Tuesday, June 28, 2022

retrotalk2022 nostalgia deathgrip

Stone the crows, here's yet another piece on retroculture -  this time by Quietus-man Luke Turner, writing for New Statesman.

 It bears the headline: "Macca and the Stones? The past has a death grip on our culture" and it starts by noting that "if you include the holograms, this week nine musicians with a combined age of 686 – Paul McCartney, Elton John, the Rolling Stones and ABBA – are once again the biggest cultural news in the UK"

Amusingly, Turner notes right near the top of the piece that "to attack nostalgia is nothing new. More than a decade ago, the critic Simon Reynolds published Retromania, an incisive look at a musical culture that seemed to wallow in ironic takes on the past rather than aspiring to anything fresh." Mark Fisher gets his due props too. 

But Turner wants to have it both ways - see things  from the viewpoint of the ahistorical young, "for whom it is all new, right now" and who feast on the atemporal banquet of streaming blahblahblah. 

He wants to be negative and positive simultaneously (difficult trick) and so as well as  complaining about rockpop's gerontocratic oliogopoly and their full-spectrum dominance of the attention economy, he also points to new shoots of growth -  small but teeming shocks-of-new still out there to be found (the kind of thing covered in the Quietus - the New Weird this or that)

I sympathise: nobody wants to be the old grouch if they can help it.  

Monday, June 27, 2022

retrotalk2022 - bringback culture

 A piece by Rachel Brodsky for Stereogum addressing the Kate Bush "Running Up That Hill" hoo-ha and other signs that "everything old is new again, and everything new is out of luck"

It references the Ted Gioia /Atlantic piece titled “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” from earlier this year (which I discussed / quoted here) and likewise explores the "resurfaced" life of old tunes off the back of TV needledrops, TikTok memificaitons,  the sale of legacy artists's catalogues for "hundreds of millions", the dominance of deep catalogue in streaming stats.

Brodksy writes; "I think what separates earlier instances of “bringback” culture from the one we’re currently in is that this one feels much more permanent. We might see more microtrends b/w/o dance challenges and memes, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that older music is way more accessible for all in 2022 than it was in 1992. That’s why “genre-fluid” musicians such as Billie Eilish, Post Malone, and Lil Uzi Vert have been popping up right and left over the last few years. Today’s popular artist frequently draws influence from across the genre spectrum because they’ve spent their lives immersed in 10 record stores’ worth of material. It used to be that rap producers had to go crate-digging to find obscure funk and soul tracks with which to build a new song. Today, it’s literally never been easier to find old music and treat it as new."

This discourse is itself becoming a kind of revival movement, a deja loop, a groundhog grind!

 I wonder if this creeping anxiety about retro-as-necrosis and Zeitgeist failure will ever fade? 

It's like the collective muscle memory of a generation that still has some faint lingering feeling for ideas like the Next Big Thing, forward-facing movements in music, the supercession of styles and era-epistemes etc. 

But presumably for people who have only ever known atemporality - younger people - these kind of complaints and worries will not compute at all, by a certain point. The past and the present will coexist as this flattened field of stuff to dip into at will. 

Perhaps then, finally, the well of retrotalk will dry up. So there might be a retrotalk2023 series of posts, and retrotalk2024.... But retrotalk2030?

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Hauntology Parish Newsletter - Summer Solstice edition

 Cranking the mimeograph to bring you a smatter of summertime tidings.


New from  Lo Five, the EP Lack - marbled fog blocs for fuzzy heads ("Thicc Air", one of these four tracks is titled - and sounds like it).  


Moon Wiring Club have only just made the most recent releases, Ghost Party Delirium CD and Ghost Party Delirium LP (completely separate records) digitally available on Bandcamp. These I slept on a bit, arriving very late in 2021 as they did, but the CD in particular - a double - has resurged as listening for me recently and I recommend a deep delve.  I got stuck on this one tune "The Original Phantom Roller", entranced by its descending-and-ascending reverbed B-line and hall-of-mirror recession of  lady voices ("watch the light!", "who's real, then? Me - or you"). Having played it  at least thirty times now, I feel certain it would make an all-time MWC Top Twenty.  Another killer is this crepuscular creeper with slap-bass twinges as unexpected and alarming as a tendon snapping. 


Another oldie but goodie - really old in fact, and really good (among the Top Five Greatest Hauntological Recordings Ever) - is something whose first-time vinyl reincarnation bypassed me some months ago: Dead Air by Mordant MusicOne of that first cluster of albums that made it clear something was happening that needed monitoring and monikering, the CD's mustard-hued fold-out has been gorgeously scaled up into a gatefold elpee by Castles in Space, with new artwork from Admiral Greyscale worked in there. And the audio has been remastered for vinyl - hear here the new edition's first side of dankly glistening glory. 


Beautify Junkyards have just released the lovely and eerie film Cosmorama Moving Images. A creative ruse around the challenges of touring in a locked down world, it documents a live performance by the band in a space  teeming with video projections, with surrealistic interludes involving spoken word from Justin Hopper of Old Weird Albion renown. "The environment becomes labyrinthine and the band's vibrant performance seems to induce the formation of spatial and temporal portals that spectators are invited to cross." Inspirations include Victorian London's Cosmorama rooms and the experimental film maker Stan VanDerBeek.  

You can see the movie at Vimeo On Demand. 


Not really from this parish - but let's say he's an exchange student - Estonian pop aesthete Mart Avi has an  excellent new album out, Blade


Canadian exchange student Samuel Macklin (better known as  connect_icut) has a collaborative project with Larissa Loyva called The Bastion Mews. Their latest emanation is this eddying haze of songspace titled "Sinking" and paired with the songspacier "Sinking Dub". It's the second in a series of singles - check out also last month's "Sweet" b/w "Sweet Dub."


A postcard from our Italian twin town Artetetra foretells an imminent ectoplasmic apparitionLoris Cericola'Metaphysical Graffiti.  

