“And it chars my heart to always hear you calling
Calling for the good old days
Because there were no good old days
These are the good old days”
The Libertines – The Good Old Days
The digital age seems destined to take over the so-called ‘good old days’; where vinyl, tape cassettes and even compact discs were all the range. The new breed of musician from your Gagas, Boybands to Biebers, it seems to me, play an even more important role at the other end of the music spectrum. While the convenience and accessible digital pop age may pave the future, the desire to produce or rather reproduce the past is as ever important as it was when the Kinks once sang about village greens and sunny afternoons.
It’s naïve to assume that the latest bands haven’t been influenced by a band before them, whether a decade, two or three ago, you will always hear how lead singer of bandA has been listening to a lot of bandB and old bandC tapes in preparation for the difficult second album. Influence is one thing, but when bands begin to literally recreate the sounds of their forefathers, it is on the one hand depressing yet equally enthralling. Welcome to the 21st Century nostalgia movement.
It is disheartening to think that we may live in a period so devoid of creativity, in a culture so sparse of innovation, that musicians are forced to embrace the past. Are people so dissatisfied with popular culture today, that there is in music as Simon Reynolds recently wrote: ‘an addiction to it’s own past’?1 While I am myself particularly drawn to nostalgia’s wind (being a massive fan of your Beatles, Bowies, Dylans, Doors, Kinks, Zeppelins, Stones and Smiths), this very recent surge of bands recreating the sounds and styles of the past can also paint a grim future for music; that my 21st century music will merely be a hark back to a better time.
Though Reynolds is critical of nostalgia as non-progressive, it is interesting to briefly consider the origin of this addiction. There is no superlative for the sheer hold ‘retro’, ‘vintage’ and ‘old-skool’ has on my life, let alone my peers, let alone this nation: ‘I like your [insert item] mate. It’s really retro’. Drink from your vintage hipflask and sit back with your wayfarers listening to Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl with your t-shirt of a dead icon if someone has ever said that to you. The cowboy/social commentator/actor/comedian Will Rogers once said: “Things aren’t like they used to be- and they probably never were”.2 Powerful cultural symbols can evoke a strong yearning for a ‘simpler time’. You buy a pint, you remember when it was cheaper, you pick up a CD, you wish you could have it on vinyl, you remember when summers were hot and winters cold. It is a bittersweet emotion, both delight at the thought or concept of the past, and sadness at the current state of existence. If you are young, you wish for a time, where you didn’t have to worry about jobs and responsibility, the mid-lifers long for youthful looks and antics, while the older population may wish for war-time spirit, the talkies, village greens and apple pie. While capitalist cultures could easily site nostalgia as deductive to it’s progressive aims, many companies have seen nostalgia as a beneficial marketing aid (think everything from Coke-Cola bottling to Jack Wills boat shoes). In his book: Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia, Fred Davis identifies three forms of nostalgia3 Simple (happy escapism); Reflexive (questioning your escapist memories) and Interpretative (fearing the present and future, based on your desire to dream of the past). The first and latter forms especially, I would say feature heavily in today’s music industry.
With the imprint of nostalgia firm on the mind not just in this country, but across the world, it may be of little surprise that music today can slip back into a comfort safety song. While it’s one thing to sound like a mixture of Prince and Eurythmics (COUGH, La Roux, COUGH), or every single 90s grunge band in existence (take a bow, Yuck), it is something entirely different to produce a unique take on nostalgia, transforming what some see as a generic sound into something far more profound and poetic akin to the times we live in. The first band in my lifetime to reproduce such British chokey-on-the-memory songs was The Libertines, who obviously are completely Kinked. The Good Ship Albion sailed (albeit briefly) through British hearts and minds. As an impressionable 14 year old, stories of modern culture intertwined with nostalgic trips through England had me hooked. Not until I was much older did I realise the extent of influence of many of the bands I loved and still love today. Franz Ferdinand (Kraftwerk), The Strokes (The Ramones), Interpol and Editors (Joy Division), The Killers (New Order). Kasabian (Oasis), Muse (Everyone). I could go on.
This year I have heard many bands that don’t attempt to disguise their loyalties to the past. The rise of ‘revival bands’ such as Holy Ghost! (80s disco), Fitz and the Tantrums, Various Cruelties (soul revival) and that nice young man Michael Kiwanuka who is Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Van Morrison in one go (or Barvin Van Githerson) are all thoroughly enjoyable. Spector who take their name after the Great (psycho) Phil, are attempting to reproduce a Wall of Sound, with smatterings of Buddy Holly, and to their credit, based on Fade Away are accomplishing just that. Simply put, people will tend to enjoy music that reminds them of other music they like. An attempt to reproduce Motown soul is the case of Various Cruelties could be either be a sneaky marketing ploy or perhaps the ultimate escapism from a grim reality. Consider for a moment some of the many bands in 2011, which not only reproduce nostalgia, but inject a 21st century feel on it.
