Review: You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970

Installation image from You Say You Want a Revolution. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Revolution (meaning): overthrow, change, movement.

In a recent interview in The Guardian film director Houda Benyamin evoked the 1968 ‘revolts’: ‘anger was understood and translated by an intelligentsia: authors, intellectuals, artists, who then formulated demands and so made progress.’

This spirit of revolutionary progress permeates this exhaustive and informative exhibition (covering 1966 – 1970) at London’s V&A which illustrates how close a collective mind-set (united by a belief in better for all) came to a rearrangement of the world’s hierarchical structures and norms. This mass consensus to effect positive change for the greater good seemed achievable with love all you needed (apparently).

Installation image from You Say You Want a Revolution. Image © Victoria and Albert MuseumTo set the scene, renowned DJ John Peel’s LP record sleeves are dotted round the entrance which combined with the headphones (cumbersome although essential; wherever you wander the information follows) provide a soundtrack that help navigate you through an audio-visual chronological derive through this timeframe.

Each room/segment is dedicated to a time/period/moment with these memoirs and memories (of an unprecedented spiritual awakening/consciousness uprising) reminding of this rejection of the past/passed. This is a hyper-sensory journey, you see, can touch (some exhibits), hear (the sounds) and almost ‘smell’ the 60s. Taste is mandatory.

Art schools were fundamental sites: intellectual, democratised avenues for the working class, individual betterment not the preserve of the gentry. The tour expertly articulates the ‘youth driven’ revolutions in identity, beliefs, politics, consumption, living and communication that contributed to new ways of thinking, living and being. Music, fashion, art, literature and technology all contributed to a forward-thinking, backward-discarding momentum, the desire to push on and avoid the mistakes of the past.

At the crux was music; music that inflamed thought, inspired creation, energetic and transcendent acting as a conduit for pure expression and unity. At its core (and arguably still the case) are The Beatles, whose influence infiltrated global culture through messages of love, peace and questioning the status quo.

Fashionable hip boutiques like BIBA and Granny takes a trip and cool zones such as the mythological Carnaby Street were at the epicentre of fashion; at odds with today’s facsimile of bland consumerism and identikit conformism. The exhibition has tangible artefacts such as Mary Quant’s miniskirt (how a hemline shook the world!) to encased Beatles suits (Lennon and Harrison Sgt Pepper outfits, Jane Fonda’s Barbarella costume,) clothes as a form of autonomy and generation gap signifiers.

Installation image from You Say You Want a Revolution. Image © Victoria and Albert MuseumThe penultimate ‘experience’ is an ersatz ‘festival area’ replete with a large screen showing concert footage and bean bags further mollycoddling the youth of today, the only misstep of the day. It serves to remind that festivals have gone from free spaces to fee-places.

If the purpose of art is to act as a portal, to transport you to a time, a space and place then this succeeds on every level. This outstanding exhibition forensically shows how these four years (albeit brief) shook the world yet by its very existence the exhibition also highlights how the revolution has been commodified, codified, culturefied, archived, monetised, curated and historicised which begs the question: what have we learned? Youth wasn’t always wasted on the young; technology’s utopian ideals have turned into a net of surveillance and web of entrapment; culture/society has gone from ‘we’ to me’ from thy to I, universalism and unity to atomisation and narcissism.

The past can help contextualise the present and in this case it suggests that we currently exist in an ever infantilised culture of regressed adolescence, a ‘life’ mediated and ‘lived’ through ‘things’, what culture is there to counter if it’s all happening NOW via tech-retrieval ? Rebellion is seemingly confined to being ‘just a click away’, a vicarious participation the flame feels extinguished. It is difficult to imagine a parallel period being remembered in 50 years’ time, with today’s retrofestishising creating a sense of ‘lostalgia’: a denied future.

In these disenfranchised times of austerity, inequality, disparity and overt geopolitical chicanery this time-travelling tour is a stark reminder of how (little) progress has been made, regression is the new world order. All gains subsequently regained.

As the titular song continues: ‘Well, you know, we all want to change the world’. Don’t we? This lot gave it a shot.

This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – Kevin Quinn writes reviews and articles about music and film for various websites, including his blog ActionTimeVision. Images © Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 runs until 26 February 2017.