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)



Phil Knight said...

Rock music from 1965 to 1967 was looking eastwards to India, and away from the USA. That seemed to be the direction of progress at the time, and which seems to have stopped with that disastrous Beatles spiritual trip to India. The whole episode is seen as an eccentric diversion nowadays, a flash in the pan moment when Brian Jones could play the sitar on Ed Sullivan. The "back to basics" move from "We Love You" to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was not just a re-emphasis of American rootsiness, but also a rejection of the East, which has never been returned to, progress from then on being redefined in terms of modernism - more angular, disjointed guitar riffs, electronics etc.

So the original rift wasn't between modernity/tradition, but more between East/West.


I feel like the Indipop / raga rock was nearer a fad than a whole phase in rock. Okay, the Byrds had several songs with that flavor, and the Beatles had one or two songs (George Harrison for the most part) per album in their psychedelic phase. But generally it's groups doing one song in that vein - the Doors with "The End" for instance. The Kinks had "See My Friends" and I guess "Fancy" has that flavor to a degree.

The 1968-onwards back-to-rock'n'roll shift (there was also a back to blues move, and a country rock move) seems like a reaction against psychedelia in the sense of using the studio, overdubs, tape manipulation, treatments on guitars, etc. But also use of orchestration and non-rock instruments - harpischords! All those things as well as the raga-rock are being pulled back from.

The interesting thing about the India-craze is that it's going the opposite direction from the futuristic tendencies in the culture (like interest in Moogs and studio-as-instrument stuff, aesthetic use of amplification and distortion).

And the kind of Indian music they are drawing from is the antithesis of rock'n'roll and Western bohemia - it's Indian classical music, conservative, it requires decades of studying, is played by virtuosos. It just so happens that some of the musical properties of it a/ suit the kind of things you can do with an electric guitar and effects - timbral smears, the dilation of tone, drones etc. And b/ it happens to go well with the effects of marijuana and LSD

late adopter said...

Sha Na Na in NYC also started in 1969.

Ed said...
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Ed said...

Another rift date for the start of retro-consciousness would be the May 1967 release of Sgt Pepper, with its embrace of Music Hall and Edwardian kitsch in general. Some of that album definitely goes beyond nostalgia into trying to recreate the sounds of an earlier era. And for a while the two tendencies can co-exist: Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite and Within You Without You on the same album

Ed said...

Of course, this whole discussion has been about retro Rock. Other genres will have other dates. Trad Jazz was born as a reaction to Swing and then Bebop, between the late 30s and the late 40s. Retro Soul is I would guess a late 90s or early 2000s phenomenon. The first Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings album was released in 2002.

Ed said...

..although I suppose, going further back, you could say that in the 80s Sade and Anita Baker were the first real Retro Soul artists.

Sade is an odd one. Her styling signified "jazz", but there was nothing really jazzy about her sound. But on the other hand, it was hard to identify a specific style or era of Soul that she was trying to recreate. Her genre was just "Retro", without being retrospective of anything in particular.

Stylo said...

I wouldn't say that Anita Baker was Retro Soul, but rather just what some soul was in the mid-80s: marketed towards older, more affluent audiences who may very well have voted for Reagan. So, soul music became depoliticised, genteel, classy, respectable, unremarkable and above all smooth. A tasteful accompaniment to middle-aged lovemaking. The distinction I'm drawing is that I don't think Anita Baker was harking back to the past, but rather continuing a genre that hadn't really gone away.

I don't know enough about Sade to attempt an opinion.

Tyler said...

I agree that trad jazz is the first recognizably 'retro' cultural movement, right down to the art school quotation marks and proto-postmodernism in the slightly later British variant - the Temperance Seven were formed by Chelsea students in 1955, but they claimed to have started in 1904 at the 'Pasadena Cocoa Rooms, Balls Pond Road, North London'.
There's always an open question to me about the difference between aspirationally time-traveling retro, straight-ahead pastiche, or simple reversion to the mean - the 68-70 'roots' movement in rock seems less about the wish to make it somehow 1957 again, but a form of attempted reorientation to work out exactly what path they were on and what they were aiming for. And conscious pastiche/parody is another matter - Zappa justified the Reuben and the Jets record as his version of Stravinsky's neoclassicism, intentionally writing in a past idiom for its own sake.

Paul said...

Reuben & The Jets / Bennie And The Jets
interesting... never noticed that before. subconscious lift? rrrrolls off the tongue

Tim 'Space Debris' said...

Come on retro soul started way back in the heyday of Northern Soul when groups started making facsimiles of old soul to top up playlists with "fresh" unknown tunes or trick collectors.

Then 80s pop couldn't bloody shake off the retro soul influence for a while. It was horrible.