New blog bags interview with Simon Reynolds! (Or lazy email copy-pasting)
I sent a link to Simon Reynolds of the previous post and here is the result. Many thanks to Simon for the discussion and his time, it’s given me a good few new ideas to start developing. I hadn’t realised it had clocked 4,000 words until I’d posted it here.
Subject: Re: Blog post may be of interest
Date: Mon, 20 Jun 2011 22:22:07 -0700
actually saw this myself (well i was googling “Retromania” to be honest!), interesting thoughts, although i did find it a wee bit comical after the lengthy analysis
to read “more to come when i’ve actually read the book”
but you’re in plentiful company, loads of people out there are taking issuing with the book just based on the backcopy/Amazon blurb!
anyway, there’s one point i will pick you up on — re. there being plenty of derivative second-div and third-div bands during postpunk — well this is true of any all forward-surging era (sixties, or nineties), you have your first-rank pioneers, the leaders of the pack, and then you have the pack — the difference is, though, that the second-div derivative bands in postpunk were imitating contemporary innovators (PiL, Gang of Four, Joy Division, Talking Heads etc) and/or drawing inspiration from contemporary black music (Chic, dub, disco, etc). That is profoundly different from a band today sounding like the Velvet Underground or Neu! or indeed Joy Division….. or worse, derivative of a sound (like C86, in the case of The Pains of Being Pure of Heart and Vivian Girls) that was already in its own day a revival or at least deeply derivative of something from a decade or two earlier…
and while the postpunk innovators had clearly heard certain bands from the Sixties and Seventies, it was pretty rare for them to be as blatantly indebted as so many of today’s bands are… you might hear a whiff of Doors in Joy Division, say, but only in Ian Curtis’s vocal delivery…. a faint suggestion of Can in PiL, maybe — at least that is the only reference point that reviewers would come up with for PiL (but when I actually heard Can, i could barely hear a direct link… there’s no song in PiL’s corpus that sounds like a specific Can song…) . if you read the record reviews and interviews at the time (which is what i did with the music press of the era researching Rip It Up) it’s remarkable how little the new music is situated by reviewers in terms of older music (and the guys writing these reviews are in their mid-twenties to thirties, so they know their music). Compare that to e.g. the recent issue of NME i picked up where there’s a breakdown of the new LP by the Horrors and every single song is assigned its influences and rock historical coordinates.
non-coincidentally, the other era/genre where reviewers didn’t tend to use reference points much when reviewing new releases — 90s techno-rave-jungle-earlyIDM-etc etc.
i think (and you’re far from the only person to do this) there’s a symptomatic thing going on, a kind of back projection of the current state of music onto history, saying “well, hasn’t there always been revivalism and recycling in music”. So people have said to me “well the Beatles used music hall in some of their songs”. As if this (in itself an innovation, or at least novelty, within rock’n’roll/commercial youth music) somehow allowed one to ignore little things like “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Rain”, “A Day in the Life”, etc etc, i.e. a rather substantial amount of music the like of which had never been heard before
so one of the symptoms of retromania is precisely this inability to conceive that there could ever have been such a thing as absolute newness…
anyway be interested to read your reactions to the book itself, you might find some surprises in it
From: Curtis Short
Sent: Thursday, June 23, 2011 7:14 AM
Subject: RE: Blog post may be of interest
Yeah I did mean that final line as a joke at the time but I suppose I was working on the assumption that I’ve read you on the topic so much that there’d be little surprises for me in the book, probably unfairly on reflection. You must be pleased that people are expounding upon the blurb though, it shows you’ve got a compelling topic.
I suppose what I was getting at re. 2nd and 3rd div bands was that every era is subject to its dead weight and maybe eras are streamlining in critics’ minds to reject those bands and give a falsely optimistic view of an era. The field of play grows exponentially wider almost year on year, and so each new era needs more sifting through, and therefore more time, to reach a coherent consensus on which artists were really worth listening to. So the consequence is that we meet critical coherence further down the line, and I wonder whether this is a bad thing or just different
And anyway, when you get really interested in a previous period and kind of exhaust all the heavyweights, it’s perfectly enjoyable to listen to some 2nd-div bands – I’ve been listening to Killing Joke a lot recently and they don’t seem to get a coherent and original sound together, you can pinpoint their co-ordinates, but a lot of their songs you feel would have been good additions to other people’s canons, like ‘Oh, this is a good PiL song, a good goth song, a good metal song’ etc.
The Horrors is a good example though, I quite liked their first album because although it was derivative it was deriving from a set of bands that were basically bubblegum pop with mock ‘spooky’ lyrics and there was a current around at that time with New Rave and Be Your Own Pet and the like of ‘Well it’s not stunningly new, but just give in and enjoy yourself, this is well-executed derivativeness.’ And then the 2nd Horrors album came out and they were saying in interviews ‘We’re a krautrock band’ as if this was simply to impart themselves with all the critical qualities of that genre – seriousness, experimentation, forward thinking! There’s definitely a lot of Baudrilard in that position, that use of empty signifiers to try and direct critical opinion in the exact way a band wants it.
