Saturday, May 27, 2023

The Rift of Retro - pinpointed!

Trying to pinpoint the Rift of Retro, the date kept shifting back.

 Initial thought was circa 1983-84, when postpunk's forward drive entropized and left-field musicians and fans started listening en masse to 1960s records like Byrds and Velvets and Love, the effects audible in the likes of R.E.M. and Smiths and a swarm of jangly groops.

But this initial thought was very quickly adjusted as I remembered glam's pomo-in-all-but-name referentiality.... and then the parallel, overlapping but discrete phenomenon of the early 70s rock'n'roll revival. The huge spate of '50s nostalgia....

But then upon further reflection I realised that started even earlier -  as early as 1968 with The Beatles's "Back in the USSR", Zappa's doowop pastiche project Reuben & the Jets. At the start of that year there was talk in the music papers about a return to rock'n'roll basics, and the beginnings of a nostalgia circuit with '50s acts exhumed, many original rock'n'roll greats announcing their first tours of the UK in ages.

Just the other day someone posted on Twitter a Melody Maker article that pushes the date of the Rift back even further - albeit only a few months. It's from September 1967 and reports on an unexpected  interest in early rock'n'roll records. The Birmingham record retailer interviewed says that "it started about six months ago". So that further pinpoints the Rift to March '67

Of course, an interest in older music, nostalgia, these things per se are not really retro as I'd define it. Retro is when a current group spurns the contemporary and makes music that is a remake or a form of attempted time travel. So that would be "Back in the USSR", Reuben & the Jets, and other things of that time like The Move's "Fire Brigade" of February 1968 with its discernible Eddie Cochran flavor (possibly the first retro move made by a major group?). 

And probably not too long after that you would get the first of the groups whose wholesale music identity is revivalist - for instance, Shakin' Stevens and the Sunsets formed in 1969. 

(Although looking into the odd story of Shakin' Stevens, it seems he never "went back" to rock'n'roll - that was always his only love, he was a fanboy of a 1950s Welsh rock'n'roller called Rockin' Louie! Another tidbit - Shakey's manager was a member of the Communist Party and Shakin and the Sunsets played a fair few benefits for the CP of GB)


Saturday, May 20, 2023

"ahead of its time"

Recently, Bob Stanley tweeted about "Burning Up", a 1981 track by Imagination

An old subject, but Leee John's Imagination really must be the most underrated group of their age. As big in 1982 as ABC. This is, what, six years ahead of its time? Big fave of Frankie Knuckles apparently.

I can see what he means - the piano does sound like house music. 

But here's what I wondered - if I had heard it in 1981 (which I may well have done: Imagination were, as Bob says, huge) I doubt very much I'd have thought it was futuristic or  pointing forwards. 

If anything, the rinky-dinky piano might have seemed slightly old-fashioned. "Burning Up" seems like a late disco track, or something off a Chas Jankel solo album. So probably I would have heard it as par for the course contemporary club music, not as cutting edge as Peech Boys or Rockers Revenge or even France Joli's "I Wanna Take A Chance on Love".  

In the contemporary context, I'd probably have been more impressed by other Imagination tunes such as  "Bodytalk" and "Just An Illusion"

Imagination were early users of what would become key house music technology but for sounds-nothing-like-acid-house effects. They used the Roland 303, then a brand new piece of equipment, for a slippery, superlubed, lubricious bass sound. (Which then in turn inspired Orange Juice to use it on "Rip It Up").

Another thing Imagination did that was super-contemporary was their nearly-pioneering remix album Night Dubbing ("nearly" because League Unlimited Orchestra and Soft Cell both got there first. Actually I believe the B-52s were first of all with Party Mix). 

Night Dubbing I bought at the time (but never had Night Clubbing the proper album). I seem to remember it sold as a cheaper than normal album price - something it shared with the other early remix albums. There was a feeling that it would be ripping off the fans otherwise.  I do remember that remix techniques seemed very thrilling then and were increasingly heard on the flipside of the 12 inch version of pop records, even those not explicitly targeted at the clubfloor. Then quite quickly that first flush of remixology got to seem gimmicky and annoying! Indeed I sold Night Dubbing a year or two after buying it. 