Release rationale: 

Best described as an obscure, dadaist sound collage, the album was realized entirely by experimenting with an array of tape cut-ups and analog sound manipulation techniques. A set of live improvisations performed with an assemblage of 4-tracks tape recorders, testing the possibilities offered by the textural audio qualities of cassettes. With an imagery shaped by Ed Wood-style geographic and fictional tropes, Metaphysical Graffiti stands as an aural alternative to a subcultural cave painting. The album is an ill-defined conglomerate of unintelligible folklore, flimsy remote voices and phony, signal-like transmissions. A fragmentary listening conjuring the instability of shortwave explorations and the ominous vibes of waking up in the middle of the night after falling asleep in front of a television in an unfamiliar locale. The samples and soundbites emerging from the minimal tracks’ backbone originate from a careful collection built through time by the musician and is composed of miscellaneous forgotten sales bin recordings, abstruse midnight home movies and haphazard library music pieces. Although the ten songs show a tendency towards supernatural, at times eldritch overtones, the work is surprisingly balanced by a direct simplicity. An atmosphere crafted through delicate distension of time and scattered synth themes. For the most part, Metaphysical Graffiti builds on liminal ambiances reminding of the early James Ferraro and Joel Vandroogenbroeck’s "Biomechanoid", crafting a long moment of discontinuous suspension akin to slow opium phantasmagorias. A space crawling with dimensional spooks drawn in sedative-induced reveries and practical-effects era delusions. 

Full waft due June 17


Finally, I recommend a good dig through our local library's record section. In amongst the budget classical, brass band and Bread albums, you can find some unexpected gems. Like these Eiretronica albums from the 1970s!

For the full story about these releases, go to the Miúin Archives. 

There is also a new curated compilation of work made at the Kilkenny Electroacoustic Research Laboratory in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. 

"The Kilkenny Electroacoustic Research Laboratory was informally set up in late 1965 by Jacinta Delaney (1937 -) and Eoghan Comerford (1935 -). They were inspired by Groupe de Recherches Musicales after Comerford visited the RTF in Paris in ’64..... The purpose of this collection is an introduction to a selection of works by key characters in the development of K.E.R.L. The structure of the collection gives a general outline of the development of the works throughout the history of the Lab, but it is no way comprehensive."

Monday, June 6, 2022

Death of Next

Another interesting Real Life piece, this time by Mitch Therieau. It predicts - but also calls for - "the end of the trend piece" and declares that "if the past two years have produced any genuinely new development in the history of the future, it is perhaps a widespread, if faintly felt, consciousness of stagnation; a growing conviction that a sweeping Next Thing is not forthcoming."  

It starts with references to "living through a long crisis of futurity" and the idea that "the future has been 'cancelled': foreclosed, rendered all but impossible to imagine, or at least not in ways that can help us create a better world in the present." 

Then moves to challenge this long established and differently  inflected notion of a "unitary Next Thing: a totally new 'world' where everything is either transfigured, or restored to how it used to be", which has been boosted by speculations about what will transpire post-covid. 

But "it turns out that there is no one future so much as there is a series of ongoing crises smoldering in the background, distributed unevenly at every level", and as a result, "speculation on the Next Thing has become an increasingly tough sell. "

Attention then turns to the pop culture genrescape: 

"If the 2010s introduced -cores and –waves to popular culture, with slightly facetious tags like normcore and vaporwave laying claim to free-floating elements of the zeitgeist, the pandemic years have seen an exponential multiplication of these suffixed “aesthetics,” beyond what any one person could hope to keep up with. ... The styles that have recently risen out of this internet soup and into the sphere of trend pieces have reflected a certain fatigue with the churn of trend itself." Goblincore is cited as evidence of this. 

"Across all these -cores and -waves that have spread like the mushrooms goblincore adherents admire so much, a quiet consensus emerges: there will be no Next Thing. Only detritus — old books, pressed flowers, dirty clothes — piling up in the here and now....  Future vertigo gives way to future fatigue."

Then Allison P. Davis’s “vibe shift” piece is considered. 

Nice bit on the trash heap of promised futures that never transpired: 

"Untold millions of former Next Things languish in dusty magazine archives, cached away on orphaned webpages, buried in a drift of ahistorically sorted content. There is no kitsch quite like the artifacts of a promised future that didn’t pan out... As the junked Next Things continue to pile up around us..., it may be that the realm of online trend is the place where an ambient loss of faith in speculation’s power has found its first vernacular expression....

(Hat tip to genre-spotter Kieran Press-Reynolds for alerting me to this). 

A lot of the micro-genre action in recent years feels unserious to me - not based in a genuine "looking for the new thing" hunger or wanting to propose one's scene-let as a real candidate for Next Next Big Thing status. Rather ,it's more a playful exercise in meta-genre. These jokingly purported genre flaunt their constructedness, their lack of basis in real social energy. They treat genre formation and genre-naming as a daft game. 

Seapunk feels like the first one where it seemed to be spoofing the very idea of genres and scenes, while also seeing how far it could fool people. 

So I don't know if there's really an underlying sadness at stagnation at work, or a frustrated futurism coming up empty. Then again, the flip  attitude could be a terminal syndrome in itself.


Here's another Mitch Therieau piece about vibes and the occult for The Drift

"imagining the future is good for you"

"... outside the future-thinking workshops or the walls of the Institute, Imaginable feels less like an invitation and more like a trap. Its exercises provoke future-thinking in terms of opportunity and disruption, of things to be grasped or tamed by the clever, the educated, or the future-oriented. In other words, Imaginable reads as a guide for how to eat the future, how to capture and entrain it, brought forth by a series of consultancy exercises that are partly responsible for how we got where we are right now."