I remember once a couple of years ago having a few drinks with some friends in preparation to go and see some local bands, and it was going about that one particular band were really good, that they sounded like a mix of ‘Metallica, Kyuss and Pink Floyd,’ and I said ‘Well if that’s true this is going to be the best night of my life, but I’m not holding my breath.’ How on earth would a band even sound like such a combination, and is it even desirable? It may have just been viral hype generated by the band, but the critical side needs to bear some of the brunt of this derivation-hunting: if it’s true that criticism can enhance one’s enjoyment of music, then the opposite is true – that lazy criticism will never find the newness in anything put in front of them. I’m not squaring that at your generation of critics but mine, we’re too reverent of the past in always dragging things backwards like that. I actually think there’s an ego-driven desire to plot co-ordinates for many critics, ‘look how many obscure co-ordinates I’ve plotted here, how much more music I’ve listened to than you.’
‘i think (and you’re far from the only person to do this) there’s a symptomatic thing going on, a kind of back projection of the current state of music onto history, saying “well, hasn’t there always been revivalism and recycling in music”.’ One of the things I was trying to do with my post was reverse this back onto you – That as a critic of a few decades listening to music maybe 9-5 and more for all that time, you can’t hear anything with fresh ears. Which is what I was getting at when I said that you heard things differently when younger, and not that you naively saw a newness that wasn’t there in post-punk.
Tiresias in Eliot’s Wasteland is kind of twisted to be all things at all times, and also to see all things at all times, so he has to watch a dreary, deflating scene of a bank clerk making sexual advances at a woman he works with, and she just goes along with it not out of passion but politeness and boredom I suppose. All the while you infer Tiresias is also seeing important moments of history: wars, moments of epochal political significance, needless suffering, and they’re all being dragged down to the mundane as a result of his objective eye.
This seems a prophetic depiction of the postmodern condition: we see too much. There’s a great bit in that Michael Jackson book that Mark Fisher edited where Penman I think speculates that Jackson is the next stage in human history, an atrophied bag of bones with giant eyes, we’ll only need eyes. But it seems we can’t just leave this state of play besides by a doomed-to-fail Ludditism (I think this is the appeal of World Music in the first place, people becoming jaded with the glut of criticism in first world music and moving to fresher, ‘more naive’ pastures): we need to find a way to turn the situation to our own ends, and see that newness if and when it does turn up will be impossible to judge by previous standards which are at least as much a result of changed political/economic climates as music itself.
I can hear references to Sonic the Hedgehog in this:
that I’m speculating you can’t, and if you could you wouldn’t hear them the same: I and many of my generation (I’m a couple of years older than Joker I think) spent our formative years imbibing all these sounds and ambiences 2nd-hand within the experience of playing games – they’re some of my first memories. I actually feel that shifting those sounds out of their original context into background referents is very fertile ground for my generation, it’s a similar effect to h-pop and hauntology, specifically grounded in the fomative ears of people now in their 20s. Now you might argue that we’re too young to be listening in such a wistful way, missing out on that ‘blissed out’ phase of the shock of our new, but it’s a progression of a sort isn’t it? We’re sort of skipping to the point the hauntologists are at in middle age, it might not seem it now but maybe we’re creating space here for a newness no one expected. This requires more thought, and I’m only speculating.
Thanks very much for your thoughts Simon, do you mind if I post this exchange to my blog? You of course have right of reply to any issues you may take with anything here, he says trying to keep the conversation going!
Subject: Re: Blog post may be of interest
Date: Thu, 23 Jun 2011 21:27:53 -0700
>I suppose what I was getting at re. 2nd and 3rd div bands was that every era is subject to its dead >weight and maybe eras are streamlining in critics’ minds to reject those bands and give a falsely >optimistic view of an era.
That goes on to an extent, but the view of the Sixties that we have been bequeathed is actually rather like the view of the Sixties that the Sixties had at the time. People now say “oh look, in the year of Sgt Pepper’s, Ken Dodd and Engelbert Humperdink had these huge number 1s, that proves psychedelia wasn’t that important.” But at the time the media weren’t covering Dodd and Humperdink, they weren’t catering to the vast middle mass of M.O.R. fans. I don’t know if I believe that the media contemporaneously, or historians retrospectively, have a responsibility to show the whole truth, the whole range of what’s popular. I think it’s not only understandable but right to focus on the new, exciting, progressive, forward-looking in any epoch.
