Little more than two decades since the Sex Pistols declared their contempt for the "dinosaurs" of the pop industry, an exhibition expected to break all the gallery's attendance records puts them cheek by jowl with the stars they despised.
Icons of Pop, which opens on 4 June, features the Pistols at the height of their notoriety, alongside the likes of David Bowie and the Rolling Stones.
Photographs of 50 performers, representing 40 years of British pop culture from the Beatles to Catatonia, have been chosen for the exhibition, which is a personal triumph for the gallery's photography expert, Terence Pepper. He had long wanted to stage an exhibition of pop pictures but had faced resistance from the gallery's trustees.
But with Paul McCartney now a knight and Oasis welcomed at Downing Street, pop stars evidently have equal standing with the royalty, politicians and other celebrities who have their portraits on the gallery's walls. Indeed, according to Philip Hoare, a punk-turned-writer, who helped to organise the show: "They have joined the Establishment."
Among the previously unseen images in the exhibition is a photograph taken during the making of a film early in the career of Roxy Music. Mr Hoare tracked down the pictures of Bryan Ferry and the band in the days when Brian Eno was still a member.
The earliest known pictures of the group were taken in "grotty student unions" and an open-air festival in Lincoln and failed to show the distinctive Roxy Music style. "We were despairing because none of the pictures were suitable," Mr Hoare said. But then investigations through the band's archive revealed they had made a film in an improvised television studio at the Royal College of Art in 1972.
"It was this state-of-the-art film with psychedelic effects which now seem very primitive and raw," Mr Hoare said.
Ferry, currently completing a new album, said it seemed like "a million years ago" that they had made the film which featured the first track, "Remake Remodel", of their first album, Roxy Music.
"It was done very quickly when you consider how much time things take today and it was done on a shoestring. The students were the camera operators. It's the nicest video we ever did," said Ferry.
But it was not shown publicly as the track was never released as a single. Neither have the still pictures taken during the sessions by Brian Cooke been seen before.
Mr Hoare and Mr Pepper define a pop icon as someone for whom image was all important. "We were ideally looking for the definitive image, something stylish, made up. It's not about reality," said Mr Pepper.
The curators were also keen to capture images of artists early in their career. The Bee Gees offered a contemporary photograph of themselves because they did not want an old picture in the exhibition, but the offer was declined.
Mr Hoare added that he would not have selected the Bee Gees anyway. "You have to want to dress like them to make them pop icons," he said.
Bryan Ferry said he was influenced by the style of black American rhythm and blues artists. From the start he wanted Roxy Music to look good - "or at least kind of interesting. It wasn't very hard at the time because most people looked pretty awful."
However, the exhibition's emphasis on image excludes many artists. "A lot of great music is not visual. It's why the Prodigy get in, but Orbital and The Orb don't, because they're not about image," said Mr Hoare.
Mr Pepper expects Icons of Pop to prove even more popular than previous exhibitions by Annie Leibowitz and Henri Cartier-Bresson. He insists the photographers all deserve the exposure.
Among the photographers included in the show are Gered Mankowitz, Jill Furmanovsky and Brian Aris.
"This is intelligent, thinking photography which many people dismiss, but the photographers who do this are good photographers," Mr Pepper said.Reuse content