Now it sounds charming all over again. 

That in itself suggests that timelines are much more wonky and subject to fashion curvature and sudden flip-arounds of instant obsolescence, where the value of something is abruptly voided. 

In these circumstances, establishing what is really ahead of its time is tricky. In a fashion economy, ahead-of-its-time becomes behind-of-its-time really fast.

Here's another example of how slippery this kind of temporal placing of music can get:  "Dancing Ghosts". I heard this for the first time only a few years ago and instantly had similar Bob-type thoughts: "this is WAY ahead of its time!".  Released by Chris & Cosey and a chap called John Lacey under the name CTI  and on an album titled Elemental 7 that was a soundtrack to a video,  "Dancing Ghosts" does sounds like the dreamier side of house (think Larry Heard) and the fluffier and floatier Detroit techno. But it was recorded in 1982 (and released in February '84).

But what I wonder now is: would I have thought that if I'd heard it in '84?  Most likely not.  Probably I would have filed it in the vicinity of things of that time, or a few years earlier, such as Liaisons Dangereuses, Hardcorps, Thomas Leer. An ongoing, already existing thing, off which the bloom had somewhat gone by then. 

(I remember in my early months of being a professional music journo giving a lukewarm review to a Chris & Cosey album. This was early '86. Electropop and synth noir type stuff seemed a bit  passé;  guitars were in the ascendant).

 "Dancing Ghosts" does sound quite close to something else that was very contemporary in terms of its technological uptake but went largely unnoticed in the moment of its release: E2-E4, by Manuel Gottsching.  At the time of release - 1984, same as "Dancing Ghosts" and Elemental 7 -  that album was neither ahead nor behind of its time, just simply to one side of everything.  Probably those few who heard it then, heard it as an incremental extension of the things that Gottsching had been doing on late '70s albums like New Age of Earth / Blackouts / New Inventions for Guitar - sequenced rhythm-pulses, feathery synth pads, glistening ripples of heavily effected guitar Then later it achieved recirculation within the Balearic / New Age House milieu and - its feel ideal for MDMA - was duly accorded some "ahead of its time" status. It became proto-house. But in its original moment, it wasn't proto- anything;  house didn't exist yet.

 "Ahead of its time", as a rhetorical trope or aesthetic claim, implies a kind of linear track to music history marked out by clearly indicated advances. A teleology. Tracks like these, dancing ghost-like across the timelines, throw all that into disarray. They show that history is constantly under revision; that "futures" when they emerge also reshape the past and suddenly confer the status of prophecy on things that in their original moment were marginal and disregarded. 


Leee John of Imagination, coming round again at the dawn of the new millennium, for a new moment of being absolutely contemporary, with this beautiful bit of 2step, a mutant form of house music. 


Here's what I said about it at the time: 

"Hearing this music is like moving through a mesh of pointillistic percussion, the body buffeted and flexed everywhichway by cross-rhythms and hyper-syncopations. On Leee John’s “Your Mind, Your Body, Your Soul”, the drums are so digitally texturized it’s as if the whole track’s made from glossy fabric that crackles, crinkles, and kinks with each percussive impact."


Friday, May 12, 2023

Shuffle versus Click Wheel

 A recent-ish piece at Verge by Natalie Weiner argues that the shuffle button is the defining technology of the modern era of entertainment/media consumption. 

She traces its history back to the first CD players in 1982, when " Random playback was touted as one of the device’s best features." But notes that it really took a step towards the iPod / infinite jukebox idea with "the introduction of players that held multiple CDs; rather than just hearing a CD you owned play in an order you couldn’t predict, you could put a few that you liked together and, well, shuffle them, replicating the leanback experience of listening to the radio.... “Having a Sony CDP-C10 Disc Jockey in your home really is like having your own personal disc jockey,” another advertisement put it. “Ten hours of uninterrupted music enjoyment for hassle-free parties or background music in restaurants or shops.” 

