Friday, 10 June 2011

Simon Reynolds - Retromania

Simon Reynolds mentions Kate Bush before I do, and the first lady of
other-worldly warbling is clearly on both of our minds. As we talk
through the background to Reynolds' new book, the tellingly titled
Retromania – Pop Culture's Addiction To It's Own Past, Bush's decision
to release Director's Cut, an album of reworkings of material from 1989
album The Sensual World and 1993's The Red Shoes is a prime example of
what Reynolds is getting at. As is too former Joy Division and New
Order basssist Peter Hook's decision to tour his new outfit The Light
playing Unknown Pleasures, his first band's debut album, in full, with
Hook effectively fronting his own tribute act.

The plethora of reformed acts doing likewise and the BBC 4 re-runs of
1976 editions of Top of the Pops are just the top of the iceberg. A
seemingly endless cycle of fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and
nineties revivals rub up ever closer to each other by way of the
infinite archive of musical gems available on Youtube, Spotify,
Soundcloud and a multitude of other websites. It is this overwhelming
feeling of post-modernism gone mad that pulses Retromania. Reynolds
observes too that Adele's recent album of carefully studied 1960s
styled soul has been number one in America, where the long-standing
observer of left-field pop culture now lives, for a staggering twenty
weeks. Right now, though, it's Kate that concerns us most.

“It's quite disappointing,” Reynolds says of Bush's strategy, if not
Director's Cut itself. “She's a great musical figure who's still hugely
relevant, and who early on with The Dreaming pre-figured sampling, but
it's not really clear why she's chosen to revisit her work like this.
The album might be quite good, but it's still disappointing that she
felt she had to do this.”

Retromania is the culmination of Reynolds' long-term dissection of
music ever since he became addicted to it via punk at a time when the
music papers were bibles of high theory and the sort of discourse
Reynolds himself now pursues. As the culture changed, so did Reynolds'
interests, as charted in his analysis of dance culture in his book,
Energy Flash. This was followed up by Rip It Up and start Again, which
named itself after Orange Juice's biggest hit as it looked at the
fecund era between 1978 and 1984 now known as post-punk. Where those
books captured moments that looked to the future, however, Retromania
unashamedly looks back.

“I think I've been aware for a while of how rock culture's past is
piling up behind itself,” says Reynolds, “and how there is now more and
more material for young groups to pick a piece of. I think there was a
moment in the mid-eighties after punk and post-punk, which were all
about looking forward, when suddenly people started looking back to the
sixties, and bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain started using the
byrds and Phil Spector as reference points. Then more recently there's
the whole trend of bands playing whole albums. Then there was that
album that came out called love, which was George Martin revisiting the
Beatles records and making a kind of mash-up of them. Now you've got
these 1970s editions of Top of the Pops being shown, and what strikes
me is how weird it would be if you could travel back to the 1970s and
say to people that these are going to be shown again in 2011 and see
what their reaction would be.”

While Retromania charts what Reynolds calls 'the shock of the old' in a
scholarly but always readable fashion, one thing that stands out
compared to Reynolds' other books is how personal it is. It's no
coincidence that it's dedicated to his brothers (one of whom died last
year) with whom he shared his formative musical experiences, some of
which, including embracing the skewed anxieties of post-punk and
becoming a born-again raver, are mentioned. There are mentions too for
Reynolds' wife, Joy Press, and their children, who are just discovering
obsessions of their own.

“I suppose it is my most personal book in lots of different ways,”
Reynolds admits. “Both Energy Flash and Rip It Up were a love affair
with the things that found me and were about my passion for those
periods. But in the text I've stepped back a bit and let the characters
have the spotlight, as they should. Whereas in this one I've come to
the fore a lot more, and I suppose kit's more about my concerns about
what music means to me in a total life thing that's involved with this
idea of the future but can't get away from the past. But then, I've
always had this nostalgic streak. It's a big battle I have with myself.
I remember getting nostalgic when I was four.”

Given such a set of personal contradictions that go beyond theory,
isn't Reynolds, then, himself a part of the problem of information
overload identified in Retromania? As well as his published material,
after all, he does host five blogs as well as contributing to umpteen

“One of the weird things about online culture is how easy it is to put
stuff up,” Reynolds observes. “And when you do put something up it
feels like you've achieved something. There's actually only my main
blog that's updated regularly, but you could have three hundred blogs
if you wanted.”

As in the book, Reynolds remains optimistic for the future, in which a
generation who have only ever heard music via the internet will have
grown up and set what Reynolds calls “new baseline conditions of
possibility. I think these last ten years maybe people have been a bit
shell-shocked by the internet and all the new technology, but now maybe
a brighter breed is coming through to navigate all this. I still hear
an awful lot of good music, but very little of it is new. Maybe we're
going through a phase where newness is irrelevant.”

Looks like Kate Bush got there first, then.

Retromania – Pop Culture's Addiction To It's Own Past is published by
Faber on June 2nd, GBP 17.99

The Herald, June 7th 2011


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