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One of The Telegraph's Best Music Books 2011
We live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration. Band re-formations and reunion tours, expanded reissues of classic albums and outtake-crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, tribute albums and mash-ups . . . But what happens when we run out of past? Are we heading toward a sort of culturalecological catastrophe where the archival stream of pop history has been exhausted?
One of The Telegraph's Best Music Books 2011
We live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration. Band re-formations and reunion tours, expanded reissues of classic albums and outtake-crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, tribute albums and mash-ups . . . But what happens when we run out of past? Are we heading toward a sort of culturalecological catastrophe where the archival stream of pop history has been exhausted?
Simon Reynolds, one of the finest music writers of his generation, argues that we have indeed reached a tipping point, and that although earlier eras had their own obsessions with antiquity--the Renaissance with its admiration for Roman and Greek classicism, the Gothic movement's invocations of medievalism--never has there been a society so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past. Retromania is the first book to examine the retro industry and ask the question: Is this retromania a death knell for any originality and distinctiveness of our own?
“Looking back over the last 25 years you’d be hard pressed to name a music journalist more adept at tracking and defining the zeitgeist.” —Dave Haslam, The Guardian
“Simon Reynolds, one of our most thoughtful music writers, poses a stark question for anyone who cares about the future of pop . . . A devastating critique of the way music is now consumed.” —Patrick Sawer, The Daily Telegraph
“Bracingly sharp. As a work of contemporary historiography, a thick description of the transformations in our relationship to time—as well as to place—Retromania deserves to be very widely read.” —Sukhdev Sandhu, The Observer (London)
“A provocative and original inquiry into the past and future of popular music.” —Booklist (starred review)
“[A] mix of canny erudition, critical theory, stylish prose, and vibrant evocations.” —Publishers Weekly
“Important—and alarming—reading for pop-music aficionados.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A hugely interesting and useful debate starter.” —NME
“If anyone can make sense of pop music’s steady mutation from what George Melly noted as its ‘worship of the present,’ to its current status as a living heritage industry where past, present and what the author calls a nostalgia for a lost future coexist, then you’d have to trust Reynolds. He’s a top-table critic whose keen ear is matched by a sharp eye for cultural context . . . An erudite study of pop’s eternal lock groove.” —Mark Paytress, Mojo
“The world’s finest living music writer.” —Christopher Mosley, D magazine
“Retromania is a terrific book. Reynolds brings profound knowledge and oceanic depth and width to his argument, tracing his theme from trad jazz through the ’70s rock and roll boom to the hipsterism of today, via the hyper-connectedness and infinite jukebox of the web. Unlike many of the pop writers who inspired him as a youth, he deploys his high intelligence and vast range of reference lucidly, to argue and illuminate, not dazzle or alienate.” —Steve Yates, The Word
“Compulsively readable.” —FACT magazine
“If I had to choose just one commentator to guide me through the last quarter-century of popular (and not so popular) music, it would have to be—on the basis of depth of knowledge, range of reference, soundness of judgment, and fluency of style—Simon Reynolds.” —Geoff Dyer, author of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
“If pop music is all about right now, what happens when the past refuses to go quietly? The ever-brilliant Simon Reynolds investigates the cult of retro, the temptations of nostalgia, and the future of music culture—all with a detective’s cold eye and a fan’s hot heart.” —Rob Sheffield, author of Love Is a Mixtape
“One of my favorite music writers wrestles one of my favorite musical paradoxes: What’s up with the fetish for the Old in pop’s Land of the Eternal New? Unpacking how YouTube makes history more lateral than linear, pondering the remarkable endurance of England’s Northern Soul scene, or wondering if record collecting is indeed a distinctly masculine sickness, Reynolds’s deep inquiries lead to a bigger question: Does obsessive engagement with the past make it harder to invent the future?” —Will Hermes, author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire
“The crowning achievement of Retromania is that it in no way contributes to the cultural malaise it critiques. You may struggle with the suspicion that you’ve seen it all before and heard it all before—but you’ve never read anything that approaches the idea of retro from as many entertaining and incisive angles. The present may be collapsing into the past, but this is a book for the ages.” —Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever
A leading British music critic argues that our fascination with the recent past has stifled innovation and originality in popular culture.
Noting that "there has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts ofits own immediate past," Reynolds (Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip Hop, 2011, etc.) offers cogent examples of the "lame and shameful" retromania in pop music, including revivals, reissues, reunions, tribute albums, golden oldie shows, boxed sets and music documentaries. Part of a broader societal obsession with nostalgia—e.g., remakes of blockbuster movies, iconic TV shows and vintage fashions—this constant use and abuse of the past prevents the making of groundbreaking music. New styles like hip hop and rave culture can no longer emerge; instead, pop musicians of the 2000s tweak established musical genres and raid archives. Much of Reynolds's absorbing, brightly written and rambling book focuses on the evolution of pop nostalgia, beginning with the emergence of Sha Na Na, the '50s revival group, in 1969, and the subsequent rise of a rock-nostalgia industry that reunited Dion and the Belmonts, the Five Satins and other groups. By the '80s, rock's history was being archived at venues like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where the ashes of noted rock disk jockey Alan Freed, the clothing John Lennon wore when he was shot and other memorabilia were displayed like "medieval sacred relics." Disappointed by visits to such museums and to performances by reformed groups like the New York Dolls, Reynolds fears that our obsession with the recent past has become a structural part of rock music. Retromania is made possible by our increasing ability to access and share cultural data through new technologies.
Important—and alarming—reading for pop-music aficionados.
POP WILL REPEAT ITSELF
Museums, Reunions, Rock Docs, Re-enactments
At the outset I should make a confession: my gut feeling is that pop and the museum just don't go together. Actually, I'm not sure music of any kind really works in a museum, a place of hush and decorum. Museums are primarily visual, oriented around display, designed for the contemplative gaze. The crucial element of sound has either to be absent or suppressed. Unlike paintings or sculptures, you can't have sonic exhibits side by side; they interfere with each other. So music museums contain the ancillary stuff (instruments and stage costumes, posters and packaging) but not the main thing itself. Ephemera, not what's essential.
But it's also true that a museum - a becalmed resting place for works of art considered to have passed the test of time - is opposed to the vital energies of pop and rock. I'm with Nik Cohn here: writing at the end of the sixties, anxious about the art aspirations and respectability of recent rock, which boded a future of seated audiences 'applauding politely', his book Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom was an elegiac celebration of 'Superpop, the noise machine, and the image, hype and beautiful flash of rock'n'roll music'. Pop is about the momentary thrill; it can't be a permanent exhibit.
Walking towards the British Music Experience, the UK's bignew rock museum, on a weekday morning in August 2009, for a moment I think maybe, just maybe they've got the right idea. The museum is housed inside London's gigantic O2 entertainment complex, and the route across the plaza towards the silver bubble-dome takes you past gigantic blown-up photographs from the key stages of pop history: frozen moments of frenzy and delirium from Beatlemania and Bay City Rollermania, through snarling punks, shrieking Durannies to metal monsters and Madchester ravers.
My big worry, with rock museums, is always punk: that rift in rock time that consigned the Old Wave to History's dustbin. Can such an apocalyptic rupture be contained within the filing system of an archive and still retain its essence, the truth of its ruthlessness? Passing a roller-disco busy with pubescent girls whizzing around in glee and a pair of giant-size cutouts of Jarvis Cocker and Dizzee Rascal pointing me in the right direction, I reach the British Music Experience itself. To maintain a steady flow of visitors, punters are admitted at intervals, so we loiter in an anteroom which doubles as a gift shop. Just as we're about to be let in, 'Anarchy in the UK' comes over the sound system, right on cue to renew my uneasiness.
Before you get to the main exhibition area, you watch a short introductory film about how to get the most out of your Experience experience. 'Like rock'n'roll, there are no rules' but there is a timeline you can refer to 'in case you get lost in music'. Finally inside the Experience proper, my first impression is that it's been designed to mimic netspace. Instead of the high ceilings and empty spaces of a traditional museum, the British Music Experience is dim and intimate, with every corner flickering with LED activity. There's a central hub area surrounded by Edge Zones, rooms that each represent a chunk of British pop time (1966 - 70, or 1976 - 85, or ...). So you can proceed through them in chronological sequence (in a clockwise circle) or criss-cross thecentral concourse randomly, putting History into shuffle mode. In another Web 2.0 attempt to update and pep up the museum experience, the far interior wall of each room features a projected gallery of icons indicating specific performers, albums, events, trends, which you can scroll through and click on to find out more.
A subdued clamour fills the hub zone, mingling leakage of music from the seven chambers with the sound from various interactive displays in the central area. So you feel like you're immersed not just in electronic light but in a trans-temporal mush of music: 'Relax' + 'Rock Island Line' + 'West End Girls' + 'What Do I Get' + _____. Each pop-period room features Table Talk: four chairs with video screens on the backrest arrayed around a table, with each screen displaying an interview segment. So in the first Edge Zone you can eavesdrop on a sort of virtual dinner party attended by veterans of the early days of British rock'n'roll - Vince Eager, Joe Brown, Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde - where the main topic of conversation is the impact of Elvis in the UK.
Still, if you subtract the flashy state-of-the-art stuff, most of the Experience is fundamentally identical to what you get at an old-fashioned museum. Instead of cabinets of ethnological curiosities or stuffed animals, behind the glass you have relics from the world of UK pop and rock: instruments, stage clothes, concert posters, sheet music and record covers. In the fifties room that means things like a handbill for a musical boat cruise (the Floating Festival of Jazz) that went from London to Margate and back in 1958, or Johnny Kidd of the Pirates' black eyepatch. In the sixties room you get the Beatles frock worn by usherettes at the premiere of A Hard Day's Night, or the sitar played by Justin Hayward on The Moody Blues' In Search of the Lost Chord. After glam (Bowie's Thin White Duke outfit complete with Gitanes in the waistcoat pocket, etc.) punk is next. The introductory plaqueinforms the viewer, sensibly, that punk was 'shocking, novel and subversive'. Naturally none of this insurrectionary energy is transmitted by the lifeless objects on display: Pete Shelley's broken-in-twain Starway guitar, a Stranglers set list, and so forth.
Scrolling through the scores of punk-related topics projected onto the wall, I click on one icon that does gesture at the earth-shaking impact of 1977: 'Music Press Struggle to Nail the Essence of Punk'. Apparently the British rock papers couldn't 'quite create a satisfactory new language and scale of values to assess punk, so still employ their old values', resulting in The Clash being dubbed 'the new Beatles', The Jam as 'the new Who', The Stranglers as 'the new Doors', and so forth. These specific examples may be true, but it's odd that this is the only place where the museum acknowledges the music papers' existence, and not only does it downplay their role as a cultural agent, it argues that the British music press got punk wrong. Actually, it would be closer to historical truth to say that the UK weeklies - NME, Sounds, Melody Maker - were the prime arena in which punk could dramatise itself, given that many gigs were banned and radio play was minimal. So the music press was actually the forum in which the meaning of punk was thrashed out, fought over and disseminated across the country and around the world. The rock media not only documented history in real time (they were newspapers, whereas museums can only be about 'the olds'), they actually helped to make that history, to be a real creative force within it.
