Sympathy for the devil in the detail

Sydney's Rolling Stones history marks the first time the band have opened their vast private archive to public viewing.

Since their formation in London during 1962, the Rolling Stones have progressed from a struggling rhythm and blues group to a worldwide phenomenon. From being the bad boys of the British music invasion of 1964 they have been courted by presidents and royalty culminating in Mick Jagger being knighted in 2002.

Much of this remarkable journey is now on show in Sydney with the Rolling Stones Exhibitionism collecting many artefacts from their career and putting them on public display for the first time.

 It took more than three years for the exhibition to come to fruition with the organisers having to follow the group around the world to present their ideas and for the group to have opportunities to have their say on how they wanted their history put on show.

The exhibition has a strong Australian connection with Queensland-based IEC Exhibitions coming up with the idea and pitching it to the “greatest rock’n’roll  band in the world”. 

Although a few other acts have been the subject of career-spanning exhibitions, Exhibitionism is the biggest touring experience of its kind ever to be staged and marks the first time the Rolling Stones have opened their vast private archive to public viewing.

The exhibition first opened in London 2 1/2 years ago and has spent much of 2017 and 2018 touring major American cities. Such is the size and complexity of the exhibition it takes eight weeks to dismantle and reassemble between venues and, daily, it takes about 20 minutes to prepare before the public are admitted. Exhibitionism is exclusive to Sydney which is also the only city in the southern hemisphere to play host.

Rather than follow a chronological time line, Exhibitionism follows several themes with time lines within those themes.

 A bright red neon sign reading “Ladies and Gentlemen” welcomes visitors to the exhibition. As Stones fans will know, for many years the band has been introduced on stage with the simple announcement, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones”. From there it’s on to a multi-screen three-minute collage of the band’s history with even the more unpleasant aspects of the band’s story such as the drug busts, the death of founding member Brian Jones and the fatal Altamont concert all included.

Next up is a visit to the three-room flat Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards occupied in west London circa 1962 when they were starving musicians awaiting their big break. 

The attention to detail is such that some of Britain’s best set designers and period historians were consulted to ensure that the near squalor they inhabited is true to detail, right down to the overflowing ashtrays and a cheap radiogram playing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley records.

Yet another wonderful recreation is the main studio of Olympic, the west London recording studios where the Stones laid down many of their late 1960s classics such as Honky Tonk Women and Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

 Again, the attention to detail cannot be faulted and visitors can easily imagine that the band has taken a short break for refreshments and could walk in at any second to continue recording. 

At the far end is a window, outside of which, as was the case, is the multi-track mixing desk. Some original tape boxes with technical recording details all add to the reality.

Speaking of mixing, there is an opportunity for visitors to don headphones and, via a touch-screen mixing desk, remix some two dozen or so Stones’ songs. Each track of the song can be faded up or down so that vocals, drums, lead and bass guitar and other elements can be separated out. Removing Jagger’s vocals throws a new light on many favourites!

A significant part of the exhibition is devoted to “the tools of the trade” with many guitars and harmonicas on display as well as the dulcimer  Jones played to such gentle effect on the mid-1960s classic, Lady Jane.

As fashions changed so rapidly in the 1960s and early 1970s the members of the Stones were seen as leaders of men’s fashions and there are more than 70 outfits on display. They range from everyday fashion through to the flamboyant stage outfits so beloved of  Jagger. From the houndstooth jackets which they reluctantly wore for their first TV appearance, through to brightly coloured psychedelics of the late 60s and on to the jumpsuits of the 70s and flowing scarfs of the 80s, many of them are there.

Yet another highlight is the walk-through recreation of the backstage area of a modern-day Stones show. Each band member has a big semi-darkened space to himself with guitar racks, amplifiers, a clothing area and in Jagger’s case, a make-up table. What is remarkable is that the area set aside for the band to prepare for modern shows is almost as big as some of the earliest venues they performed in.

At the final stage of the exhibition visitors can don 3-D glasses and take in a Martin Scorsese-directed concert sequence, a nice way to pull together many of the elements just experienced.

With many original documents, album artworks, stage designs, posters and the like, this exhibition provides a unique insight into a band who started out as a bunch of scruffy hopefuls more than 55 years ago and who are now a major industry employing dozens of staff (hundreds when on tour) and who fly around the world in their own jet aircraft.

 As rock historian Glenn A. Baker noted at the preview “It’s the sort of show that you put aside a couple of hours to see and then wander out six hours later”.

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