Pink Floyd really are something. Formed in London in 1965 by students Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright, the group have gone on to be one of the most famous bands ever. They’ve sold 250 million records worldwide, had 17 UK Top 10 albums (6 at Number 1) and with 5 US Number One albums, are one of the few British bands to truly break the US over a sustained period. But the group has always been about more than chart success, as this exhibition by the V@A Museum in South Kensington demonstrates.
After the success of its David Bowie exhibition, it was fitting the prestigious museum chose Pink Floyd, as it is 50 years since the band released its first single, Arnold Layne. In a sign of their unique vision, the song wasn’t a traditional love song, but in fact about a crossdresser who steals women’s undergarments from washing lines. The early part of the exhibition includes details about the band’s origins, and how visuals always meant a lot, even with their first van.
For a band with as atmospheric and layered sound, it’s no surprise that they’ve used a variety of instruments. It was great to see so many on display, including ones that went back to their very first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, one of the all-time debut albums. Observant readers will notice Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai among the creative influences.
One aspect the exhibition touches on is the influence the band had on other groups, especially for those trying to get noticed. Explosive punk band The Sex Pistols caused plenty of attention when its lead singer Johnny Rotten said that he thought Pink Floyd were lacking their raw energy and were too “musically skilled”. Rotten later admitted he was actually a band. The work they did for other outlets, including the film Zabroskie Point, is highlighted too.
The effort that goes into each show is also highlighted, including for the legendary tour of The Wall. As demonstrated in the video for Another Brick in the Wall, an unlikely Christmas number one single, the artwork was a striking part of the song and album. These images come to life with examples such as the worms coming out of the fridge, the wall itself and the hammerhead. It says a lot about how much there is to say about the album that one of the band’s most enduring songs from the album is barely mentioned.
As well as their incredible music, a big part of Pink Floyd is their artwork. Their album covers truly qualify as iconic. One of the delights about what’s on offer is the detail you find about how the covers came about and were carried out. For instance, the iconic cover of Wish You Were Here came about as a visual metaphor for being burned by businessmen. It took 15 takes, with the stuntman being set on fire each time. The stuntman himself describes his experiences in a video, including the last take when the wind started to spread the flames to his face. The inflatable pig from Animals also ended up in a farmer’s field first time around, where it was scaring his livestock. And there’s plenty on The Dark Side of the Moon, which features one of my favourite lyrics.
As they moved onto later albums and the band members evolved as people, their music developed too. One of my favourite songs of theirs, Learning to Fly is highlighted with the song being played as well as props from its video. The Division Bell is given plenty of emphasis. After listening to the free audios through your headphones throughout the exhibition, it’s a shock when in the final room you have to take them off and sit on the floor while videos play. This is because the rooms have been dark and crowded due to the large numbers, and you’ve had to make sure you’re in the correct spot to hear the correct video. You can get more details on opening times and prices here.