Is Pop Culture Consuming Itself? Simon Reynolds Discusses Retromania
, June 8th, 2011 05:37
The great Simon Reynolds talks to Colin McKean about his new tome Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past, and explains why conditions for musicians and consumers today are unprecedented - even if the art itself isn't
Simon Reynolds has thought longer and harder than most about pop. For more than 25 years he has surveyed its revolutions and deviations, blind alleys and recessions. Through countless interviews, articles, reviews and blog posts he has explored what pop culture means and why it means it. With Energy Flash and Rip It Up And Start Again he authored two of the definitive accounts of acid house and post-punk – documenting popular music's evolution at its most fertile.
He recently completed his latest tome, Retromania, which investigates pop culture's growing obsession with its own immediate past. In it, he wonders if the recent glut of band reformations and reunion tours, reissues, remakes and mash-ups are leading towards 'a sort of cultural-ecological catastrophe, where the archival resources of rock history have been exhausted'.
"What happens," he asks, "when we run out of past?"
Here The Quietus questions him about some of the themes his book describes - while considering what you do if your parents have really cool taste, and whether pop music may already have reached its zenith.
One of the things you talk about quite early in the book is how you observe retromania as being a kind of middle class tendency – you talk about how you see black and white working class youth on either side of the Atlantic eschewing retromania. I wondered if you'd thought about why that might be.
Simon Reynolds: I don't know if this thing still exists, but there was the 'Sloane Ranger' look of posh people - very posh people - and the whole look was that you dressed like you were about to go hunting. The whole thing was a reference to being landed and having a place in the country.
The posher you are the more you have invested in a narrative of things being much better in the old days when people knew their place.
I think the whole antiquing thing, this vintage thing, has something to do with this weird middle class thing of wanting to distance yourself from consumerism while still consuming – because it's enjoyable and you like to have things – and I came across this really cool quote by this artist called Margaret Kilgallen. She uses a lot of commercial imagery and old commercials and signage and stuff from another era… things she got from advertisements in old magazines.
She said something like: "This stuff becomes interesting to me when it's no longer selling anything to me."
And I thought that was an interesting thing to say because you can see the same thing with the hypnagogic pop people. They're interested in Hall & Oates and Don Henley and all these things from the past, which are no longer mainstream. They're not interested in Adele, which is probably the exact equivalent of those things today. They're interested in yesteryear's mainstream commercial stuff because it's no longer the same to them.
So the distance created by time means material is stripped of the associations that might have put people off it…
SR: Yeah. And also in a different sort of age group, there's a kind of aesthetic they have in their houses of things from old diners, old bottles that were actually mass-produced, like Coke bottles or whatever. No one is collecting energy-drink bottles or current commercial crap, but as time goes by it gets a lustre of charm to it and it becomes something you can actually decorate your house with. In the same way that things like old sewage works, which may have been considered blots on the landscape, develop a sort of charm.
It's something to do with the passage of time, and the gradual divorce from current commercialism makes these things seem recuperable in some way. I don't know quite why that is, although it becomes a field in which you can be sort of discriminating – you can develop an aesthetic out of these artefacts and I think old music is the same sort of phenomenon.
It's very noticeable that some people have no interest in heritage culture or vintage. I don't think in hip hop culture there's anything like vintage. I was surprised there was a Snoop video a year or two ago that was actually retro. He was all styled in 70s clothes and I thought 'That's funny, that's interesting', because I didn't think it was part of black pop music's repertoire really – retroism.
But people like The Cool Kids, and they seem more middle class, seem to reference back to hip hop's golden age.
Thinking about the hip hop thing, I was listening to 36 Chambers recently and there's a skit that references 'the good old days' (intro to 'Can It Be All So Simple') – the Wu are talking about everything being lovely in '87 and that album came out in '93, I think. I thought that was interesting in the context of your book, although it seems like it may be a different thing.
SR: I suppose there's a kind of 'back in the day' thing going on. I think Coolio did one, and Lady Sovereign did one – pushing your mates down a hill in a Safeway trolley. So there's that sort of nostalgia, although it seems slightly different to collecting old mass-produced things that have become charming. Who knows, maybe vintage is spreading to these demographics, but it does seem endemic through all age groups of the middle classes.
