Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Perils of Loving Old Records Too Much
New York Times, December 5th 1993

by Simon Reynolds 

(original working title - RETRO-MANIA/RECORD COLLECTION ROCK -!!!)

director's cut version below:

     Today's alternative rock suffers from a strange kind of
nostalgia - a yearning for a golden age that one never
personally experienced. There's a term for this born-too-late
feeling: "epigonic".  Derived from a peculiar Greek verb that
means "to be born after", it describes anyone who's convinced
that the present era is less distinguished than its
predecessor.  Rock is full of epigones or "imitative
successors", bands who resurrect the sound and the look of a
period when music seemed to be more exciting or to mean more
than mere unit-shifting.  But since nothing is more modern
than the conviction that earlier generations had it better,
these groups have been shifting a lot of units lately.

     One of the most successful is Blind Melon.  Musically,
their blues-tinged grooves hark back to the Southern boogie
of Allman Brothers Band and to West Coast acid rock like
Quicksilver Messenger Service and Grateful Dead).  The video
for Blind Melon's MTV breakthrough single "No Rain", which
propelled their self-titled debut album into the Top 3 after
nine months as a 'sleeper', has a pastoral vibe, with the
band frolicing in a flower-filled meadow.  Their long hair
and facial foliage, denim dungarees and beads, mark them out
as 'stoners', an impression accentuated by the hemp seeds on
the album's back cover and the band's references to pot in
interviews. Singer Shannon Hoon performs barefoot and has a
tendency to shed his clothes onstage or in photo sessions.

     Blind Melon grew up on 'classic rock' artists like
Hendrix, Traffic, Crosby Stills Nash and Young.  The band
have talked of using "vintage" amplifiers and equipment in
order to recapture the warmth and feel of that era's music,
which disappeared with the advent of digital recording, drum
machines et al.  Lyrically too, Blind Melon's songs have
something of the aura of the early '70's, when the counter
culture's momentum had ebbed and its agenda had contracted to
an apolitical, feel-good ethos: "be yourself", "take it as it
comes", "let's get stoned and see a band".  There's a similar
mellow spirit to The Spin Doctors, who combine the radio-
friendly raunch of The Steve Miller Band and the truckin'
affability of The Dead.

     Blind Melon recently toured with Lenny Kravitz, another
highly successful epigone.  Like Blind Melon, Kravitz
deliberately uses antiquated studio technology.  But where
the former revive the laidback, jamming spirit of hippy rock,
Kravitz goes even further, expertly simulating the production
styles of his heroes like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and
Curtis Mayfield.  He's a craftsman who makes the rock
equivalent of reproduction antiques.  A supremely videogenic
performer who nonetheless professes to hate MTV, Kravitz
carries his fetish for period detail through to his visual
presentation.  In the promo for the Hendrix-pastiche "Are You
Gonna Go My Way?", his band incite a pseudo-bacchanalian
freak-out in an amphitheatre of kids.  Kravitz' bassist
sports a 'white Afro' uncannily reminiscent of the coiffure
of Noel Redding, bassist in The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
While his music and image are based in pure postmodern
pick'n'mix, Kravitz' lyrics bypass the irony and complexity
of postmodern experience and attempt to return to the naivete
of an age when people believed music could change the world.
Whatever Lenny Kravitz' or Blind Melon's intentions, both
provide counter culture for couch potatoes, a consumer
package of groovy idealism with all the confrontation,
commitment and struggle removed.

     *         *         *         *         *         *

These days, you could almost define "alternative" as not
contemporary, in so far as most alternative bands spurn the
state-of-art techniques that underpin rap, swingbeat and
techno, preferring to renovate a period style from rock's
past.  This doesn't necessarily mean their music is
irrelevant or devoid of merit, it just means that you can
distinguish alternative bands by the degree of sophistication
with which they rework material from rock's archives.

Grunge, for instance, is a straightforward return to early
'70's heavy rock, adulterated with varying measures of punk
aggression. On a more playful level, there's Monster Magnet
and White Zombie's nouveau biker rock (Steppenwolf, Blue
Cheer), or Raging Slab's resurrection of Southern rock
(Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas).  These bands'
revivalism is filtered through tongue-in-cheek humour, as in
the title of Raging Slab's latest album "Dynamite Monster
Boogie Concert", and its press kit, which contained
everything you'd need to attend an early 70's arena show: a
bottle of Thunderbird, a paper bag and a tube of glue, and a
lighter to hold up during the ballads.  Perhaps the wittiest
of the retro bands is Urge Overkill, the Chicago power trio
who combine Cheap Trick inspired riffs and anthemic harmonies
with a stylised image influenced by sharp-dressed heroes like
James Brown, The Who and Sly Stone. Admirers not just of 70's
rock excess but also of the cocktail-sipping, playboy
suaveness of The Rat Pack (Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr et al),
Urge Overkill self-consciously embrace the ludicrousness of
rock postures.  Their latest album, "Saturation" (Geffen
24529) is their major label debut, but even as an indie band
playing grubby clubs Urge Overkill comported themselves like
stadium superstars.

    You could call this alternative aesthetic 'record
collection rock', in so far as a band is interesting in ratio
to the esoteric scope of its musical learning, the extent to
which it avoids obvious influences. The camp frisson involved
in rehabilitating something formerly beyond the pale is
something that wears off quickly.  For instance, when late
'80's band like Butthole Surfers and Tad revived Black
Sabbath's ponderous riffs, it felt like a thrilling challenge
to the approved canon of underground rock (e.g Velvet
Underground, The Stooges).  But after grunge and the
mainstream success of doom-metal bands like Alice In Chains,
Sabbath-style heaviness is no longer a novelty, it's an
oppressive norm.  In indie music, the smart operators seek
out neglected eras or genres, in order to titillate the
hipster's easily-jaded palatte.  Where financiers speculate
in futures, bands today speculate in pasts.

