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Exhibition review: Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains (V&A, 13th May - 15th October 2017)
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I began listening to Pink Floyd bootlegs, loaned by a school friend, in 1973. I probably borrowed a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon before I went out to buy it, shared with my brother for the princely sum of £1 each, and then I began to probe the Floyd back catalogue starting with the 1971 retrospective Relics and the compilation A Nice Pair. That I loved and was influenced by The Dark Side of the Moon, to the extent that I copied the lyrical motifs when asked to write some poetry for a piece of English Language at school, is undeniable. At the time I wasn’t aware that the album was going to be a massive, record-breaking hit or that it was the almost perfect realisation of all that Pink Floyd had been working on up to that point. It may have been one of the closest records to straightforward rock that I owned for many years but it oozed exquisitely tasteful guitar and keyboard work and superlative production values; the between-track segues enhance the grand concept feel and, last but not least, the package is completed by a simple sleeve design that has become an icon in its own right, augmented by the posters and stickers that came with the album that graced my walls for many years. The exotic and mysterious pyramids captured my imagination as a 14 year old schoolboy and the prism motif tapped into my love of physics, even appearing as a mandala in the centre of the vinyl, the first time I’d seen a thematic device used in this way.

But I also liked the Barrett-era Floyd; the psychedelic whimsy tinged with a darker edge and the sonic exploration exemplified by Interstellar Overdrive. This was unconventional rock territory, setting the Floyd in the vanguard of bands wishing to move away from the formulaic constraints of the three minute single, not simply by extended jamming but incorporating ideas such as musique concrète. However, the diametrically opposed wishes of an ever less-reliant Barrett and record label EMI (and the other band members who at the time wanted more hit singles) which resulted in the recruitment of David Gilmour as guitarist while Barrett was expected to continue to write but not perform, proved a short-lived idea and Barrett was dropped, culminating in their second album A Saucerful of Secrets becoming if not a hybrid album between the Barrett- and Gilmour eras, then Barrett’s Floyd swansong. The space-rock Pink Floyd, best preserved on the live half of Ummagumma and the film Live in Pompei, displays an evolution from the track A Saucerful of Secrets through the Atom Heart Mother suite and Meddle’s Echoes to The Dark Side of the Moon, where their vision was fully realised. I’m rather dismissive of the soundtrack work for More and Obscured by Clouds and I’m not particularly a fan of the short tracks on the second side of Atom Heart Mother or the first side of Meddle (apart from One of These Days). I think Wish You Were Here is an admirable follow-up to The Dark Side of the Moon, but even as early as 1975 I can detect the seeds of the descent from progressive visionaries to mainstream rock that in my opinion is of lesser artistic merit. The instrument of change was the strummed acoustic guitar and from a solitary track on Wish You Were Here, it took more of a central role on Animals, bookending the three main tracks as Pigs on the Wing parts 1 and 2 but also appearing in Dogs; simple acoustic guitar riffs formed an integral part of The Wall, The Final Cut and inevitably, the 1984 Roger Waters solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.

I was exceptionally pleased with the reformation of the band in 1987 and the Momentary Lapse of Reason album, believing it to be worthy of the Pink Floyd canon. Even if, as some critics argue, it was initially conceived as a David Gilmour solo project and however brief the input from Mason and Wright, the vision was far removed from any other material released under Gilmour’s own name such that the assembled cast, with progressive credentials bolstered by Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick, created a well balanced album that returned the group to the prog fold. I’d seen a performance of The Wall during its first outing at Earls Court in 1980 and though it was an incredible piece of musical theatre, I was never overwhelmed with the music itself. On a hot summer’s day almost exactly eight years later, I saw the band on the Delicate Sound of Thunder tour at Wembley Stadium and was totally blown away because both the staging and the set were brilliant. 1994’s The Division Bell crept up on me because at that time I wasn’t really watching the music press. Back as a band member, Rick Wright’s input was more evident though apart from Cluster One which harked back to the soundscapes of Wish You Were Here, the instrumental Marooned, the Stephen Hawking-voiced Keep Talking and the epic, grandiose High Hopes, I don’t think it reached the heights of its studio predecessor. However, the Earls Court gig in October that year was another excellent show.