You write a fair bit about collecting records, books and memorabilia – the kind of ephemera with which, as a collector, you make very personal associations. You also write about how such material is now being presented as artefacts in museums, like the British Music Experience at London's O2, which the book starts by describing a visit to. I wondered if you'd had a kind of epiphany when you decided that some of this activity was going to inform the writing of the book, or whether it's something you've thought about for a long time.
SR: It's been a preoccupation that's cropped up from about the time I started writing. I actually found a piece I wrote in a fanzine in 1985 where I'm complaining about the glut of retrospection and reissues, and there was a lot going on in the 80s. That's when labels like Ace and Charly were starting to reissue things in a big way. It was enough to be noticeable anyway – you were getting all these long-lost treasures coming out.
I think it started to come out of the post-punk book, because I started thinking 'When did modernism and futurism go into obeyance a bit?' And I started thinking about the early days of indie and how it was looking back to the 60s an awful lot – in the 80s – and how, although now you can see it was the end of post-punk, at the time it seemed totally fresh because I'd never heard The Byrds or Love or any of those sorts of bands.
So there was an element of discovery involved and it seemed so, sort of, fresh. People were against what the 80s and the mainstream represented so it seemed rebellious in a way – in some way renegade or dissident. So I was thinking about that a lot as I was writing Rip It Up… and I became increasingly aware that actually, retro goes back further because there was the thing with the rock & roll revival in the 70s.
I was realising it was a lot more complicated and then there was just a flurry of things that happened – I think it was 2006/2007 I had a thing on my blog - a brief series called 'A Past Gone Mad', which was the title of a song by The Fall, and there were things I was coming across that were just really odd. I didn't do that many of these things – I think it was about that time the record Love – The Beatles remixed by George Martin – came out, and then Cirque du Soleil did a whole thing around The Beatles and I thought it was just such a weird idea.
I thought it was going to be the start of a whole phenomenon, but actually it wasn't. There wasn't a whole spate of things like that, which seemed a bit annoying, but I suppose it was indicative of a kind of blockage – you can't go any further so you go back to the past and redo it in some way. Maybe it'll catch on later, I wouldn't be surprised – a bit like the thing Springsteen did with Darkness On The Edge Of Town – one album, six discs.
One thing that particularly caught my attention was the re-enactment of the Einstürzende Neubauten thing [when British artist Jo Mitchell recreated the band's Concerto for Voice & Machinery, a 1984 performance that descended into a riot, at London's ICA in 2007]. It just seemed so strange. I didn't go to that, but I remember reading about it at the time. It was like my own lived history becoming a re-enactment. Even though I wasn't there it was something that I'd known had happened. There was a sense of this eeriness of retro that I wanted to get to grips with. It was all very perplexing.
There's this thing I try and do mentally which Mark Fisher has talked about. He calls it the 'past shock' – taking music back through time and how people from the past would not be future-shocked, but shocked by how familiar it was. I can't help but think people would be really surprised by how much of this recreative stuff is going on.
I think if you went back in time and told people in 1976 that old episodes of Top Of The Pops would be being aired on TV in 2011 they'd be really perturbed, or just puzzled. You just kind of assumed in 1976 that pop music would be so freaky and weird and interesting that no-one would be bothered watching old episodes of Top Of The Pops which, even at the best of times, were going to be half ropey.
I read a blog post you wrote recently about hearing 'Mentasm' or 'Dominator' for the first time, and thinking how little it sounded like anything else. Being in my mid-twenties I sometimes wonder if I've ever heard anything that sounds like such a break with the past. It seems almost like the amount of material everyone now has access to makes it very difficult for anyone to create anything that sounds new to anybody, or sounds like a real break from what's been done before.
SR: There are so many resources available to people… because there's so much available of the past, and other countries' pasts as well, it's very hard to get that pure hit of innovativeness, even from very clever groups.
I talk about Gonjasufi in the book – there's lots of interesting things there, in that the mix is drawn from the past as well as from contemporary things. They've listened to grime and dubstep but they've also listened to a huge array of music from history and from across the globe, but you don't get that pure, hard hit of futurism hardly ever.
I think there's tons of good music. There's just not a lot that feels mind-blowingly new. I never have a problem at the end of the year coming up with a list of records I like. It's just this feeling that there should be something that's really foreign or unprecedented-seeming. And that did used to happen.
