Retromania

Mark Paytress considers the trend for musical ‘nowstalgia’, which is blurring the lines between then and now.

Paul Nichols
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 21 Mar 2012
  • min read
On 18 October 2011, after years of rumour and denial, The Stone Roses announced their resurrection at a packed press conference in London. After three concerts at Manchester’s Heaton Park in June 2012, the band are set to tour the world. Days later, almost a quarter of a million tickets for the homecoming shows were snapped up within an hour of going on sale. Experts predicted a £10m windfall – not bad for a band that only released two albums during their lifetime.

‘We’ve still got it,’ crowed Ian Brown, the group’s talismanic frontman. By that he meant musical chops, a distinctively Mancunian mix of indie guitar rock and dance music that fired up the generation caught between acid house and Britpop. As if to prove it, Brown spoke of the likelihood of previewing new material for the shows, perhaps even a new album. But that’s not why everyone’s coughing up £55 a pop to see The Stone Roses this summer. The only ‘it’ that audiences care about is the band’s history.

That The Stone Roses patched up their seemingly irreconcilable differences to make the reunion happen tells us much about the pulling power of heritage rock. A quick glance at the headliners for two of June’s major UK rock festivals will confirm that: Metallica, The Prodigy and Black Sabbath at Download, Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen for the Isle of Wight. Other major names who have buried the hatchet and will hit the road later this year include Van Halen and Happy Mondays.

Heritage rock, which two decades ago helped fuel the CD boom, has now moved centre stage - literally. According to leading international accountants Deloitte, 40 percent of lead singers from the 20 top-grossing US concert acts of the 21st century are now in their 60s. With a further 19 percent in their 50s and 35 percent in their 40s, that leaves just six percent of the top 20 in their 30s. And the under 30s? Forget it.
The yesterday, today and tomorrow of popular music co-exists side by side

The story is much the same in the UK. Retromania, a word coined by critic Simon Reynolds for his book that chronicles the great nostalgia takeover, has accelerated to such an extent that it now drives and dominates the music industry. At one end, vintage pop classics are wheeled out on a weekly basis for television talent shows. At the other, indie acts studiously join the dots between ever more obscure corners of music’s past in a bid to hit on an untried combination. It’s why Jim Morrison and The Beatles are back on the cover of the NME – and why the NME, traditionally the flag bearer of the new, is outsold by the unashamedly classicist MOJO in a ratio of roughly three to one.

Ignited by the unlikely return of the Velvet Underground in 1993, the heritage rock concert tour received a bold, ironic twist when the Sex Pistols reunited for their Filthy Lucre shows three years later. ‘It’s a sad reflection that we’re here,’ confessed John Lydon, when the dates were announced at a March 1996 press conference. ‘This is just us doing a few gigs; it won’t change very much.’

He was wrong. A taboo was smashed. Nostalgia, once the sole province of half-remembered beat groups and balladeers playing the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, suddenly looked different. Balding ex-punks were ready for their own We’ll Meet Again moment too. The floodgates opened.

By 2007, what had once been sporadic sideshows of nostalgia had become an integral part of the live music calendar. That year, Crowded House, Rage Against the Machine, James and The Smashing Pumpkins, even trailblazing cult luminaries My Bloody Valentine, hit the heritage trail.

But all of that was overshadowed by two landmark revivals that revealed the true pulling-power of the past: Led Zeppelin’s return for a one-off show at London’s O2 arena that December prompted a surge in sales and sparked renewed interest in the band across the generations. On a larger scale, The Police’s reunion world tour, which continued on well into 2008, became, briefly, the third highest grossing tour of all time. The bandwagon has been up and rolling ever since.

As always, the finger of blame for this living-in-the-past phenomenon points directly at the internet. Here, whether it’s Lana Del Ray or Lulu, The Maccabees or The Mekons, the yesterday, today and tomorrow of popular music co-exists side by side in the eternal ‘now’ of cyberspace. Far from being a  mysterious place, kept alive by quiff- or afro-sporting retromaniacs, pop’s past in the 21st century is alive and well and available to everyone. Call it nowstalgia.

No one doubts that the net has accelerated a process, kicked off by the CD explosion of the late 80s and early 90s, which banished for good the hoary old notion of pop as disposable. Since then, all manner of forgotten trends and genres, from acid-folk to easy listening, have bounced back from bargain bins to become the Big New Thing.