The jibe at the music papers reminded me of a famous singles-review column by the NME's punk-era firebrand Julie Burchill. Written in October 1980, when diehard believer Burchill was embittered and disillusioned, the column starts with the declaration: 'There are two ways to view music. One is with tunnel vision, what I've got. If a record isn't by the Sex Pistols or Tamla Motown ... it's just pointless. But how unhealthy! I'm just a cranky old punk past its prime. But the alternative is hideous, and it is theonly alternative. It is to believe in ROCK'S RICH TAPESTRY.' Alluding to a TV series called History of Rock that left out the Pistols, Burchill accused: 'There can only be one reason ... fear. Everyone just wants to forget the whole nasty thing and get back to leading a normal life ... So many smug saps think they're rebels, but anything that can fit into ROCK'S RICH TAPESTRY is dead at heart.'
Rock (and rock writing) was always energised and focused by being against. But animosity, the sort of polarised vision that fuelled Burchill's snarling, strident rhetoric, has gone now, everywhere. Rock museums like the British Music Experience represent the triumph of the Tapestry, with even the most troubling threads, like The Sex Pistols, neatly woven into its fabric. The Old Wave/New Wave war is distant history, and that's the point of the rock museum: it presents music with the battle lines erased, everything wrapped up in a warm blanket of acceptance and appreciation. So Johnny Rotten, middle-aged and mellow now, admits that despite the 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt that got him the job as Sex Pistols singer, he always liked the Floyd (not just the Syd Barrett-era stuff but Dark Side of the Moon). And Elvis Costello, the nasty New Waver who once said abhorrent things just to wind up decrepit American hippies Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, can be found on TV hosting his show Spectacle, where he interviews the likes of James Taylor and Elton John and finds amiable common ground in a shared love of American roots music and singer-songwriter balladry.
Next I plunge into the eighties room, which contains indie (The Smiths et al.), metal (Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, etc.) and Hacienda-era Manchester. The final Edge Zone contains most of the nineties and all of the 2000s, which means that Britpop and the Brit female boom (Amy Winehouse, Kate Nash, Adele, Duffy et al.) are crammed together with The Spice Girls and the Brit Awards (both of which get a glass case each). British 'urban' music(mostly meaning grime) is dealt with as Table Talk: MCs Dizzee Rascal, Kano and D Double E & Footsie chat about the 'recently evolved genre' and tease the other guest at the table, the BBC's veteran rap DJ Tim Westwood, for 'sleeping on grime'. It's striking that this last room, which feels cursory and rushed, covers a sixteen-year period, whereas the four-year stretches of 1962 - 6 and 1966 - 70 get a whole chamber each. The covert argument of the museum's structure would appear to be that any single year in the sixties was approximately four times more exciting than any year in the last decade and a half. Not that I disagree. And that bias probably mirrors the outlook of the average BME visitor, who leans towards middle age rather than youth.
Museums, by definition, can't have that much room for the present. But the Experience website had actually promised a final Edge Zone, a whole space dedicated to the future and the question of where music might go next. I must have missed it, though, because after the 1993 - Present room I find myself back in the gift shop. On the way out, I notice a giant cut-out pop-star figure directing visitors to the museum that I didn't see on the way in: Johnny Rotten in all his safety-pinned glory. In my head I hear him singing, 'No future, no future/ No future for you.'
LIBRARIANS OF ROCK
A few days later I visit what's meant to be a punk-rock response to the British Music Experience: the Rock'n'Roll Public Library. For five weeks in the late summer of 2009, former Clash guitarist Mick Jones is throwing open to the general public his personal archive of memorabilia, which is kept in a suite of Ladbroke Grove offices tucked directly under the Westway dual carriage-way. Access is free (although for £10 you can buy a memory stick and scan in pages from the magazines, books and other printed material on display). The press release for the Rock'n'Roll PublicLibrary trumpets Jones's generosity as a 'direct artistic challenge to the likes of the corporate O2 British Music Experience' and advises visitors that despite the exhibition's sedate name, they should not 'expect peace and quiet'.
Actually, it is pretty quiet in there when I drop by at noontime on Saturday, the Portobello vintage-clothing market in full swing directly below. And it doesn't feel like a challenge to anything in particular, this cosy clutter of souvenirs and keepsakes, the detritus of a life spent rocking and rolling. Clash/punk-related artifacts (dusty amps, a Watkins Copicat effects box, a hand-drawn tour map from 1982 titled Rat Patrol Over South East Asia & Australia) jostle alongside bric-a-brac of the kind you'd find at the flea market on the other side of the road: vintage cameras, radios and Super-8 equipment, a Spike Milligan annual, a Diana Dors gatefold. In tune with The Clash's fascination with military glory, the walls are decorated with nineteenth-century watercolours of battle scenes and images from World War II, such as a print of US marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima.
Give or take the odd youngster, the visitors are mostly veterans of the punk wars. There's a middle-aged couple, the woman plump and with a purple streak in her hair, the guy wearing a Pistols T-shirt and a bedraggled Mohawk. And there's an endless supply of guys who all seem to wear the cowboy-like hats that The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite favoured. One of these stupid-hat diehards - a Mancunian Clash fan - sits down beside me and, already quite drunk even though it's not lunchtime yet, regales me with stories of climbing onstage at a Clash gig and being invited to play the A, E and G chords. Eventually I make my excuses and slope off into a side-room that's like a cavern of pop periodicals: issues of Crawdaddy! and Trouser Press, CREEM and ZigZag, squeezed into see-through bags and pinned neatly to the walls.
Pumping at moderate volume out of speakers all through theoffice space there's a Radio Clash-style stream of Mick Jones's favourite tunes. 'Memo from Turner', a Mick Jagger song from the soundtrack to Performance, comes on. I flash on The Clash's the-time-is-NOW anthem '1977', with its iconoclastic chorus 'No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977', then notice the signed poster for the Beatles Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium in 1963, the framed photo of the young Jagger and Richards. But The Clash long ago stitched themselves into a corner of Rock's Rich Tapestry - as early as London Calling, which re-rooted punk in the riches of rock'n'roll and Americana, and was duly anointed Greatest Album of the Eighties by Rolling Stone.
Browsing the Rock'n'Roll Public Library, I think back to seeing Mick Jones on TV in 2003, when The Clash were getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The latter, co-founded by Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, is not just an awards ceremony but the world's first rock museum: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened in 1995 and is based in Cleveland. At the 2003 ceremony, Mick Jones - balding, clad in black suit and tie - didn't look like a rock'n'roll soldier getting a medal so much as a stoop-shouldered clerk shuffling to the podium to receive his retirement gift for forty-five years' loyal service to the firm. The Clash's meek compliance with their incorporation into the rock pantheon contrasts pleasingly with the intransigence of The Sex Pistols, who threw their invitation to the 2006 ceremony back in the institution's face. (This didn't stop the Hall of Fame inducting them anyway, of course.) The accompanying rude and crudely scrawled note brought a smile to the wrinkled faces of ageing punks everywhere:
Next to the Sex Pistols, rock and roll and that hall of fame is a piss stain. Your museum. Urine in wine. We're not coming. We're not your monkeys. If you voted for us, hope you notedyour reasons. Your anonymous as judges but your still music industry people. We're not coming. Your not paying attention. Outside the shit-stream is a real Sex Pistol.
On one level, it was a curious gesture of defiance. After all, the group had already thrown in their lot with retro culture by re-forming for 1996's six-month Filthy Lucre Tour, and only a year after middle-fingering the Hall of Fame they would monetise the legend once again with a series of shows in 2007 - 8. Still, these reunions - Never Mind the Bollocks as travelling museum exhibit - could be seen as bracingly cynical, even an extension of the Pistols' original demystification of the music industry: not 'cash from chaos'but cash from nostalgia for chaos. Turning up to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, though, really would have meant the blunting of any residual edge the group had. In an interview for National Public Radio, Pistols guitarist Steve Jones claimed that 'once you want to be put into a museum, rock and roll's over'.
Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which bands become eligible for twenty-five years after they formed, is a last rite of passage into the rock afterlife. In some cases, the artist is literally dead; in almost all other instances, the creative life of the performer expired a good way back. Theodor Adorno was the first to point out the similarity of the words 'museum' and 'mausoleum'. Beyond the phonetic resemblance is a deeper proximity: museums are the final resting place of 'objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying'. The Hard Rock chain (who started using rock memorabilia such as signed guitars as decor way back in the seventies) came up with the name of the Vault for its own museum in Orlando, Florida. And Wolfgang's Vault is the slightly creepy name of one of the world's largest music-memorabilia companies, derived from the massive underground storage centre inwhich famed San Francisco promoter Bill Graham (whose real name was Wolfgang Grajonca) kept his archive of audio and video concert recordings, posters and assorted rock relics. Creepy because Graham/Grajonca died in 1991, and Wolfgang's Vault suggests the idea of the burial mound, the king interred with all his treasures.
Before visitors are admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Annex in New York, they wait in a little room that actually resembles a mausoleum. From top to bottom, the walls are covered with small rectangular plaques, each commemorating - and bearing the signature of - an artist who's been inducted into the Hall of Fame. It starts, near the entrance, with the first inductees from back in the mid-eighties - your Carl Perkins's and Clyde McPhatters - and works around to more recent ones like The Pretenders (anointed in 2005), located by the door that leads to the museum proper. The plaques are redolent of the small 'niches' you find in some burial vaults that are made for cremated ashes. Music plays, and in a touch that's both kitsch and eerie, when a particular song comes on, the silver-engraved signature of the artist glows orange or purple.
The parent museum in Cleveland goes one better, though. Fusing museum and mausoleum, it displays the earthly remains of Alan Freed, the DJ who popularised the term 'rock'n'roll' and organised the music's first major concert with 1952's Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland. Jim Henke, the museum's chief curator, explained that 'we'd been working with Freed's kids on putting an exhibit together and then one day they said, "Listen, our dad is buried in upstate New York, and that doesn't make any sense. If we brought the ashes, would you guys accept it?" So we said OK, and in the section of the Alan Freed exhibit we have a little glass part of the wall where his ashes are.'
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is intended to edify and enlighten, though, not to trigger superstitious feelings of ancestorworship. Henke describes the original process of curating the museum's contents as an extension of the work he'd done as editor of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: 'I put together an outline as if I was doing a book on the history of rock.' He's proud of the major library and archive that they've recently opened, which is intended to be the world's pre-eminent research centre for popular music. Still, there is an aspect to many of the exhibits in Cleveland and at the New York Annex that's close to medieval sacred relics such as splinters from the cross, the bones of a saint or vials of Christ's blood: they elicit morbid awe rather than scholarly respect. For instance, Cleveland has one of Bob Marley's dreadlocks on display. 'That came from his family, ' says Henke. 'I guess when he had his cancer, some of his hair started falling out, and they had saved one of the dreadlocks.' In New York, the special exhibit documenting John Lennon's New York years climaxes with a large paper bag containing the clothes Lennon was wearing on the day he was shot, which were returned to Yoko Ono by the hospital. While you can't actually see dried blood, it does mean that visitors are just inches away from physical traces of the slain singer, as close to a saviour as rock has produced.