An interesting critique of the "consultancy-futurism" of Jane McGonigal and her book Imaginable, from Cameron Kunzelman at Real Life

Friday, May 27, 2022

"No, I Do Not Want to Hear the New Stuff"

Did something unusual - and retromaniacal - a few weekends ago: went to Cruel World, a gigantic out-doors convocation of aging Goths and alt-rockers, just up the road (in LA terms) in Pasadena. We -  me + the missus + our 16-year-old + his friends + their parents - went on the first of the two days, the Saturday, baking and squinting in the 90-degree-plus heat and glare as a succession of all-star, largely British legacy acts performed

For me, the prime attraction was the first-time-ever sighting of Public Image Ltd and Devo in the flesh (albeit rather far off and mediated by the giant videoscreens, in practice). And also the first-time-in-over-30-years sighting of Morrissey. He and Lydon (another Irish Blood, English Heart icon-gone-to-rust) have been towering figures in my mental landscape since I was  more or less the age of our son. But they have subsequently clouded their eminence through drifting to the wrong (right) side of the political spectrum. I was curious as much about the mixed emotions they would trigger as the extent to which they could still deliver live. 

I was also excited to hear The Beat (billed of course as The English Beat, gah!), another much-loved group I never saw back in the day; rather intrigued to witness Bauhaus; and mildly curious about Blondie.  (There had been rumours that Johnny Marr, who had been playing in this legacy incarnation of Blondie, might conceivably later stride onstage with Morrissey, creating a semi-Smiths reunion. But in the event it seems that it was Glen Matlock who guitared with Debbie Harry et al). Had been psyched to resee Echo & the Bunnymen, but they had to pull out.

Although there were quite a few young people - Morrissey and some of the others on the bill being the kind of cult figures that pick up new fans with each generation of maladjusted and mope-minded - it was a largely middle aged and even old aged audience. Indeed I saw quite a few people who were infirm, getting around in those little electric buggies that the morbidly obese or otherwise mobility-impaired use. And although most people were hydrating themselves at a sensible rate and sheltering under parasols, I did see one septuagenarian-looking geezer carted off prostrate on a motorized stretcher, seemingly having  succumbed to heatstroke, or worse. (When I got home myself I had all these strange aches in my arms  and discovered that this is a symptom of dehydration).  

The artists themselves looked like Time had taken its toll. Dave Wakeling was a bit ragged vocally and as for Ranking Roger - well, of course, he sadly wasn't there, subbed for by a younger, fitter and aliver surrogate who did a solid job as chatter and compere. 

Talking of missing persons, Missing Persons kicked ass like the all-American rockers turned New Wavers they were and remain. Although I think Dale Bozzio may be the only original member left. Her profuse thanks and love to the audience felt sincere and heartwarming.  

In between the acts, it was fun spotting the alt-tribes - Goths of several generations who determinedly turned up clad in layers of black garments, defying the sun to do its worst; Latin lovers of Moz;  portly punks and Anglophile Angelenos. Some, less aligned with the alternative than with New Wave, wore T-shirts declaring their allegiance to MTV (or more precisely, the Brit Invasion enabling MTV of the '80s, rather than whatever it is nowadays).

My favorite T-Shirt that I spotted - and it may well be a self-printed original, as I can find no trace of it on the internet -  was stretched tautly across a beer belly and read: "No, I Do Not Want To Hear the New Stuff".

I chortled inside at the sight of that: retro-consumerist bad faith proclaimed with pride. No future for you, beloved band of my youth: just keeping playing the old songs, forever!  

But of course, when it came to it, I had scant interest in hearing the newer material either. 

Indeed, I wasn't much interested in the older stuff that wasn't the favorite or best-known stuff. 

The Church, for instance - absolutely wonderful for the duration of their two top tunes and emteevee regulars, "Reptile" and "Under the Milky Way" - but the rest was a bit of a ragged snooze. 

And then there was PiL, who I never saw back in the day. Lydon, or Rotten - not sure what he goes by these days - was in surprisingly operatic voice, hamming it up inimitably. I had minimal expectations, anticipating a set that drew heavily from the later undistinguished PiL records. But "Public Image" was a thrill and "Death Disco", amazingly, absolutely seared, the stand-ins doing a very decent job in lieu of Wobble and Levene. "Rise" also was a treat. 

Only a brief valedictory barb about being very much "awake, thank you very much" hinted at the Brexit-and-Trump supporting Johnny of recent times. 

The next highlight was Devo. Again, a group I never saw before. Their debut album is something I play often - simply one of the best and most original rock albums of all time, purely on the level of riff and rhythm, with all the ideology and sick humor and grotesque imagery almost functioning as a bonus, to be attended to or ignored according to preference. 

 At first, my heart sank as the set-up was the Freedom of Choice-onwards synth-dominated sound - Gerald Casale (who seems to have shriveled up haha with age) on keyboards. The delivery was slick, potent, synced to video projections, but a bit sterile, and "Whip It" aside, not their best material by a long shot.

 But then halfway through they went off and came back again in yellow clean-up squad suits as the guitar-powered Devo of Are We Not Men and Duty Now for the Future - Casale wielding a bass guitar. And this was every bit as exciting as you could hope for, if still a little regimented / professional-entertainer in vibe. 

(I was a little surprised they played "Mongoloid", though).

A glimpse of Psychedelic Furs, who I only ever saw before at another New Wave retro lineup at the Hollywood Bowl, on a bill with Bow Wow Wow and The Go-Gos, about seven years ago. 

Then it was Bauhaus at dusk - as seemed only right and proper, given the issues with vampires and daylight. Peter Murphy's bald dome + beard-with-twirled-mustache seemed like a gracious way for a Goth beauty to age out, and the walking cane makes for a good performance prop, even if it's actually physically needed for support with the advancing years and wear and tear of injury, which it may well be. Daniel Ash, whose hair and white-frame sunglasses made him look like a cross between a Buggle and a bandicoot caught in a wind-tunnel, churned up an impressive barrage of gnarly guitar. The expressionist lighting was excellently atmospheric. If much of the material seems as histrionic and affected as ever, when they played the killer singles - "She's In Parties", "Kick in the Eye", and especially "Bela Lugosi's Dead" - I happily conceded they are a great entertainment.

And then there was Morrissey. 

The first surprise was what fine voice he was in. Perhaps amplification at large venues has improved, or there have been advances in sound mixing from when I saw the Smiths back in the day, or - the last previous time - at his first solo concert in Wolverhampton in the winter of '88. But judging by what I heard, Morrissey has never sounded better as a singer.  

