The Sound of Young America: “Retromania” with Simon Reynolds

Episode 61

15th September 2011

Is cultural innovation at risk when we indulge in retromania? Music critic Simon Reynolds joins us to talk about why songs today are more unimaginative when we have unprecedented access to decades’ worth of past music, the loop of re-creating old sounds, and more. His new book is Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past.

Episode notes

Is cultural innovation at risk when we indulge in an obsessive love of retro? Music critic Simon Reynolds joins us to talk about how songs can be more unimaginative when we have unprecedented access to decades’ worth of past music, the trouble with searching out authenticity, the loop of musicians re-creating old sounds, and more.

Simon Reynolds has been on a guest on the program before, to discuss his book on post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again.

Simon’s new book is Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past.

Click here for a full transcript of this interview.
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JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the program is Simon Reynolds, he’s a music writer who’s written most extensively about electronic influenced music and electronic influenced rock music, including a book about post-punk rock and roll called Rip It Up and Start Again, the seminal history of rave in the 1990s, and now he’s the author of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. It’s about the almost complete lack of anything new aesthetically, particularly in the world of music, and particularly in the world of rock music, in the past ten years and what that means for our cultural future. Simon, welcome back to The Sound of Young America.

SIMON REYNOLDS: Thanks for having me back on the show.

JESSE THORN: First let’s start off by defining what retro is. What’s the difference between retro and neo-classicism? Why is Lenny Kravitz retro and The Washington Monument is not?

SIMON REYNOLDS: I think if it’s within living memory, it’s one of the definitions of retro. Retro culture; whether it’s fashion designers being inspired by the Mod look or 1920s fashion. Usually these revivals happen when there are still people around who can remember those things when they were first a la mode, same with music. Usually it doesn’t go much further back than the 50s. I think – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being inspired by history or the past, there is tons of this stuff, Shakespeare’s plays were often based on old stories, or legends or whatever. His execution of them was markedly different, he really took it somewhere else. I think the same applies to what The Beatles and the Stones did with the blues, blues was the starting point. Rock and roll and blues was the starting point for those bands but they really took it somewhere else.

JESSE THORN: Where is the birth of this? As I was reading the book I coincidentally ran across a short film shot by the fashion photographer and fine art photographer Bruce Weber of sort of aging Teddy Boys in England, which was this rock and roll subculture in the 1950s, particularly, just as rock and roll was coming to England from the United States, these guys had this rock and roll culture that was built around Edwardian aesthetics.

I can’t think of another self consciously retro aesthetic movement that pre-dates – – I mean, we’re talking about the mid-to-late 1950s, and I don’t think there was anything like that going on in the United States at that time that wasn’t just people getting old and liking the stuff they liked when they were a kid.

SIMON REYNOLDS: The rock and roll thing is interesting, because as you mentioned the Teddy Boys had this influence, I think it comes from Edwardian, Teddy short for Edwardian style. It was these working class hoodlums in London who were copying a style of clothing that was worn by a more upper class people, often ex-military people, in the late 40s.

JESSE THORN: It was an aesthetic that was promulgated by Savile Row tailors at the time.

SIMON REYNOLDS: They were basically doing this classic thing — kind of like a mod thing which is to appropriate the look of the ruling class. It’s a kind of insubordination within the class system, dressing improperly. It quickly became the look of scary hoodlum youth, of people who might have a flick knife. Then when rock and roll came they would be the people tearing up the cinema seats.

JESSE THORN: The real push forward like a lot of things in contemporary popular culture came as the baby boomers came of age in the late 1960s. You pick “Back in the USSR” as a starting point.

SIMON REYNOLDS: I think The Beatles were the band who did the most to promulgate the idea of constant change; every album they were leaping forward, they were embracing the new possibilities, the studio. They were trend topping. They helped to popularize the trends, but they were also jumping on them. They helped us start the trend of looking back. They were the first people I think to harken back to rock and roll, “Back in the USSR,” is a Chuck Berry reference and an early Beach Boys thing there as well.

It became a really retro-y thing to do. Zappa did his – –

JESSE THORN: A Doo-wop album.

SIMON REYNOLDS: Yeah, that was Cruising With Ruben & The Jets. He was very on it early. It really becomes – – a lot of glam and glitter music was based around 50s rock and roll imagery. There was a whole lot of songs wistfully looking back to the idea that the early days of rock and roll was innocent and more wild.

JESSE THORN: The Day the Music Died by Don McLean is sort of like the ultimate example of that bordering-kitsch nostalgia.

