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Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 02:24 am
One more time...

There's a 1936 play by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood called The Ascent of F6: A Tragedy In Two Acts. It relates the sorry tale of one Michael Ransom, a mountaineer attempting to beat a team of rival climbers to the summit of a mountain in the Himalayas, a formidable hunk of rock. After various ill-advised shortcuts motivated by competitiveness, Ransom reaches the peak only to discover his mother sitting there waiting for him.

Auden and Isherwood's play has become a metaphor for the two-act tragedy of popular music in our time. Pitting themselves obsessively and competitively against the musicians of the past, today's rock mountaineers attempt to scale the same peaks, only to find Father Iggy or Mother Janis sitting there at the top in a rocking chair, rocking out. Regular readers of Click Opera know that I call this phenomenon "epigone pop" or "retro necro", and it's the subject of my latest column for Spanish music magazine Playground. Since it appears there in Spanish, I'm publishing it here in English, as usual.

Retro Necro
Column by Momus (Spanish version here)
Playground magazine, Madrid, January 2009

There's a tragedy afflicting popular music, a tragedy I sum up -- when I'm trying to explain such things to myself -- with the name Retro Necro. Retro implies backwards-looking, Necro means death. My idea is that the medium of popular music is heading in the direction of death because of its tendency to look backwards rather than forwards.



Retro Necro is partly the archive fever that has existed since the launch of the CD format, and the bonanza resale by labels -- and repurchase by consumers eager for "perfect sound forever" -- of back catalogue. I got my first CD player in 1990, so we could date the onset of this "disease" to that year. 1990 also happens to be the high water mark of the movement some see as the last forward-looking revolution to transform popular music: Acid House.

Retro Necro is also reflected in the plethora of "commemorative" rock magazine titles which celebrate the past rather than the present and future of rock. The obvious British example would be Mojo, a title launched in 1993 and dedicated either to the artists of the past, or the artists of the present who sound like them. Guess who's on the cover of the current issue of Mojo? Oasis, a Retro Necro band par excellence.

Retro Necro is a reflection of post-war Baby Boom demographics, which ensure that an aging generation will continue to see its own tastes reflected in the market, because there are more of them, because they "invented rock", and because they have more disposable income than the dwindling legions of youth.

In 2004 British newspaper The Guardian reported on a phenomenon known as "50 Quid Man": "For the first time fortysomethings are buying more albums than teenagers and it's all down to the '50-quid man' [note: fifty British pounds is about sixty euros] - the middle-aged bloke (or even woman) who is happy to splash out on a fistful of CDs." Because young people increasingly expected to download music free, the market shifted earlier this decade towards the tastes of this middle-aged figure willing to spend €60 or so on a trip to a record shop. By now, "sixty euro man" is probably downloading mp3s too, but his tastes still dominate the market; he's more likely to be paying for his downloads.

Retro Necro isn't just demographic, technical and economic, though. It also reflects something cultural. It's the result of postmodernism's obsession with sampling, recycling and recontextualising the past. Postmodernism doesn't believe -- as Modernism did, and as Ezra Pound famously put it -- in the obligation to "make it new!" People actually believed, in the Postmodern period, that pretty much everything had been done, and that all they could do was make new hybrids, or use technologies like sampling to put old sounds into new contexts.

The result was the self-perpetuating anxiety of a generation of epigone pop artists (an epigone is a weaker follower, and in some cases today's epigone poppers are actually the children of the famous; the son of a Dylan, the daughter of a Gainsbourg) scared to tear up the rulebooks and start over. Instead, these epigones content themselves with making pastiches of the "classic masterpieces" of the past.

Lenny Kravitz was the first artist I was aware of who painstakingly reproduced the sound of the past, recording his music with exactly the same amps, tape recorders and mixing desks the similarly-named Jimi Hendrix might have used twenty years before. Kravitz was soon followed by Oasis -- and all you need to know about them is that they lost a plagiarism lawsuit not to The Beatles themselves, but to musical satirist Neil Innes, for a song in which he parodied The Beatles. The title? How Sweet To Be An Idiot.



Retro Necro is also the result of a conservative critical mindset which believes that British and American rock musicians "got it right" mostly in the decade between 1967 and 1976. A Swedish statistician called Henrik Franzon spent ten years collecting music critics' Best Albums lists. As I show here, these lists form a kind of meta-narrative for the artistic history of the last five decades of popular music. It's a story in which the medium is born in the late 50s, remains artistically rather shaky and ephemeral until the late 60s, suddenly (with albums like Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds) hits its Golden Age, has a bit of a spurt when punk comes along, diversifies, then fades into irrelevance. Only three of the Top 100 most-recommended albums in Franzon's database were released between 1997 and 2006 (records by Radiohead, The Strokes and The White Stripes).

