Simon Reynolds knows a lot about the history of rock, pop, soul and all forms of popular music, as well as the interesting bits from the edges. He, over the years, has recited this perfectly – in perfectly formed books that I mostly – with reservations as below – always enjoy reading. And, too, online, where his blog is a must-read. His knowledge is detailed, arguably encyclopaedic in scope. I’ve always had a lot of space for his words and the journey through places I know fairly well that those words often take you to.
Over the past few nights I’ve additively read Simon Reynolds’ new book, Retromania, Pop Cultures’s Addiction to Its Own Past.
That said, despite my liking for his works over the past decades, I wasn’t going to.
The central premise of the book – that popular music has become so involved in its own past that it’s now going around in what Reynolds describes in the book as ever faster [and, by implication, destructive] circles; that it has lost track of a future and seems overwhelmed by its multiple and varied obsessions with rock’n’roll (and soul and electronica – insert whatever genre you want)’s glorious, and often inglorious history – seems to me in mid-2011 to be vaguely ridiculous.
Mostly, he says, music has eaten itself:
It could be like in jazz, where young players come forward who do good stuff, but it’s not going anywhere and it doesn’t have any connection to the zeitgeist. But it’s not just rock that’s ailing; it’s everything—including electronic music now.1
That said, Reynolds writes well and I wanted to see where he took the argument, so I found myself unable to move the pointer away from the one-click.
Even having done that, I found myself reluctant to leap in. It sat on the hard-drive for ages whilst I read two other books. I thought about deleting it, but knew I wouldn’t. A few days back, having finished a fascinating but ponderous history of the British Empire, I needed something like this. It was time.
I was drawn in – so much so, that I was on seat’s edge, reading this on kindle, waiting intently for the killer hypothesis that would draw together the pages – upon multiple pages – where he carefully documents the many revivalist sects, tribes, sub-movements, the year 1965 – where, if I get his point, the beginning of the endgame began, albeit in the fashion world, fascinating theories and essays on future/past and more – before rounding, in the final sections, on technology: the iPod, blogs, mp3 and the abundance of the digital marketplace, both legit and otherwise. It’s a mighty sweep and gathers large amounts of fascinating data, stories and more, many of which make intriguing and engrossing reading. I loved the tales of the concert / event re-creationists – the folk who recreated Bowie’s final July 1973 Ziggy show in 1998 gave the show a red-tinge to match the filters used on the famous D.A. Pennebaker film, so that those who were actually there in ’73 would not feel cheated by their now rearranged, and DVD-distorted memories of the event.
And there is the brief, rather funny, look at the most non-collectable records ever – in the USA it’s the likes of Alan Parsons Project, a (non)band so ugly that even decades on they have acquired absolutely no retro, cultural or musical value. Or Bob Seger. In the UK it’s Terence Trent D’Arby. In New Zealand, sadly, it’s tail end Split Enz – the last couple of albums, and those formless 90s albums by forgotten major label acts like World Gone Wild. These are the records that never leave the cheapie bins no matter how many years pass.
All that is wonderful reading, but I realised as I turned the last (digital) page – the counter said 73% so I was still highly expectant of that killer blow but the balance was index and notes – that I was to be left dry. I’d been fed a litany of quite glorious and captivating stories but I was expected to make the case myself by pulling all those together. And I couldn’t. I wasn’t even offered a vaguely appealing batch of strawmen. Instead, I was left with the potted introduction:
This is the way that pop ends, not with a BANG but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing and an overpriced ticket to the track-by-track restaging of the Pixies or Pavement album you played to death in your first year at university.
and a bunch of subjectively handpicked stories that were supposed to illustrate exactly why that was the case – but failed to do so when the niches and railing against technology were left to their own devices to solidify into a coherent case without Reynolds drawing the converging lines he clearly sees in his head. And that was it. I was frustrated. Worse. Gutted.
Contrary to expectations, I was left feeling that Reynolds has constructed his own exercise in nostalgia, in retromania for the passion he’s now losing for a core part of his life to date. He seems to be flurrying around trying to work out why this is, and instead of dealing with the obvious, has instead drawn a circle around a series of fascinating cultural markers – beautifully put and wonderfully detailed, sure, as a way of dealing with this. At the end, I sat back and all I can see was a rather unnecessarily sad document, albeit one that will find some resonance with many older readers and scribes, as indeed it already has. In fact, Reynolds asks:
How many records released in 2011 will be as worthwhile an acquisition for a neophyte listener as Rubber Soul, Astral Weeks, Closer, Hatful of Hollow?
Probably quite a few – just not for the author it appears, who, while feigning optimism towards the end (well, he’d have to, wouldn’t he) seems stuck in a slightly curmudgeonly and unlinked sweep against a long list of evils and portents of cultural disaster which he uses to try and explain his disillusionment. I really don’t want to state the obvious, and Reynolds tries to counter it, but those two inevitable words ‘generation gap’, are something we all have to deal with: Reynolds just has the eloquent means to turn his confusion into 449 quite readable pages (in the printed version).