   In America, Pavement is the king of record collection
rock.  Their music is a patchwork of ideas filched from the
history of avant-garde and low-fi primitivist rock, in
particular from early 70's neo-psychedelic bands like Can,
Faust and Neu, and post-punk weirdos like Pere Ubu, The Fall
and Wire.  In Britain, Stereolab rival Pavement when it comes
to arcana. On their two 1993 albums "Space Age Bachelor Pad
Music" and their US major label debut "Transient Random-Noise
Bursts With Announcements" (Elektra, 9 61536-4) , the band
explore the unlikely links between the droning mantras of
Velvet Underground, La Monte Young et al, and early 60's
easy-listening (in particular Martin Denny, inventor of a
muzak brand called 'exotica').  Stereolab also like to
imagine impossible genres with songs like "Avant-Garde MOR"
or "John Cage Bubblegum".

     Rock has always had a place for the curator mentality.
For instance, The Rolling Stones began as obsessive
collectors of obscure blues records. But they at least went
on to create, intentionally or not, the soundtrack of their
time. Too many of today's indie bands are making meta-music,
scribbling footnotes in the Great Book of Rock.  The compact
disc reissue boom has made all kinds of obscure artists
readily available.  One label, Rhino, specialises in
compilations of "cheesy", second-division rock and pop.
Furthermore, as babyboomers replace their worn LP's with
CD's, there's a glut of used vinyl on the market, making it
even cheaper to explore the neglected byways of rock's past.

All this encourages bands to scale new heights of perversity
and obscurantism when it comes to their reference points and
sources. Swamped by music, dwarfed by previous eras'
achievements, twentysomething musicians like Steve Malkmus of
Pavement compensate with irony and knowingness.  But
recently, perhaps tired of being painfully hip, Malkmus has
talked of a return to the "Zen-like simplicity" of soft-rock
groups like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac as a possible route
out of the mire of eclecticism.  Such a paradoxical
strategy - going back in time in order to go forward - is
emblematic of the state of rock.

     *         *         *         *         *         *

Rock's retrogressive tendencies reach a nadir of redundancy
with the Tribute Album, wherein various artists pay respect
to iconic figures like Neil Young, Syd Barrett or Captain
Beefheart by covering their songs.  A current example is
"Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix" (Reprise, 9 45438-2),
a collection of pointlessly faithful versions of the acid
rock visionary's classics, by artists as diverse as Eric
Clapton, Belly and The Cure. Only PM Dawn's soft-core hiphop
reading of "You Got Me Floating" and fusion-guitarist Pat
Methey's science fiction jazz take on "Third Stone From the
Sun" bring any new dimensions to the originals.  Esthetically
dubious, maybe, but the commercial logic of "Stone Free" and
similar projects like the forthcoming KISS tribute is
unassailable.  As well as intriguing fans of the honored
artist, these albums tempt diehard followers of each
contributing band to shell out in order to complete their

     On a similar wavelength, the future may see more
exercises in nostalgia like Guns N'Roses' "The Spaghetti
Incident?" (Geffen, GEFD-24617), where one band pays homage
to its roots. In this case, Guns N'Roses cover a bunch of
favourite punk songs by bands like UK Subs, The Damned, The
Dead Boys and The New York Dolls.  Along with paying respect
(and potentially colossal publishing monies) to artists that
have influenced them, the album is an attempt to place Guns
N'Roses in rock history as a descendant of punk as opposed to
Aerosmith-style arena raunch'n'roll.

     *         *         *         *         *         *

     In some ways, sample-based music would seem to be even
more dependent on the past, since its collage esthetic
involves the wholesale appropriation of licks and riffs from
old records. But the best sampler music - rap bands like
Cypress Hill or The Goats, techno artists like The Prodigy or
Ultramarine, and a precious few rock bands who use sampling
technology like The Young Gods - revitalises the music of the
past. They weld together incongruous elements to create a
kind of Frankenstein pop, in which musical atmospheres from
different eras are compelled to coexist. Or they warp their
sources by modulating them on the sampler keyboard until
barely recognisable. Or they simply ransack the archives with
an invigorating brutality that's infinitely preferable to the
wan reverence of retro-rockers.  Compare Blind Melon with
gangsta rapper Dr Dre.  Both partake of the hemp-
consciousness that pervades today's pop (Dre's LP "The
Chronic" takes its title from a particularly strong breed of
weed).  Both pay homage to their roots: Dre even features
live footage of his idols Parliament/Funkadelic at the end of
the video for his current single "Let Me Ride".  But where
Blind Melon's music exudes nostalgia for the lost free-and-
easy spirit of the counterculture, Dr Dre cannibalises P-funk
synth-motifs and basslines, using their panache and joie-de-
vivre as components in the soundtrack to a contemporary,
vital (albeit death-fixated and nihilistic) subculture.


HARDY PERENNIALS (obvious but unassailably cool)
Rolling Stones, Beatles, Velvet Underground

PASSE (exhausted by being oversubscribed in recent years)
Big Star, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Funkadelic, Neil
Young, My Bloody Valentine, Husker Du, Black Flag

Cheap Trick, Pink Floyd and Brian Eno, Can and Faust, The
Fall, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Captain Beefheart, Rush, dub reggae

King Crimson, Gentle Giant, early Roxy Music, Weather Report,
dancehall reggae/ragga, Fairport Convention, Foghat

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