Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, Rome

Off to Rome's MACRO museum to see Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, an exhibition of relics left behind by the popular psychedelic young person drug band Pink Floyd.

Following the deaths of original frontman Roger "Syd" Barrett and keyboardist Richard Wright - who floated off down the endless river in 2006 and 2008 respectively - the exhibition forms a kind of final cut of the band's story. In theory the band still exists, but it's now very unlikely that they will release any more music.

Which is a shame, because the band's two most productive songwriters are still alive. Unfortunately in the 1980s they fell out, fighting like animals to gain control of the Pink Floyd name, but despite the band selling far more that was a reference to More

despite the band selling far more records than any of the members individually they were unable to surmount the wall, that's right, the wall that had built up between them and even though they're now grown-ups they still can't stand each other. The exhibition ends with footage of the band performing at the Live 8 charity event in 2005, which reveals that the band can still kick out the jams but guitarist David Gilmour has become physically allergic to bassist Roger Waters.

Their Mortal Remains was originally staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum back in 2017, but I missed it because my path was obscured by clouds. How I wished, how I wished I was there! But fate gave me a second chance. While on holiday in Rome I saw posters for the exhibition, as if it was following me around. I thought to myself "ummagumma go", and so I went. Without further meddling I had a momentary lapse of reason saucerful of secrets division bell piper at the gates of dawn dark side of the moon delicate sound of thunder a nice pair.

I've missed out Atom Heart Mother. I always forget that one. Reason being that the lengthy title track feels a bit amateurish compared to what came later and the rest of the album is insubstantial. Terrific cover though. I can confirm as an English person born in England and having spent my entire life speaking English I have never, not once, not ever heard anybody use the word "ummagumma" outside the context of Pink Floyd. Perhaps it was a synonym for sex in the Cambridge area a long time ago. Not outside Cambridge.

I grew up in the 1980s, so for me Pink Floyd has always been top guitar wizard David Gilmour and his fat friend Nick Mason, plus twenty-five session musicians including an entire second drummer, all dressed in scrunchy oversized jackets like extras from the later seasons of Miami Vice, and they all looked incredibly pleased with themselves. Pink Floyd equals slap bass solos and saxophone; slinky backing vocalists in little black dresses.

On a commercial level the 1980s was a great decade for heritage bands. The likes of David Bowie and The Rolling Stones were finally free from the lopsided management contracts they signed in the 1960s, and a combination of mega-tours, CD reissues, a 1960s nostalgia boom and an ageing pop audience ensured that the rock dinosaurs who survived finally had the opportunity to make and keep a huge pile of cash, Pink Floyd included. The irony is that the band began the decade with The Wall, an intensely personal album that made a pile of cash, followed with The Final Cut, which sold less well but charted highly across the world. As with Peter Gabriel they seemed to have struck a balance between artistic integrity and commercial clout, but it didn't last.

I'm conscious of The Division Bell and Pulse being a thing, but for me Pink Floyd is a band I learned about in retrospect, long after it had all happened. I'm familiar with their music but I'm not a fan; I don't own any of their records. I went into Their Mortal Remains as an ordinary man suffering with foot pain and a trapped nerve in my right shoulder but I can report that the exhibition entertained me for two hours. If you have even a passing interest in the band you will enjoy it, although if you've read Nick Mason's Inside Out you won't learn anything. As with that book it avoids any hint of controversy and glides over certain parts of the band's history. In the world of Their Mortal Remains Pink Floyd is a band consisting of four or five chums who love each other very much, and always have.

A while back I saw David Bowie Is at the Victoria and Albert. That was in 2013, which frighteningly is now half a decade away. I have no idea if the MACRO's staging of Their Mortal Remains is on the same scale as the Victoria and Albert's original version of the exhibition; the captions are in Italian but everything else is in English. I like to think that a giant foam refrigerator filled with maggots transcends language.

A Farfisa Compact Duo MkII with a Binson Echorec tape delay unit. A lot of classic 1960s and 1970s synth music was actually recorded with electric organs and guitar effects, notably Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (no synth), Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air (no synth), Tangerine Dream's Zeit (a little bit of synth) and surprisingly Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene and Equinoxe (less synth than you'd expect). The entire Krautrock genre was, with a handful of admittedly highly visible exceptions, surprisingly un-synthy.
Floyd's most synth-heavy album of their classic period was Wish You Were Here, but most of the synth sounds on that record were actually made with a "strings synthesiser", a kind of electric organ that approximated a strings orchestra.

A VCS 3.

