Hold on, hold on, children / your parents are leaving

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.

Gahan WilsonOver 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.

Show 3 foot­notes

  1. http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/bind-and-heal/
  2. Yes. seri­ous­ly. Who remem­bers the record and yet NME had it at about #50. Charles Sharr Mur­ray as cham­pi­on I recall.
  3. The sec­ond wave — the first includ­ed Badfin­ger and The Rasp­ber­ries, also heav­i­ly indebt­ed to mid 60s UK pop.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Glenn Cas­sidy on Face­book
June 26, 2011 at 6:12 am

Yep, hap­py to lis­ten to music of all eras includ­ing now. I recent­ly relis­tened to some Alan Par­sons Project and I have to say it was quite good and well ahead of its time and would­nt seem that out of place today..

Ben­jamin Mor­gan
June 27, 2011 at 4:11 pm

V inter­st­ing and stim­u­lat­ing again, thank you — I also rate RIU & SA as a book which need­ed to be writ­ten. It pushed me back to the music I loved so much at the time(thanks ZM All Nighter 1981 -83, Bar­ry Jenkin and Andrew Paige!). Final­ly got around to track­ing down the Com­sat Angels…hmmm, maybe not as good as I remem­ber. Ear­ly Fall is still fan­tas­tic, though.

I had a sim­i­lar feel­ing to you after fin­ish­ing Ian MacDonald’s Rev­o­lu­tion in the Head — a book I liked, but which also had the mes­sage — “fin­gs ain’t wot they used to be; music will nev­er be as good as it was in the 1960’s” — like you I find that con­cept ridicu­lous and so reac­tionary and back­ward as to be insult­ing.

Thank God for the kids in the Lon­don estates keep­ing up the inno­va­tion and excite­ment in music — “mash it up, mon!”

Rus­sell Brown
June 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm

I’ve been think­ing I’d have to get the book and find time to read and write about it, bit you’ve done a bet­ter job than I could have. Nice work, Simon.

Simon Grigg on Face­book
June 28, 2011 at 10:03 am

For some rea­son Face­book has been trans­fer­ring blog com­ments across here and attribut­ing these to me. I *think* I’ve sort­ed that now

June 28, 2011 at 12:36 pm

A great read, Simon (the post, rather than the book). Quick side­bar from where I’m stand­ing: clear­ly he’s not delv­ing ter­ri­bly far (in either cat­a­logue depth or geog­ra­phy) on the jazz front…

George D
June 28, 2011 at 6:48 pm

You post­ed, here, or some­where else, the sales fig­ures for the top 100 albums in the US last year. Most were in the thou­sands, shock­ing­ly low pen­e­tra­tion of a the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of mil­lions and mil­lions of peo­ple. If Radio­head or any­one else release an album that is ‘bet­ter’ than Pet Sounds or Rub­ber Soul, does it make a sound? Per­haps, but the cen­tral­i­sa­tion of cul­ture and its dis­tri­b­u­tion has been lost. There is no one big album, and thus sil­ly things like declar­ing that every Bea­t­les album is bet­ter than every oth­er album (as Rolling Stone pret­ty much did in their own apoc­a­lyp­tic list) are now impos­si­ble. This is no bad thing.

June 29, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Nice piece Simon. As a lover of old music I was appalled and intrigued that I maybe some­how com­plic­it in a retro feed­back loop, but as you point out: great artists steal, and if more of the best of music’s his­to­ry is inform­ing mod­ern musi­cians I can’t imag­ine how mod­ern music could be any worse than Radio I blar­ing from my Dad’s tran­sis­tor in Laing­holm when I was grow­ing up (or any oth­er back­wa­ter you’d care to men­tion)… On oth­er mat­ters — how do you rate Treme? Jubt

June 29, 2011 at 7:00 pm
– In reply to: Jubt

I think Treme had great poten­tial and I love some of the cameos, but it’s nev­er real­ly devel­oped believ­able (or — bet­ter — super unbe­liev­able but despi­ca­ble) char­ac­ters. That said, only 1 ep into S.2 at the ‘mo. You?

June 30, 2011 at 2:57 am

I know what you mean, now episode 3, sea­son 2 after a wee break — I think I’m back on it. I sup­pose demo­li­tion moguls are less cin­e­mat­ic bad guys than drug deal­ers or cor­rupt politi­cians (sheeeeei­i­i­i­i­i­i­i­i­i­it).

BTW one of the songs I recall blar­ing from Dad’s tran­sis­tor was Alan Par­sons Project’s “Eye In The Sky…

Gary Steel
August 6, 2011 at 5:58 am

Excel­lent piece of think­ing, Simon. For some rea­son RSS has only just fed this to my in-tray! Broad­ly speak­ing, I agree with you, but I do think there’s one com­pelling piece of evi­dence for his case (and not hav­ing read the book, I don’t know if Reynolds makes it): That the ever-expand­ing repos­i­to­ry of record­ed evi­dence of pop­u­lar music actu­al­ly makes it impos­si­ble to make any­thing real­ly new any­more. Or very, very hard, in any case. That’s the prob­lem. In a recent Tweet, Neil Finn remarked on how, on his trav­els, some­one had cycled past whistling the song he’d just writ­ten. It’s this vast record­ed mem­o­ry that over­whelms us, and I think is the biggest chal­lenge to orig­i­nal­i­ty. You’re right that so many artists have end­ed up mak­ing great orig­i­nal music because they failed in their attempt to sound like some­one else. But now it’s almost always pos­si­ble to hear those orig­i­nal influ­ences in the music. You can lit­er­al­ly, foren­si­cal­ly, pull the music apart and fig­ure out where they took their sound and style from. I agree that there’s LOTS of great new music hap­pen­ing, but much of it doesn’t res­onate the same way because it’s sim­ply not the first time it’s been done, so there’s not that shiv­er up the spine that denotes some­thing entire­ly fresh.

This is how we walk on the moon / 2011 — The Opin­ion­at­ed Din­er
December 20, 2011 at 9:21 am

[…] most­ly the records here are new and new sound­ing enough for me to offer anoth­er blast of hog­wash at Simon Reynolds’ Retro­ma­nia the­sis and to any­one who leapt all over it this year. […]

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