Such a pity that so many of the songs sung were shit songs, from the string of solo albums this millennium. 

But it wasn't just the likes of "The First of the Gang to Die" (which, having heard some of its competition out of the last 20 years output, I can understand finally why fans rate it highly - it's the closest to an actual tune out of any of them) or brand-new nothingnutburger single "I Am Veronica".  Some of the duds came from the '90s, like obscure B-sides (C-sides more like) "The Loop" and "Jack the Ripper", or "Alma Matters" (from Maladjusted). He even exhumed "Ouija Board, Ouija Board".  

The response of the crowd was flatter than I'd expected, suggesting that they shared my preference for - not so much older material (since some of what was heard was 30 years old) as the old-and-great stuff.

When he did play fan favorites ("Suedehead") or sublime "deep cuts" (like "Little Man, What Now" off Viva Hate, or "Half A Person", a Smiths B-side that is a triple-A side compared to the last quarter-century's output), it was wonderful. 

But it didn't manage to outweigh the effect of the disproportion towards mediocrity in the set. 

It wasn't just the material chosen, though. It was Morrissey's between-song quips and barbs, so opaque and archly unreadable in tone. And then the images and video loops that punctuated the songs - largely unrecognizable to almost everyone in attendance, I should imagine (I would hazard the "Ouija" image was of Doris Stokes but who knows? Certainly few in this audience). Figures from Morrissey's private (too private) pantheon of obscure film, television and stage crushes. 

The set ended abruptly, with no encore (seemingly a Cruel World policy with all the groups, but particularly anti-climactic for the headlining, night-closing act) and instead this bizarre, disturbing video loop of a Japanese man blowing his brains out (whether real or some kind of Aktionist art stunt, who knows?). For sure, the event was called Cruel World, a mope-rock  joke sustained with the three stages dedicated respectively to Lost Boys, Sad Girls, and Outsiders, but even in that self-mocking context it felt grim and unpleasant to end with suicide. Triggering, even.

The crowd spilled out into the night, passing through the circle of hot-dog vendors who had set themselves up immediately outside the venue (a meat-free zone by edict of Moz). 

In Retromania, borrowing Svetlana Boym's opposition between reflective nostalgia versus restorative nostalgia, I describe Morrissey as pop's "supreme poet of reflective nostalgia", an artist who finds perverse fulfilment in "the bittersweet pangs of poignancy", treasuring the feeling of being an exile in time, at home nowhere and nowhen. But I also acknowledge that Morrissey has sometimes trespassed  into "the restorative nostalgia danger zone", harking back to outmoded notions of insular nationality, succumbing to the delusory belief that things actually were better back in the good old days. 

Well, since writing the book, he's decisively gone over to the other side of the "Make ____ Great Again" divide.

Yet for all the obnoxiousness of his opinions, I'm not sure I could ever renounce the old songs - meaning, mostly Smiths, plus half of Viva Hate, "Seasick But Still Docked" and "I Am Hated For Loving".  This music is too entwined in my fibres. 

It's hard to believe that someone capable of creating something as beautiful, kind, and wise as "Accept Yourself" could endorse For Britain. 

But probably we all have relatives, or old friends, who have drifted over to the loony right. Become cranky and conspiracy-minded with age. And you can't amputate from memory the times you had with them. They are part of you. That's why it's painful. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Decline of the Wes, or, Three Movies, Three Nostalgias

The other day I finally watched Amarcord – a Fellini film I’ve been meaning to see ever since learning that it was an influence on Eno’s On Land. Couldn’t quite see that connection, beyond the nostalgia (Eno for the Suffolk of his 1950s and ‘60s childhood,  Fellini for his 1930s Adriatic adolescence) but nonetheless was utterly beguiled by the film’s year in the life of a fictional coastal town. Then I immediately picked up, as I so often do, Have You Seen…?, to find out what David Thomson has to say.

DT tears the film apart! “The word amarcord means ‘I remember’, but the mood of the film is more that of someone saying ‘I wonder’, trying to forget harsh times or ugly truths… Nothing hints at why fascism had come to Italy, or at the process that would remove it. Fellini knew that bad time, of course, but Amarcord is a case of leaving nostalgia uninspected….  It is a display of charm done without much shame. It reminds us, perhaps, of Fellini the cartoonist, watching life go by and turning it into lively comic sketches… Fellini once was a real social observer and storyteller. Here he is a mere collector of material. He has withdrawn enough from story to give up its urge to judgment. So Amarcord discourages history or political thinking. The Fascists came like the snow or the blossom; you shrug and wait for the next season.”

Floral Mussolini meets the flower of Italian youth

Oddly, as so often, I enjoyed DT’s dismissal of a film without it affecting my enjoyment. The two  continue to coexist quite comfortably.

One phrase in DT’s delicate dismemberment of Amarcord – “I do think there’s a conscious effort to suggest that fascism is an adolescent ideology” – reminded me of another movie I watched recently, also belatedly: The French Dispatch. I don’t know if Wes Anderson is a fan of Fellini, let alone influenced by him, although they do share a love of décor and costume (but then who doesn’t in modern movie-making – films, and TV, are caked in the stuff). There are many modes in which an infatuation with the sumptuousness of surfaces can be expressed. Still, that line about “an adolescent ideology” snagged my attention, because that is what Anderson does with May 68 and student radicalism: he makes it out to be merely an outbreak of trendy immaturity.

Generally, I find Anderson’s films beguiling in the moment of watching, but invariably leave the theatre dissatisfied and grow steadily exasperated with him and with myself. “That’s the last Anderson film I’m going to see,” I usually vow (the same always happens with the latest Tarantino) But with The French Dispatch, I wasn't beguiled, I was bored, actually falling asleep two-thirds of the way in (I don’t know how it ends, if ending there be). Still, I was awake long enough to be irritated by the treatment of the young radicals of the late ‘60s. (And it seems clear that a similar sort of mockery is intended with the  triptych's plotline about the imprisoned murderer turned abstract painter – another kind of radicalism, the primal expressivity of the outsider artist, is made to look silly).