Most of us just go to the pub and sing the old songs. Or go and see The Buzzcocks one more time.
I really enjoyed the writer’s book, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 – it documented exhaustively a time that matters to me, but like his earlier book on dance culture, another era I was intensely involved with and have an emotional tie to, it seemed somehow divorced from the music. It was words – good words. It covered the ground, listed the acts, but failed to convey much of the passion. It was oddly bloodless. And yet, now that we have the digital means to add the missing soul to the stories and progress documented in those books (RIU was printed a year or two before YouTube arrived) he finds reason to rail against its negative impact.
Actually, I’m not sure music of any kind really works in a museum, a place of hush and decorum.
Isn’t that exactly what the self-anointed role of so many music critics is – Reynolds included? As a teen, I used to look at the pages of lists printed in magazines like Melody Maker and NME: things like the ‘100 Greatest Singles of All Time’; ‘The 100 Greatest Albums of All Time’ (yes, really, they were that ridiculously definitive) compiled and annotated by reverential scribes as documents from above. I wanted – I needed – those records, many, if not most of which I couldn’t get. That obscurity was part of the reason they were so desirable. Sadly, many let me down when I did hear them: Spirit’s 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus anyone? 2
Endless fawning over The Beach Boys, Sun, The Velvets and Motown filled acres of print. It’s hard to argue that Rip it Up and Start Again doesn’t have something of the air of a museum catalogue about it. You really can’t have it both ways.
And that somehow leads me to another problem with the book.
But then again, isn’t there something profoundly wrong about the fact that so much of the greatest music made during the last decade sounds like it could have been made twenty, thirty, even forty years earlier?
It may to you, Simon, however, I’m writing this with an iTunes playlist I call Early 2011 playing randomly (a sin apparently – and yes I do tend to listen to songs all the way through, it provides the joy of discovery that Reynolds claims we have lost). It’s 132 tracks are ones I’ve loved this year – all new tracks (I have another playlist for reissues) – and it’s fucking fabulous. It’s fresh, challenging and quite delicious. Some of the songs stun – I stop and replay. It’s full of ghosts from the vast musical past, but those ghosts are just that. The influences, the borrowings, the ghosts, are not producing music that sounds like it could have been ‘made twenty, thirty, even forty years earlier’.
Borrowing – even quite slavishly – from the past, or for that matter, from a geographic elsewhere, almost always produces subtle and re-defining change. Reynolds points to The Flaming Groovies as a slavishly retro band in the 1970s. They copied The Beatles. Not just the music, but the clothes, the hair and the graphics. Did they sound like The Beatles? No. They the sounded like a band trying to sound like The Beatles and their recordings opened the door to an interesting amalgam of Beatle-ish melodic guitar pop that sat on the edge of punk, called power-pop 3. That mutated once again in the 1980s and found resonance amongst many of the early NZ post-punk bands. Some took power pop and added ska rhythms.
I could point to NZ hip-hop too: it copied West Coast US rap quite ruthlessly in the early days but ended up sounding absolutely nothing like it, despite the detractors who were both accusing the acts of being weighed down by imitation and clearly not listening whilst doing so.
We borrow, we adapt, we steal, we plagiarise, we look backwards whilst creating the forward, and the playlist I’m listening to right now has all of that. Punk, post-punk, hip hop, The Beatles, house and electronica – the touchstones so beloved by Reynolds, and touted as missing in action now, all had all of those things. They all stole, often quite blatantly. There may be no all-pervasive recording artist dominating and changing the planet, but, really, there hasn’t been since The Beatles. Even Michael Jackson, for all his millions of sales, didn’t change the musical direction of the planet as much as few guys in the Bronx cutting up records. Or the kids in urban UK who have changed the face of record production forever with the more interesting end of dubstep.
It strikes me that Retromania is more about a loss of personal faith in new music by the writer, rather than a larger malaise. Through it comes a writer who no longer wants to get it. And neither should he feel the need to – there is no obligation to always keep up, to be endlessly enthralled by the new, to have to sit on the forward edge. However, to assail that loss of faith with an overriding ‘the good times are gone’ extended essay makes no sense to me. And that, in the end, is what I got from Retromania.
Really, who cares if bands reform to play their complete albums as a concert piece? Certainly not the kids who mostly haven’t an idea who or what a Joy Division album or Pet Sounds is, regardless of how much we elderly leftovers would like to romanticise that they do. And if they do, what is the harm of drawing from that legacy?
Pop ought to be all about the present tense, surely? says Reynolds. I agree. However, my daughter wears an Aladdin Sane T-shirt. She’s sixteen and wants to make music (and movies). David Bowie will likely impact on her present tense when she creates those things, but he won’t define it – that will be done by her own world.