Monday, March 15, 2021

the word "retro"

 My sense is that the word "retro" was not in common parlance until the Eighties

Certainly when researching Shock + Awe, I didn't find it once in the contemporaneous writings about Roxy Music, although later on the idea that they collided future and retro in deliciously entangled ways would become a critical commonplace

But here's an early use of it from Peter York, in his famous piece on "Them" (a clique / milieu of style hyper-conscious provocateurs, an avant-garde of sensibility) from Harpers & Queen, October 1976

"The Sex people hate Retro, and seem perfectly sincere about it" 

(Sex meaning the people in and around McLaren and Westwood's boutique - and the quote seems to be defining the Sex / punk people against Them's irony and pomo traits - ie. "they mean it, maaan", they're in deadly earnest) 

Seems likely the first use  of "retro" would be in fashion and clothing retail and / or the graphic design world 


  1. Were you aware of this 1974 Cahiers interview with Foucault?

  2. Ah yes I did read about this in Elizabeth Guffey's book on Retro - if I remember right referring to a fashion look that was 1940s-revisting that emerged round the same time as all these films about WW2, occupied France

    i think the word "anti-retro" is doing different work in this interview than it did in the much later Anglosphere music press / blog discourse though. With Foucault et al, it's more to do with a rewriting of history, rather recycling ideas

  3. I'm never sure that "retro" is anything more than a meme though. When does something stop being part of a living tradition, and start becoming retro? It's a classic example of something that doesn't exist until it is named.

    If we take Glam as an example, its adoption of 1950's motifs could be described as retro, but in the early seventies the fifties were only twenty years earlier, and for most of the practitioners of Glam, fifies music would have been part of their upbringing, and not necessarily compartmentalised as locked in the past, as we would view it today. Ergo, before the term "retro" appeared, the past could be accessed more directly.

    This all seems to be a bit if a mind game to me, in that the tendency is to proscribe the past, and then find that there is no living tradition to work within, and so the past then has to be snuck back in under a layer of irony. This results in a much less satisfactory creative process than if the past wasn't proscribed in the first place.

  4. isn't "retro" your mate Spengler's "pattern work"? the empty reiteration of form, without the content or the context

    classic early example of retro in rock is Bowie's Pinups - these absurdly mannered, suspended-in-aspic recreations of songs that (youth)quaked with world-historical force in their original incarnation, fair exploded into the world as pure assertion of a generation and its demands - but are here revisited as nostalgic mementos, exercises in style .... what's amazing is that it's less than a decade since "Friday on My Mind" or "See Emily Play" but Bowie is already nostalgizing them - indeed, in a certain sense, Bowie is ahead of the game and in '73 is already anticipating a Sixties revival while everybody else is still reviving and reliving the Fifties

  5. I haven't heard Pin-Ups, but your description reminds me of those early 70's compilation albums of sixties groups that were given an archaeological patina. I think there was a Pink Floyd compilation called "Relics", on which all the songs were only about five years old!

    But this is a choice is it not? Rather than some oppressive structural inevitability. As for patternwork, that is (according to The Speng) a structural inevitability, and not "retro" because it is unironic. Patternwork arrives when all possible combinations have been explored, whereas Retro seems to be more about arbitrarily stigmatising certain combinations, and then allowing them anyway as long as they are hermetically sealed in irony.

    I'm riffing here a bit, but that's my tentative take, anyway.

  6. Over a week late to this, but a useful contrast with Pin-Ups is, ironically, Ferry's These Foolish Things, released virtually at the same time. An album that works precisely because Ferry encases the songs in neither nostalgic distance nor irony (his famous reinvention of Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, for instance, is arguably as 'sincere' as the somber original - you can hear Ferry luxuriating in Dylan's language and imagery as he sings)

  7. My own example of patternwork would be someone like Wynton Marsalis - a sober, modern practioner who works entirely within a pre-established form, and who is definitely not "retro" - there is no irony or self-consciousness in what he does.

    Dunno if there is an obvious pop/rock equivalent of him though. At least yet.

  8. There's loads aren't they? Marshall Crenshaw, countless power pop artists, garage punk bands... No irony, no sense of meta, not even a retro sheen really... just this is what we like, this is what we do. Apart from the fact that they put out records, no different from a group of people who get together locally to play bluegrass or Early Music and aim to get it exactly right. Little musical preservation societies.

  9. I was thinking Black Crowes initially, but they actually really pulled it off - they were every bit as good as Humble Pie.

    (No irony involved in that statement).

    But yeah patternwork is very much about there being an accepted method for the genre, and that method is to be followed to the letter. Have you sensed patternwork creeping into hip-hop yet Simon?