 It's not an especially original or penetrating insight to say of Anderson that he's besotted with the décor of the past but uncomprehending when it comes to a past period as a passion play of conflict and struggle, aspiration and idealism. Typography, uniforms, customs, procedures, design, accoutrements, appliances – the exquisiteness of form and formality is fetishized, each and every visually scrumptious scene screams to be freezeframed so that you can pore over its symmetries and color coordination. But as for everything else – the  real energies that motor history, the tensions and turmoil bubbling behind the prettiness of the past -  Wes is useless.  Nothing is quite real, nothing really hurts (a great film wounds you, makes you ache with the wish that the fate of the characters could have been otherwise – or that you could ever in your own paltry life feel a fraction of what they've felt). 

One thing Anderson does seem to share with Fellini is a great fondness for the bustle of minions and underlings. The punctilious spectacle of people briskly going about their business, the tasks associated with their allotted place, wearing the uniform appropriate to their station and function, pulling rank or doffing the cap when required.  Officials, bell boys, able seamen, scout leaders, maids, maitre d's.  It’s a view of society as a caste system – the high and the lowly, predestined, to the mannerisms born.


His films often resemble a Richard Scarry Busy Busy World book (all those cute cutaway cross sections of the interiors of buildings, ships, planes!) soaked through with the aristocratic nostalgia of an Evelyn Waugh. Look at how charming the world looks, when everything is in its place and everybody knows their place.

The clockwork elegance of socially stratified space – all those moving parts cogging together as a smoothly running hierarchy – in Anderson’s movies reminded me of yet another film I’ve seen recently: Playtime.  I’d never seen a Jacques Tati film before. The little glimpses I’d caught  convinced me that this was a comedic world I’d never want to spend time inside. Too whimsied, too mild and minor a pleasure. But something –  the memory of a DT recommendation, its warmth but none of its actual specifics -  made me click on Playtime when it presented in the Criterion menu. I watched it without advance knowledge of what it was about, a virgin state quite hard to arrive at these days, and one to take advantage of should it occur. And I was entranced.  Only to discover later that my reaction to the film was almost the opposite of how you are supposed to take it.

It was intended -  everyone agrees on this -  as a satire of a sterile, technocratic society emerging in the Sixties, the "tomorrow's world - today!" of  chrome and glass and plastic, where functions are pointlessly automated at every turn, just for the sake of it, for the future-now frisson of it. Barely a trace of Nature or the old Paris is left in this ultramodern metropolis. Unaware of how its creator's intent, I took it as something completely different: a total rhapsody to modernity.  No doubt this is an accidental byproduct of today's nostalgic fetish for mid-century aesthetics, the look of graphics and appliances in the 1950s and early '60s. But as a result, I watched Playtime in a Wes sort of way, I suppose (showing perhaps that the "decadence" in Anderson's work that aggravates me is really me recoiling from my own capacity for irony and detachment, resisting being seduced by it). 

 Thanks to a protracted and involved production process (Tati constructed a gigantic set involving multiple city blocks and high-rise buildings) Playtime finally came out in 1967, but if I hadn’t known that I would dated it 1961 from the look of people’s clothes and hair, the furniture and interior décor of offices, shops, apartments and restaurants. Fairly instantly I was reminded of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, his nostalgic evocation of the early Sixties optimism all those songs like "I.G.Y." and "New Frontier", the "graphite and glitter" of  the near-future paradise that technology and automation will bring.  Maybe it’s a case of the auteur’s intent being undercut by the erotic logic of the camera, so the work ends up saying something else, or saying two opposed things simultaneously.  But the Paris of Playtime seemed like a shiny wonderland. 

And yes, Tati has humanity bumbling along, not quite able to go with the program that its best and brightest minds have laid out, the messiness and clumsiness of ordinary people getting in the way. Also what screws up the planning is the sheer Frenchness of everyone, which seems to rush in to fill the vacuum in a cityscape studiously evacuated of everything traditionally Gallic (apart from the flower lady and some of the food). Nationality as this stubborn ineradicable force, a recalcitrant drag against the International Style of corporate modernism.

 I’d almost read the film as an accidental riposte to the Situationist et al critique of soulless technocracy and urban planning and the emptiness of consumerism (although actually it seems to be  the case, that Tati was roughly on the same page as Debord and crew, at least in terms of his animus). The characters wandering bedazzled and disoriented through the steel and reinforced concrete maze  could be taken as  psychogeographers re-enchanting the city through dérive.

I don’t know what Tati’s politics were  - probably not unlike Fellini's (moderate... keeping his distance from ’68, unlike some of his Italian cinematic contemporaries...  a supporter of the Christian Democrats). But it’s funny how today’s eyes can look at this shimmering vision (filmed in 70 mm, for twice the richness and detail of standard film, it’s seen best on a gigantic screen, an opportunity to be seized should it present itself) in a completely opposed way to the creator's intent.

Apparently, when the film finally came out, it was fatally out of step with the mood of France / Europe / the West circa 1968. As DT notes, “anger is one of those emotions expressly missing from Playtime”. That’s from his “Have You Seen….? review of the film. Earlier, in the entry on Tati in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, DT harps on the satiric intent of Playtime, Trafic, Mon Oncle, finding their critique of “the brutality of progress” to be “tritely thought out and endlessly reiterated.”