The function combines surprise (whatever's next?) with safety (guaranteed it'll be something you've already enjoyed or are likely to enjoy). And it temporarily suspends the pressure of having to choose:  

"The introduction of the idea that media consumption could be both personal and passive had massive ripple effects. In the wake of the Napster era and its promises of a massive, totally unique music library, Pandora effectively invented the idea of individualized radio, promising the ultimate “shuffle” experience with technology that has since been used to great effect by streaming services intent on keeping people listening. Spotify, Apple Music, and their ilk offer both the promise of that Napster-scale range with Pandora’s ease. You could find anything, they suggest, but why not click this button and we’ll find it for you?"

My youngest son always put 'shuffle' on even when playing an album by an artist he loves - he prefers not to hear it in the right order, has no particular interest or respect for the sequencing decisions the artist has no doubt sweated over. I wonder if this is a common attitude among the youngers? 

I myself almost never use Shuffle (and generally spurn algorithmic guidance when using streamers or whatever). Which maybe why I think there's another contender in in terms of defining the modern era of consumer entertainment etc etc. the Click Wheel. (In Retromania, I refer to it as the iPod's scroll wheel and only realised Click Wheel is the right name!). In a recent conference talk on retro-culture themes, I used  the Click Wheel as a visual metaphor for hyperstasis: 

The wheel can scroll you to anywhere at incredible speed and fluency, so long as it is within archival space: the subdivided space of existing and already known music. 

The iPod is now itself a retro piece of technology now (although I still use one when I go on a trip or use the exercise bike - occasionally late at night, if unable to sleep. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one left in the world still using the little black rectangle). 

Monday, May 1, 2023

retrotalk2023: the Nostalgia-Industrial Complex

 Pitchfork's Jayson Greene on what he's cleverly calling Music's Nostalgia-Industrial Complex - a tag that here describes the consolidation of song catalogues by legacy artists in money-minded hands looking to maximise every conceivable form of earning back on their huge investments in publishing rights.  

One way is to instigate the interpolation of hooks from these bits of prime musical property into songs that become Top 40 hits. Like this one:

"After clocking the 1987 smash’s internet infamy, Primary Wave acquired a percentage of the rights to [Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up"]....  then pitched the idea of an interpolation to Yung Gravy’s manager. At the same time, a member of Shukat’s team reached out to a producer who worked with Gravy. “Within a day, we literally had a track to listen to, and Gravy rapped over it two days later, which was fucking dope,” Shukat says over the phone. He was less enthused by the original track’s name—“Get Pussy”—and requested a rework, which was obliged. The song went on to peak at No. 30 on the Hot 100 and currently has more than 200 million plays on Spotify. When I observe that Shukat is describing a role more akin to a music producer than a publisher, he says, “I’m comfortable with that. We’re producing on a daily basis.” 

Primary Wave's chief of marketing is involved in the work of "'“artist re-development.' His team assembles three-to-five-year marketing plans for each new acquisition, and then presents a pitch deck to the artist or their estate."... Primary Wave treats their catalogs the way powerful record labels treat their star artists—except all of the publishing company’s talent is either dead, a legend, or both. And when you own the rights to some of the most important American popular music ever recorded, opportunities have a way of presenting themselves in perpetuity.

It's the wave of the (no-)future - retro-necrosploitation of golden oldies with proven hookability and nostalgic triggers in-built. 

"In the past few years, Primary Wave has been joined by what Shukat estimates are more than 20 similar companies. He points directly to the pandemic as the cause for the catalog stampede, which erased touring income from everyone’s ledger sheets for nearly two years. Now it feels like a week doesn’t go by without a major artist’s catalog getting scooped up."

Alongside Primary Wave, a company called Hipgnosis (unrelated I assume to the record design company) are big players in this field. 

"The rise in catalog acquisition helps to explain how we’ve arrived at a moment when the pop charts are littered with chunks of old intellectual property. Nicki’s “Super Freaky Girl” and Yung Gravy’s “Betty” are just two high-profile examples; you don’t have to look far for more. The Santa Clara, California rapper Saweetie’s “P.U.S.S.Y. (Powerful, Utopia, Supreme, Sacred, Yummy)” samples Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” the basis for Biggie’s “Juicy.” Atlanta’s Latto double-dipped Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” famously sampled on Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” for her song “Big Energy,” bringing in Mariah herself for bonus points." 

"... In some ways, the Hot 100 right now feels as recursive, all-encompassing, and allergic to new input as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. "