour the album round the US and go supernova, Bill left the band to join their rival in progressive rock, the far darker and more experimental King Crimson. Led by guitar maestro Robert Fripp, the Crim had had chronic difficulty keeping a stable line-up since their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King back in 1969. Bruford’s arrival heralded the third incarnation of the band, much heavier and more guitar-driven and without the pseudo-medieval lyrics and elaborate song structures of Peter Sinfield. This darker sound came to the fore on the albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless And Bible Black (1974), Red (1974) and the umpteen bootlegs and live albums from the time.

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

At which point Fripp surprised the band by dissolving it, and Bruford embarked on the next 35 years forming his own rock combos, sometimes with former Yes-men, sometimes with a reformed Crim (which Fripp undissolved in 1980), but increasingly moving into the area of jazz which had been his earliest love, forming the groups UK and Earthworks, as well as recording with numerous jazz greats in the US and UK, and a constant schedule of touring across Europe, America and Asia. In 2009, after a long and varied career, Bill announced his retirement and, later the same year, published this, his autobiography.

Format Bill has had the brilliant idea of structuring the book around chapters answering the questions he is most frequently asked at cocktail parties, some of which drive him to distraction: So how did you get started? Why did you leave Yes? What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? But what do you do in the daytime? and 15 others. The chapters themselves consist of stories, anecdotes, thoughts and reflections skipping around in time and place but all relating to the central question.

This is a great format because it’s so flexible: it allows him to focus on luminous moments or funny anecdotes or challenging ideas rather than being tied to a chronological list of his activity since, as Bill emphasises, the working musician’s life often boils down to a pretty boring litany of rehearsals, recording and touring. It is a “best of…” Bill’s thoughts and reflections.

Drumming He leaves the details of drumming until well into the book. Personally, I could have done with understanding more how a drummer decides which of all the available rhythms in a piece of music to pick out, and why, and on which drums or percussion instruments? But there is still plenty about the business of drumming, the setting up and the testing, in the studio or before a performance, as well as lots about the business side – attending drumming conferences, fronting ads for specific manufacturers and so on:

‘When I first pick up the sticks, I feel stodgy and slow. I need to warm up. Simple, powerful strokes eventually get some blood circulating in wrists and fingers, and soon the strokes come more easily. Drummers usually practice the rudiments, a codified set of sticking patterns with colourful onomatopoeic names such as flamadiddle and ratamacue. There are traditionally some 26 of these, mostly derived from military drumming, and it’s like practicing the correct fingering for your piano scales.’ (page 294)

There’s a wonderful meditation on the physical, musical and philosophical differences between rock drumming and jazz drumming on page 172 which sheds light on the purpose and structure of the two different genres.

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Prog rock Bill has numerous insights into the history and development of the genre music to which he contributed so hugely – after all he worked with the giants of the genre, Yes, King Crimson and, briefly, Genesis. Passages of pure insight like the following are scattered throughout the book:

‘Robert Fripp had stopped King Crimson, rather smartly I thought, in 1974, and we were able to leave the scene relatively unsoiled by the excesses that were fast entrapping the unwary… The history of progressive rock since about 1976 can be divided into two distinct periods. From 1976 to 1982, a watered-down, simpler version limped on as American stadium rock and British symphonic pop, but no new ground was being broken and the older bands started to lose commercial viability… The Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd groups of 1972 became the lighter, more consistent stadium rockers such as the Journey, Styx or Kansas of 1978…  By the time John Wetton’s Asia had sold millions of copies of its bland radio-friendly pop in the 80s, the post-hippie extension of the counterculture that was progressive rock, based on the idealistic impulses of the 60s, had finally runs its course. The dream, or illusion, of individual and global enlightenment was over. Progressive rock, like the period that gave rise to it, was essentially optimistic…Perhaps that lasting innocence, a refreshing anecdote to modern times, is where the attraction lies for the remarkably large group of listeners it has managed, over many turbulent years, to retain.’ (page 125)

As someone fascinated by the historical context of all types of art, these passages are, for me, pure gold.