SIMON REYNOLDS: I think it was kind of very heartfelt though. More like he was trying to write about the journey of having started rock and roll and gone through all the adventures of the 60s Every verse in that song refers in allegorical, coded form to Hendrix and Dylan.

I think it was heartfelt, although certainly there is a kitschy aspect to it now.

JESSE THORN: There’s this point by the end of the 1960s, there is a mainstream reflection of that idea of retro-nostalgia that I don’t think had really ever existed in the mainstream before. If you think of Sha Na Na and Happy Days are probably the two late 1960s early 1970s – – obviously Happy Days ran for a long time, but this – –

SIMON REYNOLDS: And Grease, the Grease Musical, there was American Graffiti.

JESSE THORN: These were all things that just hadn’t existed before.

SIMON REYNOLDS: There really wasn’t. In the 60s there was a playful use of old imagery. Some of the psychedelic bands would have wild-west imagery on their album covers like Quicksilver Messenger Service. Those are kind of playing with Victorian and Edwardian imagery in a different sort of way to the Teddy Boys in quite a lot of psychedelic music. You might even have a harpsichord used, but it was kind of the fun of that time.

JESSE THORN: There’s an element, especially in the 1970s, that if you are looking back, you are, to some extent, losing something. You write a little bit in the book and have talked about ELO as the perfect example, The Electric Light Orchestra, a band that was essentially attempting to recreate what The Beatles had done 10 years earlier, and is perhaps the least credible rock and roll band of all time, despite their dramatic success.

SIMON REYNOLDS: I noticed a few years ago that amongst hipsters, some people were saying ELO were kind of cool, and they were kind of cool, they were definitely fun. But at the time I don’t think they got any critical respect because they were so obviously aping The Beatles, the more orchestrated side of The Beatles.

JESSE THORN: One of the things that starts happening in the 1970s and especially happens in the 1980s is that technology enables a much less linear consumption of culture. So first the 45, and then the LP, mean that the music is still there, even if television and radio are playing what’s now, those things start to pile up around these artists and they realize like, oh, maybe somebody has already done this thing.

SIMON REYNOLDS: It’s like a gradually accumulating archive. There’s a certain kind of honor in people who decide, well, this older kind of music is so much better. I’m just going to dedicate my life to that. I admire that spirit, to people who dress like it was still 1966. Britain seems particularly good at – – particularly prone at least to coming up with these things. The Northern Soul which is this cult that developed in the 70s, mostly in the north of England, based around the sound of mid-60s Motown.

It’s very much like people who didn’t like the direction that music had gone in the 70s that was more funky and slower in tempo and grittier. They didn’t like the dress either, they didn’t like bell-bottoms and that kind of stuff. They wanted to have this sort of 60s affection of tight peg pants and short hair, the mod, and the pills, the amphetamines that went with dancing all night to up tempo soul music of the mid 60s.

JESSE THORN: And we should say that one of the key elements of Northern Soul that influenced, or presaged anyway, contemporary aesthetics is that it was fueled not even necessarily by – – they weren’t listening to Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets.” The value was in the thing that was as deep in the crates as you could go, which is something that has grown in importance in contemporary retro-culture.

SIMON REYNOLDS: Totally. They had this thing, they talked about rare soul, or unknowns. Tracks that had failed in the market at the time just because there was so much music coming out of, particularly, Michigan. So much talent because of the traditions of church singing and black music tradition that there were so many people who were almost as good as Martha and the Vandellas or almost as good as The Temptations, putting out these records made pretty cheaply, and they still existed in the world.

There were loads of these flop singles or records that were small regional hits, so a sort of collector culture in Northern Soul built up around these things. People would even fly to America and go to warehouses and dig for totally unknown records that never even got to the UK. The smaller number of copies that existed in the world the better.

JESSE THORN: Let’s talk a little bit about punk rock before we get too far into the current epic. I think punk rock is the last huge, seismic shift in the world of rock and roll music. It happened in the 1970s. One of the interesting things about punk rock is that rock and roll had developed through all these different aesthetics to the point where there was prog and metal and these things that were as complex as – – they were aspiring to complexity. Punk was both something entirely new and, in some ways, a reset. It was a reach in some ways for the birth of rock and roll.

SIMON REYNOLDS: In Retromania I decided to do an exercise, in a way, of trying to write about punk, and instead of seeing each step forward as leading towards punk I almost wanted to emphasize how every person was looking backwards. They were all heading towards punk, but they were, nearly all of them, looking backwards.

