Pink Floyd don’t do things by halves. The evidence of their Division Bell tour shows just how ambitious they’ve been: one military flight plane, two jets, eight tour buses, 18 production trucks, and 53 articulated trucks totalling 4000 tonnes of steel went in to its creation.
And sure enough their incessant curiosity and ability to push boundaries has successfully translated into to presentation of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the definitive Pink Floyd exhibition. It’s understatement to say that they’ve achieved something truly remarkable.
The journey begins at the V&A reception and you’re presented with a set of headphones that we’re told accurately change track or film depending on where we’re standing – sure enough they do with impressive precision.
The first view is a larger-than-life version of the band’s Bedford van used as their tour bus in the 60s. From there on in it’s an eye-popping audio and visual spectacular through the years that charts the story of the band who’ve spent over 17 years on the Billboard 200 chart .
Each step takes you to a point further in their career and with biographies and a series of short films that you could spend an entire day digesting, you’ll become fully knowledgeable about the trajectory of Pink Floyd.
As you’d expect at the V&A – this is a museum of design and decorative arts after all - there are a number of visually astounding pieces from the genius of Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and Storm Thorgerson. Under the umbrella of Hipgnosis, the design duo has been responsible for Pink Floyd’s most iconic album covers - creations that have had an immeasurable impact on pop culture and it was they who conceived the idea of this exhibition two years ago.
Of the artwork, particularly memorably is the 3D hologram version of the Dark Side Of The Moon logo which has its own dedicated room. The Battersea Power Station – the image used on the Animals cover – deceptively looks like a complete, clean structure. Then you walk beside it and notice that it’s in segments and it contains exhibition materials within the body, all making for one of the most clever pieces of architecture ever erected in a museum.
A sonic highlight is the Live 8 reunion that’s been mixed down using 360-degree sound technology. This technology allows your ear to perceive the audio as you would in a natural environment – a highlight which is worth the admission price alone.
But as you meander back through the many rooms and involve yourself in Pink Floyd’s history, it’s not the flamboyant exhibits but the more mundane items that become most poignant. Seeing pedals, sequencers, speakers and other pieces of equipment – items that have almost been a personal extension Pink Floyd’s principal players – left behind glass somehow changes our emotional reaction to them.
And that poignancy is increased thanks to the knowledge that their deployment have been instrumental in the development of psychedelic rock and its impact on the wider cultural fabric. They may be small in size but their impact has been colossal.
The rewards from the exhibition are manifold, not least the realization that the creative input from both the band and its inner circle has led to one of the most extraordinarily creative – and at times harrowing – and artistic journeys embarked upon in the history of music.
Gigwise sat down with exhibition curators Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and Paula Stainton to discuss the pioneering work of Pink Floyd – and in particular the input of founder member Syd Barrett and the political perspectives of Roger Waters…
Gigwise: Is this the biggest Pink Floyd exhibition ever?
Paula Stainton: There’s been smaller but nothing on this grand scale.
Do you think it will fill gaps in knowledge people might have about music?
PS: Yes, absolutely. I think it shows the journey through that second half of the 20th century in the ’60s, and how the bands were all influenced by rock ‘n’ roll that came out of America - you see that in the “Beginnings” case. Then you see how they developed their technology and style.
Did they have personal relationships with the people who were developing the music technology?
PS: Yes. One of the first people they went to was Bernard White. And then they worked with WEM to develop their sound system.
Were they friends?
PS: They weren’t friends they were just very connected with all the experimentation that was going on. So for instance, they were very inspired by Jeffrey Shaw who created these giant inflatable structures in the late 60s. This was in the earliest stages of creating rock theatre. He created the giant octopus used famously at their Hyde Park show.
So they had a very multidisciplinary approach to the arts, it seems.
PS: It was really from the arts and architecture that was around them. Roger [Waters], Richard [Wright] and Nick [Mason] were at architectural college, and so it was really from what was happening very much on the London scene at that time. I believe you can see that really influences how they went on to develop their staging.
Was Syd Barrett a forebear in the theatrical element?
PS: Well he was quoted in saying after the very well-known gig, Games For May – for which the 60th anniversary is coming up this Friday – something along the lines of, “in future people will want more than just to hear the music; they’ll want a light show, and they’ll want a performance.”
I enjoyed the five-minute film about Syd Barrett. One of the things that struck me was Roger Waters saying we’d have just been another band who went and got normal jobs had we not met Syd Barrett. Was it him that made Pink Floyd go beyond pop underground darlings to something to remain in the Billboard charts for generations?
