Say You Want a Revolution: Records and Rebels at the V&A
It’s not often that I spend two hours in a museum. I’m a fan of the little and often approach. A drip feed personal-improvement campaign. Given my millennial attention span and aversion to queues and placards, it took me by surprise when I took a trip (not that sort) to the V&A’s psychedelic exhibition ‘You say you want a Revolution?’ and emerged two hours later with my mind blown.
The exhibition follows the 2012 music-led blockbuster exhibition ‘David Bowie Is’ which is still touring the world to great acclaim. Following a revolutionary music icon of Bowie’s stature is no easy task. In ‘You say you want a Revolution’, the V&A have curated a sensory assault of cultural artefacts from fashion, film, politics, media, design, technology and commerce, all overlaid – via compulsory Sennheiser headphones – with an epic and emotional sound bed fusing popular music, propaganda, interviews, news and ads which bring to life the spirit of social change in all its many manifestations between 1966-1971.
The exhibition succeeds both in its intricacies and its sheer scale. Lennon’s hand-written lyrics, footage filming the experiences of LSD imbibers and simple statistics showing the spending power of teenagers form a background patchwork which unravels into an ambitious exploration of the very framework of personal and political freedom. A montage of the Vietnam conflict and another of Black Rights activism leads to a truly stirring culmination of Jimi Hendrix playing The ‘Star-spangled Banner’ at Woodstock on a quadruple screen in surround sound. The moon landings are presented in a contrastingly reductive fashion on a tiny screen in a corner that you could be forgiven if you’d missed it. In this revolution, the political and the personal, the small step and the giant leap, are interchangeable.
The exhibition concludes with a cry for more immediate activism. The period artefacts are artfully interspersed with contemporary reference points to highlight the parallels with the present day. Change was then made by ordinary people, particularly the young, empowered into making small changes that culminated in the greatest positive social changes of the century, perhaps ever. The exhibition incites a sense of the personal as well as the combined responsibility we each have for inciting and implementing change. It leaves you feeling emotional, impressed, and empowered.
The soundtrack to the show is extraordinary testament to the power of sound, a reminder of how audio media has long been a catalyst for political and cultural change, far more emotionally led and powerful than social media today. More than the BBC, offshore commercial stations Radio Caroline and Wonderful London Radio were behind the explosion of alternative music which created and reflected contemporary, consumer-led counter culture. Radio has long been the powerful heartland of authentic music, breaking news, community and sharing ideas and experiences in the present moment. Say and want are words with powerful resonances for both broadcast and commerce. Perhaps these uncertain times are a chance for radio to start a revolution of its own and reclaim them.
Genre: Music & Sound Design