It starts with, there was a magazine, Who Put the Bomp, which was a very kind of discontented with the present, hated progressive music, hated where rock was at in the 70s, and was very influential in formulating the ideology of punk. It was done by a guy called Greg Shaw, and it published very influential pieces by Lester Bangs that were attacking singer/songwriter music and attacking Jethro Tull and all this progressive music and holding up a handful of groups from the 60s, like the garage punk bands like the Count Five and also The Troggs.

There were a few current bands they admired, these people that formulated punk as an ideology. One of them was the Flaming Groovies who were a very mid-60s style group. Another was The Stooges. And then there was The New York Dolls. I decided to look at all these bands and emphasize how hung up they were on the past. The New York Dolls were with the guy — Shadow Morton, I think it was — who produced The Shangri-Las. There was a weird retro-y collector minded mentality to it. Nearly all these people who paved the way for punk.

JESSE THORN: If you think of The Ramones wearing essentially Marlon Brando costumes.

SIMON REYNOLDS: They seemed the last people likely to have a revolution really. They seemed like nostalgic record collector types.

JESSE THORN: I think as the 1980s blossomed there was post-punk, which you have written extensively about, that was about the relationship between the aesthetics of electronic music and the aesthetics of rock and roll music. There was hip hop, which was something that was an entirely – – it essentially took the idea of looking back and said, what if we made this into an entirely new and different thing because it was a new set of aesthetics that was based on tearing apart old aesthetics and putting them back in interesting ways.

At the same time in the mainstream culture, I think… I was born in the 1980s, I was born in 1981, I remember the primacy of nostalgia in that time, especially here in the United States. You think of Ronald Reagan and Morning in America. I’m from San Francisco, so I think about Huey Lewis – – Hall & Oates – – it’s this first generation of musicians who never knew anything other than a world in which everything is accessible to them via record. Things really start to change in the mid 1980s.

SIMON REYNOLDS: One of the things that happened, I got caught up in it at the time, was a lot of the people who’d gone through the whole punk/post-punk/new wave thing suddenly a lot of the ideas seemed exhausted, and a lot of us, seemingly simultaneously, started listening to 60s music. I can remember hearing The Byrds for the first time and hearing Love’s Forever Changes and it being a real revelation. Then in a few years you started getting groups like Jesus and The Mary Chain who had listened to The Velvet Underground and Primal Scream who had listened to Love’s Forever Changes.

JESSE THORN: Even pop’s all time, auto-didactic, self-directed guy Prince made a 60s record around 1986.

SIMON REYNOLDS: In the mainstream it tended to be more Motown and old soul that would get copied. Phil Collins did a cover of a Supremes song. In some weird way that was a kind of unconscious resistance to the 80s. Reagan and Thatcher were very anti the 60s.

JESSE THORN: In part it feels like people are looking back on Motown as the final era of undifferentiated pop music.

SIMON REYNOLDS: That everybody likes.

JESSE THORN: Exactly, that Motown represents, despite the fact that it means a very different thing to middle class and upper middle class white people than it means to black people, because black people were still having a few troubles in the mid 1960s in the united states. It represents, especially for those people who were in that yuppie baby boomer era, those people, it means like, oh, that was a perfect time when we were all together, and then as soon as 1972 hits and there’s FM rock radio and urban radio, that all falls apart.

SIMON REYNOLDS: It’s very optimistic. I think probably for black people Motown represents an era where black performers were extremely visible and looking very stylish and they were running the charts and, that sort of era of music was almost like the soundtrack songs. Then a bit later, by the 90s, you started to get disco would be on film soundtracks as the sort of similar kind of music that everybody likes. Positive.

JESSE THORN: The 1990s great revolution that you write about and have written about, you wrote an entire book about it, is electronic dance music and rave culture. I think it’s interesting that, like a lot of this story, this is something that is technologically driven. Technology is such a big part of the aesthetics of popular music since the 1950s, or since the 1940s, since crooners. The crooner explosion came from microphones, you know what I mean? All the way through, the wall of sound came from having reverb rooms or whatever.

That technological explosion ended at the end of the 1990s. There’s an era where we all got to the point where everyone has access to multi-track digital recording, but once rap producers started using Pro Tools instead of an SP 1200 or whatever, there haven’t been any big technological changes.

