At one point in the late Eighties, Keith Richards started getting strange phone calls from Mick Jagger. “What did we do in August of 1966, man?” Mick would say. “You’re writing a book, aren’t you?” Keith said. “Otherwise you would never have called me with such mundane questions.” (He was, though the book never appeared.)
The Stones, unlikely as it may seem, are not nostalgic. Perhaps it’s hard to be nostalgic when you’re still plugging away as if nothing has changed. Their vast new exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery is an age-defying spectacle, largely resisting chronological layout and putting more emphasis on the power of staging and good album artwork than on explaining their role in the Sixties counterculture. It’s the most significant rock show since “David Bowie Is . . .” which set the bar for presenting old rock stars as pan-cultural prophets who influenced the art and fashion of a generation.
That show opened with Gilbert and George and visitors read notes on surrealism while clamped into personal headsets, but the Stones exhibition is an art show in venue only: it takes more of a lead from the British Music Experience, the interactive pop museum that used to be at the O2. It’s a cacophonous multimedia sound-clash that feels a bit like being backstage at one of their gigs (in fact, there’s a room mocked up as such).
“Exhibitionism” is upfront about one of the Stones’ biggest innovations: the concept of band as brand. This is a group that licensed “Start Me Up” to Microsoft Windows in 1995. Acres of wall space are given to the tongue-and-lips logo, from the original John Pasche design to Shepard Fairey’s 50th-anniversary take on it, and we are reminded at every turn that the band had enough business sense to delegate to the best of the best with each creative idea. Like Warhol, whose Jagger prints line one corridor, the Stones’ business nous made their symbols swell far bigger than those of their contemporaries – the lips, now in Topshops all over the world, will sit comfortably alongside formaldehyde sheep in 100 years’ time. The show ends unofficially in a huge gift shop, where silken lips pyjamas retail for £285.
You wonder how long all this has been planned. The band’s staff have saved everything in a vast warehouse in London for decades. There’s a taxidermy donkey like the one from Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out; a Brian Jones dulcimer; seven sketches of a “half-eagle, half-plane” drawn by Mick and Charlie for a tour poster (“Conclusion: we prefer the plane-bird covered in feathers”) – and a huge collection of clothes on stiff mannequins (the one part of the rock’n’roll show no one seems to be able to bring into the 21st century). The most interesting items – saved by the person you’d least expect to save anything – are Keith Richards’s miniature diaries from 1963 in which the Lord of Misrule analyses crowd-band interplay with fastidious attention: (“Musically very good but didn’t quite click; Bo Diddley, tremendous applause.”) Nothing has changed. Here are Ronnie Wood’s handwritten set lists from recent shows; he even marks down what key they play the songs in – useful, he says intriguingly, for when the boys ask him: “What did we play tonight?”
I could have done without the video room – who cares about the Stones videos? – and wanted more on the grammar-school days, when Mick ran a lunchtime jazz appreciation society. It’s a shame there’s not more on the blues they were obsessed with. But there is a stroke of genius: a scale mock-up of the flat they shared in the early Sixties on Edith Grove in Chelsea. It’s a grotesque, humming, scratch-and-sniff cesspit with original Sixties cereal packets. It feels like 10 Rillington Place. Or a Saatchi Gallery in-joke about Tracey Emin’s bed.
Otherwise, there are big holes in the story. Where are the Stones’ girls – Anita Pallenberg or Marianne Faithfull – a vital part of their iconography for a time? Where’s the space given over to Brian Jones? Or the drugs bust, or Prince Rupert, who taught them all they know about money? Perhaps it’s all part of the effort to ignore time, to divert you from the idea of a golden age; but they’re ignoring part of their own cultural phenomenon. The Stones invented a new class of person: the upwardly mobile suburban rocker who gravitated towards lost aristocratic types and got the castles and the suits of armour, too. He’s still there, in the back pages of Tatler. But it’s not really a story the band would tell.
The biggest shortfall is in the way they handle the music. The show exploits immersive technology – they should have plunged you into a black room with “Sympathy for the Devil” on full blast. We watch a video of the producer Don Was talking about “getting the good take”, but we don’t hear the actual sessions. It makes you think of that footage, used in the movie Gimme Shelter, where the guys listen to a playback of “Wild Horses” around the time of the fatal stabbing at their Altamont gig. You see their faces in close-up as they experience their own good take. More of that magic would be welcome. So what if Mick had a hotline to David Bailey and Andy Warhol?
“Exhibitionism” runs until 4 September. Details: saatchigallery.com
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war