Other museum exhibits cast their spell through metonymy rather than being part of the idol's body: irradiated with 'aura', and in some cases stained with sweat, these are the actual clothes the stars wore, the instruments the musicians held. The New York Annex features two pièces de résistance. First is the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible that was Bruce Springsteen's first car and which he actually drove during the recording of Born to Run in 1975. The second is the diorama reconstruction of CBGB's interior that incorporates actual things from the legendary punk club: the old-fashioned cash register, the vintage phone box that dates back to the twenties, when the venue was a flophouse. There are some nice touches - empty beer bottles, graffiti and bandstickers everywhere - but there are no ashtrays (a crucial period touch, given that this is meant to be CBGB's prime, the era of The Ramones). Nor is there any dried-out chewing gum under the tables. I'm also wondering where CBGB's infamously squalid toilet is, only to find it when I'm about to leave the museum and dart downstairs for a quick visit to the gents. Lo and behold, in a glass case just before the door to the gents, there's the CBGB urinal, with band stickers speckling the white ceramic outer surfaces. 'The bathroom at CBGB had a notorious reputation,' notes the plaque on the display, soberly but accurately. Marcel Duchamp meets retro culture! I reckon they should have kept it in service, inside the men's room, but I guess it's an antique, this piss-pot, and besides it would have meant that only one gender could take a gander at it. (Incidentally, while wrapping up this chapter, I learned that during the summer of 2010 artist Justin Lowe recreated the graffiti-daubed CBGB lavatory at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut - a homage not just to the punk venue but also the museum's history of supporting surrealist art - while that August the porcelain commode from John Lennon's 1969 - 72 English country estate sold for fifteen thousand bucks at a Beatles memorabilia auction.)
'We are a museum with attitude,' asserted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's director Dennis Barrie, optimistically, on its launch in September 1995. The Cleveland institution's big rival, the Experience Music Project - which opened in the year 2000 and was built by billionaire Paul Allen using the fortune he acquired as co-founder of Microsoft - attempted to outdo its predecessor with an emphasis on interactive exhibits and the avant-kitsch flashiness and kookiness of its building (designed by Frank Gehry and often compared to a smashed guitar). 'Experience', the same buzzword resorted to by the British Music Experience, seems to be an attempt to ward off the dour, didactic aura of the word 'museum', to promise something more sensorily overloadedand visceral. It's also a nod to Jimi 'Are You Experienced' Hendrix, Seattle rock's most famous scion.
The EMP made a big splash initially. But over the course of the past decade, it struggled to meet what were probably unrealistic expectations (a million visitors a year). Allen, a sci-fi buff as well as a rock fan, added the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame to the building to bump up its appeal. Still, when you consider the continued existence of these two major rock museums in Seattle and Cleveland and the numerous smaller genre- or city-focused ones elsewhere in America (the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, the Smithsonian Rock 'n' Soul Museum in Memphis, Detroit's Motown Historical Museum, etc.), and then factor in the recent opening of the British Music Experience and the imminent launch of Hall of Fame/Experience-style institutions in Barcelona and in the Norwegian city of Trondheim, it's clear that rock is now old enough and established enough as an art form to support its own museum industry. These institutions are competing for artifacts and funding as well as for visitors. Keith Richards may once have jeered, on being introduced to Jim Henke, 'A rock and roll curator?! That's the silliest thing I've ever heard!', but pop-culture curatorship is gradually becoming a field, a career option. In addition to people employed by the museums, working in academia or for auction houses, there are also freelance curators and dealer-collectors: people like Johan Kugelberg and Jeff Gold, who work closely with Jim Henke at the R&RHoF&M and his EMP counterpart Jasen Emmons, helping them to locate materials for particular exhibitions.
All these people involved in the museum-ification of rock share a common ideology, based around the twinned concepts of posterity and historicity. Posterity is self-explanatory: it's on whose behalf all these materials are carefully preserved and tidily presented. 'Sometimes you'll see something and think, "This belongs in a museum,"' says Jeff Gold, who is regarded as one of the topfive collector-dealers in the world. 'Sometimes somebody has a collection that includes a lot of personal papers or sixties press clippings, and you think, "I could sell this, but this is really going to be useful to somebody writing a book somewhere down the line." If you donate stuff like that to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you know it's going to be in an institution where it can be studied for generations to come.'
As for historicity, that's something like 'aura of era'. To a large degree, historicity entails a leap of faith: it's an intangible quality that depends on an element of trust and projection on the part of the museum visitor or collector. In the text for his book Vintage T-Shirts, Johan Kugelberg notes the huge difference in price between an original tour T-shirt and a reproduction, which may actually look indistinguishable from the real thing, given that not only period stylisation but ageing and distressing of fabric can be faked. Historicity is paradoxical in the sense that it pertains to something only after it has been left behind by History, when it's become a remnant. During the time period when they actually have currency, tour T-shirts have no extra value; they derive their later lustre by harkening back to a time when they were unremarkable, just used. Archly echoing the Romantic poets and their obsession with medieval abbeys, Kugelberg describes the vintage T-shirt as a 'ruin', but warns that these ruins can themselves be ruined, in terms of collectability, by 'the dreaded pit stains'.
Swedish-born but New York-based Johan Kugelberg leads a charmed life dedicated to collecting and writing about his discoveries for the retrozine Ugly Things and the deluxe photo-books he edits, alternating with bouts of organising exhibitions and compiling reissue anthologies. Some canny 'investment venture capitalist type' activity has placed him in the enviable position of being able to follow his wife's motto, 'Why pay less?' In other words, instead of doing what your typical cash-strapped collector (like, say, me) does, i.e. scour through thrift stores and bargain basements, he goes straight to collector-dealers who've done all the hard graft. Or he'll be a pre-emptively high bidder in auctions online and offline alike.
After spending the nineties working at various record labels, around the turn of the millennium Kugelberg fell into a modus operandi: focusing in on a specific area of the past and scooping everything up - not just records but fanzines, flyers and every kind of memorabilia related to the period. Obscure punk (as compiled on his Killed by Death compilations) and post-punk DIY were stabs in this direction, but it was when he got interested in the earliest days of hip hop that he first went about things more strategically.
'The agenda for the hip-hop immersion was always to create a substantial archive to place at an academic institution, to do a great book, and to do some really good reissues,' Kugelberg explains. The materials he gathered for the Born in the Bronx exhibition and book - 500 flyers, unreleased 'battle tapes' from the late seventies, photographs by Joe Conzo Jr, magazines, posters - were ultimately donated to Cornell University's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, where they serve as a resource to students of a hip-hop history course launched in spring 2009. 'The hope is to build this out to other satellite campuses around the world. Get some critical mass and start putting some pride in this aspect of minority history.'
Jeff Gold uses a funkier synonym for historicity: mojo. This belief that the life force of an idolised musician can still cling to objects he or she owned explains why, every so often, he'll make a potentially lucrative acquisition but then decide not to put it on the auction block. For instance, he's hanging onto 'some Hendrix records - not records by Jimi but other people's records actually owned by him. There's about twenty-five of them, and they were auctioned off by a woman who'd lived with Hendrix in London. Blues records, Sgt Pepper, Roland Kirk stuff, Dylan.' Record collectors are normally looking for as close to mint condition as they can find, but in this case added value was conferred by the fact that the platters were 'beat to shit. Because that meant they'd been used by Hendrix.' Gold says he was all set 'to clean them as they were so screwed-up, but then I thought, "Well, it's got Hendrix's gook on them, his fingerprints. That would be the wrong thing to do."' The scratches and stains actually made the records 'more precious to me, because they were obviously things he'd played like crazy. It gave a view into the mind of Hendrix and his musical taste. Owning his records was like owning a little bit of his mojo.'
Like many collector-curator types, Kugelberg is obsessed with loss, the unstaunchable wound that is Time's passage. 'My fear is that things get lost. In the past I have immersed myself in early jazz and blues, and I have heard the stories about stuff that got thrown out into dumpsters in the fifties and sixties. Important photography archives that went into the great toilet of time.' Projects like his involvement in Christie's November 2008 auction of punk memorabilia (everything from Vivienne Westwood bondage pants to Buzzcocks badges to Max's Kansas City flyers) are done with one eye towards posterity. 'When it comes to punk I think it is important for the future scholarly endeavours in that field to gain critical mass, so you need establishment people like Christie's. Also, if things are catalogued in printed form, there's a record of what they were. I'm probably shooting myself in the foot saying this, but all this stuff is way underpriced compared to how important it is.'
Gold's interest in rock memorabilia goes back to the trade's beginnings in the late sixties. The very first things to become collectable were posters, specifically the famous San Francisco psychedelic posters for shows at the Fillmore and Avalon, plus the similar-looking posters that came out of Detroit in the late sixties. Gold mentions a 1968 copy of a Bay Area fanzine he owns that contains a reference to wanting a particular Fillmore poster. 'So you had guys already collecting San Francisco posters and trying to get a whole set only a year after they started making them.'
Historicity, that paradoxical property, is a prime concern for psychedelic poster collectors: they want the first printing because these were the ones that were actually in circulation. When Bill Graham realised that the posters were desirable, that people were ripping them down and putting them up on the walls of their homes, he started doing second or third printings purely to sell as souvenirs. But the first edition, the run of posters that was done to promote the show and was 'stuck up around town on telephone poles and in store windows', Gold explains, that was the printingthat had actual cultural currency. And those promotional first-run posters are 'much more valuable than the ones printed after the show to be sold as souvenirs'. He tells me about the foremost authority on this area, collector-dealer Eric King, 'who literally wrote the book on this subject, a 650-page, Xeroxed and single-spaced guide'. Over the years, King has got the art of authentication down to a science. 'He and a couple of other specialists in this field did unbelievably exhaustive research to figure out which were the first-run posters. So there might be a Jefferson Airplane poster where some of the first run featured a stamp on it saying "Associated Students of UC Berkeley", and that meant that if you were putting up posters on the Berkeley campus you had to get it stamped by the Student Council as an approved event. In other cases, you can only tell which is first edition by the thickness of the paper used. So Eric gets his calipers out and measures the paper thickness and will actually certify your poster for you, for $20.'
The sixties and early seventies dominate the wares on offer at Gold's website, where you can find things like a Led Zeppelin inflatable promotional blimp or a batch of eight unsigned contracts pertaining to the Monterey Pop Festival. Punk is creeping in there (the original screenplay for Who Killed Bambi?, the aborted Sex Pistols movie written by Roger Ebert and directed by Russ Meyer, is on sale for $800), but for the most part the classic-rock era seems to be where the action remains. According to Peter Doggett, a former editor of Record Collector currently dividing his energy between writing music histories and working with Christie's to authenticate rock memorabilia, 'The market hasn't actually changed that much since the first major auctions, which were in the early eighties. Back then it was anything to do with Elvis Presley, The Beatles and the Stones. Those were the really big-selling artists in auction terms, and almost the only names to have been added to that premier league in the last twenty yearsare The Sex Pistols and - on a good day - Madonna. Christie's sold some Blur- and Oasis-related stuff, but it generated nowhere near the same excitement as there would be for anything to do with The Beatles. It's almost impossible for anybody after that era to acquire that status.'