When I see books like that How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll or hear some of these “pop’s always been about recycling” responses to Retromania, I think there is a perverse attempt to cut the past down to the present’s size. It’s a kind of era-based hater syndrome! I guess perhaps forgiveable, understandable ressentiment vis-a-vis the babyboomers, maybe, which generation includes both the Sixties and the punkers. They have dominated the writing of rock history and the shape it has assumed. But you’ll never beat the babyboomers by trying to diminish the Beatles Stones Dylan et al, or pointing out that punk didn’t sell as well as Abba, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd. You do it by making your own time an adventure.
> heavyweights, it’s perfectly enjoyable to listen to some 2nd-div bands – I’ve been listening to Killing >Joke a lot recently and they don’t seem to get a coherent and original sound together, you can pinpoint >their >co-ordinates, but a lot of their songs you feel would have been good additions to other people’s
I actually see Killing Joke as a major band, and their evolution strikes me as the model of healthy development. They start out on the first EP and LP a bit indebted to PiL, and there are some slightly clumsy takes on modern black music like dub and disco. But by the second LP they’ve hit their stride and then Revelations is the immaculate genre-of-one statement of the group’s identity. Then with Fire Dances they are shifting rockwards, initiating to some degree the rock-ification of Goth. People at that point compared them to Black Sabbath, but they don’t sound like Sabbath, it’s more the overall vibe and heavy apocalyptic vision. Talking of which Jaz Coleman was rather unique as a vocalist and lyricist, I think. Geordie came out of Keith Levene’s shadow pretty quickly, the drummer had this mechanistic-tribal thing going on….
That sort of evolution through imitative phase into originality is very different from The Horrors, say. In the NME’s recent breakdown of their new LP — and admittedly this was more coming from the journalist than the band–every song was placed in terms of its influences. These included baggy on one song, then Simple Minds, then Jesus Jones for fuck’s sake, there was even Britpop / Pulp etc mentioned as I recall. A complete different set of influences than the last album, which in turn was a largely different set to the previous album. So this is a shopping-for-influences, portfolio of taste model of artistic development, as opposed to where there’s a kind of internal logic and dynamic evolution driving a band from album to album (Talking Heads being an exemplar, in more recent times perhaps you could say Radiohead. And maybe Animal Collective, although they are perhaps more like a band that has a sound and then works at its with incremental shifts, coming from different angles at the same set of ideas, sometimes more accessible and mainstream-leaning, and at other times denser and darker).
> that lazy criticism will never find the newness in anything put in front of them.
That is a good point. In a fanzine I did in the mid-80s, Monitor, one of my comrades Chris Scott wrote a piece about the music press during which he complained about critics who told you all about how the Jesus and Mary Chain sounded like the Velvet Underground but they never dealt with the ways they didn’t sound like the Velvet Underground. Using reference points is an easy and very tempting thing to fall back on, I am as guilty as anybody of doing that. But there are also phases of music when it is actually hard to do that, I don’t recall doing that much at all when I was writing about rave, jungle, techno and other Nineties electronic stuff. If it I did it was either negatively (comparing trance to Tangerine Dream, which is a bit ironic I’ve since become quite a fan of T.Dream and that sort of analogue synth epic music) or it was not to say there was actually a direct relationship of influence but more to praise/aggrandize/elevate the artist (so I might mention some avant-garde classical forebear in relationship to Aphex Twin or to some really abstract glitchtronic artist, as a comparison not an attribution of influence). But mostly, it was a case of not having those reference points to fall back, simply because the music had a remarkably high ratio of newness. You were forced to write about the music in other ways, imagistically or analytically or making analogies with other art forms or technology or whatever.
I don’t think a Horrors-style pointing-out-reference-points style review would have been possible with “Tomorrow Never Knows” or Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun”, or much of Remain In Light (reviewers probably might refer, vaguely, to Fela Kuti for stuff on the more polyrhythmic first side of the LP), or the best bits of Daydream Nation and the My Bloody Valentine EPs (again, there might be a very vague, not helpful reference to the Byrds, perhaps, in terms of the vocal melodies)…
Nowadays there’s a preponderance of music that encourages and almost demands the mapping out in terms of sources and coordinates.
>we need to find a way to turn the situation to our own ends, and see that newness if and when it does
I agree with that. The leaving-the-Internet thing is not an option, as tempting as it is to consider going into monastic seclusion from digiculture. That’s why I’m guardedly optimistic about the generation for whom the Net is Nature. For whom music is completely unanchored from its place in History, or Geography for that matter.
in this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Q_jic_WIsQ that I’m speculating you can’t, and if you could >you wouldn’t hear them the same:
I completely missed the games thing, I’ve played them about a dozen times in 30 years. But I’ve had enough passing contact with them and with people who are fans to recognize the music and some of its associations, and I can see why it would be halcyon to a certain generation. Actually I hear similar kind of sounds streaming out of my son’s Nintendo DS. It’s funny that videogame music seems to have stayed pretty stuck at this kind of bleepy, cheapo-electronic level.