 But by the later volume, he appears to have revisioned Playtime and his response to it is remarkably – and pleasingly – close to my first-time reaction. Here, writing in 2008, he rejects the idea that it should be understood as a work of “social criticism that deplores modern times”. Instead, the look of the film – meaning how it looks at the world, rather than its décor – is a “tranquil, amiable gaze… There is nothing like the inclination to see ugliness, or unkindness, that actually builds pathos in Chaplin. Rather, Tati is charmed by the existence of things in space…” . The camera is “backed away, at an amazing (and amazed) distance” and the overall effect is that “the sense of beholding the turmoil of life is irresistible…. Yes, this society is accident-prone and deserves to collapse or destroy itself, but its energy, its persistence, is beautiful and inspiring. It’s like watching cells grow and divide. What alarmed 1968, I suspect, was the authentic optimism of the film, its exhilaration…”

Although their metaphors for life and the world are different - for Fellini, it's the circus or the cartoon; for Anderson, the cutaway / diorama;  for Tati, in at least this film, it's the amusement park or funfair - they do all have in common versions of this "tranquil, amiable gaze", a sense of "the impossibility of critique", or its unnecessariness, an unconflicted view of life. 

And there's nostalgia at work in all three films - but a different kind in each.

Amarcord is proper rose-tinted nostalgia, selective memory retrospection - the ugly parts of the past largely sidelined in the warm glow of memory. 

The French Dispatch is the sort of nostalgia that isn't really nostalgia (because there's no algia as such, no pain or ache). Retro at its purest, making contact with the past only through pastiche. The screen suppurates with a surface-deep fetish for the historical (decor, clothes, typography, etc) but there's no feel for History. 

Playtime - well, there's two nostalgias here, the nostalgia of its creator and the nostalgia of a  a certain sort of contemporary viewer (like me). Tati's takes the form of a a bemused-amused scepticism about modernity and neophilia (the rapid replacement of old architecture and old ways of doing things, in all their charm and familiarity). But over a half-a-century later, the film becomes susceptible to a retro-modernist  nostalgia. Its stirs wistful feelings about the optimism and confidence of the immediate decades after WW2. C.f. Rem Koolhaas on the late 60s as humanity's highpoint: the Moon Landing, Concorde's launch, the Osaka Expo, grand projects pursued by a "public sector... with vision".


Bonus beat: DT on WA, from The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition

"I liked [Rushmore] very much but felt already that The Royal Tenenbaums had a kind of whimsical pretension that can mark and beguile a student who has given up on being educated. Thus, the agonies of family dysfunction have been chilled by a kind of visionary novocaine, itself pleasing and very much of the moment, but with one drawback: that the sense of dysfunction (and thus failure) could be reassessed or tamed as mere oddity....  The comparison with Paul Thomas Anderson is a signal. PTA's films have been odd and disconcerting at times, but overall they leave no doubt about the maker's sense of trying to make films in a time of immense physical and cultural crisis. By contrast, WA seems to exist at the far end of a very private, isolating corridor. Moonrise Kingdom seemed to exist on an island at the far end of that corridor: it was pretty, whimsical, and consistent, but what was its point?"

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

retrotalk2022 - 2000s revivalism already

A piece in Far Out magazine about 2000s revivalism by Sam Kemp

"If  the 2000s were already an era dominated by revivalism, what is it that we’re currently reviving? Are we already caught up in an endless loop of reinterpretation? From where I’m standing, it appears the 2000s were still unique enough to hold something worth recycling... One of the key differences between the 2020s and the 2000s is the way we consume culture. Before the advent of streaming services, we had fewer opportunities to cultivate an individual cultural sphere.... The charts were, generally speaking, still a fairly good indicator of what the nation was listening to. Today, the way we experience music is so fragmented that the idea of an entire generation of children being caught up in S Club fever feels unimaginable....  By basking in nostalgia for a period where people watched MTV instead of living within an echo chamber of their own taste, are Gen Z attempting to simulate the joy of shared experience?"

Also suggests that the 2000s was a time of optimism 

I guess every age thinks the age immediately prior to it was a/ less fragmented b/ happier. But it didn't feel like that during the actual 2000s. It felt fucking grim and like the monoculture had disintegrated. 

Saturday, April 30, 2022

retrotalk2022 - festivals fester

Eric Drucker at the Ringer on how music festivals are in the big business of selling your youth back to you. Like the concept of "forever goths" and the thought that an entire festival - not just specific reunions of bands on the bill- could be a kind of mega-reunion or flashback or form of time travel. Also the concept of a band's transition from "dated" to "classic".

"It’s been more than two decades since the first Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. After a rough entry, Coachella eventually showed new generations of American concert promoters and audiences that these events were not only financially lucrative and amazing backdrops for selfies, but also the locus of culture-defining moments. Coachella inspired plenty of like-minded, goofily-named imitators around the country. Some have persisted, others have perished. (A quick RIP to All Points West, Sasquatch!, Treasure Island, Intonation …)

"Yet as the number of festivals has multiplied, a sameness has developed in their lineups. Individual identities have been lost, even among the ones with the longest histories. Coachella started in 1999 with an eye toward underground sounds and Bonnaroo launched in 2002 with a foundation in the jam band scene, but by 2022, much of their rosters can feel oddly interchangeable. And ever since Lollapalooza transitioned to a non-touring event in 2005, it has struggled to develop an ethos beyond “We heard you like music, here’s a lot of it.”

"As the live music industry hopefully enters its first full festival season since the beginning of the pandemic, some of the country’s largest promoters have unveiled or resurrected more niche festivals as alternative options. These offerings focus on a particular era or sound and are usually limited to a single day of programming, rather than the current industry standard of spreading an event out from Friday to Sunday (or longer). Entrants in this category beyond When We Were Young include the 1980s gloom fantasy Cruel World, the soul showcase Smokin Grooves, the outlaw–roots country roundup Palomino Festival, and the throwback hip-hop showcase Rock the Bells.

"... Though ticket sales for major festivals far exceed the specialty ones, there is more of a sense of excitement around these recent entries. When every festival this year seems to be headlined by Metallica, Halsey, Green Day, and/or J. Cole, it makes sense why Cruel World would get forever goths pumped about the idea of moping out to Morrissey, Bauhaus, and the Psychedelic Furs on the same day.... 