Johan Kugelberg attempted to get the bandwagon rolling for early hip hop in terms of collector and curator interest with his 2007 exhibition Born in the Bronx. Just over a year later, the UK auction house Dreweatts made an even more audacious move with the exhibition/sale ArtCore: a precocious and possibly premature attempt to open up a market for rave-culture artifacts. The brainchild of Dreweatts curator Mary McCarthy, who had been a raver while studying art history in the nineties, ArtCore opened in February 2009 in an exhibition space in the basement of Selfridges department store in central London. Even though I'd been involved in rave culture, I didn't find this development disconcerting so much as pleasantly disorienting. The era being nostalgised was only fifteen to twenty years ago. Wandering around the exhibition on the eve of its launch, I also wondered who would really want to buy these large-canvas versions of flyers, whose garish cyberdelic imagery, already kitschy in its own time, had aged badly. You might want to have the flyer itself, to peek at occasionally for a pleasant trip down memory lane. But to actually have it dominate your living room?
I had assumed that the paintings were the flyer-art originals, but it turned out to be more complex than that. Because mass-produced items like flyers, T-shirts and so forth do not have the singularity that produces either market value or 'aura' in the Walter Benjamin sense, McCarthy had to come up with an ingenious ruse to create collectability. There wasn't even necessarily an original artwork behind the flyer: many of the flyers started as sketches that were then put together on a computer using what would now be considered risibly clumsy and primitivegraphic-design programs. So the solution was to ask the designers to create one-off paintings based on their original flyers, in effect creating a singular work of art where one had never existed. This led to some peculiarities of dating - a flyer that came out in 1988 had to be dated 2008, because that's when the reproduction was painted - but according to McCarthy, 'It's the only way that I could get this work into the art market.'
Personally, I'd rather own the mass-produced copy that was originally in circulation, rather than the retro-actively created pseudo-original. The flyer has a real connection to history. And in fact there is a fan-collector trade for old-skool rave flyers. But for an auction house like Dreweatts, 'selling original flyers would be quite difficult', says McCarthy. 'They're so small.' Collectors want visual bang for their buck, something they can display. One of the few originals on show at ArtCore - a framed flyer for legendary acid-house club Shoom, pamphlet-size and with rudimentary black-and-white graphics - does look rather unimposing, I have to admit.
A PAST GONE MAD
Punk seems hostile to museum-ification on account of its iconoclastic contempt for the past. With rave, it's the movement's orientation towards the future that should really repel the dustiness of the archive's embrace. The punishing minimalism of early techno especially - music stripped to rhythm and texture, a true art of noises - recalls the spirit of the Italian Futurists circa 1909 - 15. As much as I love history and poring over the past, there's a part of me that will always thrill to, and agree with, the Futurist manifestos, which showered scalding scorn over 'the passéists': antiquarians, curators, tradition-loving art critics. Italian Futurism was a response to the spiritual oppression of growing up in a country that pioneered tourism as time travel (for it is nearly always thepast of a country you visit on vacation, at least in the Old World), a land covered with magisterial ruins, venerable cathedrals, grand squares and palaces, the monumental residues not just of one golden age (the Roman Empire) but of two (the Renaissance).
Futurist leader F. T. Marinetti's founding manifesto proclaimed, 'We want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards ... Museums: cemeteries! ... Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another.' Continuing the sexual imagery, he ranted about how 'admiring an old picture is the same as pouring our sensibility into a funerary urn instead of hurtling it far off, in violent spasms of action and creation'. To venerate artworks from the past was like wasting one's élan vital on something inert and decayed; like fucking a corpse.
Marinetti imagined setting fire 'to the library shelves' and redirecting 'the canals to flood the museums' so that 'the glorious old canvases' bobbed 'adrift on those waters'. What would he, writing in 1909, have made of the state of Western culture a hundred years later? The last decades of the twentieth century saw what Andreas Huyssen has called a 'memory boom', with a surge in the foundation of museums and archives being just one facet of a culture-wide obsession with commemoration, documentation and preservation. Examples include the trends for restoring old urban centres and for creating museum villages where people in period costume practise traditional crafts; the popularity of reproduction furniture and retro decor; the widespread obsession with self-documentation using video recorders (and, since Huyssen wrote his essay in 2000, mobile-phone camera, blogging, YouTube, etc.); the rise of documentaries and history programmes on TV; and the frequency of commemorative articlesor special magazine issues (celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, the moon landings, and even the magazine having reached its twenty-year mark or hundredth issue).
Borrowing Hermann Lübbe's concept of 'musealisation' - the archival mindset no longer confined within the institution of the museum but seeping out to infect every zone of culture and everyday life - Huyssen contrasted the attitudes of the second half of the twentieth century with the first half as a shift from a concern with 'present futures' to 'present pasts'. For the greater part of the last century, modernism and modernisation were the watchwords: the emphasis was on harking forward, an intent focus on everything in the present that seemed to represent 'tomorrow's world today'. That changed, gradually but with increasing momentum from the early seventies, towards a preoccupation with the residues of the past in the present, a massive cultural shift that encompassed the rise of the nostalgia industry with its retro fashions and revivals, postmodernism's pastiche and renovation of historical styles, and the spectacular growth of heritage.
The concept of heritage can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century. That was when the National Trust was founded in Britain in order to protect 'places of historic interest or natural beauty'. After World War II, the conservationist impulse began to spread beyond its antiquarian and aristocratic hardcore, with campaigns to preserve the steam engine and stately homes, the growth of traction-engine clubs and rallies, and the cult of canal and barge restoration. As a mass movement, though, heritage really took off in the eighties. The 1983 National Heritage Act established the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Commission, or as it's more generally known, English Heritage. Antique collecting was no longer a posh activity but a middle-class pastime, helped by the expanded definition of antique beyond the hand-crafted to include mundane, oftenmachine-made artifacts such as quaint old bottles, enamel signs, tea chests, and so forth. Along with mass-produced objects, the places where these things were actually produced soon began to seem quaint and charming: hence the rise of industrial museums (working mines, kilns, pumping stations, even Victorian sewage works). In a classic example of this syndrome of aestheticising things only after they've shed their association with production, canal barges became picturesque when they lost their original function of lugging coal or industrial materials to manufacturing towns (a role taken over by trucks on the new post-war motorways). What had once been a floating slum that grimly combined workplace and home became an inland-waterways version of the converted terrace house, its blend of bygone charm and footloose eccentricity appealing to mildly nonconformist members of the bourgeoisie.
By the end of the nineties, heritage had become such a dominant force in the UK that Julian Barnes could write a satirical novel about it, England, England, that imagined a theme-park version of the country taking over the entirety of the Isle of Wight, based around the most touristic clichés of Britishness (thatched cottages, bowler hats, double-decker buses, cricket, etc.). In the UK, almost the only people who remain immune to the romance of the antiquated are the 'chavs', a derogatory term for working-class whites who identify with black American style and music at its most flashy and materialistic. Although chav-haters complain about their lack of taste and vulgarity - the blingy jewellery, shiny sportswear, spaceship trainers - the subtext of the animosity is the chav's un-English lack of interest in old stuff: antiques, heritage, costume drama. This abhorrence of the vintage, the worn-and-faded-looking, the previously owned, is something that ethnic minorities on both sides of the Atlantic share with the traditional white working class.
In Britain, chavs are a kind of ethnic minority in themselves.The vast sprawling middle class of middle England has succumbed to the middlebrow appeal of the old-fashioned. A shift in attitudes took hold in the eighties, doubtless connected to the same social and cultural forces that led to the 1983 National Heritage Act. As the architectural blogger Charles Holland has shown, well into the seventies interior-design and DIY books advocated covering over panelling, ripping out iron-grate fire-places, painting over exterior brickwork and hiding high ceilings with false ones. The modern-look household originally came into fashion in the fifties, the golden age of design showcases, World's Fairs and exhibitions with titles like This Is Tomorrow. Formica and chrome, fluorescent light tubes and the streamlined elimination of decorative clutter like cornices and mouldings were de rigueur in every middle-class home. But by the eighties, it had all gone into reverse: suspended ceilings were stripped away, fireplaces were exposed once more, plastic doorknobs were replaced by original-style brass ones. Tiling and wooden floorboards came back into style and all kinds of quaintnesses were treated as desirable 'original features' by estate agents and prospective buyers. This was followed by a boom for trades like restoration and architectural salvage (old-fashioned enamel baths and other fittings pulled out of soon-to-be-demolished houses, schools and hotels) and the rise of a range of 'archaizing fads' (Samuel Raphael's term) such as the artificial distressing of furniture or building materials (artificially aged bricks that look soot-stained or pockmarked).
Given this culture-wide dominance of preservationist attitudes, it's hardly surprising that a rock-heritage industry should emerge. In this context, things like the Abbey Road studio in North London being granted protected status by the Ministry of Culture or the walking tour of Macclesfield landmarks offered to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Ian Curtis's death seem perfectly logical, even inevitable. 'Rock now belongs to thepast as much as to the future,' James Miller argued in his book Flowers in the Dustbin, which derives its title from a Sex Pistols song and argues that rock had run through all the fundamental moves, archetypes and avenues of self-reinvention available to it by 1977, such that everything since has been either recycling or tweaking of established templates. I wouldn't go that far. But I do wonder, when Huyssen asks rhetorically, 'Why are we building museums as if there were no tomorrow?', if the answer is that we can no longer imagine tomorrow.
The title of a book by Jacques Derrida, 'archive fever' is a good term for today's delirium of documentation, which extends beyond institutions and professional historians to the Web's explosion of amateur archive creation. There is a feeling of frenzy to all this activity; it's like people are slinging stuff 'up there' - information, images, testimonials - in a mad-dash hurry before some mass shutdown causes all our brains to burn out simultaneously. Nothing is too trivial, too insignificant, to be discarded; every pop-culture scrap, every trend and fad, every forgotten-by-most performer or TV programme is being annotated and auteur-ised. The result, visible above all on the Internet, is that the archive degenerates into the anarchive: a barely navigable disorder of data-debris and memory-trash. For the archive to maintain any kind of integrity, it must sift and reject, consign some memories to oblivion. History must have a dustbin, or History will be a dustbin, a gigantic, sprawling garbage heap.
DERRIDA, FREUD AND THE ARCHIVE
It sounds almost like a genuine illness, 'archive fever': the occupational ailment of librarians who spend too long in the stacks, a derangement afflicting academics and antiquarians as they test the limits of the human brain to digest information. But actually - and as you'd expect with Jacques Derrida - the concept turns out to be much more complicated, subtle and paradoxical.
In Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Derrida traces 'archive' all the way back to archeion, the ancient Greek word for the residence of superior magistrates (the archons). At the root of the word 'archive' is a double meaning of 'commencement' and 'commandment'. The concept of the archive is thus deeply entangled with ideas of origin and order, authenticity and authority. 'Arch' is the same 'arch' that is in words like 'archaic', 'archetype' and 'archaeology', but it is also the 'arch' that's in words like 'monarchy'. Archive is also related to the word 'ark', as in Noah's Ark (the vessel in which, at God's command, the animals were preserved and classified) and the Ark of the Covenant (a different kind of vessel, one in which the tablets of the Ten Commandments were stored).