As far as Gilmour and Mason were concerned, the Pink Floyd story didn’t end with the death of Rick Wright in 2008 so The Endless River, largely comprised of sessions recorded with the keyboard player was constructed and released in 2014, an album as eagerly anticipated as Wish You Were Here in 1975. This owed as much to early-Gilmour era Floyd as it did to rehearsals for A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, including a portion of Wright playing the Royal Albert Hall organ, some Wish You Were Here-like synthesizer noodling and a near reprise of Mason’s solo track The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party from Ummagumma.
 

With the 50th anniversary of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn looming and a successful David Bowie exhibition under their belt, the Victoria & Albert museum planned a Pink Floyd exhibition which opened earlier this month. I went along in the first week and came away very impressed. Towards the end of last year I’d persuaded my family to visit the V&A You Say You Want A Revolution, Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 which featured early Pink Floyd and indicated how well-thought out their special exhibitions were, so I was looking forward to the event. The recent trawl through the archives that allowed the band to put out the 27 disc The Early Years 1965 – 72 box set unearthed some previously unseen footage and unreleased music, some of which was premiered in an hour-long BBC TV documentary Pink Floyd Beginnings 1967 – 1972, must have coincided with the gestation of Their Mortal Remains. A must for any Floyd fan, the exhibition whose title is adapted from a line in Nobody Home (from The Wall):  “Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains” follows a timeline from their student days in London (when they called themselves The Tea Set and Sigma Six) to The Endless River, with each album presented in association with video footage, personal memorabilia, instruments and effects and props. The timeline is indicated by socially relevant books, magazines and words set inside red telephone boxes, iconic symbols of Britain designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of Battersea Power Station which is associated with Animals. We tend to think of Pink Floyd as being fairly anonymous and some might find it strange for a major London museum to put on a special exhibition dedicated to the output of a core of five attention-avoiding musicians; they graced the cover of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967, appeared on the cover of Ummagumma and again on the inner gatefold of Meddle in 1971 (one of my favourite photos of the band), then disappeared from album covers until David Bailey’s portrait of Gilmour and Mason, looking very much of the zeitgeist, on A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987, but Pink Floyd have now shaken off their relative reserve and are now a cultural touchstone with 50 years of creativity under their belt. There’s even a commemorative set of Royal Mail postage stamps celebrating their albums. This sonic legacy is almost unparalleled so it’s neither unexpected nor unreasonable that their mark on the cultural landscape has acquired an establishment-like acceptance and the Johnny Rotten ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ T-shirt simply a curated memento from the 70s.

My youth was spent poring over musical instrument catalogues and instrumentation listings on album sleeves so I was delighted by the array of original equipment on display. If Rick Wright’s Minimoog is for sale after the exhibition closes, I’d be interested in putting in a bid! I’d always associated the Floyd echo effect with the WEM Copycat but the Barratt-era band used the almost industrial Binson Echorec, a number of which were present along with an array of VCS3 synthesizers; there is a neat hands-on exhibit in the Dark Side of the Moon section where you can pretend to be Alan Parsons and mix your own version of Money. It wasn’t only the hardware that grabbed my attention; early on was a technical drawing by Roger Waters of Cambridge railway station from the time he was an Architecture student, along with Mason and Wright, at Regent Street Polytechnic and though there were a few references to architecture, I thought there may have been more or better-argued links. I think that the structural element to some of their early post-Barrett compositions demonstrate a form of architectural thinking and one of my son’s university classmates submitted his degree project on Pink Floyd stage shows.

The lack of a tour of The Final Cut may explain the relative paucity of material relating to the album on display but the abruptness of the split in the band may itself be reason enough. The law suits and differences between the two camps was largely ignored, Waters seemingly being abruptly cut out of the exhibition from that point, forgotten in the rooms dedicated to A Momentary Lapse of Reason, The Division Bell and The Endless River however, the final room was a large space dedicated to a presentation of the 2005 Live 8 reunion footage, a nice touch showing an end to the internecine feuding, though not pronouncing on any warming of relations.

The experience is well organised and presented. The headsets delivering the audio feed are hands free so that when you walk from exhibit to exhibit or room to room, the equipment automatically picks up either ambient feed (Floyd music) or a piece of commentary. I had feared that there would be queues at some of the installations but it was easy to shuffle around without being held up or waiting too long or having to miss something. The whole of The Dark Side of the Moon was played in one room, featuring a rotating 360o view of a beam of light being diffracted through a prism, making it easy to spend three hours at the show.

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