The V&A revives the 60s counter-culture dream for You Say You Want a Revolution? Rebels and Records 1966-1970

The V&A’s look at the birth of counter-culture gives new insight into how music and fashion can influence society but comes up short of inspiring a new wave

2 years agoText by


Between December 1966 and October 1967, the basement of a cinema in central London was transformed every Friday into the UFO underground club. An emblem of 60s counterculture, LSD circulated freely and Pink Floyd were the resident band. The brief but transcendental existence of the UFO is one of the scenes revisited at the You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Through music, fashion, literature, moving image, graphic design, and photography, the exhibition explores a time when young people imagined a better future and pushed to make it a reality.

With music as the main thread, the exhibition traces the most influential “revolutions” of the late sixties. It starts with Swinging London, the name of which was given by Time Magazine to brand the effervescence that made London the cultural capital of the world in 1966, and Twiggy as the face of that change. From there it moves to clubs and psychedelia, The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band held up as an example of how changing people’s perception of ‘the album’ could change society itself.

Taking a look at the social and political movements of the time, the exhibition focuses on the revolts of May 1968, the objection to the Vietnam War, and the birth of the Black Panthers – as well as exploring the rise of consumerism and advertising – concluding with an outline of the technological revolution that was brewing on the American West Coast. But it’s the final section, dedicated to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, with a multitude of hippy memorabilia and a giant screen that plays the concerts of those four days of peace, love, and music, which evokes the maximum levels of nostalgia.

Gallery-goers are invited to grab a bean bag or lie down on the luminous-green fake grass that carpets the floor and soak up the sights and sounds of the iconic free festival. It’s here that the exhibitions target audience becomes clearest, You Say Want A Revolution is aiming to stir up the past rather than the inspire the future.

The costumes that John Lennon and Paul McCartney carried on the cover of Sgt. Peppers, one of the first Apple computers and a fragment of lunar stone donated by NASA are all among the more than 350 objects that the museum has put together. However, the stand-out aspect of the exhibition is, of course, the soundtrack.

At the entrance to the exhibition, visitors are handed a pair of headphones which provide a wholly different kind of audio-guide to most museums. Inspired by the favourite records of legendary radio presenter John Peel, the melodies of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Zombies, Sam Cooke, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, to mention just some, follow visitors around You Say You Want to Revolution. The music serves as the connecting thread as the exhibition investigates the counter-cultural outbreak in relation to the social and legal advances of the period. In 1967 homosexuality was decriminalised in the United Kingdom, single women began to be able to request the contraceptive pill, and the voluntary interruption of pregnancy was also legalised, but above all the exhibition focuses on disruptive cultural elements – the interaction of new forms of music, fashion and design – that provoked a new way of conceiving the world.

Sadly this once-new perspective now seems rather out-dated, and the exhibition itself makes little attempt to relate the existential cultural and social issues of the late 60s to those going on today. Combined with the show’s tendency to romanticise the icons of the past, You Say You Want Revolution can leave younger visitors (read those under 50) feeling a little disconnected, there’s more on display about the Beatles than there is about second wave feminism for example.

However, it is not entirely anchored in the optimism of the counterculture boom and does acknowledge how fleeting that dream was. The murders of Charles Manson, the deaths by overdose of Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin, the end of the Beatles and political issues, such as Watergate and the terrorist attacks of the Baader-Meinhof gang, marked the end of that young idealism that thought that a song could change the world.

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the V&A until 26 February 2017.