One mainstream manifestation of the anarchive is the I Love the [Decade] series that was massively popular all through the 2000s. Originating in Britain as the BBC2 brainchild of the producer Alan Brown, the show was franchised and adapted for America by VH1, and also inspired imitators like Channel 4's Top 10 shows. Frothy and fast-moving, the I Love ... programmes featured an array of second-division comedians and minor celebrities quipping facetiously about the mass-cultural fads and follies of a particular decade: TV soap operas, hit movies, pop songs, hairstyles and fashions, toys and games, scandals, slogans and catchphrases. In the US, the series started in 2002 with the eighties, doubled back to do I Love the '70s, then got back in sequence with I Love the '90s and spun-off variants like I Love Toys and I Love the Holidays. The convulsive logic of archive fever accelerated the series' metabolism such that the US version began summing up the noughties in the summer of 2008, with the series I Love the New Millennium.
In French, 'mal d'archive' contains the concept of both illness and evil. For Derrida, there is something morbid and sinister at the core of the archival impulse. 'It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire ... to return to the origin ... the most archaic place of absolute commencement.' Derrida relates this compulsion to the Freudian death drive. Freud argued that 'the task' of the death drive was 'to lead organic life back into the inanimate state'. One of its manifestations in human behaviour (and by extension, culture) is 'a compulsion to repeat'. Freud saw this regressive impulse as 'more primitive, more elementary' than the pleasure principle, which is why Thanatos can often 'over-ride' Eros.
'Those programmes were played to death,' says Mark Cooper, who as BBC Television's Creative Head of Music Entertainment has been the driving force behind the past decade's boom of high-quality rock documentaries on BBC2 and especially BBC4. 'What was nice about them initially was that it was driven by a desire to create a sense of nostalgia, but they didn't want to interrogate it or understand it; they just wanted to give a taste of it, a smell of it, in that biscuit sense. It was very much, "Remember that haircut?" But after a while it became a form of blanket programming. They were seen by the production teams as more like shows than documentaries, seeing the past not as history but as pure nostalgia.'
History is a form of editing reality; for a historical account to work it requires a filter, otherwise the sheer sludge of information silts up the narrative flow. The kind of documentaries that Cooper shepherds into existence at the BBC, and in particular BBC4's 'Britannia' series (Folk Britannia, Blues Britannia, Prog Britannia, Synth Britannia et al.), are the opposite of all the list shows. 'They are about looking at music genres from the fifties to the present and attempting to tell the story of British music in terms of our search for an identity,' says Cooper. 'All the ways that things like jazz and blues and soul have helped to liberate us from who we were in the fifties.' In some cases, the narratives might break with or challenge the official histories. For instance, Cooper
'En mal d'archive' also means to be 'in need of archives', a desperate hunger comparable to addiction. As Derrida writes, 'It is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there's too much of it ...' Impelled by a mixture of hubris and mania, the drive to accumulate and store knowledge escalates out of control, threatening to collapse the entire edifice of the archive.
says that the Prog Britannia documentary came from his being 'bored with the punk cliché that everything before 1976 was shit, that "official" view of the first half of the seventies as a wasteland. Prog Britannia attempted to understand that post-Sgt Pepper's territory, that more expansive sense they had that music could go further than the three-minute pop song. Maybe it ultimately went wrong, but there's a lot that was laudable about that sense of ambition.' The key point is that these revisionist documentaries are trying to tell a story, as opposed to presenting a shuffle-mode miscellany of collective memory: they offer a counter-narrative, rather than an encyclopedic accumulation.
The 'Britannia' series and the many other BBC documentaries that Cooper instigated have contributed to a veritable noughties rock-doc boom, ranging from Julien Temple's punk trilogy (docs on The Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer and Dr Feelgood) to the hugely successful and award-winning tale of a no-hoper metal band, Anvil! The Story of Anvil. One reason for the boom is economics. With their small crews and low budgets (no scripts, actors, costumes, props or effects), these films are cheap to make. For many rock documentaries archival footage is one of the largest costs. Cooper says that his documentary budgets are in the region of £120 - 140,000, and typically a quarter of that goes on archival material. 'We have two people here who specialise in sourcing and procuring archival material,' he says, explaining that this often involves working with commercial archives and with companies that acquire and license footage. According to Cooper, 'The industry is realising the importance of archivists. They've just started to do an award for archivists working in TV called the Focal Awards.' He points out that the BBC itself makes a lot of money off licensing old footage and is currently exploring the possibility of putting its entire archive on the Web. The big internal debate is, he says, whether the archive should be a commercial enterprise or a public service. The BBC could 'charge people todownload stuff' or they could make it free in the manner of the British Library Sound Archive (which recently put swathes of its collection online).
Another reason for the rise of music documentaries is that there are ever-expanding opportunities for them to get shown and seen. This is not so much in movie theatres (although some of the most high-profile rock docs, like Anvil! or the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, have had successful runs on the big screen), but is thanks to the increase in the number of cable and digital television channels. Although they often serve as cheap schedule filler, rock docs also provide channels like the UK's BBC4 and Channel 4 and the US's Sundance and VH1 Classic with a means of attracting both baby boomers and the youth audience. The former enjoy seeing the classic-rock era they lived through endlessly chewed over; the latter enjoy seeing the classic-rock era they didn't live through endlessly chewed over.
The greying of the baby-boomer generation (and its immediate descendant/extension, the punk generation) is another explanation for the boom. The bulk of the rock docs are still concerned with the sixties and seventies, an era with a seemingly limitless scope for being rehashed. 'I think it's because we haven't had enough wars,' laughs Mark Cooper. He suggests that the golden age of rock - from Dylan and The Beatles to glam and punk - offered the closest thing to the collective sense of purpose that World War II created for the previous demographic cohort. It's an idea given credence by nostalgia scholar Fred Davis, who wrote about 'present tense' periods of great drama and urgency, when people were fully engaged in struggle. Those who lived through the Depression or World War II often look back to that time with paradoxical affection as 'the best years of my life', despite the danger, hardship, self-sacrifice, loss of loved ones and other trials. 'People always said their parents never talked about the war,' muses Cooper. 'Well, we talk about our own "war" experiencesover and over and over. Particularly the sixties generation, because the sixties were such a turbulent time, there was so much change. It's such an alive decade, politically and socially and culturally. So I really think pop culture has become the new "What did you do in the war, Daddy?"'
REUNITED AND IT PAYS SO GOOD
While it's true that the sixties and seventies exert a vice-like grip on our imaginations, it seems as though the museum-isation of music is likely to keep extending itself as each passing decade slips into pop history. The British Music Experience might deal with the nineties and 2000s rather cursorily, and the memorabilia auctions might only just be monetising punk and early hip hop, but as documentaries like Live Forever (on Britpop) and exhibitions like ArtCore demonstrate, every generation as it ages will want to see its musical youth mythologised and memorialised.
Nineties nostalgia is already showing up in one area: rock reunions and nostalgia tours. Rage Against the Machine's reformation, after a seven-year furlough, to headline the 2007 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in South California helped the promoters shift their pricey tickets ($249 for a three-day pass) in record speed. Blur, The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins are just some of the bigger alternative rock and shoegaze names to start treading the boards again (although in the case of the Pumpkins and Dinosaur, those groups are making all-new records and can be said to have picked up where they left off, as opposed to pandering to college rock/grunge nostalgia).
When alt-rock bands like these reunite and go on the road, there is a mutually beneficial arrangement between the musicians and their audience. The ageing audience gets dependability (theyknow what the music is going to be) and a chance to relive their youth. The band gets to bask in their legend and reconnect with their fans. They also make more money than they did as on-the-rise legends-to-be (tickets can be priced much higher without scaring off their audience, no longer college students or slackers but middle-aged professionals) and they can tour in greater comfort than in the old days of get-in-the-van.
Re-formed alt-rock bands from the late eighties and nineties have become such a common feature of rock-festival line-ups that critic Anwyn Crawford has dubbed it the Indie Rock Heritage Circuit. But it extends even further than indie with the emergence of a nineties techno-rave circuit, the return (not necessarily after splitting up but certainly after a long period of having faded from public prominence) of those vaguely rock-ish dance acts (think Orbital, Leftfield, Underworld, The Orb, Chemical Brothers) who could actually play live and put on a good show.
The pioneers of Indie Rock Heritage are ATP, the promoters responsible for the successful All Tomorrow's Parties festivals, which began in the UK and soon spread to the US and beyond. Right from the start, these have been curated by renowned musicians (Portishead, Stephen Malkmus, Sonic Youth) and occasionally famous non-musicians (Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Jim Jarmusch). And from quite early on, the line-ups featured old bands brought out of retirement. So, as Crawford pointed out, when Nick Cave made his selections for the first ATP in Australia, he scheduled a large number of 'acts drawn from the years of his disreputable youth: Laughing Clowns, The Saints, Robert Forster, Primitive Calculators and the late, lamented Rowland S. Howard [Cave's bandmate in The Birthday Party]'.
I met with ATP founder Barry Hogan when he was in New York to organise the sequel to their 2008 extravaganza at the Kutsher's Country Club (a family-style resort in the Catskills similar to the Camber Sands and Minehead holiday camps whereATP had staged some of their UK festivals). That first upstate New York event had been curated by My Bloody Valentine, who also performed at it, kicking off a hugely successful reunion tour of America that basically replayed their last US tour, in early 1992 (same songs and the same twenty-minute deafening, dizzying, noise-blitz set-closer of 'You Made Me Realise'). Hogan told me that 'putting on the MBV reunion tour was lucrative for everyone involved'. When I asked him if reunion tours had become a crucial part of the promotion industry's business, Hogan said he had no hard figures but thought it was 'significant. It seems to me that for every promoter, as part of their annual run of shows they'll always have some comeback tour in there.'
According to the Wall Street Journal, one reason that the concert industry turns to old legends is that the record business hasn't established enough big-level artists during the 2000s. At the same time, the former members of these disbanded legends rarely approach comparable success in their solo careers, and so have a financial incentive for reconciling and going on the road. But even bands no one ever gave a shit about are re-forming. Take Mudcrutch, Tom Petty's first group, who only ever released two singles and then split in 1975. They reunited to tour and recorded a debut album, 2008's Mudcrutch, featuring a mixture of old and new songs.
The swarm of elderly rockers playing oldies sets, from superstars (The Police, The Eagles) to cult figures (The Pixies, Swervedriver), has caused consternation among those for whom pop and youth culture are synonymous. John Strausbaugh wrote a whole book, Rock 'Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia, railing against the wrinkling of rock. For others the problem is not the advancing years of the artists but the fact that the nostalgia market doesn't allow bands to advance beyond the music of their youth. Musician/critic Momus railed against the 'museumification' of pop, comparing it to the way that classical music hasa repertory of 'venerated masterpieces' that are endlessly reinterpreted. But others have used precisely this analogy to defend this canonisation of rock. When PBS schedules music programmes designed to appeal to its baby-boomer audience as part of its fundraising activities (Blind Faith performing live in Hyde Park in 1969, a tribute concert to Roy Orbison featuring admirers such as Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen and k. d. lang), the presenter Laura Sevigny can enthuse confidently, 'We want to make sure we're able to continue being an archive of American culture ... This is the new classical music ... for our generation. It's rock'n'roll, and we want to make sure on public television it's preserved.' Similarly, in 2007 the New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff defended rock's reunion boom by comparing it to the way jazz had gracefully aged: starting around the mid-seventies, it became a 'culture of incessant re-experience, endless tributes', in which 'actual reunions are barely noticed' while 'a huge percentage of the music refers to great moments of the past'. He argued that this hadn't stopped jazz from continuing to be 'fantastic, even transformative'. He claimed that rock bands often get better at what they do with age, and benefit from the far superior sound systems at their disposal today.
