“Unzipped,” an exhibition about the Rolling Stones at the Groninger Museum, cultivates the superstars as icons. Unfortunately, the halo remains intact.
The rock myth seems to live on forever. Whatever it is exactly, the promise that you can radically do whatever you want, the idea that despite everything, despite wage labor and the free market, there is something like comprehensive freedom in the here and now, it is indestructible. Not even museumization can do anything about it, but rather, almost 60 years after “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction,” it continues to contribute to the myth.
The Rolling Stones exhibition “Unzipped” is now running at the Groninger Museum for the first time in mainland Europe., it shows concentrated rock mythology on four floors. And that’s an ideal example, simply because the British band, the Stones, themselves are something like eternity personified. A band that has been there from the beginning and just doesn’t want to end.
A few days ago the Stones even released a new single: “Angry” is the foretaste of a new album announced for October. In the song’s video, a young woman lounges in the back seat of a convertible cruising through Los Angeles while historical live footage of the young Stones flickers from screens on the city’s rooftops.
60 years of band history
“Unzipped” brings together objects from 60 years of band history, all curated with a noticeable penchant for the sacred. Guitars behind glass, of course (“Keith played a prototype of this guitar on the Steel Wheels Tour, 1989–1990”), stage models of the megalomaniac stadium shows, pages from Keith Richards’ diaries, which were charmingly commented by the author: “I can’t do it at all remember it. But it’s there. Maybe I should read it.” A room is packed with stage outfits, and everything in the concentration seems colorful, big and intentionally megalomaniac. Then of course record covers, notebook pages, excerpts from the numerous band documentaries.
A particularly nice feature is a mixing console where visitors can pull up and down the different audio tracks. In isolation, for example, you can listen to the drums, which are always slightly delayed Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman’s bass come together. And what a decisive role Keith Richards’ guitar plays in all of the songs, alongside Mick Jagger’s voice. This corner of the exhibition also stands out because it is one of the few that has nothing devotional about it. You get an impression of the work on the material, so to speak.
Otherwise, “Unzipped” is a single, unbroken continuation of the band’s myth. Most immediately in the detailed reconstruction of, as they say, the legendary band flat share in Edith Grove, a corner of London’s Chelsea district, where Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones lived from autumn 1962 to summer 1963, with unmade beds , nicely draped overflowing ashtrays, leftover food (plastic) and other siff.
The replica of a place where the promise of rock myth found an architectural equivalent, so to speak. And also the point at which you as a normal person can perhaps connect most closely: the Siff shared apartment as a nucleus where you could do everything. Or, as Rich Cohen writes in his band biography “The Sun, the Moon & the Rolling Stones”, Excessiveness to the “metaphysical maxim” was explained.
And who broke away from her parents’ house in order to then move on after the inevitable break-up of the shared apartment. In most cases, unfortunately, you don’t go to the stadium stage, but to an office or something similar. As a myth machine, “Unzipped” works wonderfully. The British band worked closely with the curators when the exhibition was first shown at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 2016. You don’t have to look for critical or self-critical moments, there are none. The discrepancy between great musical achievements like this, which is difficult to ignore “Gimme Shelter”“Paint It Black” and “Sympathy for the Devil“ and most of what came after 1972, after “Exile on Main Street”, is omitted.
“Unzipped” tells the band’s story as a single, ascending line, with the 2016 concert in Cuba as the highlight, shown on three large screens on the top floor, in a triptych format. In the mix of adulation and fan service, “Unzipped” also seems quite anachronistic.
Liberation and repression
Which is a shame, because the story of the Rolling Stones concentrates on the liberating and the repressive aspects of the rock myth. Joy Press and Simon Reynolds, in their exploration of misogyny and masculinity in rock, The Sex Revoltsin retrospect pointed out the at best musty, at worst violent moments of the rock rebellion and described their fight for individual liberation as a phantasmatic battle against stubborn women, domesticity and motherhood.
Mick Jagger’s androgyny could be liberating have an effect on everyone who could no longer relate to the common images of masculinity in post-war England. But one can also, with Press and Reynolds, make a different diagnosis, namely that here “boastful machismo” and “self-aggrandizing androgyny have come together to form a kind of all-encompassing narcissism,” “as a bracket in the history of rebellious rock music.”
And this narcissism causes the devaluation of femininity, which runs through the Stones’ entire work and is not only found in notorious songs like “Under my Thump”: “Under my thumb / It’s a squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day / Under my thumb / A girl who has just changed her ways”.
On the cover of the 1978 album “Some Girls” – in its title song, Jagger claims, among other things, “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night” – pictures of all the band members are framed by women’s wigs, supplemented by short fake biographies on the back of the cover.
“Each of these fictional women is left without a man,” write Joy Press and Simon Reynolds. “Obviously the ultimate disgrace for the Stones.” That simultaneity of machismo, misogyny and attempt at liberation would have been more interesting in pop history than guitars laid out in display cases that Keith Richards touched with his own hands.
“Unzipped” is, first and foremost, a full-on, over-the-top devotional display, and as such it’s great fun. However, if you want to learn something about the band’s meaning that goes beyond the mythically charged set pieces and moments, you have to look elsewhere.