Thursday, December 26, 2013

getting the future wrong, #3

[#2 was this post on the 1977 series 1990]

Television scholar Robin Carmody has recently been making available some marvellous archival material from the British 1970s and 1980s.

Including Stargazy on Zummerdown, which I had been searching in vain for on YouTube having come across a clipping about it in an old scrapbook of mine I'd recently got hold of, from when I was fifteen-sixteen and transitioning from old obsessions (Monty Python & diaspora; science fiction; futurology; surrealism) to new ones (music + music journalism).

 Originally broadcoast on 15th March 1978 as part of the BBC2 Play of the Week series, it's set in  a "23rd century, Britain (now called Albion)" which is "made up of two distinct communities - the Aggros (farm workers) and the Toonies (industrial workers). They meet at Zummerdown for the annual midsummer festival of Stargazy"

Well, I say "getting the future wrong" but I guess we won't know until we get to the 23rd Century, strictly speaking. However like Greatorex's 1990 and like Burgess's 1985, the play is much more a reflection of  mid-Seventies preoccupations than actual prognostication.

(C.f. this Guardian articleby Neil Clark on the 1978 Christmas edition of the Radio Times and UK TV "before Thatcherism ruined it")

Here's the play in five parts

Stargazy on Zummerdown 1

Stargazy on Zummerdown 2

Stargazy on Zummerdown 3

Stargazy on Zummerdown 4

Stargazy on Zummerdown 5

Commentary on Stargazy from Horror News

"Billed as a visionary fable of Britain in the 23rd century, this was an optimistic look at the future by a historian specialising in the 17th century. England, or rather Albion, has reverted to a country of peaceful rural communities and small towns in a happy balance of high technology, industry and nature, called the Commonwealth of New Harmony. At the Stargazy, the annual midsummer meeting of the agricultural folk (Aggros) and industrial workers (Toonies), among the megaliths on top of Zummerdown, the two communities come together to settle the terms for the following year’s exchange of products and know-how, and engage in the ritual discharge of mutual aggression. Under the amiable supervision of the Reformed Celtic Church, they enjoy themselves in dancing contests, onion tastings and a swearing contest of Chaucerian earthiness. Stargazy On Zummerdown was science fiction that drew heavily on history. Author John Fletcher called it “The Anglo-Saxon constitution plus industrialisation.” The talented cast included Roy Dotrice, Stephen Murray and John Gillbyrne."

Commentary on Stargazy on Zummerdown from You Can't Do That On TV Anymore blog:

"Nuzzling up to Stars of The Roller State Disco (1984) in any self-respecting apocalyptic telly fan's alphabetised collection is Stargazy on Zummerdown (1978), a slice of town and country ritual rivalry set in the 23rd century, in a society where urban and rural communities live uneasily side by side under the benign auspices of a retro-pagan church, and trade relations between the two are agreed at an annual festival wherein village fete meets wrestling smackdown. Oh, and an onion eating contest. If ...Disco was a prime example of hands-on-hips grimness, here's a future full of side-clutching whimsy.

"This is an odd little thing, even in the weirdo annals of 1970s BBC drama. Part of BBC2's prestigious Play of the Week slot usually reserved for the finely wrought likes of Langrishe, Go Down or Stoppard's Professional Foul, it's the work of John Fletcher, a historian with no previous dramatic convictions but a healthy interest in pre-industrial revolution England. As with Hastings's work, characters are schematic. Roy Dotrice plays a loopy, valve-soldering eccentric, while Peggy Mount gets to shout great rustic insults as one Opinionated Alice. But the majority of talk, as is the way with these things, gets put to use explaining and itemising the meticulously detailed future world and its workings. Delivered in sing-song west country burrs, this functional chat starts to sound like a lacklustre episode of The Archers, with the occasional reference to starships being built in Sheffield.

 "It's also a fine example of the studio countryside. Everything takes place indoors, with shrubbery wheeled in from the sides and lit with 5,000 watts in front of a sky blue backcloth. Only modern eyes, raised on years of hand-held, desaturated Cardiff street footage, have trouble taking stuff that looks like this seriously, but even at the time the effect must have smacked a bit of Play School. Not helping matters is the presence in the cast of Toni Arthur, though to be fair she does as spirited a saucy “I do declare” turn as the modest headroom of the script will allow. Perhaps as if to acknowledge this threadbare failing, director Michael Ferguson (a name to drop amongst psychedelic Whovians, should you find yourself in their company with no easy escape route) ends the final shouting scene with a pull-back to reveal the studio cameras and lighting gantry – a budgetary apology dressed up as entry-level Brecht. Still, Ferguson was a veteran of Churchill's People, so he knew a thing or two about the “cardboard spear” end of recession drama."