The 'whole album' phenomenon was what specifically made Momus think of the analogy with the classical repertory: a band performing its most famous album in its original sequence, from beginning to end. Nobody knows who first resorted to this fan-pleasing ploy. It might have been Cheap Trick, who promoted the 1998 reissues of their first four albums with a tour organised around four-night stands in particular cities, where they'd perform an album per night. With their most celebrated album, 1979's Live at Budokan, singer Robin Zander even reproduced his stage patter, because the deliberately stilted way he spoke (slow and clear so that the Japanese audience could understand it) had became a feature that fans adored.
What Cheap Trick did as a one-off promotional gimmick became a small industry in the second half of the 2000s, spearheaded by All Tomorrow's Parties with their 'Don't Look Back' franchise. It started as a season of concerts in 2005, with groups like Belle & Sebastian, The Stooges and Mudhoney, to name just a few, performing their most famous albums. These whole-album renditions became a regular fixture of All Tomorrow's Parties' festivals but also branched out to become ATP/'Don't Look Back'branded stages at other promoters' events, like the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago (where Public Enemy performed It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Sebadoh did Bubble & Scrape and Mission of Burma played Vs. ...).
ATP's Barry Hogan describes the concept as a 'rebellion' against the culture of iPod shuffle and a defence of the album as an integral artwork. 'Nowadays it's all about convenience and iTunes. But MP3s sound like shit. "Don't Look Back", it's trying to say, "Remember when you used to buy records, and you'd get the gatefold sleeve and look at it, and you'd put the record on and it sounded great."'
Just about everybody in the world seems to have copied the 'Don't Look Back' template, from Liz Phair with Exile in Guyville to Jay-Z with Reasonable Doubt to Van Morrison, who in November 2008 performed his most famous album, resulting in a new album with the hideous title Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Sparks took the concept to the dizzy limit by performing all twenty-one of their albums in sequence over twenty-one nights in London during May 2008 (the final night being the debut unveiling of their new album). That same month they opened the Sparks Museum at the Bodhi Gallery in Brick Lane, East London, an exhibition of record covers, photographs, videos and other memorabilia from their long career as art-pop geek-freaks.
For the bands, Hogan says, it can literally be like reanimation.'My Bloody Valentine, that was like the movie Awakenings, where the person's life just stops, and then it gets restarted,' he says, adding that 'They are talking about recording and writing new songs.' Reigniting the creative spark is a potential side-benefit of the reunion, but at the end of the day nobody would do this if it didn't make them money. And it can make bands lots and lots of money. For when a band hasn't played for a long time, Hogan explains, it builds up a kind of pent-up consumer demand.
Even bands who've kept active, touring and making records tirelessly, like Sonic Youth, find it hard to resist the opportunities presented by a quick flick through their back pages. During 2007 and early 2008, Sonic Youth performed their 1988 masterpiece Daydream Nation on twenty-four separate occasions, with large-venue gigs in the major American cities and in the UK (where they played London's Roundhouse three nights in succession), concerts and festival appearances in Spain, Germany, France and Italy, and the Daydream Nation Down Under tour of New Zealand and Australia. In an interview with Spin, Thurston Moore seemed aware of the contradictions inherent in the band that wrote 'Kill Your Idols' - and that called itself Sonic Youth - caving in to alternative nostalgia. He admitted, 'I didn't really want to do it at first ... I thought it would be taking up too much time from us doing something new and progressive.' But once Hogan, who had got both Sonic Youth and Thurston Moore separately to curate some ATPs, persuaded them to do Daydream Nation in London, the band's European booking agent started trying to persuade them to repeat it at festivals on the Continent, saying those promoters would pay 'an extra few thousand bucks'. According to Billboard, the 2007 Daydream Nation performances in America grossed substantially more per show than the group's tour of the US the previous year, when they were promoting the new LP Rather Ripped. When a band has been around long enough, there is always goingto be more demand from the fan base for a career-peak classic than for the latest musical effort.
Paul Smith, a veteran of the left-field music industry and the man who originally put out Daydream Nation in the UK via his label Blast First, currently specialises in helping underground legends like Suicide and Throbbing Gristle return to action without losing integrity and dignity. He thinks there is a silly stigma about the rock reunion that doesn't apply to other art forms. 'Painters, poets, classical composers - age isn't a factor there. But in rock and pop, there's this idea you are supposed to die of an overdose or a car crash. At least with blues musicians they get old and people respect them even more.'
For Smith, reunions are valid both in terms of doing justice to a band's importance in the history of music, and as a reward for an artist who most likely laboured hard for minimal financial payback. He feels that reformations can be done well or done badly. As an example of the latter, he cites the eternal returns of The Buzzcocks. 'They've run the brand into the ground,' Smith says, through endless touring. 'Playing to balding punks at festivals in Margate, it's throwing out of the window all the things that made them great art, reducing it to the level of Gerry and the Pacemakers trudging on the cabaret circuit. But the guys in Buzzcocks are happy that they still don't have day jobs, that they can make a living as working musicians.'
Instead, Smith prefers to instigate reunions with a finite end in sight. As he says, for 'a definite length of time, and a fairly specific set of goals: put them back onto a more generalised rock map and make a bit of money.' The nostalgia aspect is minimised, because 'it's presented to a predominantly younger audience'. There are psychological benefits too, he says, for the group. 'It's coming to terms with what your life has amounted to, and the fact that it was an achievement, wanting to own that, and claim whatever you deserve out of it.' Smith says he told Wire guitarist BruceGilbert, 'Look, it's going to say Wire on your gravestone anyway, so you might as well do the tour.'
Throbbing Gristle's re-formation was the byproduct of the December 2002 exhibition at London's Cabinet Gallery based around the 24 Hours of TG box set of the group's live cassette releases from the late seventies and early eighties. 'It was the first time all four of them were in one room in twenty years,' Smith recalls. At dinner with the band (and Daniel Miller of Mute Records, who maintain TG's back catalogue), Smith seized the opportunity and popped the question: 'So ... are you going to play again?' Genesis P-Orridge initially demurred, insisting, 'I'm not that person any more.' Smith argued that true TG fans understood that they wouldn't get a time-travel trip to 1979, a reproduction of the classic TG sound; they respected the fact that they were artists in a constant state of evolution. 'I told them, "As far as I'm concerned the four of you can stand on stage and play finger cymbals if you want, it will still be TG."' His patter was persuasive and the group re-formed in 2004, initially intending to stage their own All Tomorrow's Parties-style weekend festival at a British seaside holiday camp. That didn't pan out, but (like Wire and Suicide) they started recording new albums and then played a series of shows, including one inside the massive Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern art museum, and followed it up with a 2009 tour of the US. Although all four members are involved in other bands, Throbbing Gristle is an ongoing entity, with a whole-album cover of Nico's Desertshore in the pipeline.
Coming originally out of the performance-art world, TG always placed an emphasis on self-documentation (resulting in an endless stream of live tapes and records, videos of performances, etc.). So it's appropriate that the Tate museum has been in conversation with the group and with Genesis P-Orridge about acquiring their archive. 'There's a whole new wave of curators in the art world,' Smith says. 'They're in their mid-twenties andslightly older than that, and they are starting to look at punk and mid-eighties stuff and say, "This is important."'
Generally speaking, I avoid reunions, especially when I saw the band in their original prime. My Bloody Valentine's comeback tour, on which they played a set drawn entirely from their Isn't Anything/Loveless heyday, seemed to be a recipe for disappointment. This music was draped with very personal memories associated with the hormonal electricity of falling in love, the kind of reveries that can still flush memory's cheek. Basically, I didn't want me and the missus to be in a room full of other middle-aged couples relighting those sparks.
The exceptions to my 'no reunions' policy are a few bands that I loved as a youth but never managed to see live. Like Gang of Four. At New York's Irving Plaza in May 2005 they were so good I made the mistake of going again a few months later. This second gig was at the Hard Rock Cafe, just off Times Square. This time, the vibe was just wrong: post-punk's most rocking anti-rockists playing amid framed pictures of Janis and Jimi, autographed guitars and sundry rock memorabilia. The band seemed to know it but attempted to push through the oppressively reverential yet tacky-as-hell surroundings by being even more stern than usual. No opening pleasantries or 'Hello, New York': guitarist Andy Gill pursed his lips and pout-scowled like the actor Alan Rickman, singer Jon King looked both haughty and harried like a teacher with an out-of-control classroom, and drummer Hugo Burnham just stared ahead with a grim, dead-eyed look of disdain. Despite the incongruity, Gang of Four would go on to play further gigs that autumn at House of Blues venues (the sister chain to the Hard Rock Cafe) on a tour promoting their comeback album Return the Gift.
The record itself was one of the most conceptually intriguing band resurrections ever: a kind of tribute album to themselves,auto-karaoke. Plenty of groups had done whole albums covering a particular artist's songs, or even covered an entire album. Gang of Four made a brand-new album of re-recorded versions of songs from their first three albums. Named after a tune on Entertainment! they didn't actually remake, the title Return the Gift suggested that the whole project was an oblique commentary on retro culture's 'eternal returns'. The album placed in plain, unavoidable sight the redundancy and reconsumption involved in rock's nostalgia market. When fans buy new albums by re-formed favourites of their youth, at heart they're not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members' separate musical journeys have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create 'new' songs in their vintage style. Return seemed to be saying: 'You want a Gang of Four resurrection? Here you are, then, exactly what you secretly crave: the old songs, again.'
But there was also a mundanely pragmatic side to this consistent with the group's demystification of capitalism in their lyrics. 'Covering' their own songs was Gang of Four's canny way of honouring the legacy while profiting from it. A straightforward repackaging of the old recordings - a standard compilation or box set - would only have served to enrich EMI, their original record company in the UK. 'We have never made any money at all from record sales with EMI and still have unrecouped advances,' Jon King told me. 'We didn't want them to benefit as they did nothing to support us.' Re-recording the songs - something which contracts typically allow artists to do after twenty years - put Gang of Four in a strong bargaining position in terms of negotiating a new deal with superior royalty rates (in this case, a one-off licensing deal, rather than an outright sale of the material). 'It will mean that whatever we make will go to us.'
Listening to Return the Gift was a curious experience for this ultra-fan. I couldn't help wondering what it must have felt like forthe band members, re-recording songs they'd laid down definitively long ago. On the new version of 'Love Like Anthrax' - a song which in its original form juxtaposed an agonised lyric of heartbreak sung by King with a dourly intoned text from Andy Gill critiquing the institution of the love song in pop - Gill added some different lines that, in Brechtian style, addressed Gang of Four's re-formation. He talks in the song about Return the Gift as 'an exercise in archaeology', an attempt to find out where their heads were at in those heady post-punk days. When I asked Jon King and bassist Dave Allen about the project, they both referred to the original recordings as 'Dead Sea Scrolls' they could refer to when memory failed.