In the book you talk about people like Daniel Lopatin, Nico Muhly and Flying Lotus, who really plunder the material available to them. You talk about Flylo in particular, I guess because of the sheer extent of the way he does it. While I agree completely that you can pick his music apart and recognise many of the constituent elements, I'd argue that what he's doing would have been very difficult to do more than five or ten years ago – simply being exposed to that amount of material would hardly have been possible. I wondered if you thought perhaps some of what they're doing might be part of a transitional phase, and that it's actually a step towards something new?
SR: Like the axis of innovation is changing? The macro-structure of how music is made?
The hallmark of digital technology is that it facilitates all these things that are incredibly hard to do. There have been people trying to do this omni-, this post-everything music before. In the 90s some people were trying to make records that were kind of drawing on everything, across history even. But it was much harder I think. The further back you go the harder it is, or if you even can do this omni-type music. But now it's so much easier and that seems to be an across-the-board thing with anything digital. It facilitates monstrously by a factor of a vast amount what was actually thinkable and, to an extent, doable in an analogue world. It was impossible to have heard everything ever, and you really had to work at it in an analogue world – you had to buy the records, hunt them down.
In a funny sort of way when I was buying records, collecting records in the past, I was aiming to reach this state of overload through my greed and the curiosity that I had, and just wanting to expand my horizons. But now anyone growing up into music is in the position that critics or whatever were in, in that they have this crazy abundance of music at their fingertips. So that's why I'm interested in these people who are trying to navigate that. Because in some ways it seems unlivable to have so much stimuli and so many influences – don't they sort of cancel each other out? It's like having too many colours leading to horrible brown or a sort of whiteness. I don't know. How old are you then?
SR: So you must have always known getting music for free?
Yeah… I suppose.
SR: When did you start getting into the whole downloading thing?
If I'm totally honest it's something I've always resisted slightly. Kind of as you say – you might have access to everything but you're limited in the number of things you can form a meaningful relationship with. So in that respect I think I might be kind of anachronistic about it. Even over the last few weeks I've been conscious – particularly having just read your book – of the fact that most of the records I've been listening to recently are ones I've had for a long time, and though I might listen to new things that I think are good… I don't think I've gone through a stage of ever furiously downloading everything I could do, actually, because of what you're talking about.
SR: Well you're obviously very sensible and emotionally grounded.
I don't know if that's the case. I wonder if I just hold on to records I can't be parted from and never want to move forward from them. I might never have been tempted to download more than I'll be able to listen to, but I wonder if what I've done just means I've missed out on a lot as well.
SR: But then the question is whether – if you'd not missed out on them – if you'd ever actually have any kind of real experience of them. I think it's better to have less and really listen to it deeply.
There's nothing better for me than getting stuck on a record I can't stop playing. It's a nice feeling, and it brings me back to a time when I had records in single figures, or, you know, 16 records and I'd play those records 20, 30, 40 times and knew them inside out. I think that's great if you can resist it. Maybe there are other people in your generation learning these techniques of self-discipline because I think that's one of the things…
I was a bit alarmed that over the months approaching the book coming out there seem to have been more pieces coming out of people complaining about digital life, and some of those were getting quite close to what the book's talking about.
I think there seems to be a lot of people scratching their heads and thinking 'this isn't a really healthy way'… or it's not making them happy being plugged into this net culture – this busy thing. There are benefits to it, but there are also quite a lot of downsides. Lil B does a song called 'The Age Of Information' – he's younger than you – 22, I think – and to write a song that says the internet is hell… I was really struck that it's not just people from the analogue era who have problems with the internet.
You talk in the book about feeling nostalgia for boredom – 'a sensation of tedium so intense it was almost spiritual'. It reminded me of something Ian Brown said about the boredom experienced by kids in the late 70s and early 80s, and how it was actually a really valuable thing because, whether people were responding to it in a creative way or in a destructive way, at least people had to find a kind of imaginative response to fill the hours – in his case by getting into bands.
You talk about experiencing a sort of boredom when trawling through the glut of archived digital information on the internet, but you describe it as being one of 'distraction and oversaturation' – so would you describe it as being a new sort of boredom?
