I’ve just finished reading Simon Reynolds’ 2011 book Retromania. It’s a book which, at its heart, dwells upon the old adage that there is nothing new under the sun. His concern is wrapped up in the present – and the immediate future.
You can sense him scratching his head as he types, wondering when the last distinctly new development in pop music happened.
The sixties had The Beginning Of Everything in 1963 (The Beatles, The Stones and Dylan) and later scored a second wind with the arrival of psychedelia. For all the derision it received post-1976, the early 70s saw fresh ideas emerge with rock expanding in various directions (Glam-, Prog- and Folk-Rock) only for punk to stamp all over everything that had gone before.
Having shaken things up, punk then gave way to post-punk, new romanticism and the emergence of rap and hip-hop. As the 80s then progressed technological advances allowed for dance music to take off which in turn influenced guitar based music.
And then, with the 90s came grunge and the rebuttal that Blur, Oasis, Suede and Pulp provided to that in the form of Britpop.
Let’s All Meet Up In The Year 2000:
What followed on from that, Reynolds argues, was…not much at all. While, up unto the milestone of the year 2000, everything seemed to be forward-looking, everything ever since has been looking back with revival after revival of different sounds and fad emerging, re-emerging and cross-breading.
Only it’s not that simple.
As Reynolds himself admits – in the middle, most interesting section of the book, retrospection has always been with us. He considers how, by the end of their career as a band, The Beatles were looking to Get Back to where they once came from (with John Lennon claiming that the Fab’s greatest work was done before they ever darkened the door of a recording studio). He points to punk, for all its apparent revolution, returning to the rock and roll roots of the 50s and early 60s, and alludes to George Michael’s embrace of the 50s for his ‘Faith’ single.
Little is made of Britpop’s fascination with the Swinging Sixties (Oasis’ love affair with The Beatles and The Stones; Blur’s indebtedness to The Small Faces and The Kinks), but it’s not hard to apply Reynolds’ logic there.
The key difference between pre- and post-millennial music is, in Reynolds’ view, artists’ capacity for imagination. And this, in large part, is down to the Internet, he argues. Youtube and instant downloading means that anything is accessible at any time.
Whatever You Want:
Once upon a time, loving music required time, effort and no small amount of money. You had to save your pocket money or put aside your student grant/loan and march off to your local (or maybe not so local) record store, walk your fingers through an array of LPs or CDs in search of your quarry and then wait for your return home before you could have that first tantalising listen to your latest purchase.
These days, you can just download whatever you like – wherever you like. That’s it.
The lack of ritual – the sheer immediacy of it – cheapens (both literally and, most importantly, figuratively) the experience. And that makes the possibility of the emergence of a new, exciting form of music less likely; you’re as likely to get attached to a particular downloaded song or album as you are to become devoted to a pint of milk.
My take on the situation is a little more optimistic than Reynolds – for similar reasons to those even he outlines in his book. He makes much of today’s music representing a patchwork of ideas (either in the form of rhythms, styles and textures being borrowed by the likes of Vampire Weekend or simply sampled by the likes of The Avalanches). Perhaps this is a post-millennial musical development; we’re just too immersed in it to properly understand it.
What Reynolds appears to be regretting is the decline in the idea of reactions – and those reactions generating something new. Rock and roll was a reaction against austerity combined with a celebration of new found freedom, punk was a reaction against the convoluted arrogance of a form that had lost its way, Britpop was a reaction against (a) grunge-y American rock and (b) a drab political landscape.
Along the way, teenagers generally listened to music that was the antithesis of anything their parents liked.
These days there are so many styles, sub-styles and sub-sub-styles of music available there seems little need to create anything new. If you want to react against one pre-existing thing, you can simply follow a different pre-existing thing. And teenager’s parents are more likely than ever before to shout up to their offspring that they should turn it up, not down.
It was interesting reading this book as someone who has spent hours, days, weeks and months immersing himself in the minutiae of music from Medway. Medway, that relatively small area in the north of Kent that has turned out such a huge quantity of bands and artists, has long had its own microclimate.
While the rest of the country was embracing post-punk and new romanticism, Medway bands like The Milkshakes and The Prisoners headed back to the 50s and 60s to find something more primitive, more authentic than the stuff that was playing in the charts.
Against this backdrop, a whole parallel music culture evolved alongside what was going on in the mainstream. The Daggermen followed in the footsteps of The Milkshakes and The Prisoners and from these three bands various permutations of line-ups emerged to form acts like The James Taylor Quartet, The Kravin’ “A”s, The Solar Flares, The Prime Movers, Thee Mighty Caesars, Thee Headcoats, The Buff Medways, The Musicians of the British Empire, The Senior Service and CTMF.
There was even a reaction against Medway’s own mainstream in the form of acts like Cenet Rox, Blood Junkies and Alternative Posing who rejected the above bands’ rejection of the general flow of musical traffic, choosing, instead to embrace a more experimental form of music which might even involve the percussive endeavours of a brick in a spin-dryer.
Out of this then emerged The Dentists who started out with a late 60s psyche sound, partially inspired by The Byrds, maintaining their links to Medway’s musical forefathers by hiring The Prisoners’ Allan Crockford as producer for their first album.
The microclimate is still a phenomenon of Medway today, as was much in evidence during the last weekend, when London’s 100 Club played host to a Medway Weekender. I was at the opening night which saw the performances of Theatre Royal (relative newcomers in the world of Medway music), Bob Collins and the Full Nelson and The Claim.
There are clear stylistic and thematic links between the old and the new out of that line up. Theatre Royal are self-proclaimed fans of both Bob Collins’ old band The Dentists and The Claim. Within Medway, just as within the wider world, music’s past is very, very much part of its present and future.
While Simon Reynolds may express concern about such a situation, it’s unlikely that anyone who attended the Medway Weekender would share his worries. The music performed was a vibrant and exciting as music can be.
In the opening pages of Reynolds book certain references to reviving the excitement of 50s and 60s music made me think of Billy Childish (frontman, among other things, of many of the bands listed above). A quick flick through to Retromania’s index revealed that, sure enough there was reference to him. And not just a passing one. Pages 267-275 are devoted to him.
The New Originals
Perhaps the most intriguing thing to emerge from Reynolds’ interview with Childish was the artist’s comment that ‘I would say I am totally original, because all I’m interested in is the Origin.’ It’s a rather odd interpretation of the definition of the word originality, no doubt born out of a defence against people who claim his artistry is based entirely on a rehash of old ideas.
Whether Childish’s music – or art in general – is original or not probably doesn’t really matter that much. And, though Simon Reynolds’ book raises some fascinating insights into the recycling, reusing and remembrance of music past, it’s likely he might be just a little too worried about it.
It might just be that a period of looking back is just what we need right now. Politically, the future now seems more uncertain than it ever has done. The present is looking decidedly dodgy too.
It might just be the historian in me getting a little over excited at the prospect of an appraisal of yesteryear, but it might not be such a bad thing to have a period of looking back – whether that be at art or life in general – to provide us with the grounding we need to get ready for the future.
You can read more about the history of music in Medway in my book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway, published by Cultured Llama.