In Ladies & Gentlemen, the opening section of Exhibitionism, every concert The Rolling Stones every played, from London in 1962 to Havana in 2016, flashes in rapid succession across a timeline that stretches across a large wall, each show popping up on staccato fashion, compressing hundreds (thousands?) of concerts into the span of a few minutes. It’s a brilliant opening act that sets the stage for the creative ways the musical and trendsetting career of The Rolling Stones is covered within the limitations of a gallery exhibition. While depth may have been sacrificed to accommodate breadth, the immersive, interactive exhibit is fantastic fun, a true celebration of the Stone and, for fans of a certain age, an unparalleled nostalgia trip. It’s also an assault on the senses, packed with photos, art, memorabilia, videos, stories and historical commentaries.
I was a toddler when the British Invasion occurred (the first gig Charlie Watts played with the Stones, at London’s Ealing Blues Club, took place on January 12, 1963, the day I was born), so I had no intellectual awareness of the phenomenon as it occurred. The music was just a part of my life, forming a backdrop to my youth. The Rolling Stones hits plated repeatedly on the radio in the ’60s and 70’s on Long Island, where I grew up, permeating summer car rides to the beach. I knew that Exhibitionism would be coming to Los Angeles at some point, but I was thrilled to have the chance to see it in London, the city where it all began, and immerse myself in the full British experience.
The exhibition is organized into nine themed spaces, each covering a different aspect of the Stones’ universe. Ladies & Gentlemen serve as an introduction to the show and includes the concert timeline. Following that is an entryway to the Edith Grove ‘galleries’, a long narrow room with a giant photo of the young artists sitting in front of the house, on the so-named Chelsea street, where their communal flat was located. Text hanging from ceiling panels describes Keith and Mick’s chance encounter at Dartford train station that led to them discovering their mutual love of the blues.
Turning into a hallway, visitors walk through a strikingly real re-creation of the aforementioned flat that Messrs Jagger, Richards and Jones shared during the band’s early days. From the kitchen stacked with dirty dishes to the ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, the realistic mess shows these young lads had more important things than household chores on their minds. Blues albums spread out beside an antique-looking record player hint at order emanating from the chaos, the fuel that flamed their inspiration. This installation is perhaps the one part of the show that feels like ‘art’, as opposed to artefacts displayed in a museum. There’s clearly been some editing to set the scene, with enough attention to detail to add a chilling reality. Perhaps most notably, there seem to have been no photos of the actual flat’s interior, so it was all recreated from memory.
The following room gives a glimpse into the artists’ lives in their youth, on the precipice of fame. I’m not sure I believe in destiny but it sure feels like that when you consider how The Rolling Stones, coalescing around their love of the blues, grew to become rock legends. In a 1963 diary entry, Keith Richards reflects on a performance: “Ealing. Band played quite well. ‘Bo Didldley’ was an absolute knock-out.” A video features Muddy Waters talking about how The Rolling Stones had revitalised his career, introducing his music to white kids in the USA. There’s something poetic about the young Brits bringing blues-infused rock to the land where the music was born, returning the gifts to the artists who’d first inspired them.
Next up is the Recording section: a full drum kit and guitars are strewn across the floor, behind a glass panel, created in the likeness of London’s Olympic Studios, where the band recorded ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and other hits in the ’60s. Sometime Stones producer Don Was discusses his collaborations with the band, at a much later juncture in their career, in short video clips at listening stations along the glass panel. Don’t miss the photo and story of The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, the first of its kind, used to produce Exile on Main Street in southern France, where the band were living as tax exiles.
The adjoining room is a guitar geek’s paradise, with various instruments reverently displayed in glass cases. Most memorable is a 1957 Gibson that Keith Richards painted in a psychedelic design when he was tripping on acid. Stations in the centre of the room allow listeners to select a song and play sound engineer, adjusting controls for vocals and instruments. This might have been fun, but instead of ‘engineering’ I found myself simply listening to ‘Wild Horses’, one of my favourite Stone’s songs, in its entirety.
