Monday, May 28, 2012



running out of past? 


A sign of Retro's cultural pervasiveness is the fact that the very word  has become unhinged from the domain of entertainment/design/fashion and drifted loose as a freefloating buzzword, used to describe anything old-fashioned or out-of-time.  People talk about "retro politics." When I interviewed Devo's Gerald V. Casale at the height of the Iraq War, he railed against President George W. Bush as "stupid and mean and grotesque and retro".  In 2008, discussing the credit crisis and toxic mortgage debt, political blogger Andrew Sullivan used the word to savagely mock the irresponsibility of bankers and Wall Street financiers:  "the idea that people should live within their means is such a retro position, isn't it?"   

The word "retro" has also become a kind of tic of historical condescension, its use serving to at once acknowledge and reinforce the transience of all things (beliefs, passions, habits, values) within the hyper-accelerated consumerdrome that is late capitalism. 

An example: I'm watching an episode of Dirt, a short lived TV drama set in the glitzy-sleazy Los Angeles of movie starlets and gossip columnists (like the character played by the show's star Courtney Cox,  the editor of a muck-raking tabloid).  At a party, one movie starlet offers a pill to her friend, who quips, with a cynical smirk, "Ecstasy? Retro!"   A  shudder-sigh went through through me  hearing the pairing of the two words, "Ecstasy" and "Retro". It was the inverse of the memory-rush that hearing a classic techno anthem can induce. A drug that once seemed to herald the brightest of futures, was  consigned to an era (the  Nineties) as laughably as kaftans and hippie beads had been a decade after Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love.

See also the episode of "Peep Show" where they go to a safari park at Mark's suggestion, which seems embarrassing lame and old-hat to one of the characters, until the nice girl says, "it's cool -- it's retro"


commemorative logic / anniversary and retrospective issues of magazines

this has infected even the world of metal!


retro everything / retro sweets

 as seen at Afflecks Palace, Manchester


 It's as though the sheer richness of pop’s first three decades has made it too tempting to be derivative. The result is a kind of reverse vampirism: young bands drawing nourishment from ancient blood.  Hence that peculiar "undead" aura that you get off a lot of notionally contemporary music, what I call “anechronosis”.  A composite of   "anachronism" and "necrosis" (the premature death of living tissue), this ungainly coinage refers to the vibe given off by music (Goldfrapp, the White Stripes/Kills/Dead Weather, most British indie bands) that seems neither fully modern nor from a particular historical period. Instead it inhabits a kind of ersatz limbo.   The anechronotic sensation is queasy but too sterile to be uncanny or spectral in any kind of genuinely provocative way.  Not unlike looking at a Jeff Koons.  Or a reproduction antique.

The simplest expression of anachronesis is Lenny Kravitz, a prime example of music in this limbo where it's referring back to the past but it's not there, and [it's] not in the present, either. 

There are so many things like that today, like Steve Martin pointlessly remaking Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther. It's a really unpleasant sensation. Things under the sway of anachronesis are just nothing. You might as well be dead.


Duffy  on "Mercy" ,  bleating "release me" and other bygone soul-speak, over a track that samples Ben E. King, does pain me I must admit, partly because I love the original Sixties soul she's reheated but also because I can remember the first time when all this stuff came around for a second time: the mid-Eighties blue-eyed soul boom,  everyone from  Carmel and Paul Weller protégé Tracy to The Christians and Fine Young Cannibals to Annie Lennox wheeling out Aretha for  the gospel-rasped feminist anthem "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves."  


Embarking on Retromania, I feel two opposed impulses. I want to defamiliarise retro, show how what has come to seem natural and normal, "just the way things are", is really a historically novel state of affairs. I don't remember retro and nostalgia being anything like as widespread or pronounced a phenomenon when I was in my late teens and first getting into music, back at the end of the Seventies. And my sense is that retro was even more marginal in the 1960s, to the point of barely existing.  


ironically, just as pop/rock was entering into its high phase of self-conscious modernism (the post-Sgt Pepper progressive moment) at the end of the Sixties,  modernist art was in the throes of swan-song, which in the Seventies would take the form of pluralism and the early stirrings of postmodernism

This could mean that pop was (or still remains?) modernism's last, best hope. Or that pop just went through its own life cycle of modernist innovation followed by postmodern referentiality and citational references to its own past -- just starting out on that cycle much later than the art world.  Or, it could equally mean that high art distinctions can't be applied to mass culture; that pop cheerfully rubbishes them, by managing to be modernist and postmodernist simultaneously.  Each of these conclusions has different implications for an appraisal of retro.


 The Retroscape

the seeds of the retroscape idea come from this blogpost I did back in 2006, i think. It was titled A Past Gone Mad, after the Fall song, and became a shortlived series (very shortlived - there might only have been two, maybe, three A Past Gone Mad's. Made up for it, though, by writing a 400 page, 140 thousand word book, with another 100 thousand words of footnotes!). This is the first post in the 'series':

Perusing the gig and tour ads at the back of Uncut is a dizzy-makingly anachronic experience. You get the most incongruous juxtapositions and unseemly adjacencies. Why, just on p. 173, divided into quarter-page ads, you'll find New Model Army, Seth Lakeman (whoever the fuck he might be), and Dreadzone rubbing shoulders with Bob Dylan. (Who you might have thought could afford a whole page of his own, i mean, Jesus, he just had a documentary on him that was some kind of world cultural event!!!). It seems like everybody's still treading the boards again: The Levellers, the Pogues (minus Shane), the Proclaimers, Was (Not) Was, Swing Out fucking Sister, Lee Scratch Perry, Jethro Tull. Durutti Column gets sandwiched in a bottom-of-page threesome with Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Eliza Carthy (well, foursome I suppose)! Sinead O' Connor with Sly & Robbie, and I don't mean ads next to each other, they're performing together, presumably they're her backing band!

Now, I don't begrudge Roy Harper his annual tour, though, some fifteen decent-sized venues across the UK. Don't begrude it one bit, and in fact if I lived in Britain I'd pay to see the man, never have had that pleasure. Hey Woebot, hey K-punk, you surely know, right, that Jeff Wayne is restaging your much-loved War of the Worlds across the country, April next year, with extra shows in response to public demand, later that summer? Delightful-sounding venues like the Glasgow Clyde Auditorium and the Bournemouth BIC, where'll he be conducting the Black Smoke Band and the 48 piece ULLAdubULLA Strings., Special guest Justin Hayward and Richard Burton in ghost form.

But all generations are catered for in this long night of the living dead. P. 170 has an almost conceptual unity, baggy-tastic and scally-delic, with Ian Brown in the upper right corner, Happy Mondays (plus support The Farm!) in the lower left, and Scousters The Coral and Echo & the Bunnymen squaring off in the middle. And bloody hell, directly opposite, a group called The Hacienda Brothers! (And I just learned that there's going to be a recreation of the Hac in all its pills'n'thrills'n'bellyaching glory, promoted by none other than Tony Wilson's young son Oliver. I would go if I lived in England, having never caught the Hac in its rave-on prime, but gone a little too early when it was still a little too indie). But I guess all this shouldn't be surprising, as it's just the live-music corollary of the retro-reissue explosion, an over-population of music with bands dying at too slow a rate c.f. the birth rate, and worse, many of them resurrecting. I suppose you can't blame 'em for having a second go, or trying to eke out a living; what else are they supposed to do? But it all contributes to what I increasingly feel is a key issue of our pop time, namely the erosion of a sense of time, of forward temporal propulsion.

A recreation of the Hacienda at the Victoria and Albert Museum 


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