Another curious, even eerie thing about listening to Return the Gift for me was that on some level the new versions of the songs were stronger than the originals (better recorded, with a big modern drum sound, and generally benefiting from Gill's experience as a record producer in the years after the group disbanded), but they didn't have the specific sonic aura of the original recorded versions I'd known for years. This was especially apparent with the songs from Entertainment!, widely criticised by reviewers on its release in 1979 for having a dry, clinical sound that wasn't as exciting as the group live. But it was precisely that airless Entertainment! sound that I and other fans were attached to. As a result, the new versions of the songs seemed to exist neither in 1979 nor 2005 but in a peculiar limbo of non-time.
The only other legendary band I've seen in re-formation mode is one I was never really a fan of, The New York Dolls. Partly what made me curious enough to go was that the show was taking place at 315 Bowery - the very space that had once been CBGB. Now it was a clothes boutique for designer John Varvatos, a big fan of punk rock who had tried to retain something of the scuzzy, rock'n'roll ambience. So on 5 May 2009 I walked the six blocks from my apartment to watch the Dolls perform tracks from theirnew album 'Cause I Sez So, very much an attempt to recapture their lost glory (they'd even hooked up with producer Todd Rundgren, who'd recorded their debut album back in 1973). The full time-travel experience was going to be hard to pull off, given that so many members of the original group had passed away, with David Johansen and Syl Sylvain the sole survivors.
Most of the audience looked like they'd once been regulars at CBGB in its seventies heyday: greying rebels, balding famous rock photographers, faces that seemed vaguely familiar from rock documentaries, and quite a lot of remarkably well-preserved women in their fifties enjoying the opportunity to dress up as the rock chicks they'd been a couple of decades ago. On the wall, there were framed posters of The Ramones and The Plasmatics. When a clutch of pretty young things sauntered in, there was a discernible ripple of surprise and tension: these stylish twenty-somethings looked as out of place as old-age pensioners at a rave.
After a long wait The New York Dolls 2.0 sidled onstage: Johansen, looking dapper as ever in a navy velvet jacket, ruffly white shirt and leopard-skin scarf, and Sylvain, resembling some kind of fruity hybrid of Pierrot and goblin. The new recruits to the band were a generation younger than the Dolls but still pretty old, and with that 'rock'n'roll' look spawned somewhere between the Sunset Strip and Soho, all scarves and wide-brimmed hats and skin-tight pants. It was quickly obvious we weren't going to be magically transported to the Mercer Theater circa 1972, though: not only were the band not dressed in women's clothing and high heels and wigs, but they didn't play a single classic Dolls tune. Instead they doggedly stuck to the new album, the sound not of the sloppy, rambunctious Dolls of punk mythology but a tight, lean hard-rock band.
Listening to them in 2009 it struck me how small the gap appeared in retrospect between the Dolls and other blues-derived rock of the seventies, groups like The Faces and Grand Funk Railroad and ZZTop, who filled arenas and sold millions. The gap was real, of course, based on the Dolls' relative deficiency as players, plus their attitude-blend of snarling snottiness and over-the-top camp. In that small but significant difference, a space opened up for the emergence of punk rock. Decades after the fact, that difference, so significant once, had shrivelled to the point of seeming unrecoverable. Where it lingered still was in Johansen's arch wisecracks: 'I would venture to say we are as good as The Seeds,' he teased, or 'Someday this'll all be just a memory.' But the humour turned sour as the band gradually realised that the audience didn't dig the new material and only wanted to hear the old tunes. Johansen started to get waspish at the muted response: 'You're not dead, are you?' Sylvain actually looked like he was trying not to cry. But after exiting the stage the Dolls came back on for an encore anyway - Johansen bitterly muttering, 'Don't know why we're out here again, you're not even cheering' - and did a note-perfect rendition of 'Trash'. Unfortunately it wasn't the 'Trash' that appeared on the debut album, but the new album's comically misguided reggae version of it. It was one of the saddest spectacles I've ever witnessed.
Yet the Dolls' refusal to pander to their ageing home crowd, their stubborn insistence on playing only their brand-new songs, was probably an expression of pride. They were defying the fate that befalls nearly all bands once their prime has passed, something ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwell described well when he declared ,'We're all tribute bands now. If you play the old catalogue you're a tribute band. I would include myself in that ... I can't imagine what it's like being a young person trying to get a start in the music business - it must be a nightmare. Because none of the old fuckers like myself are giving up.' Cornwell is actually in competition with another 'tribute band' playing old Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes tunes: his estranged former bandmates, still gigging under the name The Stranglers, but with a new frontman.
Tribute bands originally inspired one of the strangest trends in the whole 'pop will repeat itself' culture: the art-world fad for re-enactments. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, the duo who pioneered this largely British phenomenon, were already doing work influenced by their passion for music when in the late nineties they saw a poster advertising a Smiths tribute act called The Still Ills. At this point the tribute-band craze largely consisted of big theatre tours by outfits like ABBA copyists Bjorn Again or The Bootleg Beatles. But something about the idea of a tribute to The Smiths, a band they both loved, intrigued Forsyth and Pollard and they went to see The Still Ills play at a venue in New Cross, South London. 'We saw this really peculiar collapsing of the distance between performer and audience,' recalls Pollard. 'When you compared the guy onstage fronting the band and the guys in the front row, some of the audience looked more like Morrissey than he did. They knew the words.'
Treating The Still Ills 'as a ready-made, in the Marcel Duchamp sense', they staged an event involving the band, with mixed results; they were then invited to restage it at the ICA by curator Vivienne Gaskin, who would soon become the principal art-world impresario behind Britain's re-enactment boom. This second event involving The Still Ills was much more developed and conceptually resonant. It was timed for the ten-year anniversary of The Smiths splitting up in 1987. Forsyth and Pollard persuaded The Still Ills to split up as well. 'They were quite jaded and thinking of jacking it in anyway, becoming a Pulp tribute act as there was more money in that. We also knew from a publicity point of view we would get the coverage we needed, and people would come to it. That sense of something happening on that haunted day.'
Forsyth and Pollard developed a bunch of 'visual devices' to intensify the time-travel experience. They installed a phalanxof televisions along the hallway to the ICA performance area, all playing alternative-music videos from the year leading up to The Smiths' break-up, and 'absolutely nothing from after they split. So there was this sense of being in this time warp.' Forsyth and Pollard took The Still Ills' frontman out to a derelict greyhound track in his home town of Litchfield and took hundreds of Morrissey-esque photographs to be slide-projected onto the walls of the venue. 'And we laid tons of flowers out on the front of the stage, hoping the audience would grab them and wave them like at the early Smiths gigs.' They describe the atmosphere as feverish, a bizarrely intense catharsis of mourning for The Smiths. 'It was absolutely mental - six hundred people, so much sweat that the camera we brought to film it on broke through condensation. The audience took it to a different level altogether: they ripped the singer's shirt off when he leaned in to the audience, there was a stage invasion with about forty people on stage.' Afterwards Vivienne Gaskin saw a girl on the ICA steps, doubled up and sobbing her heart out. 'I think it was the sense of loss,' Pollard says. Yet The Smiths had split a decade ago.
Sticking to the theme of orgiastic grief, Forsyth and Pollard's next major work, 1998's A Rock 'N' Roll Suicide, restaged the 'farewell' Ziggy Stardust concerts of July 1973 - in which David Bowie killed off his alter ego - exactly twenty-five years to the day after they occurred. The multiple levels of fakeness - getting an actor to pretend to be the cracked actor Bowie performing his own meta-rockstar persona Ziggy - were irresistible. This time Forsyth and Pollard assembled their own tribute band. Unlike the Still Ills show, this was an actual recreation of a historical event, so they could draw on documentary footage of the concert: principally D. A. Pennebaker's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but also Super-8 films made by fans.
'Pennebaker's film makes the gig look red,' says Forsyth. 'It turned out to be something to do with the 16-mm film that heused. But we decided to have the lighting make the gig look red, because even people who had gone to the original gig, through watching the movie over and over, it had distorted their memory.' Another distortion from the Ziggy movie was that flashes from the photographers taking pictures of the show looked much bigger on celluloid than they would have done to people actually at the concert. 'We set up a strobe to create the same effect.' As with the Still Ills/Smiths event at the ICA, the audience 'let themselves be totally swept away', says Pollard. 'They completely played what they perceived to be their part. They were there with their seventies Bowie scarves and were right there on every cue, clapping, shouting, gasping.'
Completing a sort of trilogy of rock re-enactments, 2003's File Under Sacred Music took as its source a show played by The Cramps in 1978 at the Napa State Mental Institute, to an audience of genuinely crazy people rocking out dementedly to the group's 'psychobilly' sound. Guitarist Poison Ivy recalled the gig as 'like playing for children. People had no sense of space boundaries ... people dry humping on the ground ... There was very little supervision from the staff. It was insane.' How the free concert came about is lost to the mists of time, but the performance was captured on film and circulated for years as a fan bootleg video. 'It was this mythologised, underground thing,' says Pollard. 'Only twenty minutes long, but really powerful.'
File Under Sacred Music differed from A Rock 'N' Roll Suicide in a fundamental way: the goal was not to re-enact the performance but to recreate the video itself. The restaged gig, which took place at the ICA, was just a means to an end; the actual art object would be the simulacrum of the specific bootleg copy that had come into Pollard and Forsyth's hands, complete with its unique glitches and copy-of-a-copy defects. This meant that File Under Sacred Music could reach a much bigger audience, touring as a film to museums and galleries around the world, in comparison with ARock 'N' Roll Suicide, which took a huge amount of preparation but resulted in only two unrepeatable performances. Recreating the Cramps gig itself was a huge undertaking, involving the recruitment of genuinely mentally ill people to play the role of the Napa psychiatric hospital's audience. Having filmed the event (which developed 'its own weird, chaotic energy - one guy threw up, another threw beer on someone's face who was asleep', says Pollard), the next set of challenges involved converting their footage into an exact replica of the bootleg they owned. 'That had been transferred from NTSC to PAL somewhere along its history, and then it had been re-filmed off a television. The bootlegger had played their copy on a VHS machine and they pointed a camera at the TV screen - you can see the edge of the television, and the lines of the screen.' Pollard and Forsyth painstakingly retraced all the steps taken by the original bootlegger and then explored various digital methods to get the tape glitches, before settling on old-fashioned analogue techniques like crumpling the tapes up or getting water on them and drying them out.
The project's title was taken from the spine of The Cramps' debut LP, Songs the Lord Taught Us. Its combination of archival anal retentiveness ('file under') and spiritual ecstasy ('sacred music') captures the contradiction of The Cramps themselves: a group who believed in rock'n'roll's primal frenzy, but who were too knowledgeable and too knowing, as record-collector scholars of rockabilly, to get 'real gone' for real. At the Napa gig, their stylised version of Dionysian madness confronts the real thing; psychobilly meets psychosis. Like A Rock 'N' Roll Suicide, File Under Sacred Music is a simulation of a simulation, a replica of a replica.
For their next project, Pollard and Forsyth toyed with the idea of other rock re-enactments (including a New York Dolls piece) but decided that the idea was played out. So the duo moved from re-enactments to reworkings: adaptations or reinterpretations of pioneering works of video performance art from the seventies byfigures like Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. Nauman's Art Make Up became Kiss My Nauman, performed by a member of the world's longest-running Kiss tribute band, who is filmed applying his cosmetics.
