At several of his rallies earlier this year, Donald Trump entered and exited the stage to the tune of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” either unaware of or unperturbed by the fact that the 1968 song is an indictment of would-be revolutionaries with murky, self-serving agendas. Trump and his fans shouldn’t be singled out for misunderstanding the song. For today’s listeners, making sense of late-’60s Beatles lyrics can require frequent Wikipedia checks, loaded as they are with psychedelic imagery and references to then-current events.
The growing disconnection between the musical touchstones of the 1960s and the world that produced them is what makes the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibit “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–70” so necessary. Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, cocurators at the London institution, have organized a collection of artifacts from the period into six sections, each highlighting a different “revolution” of the time.
The backbone of the show is the evolution of British and American pop music in the second half of the ’60s. The curators put a special emphasis on the Beatles, whose career arc—from the trim suits of The Ed Sullivan Show to the bare feet, shaggy beards, and bell-bottoms of the Abbey Road cover—conveniently parallels the broader cultural transformations of the decade. To many baby boomers who lived through the ’60s, the show might feel like the familiar stroll down an LSD-warped memory lane peddled by nostalgia mongers since the very first day of the '70s. But the scope of the show is much broader, encompassing everything from music, fashion, and film to architecture, antiwar movements, radical militancy, drug culture, and the Californian origins of the technological revolution that eventually resulted in the rise of personal computers and the Internet.
There is an immersive, theme-park quality to some sections of the exhibition. Visitors will enter through a re-creation of Carnaby Street, the Swinging London stomping grounds of Twiggy, Alfie, and Mary Quant. From there, museumgoers can revisit the photo shoot for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. “We have George Harrison’s and John Lennon’s Sgt. Pepper suits,” says Broackes. “It’s the first time they’re being shown together since the day they photographed the cover.”
Adding to the immersion is an aural component similar to the well-reviewed headphone tour designed for the last show Broackes and Marsh put together, the 2013 blockbuster “David Bowie Is.” The German audio powerhouse Sennheiser, which is cosponsoring the exhibition with Levi’s, provides every visitor with what Broackes describes as “open headphones,” allowing patrons to speak to one another while listening to music and narration that vary according to where one is standing.
The V&A complemented its holdings with loans from American collections, like the NASA space suit worn by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders in 1968. Anders took the famous photograph of Earth from space (known as Earthrise), which ended up on the cover of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a foundational text for both the modern environmental movement and the technological revolution. Though it might seem like cheating a bit with the time frame, the inclusion of one of the earliest Apple computers from the mid-’70s links the revolutions of the ’60s and their utopian ideals to our networked present. (If we see Jimi Hendrix today, it’s likely on YouTube.)
“I hope people will come away seeing what an impressive period this was for action and vision,” says Broackes. “A bunch of under-30-year-olds had a vision of how to live. The question is: Have we lost the ability to visualize a better world and go out and fight for it?”
“You Say You Want a Revolution?” does have a blind spot, though, and that has to do with what Broackes means by “we.” The social “revolutions” it celebrates (gay rights, abortion rights, the Pill, debates over the death penalty and censorship) applied primarily to people of a certain social set, and in the U.K. But the show does not present itself as British; its purview is explicitly Anglo-American and implicitly universal. “Music is the glue of the late 1960s,” the catalog proclaims, “from San Francisco to London, Aberdeen to Rome.” Maybe so, but the show does not spend a lot of time in Aberdeen or Rome, or among nonwhite musicians (other than Hendrix). There’s nothing about John Coltrane’s spiritual jazz or Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism. Ravi Shankar is mentioned in passing as an influence on George Harrison, but there’s nothing about the psychedelic music that was infiltrating Bollywood at the time. Cultural exchange was more of a global conversation than a tablet of commandments handed down by “influencers” in London and San Francisco, which the exhibit portrays as the twin capitals of counterculture.
This is not quibbling over minor omissions. For a show that is so contemporary in its connection between the social movements of the ’60s and the computer revolution, its narrow “Tale of Two Cities” approach seems provincial. Recent surveys of contemporary psychedelic art have included, for example, Japanese masters of the form like Tadanori Yokoo and Keiichi Tanaami alongside the usual Western suspects. Electric Day-Glo cultural explosions were happening way beyond the swinging ’60s evoked by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up or the Bay Area of the Merry Pranksters.
Still, “You Say You Want a Revolution?” is a worthy exploration of a certain white, Anglo-American point of view of the late ’60s, one that was deeply fascinated by and deeply ambivalent about the idea of an actual revolution. “Show me that I’m everywhere,” sang Harrison in “It’s All Too Much,” perhaps the emblematic Beatles song of the period. But then he added, “And get me home for tea.”
Or safely deliver me to the gift shop, in this case.
“You Say You Want a Revolution?” runs September 10 through February 26, 2017; Cromwell Rd.; 44-20/7942-2000; vam.ac.uk.