If David Gilmour is ever short of cash he can sell the band's collection of vintage analogue gear. The VCS3 in the middle was a huge positive influence on experimental electronic music - it was relatively cheap, and whereas most synthesisers were sold as conventional albeit complicated keyboard musical instruments, the VCS3 was marketed as a non-tonal sound generating source. It forced musicians to think about pure sound rather than melodies.

Back to the text. For the exhibition you have to wear location-sensing headphones, which feels appropriate given that Pink Floyd were a headphone band. The exhibition tracks your location and feeds audio into your head depending on where you stand. One problem is that you have to stand next to the thing you want to listen to, which is difficult if the exhibition is crowded; I remember gazing at the funky bit in Live at Pompeii while hearing someone drone on about the making of Dark Side of the Moon, which saddened me because I wanted to hear the funky bit from Pompeii. If the exhibition's creators were really on the ball they would work out which parts were most popular, and tweak the detection range of the headphones to suit, but I'm being picky.

On a more substantial level the exhibition has the same basic problem as David Bowie Is. There isn't a simple "this is what happened next" narrative. Instead the exhibition is a series of individual mini-presentations devoted to each of the band's albums, with a bit at the beginning and end for context, and a bit about the band's live shows. David Bowie Is had more about Bowie the man; Their Mortal Remains has very little about the band themselves, perhaps understandable given that their personal lives consisted mostly of collecting cars. The sad thing is that the band's most interesting member is dead, and was a recluse for many years beforehand; the band's second-most interesting member has already said everything he wanted to say. As a consequence the exhibition sometimes feels like a Hypgnosis / Gerald Scarfe / Mark Fisher / Jonathan Park exhibition rather than a Pink Floyd show.

Battersea Power Station was marked for closure in the mid-70s, and finally stopped generating power in 1983, a few years after Pink Floyd released Animals. For the next quarter-century it was a derelict occasionally used as a film location. Several plans to redevelop the site came to naught or half a page of scribbled lines, until 2013, when work started to turn it into luxury flats.
Over the last few years the iconic chimneys have slowly been demolished and then rebuilt - a nail-biting process, because what if the developers go bust? What if it's a big scam?
One consequence of the redevelopment is that the iconic cover of Animals can no longer be recreated; the view will be blocked by new buildings.

While I'm in a grouchy mood the exhibition's third problem is political; there's nothing about the Waters-Gilmour split and nothing about Richard Wright's dismissal from the band around the time of The Wall. Once you move beyond The Final Cut - which is presented as a postscript of The Wall - a big sign reveals that PINK FLOYD IS BACK! but when did they leave? Why are there now only three people in the band?

I'm suspicious of the long-haired person sitting on a block in the bottom-left. He don't look right to me. Who let all of this riff-raff into the room? I have no idea how Italian audiences reacted to The Wall, given that some of them in 1979 had actual experience of genuine fascism. Thankfully in 2018 we've got over that sort of thing; a combination of tight censorship, constant surveillance, correct education and strong anti-terror laws have destroyed fascism forever.

Syd Barrett wrote most of Pink Floyd's debut album and was their original creative lead. But he became increasingly withdrawn until the band decided not to pick him up for a gig in 1968. They helped him record a pair of solo albums but lost touch in the early 1970s.
In 1975 he popped into Abbey Road studios during the sessions for Wish You Were Here; he had put on a lot of weight and shaved his hair, and at a first the band didn't recognise him. He died in 2006.
He remains a tragic figure. Most rock casualties were basically wasters who over-indulged; it's hard to feel sorry for them. Barrett shared with Skip Spence and Peter Green an underlying mental problem that derailed his life and career.
Also, that's a lot of cigarettes.

There comes a point when the captions are too large to read comfortably and should be folded into the main text. Do I have anything else to say about Their Mortal Remains? It rushes past the pre-Dark Side albums but devotes a whole room to the combination of Momentary Lapse of Reason and Delicate Sound of Thunder, presumably in an attempt to give post-Waters Floyd a bit of weight. Dark Side itself is surprisingly under-represented.

Did I learn anything? Gerald Scarfe drew a picture of the band in 1974, years before working with them on The Wall. During the development of Alan Parker's film of The Wall there was a plan to use concert footage of the band. This was abandoned, but not before some of the Wall concerts at Earl's Court were filmed in 35mm with a professional team. The exhibition shows some of the footage on a monitor. The film hasn't officially been released, which is a shame because it looks absolutely awesome:

It stood out in particular because of the lens flare; the distinctive horizontal Panavision anamorphic lens flare is a massive digital cliche nowadays, and it's odd seeing the actual genuine thing in footage shot almost forty years ago. The exhibition also has footage from the obscure Final Cut video EP, which was also shot on film and looks pretty good as well.