SR: You're always impatient – you don't listen to a clip all the way through. It's much less fruitful. The old boredom… there's an old Monty Python sketch with these old guys complaining about how hard things were… somehow this reminds me of that.
Pining for boredom seems absurd. But I think there's something to be said for an empty space you then have to fill. I spent a vast amount of my life daydreaming and I had a rich interior life when I was a kid, a real kid, before I had the focus of music. I used to have stories in my head and I don't really know what's going on in my son's head. He doesn't seem to spend much time staring into space. He's always flitting between his computer and his various games and devices. He's a totally modern, networked kid. He has emailing and all these things. He has a YouTube channel where he makes these little videos and stuff. I don't get the sense these things have the function that daydreaming had for me. His metabolism seems much more hyped-up and he seems more restless than I would have been – where I would just sink into reveries as a child or I would write and draw, stuff like that. My son does those things a bit, but there's this whole array of distractions for him and I wonder if a lot of people are like that because that's how the technology kind of encourages you to be.
I was thinking the other day about the difference between analogue and digital and I thought digital isn't really different… it's just that we've found different ways to distribute our boredom and isolation through a different mechanism. In the analogue world we had different ways, which were probably daydreaming or vandalism... something like that. Mischief-making. And now in the digital world, it's a different arena, but it's still the same fundamental motivations that drive people – boredom and loneliness. It's just a new architecture in which it's being dealt with – this sort of restless flitting around… but that's a bleak view isn't it? There's lots of great things about computers and the internet.
I wondered if feeling bored, dissatisfied or lonely is actually just kind of fundamental to being, say, an adolescent. Perhaps now people feel bored just as kids of the analogue age did, but they might respond to it in a different way. Instead of having the time to daydream they spend that time exposing themselves to stimuli rather than having to respond more imaginatively. I wondered whether it might lead to people coming out ultimately with a very different end product.
SR: I think you're right. Alienation, and not just amongst adolescents, is integral to our society. It's part of the human condition. But it's particularly exacerbated and exploited in the current social arrangement. Really digi culture is just inflecting it in different ways and dealing with it, offering surrogate satisfactions for these problems, but at the same time creating other possibilities of fraternising – people coming together in different ways. So it's not all bad.
What I think is happening is that the utopian shine has come off, and all the 90s techno-utopian talk has kind of worn away and people realise it's not really solving stuff – it might be damaging stuff too.
You talk quite a lot in the book about hypnagogic pop and hauntology, and how they're similar in lots of respects – although generally referring to either US or UK culture specifically. I wondered if you'd encountered music-makers in other parts of the world doing anything similar?
SR: I haven't. In Berlin I discovered a thing called Ostalgie – nostalgia for the communist days. I didn't do much research into it, but apparently you have people, old people, who are nostalgic for the really crap sweets and candy that you used to get. It had these homely associations and I don't know if there's any kind of artistic expression of this sort of nostalgia for Soviet days but it is conceivable, isn't it?
Because although that life had lots of deprivations to do with consumer goods, there was also a non-precariousness to life in the sense that everyone was guaranteed a job. And precariousness is one of the things that defines late capitalism and they've got that now, which they didn't have before. So I imagine there could be all kinds of types of expression of a weird nostalgia for what life was like in a Soviet-dominated communist bloc.
It seems to be likely that each generation could come up with a version of the hauntological/hypnagogic structure, but it's hard for me to see what the generation after the hauntologists – they're all pretty much my age group – will do. I don't know what they'd be drawn back to. I suppose there's that thing of nostalgia for the early days of games… I remember reading something Ikonika said about the games having this association with being young and first having fun with these now laughably primitive games, so that seems to be the same sort of structure. But I don't know if there's a Japanese version of hauntology, or a French one or whatever.
I think everyone is influenced by what they grew up with on some level… didn't James Blake do a song written by his father or something? One of the songs on the album ['The Wilhelm Scream'] is based on a song his father wrote – his father was a musician. He was in a kind of progressive band and he does a kind of cover, a slightly weird, chopped-up cover of the song. That seems like an interesting thing.
I think actually the whole topic of what happens now when your Dad was cool, or was a musician, or had cool music taste is really interesting. What happens when you have the same taste as your parents? When there's no reason not to, because they have really good taste? And you do get a lot of artists who are coming through with whom it seems to be more common.
