RETRO-MANIA - by SIMON REYNOLDS
(working title; published by the Guardian under a different title in the winter of 1990)
"1990: A New Decade". So proclaimed the title of the second
Soul II Soul album earlier this summer. But just as much as being
the year of the Manchester explosion and the indie/dance crossover
groups, of a new vibrancy and a sense of anticipation in the UK pop
scene, 1990 has also been the year of... just about every other
year in pop history.
Launched last month, new rock monthly Vox is a concerted and
calculated attempt to lock into the retro-Zeitgeist. Like its rival
Select (which was launched earlier in the summer), Vox is aimed at
a "twentysomething" market midway between the highly-committed,
gig-going readership of the weekly music press, and the sedentary,
partially-lapsed, semi-detached rock fans who read Q. Q's
constituency is those who want to read about 'dinosaur bands'
(Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, Phil Collins, Clapton etc) who are
still "going strong" in their third decade. Vox, on the other
hand, is less concerned with "living institutions" than with
relics: the myths, memorabilia, and above all highly collectable
music of Rock's Glory Years.
Vox is targetted at a readership that divides its time equally
between stockpiling the past pinnacles of rock history and keeping
abreast of the latest developments. Each issue of Vox contains a
"free" magazine called "Record Hunter", which is aimed at the
trainspotter types that are the backbone, the silent mediocrity, of
the music press readership: collectors, curators, completists,
fact-compilers. "Record Hunter" includes such anal retentive treats
as: guided tours of the collections of stars (this month, the Jesus
and Mary Chain) who are fanatics themselves; a paean to the
collectability and "audiophile" quality of Japanese pressings;
histories of the Two Tone label and The Doors' first year;
comprehensive reviews of the latest reissues; a guide to record
fairs; a column where readers write in with queries about
discographies and related trivia.
If this wasn't enough, the main body of "Vox" displays a
pronounced retro-warp. The first issue contains: a completist's
appetite-whetter of an article on legendary "lost albums" (e.g. The
Beach Boys "Smile", Prince's "Black Album", Bruce Springsteen's
electric version of 'Nebraska); a beginner's guide to blues pionner
Robert Johnson; a piece about Bob Dylan's eccentric studio
behaviour based around anecdotes related by his former
collaborators; Part One of a 'cut out and keep' Encyclopaedia of
Rock; classic shots of The Stones and The Clash; 50 Things You
Never Knew A James Dean.
For those of you thought rock'n'roll was all about the
exhiliration of living in the present tense, about cutting loose
from the ties of the past and burning up like there's no tomorrow,
all this necrophilia might seem like the final proof of rock's
advanced state of rigor mortis. But the makers of 'Vox' have
shrewdly grasped the fact that there's a substantial market of
young rock fans who feel they've got a lot of catching up to do.
For neophyte rock consumers, the 10 or so outstanding records of
each new year, compete with the 10 "classics" of each of the 30
years of pop history. The present just can't compete with the past.
Not only is it outnumbered, but it is fighting a losing battle with
more exciting eras, periods when rock seemed to be in some kind of
direct altercation with the outside world. Consumers who invest
heavily in old Stones, Hendrix or Velvet Underground records are
buying into myth: they are pledging allegiance to a golden age when
rock seemed transformative or subversive rather than simply
For all the rhetoric about a New Age, a new "positivity" and
hope for the future, 1989 and 1990 have been dominated by the "re"
prefix. There have been REformations: Crosby Stills Nash, The
Allman Brothers, The Buzzcocks, The Byrds, The Turtles, rumours of
Velvet Underground and Stooges REunions, plus David Bowie's
Greatest Hits tour. There have been REturns to form by old codgers
and spent forces: Brian Wilson, Neil Young, Lou Reed and John Cale,
Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead. There's been REtrospection: a series of
tribute albums to artists like Hendrix, Young, The Stones, Byrds,
or labels like Elektra, with their classic songs being covered by
young bands. Every year sees a fresh spate of anniversaries with
their attendant glut of memoirs, biographies, documentaries and
biopics. Above all there's the fact that back catalogue classics,
RE-issued obscurites, and "best of" compilations (e.g. Led Zeppelin
and Simple Minds' upcoming deluxe editions) now account for a hefty
proportion of record sales.
Even dance music, allegedly the most happening sector of the
UK dance scene, relies to a disproportionate degree on cover
versions of classics. In the last month alone, the charts has
harboured Adamski's version of "All Shook Up", Soup Dragons' cover
of The Stones' "I'm Free", Bombalurina's "Itshy Witsy Polka Dot
Bikini", Lindy Layton's "Silly Games", Beats International's "Just
Be Good To Be Me", ad nauseam. Even Happy Mondays, who have many
claims to being the most "contemporary" and "street credible" band
of the day, had their first big hit with a cover of the Seventies
boogie stomper "Step On You Again", while their next single is a
version of Donovan's "Colours".
Of course, the REworking and REmotivation of elements of its
own history, has long been the name of the game in pop, and goes
back at least as far as Bowie's glam post-modernism in the early
Seventies. But now it's the norm, oppressively. Virtually all new
groups invite you to play the reference game. The only scope for
originality lies in the use of recondite source material, or
incongruous juxtapositions. At best, this can be witty and moving:
e.g the David Lynch-esque retro-nuevo rock'n'roll of The Pixies, or
Primal Scream's "Loaded" (a cross between "Sympathy For The Devil"
and house). At worst, the stench of deja vu is overpowering.
Of course, for young recruits to the ranks of pop consumerism,
the appeal of rock's past isn't nostalgia, because they were only a
twinkle in their parents' eyes at the time. The past is just one of
a range of options that the record industry profitably services, as
part of the new "boutique" approach to record retailing (a plethora
of genres and taste publics rather than a mainstream). Magazines
like Vox are designed to be handy consumer guides through this
post-modern 'mire of options', where the great anxiety is to avoid
missing out on any source of pleasure, past or present.
Vox reflects the fact that rock has degenerated into something
to collect, something to document, rather than an ongoing cultural
project. Rock is dying of CONSUMPTION. There's a vast heap of
stuff to check out, get into, purchase, but what's been lost is a
sense of the big picture, of meaning and direction. Rock is
disappearing up its own back passages. For good?