The Rolling Stones have been the subjects of documentaries, concert films and books, but with the recent London opening of an exhibit of their vast personal archive, the band is finally getting the museum-exhibit treatment. Spread out over two floors and nine galleries at the Saatchi Gallery, Exhibitionism crams in much of what any Stones fan would want to see: stage clothing, guitars and other gear, displays of classic album cover art and tour posters and the history of their legendary "lips" logo.
But the exhibit – which is arranged by theme rather than by a timeline – has plenty of other surprises: recreations of the first apartment the band shared and a typical backstage area, a video and movie gallery that includes a portion of the infamous Cocksucker Blues, and even 3D concert footage. Curator Ileen Gallagher takes RS on a tour of the inner workings of Exhibitionism – which is said to be coming to other cities, including New York, in the future.
This exhibit is pretty huge and complex. How long has it been in the works?
About three years ago, IEC, a production company out of Australia that had started getting into the traveling exhibition business, approached the Rolling Stones. It was the right moment for the Stones and their career, and they realized this is a great opportunity to get in front of their fans in a different sort of way. They had discussions and came up with the basic narrative structure.
What was that narrative?
The band was interested in doing something thematic that really wasn't a chronological presentation, for obvious reasons. When you begin in the Sixties and you've been going for over 50 years, it kind of has this crescendo and then this downward slope [Laughs]. They wanted their career to be explored thematically, and I think that was definitely the right decision. It allows you to kind of explore these rich topics and their history very cohesively.
Tell us about the Stones' own archive. Where is it?
It's a warehouse in London. I'm bad at [measurements], but it's maybe 10,000 square feet. About two thirds of the exhibit came from that. It's climate controlled and there's a clothing area, an instrument area, a tape area, a film area. There's just so much. When we were going through things, we found these lyric books of Mick's from the Some Girls era. It was really a great discovery.
We also went to some primary collectors who collect Stones memorabilia and material. The band doesn't have anything before 1972. When you're a young band, you have no idea of what your future is going to be. You don't necessarily think these things are important or of significance. So they just didn't think it was important [to save materials in the early days], you know? Obviously, in retrospect, that was foolish.
They did keep some guitars and instruments from their earlier years, but that was kind of it. And Mick was very good at keeping his clothing. I can't say that for the other men in the band. Bill Wyman apparently collected a lot. We borrowed some items from him, like the outfit he wore in Hyde Park and his first amp. As legend goes, that's the one he used for his audition with the Stones. He also donated one of Brian Jones' guitars.
What did the collectors have that the Stones didn't?
Some of the rarest posters and all the early posters. One of the collectors had all the copies of this early Rolling Stones magazine that was put out. We have the handwritten sheets each member of the band filled out – about what was their favorite hobby, what they did after school. It's one of the great things we have in the exhibit.
There's also an early contract, the first recording contract the band signed. That was from one of the collectors. It was signed by Brian and [early Stones business manager] Eric Easton. The date is from 1963. And basically, the terms of the contract gave the band 6% of the records' wholesale price.
How involved was the band as you and your colleagues were organizing the exhibit?
We had two large meetings that all the band members attended where we reviewed the designs for the exhibition. They gave us their feedback. And then another meeting where everything was a little more gelled. And again, we got their feedback also. We showed them things that were going to be included in the exhibition. But it wasn't so much on that micro level of their involvement. It was more the look and the feel of the exhibition, the stories that we were trying to tell.
Did they have any special requests?
Mick really advocated for the re-creation of the Edith Grove apartment, and we had a lot of conversations about how we should accomplish that and how it should look and feel. There were no photos [of the original apartment]. The designers of the exhibition took photographs of the outside of the house and the inside of the flat as it existed now, so we were able to re-create the right kind of proportions of the room. But the inside, we really had to kind of leave to Keith's and Charlie's memories. They were pretty in-sync. They all said it was disgusting. [Laughs] They mostly remembered there was a radiogram [a combination radio and record player] and that they spent a lot of time listening to records. And Brian would spend time writing letters to various publications trying to get gigs, saying, "You know, we are not a rock & roll band. We are not a pop band. We are an R&B band."
