Pop history: a poor substitute for real history

While society has become ever more estranged from the great events of the past, music has been on a lazy nostalgia trip of reunions, reissues, recycling and anniversaries.

Neil Davenport

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Ageing rockers, mods and soul men – not to mention militant rappers and balding acid ravers – don’t just grow old disgracefully; they go on reunion tours to celebrate it, too. The Noughties was the decade in which any musician with a reasonable back catalogue could relive former glories and bolster bank balances. It was as if the League of Gentlemen’s Les McQueen, and his quest to relive his Seventies glam-rock days in Crème Brulée, became the blueprint for the decade. Nearly all the acts of any note from the past 30 years – apart from the Smiths and the Jam – have sorted out bitter differences with former band members, attached girdles to their stomachs, booked world tours and banked the proceeds. Yes, it’s undignified, but probably more lucrative than a shift with a local mini-cab firm.

In an age of internet file-sharing, royalties from back catalogues don’t quite have the staying power they used to. The far more lucrative tour and festival circuit is where the real money is at. Any band that does feel compelled to reissue its back catalogue must do so via state-of-the-art remastering (the Smiths) or superannuated box sets featuring fanboy artefacts such as rough demo collections nobody plays again (Nirvana) and souvenir tat that has a queasy end-of-the-pier feel to it (Primal Scream).

The outfit that has tried all avenues of back-catalogue reheats as successfully as anyone is bone-crunching, sci-fi surf punks, the Pixies. Their reunion lasted longer than their original creative years: a worldwide comeback tour, reissued ‘best of’ packages and, when all that had been exhausted, a twentieth-anniversary tour of their best album, Doolittle.

Playing a fan-favourite album in its entirety became a big concert draw in the 2000s. It was popularised by the promoter behind the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, Barry Hogan, who successfully enticed hip alt.rock bands to perform ‘classic’ albums in their entirety. That he calls these concerts ‘Don’t Look Back’ suggests a developed sense of irony. On a harmless Saturday-night-out level, some of these shows can be enjoyable enough. Dinosaur Jr performed Living All Over Me, the Tindersticks gave us their second eponymous album and, the granddaddy of them all, Brian Wilson, revived the Beach Boys classic Pet Sounds at the Royal Festival Hall.

In fact, for an individual lampooned as a far-gone Sixties casualty, Wilson has played the back catalogue game even better than the Pixies. Since 2002, Wilson – with his backing band, the Wondermints – has routinely performed Beach Boys classics at inflated prices in London’s more opulent concert halls. He even re-recorded his ‘great lost’ Beach Boys album, Smile, only to issue the original 1968 album, in deluxe editions of course, last month. Wilson ended 2011 by announcing a full-blown Beach Boys reunion to celebrate 50 years of, well, not being quite together.

That announcement, however, was nothing compared to the news that the original Stone Roses line-up would be touring next year. Given that singer Ian Brown and guitarist John Squire frequently poured scorn on the idea of a reunion – especially given Brown’s most famous lyric ‘the past was yours/the future’s mine/you’re all out of time’ – it seems the reunion roadshow is set to trudge through this decade too. For those of us who (yawn) lived through the Stone Roses the first time, their career has been one long anniversary anyway. Glad to have them back? It’s like they’ve never been too far away from a deluxe re-issue and a 10-page spread in Mojo. But a note of caution for younger fans eager to see them afresh: the Stone Roses’ well-known signature tune, ‘Stone Roses cancel comeback tour’, could still make a last minute re-appearance…

The obsession with pop’s recent past is the subject of Simon Reynolds’ current book, Retromania. As someone who, like me, was schooled in punk and post-punk, discussing or liking records from the past (let alone buying them) would be to commit a grave social faux pas. Incredible as it may seem now, in the 1980s The Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys were derisorily known as ‘dad’s music’ and given instant dismissal. As Reynolds pointed out in his previous book, Rip It Up and Start Again, record companies often deleted albums as there was too much new stuff being released. And given the mind-boggling brilliance of a lot of early Eighties alt.indie and new pop, there wasn’t the time to go and find rare Big Star albums from the 1970s.

Indeed, the whole point of being an alt.music fan was discovering the next big thing, watching them take off and being indelibly linked to the period you’re living in. Even today, it is still far more thrilling to witness a band on the cusp of making it big (such as The xx a few years back) than to see a band recreating ‘your yoof’ (though one unkind soul recently suggested to me that my youth never ended). There can be no more woeful sight than Echo & The Bunnymen destroying their last ounces of credibility or seeing Peter Hook take a shovel and crowbar to Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and reduce grown men to tears (though not in the way Ian Curtis originally planned).

