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)



  1. Lucy Sante on Dylan in 2004:
    "But who, on the other hand, could imagine coming up with “John Wesley Harding/Was a friend to the poor/He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand”? The outlaw looks like Shiva, a brace of guns in a brace of hands, the apotheosis of Western legend by way of an apparent awkwardness of syntax, and the impression endures even if we know that Dylan lifted those five words from Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre,” in which the striking miners’ women sell their potatoes and with the proceeds “put a gun in every hand.” It takes an unusual mind to pick that unremarkable scrap from Guthrie’s pocket and paste it athwart a completely different sort of genre piece, like Kurt Schwitters inserting a bus ticket into a landscape. Dylan drives critics mad, because while his vast range of sources can be endlessly itemized and dissected, the ways in which he puts things together teases rational explication before finally betraying it." (

    My primary issue with your concept of 'retromania' is that it views artistic tradition and innovation as opposed and not, when they're working properly, as a dialectic - one depending on and emerging out of the other. Dylan couldn't have happened without the folk revival, jazz couldn't happened without spirituals and blues, and hiphop couldn't have happened without the dozens and ancient breakbeats on dusty LPs (what Greg Tate called 'ancestor worship'). The issue is when that process breaks down, which is another story.

  2. Well there are many gradations and levels here - i think i once broke them down on this blog, or maybe it was in an interview - there were about 7 different layers of retro/revivalism/revision in a sort of scale of absolute iniquity to "can be pretty interesting /exciting / valid if falling a little short of the shock of the new"

    for sure, traditions can be built on and reconfigured. but that's quite different i think from someone doing a Xerox of a Neu! track or going to great pains to use the same equipment available to a garage punk group in the mid-60s. Which is can be interesting in itself, for its sheer against-Time's-Flow fanaticism - that's why I interviewed Billy Childish, and trekked out to Brooklyn to meet Tim Warren, the guy behind Crypt Records and the Back to the Grave compilations, who believes that music should just have stopped in 1966 before sitars and phasing arrived.

    That kind of thing - pure empty fakesimiles of past styles, which no warping or colliding of different elements, and with no particular expressive content - is the purest form of retro and scores high on the iniquity metric. But there many other levels - tradition-inhabiting musicians who don't do much formally in terms of tinkering or renovation but bring new content or expressivity (queer punk would be one example), then you get into the recombinative levels, etc

    Ex nihilo innovation is a thing, it has happened, but most music has a relationship with the past - the hardcore continuum for instance is propelled along (or was, when it still existed!) by its dialectic of "roots n' future". Same goes for hip hop. Reggae too.

    Hardcore continuum provides a good example of what I think of as a positive form of recycling - each stage of it (say, UK garage) would have reworkins of anthems from earlier (so hardcore or jungle). They'd take key refrains or samples, but resituate them in a completely up to date beat-matrix. The tracks simultaneously honor recent history while saying "we're in a new phase, dancing to new rhythms" That's very different from retro-jungle or retro-hardcore or retro-UKgarage - when a producer like Zomby or whoever would do this period-precise remakes, recreate the original beat-matrix.

    New Wave did a similar thing, but through the cover version - you'd have the herky-jerky revision of Stonesy raunchy grooviness (Devo and Residents versions of "Satisfaction") or the Dickies's punked-up run-through "Nights in White Satin" etc etc. Or Flying Lizards "Money" and their other many covers.