Monday, December 23, 2013

the Nineties revival(s)

Lord help us, apparently there's a revival of 90s pop-punk underway. According to Ad Hoc's Julia Selinger. Who prefers the word "renaissance" to revival. And there does seem to be a perennialism about this sound, as with so many genres now. It's a permanent fixture, just an option on the menu. Would that "pop-punk" meant Buzzcocks and Rezillos rather than Green Day and Sum 41.

A Nineties "renaissance" is also detected in this curious piece by Hugo Jacomet at Parisian Gentleman, which is decorated with images of Retromania's various covers, and in which Jacomet asks:

"2013 OR 1993?

Backpacks and baseball caps are ubiquitous. Denim, Doc Martens and Converse trainers have been rediscovered. Over-size jumpers, T-Shirts and branded sweatshirts are de rigueur. Tartan, patchwork textiles and paisley represent the height of sartorial sophistication. For some.

The fashionable markers of the 1990s have become today’s symbols of supreme style. Sartorial trends, fads and movements are rarely without an accompanying soundtrack and so it is here. Dusted off or recently purchased, over ear headphones are once again playing grunge and other angst-filled anthems from the 1990s.

Traveling about the capital in recent weeks, I have caught snippets of lyrics from Blur, Sum 41 and Nirvana. Adorned in the correct wardrobe and wired for sound, it is only appropriate that people are also choosing to sample nineties-style entertainment. There is much on offer.
Highlights include the Spice Girls’ ‘mini’ reunion and the stage adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ satiric novel, American Psycho."
He also asserts that "The fascination with the nineties is odd on at least two counts.
Firstly, the years between 1989 and 2000 are typically considered to be a period that fashion forgot."

They are?

"Secondly, what we are seeing of the nineties is only an insipid distillation of what the decade was about; or at least what I think it was about, having lived through it. A a recent concert, I heard teenagers belting out and butchering songs from The Dandy Warhols and Fat Boy Slim, among other artists. To my ears, these groups’ songs were hardly reflective of a tumultuous decade that witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Internet and New Labour in Britain, the Gulf War (part one) and a presidential indiscretion that profoundly skewed our perspective of politics and cigars....."

Thing is, it wasn't that tumultuous decade, at least compared with the current decade, or the preceding three.  That's why people look back wistfully to it. 

not got a legacy to stand on

When did people start using the word "legacy" as an adjectival noun? As in "legacy artist"? It's one of those vague but evocative terms that does the job in  an open-ended sort of way.  Perhaps it has some business world or media world usage I'm unaware of, to do with branding or marketing or something like that  ...  but the idea I get from its use in a music context is "established, time-honoured, with a history behind it". A history that then becomes capable of being revisited.

An example from 2012, Phil Sherburne summing up the year in dance:
"Legacy genres like house, techno, drum and bass, and trance soldiered on, as they must. No slight to them; just as Japandroids proved the enduring pleasures of back-to-basics rock’n’roll, there was no shortage of if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it classicism in dance music, particularly in that nameless space between underground and overground.

So the transition from emergent genre to legacy genre is the very threshold at which retro becomes possible, in all its permutations (commemorative releases, oral histories, reissues, revivals, homages etc).

In between though there must be a stage of reasonable duration where the genre is neither unknown nor over-familiar but is in its prime: freshly accepted, but still surprising, still growing. Perhaps that corresponds to what some call the Imperial Phase (usually with an artist not a genre:  when a group or performer is at at the top of the world AND the top of their game, creatively -- just runnin' tings). 

"Legacy" is  a nice way of saying "old news". Which is a way of saying, "something you can't be an early adopter with, because you're too late, mate". For journalists, "legacy" also means: hard to get an assignment to write about in magazines, apart from specialist publications. ("What's the story, here? "Techno, Still Pretty Good"?!?!)

Perhaps when a genre reaches the legacy phase, it has a history behind it - but it can no longer make history. Its normalisation -- its acceptance -- is both its triumph and its downfall, because it's just part of the landscape now. 