It would be simplistic and banal to argue that the nostalgia industry is down to the lack of decent new bands today. On their own terms, there are still dozens of new albums each year worthy of attention and acclaim. It’s just that, as Reynolds points out, ‘the pop present became ever more crowded out by the past…instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once’. Reynolds is as much schooled in leftist sociology as he is in the back pages of Melody Maker and makes a number of insightful points on the current nostalgia glut. Although digital innovations were hugely impressive in the 2000s – it was the decade where how you listened to music became more important than what you listened to – Reynolds acknowledges that ‘our belief in progress itself has been shaken badly’. The knock-on effect has been a slow-developing popular culture where the past always wins.

However, even some of this feels a little too rehearsed as an explanation for the dominance of reissues and reunions. After all, a broader script of disillusion with progress was palpable in the Nineties – the decade when techno, cuts’n’glitch electronica, drone-rock, trance and pneumatic R’n’B all triumphed. The 2000s, by contrast, have very little that can compare for era-defining styles. There is literally no difference in styles between chart records of 1999 and 2009, except that the reality-TV show spin-off plays a bigger part.

Reynolds has a superb eye for detail and charts how current pop is all-consumed by its past. He rolls out pithy put-downs on contemporary music’s anti-modernist regression and sheer laziness. Nevertheless, he doesn’t quite offer a full explanation as to why the 2000s and beyond are the ‘Re’ era (reissue, revival, repackage, reunion etc). But it becomes apparent when he fondly reels off previous pop genres – whether mod, rave, hip hop or British indie – how these styles were created through localised, organic scenes. They developed through young people attending clubs or hip watering holes, making them their own and forging ahead creatively as a result. In the recent past, innovative clusters of groups were always associated with specific regions: Bristol and trip hop; Manchester and pop reinvention; Seattle and grunge; Glasgow and indie; Chicago and house; and so on. Whatever happened to the creatively dynamic, localised scenes that suddenly went global?

In Britain in particular, the relentless war on public drinking has had the knock-on effect of stunting the development of bohemian enclaves around the country (see When indie music was truly independent, by Neil Davenport). It has also encouraged a deadening privatised world and a stay-at-home-with-mom sensibility with young people today. The idea of pubs, clubs and record shops being associated with hipster scenes is as bizarre to young people as an old clip of Ready, Steady, Go. As such, the relationship to music is entirely privatised and far less significant than it used to be. Shaking off an obsession with pop may be no bad thing (a curse perhaps for my post-punk generation), but with that has also come a decline in creative energy and in a sense of ‘anything is possible’. Fatalism and nostalgia have been the twin dead hands on creativity in this past decade.

Alongside all this, the pop anniversary has thrived only because real social history has declined. As a society, Britain has become alarmingly philistine about its own and wider European history (apart from the Second World War, and even this is a paltry, one-sided understanding). The ideological thrust of New Labour’s New Britain was to dismiss the past with the effect of closing down the future. Furthermore, Britain’s imperial past, even its achievements in the Victorian era, are seen as too tortuous, too problematic and rather disdainful to anti-modernist or multicultural sensibilities. The past is not only a ‘different country’ but one to emigrate from, never to return. Even a decade that once had a perpetual glow to it, the Sixties, has now been written off for being racist, sexist and obsessed with consumerism.

In the absence of genuine social history, as a source of narrative and debate in society, pop anniversaries step in to fill the vacuum. The ‘significance’ of commemorating 30 years since punk or 20 years since Nirvana’s Nevermind is preferable to commemorating real events in British or Western history. It is not only down to Western self-loathing, but it is presumed to be ‘arrogant’ that discussing history means discussing ‘your story’ rather than somebody else’s story. History has often been a contested battlefield, but it’s a field that is now vacated due to it being ‘dodgy’ or ‘not relevant’ to the New Britain of the present. Occasionally, there will be the odd documentary on the Tudors or the recent historical series on Jerusalem, but these are far outweighed by endless programmes on Factory Records, New York hip hop, punk, Sixties folk and even documentaries on progressive rock. No corner of recent pop ‘history’ has been left unexplored on BBC4; it’s far harder to find programmes that even scratch the surface of Britain’s tumultuous history.

Retromania is an enjoyable survey of how deeply ingrained the ‘Re’ era has become this past decade. When the past triumphs over the present so relentlessly in popular culture, it’s a worrying sign of deep cultural and creative malaise. Ironically enough, however, it’s precisely because we’re so quiet on real History that pop history has grown ever louder. Like so many box-set reissues of worn-out albums, it’s surely time we changed the record.

Neil Davenport is a politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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