What did they nix for the exhibit?
In the beginning, there were some ideas thrown around, like having a gallery devoted to songwriting. Mick was like, "You can't. I write in the kitchen, I write in the living room, I write in the hotel room. I write when I'm on safari." It's not a thing of going into the studio and cutting a record for them. They write wherever and whenever the inspiration hits.
The exhibit features a slew of Mick's stage outfits, especially those jumpsuits that now look so amusing.
There's a series of three jumpsuits in the exhibition. Mick talked about how much he really loved them, because it was so easy to jump in and jump out of them. The clothing does have some stains on it. For the most part, they were in very good shape.
We had this really funny exchange. I did run all the clothing by him that was going to be in the exhibition. Do you remember those mariachi shirts that were worn by him and Charlie at one moment in the band's career? They had the very ruffled arms. I wanted to put the one that Charlie wore in the exhibition, but Charlie didn't really want to be represented that way. I told Mick that, and he said, "You have got to be kidding me. Look at these costumes that are representing me. Some of them are so unbelievable, and Charlie is worried about being seen in his mariachi shirt?"
All these guitars we're seeing – are they still being used?
Most of the ones from Keith are retired. But most of the ones from Ronnie are still in use, which is kind of very cool. One of the guitars I wasn't sure that we were going to get until the last moment was one of Ronnie's. But it's in the exhibition. I'm not sure how long we'll be able to keep it. We also have the guitar Keith played on "Gimme Shelter." At the very end of the song, the neck fell off. Apparently you can hear it in the song.
What's the story behind the Keith 1957 Les Paul that's partly painted?
He was waiting to go to jail [for the 1967 bust] and he was kind of fooling around with this paint set and started on a pair of shoes. And then I guess the acid kicked in, and he started on the guitar. I can read you his quote. "I was bored waiting to go to jail. They had come out with these paints, you know, like a pen thing. I started with a pair of shoes and then went on to the guitar. I wouldn't have done this to a guitar, if I hadn't known the stuff was working. I did the first to a pair of white boots I had. And after I had taken enough acid and done the boots, OK, what's next? The guitar, it was a hell of a trip. Yeah, I certainly didn't personalize it, didn't I?"
What's the significance of the African percussion?
Those were Charlie's. They're the original drums featured in "Sympathy for the Devil." We also have Charlie's first drum kit. He also kept his toy drum kit he used for "Street Fighting Man." It's from the 1930s, and he bought it at an antique shop. He and Keith were fooling around with it one day. It ended up as a main percussion on "Street Fighting Man." That's another of the great things in the exhibit.
What are some of the highlights?
We have the first recordings they did at IBC Studio from March 11th, 1963. We have an evocation of Olympic Studio. In there, we have guitars from Keith and Brian and Charlie's drum kit, and on the screens behind all of that is video of the band in the studio. We have Ian Stewart's piano there and an organ played by Billy Preston over the years. When Charlie went through the exhibit and got to the studio, we actually went inside it, behind the glass, to check everything out.
I notice there isn't anything about their personal lives.
No. That was the one thing – we made a very conscious decision in the beginning, the producers and the Stones, that was about the musical career of the band and about these four individuals mostly. It wasn't about their personal life. That would have been a whole other exhibition.
Was Mick Taylor involved?
No. Actually, he does feature in the 3D movie, because the footage is taken from Hyde Park.
One thing not on display is Mick's famous top hat from that 1969 tour.
The top hat doesn't exist anymore. But we did recreate the cover of Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! with a stuffed donkey. The production manager procured it. I think it's on rent to us from Australia. We are renting the donkey.
Does it look like the one on the original?
It looks pretty good. That donkey's legs on the [original] cover are very short. The ones in the exhibition, his legs are much longer. But other than that, I think there's a striking resemblance.