Wednesday, October 13, 2021

pre-echoes of Retromania (3 of ??)

(This was the title I submitted the piece under - the Graun used something else)


The Guardian (1990)

by Simon Reynold

 "1990: A New Decade". So proclaimed the title of the second Soul II Soul album earlier this summer. But just as much as being the year of the Manchester explosion and the indie/dance crossover groups, of a new vibrancy and a sense of anticipation in the UK pop scene, 1990 has also been the year of... just about every other year in pop history.

     Launched last month, new rock monthly Vox is a concerted and calculated attempt to lock into the retro-Zeitgeist. Like its rival Select (which was launched earlier in the summer), Vox is aimed at a "twentysomething" market midway between the highly-committed, gig-going readership of the weekly music press, and the sedentary, partially-lapsed, semi-detached rock fans who read Q. Q's constituency is those who want to read about 'dinosaur bands' (Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, Phil Collins, Clapton etc) who are still "going strong" in their third decade.  Vox, on the other hand, is less concerned with "living institutions" than with relics: the myths, memorabilia, and above all highly collectable music of Rock's Glory Years.

 Vox is targetted at a readership that divides its time equally between stockpiling the past pinnacles of rock history and keeping abreast of the latest developments.  Each issue of Vox contains a "free" magazine called "Record Hunter", which is aimed at the trainspotter types that are the backbone, the silent mediocrity, of the music press readership: collectors, curators, completists, fact-compilers. "Record Hunter" includes such anal retentive treats as: guided tours of the collections of stars (this month, the Jesus and Mary Chain) who are fanatics themselves; a paean to the collectability and "audiophile" quality of Japanese pressings;histories of the Two Tone label and The Doors' first year;comprehensive reviews of the latest reissues; a guide to record fairs; a column where readers write in with queries about discographies and related trivia.

     If this wasn't enough, the main body of "Vox" displays a pronounced retro-warp. The first issue contains: a completist's appetite-whetter of an article on legendary "lost albums" (e.g. The Beach Boys "Smile", Prince's "Black Album", Bruce Springsteen's electric version of 'Nebraska); a beginner's guide to blues pioneer Robert Johnson; a piece about Bob Dylan's eccentric studio behaviour based around anecdotes related by his former collaborators; Part One of a 'cut out and keep' Encyclopaedia of Rock; classic shots of The Stones and The Clash; 50 Things You Never Knew A James Dean.

     For those of you thought rock'n'roll was all about the exhiliration of living in the present tense, about cutting loose from the ties of the past and burning up like there's no tomorrow, all this necrophilia might seem like the final proof of rock's advanced state of rigor mortis.  But the makers of 'Vox' have shrewdly grasped the fact that there's a substantial market of young rock fans who feel they've got a lot of catching up to do. For neophyte rock consumers, the 10 or so outstanding records of each new year, compete with the 10 "classics" of each of the 30 years of pop history. The present just can't compete with the past. Not only is it outnumbered, but it is fighting a losing battle with more exciting eras, periods when rock seemed to be in some kind of direct altercation with the outside world.  Consumers who invest heavily in old Stones, Hendrix or Velvet Underground records are buying into myth: they are pledging allegiance to a golden age when rock seemed transformative or subversive rather than simply self-reflexive.

     For all the rhetoric about a New Age, a new "positivity" and hope for the future, 1989 and 1990 have been dominated by the "re"prefix. There have been REformations: Crosby Stills Nash, The Allman Brothers, The Buzzcocks, The Byrds, The Turtles, rumours of Velvet Underground and Stooges REunions, plus David Bowie's Greatest Hits tour.  There have been REturns to form by old codgers and spent forces: Brian Wilson, Neil Young, Lou Reed and John Cale, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead.  There's been REtrospection: a series of tribute albums to artists like Hendrix, Young, The Stones, Byrds, or labels like Elektra, with their classic songs being covered by young bands.  Every year sees a fresh spate of anniversaries with their attendant glut of memoirs, biographies, documentaries and biopics. Above all there's the fact that back catalogue classics, RE-issued obscurites, and "best of" compilations (e.g. Led Zeppelin and Simple Minds' upcoming deluxe editions) now account for a hefty proportion of record sales.

     Even dance music, allegedly the most happening sector of the UK dance scene, relies to a  disproportionate degree on cover versions of classics. In the last month alone, the charts has harboured Adamski's version of "All Shook Up", Soup Dragons' cover of The Stones' "I'm Free", Bombalurina's "Itshy Witsy Polka Dot Bikini", Lindy Layton's "Silly Games", Beats International's "Just Be Good To Be Me", ad nauseam.  Even Happy Mondays, who have many claims to being the most "contemporary" and "street credible" band of the day, had their first big hit with a cover of the Seventies boogie stomper "Step On You Again", while their next single is a version of Donovan's "Colours".

     Of course, the REworking and REmotivation of elements of its own history, has long been the name of the game in pop, and goes back at least as far as Bowie's glam post-modernism in the early Seventies. But now it's the norm, oppressively.  Virtually all new groups invite you to play the reference game.  The only scope for originality lies in the use of recondite source material, or incongruous juxtapositions.  At best, this can be witty and moving: e.g the David Lynch-esque retro-nuevo rock'n'roll of The Pixies, or Primal Scream's "Loaded" (a cross between "Sympathy For The Devil" and house). At worst, the stench of deja vu is overpowering.   

Of course, for young recruits to the ranks of pop consumerism, the appeal of rock's past isn't nostalgia, because they were only a twinkle in their parents' eyes at the time. The past is just one of a range of options that the record industry profitably services, as part of the new "boutique" approach to record retailing (a plethora of genres and taste publics rather than a mainstream).  Magazines like Vox are designed to be handy consumer guides through this post-modern 'mire of options', where the great anxiety is to avoid missing out on any source of pleasure, past or present.

    Vox reflects the fact that rock has degenerated into something to collect, something to document, rather than an ongoing cultural project. Rock is dying of CONSUMPTION.  There's a vast heap of stuff to check out, get into, purchase, but what's been lost is a sense of the big picture, of meaning and direction. Rock is disappearing up its own back passages. For good?

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