There's a very simple, very big problem for today's pop musician: if you fail to attack the father and rip up his rules, the father will always beat you. He will beat you because he did what you're doing first, with more spontaneity and passion, and with less reverence. If you fail to rip up the rules of your father's pop music and start again, you will see pop music becoming what classical and to some extent jazz have become: interpretive artforms dominated by performers who simply run through a canon of set masterpieces.

Rock music, in particular, has become an official culture. Prime ministers jam on their guitars in between parliamentary sessions, the Pope has finally forgiven John Lennon for that "bigger than Jesus" remark, and rock music plays in aircraft, elevators and late-night restaurants the way Muzak once did, to calm and control nervous or unruly passengers. Any claim rock may once have had to be a "rebel music" has long-since gone, and with it a lot of rock's transgressive sexual and political energy.

Going back to basics (garage rock) isn't the answer, because going back to Punk or the Pebbles compilations won't free you from Retro Necro. But ripping up the rules and starting again won't necessarily save the medium either. To do that, you'd have to take risks and be able to go mainstream with the results, something that requires a large, progressively-minded public to follow experimenters and make their experiments change the whole practice of popular music-making forever. That kind of sweeping mainstream change looks unlikely ever to happen again, partly because of the fragmenting personalisation of music tastes and genres brought by the iPod and the web.



One solution may just be to give in to Retro Necro. It doesn't necessarily mean buying the new Oasis album; you could spend a tasteful Retro Necro December watching Grant Gee's excellent documentary about Joy Division, downloading Michael Winterbottom's film 24 Hour Party People, getting a discount DVD of Anton Corbijn's Control movie, based on Touching from a Distance, Debbie Curtis' account of her troubled life with her epileptic husband, and his death by hanging in 1980. Or how about Katja Ruge's elegant photo investigation Fotoreportage23: In Search of Ian Curtis?

It's all good stuff. And it's all sick necrophilia. Personally, I'm more fascinated by a couple of stapled books of press clippings I discovered in a box in my cellar recently, Joy Division and New Order reviews and interviews in the original typefaces and layouts. Sure, I feel like I'm looking back, but it isn't completely negative. Reading these clippings, I can imagine the innovations, the discoveries, the freshness of this music happening now, and changing music forever.

72CommentReplyFlag

ex_takoeneb
шоггот басаев
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)

Great article.
Thanks.


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ataxi
ataxi
Tom
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)

You're somewhat like Arthur Krystal over at Harper's with another mask on. He too is claiming that a form (the modern novel) is technically exhausted and that he can hardly be bothered reading new works because the "idea of fiction" has become more interesting than fiction itself. It's just that he uses this argument in defence of a fogeyish tendency to endlessly return to canonical works, not in support of a new way of putting words on a page.

I think you're probably more interested in the "idea of rock" -- the new, the rebellious, the dambusting and socially transformative idea of rock -- than you are in rock itself, no? That's what I read into your remarks regarding rock having lost its transgressive energy, and ripping up the rules not being the answer.

Couldn't the absence of transgression from rock itself be a worthy and interesting new direction? It feels rather harsh to start demanding that a type of art be put to death so soon, in historical terms, after its inception. Why not allow an aesthetic tradition of a more placid kind to develop? How can classical music be moribund when practically no one (compared to recent pop) has an advanced understanding of it?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 02:33 am (UTC)

I actually do advocate ripping up the rules and starting again. The only reason I say it's not necessarily going to save the medium is that unless you have a mainstream public as liberal and experimental in its attitudes as the artists doing this, these new beginnings are destined to remain marginal -- in other words, not to begin very much at all.

I think the novel is a good parallel: the novel is called the novel because it's supposed to be novel, new. It's supposed to make things new, renew us, and make itself new. The novel has lost sight of these goals just as rock music has. But it needs a public as dedicated to strangeness and disorientation and delay (in the Duchampian sense of letting things fail to make sense for a while) as the artists are. And we don't have that kind of public. As Marxy put it yesterday:

"There is a word tanrakuteki in Japanese, which means "short-sighted" or simplistic, and it very accurately describes the current intentions of youth culture. Everyone wants things they immediately understand."


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 03:16 am (UTC)

> One solution may just be to give in to Retro Necro. It doesn't necessarily mean buying the new Oasis album;

Or consuming any of the seemingly endless supply of Joy Division-related product. The history of rock has many dark corners full of stuff that hasn't been fully explored and reappraised.

Or perhaps people could suggest alternative narratives, and hack away at all rock's received wisdoms (for example, the never-questioned but demonstably untrue assertion that "punk killed prog overnight").