The Film & Video section gives a taste of the Stone’s immersion in this other art form and features an interview with Martin Scorsese about the making of his documentary, Shine a Light, and coverage of Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers’ documentary that captures the infamous Altamont festival where a young man is killed by one of the Hells Angels, who provided security at the show. When I first moved to Los Angeles, a friend lent me the video of this film and I watched it repeatedly, struck by how the loosely controlled music festival turns sinister before our eyes. Gimme Shelter is documentary filmmaking at its finest.
An entire room is devoted to countless variations of the Stones’ iconic lips and tongue logo, from John Pasce’s original to Shepard Fairey’s rendition for the Stones’ 50th anniversary and the cover of 2012’s GRRR album, featuring a gorilla sporting the signature stylised mouth. The idea for the logo, as described by its creator, came from a picture of Kali, the Hindu goddess with the pointed tongue, that Mick Jagger liked. Although the logo appears to be based on Mick Jagger’s lips, Pasche says otherwise, but admits that it might have been “something unconscious”.
In the Art & Design section, I gravitate toward Some Girls and read about how female celebrity faces had to be removed from the cover of the 1978 album after lawsuits were threatened. Some Girls holds a special place in my heart. Timmy Ryan, who I’d kissed when I was 12 years old, lit up the stage singing ‘Shattered’ at a dance in our high school gym. I can still see him up there in his navy blue leather jacket, belting out that song with abandon, and I still remember the joy I felt watching him.
The Style room showcases Stones’ fashions and how they’ve changed over time. There’s the white Mr Fish ‘dress’ Mick wore at the 1969 concert in Hyde Park, where he read Shelley in tribute to the late Brian Jones, alongside an extensive collection of flamboyant costumes, all glitter and glam, from the ’80s and a black jacket with gold swirl, designed by Mick’s late girldriend, L’Wren Scott, and worn by him at a Hyde Park concert in 2013.
There’s a lot of “stuff” in this exhibition, a lot of information to absorb, yet none of it would mean anything without the music. For Exhibitionism’s final act, I put on a pair of 3D glasses and become completely immersed in a performance of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, from the aforementioned 2013 Hyde Park performance.
Back in Los Angeles, I learn that Desert Trip tickets are about to go on sale. Dubbed ‘Oldchella’, the three-day music festival features rock’n’roll’s biggest names and offers my chance to see the Stones live. The British Ivasion endures, apparently (four of the six acts on the bill are from the UK). Tickets sell out and start appearing on third party sites for exorbitant prices within 30 minutes of going on sale. They were already insanely priced, targeting the Hollywood moneyed crowd, of which, unfortunately, I am not one. I tell a friend how disappointed I am. She says she wasn’t impressed when she saw the Stones a few years ago. “They’re so corporate!” I consider Exhibitionism though that lens. It was a mega-production, clearly a moneymaking venture, perhaps speaking more to how the band market themselves and manage their image than anything else. I wouldn’t call it art, more a celebration of commercial success. Yes, I suppose the Rolling Stones are corporate (would they have survived this long otherwise?), a far cry from the counterculture that catapulted them to fame – yet the potency of their songs remains undiminished.
I am still holding out hope for Desert Trip tickets. In the meantime, I’m watching rare Rolling Stones performances online, such as a 1964 appearance in a British TV studio playing ‘Not Fade Away’, with Mick Jagger on maracas and the transcendent Brian Jones on harmonica. They may be corporate now, but they’ve earned the title ‘World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band’ in my eyes. When Exhibitionism rolls into LA, I’m definitely going to see it again.
Oliver Cherer (Dollboy)
I saw the Stones at Ashton Gate Stadium, Bristol in 1982, through one eye. An unreasonable overreaction to an insect bite had induced a swelling to my forehead just above my left eye that was so severe as to effectively close that eye completely. I saw the whole show in mono. Right at the end, while they were blaring Jimi’s ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ from the PA and the fireworks were bursting overhead and most of the band had run off stage, Charlie put down his drumsticks, picked a raincoat from a peg behind him, put it on and sauntered casually after the band in a reassuringly polar opposite attitude to the rest of them. For me, it’s always about Charlie Watts. There’s a moment in every clip of the Stones where he rolls his eyes or shakes his head at the singer. He’s a class act.