Jazz Jazz was always Bruford’s first love and the book makes clear that, throughout the 70s, he felt like a jazz drummer masquerading as a rock drummer until he felt confident enough to set up his first jazz group in the 1980s. Having experienced both worlds he is uniquely well-placed to comment on the enormous disparity between the two musics:

‘If I threw a party for my greatest 20 musical friends, past and present, the room would divide down the middle with 10 on one side and ten on the other. The ten on my right would be millionaires with salaries so unaccountably large that more time would be spent in charitable dispersal of the stuff than its actual acquisition. The ten on my left would be among the finest jazz musicians in the world, with an average salary approximately equal to that of a supermarket checkout girl. And I would be standing in the middle.’ (page 199)

The music biz Bill describes himself and his band mates in Yes as being astonishingly naive about every aspect of the business when they started out. They were on a weekly wage of £25 well into their period of greatest success. He gives vivid vignettes of the band, memorably recalling Jon Anderson in the band’s communal flat in Fulham, yelling down the phone at promoters and agents, doing everything necessary to keep the band going. Bill’s anecdotes give a good sense of the various managers Yes and King Crimson went through, and an unnerving insight into the chanciness and dodgy dealing which accompanied so many of the ‘business’ arrangements.

Our hero - older and wiser

Our hero – older and wiser

But behind the anecdotes about this or that manager, about the constant squabbling over money (and everything else) which characterised Yes, about the hussling for gigs, the sordid contractual realities which lay behind the making of the albums the fans loved and the tours they sold out – it’s the confidence with which Bill sets his own story within the much broader context of the day which makes the book so rewarding. He explains key facts such as the music business’s turnover tripled each year in the early 70s. Money seemed to be pouring in in uncountable amounts for the successful groups which managed to make it big in America, the platinum albums, the sellout stadium tours, the private jets, the hotel suites which they felt free to trash. The bands, the managers, the promoters and the record companies thought the gravy train (which Pink Floyd sing about with such disgust on 1975’s Wish You Were Here) would never stop, but…

I remember seeing The Song Remains the Same, the epic film of Led Zeppelin live, at the Odeon Leicester Square in October 1976 and being blown away; but then I was an impressionable 14 year-old. Led Zeppelin hadn’t played in England for two years to avoid paying supertax and most of the other megagroups – Genesis, Yes, Supertramp, Pink Floyd – had become similarly rich and distanced from their ‘fans’. Earlier that year a couple of new bands had been touring England creating a grass-roots movement wherever they played. They were The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols. Though they would lumber on into the 80s and increase their turnovers, the era when the prog rockers represented youthful idealism was over. Increasingly they just represented their own need to make money.

New technology Bill’s book sheds fascinating light on the way the music industry has changed and evolved not only during the period he’s been active, but throughout the entire 20th century. Again he places his own personal story in a much wider context:

‘It is an industry for which the  constant stream of technical innovations – phonogram, wireless, recording, vinyl, cassette, long-player, multi-track recording, CD – has been both the lifeblood and a constant source of disruption and disturbance that threaten the established ways of exploiting musical materials to yield a profit. If the music industry was all about banging out bits of black vinyl on an assembly line and delivering to a vast number of retail outlets, then its modern replacement, the music business, is about the never-ending war waged by record companies, composers, and publishers to establish and then protect copyrights on their material and collect royalties for its use.’ (page 181)

I’ve rarely read anything so thought-provoking about popular music, its place in all our lives, in our Western culture, and in the vast tentacular capitalist economies which control us. He sees the big picture:

‘It’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is already enough music in Western society, and Western society tends to point out to the musician through the market – sometimes quite brutally, because the stupid musician doesn’t get it – that it doesn’t really want any new music, that it’s stuffed with the music it’s got.’ (page 181)

Something I think about all the time. I chatted to a student at Pierrot Lunaire the other day, and she told me about a few gigs she’d been to recently, Lou Reed and Patti Smith. Good God, why them, Lou’s first album is nearly 50 years old! People at work are getting excited about a series of gigs we’re staging with Paul Weller, Jools Holland, Blondie and the Human League. The biggest selling music tours of last year were Madonna (first single 1982), Bruce Springsteen (first single 1975) and Roger Waters’ The Wall (1979). Where’s the new stuff?

When everything, all the written and recorded music of the past is immediately available at the flick of a few buttons, anywhere with wifi or 3G, what value does that music have? What meaning? It certainly has lost all ability to shock or subvert or change. I grew up on the Sex Pistols. Ollie Murs doesn’t worry me. And with recorded music so ubiquitous how can the new young performing musician compete? With so many avenues of exploration so thoroughly mined, where can the ambitious musician begin to say something new?

These and lots of other issues, ideas, questions and concerns are raised and discussed by someone who has really been there and done it, in this marvellous and marvellously thought-provoking book.

All quotes from ‘Bill Bruford: The Autobiography’. Used by permission of the author.