Was it the guy from Ducktails who talked about falling asleep and hearing Hall & Oates on the radio in the next room?
SR: That's James Ferraro and the creation myth of hypnagogic pop – the seed of this idea. I think that's where David Keenan came up with the word hypnagogic – from this story about hearing these sounds through the walls.
It's interesting what you say about what you do when your parents have really cool taste in music. I interviewed Hudson Mohawke a while ago and he was talking about how his Dad introduced him to George Duke and Billy Cobham and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and how that all fed into the music he makes.
SR: You can totally hear that, can't you? I think in a 'Jukebox' in The Wire he was talking about Jean-Luc Ponty. I picked up one of Jean-Luc Ponty's records at around the same time and was very struck by that. For some people that would be very uncool music taste, but what do you do if your parents were into rock but they had taste that was considered – in punk terms – bad music? He managed to make something kind of cool.
He knows about something that not that many people know about that much. Even now that progressive music has been somewhat rehabilitated there aren't that many people who've spent a lot of time listening to Mahavishnu and Ponty, and that's part of the game. I don't know if it's his thing, but there's been a thing going on for a while now - you know, 'What can I find that no one else is into? Something that I can create something around – something that everyone else has missed.'
When I interviewed Not Not Fun I was interested by how they talked so openly about how that was part of the game of music-making now – seeking to find the influence that no one else has thought of. And the really interesting thing is that there were bands doing that sort of thing when I started writing about music, but they looked to obscure, hip things – like Krautrock or whatever – but now the only things that are left are super-mainstream things, like, Amanda Brown goes on about Sade, because no-one else has thought to say Sade was cool.
You're talking about having to look very consciously for things that are quite esoteric – not that people are necessarily looking for something to influence them exactly, but they're looking for some kind of material which isn't widely known about that they can respond to…
SR: That's the other interesting thing. Influence used to be something that was involuntary – you know, 'that kid is a bad influence on your kid', or growing up in a house full of people who quoted Shakespeare or whatever. But influences now are chosen. People choose them and position them within a kind of portfolio of taste. That's an interesting development. People are seeking them. That's a really weird idea because it seems like something you should have no control over.
In the book you mention labels like Numero Group and Honest Jon's. It seems to me you express some hesitations about what they do – about 'cultural heritage and the extent to which it's possible to preserve and remember everything'. Am I right in thinking you're not entirely comfortable with what they do?
SR: I think it's got the greatest of motives and they do a really good job in terms of how they preserve the sound and how they present and annotate it. It's just… I've listened to quite a bit of soul, but I haven't listened to all the great Marvin Gaye albums. I haven't listened to some of the highly respected artists like James Carr. I haven't listened to Bobby Bland albums… I should listen to them first before moving onto this other stuff I think.
But I always think with black music the standard of musicality was so strong there is this sort of thing about 'How can I deny that all this stuff is good?' Listening to the Numero Group stuff… it's almost as good as the stuff that is well known from the time that it was successful. But there is this sort of redundancy that leaks in as well. How many more pretty tip-top soul albums in the vein of Martha and the Vandellas do I need to hear? And then where it also gets interesting is how they move onto foreign countries as well.
There's this really great compilation that Now Again put out called Those Shocking Shaking Days, and it's Indonesian hard rock, progressive rock and psychedelic rock – and it's brilliant – but it's sort of redundant because there's not really anything Indonesian about it. They're trying the best they can to sound like Santana or Cream or James Gang or 70s hard rock from the States or the UK, but you're thinking 'Why am I listening to this?', because I haven't even listened to all the Cream albums.
My feeling is just a personal one of feeling besieged. At the same time it's hard to say this stuff should be forgotten, but I get close to saying it. It's hard to say though – I just haven't fully digested the oeuvre of Stevie Wonder. I should probably do that first before I listen to these minor figures. What do you think?
I suppose my take on it is that they seem to have a knack for finding good stuff which may or may not have become significant at the time it was released, but the labels exert a sort of curatorial or editorial control over it that I think treats it with respect and it gives you access to stuff you probably wouldn't otherwise find, which I quite enjoy.
