With this in mind you can be forgiven a sharp intake of breath when, towards the end of the exhibition, in a room dedicated to the Division Bell tour of 1994, we are informed that for this undertaking the now three-man Floyd required one Antonov military freight plane, two Boeing 747 cargo planes, eight tour buses, 18 production trucks and 53 additional articulated lorries. Such was the scale of this final Pink Floyd tour that three separate but identical stages were required. While one was in use another was being set up and the third taken down, all three leapfrogging one another along the way because of the time required to construct and dismantle them.
I suppose this is as good a way as any of measuring the extraordinary career progress of this most inscrutable of groups, a bit of a national treasure in many ways, whose shows became increasingly gargantuan in scale while its individual members chose to disappear into relative obscurity, at least while Roger Waters was at the helm. With all manner of distractions going on around them, Pink Floyd sang about alienation, British reserve, space travel, the futility of war, madness and death, the combination of which set them apart from their peers yet earned them a devoted following worldwide. The session singer Clare Torry certainly sounded as if she was in mid-orgasm during ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ on Dark Side Of The Moon, but – unlike every other artist you care to name – courtly romance was absent from the music of Pink Floyd.
Neither did they dress up. Jeans and t-shirts, usually black, was their preferred kit, nothing remotely ostentatious that might distract from the music, films and props, and this was another distinctive Floydian trait. The David Bowie Is and Revolution 1966-1970 exhibitions at the V&A were chock full of clothes, the Ziggy outfits and more for DB, the Sgt Pepper Beatle uniforms and Roger Daltrey’s fringed Tommy coat in the latter. But as far as Pink Floyd are concerned, they might just as well have performed naked on stage for all that this exhibition reveals. In many ways, however, this was part of their charm. As John Peel is famously quoted early on in the exhibition, “They could have joined the audience at one of their own gigs without being recognised.”
So unlike those other exhibitions we get no stage clothes on showroom dummies. Instead we get Fender guitars, enough to stock a high end music shop, and amps, and gadgets, stage props galore, some of them gigantic, posters and flyers, photos, some handwritten lyrics and lots of that magically surreal Hipgnosis artwork, most notably the famous refracting prism from the cover of Dark Side, the burning man of Wish You Were Here and the flying pig that slipped its moorings and caused such a fuss in the skies above Battersea Power Station.
It’s a shame, then, that my old pal Storm Thorgerson is no longer around to admire so much of his handiwork. Knowing Storm as I did, however, I have no doubt that had he not left us in 2013 he would have demanded a key role in staging this show, and in the process made life hell for everyone involved. I published his books at Omnibus Press and as a result happen to know that this exhibition ought to have been staged a good deal sooner than now. Countless delays occurred because Waters and David Gilmour don’t often see eye to eye and to get them to agree on anything is as vexed an issue as sorting out the endless squabbles in the Middle East.
No matter. An accord was reached and the exhibition subtly avoids any mention of the internal struggles that rent the Floyd apart after The Final Cut in 1983. Waters was livid when after a four-year hiatus the other three opted to continue without him, not least because the fans didn’t seem to miss him either, so he would have had to swallow a bit of pride to accede to this exhibition’s latter rooms, when Gilmour led a Pink Floyd with Mason on drums and Richard Wright on keyboards, augmented by session musicians.
Quite rightly, due space is given to the group’s founding mastermind Syd Barrett whose blue Telecaster with small round mirrors attached can be seen in a display dedicated to this most famous of acid rock casualties. This early tableaux serves to remind visitors of the time when Pink Floyd was a pop group just like any other, appearing on Top Of The Pops and having their photographs taken kicking their legs in the air dressed in Carnaby Street finery; floral shirts, stripy trousers and Edwardian jackets long ago consigned to the trash.
Once Syd was out of the picture the group’s main pre-occupation was to distance themselves from all that, simultaneously drawing attention away from themselves as people or, heaven forbid, personalities. This served to establish Pink Floyd as a brand, as distinctive as it was enigmatic, recognisable only by their props, the weird artwork and Gilmour’s sustained guitar lines. This modus operandi reached its logical conclusion during The Wall concerts in 1980 and ’81 when four lookalikes briefly took Floyd’s place on stage, a neat sleight of hand represented in the exhibition by the four face masks worn by the imposters. ‘We are not really here,’ was the prevailing message from a group whose members quite literally turned their backs to the camera.
Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols famously wore a Pink Floyd t-shirt on which he had scrawled ‘I hate’ before the band’s name, a dig at the group’s perceived pretentiousness, and this too makes an appearance, though it is made clear that Lydon, as he became, later admitted to liking Pink Floyd after all.
So did I and millions of others, and I was pleased that the final room showed footage from the last (and, subsequent to 1981, only) occasion when Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright performed together, the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park in the summer of 2005. Somehow that day the hatchets were buried and Pink Floyd’s final performance was as emotional as it was out of character for them. As I wrote at the time: “Bereft of their usual crowd-pleasing props and light show, Floyd’s music, clearly well-rehearsed, seemed to take on an added warmth as the night drew in. The moving sight of this much-loved British band together again for the first time in 24 years was made all the more poignant when Waters dedicated ‘Wish You Were Here’ to Syd Barrett, their founding genius.”
In that final room they perform ‘Comfortably Numb’ behind a brick wall that falls away, and at the close, hesitantly, they put their arms around each other in an uncharacteristic display of brotherly affection. Perhaps behind their moody music and magnificent stage props Pink Floyd had a soft centre after all.
The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 1 October.