SIMON REYNOLDS: I think you’re right. I’m not an expert on music technology, but I’ve been – – I was scratching my head trying to think of what had been the last breakthrough. I guess the difference now is that these machines and platforms get better and better, but it’s more just an increase in the facility. It’s not enabling them to do totally new things. The one thing that does sort of seem to be a relatively new tool that has kind of given us a sort of newish gloss to pop music in the last 10 years is auto-tune. That seems to be the last repository of the technological futurism interface. It can be used quite strikingly in quite artificial ways.

JESSE THORN: Do you think this is as true for the music aesthetics of pop music or urban music as it is true of the music aesthetics of rock or electronic dance music?

SIMON REYNOLDS: One thing that’s been nice with hip hop is that hip hop and R&B, a lot of it sounds like European club music, trance music, quite 90s to my ears. A friend of mine, the journalist Matt Teale was saying that’s because a lot of people, a lot of producers, just go with the presets that come with their gear. They’ve just got these sounds, and it’s very easy to get pleasing affects that you know are going to work on a dance floor. Another imperative for people to use Euro sounds is that those kinds of sounds work everywhere in the world. If you’re looking to get big sales, you can’t just depend on appealing to an urban American audience, they want global success.

JESSE THORN: What’s the relationship between this and the idea of authenticity, which is so important in pop music aesthetics, especially rock aesthetics? There’s no mainstream hip hop music that self-consciously looks to the past. At this point you couldn’t make an argument for a few Jay Z street singles, but it’s a very – – it’s not an important part of the aesthetics of hip hop music.

SIMON REYNOLDS: It’s done in a much less reverential way. It’s kind of like a nice nod. There was a record California Love, they called out Roger Troutman to do his talk box thing. It was a nod to their roots, but it wasn’t nearly as overbearing as the way that The White Stripes did it.

JESSE THORN: Or even, it’s even I think in some ways different than the way that The Rolling Stones revered the authenticity of blues and were trying to capture an authenticity form before, which I don’t think – – even when Kanye West made H to the Izzo I don’t think he was trying to capture the authenticity of the Jackson 5.

SIMON REYNOLDS: No, because he feels confidently – – I think the authenticity came from feeling that someone else has more of it than you, that you don’t have it. A lot of it relates to white middle class people feeling a little hollow in some way. They feel like other people are leading realer lives than them. In the early days of rock music, rock and pop, used to be a real-time thing, it would be like The Rolling Stones admiring Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, relatively recent records. But now it’s much more likely to be located in the past. Adele is a good example, her big heroine is Etta James.

That’s a long long way in the past to look for your realness, and it’s very strange to watch the Music Video Awards and Adele is doing this 45 year old style wearing an old frock and her hand fluttering over her chest, to very signify the soul and the heart and passion of what she’s doing. I thought things would be weirder and stranger in the 21st century than that. Some trouble with that assuming of authenticity through somebody elses style is that you inevitably produce something that’s false. It doesn’t have anything of you in it, that’s the crucial difference I think.

JESSE THORN: So is this situation caused by a depleted bag of aesthetic choices? Is it caused by a growing self-conscious middle class? Where does this come from that in 2011 it seems like at least in the world of music, especially rock and roll pop music there aren’t new choices being made and instead what new choices we have are usually allusions.

SIMON REYNOLDS: It’s a combination of facts, obviously one simple factor is that rock music and pop music in a modern sense obviously has accumulated quite a substantial history behind it. There are decades of this stuff to draw on and be inspired by, and it’s very tempting for musicians to find some era that few other people are exploring, you’ve got a little area that you can make your own. The other thing is that there’s more available than ever. That moment when broadband enabled file sharing and blogging and Wikipedia and all the rest of the stuff has provided so much information to draw on.

JESSE THORN: There’s no more linearity at all. The story that radio provided, for example, in the world of music, ended five or ten years ago . There is no more like, this is what the hits are right now source. Is this a hole that we can’t climb out of, is this a spiral where we’re heading towards a singularity because of these conditions that we’ve described, that refinement will replace revolution, or is there the possibility for new aesthetic revolutions?

SIMON REYNOLDS: I think it’s not that people aren’t talented anymore, I think it’s more that people are overpowered by the number of choices in the past that they have. It’s sort of, I think people are almost kind impressionable. You get bombarded with all this stuff, you have to be very strong aesthetically to digest it or synthesize it into a new artistic voice, but I think there are people who can still do that. I’m sort of wondering whether there will be some new technological breakthrough. Maybe that will lead to some whole new wave of music making.

JESSE THORN: Well Simon, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.

SIMON REYNOLDS: It was great, a really good conversation.

Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you’re interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.

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  • Simon Reynolds

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Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

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