Fifty years after Pink Floyd’s first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the V&A is hosting an exhibition celebrating one of the most stylish bands in rock history. It begins, peculiarly, with an oversized recreation of the old Bedford van they used to travel to gigs in, before following their career from its beginnings to their last brief reunion performance in 2005.
There’s a tribute to Syd Barrett at the start, of course. Early displays include memorabilia firmly rooting the band in the 1960s. There’s a dark corridor with a holographic recreation of one of the most famous album covers ever: the prism from The Dark Side of the Moon. The themes of the albums are explained. The Dark Side of the Moon was about madness; Wish You Were Here about the emptiness of the music business; Animals made political, Orwellian statements about Us and Them; The Wall was about barriers of all sorts, especially emotional. As often in big exhibitions, it’s the little things that catch the attention. Pink Floyd’s most famous prop (at least before the wall) was a pink inflatable pig. One, some 30ft long, escaped, leading to a phone call from a farmer: “Are you looking for a pig? It’s frightening my cows.”
But large exhibitions can sometimes be over-produced and lose sight of what they’re there for. This exhibition is more about design than it is music: the creation of the amazing cover art by Hipgnosis, the theatrical staging. Much of it is in atmospherically dim light – so dim, especially at the start, that you can’t actually read the text on the walls next to exhibits.
Unlike the 1960s You Say You Want a Revolution exhibition at the V&A some months ago, where visitors were aurally besieged throughout, this one would be completely silent until the end if you didn’t wear a headset providing relevant sound, both music and interviews. But I felt it distanced the listener; I’d rather have had the sound around me, instead of pressed into my ears.
The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains runs until October 1