Is there a subtle difference between "legacy" and "heritage"? Legacy perhaps leaves open some kind of functionality in the present ("a living legacy"), an ongoing state of relative vitality, the mature refinement and perfection of the already-formulated. "Heritage" just seems to suggest a museum culture, a style of music to be documented, studied,  memorialized preserved - propped up with reverence. 

Perhaps they correspond to stages of life....

emergent / childhood-teenage
imperial / young adulthood-thirtysomething
legacy / middle age 
heritage / old age

Friday, December 13, 2013

taking stock

LA Times piece on the trend for online-only publications* to rediscover print-and-paper formats

compare with

Alexis C. Madrigal's "2013: the Year 'the Stream' Crested" which among many interesting points, makes use of Robin Sloan's idea of "flow" versus "stock" -- 

"Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist. 

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time."

-- to wonder what happens when the balance between flow and stock gets crazily out of wack, both in the culture and in any given individual's life (as content-producer and as content-consumer) 

Reversion to analogue formats (and, it's hoped, their modes of reading, their temporality) is an extreme strategy to reestablish "stock" and with it the idea not just of the long read but of cultural longevity....

* As it happens, in the debut issue of the Pitchfork Review - one of the digital-goes-analogue publications  discussed in Matt Pearce's LA Times piece - I have the lead essay "Worth Their Wait":  part misty-eyed reminiscence about the UK music weeklies I grew up on,  part a sober analysis of the difference between loyally reading a solid-form magazine that came out at regular intervals (i.e. then) and navigating the omnidirectional, "always-on" info-and-opinion bombardment (i.e. now)

However as it's only available in ink-and-paper form, and comes out tomorrow, you'll have to wait if you want to read it. And you'll have to go somewhere, most likely, to get a copy. Like that little feller in the illustration, which (I think) is supposed to be me hastening down to W.H. Smiths on a Wednesday. Sweet, although it looks more like Paris than Berkhamsted High Street.


metal at a standstill

Keith Kahn-Harris with a piece at Souciant that detects retromaniacal tendencies in metal

Caused by the same syndromes of glut, hyper-access, over-abundance etc as with other zones of music in the post-broadband era:

"... We’re witnessing a significant transformation in the nature of music. Scenes act as incubators for identifiable styles and genres, for distinctive ways of being. The slow pace at which they used to be ‘discovered’ by the outside world meant that they had time to develop with a relative degree of isolation. It’s no accident that some of the most distinctive metal styles were initially developed in tightly knit local scenes: Bay Area thrash, Tampa death metal, Norwegian black metal..."

"Today’s ‘always on’ digital world, in which the gap between action and reaction has closed almost to nothing, has radically altered our relationship to time. Narrative history has collapsed into an eternal present, in which we’re flooded by media, sensations and events. Ironically, one of the characteristics of this present is increasing nostalgia and obsession with the past.... 

"The half-life of cultural production extends indefinitely, as nothing goes truly out of style, and artists linger well past their sell-by date....
"It is not just that nostalgia has become prevalent – although we can certainly see that in the case of metal, for example, with the continuous stream of re-releases and reunions from even the most insignificant 1980s bands....   

"There are still forms of metal that are being developed primarily by and for young people, particularly emo, screamo and djent. But their context is crucially different. Teenage metal in 2013 may offer a new kind of assemblage of metal and non-metal elements. However, it does not provide substantially new sounds. The accumulated weight of over 40 years of metal history looms over new entrants to metal. As nothing in metal history is completely discredited, there is no sense that a new generation can displace the old "

[Djent ? !? ]

"One possibly ‘game-changing’ development in the evolution of metal is the gradual retirement of metal’s biggest-selling acts.... None of this would matter if new generations of bands were taking their place as metal legends and stadium-filling platinum-selling acts, but few bands from the 1990s onwards have the same status and reach.....  it may be that without the unifying effect of mythic acts, metal may dissipate and fragment further.

"Whatever the future holds, innovation is still possible in metal. Yet this innovation has been atomised among hundreds of different artists that do not cohere into an overwhelming new direction. We are unlikely to see in metal again the kind of ‘mass extinction event’ that occurred in the early 1990s, that rendered entire genres all but obsolete."

Not really surprising that these syndromes are music-culture-wide  - Keiths' atomisation of innovation is a really handy concept, sounds very applicable to a lot of bloggy-world musics....

Here's an earlier post at Blissblog on the subject of retro metal