Nick Saloman (The Bevis Frond)
Being a gent of a certain vintage, I can clearly recall the furore caused by the Stones when they first appeared. Their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, had been a student at my secondary school, leaving just a year or so before I arrived. He made sure that the Stones were the apparent antithesis of The Beatles, but of course, in reality, they were cut from much the same cloth. Playground hard nuts would, however, still frequently corner you and demand menacingly: “Beatles or Stones?” God forbid if you sized them up wrong. I could never figure why you couldn’t love both groups.
My mum was quite cool and took me as a kid to see Cliff and The Shadows, Frankie Vaughan, Cilla Black and, for my 10th Christmas present, The Beatles at Hammersmith Odeon. But the first gig I ever went to without parental accompaniment was the Stones at The Albert Hall in 1966. The Yardbirds, Ike and Tina Turner and Peter Jay and His New Jaywalkers, featuring Terry Reid, supported them. What a first gig! I loved the Stones for their outrageous persona, but moreover for their sheer musical brilliance. None of them were exactly fantastic technicians, but somehow together they sounded better than anyone else – and they wrote wonderful songs. They nailed that mix of pure pop and edgy head music perfectly. From Beggar’s Banquet to Exile On Main Street they carved a lone, but truly exceptional furrow, almost rediscovering ‘Americana’ before The Band. What’s more, four-fifths of them are still around today, and three-fifths are still making music, kind of picking up the baton from their beloved bluesmen influences. The Stones are important, irreplaceable, and strangely life affirming.
Josh Flowers (Josh Flowers & The Wild)
My favourite Rolling Stones moment was captured on video in Chicago in 1981. Muddy Waters was playing a show at this little blues bar called The Checkerboard Lounge. He’s half way through a rendition of ‘Baby Please Don’t God’ when the Stones all turn up with their entourage, and are seated on a long table in front of the stage. While the crowd makes a fuss and bottles of whiskey are passed around, Muddy doesn’t even blink. In his gentlemanly manner he calls each of them to the stage one by one and they join in the jam. There’s a great shot of Keith walking down the middle of the table to step up and play, cigarette in hand. In contrast to the giant stages of the US tour they were right in the middle of, this feels like a special moment: playing the blues in a Chicago dive bar with one of the all-time greats.
Gina Birch (The Raincoats)
I have liked the Rolling Stones all my musical life, well, the early stuff, anyway. Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) was an album of theirs that I possessed for a long time. I must have listened to that album a million times, and later Exile on Main Street probably half a million times. I never really wanted to go and see them live, though: the thought that they actually existed in the real world never even occurred to me. Some years ago, however, my husband’s boss ordered two lots of Stones tickets by accidents and gave us a pair of seats in a huge arena to see them play. We were even quite near the front at one side. The arena was buzzing when we arrived and the tension and expectation kept rising. When the older men leapt onto the stage, as though they were still in their 20s (and from a distance, they could have been – Jagger and Richards still stick-thin) and started to play ‘Brown Sugar’, I just spontaneously burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying for half the song. When it stopped, I got a grip and everything became real again. Songs that accompanied you growing up have such power.
I’m listening to The Satanic Majesties Request, remembering how I first came across it. I was a first year student at Aberystwyth University, enjoying the freedom of being miles away from my family home. I was like a kid in a sweetshop at the university library, reading my Philosophy set texts along with Crowley, Leary, Pirsig and other mavericks. Aber was a small campus University, so I quickly located the weirdoes and we’d spend time in an attic room smoking dope and listening to music, or wandering out on the hills on mushrooms. My friend Katy, an art student, made a cine film music video for Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Lather’, which featured Nigel, a vegan law student, stumbling around the small streets of the town carrying an oversized butterfly net, then being cocooned in netting on the pebbly beach while I blew bubbles around him, dressed in my Afghan coat. Katy, Nigel and I swapped music avidly and one of the tapes Nigel gave me was a C90 with Pink Floyd’s Obscured By Clouds on one side and Their Satanic Majesties Request is an anomaly in the Stone’s discography but, partly because of my history with it, and partly because thanks to its genuine psychedelic qualities, it continues to be my favourite of their albums.