A Postscript from Robert Fripp

Robert Fripp has been lovingly remastering, repackaging and reissuing King Crimson’s LPs as well as issuing a host of live recording, and accompanying them with fascinating commentary, on the group and the times. In the notes to ‘The Great Deceiver‘ double live CD (a fascinating record of the group in 1973-74) he makes comments which supplement Bill’s and Paul Stump’s:

‘The record industry in the period 1968-1978 was a seemingly unstoppable growth industry. The early amateurism surrounding the rock business had professionalised by about 1974, although this increased throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Records became ‘products’ and ‘units’ which moved, audiences became consumers whose ‘behaviour patterns’ were charted by ‘demographics’. Something went terribly, terribly wrong in our sense of values. Pragmatics replaced Principle. Quantity demonstrated Quality.’

(Sleevenotes to ‘The Great Deceiver, volume 1’. Copyright Robert Fripp)

In 1978 when I was buying punk singles and albums I still thought music was some kind of rebellion, had something political to say, and could change things. By 1982 I realised the New Romantic movement was deifying the Triumph of Money and the comprehensive defeat of everything the 60s stood for. In the 1990s I got to be series editor of a TV arts programme, and was quietly appalled that the clever 20-somethings who produced the music items for it made their case for who should be on the show entirely in terms of units sold, gold, platinum records achieved or Mercury or MOBO awards. The entire sector had been comprehensively corporatised. The student I chatted to at Pierrot Lunaire said she’d been to see Radiohead at the O2 last year and was disgusted by the cost and the spectacle and the merchandising and the special lifts to the VIP boxes where bankers and property developers could enjoy this so-called ‘subversive’ music in luxury.

Not unlike Bill (though as a humble fan, not a premier league performer) I also abandoned rock music in the 80s for more musically interesting jazz – and then progressed on into 20th century classical music, much of which is still so uncommercial and difficult that it resists corporatisation, assimilation and denaturing to fit the infantilised tastes of the ipod age.

Close To The Edge: The Story of Yes by Chris Welch (1999)

22 January 2012

The story  of the progressive rock group Yes is they were struggling musos from mediocre r&b bands in the late 60s with a shared interest in Simon & Garfunkel-type harmonies and more advanced playing skills than were common in the pop or rock of that era; they stumbled upon a technique for piecing together short melodic fragments into long 10, 15 or even 20 minute pieces of fiendish musical dexterity; brought this to perfection on the albums ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To The Edge’; took it too far in the overblown double album ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’; by 1974 and ‘Relayer’, they’d gone from living in a shared flat to owning million pound homes and flying their wives, children and nannies first class on luxury holidays to Barbados, spending money like there was no tomorrow; so when Punk came along in 1976 and made them and their style of music look like dinosaurs, they turned out to be so in debt they couldn’t do the decent thing and dissolve the band, but struggled on into the 1980s, through complex personnel changes and rushed-out albums and immense stadium tours, to make the money needed to pay for the rock god lifestyle they could no longer afford.

Chris Welch’s book includes lengthy quotes from the numerous people who’ve been part of the band over the years and you read on in hope of illumination and insight, about the lyrics, the musical inspiration, the worldview of the band – but eventually realise the book and interviews are overwhelmed by the practicalities of organising another recording session, another tour, negotiating with more lawyers. Any of the hippy spirit I associate with the early 70s and those visionary album covers by Roger Dean is obliterated by the hard realities of the music business.

“They had been a very big band in America and lived their lives in an extreme way. They all had their own limos and in 1979 they were still very much buried in that 1970s rock-star-with-a-big-house image.”

Geoff Downes, Yes keyboard player (p.191)

“I was thrilled to be joining the music business in 1968 with Yes. It was all so exciting and for five years it was heaven. But after five years all progressive rock should have stopped… From 1974 onwards you were left with Yes and Genesis not doing very good versions of progressive rock.All the creative stuff had already been done.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.130)

“Tormato [1978] I hated. I just hated it and in a way I had kind of written them off. What happened was the songs were no good any more. Whoever was writing the main themes had run out of steam. The songs were pretty crap and a bit stupid.”

Trevor Horn, Yes singer and producer (p.196)

“Why should I care about Yes anymore? Yes was a big section of my life. How can it come back…? Yes was from a certain time in history. Those first three LPs I did with them were the real golden days of Yes. That was the creative time for the band when everybody was pulling together.”