Something I think is interesting is how there have been lots of reissues of things like the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop material which is fascinating, but which was actually created as a by-product of absolutely mainstream culture and is now being put on a pedestal – albeit in kind of a niche way – by itself. Do you think that's more valid than people plundering material from all over the world?
SR: It's interesting. Some of the Radiophonic people – I interviewed them – they're incredulous that anyone would sit and listen to it because it wasn't designed to be listened to on its own. Most of it was designed to be ancillary to a radio drama or a show, and the idea that someone would sit and listen to 40 one-minute-or-less underscores for creepy bits in Doctor Who or at the back of a radio drama... they just think that's wrong. It's entirely functional music, a lot of it anyway. Although that seems to be a more creative repurposing of stuff that was functional, and also it's not like there was anything else – it's never been available, most of it – unlike the soul stuff that came out on major labels and that people probably should plough through first rather than the lesser stuff.
I think probably the Numero stuff is the best because it's like proximal archaeology, and I think they believe it's all really quality stuff musically, while their almost anthropological approach gives it a different kind of spin.
What do you think about Demdike Stare or T++ with his Wireless album? People who take that material and they manipulate it to their own ends. How do you think that sits with this stuff?
SR: I think that's cool. That's probably similar to what Brian Eno did with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts because some of the stuff was exotic, and there were some old things he used as well. I suppose another album would be the Moby album Play – using old gospel, soul and blues and doing something with it.
The Gonjasufi album has a lot of old stuff on it – rebetiko, I think it's called. Which is a Greek kind of low-down bluesy type music, and the stuff he was using was from the 60s – it goes back to, I think, the end of the 19th century actually – so it's all there. There's all this stuff you can use now. People are just digging internationally. They're digging in other people's traditions instead of just the English-speaking world's traditions.
My interpretation of what you write towards the end of the book is that the retromania you observe might be symptomatic of late capitalism – that we might have reached a kind of pop-cultural plateau caused by the hegemony of western post-industrial economies. Do you think it's possible that as the global economy shifts towards India, China, Russia and Brazil we might get a new pop culture driven more by those countries rather than Europe and America and, if so, do you think it might result in some radically different pop culture?
SR: That seems like it could be a possibility, in the sense that those countries seem to be at a stage where we were a while back. They're still very production-oriented. It's factories and it's all very determined – their populations are growing, their economies are booming and there's all kinds of friction generated. Perhaps something interesting will happen.
A lot of the founding of rock music and pop music was mass media and electrical amplification being combined with old forms… so maybe that will happen with the old forms in some of these countries. Perhaps they'll collide, or maybe integrate, with digital technology - digital culture at this point - and maybe something amazing will come out of that. Some kind of unimaginable rock & roll.
But there's also this possibility that music itself is sort of being demoted in a sense. And in some ways perhaps what's going on – and it's sort of painful for people of my generation – is that some of the unreasonable expectations of music – about its political and emancipatory power and its capacity to keep changing and changing and changing – are being revealed as unrealistic expectations and maybe music is settling back into a smaller role. Maybe as entertainment, as something that doesn't change so rapidly.
Because some forms of music, you might say, have been sort of perfected.
When a group now is starting to play… I don't know how a group goes about forming itself because I've never been a musician, but I can see that you might have a choice when you're starting a band. Do you want to try something new? But perhaps the more enjoyable things to do are old – like groove-based rock & roll. That's necessarily an unsurprising thing to do, and that leaves you with the choice of doing non groove-based anti-rock and that's perhaps not as much fun – it certainly has less chance of a wide listenership. But perhaps it's just not as enjoyable to actually do all that really fractured stuff.
I think no wave is an interesting example, as people were trying to do this totally unheard of, unprecedented music with the basic format of a rock band. But they quickly reached a point where they were making fantastically obtuse and hostile music, but it was kind of inhospitable and some of them went off to do much pleasanter music, or music much closer to more established forms. Some of them, I think Mars, stuck with more atonal music which they carried on with, but the other no wavers went in more approachable directions musically.
Maybe that's what the whole of music is like – maybe rock as an enjoyable thing to listen to was sort of perfected and maybe it can't be taken any further. Perhaps it's the same with dance music. Perhaps 130bpm house-influenced music is just the optimum dance form… I don't know, but it's an argument.
