Records And Rebels
by Ben Bonadies
Photography by Maisie Mansfield
Walking through the London-based Victoria and Albert Museum’s sixties culture exhibit, “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970,” I was struck by how modern everything felt. The exhibit itself was advanced, including, for example, an audio-aided experience with Sennheiser headphones that changed the soundtrack depending on the piece to which you were closest. In one corner of the room, you’d be standing in front of a TV while the audio of the onscreen newscast plays; walk further down the hall and you might hear the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”
It was an impressive array that kept me constantly engaged, if not a little isolated. But beyond the tech-specs, every item selected in the exhibit felt relevant to 2017 and served to connect the cultural landscape of the ’60s to today.
Before entering the exhibit, visitors were treated to a mosaic of iconic ’60s album covers from artists like David Bowie, Sly & The Family Stone and The Beatles. These albums were the backbone of the decade and inform the viewer of every element in the exhibit to come. Everything, from politics to advertising, was in some way related to the new wave of sound emanating from these records. If there’s one thing Records and Rebels wanted you to understand, it’s the importance and impact of art, music and culture.
All three of these often converge into original, referential new work that made several photographers of the era famous for capturing pictures of musicians, like Terry O’Neil’s portraits of the Rolling Stones. This was indicative of a burgeoning celebrity culture and a youth culture that was picking up mainstream credibility.
This pop-culture-reference-as-piece-of-art reached its apex with the cover of The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which featured images of famous writers, musicians and actors to whom the band felt artistically indebted. This trend continues today with hip-hop photographers Gunner Stahl and Cam Kirk publishing books and selling out art galleries of photos of famous musicians.
The modern day equivalent of Sgt. Pepper’s might be Frank Ocean’s list of influences in his Boys Don’t Cry magazine.
The first major section of Records and Rebels was all about counterculture—where “Rebels” in the title comes from. This exhibit featured leaflets from protest groups like the Black Panthers, picket sign displays and videos of demonstrations across the United States, coupled with protest music played over headphones. A significant portion of this exhibit was dedicated to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed Peace and WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It) campaigns, physically embodying the comingling of musical and political forces at play in the sixties.
The centerpiece of the section was the corner dedicated to the 1970 Kent State Shootings. The Pulitzer Prize-winning image of Jeffrey Miller lying lifeless on campus grounds while Mary Ann Vecchio screams beside him is still impactful decades later. Beside this and other photographs of the tragedy were the lyrics to Neil Young’s “Ohio” about the Kent shooting, and the song played over the headphones, elevating Young’s pain, fear and anger to stratospheric levels.
Protest music was heavily featured in this part of the exhibit, framing it as both artistically innovative and politically important. The same is true today when political songs frequently climb Billboard charts and win critical favor—like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Kevin Morby’s “I Have Been to The Mountain.”
Another standout exhibit was the Woodstock room—a large theater with three screens of a Woodstock documentary projected onto the upper walls. On the floor, fake grass and beanbags created a relaxing atmosphere while more album covers adorned the lower walls. The documentary showed The Who and other classic rockers, but the best moment was Jimi Hendrix’s cover of the “Star Spangled Banner” on electric guitar.
A plaque on the wall of this room claimed that this moment distilled the spirit of the sixties into one definitive act. A black man, routinely marginalized by the bulk of society, co-opting America’s theme song in the style of this relatively new and scary genre of music. He makes it his own and, in doing so, transforms a guitar solo into an act of political defiance—all while onstage in front of 400,000 fans.
Suffice it to say that the material in Victoria & Albert’s exhibit felt extremely prescient and important to life in 2017. An employee of V&A, Stephen, told me that while Records and Rebels gets a diverse range of attendees, most are “people that were in the sixties themselves, going back for a look.”
Records & Rebels may be nostalgia fodder, but it also made you think about the ripples that the decade had on the rest of history. The final room in the exhibit was about what happened after all the events you just witnessed. The rest of history played out on video in front of you and you were forced to wonder what sort of impact this generation will have on the world. One of the last things you saw in Records and Rebels was a booth dedicated to John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. It was a hopeful way to end an era so fraught with unrest, and provided a positive outlook to take with you even after exiting through the gift shop.