'Exhibitionism' presents hundreds of treasured items from the Stones' career, including artworks, instruments and outfits
1. It's only rock'n'roll (music)
Exhibitionism presents the story of a rock band – ‘the world’s greatest’, lest we forget – that has remained relevant across six decades. That’s the idea, anyway. It features a vast horde of memorabilia, and is good on the theatre of it all – the clothes, the design, and the stagecraft.
Ironically, with the Stones, all of these aspects have gathered in prominence as the music itself has reduced, in both quality and quantity. This show doesn’t afford much analysis of the music, but there’s a telling moment.
Half way through, we come upon a re-creation of Olympic Studios in Barnes, where the band cut its 1968 record Beggars Banquet, at the start of a five-year run where “the music seemed to drip from their fingers like honey,” as rock critic Nick Kent put it.
Adjacent, a simulation of a mixing desk, on an iPad, allows the vocal, guitar and drum parts from certain of the band’s songs to be turned up and down, and heard in isolation. It is remarkable to compare Mick Jagger’s voice, Keith Richards’ guitar and Charlie Watts’ drums on Rocks Off from 1972 and Doom and Gloom from 2013.
The latter is better in every way – the production is clearer, the playing is taut, the vocals are committed – and, yet, musically and lyrically, the song’s just not as good, and there was something magical about the muddy grooves of 1972, which made it timeless.
2. Little Red Rooster (Early Years)
Through the first few rooms, we suddenly arrive in a facsimile version of the wretched digs Brian, Mick and Keith shared in Edith Grove, in West London, in 1962, before they’d signed for Decca – when they were still sending laundry home to mum.
It’s a mess, like the flat in Withnail & I, with dirty dishes and ashtrays spilling over, and the scattered paraphernalia of a blues-obsessed beat combo – acoustic guitars, and 45s by Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. Through it, we get a picture of both the squalor and graft that marked their early days.
Tour posters and itineraries from the period are unremarkable, except they show what a hard-working band the Stones were – and because it’s funny to think of them, having just played to half a million in Havana, rocking up in St Albans and Southend-on-Sea to make a racket.
But those were different times, and some of this exhibition’s most illuminating moments – brief anecdotes about their working methods – make clear the band’s success was down to its united endeavour, forged in Edith Grove, as much as its talent and image.
3. Waiting on a friend (collaborators)
The Stones do well to acknowledge their collaborators here. Exhibitionism contains a great section about their album covers. “We always tried to get somebody really good,” says Mick in the show’s commentary.
And they did. The stark cover shots by David Bailey and Gered Mankowitz on their early releases did much to establish the Stones’s darker image. Andy Warhol’s zip design and Robert Frank’s tattoo parlour collage helped to cement Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. as pop masterworks – as did the infamous loo stall on Beggars Banquet, the cake (by Delia Smith) on Let It Bleed and the elaborate die-cut design of Some Girls.
No question, they had brilliant record sleeves, for a time. Curiously, you can judge Stones albums by their covers; recent album designs, some of which are included here, have been God-awful. It’s the same with the tour posters; the early 1970s works stand out. The evolution of the band’s tongue and lips logo, originally by John Pasche, gets a lengthy treatment, including a throbbing room-sized sculpture. But it rather serves to show, again, how they’ve reworked old glories.
4. Jumping' Jack Flash (fashion)
“Musicians always like to say that it’s only about the music. It isn’t, of course. It’s about what you wear, what you look like, what your attitudes are – all of these things,” comments Mick Jagger. The Stones wore some outrageous gear; 70 of their original outfits are in display here, most of which were worn by Jagger himself.
We have a Red Grenadier guardsman’s jacket from 1966, the white dress from the band’s free concert in Hyde Park in 1969, a side-buttoning skin-suit and a pink satin two-piece from a year later, a skimpy gold number from the band’s 1972 US tour, and a pair of red and white stretch pants from 1980.
It’s a jaw-dropping ensemble, and collection of styles, taking us from King’s Road bohemia, through glam and high fashion, where velvets and satins make way for silks and marabou feather cloaks, and the dressmakers are Prada, Gucci and Versace.
5. Let's Spend the Night Together (Live)
More people have seen the Stones than any other band in history, we are told as we first enter and watch an arrivals boards flicker through the band’s live outings over the past 50-odd years. Exhibitionism is bookended by the thrill of the Stones’ all-conquering live shows, and propped up in the middle by a section on their performance documentaries.
Exhibitionism kicks off with a spectacular three-minute montage of the band’s career on 40 screens, from the screaming clubs of their youth, through the last days of the 1960s at Hyde Park and Altamont, the creeping excess of the 1970s, and the record-breaking stadium tours of the last 20 years. It’s a hair-raising sequence, with snippets of interviews, drug busts and jet-setting interspersed with the visceral sound of rock’s best band. It’s a gas, gas, gas, as the song goes.
In between, Martin Scorsese, who scored most of his best movies to Stones songs, narrates a tour of the band’s most memorable live moments on film.
But the real drama comes at the end, as we’re taken through a mock-up of a backstage area with flight cases and guitars, and handed a pair of 3D specs, before we step out on to stage with the band. Suddenly, you’re shoulder to shoulder with Keith Richards, looking out over 100,000 fans in Hyde Park in 2013. And then the riff for Satisfaction locks in, and it all goes a bit nuts.
Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones is at the Saatchi Gallery, London, until 4 September. Tickets: £23, Concessions: £21, Juniors (6-17): £16. saatchigallery.com