"In the early phases of Coachella, the festival often attracted crowds with reunions of influential bands that younger fans probably hadn’t been able to see play live in their prime—most notably Pixies, the Stooges, and Rage Against the Machine. It was said that the organizers’ dream booking was the Smiths. With all due respect to Swedish House Mafia, reunion acts no longer appear to be a core part of Coachella’s mission. But many of the other recently announced events feel like reunions for entire bygone tours and festivals. Looking at the When We Were Young lineup, it’s hard not to see it as a retread of New Jersey’s The Bamboozle, or an idealized version of a certain multistage, summer punk showcase that once traveled our country’s fairgrounds and stadium parking lots. As Told says, “The elephant in the room is the Warped Tour.”

"....For some of the acts that are playing Just Like Heaven, it will be the first time they’ve been packaged under an aura of recapturing yesteryear. The dance punk band !!! played Coachella three times between 2004 and 2011. The group has been consistently putting out music for more than two decades and still tours clubs regularly. “We’ve never played the hits,” says Nic Offer, !!!’s frontperson. “Also we didn’t really have hits that were big enough that people are always going to be screaming for them, so we’ve been lucky in that.”

"...When Goldenvoice approached !!! last year about Just Like Heaven, they were reluctant, not wanting to get shunted into the old band category. “There’s that transition from dated to classic,” Offer says. “I think every musician is kind of counting on that moment when it’ll happen to them. And, you know, it looks like this is going to be the moment where it starts to happen for bands like us.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

so this is the afterlife...

Interesting / poignant piece by Nick Duerden about pop stars and what they do after their careers collapse, spun off a book he's done on the subject, Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars 

I've often wondered, and worried, about what pop stars do with themselves when their moment - often rather brief - has gone....  how they make ends meet.... what they do with all that time on their hands.... and not wanting to go out and about much on account of the inevitable "didn't you use to be...." comments

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

pre-echoes of Retromania # 6 - "going forward into the past"

Funny to see a reviewer (in Sounds, I think - unidentified, anyway) complaining way back in 1977 that Elvis Costello's music is as recycled and recombinational as his name. 

Having read Franklin Bruno's book on Armed Forces, it does seem like the m.o. of the Attractions often was to steal riffs and rejigger them, sometimes inverting them - these riffs often sourced in relatively obscure (at least to the New Wave audience's ears) rhythm-and-blues or soul songs, so they could get away with it presumably, or because it was simply their favorite music, or where they could all find common ground as musicians. 

But what's interesting is that despite this patchworking of bits and bobs borrowed, the outcome comes across with the force of the New - it's animated by an almost unprecedented spite and vitriol, and by the power of the playing and performance. 

The personality, the attitude, revivifies and repurposes all this second-hand material - that's what makes the song jump into the present and leave behind pub rock (a scene, incidentally, characterized by groups doing a lot of cover versions - a break with the progressive ethos of only doing your own material). 

Not forgetting the lyrics  - the locus of the New here, as in so much New Wave (along with image). 

The content changes the form. Charges it up. 

The urgency of the subject makes it totally now (meaning 1977 - the 1977 of RAR and ANL)


Monday, April 4, 2022

pre-echoes of Retromania #5 - "the nostalgia gap"

A piece by Tom Vanderbilt from The Baffler way back in December 1993, classified as a "salvo" and titled on the cover "Toward the Retro Apocalypse", but inside the magazine itself headlined "The Nostalgia Gap". He detects a malaise of '70s nostalgia among twentysomethings aka Gen X, whose "deeper insidiousness lies in the speed with which we arrived to this time of 1970s nostalgia, when it seems that only a few short years ago America was still in the twilight of its homage to the 1960s."

"....  Like some nightmare vision of Left Bank intellectuals gone awry, people coalesced in seventies preservation societies, adopting the trappings of some artistic vanguard (THE PAST EXISTS FOR OUR PLEASURE, their graffiti might read). They hashed out mythopoetical tales of the Brady trip to the Grand Canyon...  and played digitally remastered versions of “Midnight at the Oasis.” What is strange about this equation is that the people celebrating seventies nostalgia are for the most part early twentysomethings, whereas the sixties nostalgia was powered by early thirties Baby Boomers.... According to the historical precedent, the early twentysomethings should not be reminiscing about the 1970s, but the mid-to-late 1980s, when their formative tastes in music, film, and literature were being consolidated and they were blossoming into the much desired 18-24 demographic. And this should happen in the next few years. But why did we not wait? Why did we jump the nostalgia gun?...

"The answer seems to be that the speed of nostalgia has increased. We find ourselves in the strange condition of time sped up—a shrinking of the future to look back on the past. The rise of a global media network means that events, styles, trends, fashion and other sources of future nostalgia are disseminated instantly, and as each new trend is promoted and participated in, a previous one is made obsolete.

"....The speed of consumption has accelerated to the point where things that happened only a few years ago already seem laughably archaic, distant from memory and covered by a creeping nostalgia. ...

"There is some concern that with our increased nostalgia speed—a rush to remember—we will miss the 1980s in the blink of an eye, the decade reduced to some peeling billboard on a slick, open road to the halcyon days of the 1970s. Relax. In the New York Times “Styles” section, a kind of Weather Channel for predicting which way the winds of mainstream taste are blowing, a recent headline announced: “Barely Gone, 80’s are Back.” In the article, Village Voice columnist Michael Musto claims that “we’ve sped up to the point where we’re looking back to three years ago … everything’s happening faster in popular culture.” 

"Scenarios of the future, given a continuation of this speed in nostalgia, border on the absurd. We will look wistfully back to last week’s television...... The previous month’s Top 40 will appear in boxed-CD sets...

Vanderbilt muses upon the snake-eating-its-own-tail, ouruborus nature of revivalism... 

".... Would a future 1990s nostalgia take into account this decade’s 1970s and 1980s nostalgia, and then by extension the 1950s or 1960s nostalgia of those decades? Like Magritte’s La réproduction interdite, in which a man looks at a painting of himself looking at a painting of himself, stretching into eventual nothingness, a true nostalgia would envelop all previous nostalgias, a rather dizzying prospect indeed."

