Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past
By Simon Reynolds
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2011 Simon Reynolds
All rights reserved.
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 big new 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 Oentertainment 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 the central 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 plaque informs 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 the only 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 Public Library trumpets Jones's generosity as a 'direct artistic challenge to the likes of the corporate O 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-abrac 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 the office 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 noted your 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 in which 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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Retromania by Simon Reynolds. Copyright © 2011 Simon Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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