Let’s begin with Metronomy. Their latest album The English Riviera, a dreamy romantic journey along coastal towns and (unsurprisingly) English Rivieras. Catchy seaside hooks on The Look and The Bay, the latter being both Beaches Boys Kokomo and Hall and Oates’s Private Eyes is a successful reimagination of drizzly Cornish coasts as a place of paradise. Similarly Two Wounded Birds, who fruitfully recreate Surf Rock with that distinct guitar twang which sounds a lot like the 1960s band The Lively Ones, made famous at the end of Pulp Fiction with Surf Rider reside in Margate, Kent. While The Lively Ones were probably catching waves in shorts off sunny California, drinking ice cold bottled beer, the chaps from Margate, probably were body boarding with wetsuits on a shingled beach, huddling around a six-pack of Tesco lager. Songs such as My Lonesome or Midnight Wave combines that surfer vibe, with a broody poetic insight into the forlorn shores of Kent. Summer Dream stands alone as a homage de Brian Wilson pre-Pet Sounds: Surf + Car = Goodtimes.
Summer Camp’s Young EP is a delightful ode to 1980s nostalgia, filled to the top with low-fi dreamy, catchy rhythms and references to John Hughes’ films. It’s seductive, it’s sexy, it’s an American high school in the middle of London. While not much is known about the duo, their love for 80s nostalgia is a telling reality of a longing to be elsewhere, their music is a million miles away from a built up London town, another decade, another country, with songs such as I Want You making creepy naïve teenage stalking sound acceptable.
Finally, a man who sounds like Elvis would, if he was allowed to enter a studio on drugs, is Taiwanese born, Honolulu brought up, Vancouver residing Alex Zhang Hungtai or by his stagename Dirty Beaches, whose filthy guitar and distorted lyrics and yelps could be lifted straight out of a David Lynch film. His album Badlands is a desolate American Highway rock-n roll journey at night in a crumbling open-top car. He conveys a failed American Dream, a lonely existence, smoking the strongest cigarettes, drinking the toughest bourbon in a lo-fi swirl of echoes and raw-rough vocals and amp work. A homemade sound, which easily carves into the mindset of, disenchanted youth and faded aspirations. Plus, Hungtai’s possible feelings of disillusionment being split between three different cultures, a fractured landscape sewn together makes this a powerful piece of nostalgia.
The success of these bands is the immediate realisation from the listener of the sheer juxtaposition between a modern day band sounding like something straight out of a lost decade. While not to damn the many fine artists who continue to produce music of the here, the now and refuse to slip into hazy nostalgic sentiment (off the top of my head, a band who are literally unlike anything I have ever heard is Tune-Yards and also James Blake), there is something incredible profound about a band who take inspiration from the past. As with the oldies I enjoy listening to today such as The Beatles, David Bowie or Bob Dylan, today’s 21st century nostalgia bands could in many decades from now, come to define a point in history where popular culture was forced to look backwards. Of course, the recreation and remakes, or remastered versions of films, TV series, novels and albums (each of my Bowie albums on CD are ‘digitally remastered’) and of course the revival tours of many bands we assumed were dead (many of the original members are in fact) are all testaments to our obsession with the past.
So bands who see grim seaside towns and imagine hot sandy beaches may come to sum up this generation; unable to break free from the shackles of society. No one is yet to explicitly sing about the recession, cuts, David Cameron or the NoTW, but the increasing rise of the nostalgia movement I believe is verification to hard times. When one considers how The Specials, who wrote one of the most profound songs in British music history with Ghost Town in 1981 can still be played today to full effect, or the champion wordsmiths The Kinks even before that, hit home the grim prospect of a Dead End Street as early as 1966, the supposed Summer of Love, one can foresee this current decade implanting a few more timeless ‘sign o the times’ songs. Having said all this, PJ Harvey’s spell-binding Let England Shake combines both a fantastic sound and provides a deeply profound comment on English society, one that crucially is full of anger on the current, rather than a more Kinkosian happy longing for days of old. Polly Jane may yet prove to carry a voice of millions rather than a more abstract and poetic Metronomy.
The above-mentioned bands need not be accused of leaching off the past. Future generations will hear and understand a troubled period of culture, where music longed for a return to the glory days, whilst simultaneously producing a most unique style of spun-nostalgia. The 21st century nostalgia movement will continue to act in perfect contrast to the digital pop-age and we may yet to realise that these are in fact as The Libertines sang ‘the good old days’. Time will tell, but until then, there certainly is no shame in wallowing in the past. The doomed romantic Jay Gatsby once exclaimed: ‘Cant repeat the past? Why of course you can!’ Make of that what you will.
1Retromania: Pop culture’s Addiction to it’s Own Past by Simon Reyonolds (Faber and Faber, 2011)
2 Quote taken from: http://www.quotegarden.com/nostalgia.html
3 Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia by Fred Davis (Free Press, 1979)