A difficulty with thinking these issues through is that you can get in a muddle by confusing personal biographic/generational nostalgia with the phenomenon of nostalgia for something you didn't live through (which falls into the domain of retro, whereas the painful personal kind of nostalgia doesn't necessarily - unless you start making music that sounds like the music of that lost golden age). The nostalgia-for-something-didn't-live through is disconnected from an individual's seasons-of-life rhythms (looking back that starts as soon as you've accumulated enough stuff to look back at).  And then there's actually a third set of rhythms, the fashion economy - here there can be recycling  that started much, much sooner than the normal generational rhythms of 20 years or whatever. That is a process that doesn't really have anything to do with nostalgia, in the sense of ache for a bygone time. Fashion recycling is based in the desperate hunger for something novel in comparison to what was only just a la mode.  

Only the first of these three forms of retrospection is ruly nostalgic - the second is actually more like discovery, things from the past that are new to you, the surprise of the charming specificity of the past,. And the third mode is just the senseless churn of trendiness, the inbuilt emptiness of the fashion economy. 

Vanderbilt does introduce this nuance, talking about "the strange sensation of “displaced nostalgia,” where one generation is nostalgic for the music and fashion of a period which passed before they were born?"

He also deploys a nifty, typically stern quote from Christopher Lasch: “Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.

Vanderbilt continues:

"....  more often than not what is romanticized is “the way we never were,” and history, the one thing that the media-constructed “twentysomething” generation honestly shares, is lost amidst the celebrating."

And notes:  

"The future of an artistic vanguard seems equally threatened. The notion of a radical “vanguard” has itself already become the stuff of memories, catalogued in so many retrospectives, the work of Constructivists and Situationists resigned to coffee mugs and calendars, their patron regimes long discredited." 

He seems to have read the recently published (well two years earlier) big fat tome by Fredric Jameson. 

But there was quite a bit of this sort of talk around then - that same season of '93, I wrote the record collection rock article in New York Times, indeed had roached similar concerns a few years earlier, while the emerging concept of post-rock was motivated in part as an alternative to the retrospective turn in alternative rock, a path forward. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

retrotalk2022 - streaming (dis)services

An article about streaming and the dominance of catalog sales  that appeared earlier this month in The New Inquiry. It's written by Jaime Brooksmarch, a musician who talks about catching the tail end of a golden moment of music blogging and online music-fan communities: 

".... Over the course of the decade that followed, so much changed that it’s difficult to know where to even begin talking about it. The file-sharing ecosystem was smashed to bits by cops and lawyers so many times that even the most dedicated archivists lost the will to keep rebuilding it. Smartphones brought most of the world online, transforming the internet from a fringe space that only occasionally surfaced into mainstream popular culture into what basically feels like the exact opposite of that. Most people settled on platforms like YouTube where copyright holders had exponentially more power to issue takedowns and generate ad revenue than they ever had in the file-sharing era. The major labels easily assumed control of the vinyl market, sidelining the independent labels that had been driving the resurgence of interest in the format throughout the 2000s decade. No one can get records pressed up quickly enough to sell them on tour anymore because every pressing plant in the world is booked to press up expanded reissues of albums by Toto and Journey."

The piece then addresses its major topic, which is the changes wrought by the Streamers, referencing a 2014 email by an executive called David Goldberg about music biz strategies addressed to the CEO of a massive music industry conglomerate. 

'“Music is becoming a purely digital product,” Goldberg’s email begins. He goes on to talk a lot about “catalog,” which is the word that the record business uses to describe music that was released more than eighteen months ago. “Catalog provides 50% of the revenue and 200% of the profits of recorded music. This has generally been the case for other recorded music companies when the analysis is correctly done. The correct analysis requires including reissues, live albums, [and] greatest hits releases in catalog.”'

Brooksmarch notes that in 2004, "catalog accounted for 35% of digital and physical sales in America. The vast majority of music being bought and sold back then was new music." 

That was two years before Spotify existed and back when lots of people bought MP3s and were still attached to the idea of owning music and collecting it, rather than renting and having a passing relationship with it. 

"Streaming turned out to be a great boon for the catalog business. In the pre-streaming music business, catalog had to compete for shelf space with new releases in record stores. When a new format like cassette tapes or CDs arrived, labels could squeeze dedicated listeners for revenue by encouraging them to re-buy their collections, but streaming was a complete paradigm shift. Streaming platforms have infinite shelf space. Every single recording the majors own the rights to is a potential source of revenue, regardless of whether or not it has recently been remastered, reissued, or featured in a film. On streaming, there’s nothing stopping an artist who has been dead for decades from outperforming working musicians living today. This is the future that Dave Goldberg was predicting in his strategy email. Infinite opportunities to monetize catalog, very little incentive to bother pushing anything else.

Streaming revenues tend to be more heavily weighted to catalog,” he wrote. “Pandora and Spotify are probably 65% catalog under this definition.....  The catalog is also primarily generating this revenue off the ‘deep’ catalog that is at least 5 years old or older.

Brooksmarch observes, grimly, that "today, catalog accounts for 75% of sales and streams. [i.e. more than twice what it was in 2004]  Only 25% of the music being bought or streamed today is “new,” potentially even less than that depending on how exactly “catalog” is defined now."

Goldberg in his strategy memo advises that because most of the moolah is coming from catalog, “new releases need to be cut back dramatically to the point where the new business either breaks even or loses a small amount of money… " The gist of the idea that follows from this is that the new groups on a label gets consigned to what is effectively a kind of "internal indie label" within the major company - getting not much in the way of the typical old skool major label promo push, in other words." 

A particularly sharp and alarming observation from Brooksmarch is that early death seems to transform new artists into legacy artists: 

" A fairly startling number of young rap artists who signed to majors off the back of viral success already in progress were killed or incarcerated shortly afterwards. Pop Smoke, Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, Juce WRLD, Bobby Shmurda. Posthumous releases by some of these artists were marketed more heavily by the label than anything the artist released while they were alive, which makes sense. In an industry that revolves around catalog, dying young is like graduating early to the part of the business that actually matters to the people running it."

Various solutions and utopian alternate paths forwards are outlined in the piece, which is well worth a proper read.