But it’s not all about retrieval. What, until recently, was looking increasingly lost in the age of the pick n’ mix download was the very idea of the rock album – 40 immaculately sequenced minutes of sound, often crafted at great expense, intended to be heard in one sitting. Now that the personal playlist is king, we have learned to listen to music differently.

Given that the rock album was developed, post-Sgt Pepper, in defiance of an artist’s obligation to ‘play the hits’ live, its recent return via a rash of classic album tours has been an astonishing development. Ever since Beach Boy Brian Wilson started performing Pet Sounds in 2000, the classic album live initiative has grown. 2005 witnessed the inaugural season of the annual Don’t Look Back concert series, where cult heroes such as The Stooges and Sonic Youth have performed classic albums in their entirety. In May this year, thrash metal legends Slayer will be playing their 1986 biggie, Reign in Blood, under the same banner.

Others who’ve taken entire albums on the road in recent times include Steely Dan, The Cult, Megadeth, and ex-Joy Division bassist Peter Hook, controversially with neither the approval nor participation of his ex-colleagues. It’s become an extraordinarily successful format, never more so than when ex-Pink Floyd man Roger Waters took multi-media presentations of The Dark Side of the Moon (2006-2008) and The Wall (2010-2011) on the road.

Unthinkable little more than a decade ago, the classic album concert is a further example of how the music industry is embracing greater specialisation as it adjusts to life in the fast-lane of the multiple download. It is also, almost certainly, a response to the numerous reissues of classic albums on CD, which are then fanfared in rock monthlies, tie-in TV documentaries and multiple shares on social networking sites. There is an endless stream of deluxe reissues from bands like Joy Division, Human League, Jesus and Mary Chain and Rolling Stones, which only fuels the classic album trend. Consumers fork out hundreds of pounds on collectors’ box sets containing remastered albums, singles and b-sides, demo recordings, live concerts and television appearances. They covet the booklets with band interviews, lyric sheets, rare photographs and other memorabilia.

This zeroing in on perceived high points of rock and pop’s illustrious past is also the flipside to a general feeling that much of today’s popular music – packaged, sold and consumed like dog meat – just doesn’t matter much any more. Since the days of Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks, there have always been talent shows but, the odd success story like Mary Hopkin aside, this was strictly end-of-the-pier stuff.

Today, there’s a prevailing sense that the airbrushed anonymity of primetime television series such as The X Factor and Pop Idol represent the blackened soul of the music industry, a here today, gone tomorrow quick fix that has been the inevitable result of an lack of investment by the majors in new talent. When Ian Brown delivered his state-of-the-market verdict, ‘Boring, bland and corporate with nobody saying anything’, at the Stone Roses press conference, no one found any reason to challenge him.

The pinched, recession hit economy, with its safety first policy, certainly hasn’t encouraged investment in the kind of maverick talent on which popular music’s importance and popularity has been built. Pouring money into the occasional easy-to-market superstar like Lady Gaga, or new artists, who might just as well have been handpicked by focus groups, is never going to yield the next Elvis Presley, James Brown or Jimi Hendrix, musicians that exploded the boundaries of popular music and took entire generations along with them. Statistics shows that the number of breakthrough artists has decreased significantly these past few years, nose diving dramatically in 2010, which only adds to the problem at the front end of the industry. No wonder that at least three generations of musicians have been queuing up to fill the vacuum.

Whether, like Ian Brown, they feel as if they’re dancing on its grave or, as Phil Collins insisted was the reason behind Genesis reunion in 2007, simply doing it for love rather than money, the old warhorses are cleaning up. Take John Lydon. Since the Sex Pistols’ 1996 tour, he’s revitalised his career with further Pistols tours, reformed his later band PiL and further capitalising on his raised profile by starring in TV ad campaigns and reality shows.

But there are risks, as Queen recently discovered when it was announced that American Idol star Adam Lambert was likely to become the band’s latest Freddie Mercury substitute. An explosion of bile hit the chat rooms. And neither is every Faces enthusiast convinced with Mick Hucknall stepping into the Rod Stewart role. But the biggest risk of all was probably Sparks’ decision to perform all 21 of their albums on successive nights in 2008. It was an astonishing feat, successful too. And it reaffirmed the band’s status as genuine originals.

As 2012’s concert schedules continue to hurtle backwards into the future, Paul Weller, a man who can negotiate his way round pop’s back pages as well as anyone, remains a lone voice of opposition. Asked by the NME late last year whether he’d be playing a classic album live in 2012, he said: ‘Yes, it’ll be my fucking new one.’