Steve Howe, Yes guitarist (p.211)

“Yes as ever is guided financially. Most of its musical movements now are motivated by sheer lack of money. In other words, because money needs to come in fast all the time, the shortest possible route to money is taken. It means the quickest delivery of the wrong album, the quickest booking of the wrong tour. Anything to help the renegotiating of a publishing contract to keep the money coming in. So the group is always poorly financed and poorly structured which gives it no artistic freedom.”

Bill Bruford, Yes drummer (p.227)

…which is why I was flabbergasted but then not surprised to discover that the bunch of hippies with their cool album covers which I remembered from my school days are still touring and recording albums. See all the details on the official Yes website.

Chris Welch is a veteran rock journalist, for many years with the legendary Melody Maker music paper. He met the band in their earliest London days and over the years he’s toured with them, interviewed them scores of times, as a band and as individuals pursuing their solo projects etc. He is, in other words, perfectly placed to write the story of one of the most famous and successful progressive rock bands of the 1970s. Except that being so close, and needing to maintain the friendship and trust of individuals who have had so many spectacular fallings-out, personal and professional rivalries and financial disputes, he is obliged to be tactful. Very tactful. There are hints, especially about the role of the players’ wives in the umpteen disputes and personality clashes which seem to have been much more a feature of the band than any kind of “love and peace” – but only hints. Someone more distant from the band might be able to tell the story rather more meatily.

Mr Welch is not an intellectual like Paul Stump whose book, ‘The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock’, is full of theories and ideas about progressive music and its connection with surrounding society, culture and politics. For Welch life is altogether simpler and this is a story about hard-working, prodigiously gifted musicians who persevered through all kinds of financial, managerial and relationship setbacks to create some of the greatest rock music of the century. It reads like an enthusiastic fanzine. Or like a very long version of the kind of profile piece Mr Welch has presumably written about them scores of times. It provides the raw data which you can then combine with Stump’s account of the social changes during the 70s to come to your own conclusions.

For me the story is straightforward: Listening to the albums in order you hear the emergence of the Yes sound in the first two albums, its peak in ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To the Edge’, its overripening on ‘Topographic Oceans’. And then the sound changes. It contains less and less of the magic of the early songs as the albums became better produced, more studio-bound, more computerised and synthesised and dead behind the eyes – until the disco drums and jazz bass of ‘90125’ announce the complete end of the progressive dream, the arrival of big hair and shoulder pads and the band photos seem to portray the more musically adept but still embarrassing older brothers (or is it uncles?) of Duran Duran. And that was by 1982. The band has carried on for over thirty years since then! Should we be amazed or impressed or appalled – or all three?

Probably my favourite track is ‘Siberian Khatru’ from the ‘Close To The Edge’ album. If you buy into the basic rock sound – dynamic drumming, propulsive bass, screechy guitar solos etc – then there’s an amazing variety of musical ideas here. I stopped counting after identifying 12 distinct musical ideas/riffs/sounds. I think it’s the way one track can contain so much invention and variety, and that so many of the ideas give the kind of visceral pleasure rock is designed for, that I like. Take the ending where guitarist Chris Howe solos over the organ riff – but the first half of the solo goes against all expectations in being very low in the guitar’s range with repeated inelegant phrases flopping back and forth against the organ backdrop – when a cliche rock god like Jimmy Page would have made the solo soar to orgasmic heights. Within the rock idiom, the music feels experimental, unexpected, full of energy and ideas. All the qualities which, sadly, had disappeared from their music by the end of the 70s.

In 1991 the band were strongarmed by their record company into recording an album with a hodge-podge lineup of old members and new, ironically titled ‘Union’. Notorious keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman nicknamed the album Onion, because just thinking about it made him weep. If I were sentimental I’d agree in lamenting the utter evaporation of the social, musical and artistic utopianism of the early 70s. For the last 30 years money, and money alone, has ruled the world of music as so much else.

I’ve linked to their albums on YouTube so you can sample the everchanging sounds of Yes and decide for yourselves:

Yes (1969)
Time and a Word (1970)
The Yes Album (1971)
Fragile (1971)
Close to the Edge (1972)
Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
Relayer (1974)
Going for the One (1977)
Tormato (1978)
Drama (1980)
90125 (1983)
Big Generator (1987)
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989)
Union (1991)
Talk (1994)
Keys to Ascension (1996)
Keys to Ascension 2 (1997)
Open Your Eyes (1997)
The Ladder (1999)
Magnification (2001)
Fly from Here (2011)

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