Some of the more extreme and futuristic music in the 90s – club music especially – to find it enjoyable to listen to, people had to take a lot of drugs. It was almost like you had to bring your metabolism up to speed with it.
Talking about the emancipatory power of music… there's parts of the book which made me feel frustrated not to be ten years or so older than I am because the idea of experiencing a musical movement – whether acid house or whatever – that was new and dangerous feels like something perhaps I will not experience. Having been conscious of and interested in music as this powerful tool, this stimulus, from not long after it last possessed that power, and becoming conscious of the afterglow of all that activity and then waiting for the next big movement… well, it seems not to have happened.
I remember going to a dubstep show probably six or seven years ago and thinking at first, 'This seems new', but the bass was familiar to me from jungle and dub, and going to a rave wasn't new even though the music did initially sound quite alien. But then I thought 'It's not that different' – the whole structure of the scene was the same. There weren't going to be laws passed to prevent the spread of this thing – it had already been commodified and contained. It sounded a bit different, but it wasn't new.
SR: Actually the clichéd form of dubstep, the loping beat that it patented was a new thing. The wobble bass was a new thing…
I'd accept that musically dubstep might have been fairly new, but it's not like acid house – which provoked the Criminal Justice Bill in response to the whole culture…
SR: So when dubstep came it entered a cultural space that already existed, as opposed to acid house – when that space had been closed?
Acid had roots – there were warehouse parties before rave – but the whole apparatus of the clothes, the rituals… the idea of having the massive ones in the country… there was a whole across-the-board newness thing, and then dubstep inevitably entered a field that had already been opened up which did diminish its shock effect quite a bit. But if anything has a claim from the last decade to being really new, grime and dubstep would be two of the contenders, and then maybe Animal Collective… that sort of vibe seems to be new within indie culture.
It's not that nothing new has happened – it's just that they haven't become a kind of wildfire phenomenon and there's always this kind of a qualifier… you always feel it's kind of relatively new, but those things are always outnumbered by a very large amount of recycling activity and stuff that's curating the past in some way. I wouldn't like to say there is nothing that's happened in the last decade that wasn't new to some degree. It's just diminished a bit… dubstep wasn't a whole new way of having events and it wasn't a threat to anyone.
When writing the book did it sadden you that it seems much more difficult for something like a musical movement to have the sort of impact you can remember such things having not really all that long ago?
SR: I do miss those kind of things on a personal level – they're good to write about and think about – when there's a sort of sense of surging.
In the 90s, although I did write about it, you're very involved in it… there's a sort of energy to it. I did go down every week and check out the new releases in every genre. I used to go to a lot more clubs. I was checking out everything because on all fronts, things were pushing ahead and there's this general feeling when that comes along of quickening and momentum and a focus on the now, but perhaps that's not possible under the digital realm, or under the digital architecture, or whatever you want to call it… maybe that's not happening.
Something's happened to time – time itself has changed in some fundamental way. There's something about being on a computer… you can just flit around in time in a way you couldn't before, and it's really, really weird to look at a performance of the Rezillos on Top Of The Pops, doing the song 'Top Of The Pops' in 1978, that I can remember, but now I can refer to it and I can see that it looks a lot like my memory of it. And that's a really freaky state of affairs.
And I wonder what it does to people who don't remember The Rezillos, but might see that and think 'Wow, that's cool'. I think it's a really strange situation for creativity and musical culture to operate in and I think the last five, six, whatever years people have been sorting through that, and I think maybe everyone's a bit overwhelmed… a bit shell-shocked, especially my generation. But maybe your generation or people a bit younger than you are looking at how to deal with it, and maybe they are going to come up with something really amazing in these new conditions.
But right now it feels like the landscape of music has been torn up and maybe the old models – like scenes, movements, revolutions, events - maybe they don't occur in music anything like how they used to, and everything's getting rearranged. But since writing the book I've become kind of guardedly optimistic.
At the very least it's an interesting time we're living through for culture. If you want to talk about something unprecedented – and while it may not be for music, in that what's being made out of this situation rarely sounds unprecedented – the conditions themselves are. And all the things digital culture, the internet and archiving are making possible – that in itself is the new landscape of music culture. So I'm wondering what's going to come out of that. I'm curious.