You Say You Want a Revolution review: a dizzying trip to the heart of the 1960s

V&A, London
From CIA leaflets to Twiggy coathangers, the details matter in this sensory bombardment of a show, jam-packed with music, style and rebellious history

You might be forgiven for heaving a sigh at the subject of the V&A’s attempt to come up with a blockbuster pop culture follow-up to 2013’s wildly successful David Bowie Is, an exhibition still touring the world three years on. It’s not that the late 1960s and their attendant counterculture represent an unfertile area for exploration. You’d have a hard time arguing the era didn’t feature sufficient fantastic music, social upheaval and blue-sky fashion choices to support a major exhibition. It’s that the people involved have barely shut up about it since the decade ended.

Few generations are quite as wilfully self-mythologising as the baby boomers: they’ve spent half a century talking their youth up as a nonpareil, you-had-to-be-there era of creativity, helpfully impressing upon future generations that nothing they could achieve in pop culture could quite hope to live up to it. It’s hard to imagine there’s a sentient human being out there who hasn’t heard the era’s story umpteen times already.

That said, the 60s can still prove a productive seam to mine, as evidenced by Jon Savage’s recent and brilliant book 1966, an expertly researched bit of preconception-challenging that convincingly turned the orthodox view of a year held as pop’s beatific annus mirabilis on its head. It might have attained that status retrospectively and with good reason, Savage noted, but at the time, you could barely hear the latest Beatles single for the sound of carping voices moaning that pop was past its best and the hip new sound – psychedelia – was an indulgent embarrassment.

The Rolling Stones line up outside the Tin Pan Alley Club in London, 1963
The Rolling Stones line up outside the Tin Pan Alley Club in London, 1963. Photograph: Terry O'Neill/Iconic Images

You Say You Want a Revolution is not an exhibition much interested in that kind of revisionism. This is a show at which John Lennon’s wide-eyed paean to universal peace and love, Imagine, unironically plays as you leave. Instead, it opts to retell the traditional version of events – from Profumo to the OZ trial by way of Mary Quant, Ken Kesey, Pink Floyd and Sergeant Pepper – via a kind of sensory bombardment.

The sheer volume of stuff the curators have assembled is pretty overwhelming in itself: everything from Twiggy-themed coathangers and CIA handbills that attempted to sow dissent among the ranks of Black Panther activists, to tape recordings of LSD users describing their experience (“it’s like looking at a Rorschach test and seeing crushed testicles,” offers one, not perhaps the most compelling advert for the drug’s powers of enlightenment).

Poster by women’s Graphics Collective (1970s)
Pro-choice poster by women’s Graphics Collective (1970s). Photograph: Center for the Study of Political Graphics/V&A

There are some hugely impressive videos. On one wall, a projection of Bob Dylan appears to drop the signs he holds in the famous promotional film for Subterranean Homesick Blues at your feet. A room carpeted with fake grass offers the opportunity to watch clips of the Woodstock festival on vast screens while recumbent on a bean bag.

As with David Bowie Is, your headphones blare out a soundtrack that automatically changes as you move between exhibits, but this time around, the collage of music and voices feels more deliberately chaotic and fragmented, as if to underline the dizzying pace at which events appeared to be moving during the years the exhibition covers. It’s especially effective in the rooms that cover the era’s social upheavals – civil rights, gay rights, second-wave feminism, Vietnam, Paris 1968 – and credit-led explosion in consumerism.

But for all the son et lumière wizardry and marquee-name exhibits – John Peel’s record collection, the actual uniforms The Beatles wore on the cover of Sergeant Pepper – it’s the small details of the exhibition that feel the most striking. The text accompanying a Barclaycard – launched in the UK in 1966 – adds, almost as an afterthought, that British women weren’t offered credit cards in their own right until 1973.

George Harrison’s costume from Sgt. Pepper
George Harrison’s costume from Sgt. Pepper. Photograph: Richard Davis/V&A

A telegram from Apple Records suggests Lennon was up for performing a solo set at Woodstock, but the festival’s organisers mislaid it. An advert for “mens’” wigs to cover long hair at job interviews suggests the existence of a canny breed of hippy, happy to let their freak flag fly only on Saturdays and Sundays and spend the rest of their week working for the era’s perennial bugbear, The Man.

The exhibition ends with a game attempt to suggest the late 60s counterculture led to the rise of the green movement and of home computers and the internet. The former seems inarguable, the latter questionable. In fact, there’s a lot that’s debatable here – not least whether the costume Jane Fonda wore in Barbarella really belongs with the stuff about Germaine Greer and Angela Davis – but there’s also a lot to enjoy. Enough, in fact, that against the odds You Say You Want a Revolution is, in the parlance of the era, quite a trip.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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