You say you want a Revolution? – Records and Rebels 1966-1970, currently on at the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, tells the story of the incredible social, cultural and ideological revolution that rocked the establishment both in the US and in Europe throughout the 60s and 70s.
As our headset starts playing Revolution by the Beatles, the exhibition’s eponymous song, we head towards the first room. The entrance, with its lit dark wall covered in record sleeves, their bright colours glowing like beacons, gives us a taste of the atmosphere to come.
In the first room, the old television sets and giant newspaper articles throw us right back into the midst of the political and socio-economic context of the time. With all the sex scandals, political corruption and a society still controlled by the same elites since the pre-war period, we start to understand why the Stones are singing that they can’t get no satisfaction to the top of their lungs into our headset.In the second room, we finally step into the spirit of the swinging 60s and the changes that made this period so famous. As hair grew longer, skirts were cut shorter. The clothes, shoes and accessories on display reveal new influences on fashion: Indian colours and shapes, Native American beads and cuts, big colourful patterns and new materials (such as paper!) radically transformed the way people dressed. Breaking free from the rigid codes of good-thinking traditional society, artists modernised design and architecture. Designers eased people’s way of life and emphasised fun and colourful shapes. Of course, the use of various drugs, and among others, LSD, hugely influenced this artistic emancipation and a section is dedicated to their use and effects on the arts and culture of the time.
Yet, despite the ideals of peace and love conveyed and promoted by the younger generation, we are reminded that these were also times of confrontation and violence. Social change was not a peaceful process. The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966, aimed to protect black civilians from police brutality and to fight against racial discrimination and inequality within American society. In France, student protests against a rule that forbade male students to visit female accommodation on campus sparked generalised strikes and violent confrontation between civilians and the police throughout May ’68. Society as a whole, but youths especially, expressed their discontent with General De Gaulle’s ageing politics and control of the media. And, of course, there was the Vietnam War and its countless number of unnecessary casualties.
This exhibition was incredibly well assembled, and its highlights include the original score of Help, browsing through trays of vinyl records and laying on bean bags to watch Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock. But the best aspect of the exhibition was, in my opinion, to listen to the music throughout the exhibition thanks to the headset. It completely transformed my experience as a visitor and my understanding of the music and the lyrics. The music was the life and blood of this revolution and carried its message across all continents. The culmination of this phenomenon was of course the Woodstock concert in 1969 with songs like Country Joe’s Vietnam Song and its anti-war lyrics: ‘Come on fathers, and don’t hesitate/To send your sons off before it’s too late/ And you can be the first ones in your block/To have your boy come home in a box.’ This immersion into the atmosphere of the late ‘60s – early ‘70s was incredibly successful thanks to the headset and its carefully curated playlist, and it is an experience that curators might find worth considering in the future for other exhibitions.
Records and Rebels ends on John Lennon’s Imagine and it is impossible to resist the wave of sadness suddenly washing through us. After this burst of creativity, of dreams and beliefs in an ideal world, it is disappointing to realise that Lennon’s words never came true: even the most peaceful activists, like Martin Luther King and of course Lennon himself, died tragically. To think that we do not live up to some of this generation’s ideals is disappointing. Perhaps I am influenced by the particularly rough year that 2016 has been, but we still have so much progress to make in the fields of gender and racial equality, world peace, environmentalism… We can and we should learn from these years of peaceful rebellion. People hoped to change the world with the help of guitar strings, paintbrushes and lyrics. And they succeeded. Today, in comparison, we have so much more power at our fingertips thanks to the Internet and social media. So why not use our talent and continue to change the world?