The shift to reworkings was also a response to the duo's sense that re-enactments had become a bit too trendy in the art world. Jeremy Deller's famous 2001 recreation of the Battle of Orgreave, the critical clash between picketing miners and riot police at a South Yorkshire coking plant in June 1984, had received a lot of attention and contributed heavily to Deller winning the 2004 Turner Prize. Another key figure in the emerging field, Rod Dickinson, founded a collective called The Jonestown Re-enactment. At the ICA in May 2000, they staged the 'reconstruction' of an anti-capitalist sermon delivered by cult leader Jim Jones to his People's Temple flock. Dickinson would go on to re-enact Dr Stanley Milgram's 1961 social-psychology experiment 'Obedience to Authority' and recreate the audio portion of the Waco siege (the FBI's use of monstrously amplified music and 'irritating sounds' as a weapon). Soon, artists from outside the UK started getting in on the re-enactment action, like Slater Bradley with his work based around Kurt Cobain, or Marina Abramovi's Seven Easy Pieces, which re-performed seminal performance art from the sixties and seventies (including works by Nauman and Acconci). There were exhibitions and seminars with titles like A Little Bit of History Repeated and Once More ... with Feeling. There was even a novel, Tom McCarthy's Remainder, published in 2005 to great acclaim. In it, an accident victim whose memory has been impaired uses his unexpectedly huge compensation payment to restage ultra-vivid but opaque scenes from his own life: for instance, buying a building and altering its decor, hiring re-enactors to play the occupants, and recreating every last sense impression, from the smell of liver cooked by a downstairs neighbour to the faltering sound of a practising pianist on another floor.
At the height of the buzz about re-enactment, the ICA's Vivienne Gaskin sent out a call for proposals. One of the pieces she commissioned was British artist Jo Mitchell's recreation of Concerto for Voice & Machinery, a legendary January 1984 performance at the ICA by members of the infamous German metal-bashing outfit Einstürzende Neubauten which had escalated into an audience riot. The idea of restaging the event, complete with the disorder, in the very same auditorium at the ICA had a conceptual neatness that was irresistible.
Concerto for Voice & Machinery II was a meticulous attempt to recreate the original event, which primarily involved members of Einstürzende Neubauten playing their usual unconventional musical instruments (power drill, angle grinder, cement mixer, and so forth), with contributions from various industrial-music fellow travellers such as Genesis P-Orridge. Accounts vary widely, but the performance appears to have gotten out of hand, with someone - a member of the ensemble or an audience member - attempting to drill through the auditorium floor. The audience then got the impression, possibly mistaken, that the ICA officials were attempting to shut the show down, resulting in altercations, shouting and some low-level destruction.
The notion of a planned riot obviously courts absurdity; as does the attempt to meticulously replicate chaotic events that have been exaggerated and distorted in their telling over the years. When Mitchell wrote her proposal, she was unaware of the dearth of documentation. 'I really did think I would find film footage of it. I thought the ICA would have recorded it.' But the ICA archives had nothing; after all, this was not an era in which everything was automatically filmed or sound-recorded (today, the most minor gig is likely to be saved for posterity by a band member or put onto YouTube as unofficial cellphone footage before the gig is even finished). All Mitchell had to draw on were live reviews in the three music papers that covered the event, pictures taken bythose papers' photographers and an assortment of wildly contradictory accounts from eye witnesses.
During the year-long process of researching and preparing for the event, Mitchell did eventually get hold of a bootleg audio recording of the 1984 event, and Neubauten member Mark Chung provided her with the score for the Concerto. 'It has three movements, basically: an intro, and then road drills come in and chords and voices, and it climaxes with this big finale called "Down to the Queen".' The idea was that as a climax the group would drill through the floor in the vague direction of the tunnels rumoured to exist deep underneath the ICA which allegedly connected Buckingham Palace to underground bunkers built as shelters for the royal family and members of the government in the event of a nuclear attack.
Through the photographers, who supplied her with contact-sheet images that had never been printed, Mitchell was able to get a sense of who had been the ringleaders and troublemakers in the audience, and to cast and costume actors appropriately (one particularly proactive rioter sported a Mohican, for instance). The re-enactment involved actors playing the musicians, crowd members and ICA security people and officials; this meant that the performance on 20 February 2007 had a real audience mingled with the actor audience, and two sets of ICA employees, one fake and the other real. These real-deal ICA officials had a somewhat sanitising effect on the re-enactment, stepping in to prevent over-enthused members of the actual audience from joining in with the staged destruction. There were also tighter health-and-safety regulations: 'There couldn't be as much dust or smoke as there was in 1984, and ICA people even handed out earplugs to the audience. There was a limit on the amount of decibels we were allowed to go to and restrictions on the sparks generated by the angle grinder.'
Another aspect oddly dissonant to the original spirit of theevent was the fact that Mitchell secured the sponsorship of the equipment-rental company HSS Tool Hire. Re-enactments are very expensive, she explains, what with all the rehearsals and cast members. 'In the photographs I could see all the cement mixers, and they were from HSS, one of the biggest tool-hire companies. I needed the machinery for the three weeks of rehearsals, and so they covered that, which would have otherwise cost £10,000.'
Blixa Bargeld, Neubaten's chief conceptualist and frontman, had given Mitchell his blessing and found the whole idea of recreating the Concerto to be 'charming'. Although he'd participated in the later stages of mayhem in the original performance, he decided not to attend as a spectator for fear of being a distraction (and perhaps compromising the temporal integrity of the reenactment). But while today's mellow, urbane Bargeld was tickled pink, I can't help suspecting that the young, amphetamine-wired Blixa would have seen red. For Einstürzende Neubauten were even more fundamentally opposed to the idea of heritage culture than punk. Steeped in Artaud, Nietzsche and Bataille, their whole artistic project was fuelled by an apocalyptic lust for collapse (their name translates as 'collapsing new buildings'), a hunger to hasten the end of history. Concerto for Voice & Machinery was also Neubauten's small-scale version of The Sex Pistols' boat trip on the Thames - the moment when rock collides with authority. But what does it mean to make that clash happen 'again', this time with the permission of the authority in question?
I've never really seen the point of historical re-enactments: all that meticulous attention to getting the uniforms right, the cannon smoke. It seems obvious that the simulation of 'being there' fails on every level: you know there's no real danger of death; you know what the outcome is going to be. It's an exercise in pageantry. Nothing is really in jeopardy. In history-as-lived, the participants at Gettysburg didn't know that the Confederates were not going to win. Likewise, the audience who turned up for theoriginal Concerto for Voice & Machinery didn't know that the event would descend into chaos.
Doubtless these contradictions are integral to the restaging by Mitchell. 'In a way, the impossibility of recreating the event was part of it,' she says. Similar sentiments have been voiced by other prominent re-enactment artists: Rod Dickinson, for instance, has described his work as 'constructing a series of paradoxes ... highlighting the contradictions that arise through trying to do something like that, the impossibility of it'. Forsyth and Pollard often talk in interviews about how 'failure is hugely important to us ... Copying anything, the copy never reproduces the original completely. And this shortfall is where the Real emerges ... Good art always, at some level, fails.'
Chatting with Mitchell and with Forsyth and Pollard, I noticed how animated they became when they talked about the challenges of the projects, the strenuous research, the obsessive attention to getting the period details as precise as possible. For Rock 'N' Roll Suicide, Iain and Jane located one of Bowie's original costume designers. Mitchell enthused about getting 'really sucked into just utter immersion ... it's probably the geekiest I have ever felt. I had hundreds of still images, most of them rephotographed from contact sheets supplied by the three original photographers and printed up as pictures, and I'd strewn them across the floor, trying to put them into some sort of narrative.'
Mitchell and Forsyth and Pollard were forthcoming and engaged about all these 'how' aspects of their re-enactment projects. But somehow the 'why' kept eluding us in our conversations. The same thing happened when I checked out art criticism on this subject, which left me with little more than a vague impression that the work was timely and resonant.
What is it about the present that makes this kind of art not just conceivable and desirable but even inevitable? As this chapter indicates, re-enactment is indebted to and at some level is aresponse to the rise of heritage: museums, spectacles of 'living history' such as working villages or restaged battles, preservation as a cultural ideal. Re-enactment art is also enmeshed in a wider culture of the copy, encompassing everything from karaoke, TV shows like Stars in Their Eyes, which involve ordinary people impersonating famous performers, the huge (but off the media radar) live-music economy of tribute bands, the online subcultures of fan fiction and YouTube parody, to monstrously successful music video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. At a more highbrow level, there have been conceptual remakes such as the artist Pierre Huyghe's Fenêtre sur cour (a recreation of Hitchcock's Rear Window, reset in a Parisian housing estate) and Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot recreation of Psycho. Hollywood's endless stream of remakes contribute heavily to the culture of replication and redundancy. In a rock-specific way, so do movies like School of Rock and The Rocker: comically presenting rock'n'roll as a highly formularised style of rebellion, they simultaneously satirise and perpetuate the syndrome. In the former, Jack Black's teacher trains the children in all the orthodox, time-honoured gestures that signify freedom, excess and 'sticking it to the Man'. It's a copy of a copy of a copy, but his regimented notion of true rock'n'roll, as implemented through his pupils, is not so different from what can be seen on stages all across the developed world. Johan Kugelberg uses the analogy of the historical battle re-enactment to describe modern-day punk bands who effectively recreate 'thirty-year-old gigs' that originally took place at legendary dives like CBGB, the Masque in LA, the Mabuhay in San Francisco and London's 100 Club (not forgetting the numerous actual surviving punk bands from that era still arthritically treading the boards).
Although they've emerged out of the art world rather than from rock culture itself, rock re-enactments resonate with a buried hunger within the music scene for a spasm like punk or ravethat would turn the world upside down. On the face of it, re-enactments seem just to feed into a backwards-looking culture that's taking us ever further from the conditions in which such total transformations and singular disruptions were possible. But perhaps the artists are onto something when they talk about failure as the goal: a goad to the audience, simultaneously stirring up and frustrating the longing for the Event. The latter is the philosopher Alain Badiou's term for a dramatic historical break, a rupture that is also an irruption of newness. It can take political form (various revolutions, May 1968) or be a scientific or cultural breakthrough (Schoenberg's twelve-tone scale), but the Event divides up time into Before and After, opening towards a future that promises to be absolutely different from the past.
Re-enactment art is at once an extension of and an inversion of performance art, which is event-based by definition. Performance is all about the here and now. Its components include the bodily presence of the artists, a physical location and its duration: it is an experience that you have to sit through. Performance art's power is bound up with its ephemerality: it can't be reproduced, collected or enter the art market, and any incidental documentation it leaves behind is no substitute for having seen it in the flesh. Re-enactment is like a spectral form of performance art: what the viewer witnesses never quite achieves full presence or present-ness.
The defining quality of performance art is that it happens in real time, but with re-enactments time is out of joint. As Tom McCarthy puts it, 'Re-enactment brings about a kind of split within the act itself ... on the one hand it's something you do, and on the other it's not something you're actually "doing": it's a citation, a marker for another event that this one isn't.' No matter how much research and preparation goes into a re-enactment, it is doomed to be an absurd ghost, a travesty of the original. Yet the re-enactment may still have the power to remind the audience that Events are possible, because they've happened before.
Copyright © 2011 by Simon Reynolds
Posted April 29, 2013
Posted December 31, 2011
No text was provided for this review.
Posted October 9, 2014
No text was provided for this review.