Review: The V&A’s ‘Records and Rebels, 1966-70’

Timothy Drummond is transported back to the era of psychedelic freedom, as, despite the exhibition's many flaws, 1960s culture continues to entrance and beguile

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I’m a big Beatles fan, so when I heard about this exhibition—which is accompanied by 1960s music playing through a pair of headphones—I thought, why not. I get to walk around listening to the Beatles while reading about hippies.

The first room is a somewhat vague introduction to the political and cultural tensions and artistic achievements of the first half of the 60s—a couple of things I hadn’t seen or read about before, but nothing particularly surprising or fascinating.

In the next room, I’m surrounded by mannequins sporting various 60s outfits, some from psychedelic London boutiques like Granny Takes a Trip. So far, so average. There are, however, some more intriguing sections on counter-cultural publications, radio stations, clubs and ‘happenings’. I’ve heard some of these names before (Radio Caroline, The International Times, Fifth Estate), but it’s inspiring to read how these initiatives were set up unofficially and democratically: entertainment and news reporting by the people and for the people, all before the internet really revolutionised and democratised the media.

This is followed by the section on music. Now this was the real artistic revolution. They have the handwritten lyrics to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, possibly the most important piece of psychedelic music ever to be recorded. However, I want them to do more than just tell me about the inspiration for the lyrics. Give us information on the music itself, the revolution in the recording studio which produced it, show us some old studio equipment… or am I just too much of a Beatles nerd?

The next room marks a change in the exhibition’s topics. I’m suddenly in a much angrier space, surrounded by politics, protest, rebellion and war. Again, there’s so much to look at, but the cluttered and colourful collection has become oppressive. The increasing psychedelic bombardment has now been inverted and has become something frightening.

The key to the success of this part of the exhibition lies in its inclusion of revolutions and rebellions from outside the English-speaking world. This includes a powerful exhibit: a shopping list scribbled down by rebels during the May 1968 protests in France. For all the mass propaganda and revolutionary art, this list of basic foodstuffs and stationery reminds me that the people involved were really just that: people. While I’m reading about ‘Mai 68’, my headset plays French protest songs which I’ve never heard before, such as Léo Ferré’s haunting ‘Paris, je ne t’aime plus’. At last they are using the headphones effectively, playing something interesting, lesser-known and politically charged, rather than simply regurgitating the same old hits which we all knew already.

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The last song I hear in this section is the angry, punk-rock ‘Macht Kaputt, Was Euch Kaputt Macht’ (i.e. ‘Destroy What Destroys You’) by the Berlin anarchist poets Ton, Steine, Scherben (Clay, Stone, Shards), an appropriate attack on capitalist consumerism before I move into the next room, which is about precisely that. Placing the section on consumer products after the ‘revolution room’ is a masterstroke, for it makes the twee advertisements on show seem ludicrously shallow and saccharine.

I then walk through into the biggest room yet: the Woodstock room complete with stage, AstroTurf, and bean bags for lounging and listening. There are some great items on the stage like Roger Daltrey’s shawl, Mama Cass’s kaftan, one of Keith Moon’s drum kits, and Hendrix’s jacket and guitars. But I can’t understand why these items weren’t displayed in the ‘music’ section—it feels like the exhibition is repeating itself.

‘Records and Rebels’ ends with a room on ‘Communes and the West Coast’, containing details on environmentalists and their projects. This is of course a topic which remains very relevant, but the space does feel a little underwhelming after the ‘revolution room’. I walk out to Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, the title of which has been used as one of the exhibition’s structuring catch-phrases, with signs reading, for example, “Imagine… students feeling so angry they want to overthrow the government”. This is feeble at best, patronising at worst. Yet, though I groan at Lennon’s song being played un-ironically as I leave, it evinces the keystone in the legacy of that era: optimism, and the belief that change really could be brought about. It’s a feeling that is hard to recapture at the start of 2017.