I've never been keen on the message of "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2". The members of the 1960s anti-establishment movement never seemed to realise that the education they so despised gave them the tools to express their frustration; the fight against ignorance and oppression is a fight, a constant unending struggle, and it requires discipline and a mastery of weapons.

Aw. That's Roger Barrett, not Waters.

Mark Fisher and Jonathan Park's architectural drawings give a taste of the complexity of The Wall tour, and also the difficulty of drawing circles in three dimensions.

As mentioned in the text I grew up at a time when Pink Floyd belonged to the past. The same was true of Hipgnosis; my design heroes as a young man were Peter Saville, David Carson, and The Designer's Republic, all stars of a later age. Hipgnosis' work has always looked dated and kitsch to my eyes, and I'm not being particularly mean to Hipgnosis; leading-edge visual design rides on a knife-edge of cultural context and always dates. Hipgnosis' ideas simply don't work on me as they might have worked on people in the 1970s.

What else? The exhibition runs from 16 January until 01 July 2018 at the MACRO in Rome. In theory you're supposed to book tickets online for a certain timeslot (that's how David Bowie Is worked), but I just bought a ticket from the front desk and strode into the exhibition. It costs €18. The MACRO is north of Rome Termini; I walked; there don't appear to be any other exhibits at the museum; the gift shop had vinyl represses of Pink Floyd's albums for €36 apiece, which is more expensive than buying them from Amazon; photography is allowed, but not flash photography.

The exhibition ends with a Sennheiser-sponsored room that has a quadrophonic stereo setup. A screen plays a video of the band's debut single "Arnold Layne" followed by "Comfortably Numb" at Live 8, which was their final performance together. Pink Floyd circa "Arnold Layne" were jolly people who touched each other; Floyd circa 2005 stood many feet apart on a large stage and looked very professional. The room has miniature little lasers and a smoke machine that try to recreate the band's live show, but the room was much too small for it to work and it felt a bit silly.

Pulse was a live album packaged in a little box with a flashing LED in the spine. The LED was powered by one or two AA batteries depending on the pressing; the exhibition's copy still flashed, but the LED pulses on for only a fraction of a second so I couldn't photograph it.

It struck me that Their Mortal Remains is like a set of DVD extras without the main feature. If I had been in charge, firstly I would have had all of the attendees put up against a wall and shot - purely to demonstrate my power - and secondly I would have split it into a two-hour documentary film of the band, plus a separate exhibition of relics, and I would have raised the price by £4/€4. The exhibition attracted 300,000 visitors in London and the extra money raised from the price hike would pay for the documentary. The film would be played on a loop; the visitors would be able to browse the relics until the film begins, or leave the film and browse the relics depending on their whim. It would need a really big screen and awesome sound, and I would have the smell of marijuana pumped into the theatre so that if anybody does light up, no-one would notice. At the entrance I would have the security guards ask the attendees if they had brought marijuana with them. If they said "no" they would be admitted, the end.

On a tangent, although David Bowie was an obvious choice for a lengthy retrospective the Victoria and Albert was originally going to base their exhibition on another, unidentified artist. Back in 2013 I wondered who it might have been instead; Pink Floyd was an obvious choice, but there are others, and I wonder who will be covered next. Bob Dylan has a lengthy track record but from the 1970s onwards he seemed to lose interest in the visual side of things and there are any so many times the audience can look at battered guitars.

The Tea Set, a proto-Floyd, did indeed record a cover of Slim Harpo's "King Bee". It's odd hearing Syd Barrett telling us that he's young and able to buzz all night long.

Madonna is the next obvious choice. Her career has a rich visual history spread over several decades, but it would be brave of the museum to cover her. The newspapers would inevitably moan that she wasn't a serious artist and that she was cheapening the museum. Elton John and Elvis Presley would face the same criticism. The Beatles would be the safe choice, but I feel that people are sick of them by now. Bjork stands out, but the exhibition has to attract a huge worldwide audience and Bjork has never sold records in the United States; a Bjork exhibition at New York's MOMA in 2015 was a notorious flop.

The Pet Shop Boys would be interesting, but do they have a warehouse full of props? Napalm Death and Death Grips could easily carry an exhibition but they don't have mass appeal. But why stop with individual artists? The Blue Note record label could fill a hall with awesome record covers; Krautrock is long overdue a large-scale retrospective; the likes of electro and early hip-hop lend themselves to an interactive approach, the end and it really is the end this time.