He’s also got into retro games, which amused me, he’s been enthusing about a particular game because it’s “old fashioned”. I told him, you realise I just wrote a book about all this.
>We’re sort of skipping to the point the hauntologists are at in middle age,
It’s like a sort of premature hauntology for your generation. You’re not old enough to be getting nostalgic, surely! I recall Ikonika talking about using those sounds in one of her tracks and it was very much about this golden afternoons spent playing the early games. There was the same Proustian Madeleine-effect as my generation got with The Tomorrow People on TV or particular toys and fads from the 70s.
>hanks very much for your thoughts Simon, do you mind if I post this exchange to my blog?
From: Curtis Short
Sent: Friday, June 24, 2011 6:21 AM
Subject: RE: Blog post may be of interest
‘the view of the Sixties that we have been bequeathed is actually rather like the view of the Sixties that the Sixties had at the time.’
So this is really more in the hands of the journalists to gather around their best couple of dozen in a given period, say, and put forward an identity from there. I totally agree with that notion and actually wanted to make the point re. Now that if you were to do something similar you would actually have a great set of artists. Off the top of my head I’d go for Animal Collective, Radiohead, Kanye West based off his last two albums, Ariel Pink, Toro y Moi, Joker, Burial. Now you could argue against maybe all of these for being backwards looking in their ways but it’s a worthwhile cause to argue the case surely. What I was getting at was that, ironically, there’ll be a more streamlined, perhaps more ‘breakthrough’ view of this era when we look at it retrospectively.
I feel I came down a little hard on Killing Joke, but yeah I’d still say they’re at the very top of 2nd division if you were to actually create full league tables. That’s because there was so much good stuff that a lot comes ahead of them, which is me making your argument for you really. But actually Coleman’s voice, while incredible, was what I had in mind when I talk about shifting from genre to genre. He switches from crooner to metal growler sometimes in the middle of words, it is very unique. But that voice inhabitation traces down a lineage to Mike Patton’s schizophrenic voice-inhabitation. None of the voices he can inhabit are new as such, it’s just new that he can do so many.
Re. games, the DS will give a skewed representation of music because for reasons of laziness and cash chow-milking as much as retromania, about half of the DS’s library is reissues of games from 20 years ago, so the music isn’t really retro, it’s as it was. Their thinking seems to be that there’s a massive turnover of children every, say, 5 years, and they won’t know they’re being sold old stuff in the first place. But once they do, you can see it’s elementary training in retromania; they’ll like an old game, find out later that it’s 20 years old, and then start developing this ‘grand old days’ viewpoint where culture was in decline before they were born, and they literally have never experienced the present from their first conscious thought.
But a lot of the big console games have moved towards Hollywood rent-a-strings for their theme music. Halo’s theme could just as well be in any war film. Re. game music in its bleep phase – the uniqueness of game music is the imposed asceticism: in the early days they had the keypad tones on a phone to work with, in a maximum of 3 tracks. It took about a decade to figure out how to programme drum sounds, and before that they were finding ways to give the impression of rhythm without having it. And it ended up developing its own history as a sideline and I think it’s a legitimate thing to play off and integrate into music, it takes on new meanings in integration.
Re. premature Hauntology, I was trying to put it forward that this way in which we experience hauntology at the same time as your generation but earlier in relation to our own lifespan may at some point force a dialectical turn towards newness again, that our hauntology will set off our New rather than the other way round. We experience that cycle in reverse. Which is purely speculation but I think it’s worth a thought.
well we should probably leave it at this as otherwise we’ll both end up writing small books — but good exchange, and let me know when you put it on the blog, i’ll link to it.
one final thought. Re
>Animal Collective, Radiohead, Kanye West based off his last two albums, Ariel Pink, Toro y Moi, Joker, Burial
is not bad at all, except that Radiohead = 90s surely. And apart from KW (who’s averaging 4 out of 5 good LPs, the middle one is the only pure shite) we’re talking stuff that’s marginal to the mainstream. and that is one thing that seems to intensify with each succeeding decade. the sixties is where the most popular/successful artists = the best / most innovative, apart from Velvet Underground. from 70s onwards, more and more of the aesthetically key artists start to fall into the semipopular or unpopular zone. that seems to get worse with each succeeding decade, although perhaps hip hop and rave complicate that slightly in the 90s as they do over-run the mainstream a bit.
To put it in the terms you use, the “breakthrough” (aesthetic) artists aren’t breaking through (in the underground into mainstream sense)
mind you one of the arguments of Retromania that is most contentious (yet also true!) is that the underground today is if anything even more retromaniacal than the overground.
Okay, gonna cease now, once i get started it’s hard to stop!