PS: I certainly think both David [Gilmour] and Roger are noted as saying he took them off on that path, but they were the ones who took it forward. They were the ones who developed it continuously.
Were there any other groups who pushed the limits of technology and music other than Pink Floyd?
PS: Pink Floyd are definitely pioneers. If you stand around and look here in the exhibition, they’re not just in using the technology that was available at the time. The band then had it customised. Peter Watts was very well known and he developed a lot of their live sound and would work together with them. WEM were influential, too.
Po, what’s your opinion on the pioneering nature of Pink Floyd?
AP: What Pink Floyd did was always ahead of the game – more than everybody else. When you look at that object there - which is called the Azimuth Co-ordinator that they developed for their stage shows very early on, just after they recorded Saucer Full of Secrets - it will give you an idea. It looks like something out of a Sci-Fi movie from the 1950s; it’s a box with two sticks sticking out of it that you whirled around.
Consequently the sound they made went round theauditorium. This was unheard of before. They could make a helicopter sound as though it was in the auditorium going around you. I well remember sitting with two executives from EMI and they heard this helicopter sound coming from the back of them - and it sounded like it was in the hall - and they both ducked down thinking it was in the hall. It was amazing! It was so inventive and that was way back in ’68, so if you think about it going forward they’ve kept pace with technology.
When you look at the synthesisers in the sonic invention room and you look at how they created sounds with that. Then also think about how they had the foresight to say to the record company, “we want as much time in the studio as we need to make an album. We’re not going to be dictated to you, we want total creative control.” That filtered then through Hipgnosis to me, and it allowed Storm and I to create what we wanted. So when the band said, “we want an album cover” we did what we liked and took it to show them and said, “this is what we’re going to do” and they said, “go off and do it.” It didn’t matter what the expense of doing it was or how long it took; that was more important than satisfying the record company.
Do you think the Floyd’s psychedelic sound conveys their deep curiosity with emotion and it was that what really drove them to want to experiment?
PS: Certainly. They were one of the first people to write songs that weren’t just a love song. They wrote songs about how people felt, about how people felt politically, personally – so yeah.
Do you feel the exhibition can do much to encourage people to change their minds politically and be active in thinking critically?
PS: I think they were very brave. If you come here and see the exhibition, you’ll understand that they were fearless in pushing those boundaries and they were curious. It’s really important that we remain curious and fearless in whatever area we have a passion to go into be it music or art or engineering.
I’ve noticed in particular Roger Waters’ lifelong concern for political questioning and condemnation of the most evil aspects of society i.e. Trump. As his friend what’s your experience of this side of his?
AP: Roger has always been very spiky and he’s always been very political. I think what’s interesting on the global stage is when you get Donald Trump saying, “I’m going to build a wall between Mexico and the USA and Mexico are going to pay for it” and that was like a red rag to a bull with Roger.
Coming out of the Ummagumma period and going into Dark Side Of The Moon, Roger always wanted to write about serious cerebral and political issues, and they got more and more political. When you get as far as Animals - which is an Orwellian device about pigs, sheeps and dogs - he’s really talking about Us and Them and Battersea Power Station representing this submissive crushing down of workers who have to work in this place - it’s like the movie Metropolis. At the same time, it’s this massive grandiose building that looks so incredible. So to stick a pig over the top of it, an inflatable pig is a symbol of saying “fuck you I’m here.”
These political discussions must have been stimulating to have in a friendship.
AP: Yes they were. Roger was becoming more and more political. For instance the story of how The Wall began illustrates this. The idea first sprouted in Montreal when he spat at a fan who was insulting him in the front row of the audience. He immediately thought he’d like to build a wall between him and the audience as he couldn’t stand them any more.
He developed The Wall but soon decided against his initial idea which was to stand behind it because he saw it a bit churlish, because whoever came to see the show had never seen the band. Then he developed it.
Ultimately, it’s a very political statement to make about borders – not only territorial borders about countries but borders emotionally between people, and how people don’t talk to each other and stuff like that. This is very heavy, deep psychological, cerebral thinking.
If I look back on it with Roger it goes back to his childhood. He lost his father in the Second World War, he lost his grandfather in the First World War and he was brought up a communist. His mother was best friends with Storm Thorgusson’s mother whose family was also communist. There’s a lot of background history that goes there that has a lot of turmoil in it. From that comes his aggressive political stance that goes on to this day