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Led Zep Chills, Stones Sneer in London Exhibit on Swinging 60s


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Oct. 20 (Bloomberg) -- The Beatles flee from crowds of screaming fans on a 1964 tour to pose at a Scottish country hotel, carrying umbrellas and looking pensive under a gray sky.

The Rolling Stones, with less good grace, sneer through hangovers and lack of sleep for an early-morning photo shoot in the fog of Primrose Hill. On the opposite wall, David Bowie perfects his “alien spaceman” look with a gold jumpsuit and Led Zeppelin members sport the impassive stares of rock gods.

Around them at the National Portrait Gallery, some 150 other images capture the essence of “swinging London,” when the U.K. capital became the center of the pop world. The show is accurately called “Beatles to Bowie,” yet bears a misleading subtitle “The 60s Exposed.”

Anyone expecting surprising revelations, with telephoto paparazzi shots through bedroom windows, will be disappointed. Singer Marianne Faithfull, wearing white socks, looks impossibly innocent as she reclines in the Salisbury pub on St. Martin’s Lane. Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix look boyish and angelic: The only hint of drug culture is in the dazzling psychedelic colors and swirling kaleidoscope images.

There are references to “icons” and “iconic” in the exhibition notes. If this means the stars were worshiped in their time, that’s certainly true. Some of the pictures, of the Beatles in particular, are still endlessly recycled on bedroom walls, screen savers, T-shirts and computer games.

Even the most casual fan will recognize some images, such as Bruce Fleming’s Hendrix studio pose that ended up on the cover of the “Are You Experienced?” album.

Leaping Beatles

It’s more interesting to see the images that didn’t make it. Fiona Adams photographed the Beatles in 1963, dancing on a wall off Euston Road in London like dervishes. The exhibition adds her Rolleiflex contact sheet, showing how that perfect shot beat out four others in mid-jump.

While a few photos on display look little better than Box- Brownie snaps -- a moody Eden Kane (remember him?) leaning on a Ford Zodiac car in 1962 -- there are many masterpieces. Tony Frank’s landscape of the Welsh town of Pontypridd, with a black- clad Tom Jones surveying the sweep of river and railway line, is breathtaking and far from the normal rock portrait.

It’s often hard, of course, to take a bad picture of a famous person: Capture them doing something unposed, such as putting on a pair of shoes (Bob Dylan), falling asleep (the Springfields) or lighting a surreptitious cigarette (Paul McCartney) and you probably have a memorable image.

For my money, the best pictures are those the stars probably would prefer to forget: Bowie’s advertising shot for the Stylophone (a hideously bad toy piano) or a young Rod Stewart in a stay-pressed mod suit that looks like it’s made out of cardboard. Then you come around a corner and face the Colin Jones picture of the Who’s Pete Townshend in a union-jack coat and pinhead stare. They don’t make them like that any more.

“Beatles to Bowie: The 60s Exposed” is at the National Portrait Gallery through Jan. 24, 2010. The show is sponsored by BNY Mellon. For more information, see http://www.npg.org.uk.

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Around them at the National Portrait Gallery, some 150 other images capture the essence of swinging London, when the U.K. capital became the center of the pop world. The show is accurately called Beatles to Bowie, yet bears a misleading subtitle The 60s Exposed.

Thanks. I think the author got it wrong regarding Zeppelin being associated with "swinging London." Didn't that "scene" fall apart by 1968? I always thought that period was Twiggy, early Pink Floyd, even Jimi Hendrix ... very LSD-influenced along with Carnaby Street fashion. Never heard Zep being part of that scene ...

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