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)

"Or perhaps people could suggest alternative narratives, and hack away at all rock's received wisdoms (for example, the never-questioned but demonstably untrue assertion that "punk killed prog overnight")." EXACTLY. Not earth shaking stuff to state that the "muzik biz" has long been about the flogging of a dead body (physical or otherwise). The new necro narrative threads are already been spun as the rise of micro-necro blogs like MUTANT SOUNDS, PUNKS IS HIPPIES, NO LONGER FORGOTTEN MUSIC, DETAILED TWANG, CONTINUO and recent upsurge of labels using a "dead" format (i.e. cassette) testifies. Everything is up for grabs to rewrite, reuse and redefine and it feels GOOD! : desecration is the name of the game and I wanna play the game with you!. If people still have the poor judgment to be chasing after the next "big thing" (be it computer games as art, fuzzy logic candy or the new UK Subs album) then remember the words of Mark E. Smith : "I wonder what is next year's thing? Crash smash crash ring!".


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krskrft
krskrft
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 03:22 am (UTC)

This feeling that "it's all been done" is perhaps a misreading that prevails simply because it can be stated elegantly. I think the average Postmodernist would say that the stuff we create is essentially a mash-up, an inclusion of or reaction against everything we've ever experienced. People have taken this idea of cross-textuality to mean that "it's all been done," but that isn't really what it means, is it? Just because there's so such thing as "new" (in the sense of something born fully-formed, out of nothing but thin air, completely untouched) does not mean there's no such thing as "novelty." I don't think anybody could argue that rock 'n' roll, in all its various permutations, for example, was ever "new," but that it was "novel" finds its proof in the pudding.

Because rock 'n' roll has been an endless number of things over the decades, we could say that, even though it has never once been new, it has been novel many times over. And I think it can be novel again and again and again from here on out. But should it be novel? Does it really need "saving"? I'm not so sure about that. I think that, over time, what we see is a constriction of definitions. We see people going around saying "it's not like the good old days anymore," or if a band engages in any kind of cross-textuality, what they're doing is instantly dismissed as "retro-necro." I was watching a video the other day in which Ian, from the Stone Roses, said that the most annoying comment made about the band is that they were influenced by the 60s. His comment is laughable, in that his expectation to not be linked to the 60s is unreasonable to say the least, but I think it highlights a completely reasonable problem for artists to have with the old-guy establishment who are constantly stamping out (or attempting to stamp out) novelty by dismissing it on the cheapest possible terms. They reject the possibility that time & place have anything do with the affect of a creative commodity, when most of their favorite, legendary acts were contingent on that very coincidence. There is no objective reason, for example, why rock 'n' roll had to take off in the 50s and 60s, other than that it occurred at the right time & place, that it had those as its circumstances. We could just as easily be boogeying to some tripped out hypothetical versions of jazz or classical on our satellite radios. Or something else.

Nothing needs saving, because no amount of premeditation will determine what's saved or disposed of anyway. Time & place, my friend, time & place.


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mrobot
mrobot
Ben
Fri, Jan. 9th, 2009 12:10 am (UTC)

exactly! momus seems to be implying that postmodernism is the belief that art used to be original, but that sometime after punk or something, we ran out of ideas and started being content to simply remix the past.

the truth is just like you say, that all music (and art) is always going to be parasitic, that punk reinvented garage rock which reinvented chuck berry style rock & roll which reinvented the blues, ad infinitum.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 06:19 am (UTC)

you are an epigone yourself momus, and not a retro one but something far more risible. you're an epigone who copies the current fashion. it's a tragedy i sum up with the name neo modo. neo implies something that is new, modo means fashion. a 50 year old epigone who desperately tries to stay hip and relevant by appropriating the ideas of those more creative or clever than himself. or just younger. never a solitary inspired sound of his own, never a thought other than those he desperately snatches from prevailing winds. ('shit, postmodernism's over. time to cast around for a more happening gig before people notice i'm actually a pretty uncreative magpie. oh fuck, that's not going to do anything - they'll still notice. oh well, better today's uncreative magpie than yesterday's...')

yep, a neo modo kiddie fiddler par excellence. you can talk though, i'll give you that. and your chichi little melange seems to please some.

p.s. i used the word 'epigone' in the sense you erroneously use it. here's a head's up to your poor readers: to be precise, the word actually means someone of a succeeding - and less distinguished - generation; no inferior copying of style or even action is implied. you might care to look at the word's etymology and provenance momus.

ah, for a second I forgot that you're content just to do what other people do.

owned.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 08:59 am (UTC)

Dear Diary, started the day by putting the boot into a magpie, looked up the word "epigone" in the dictionary and found it meant "someone of a succeeding and less distinguished generation" (nothing to do with Momus's definition: someone of a succeeding and less distinguished generation), wrote but abandoned two anonymous pieces of spite mail to that cold bitch at the chemist's shop, toyed with chapter one of my abandoned novel (the scene where the anti-hero, loosely modeled on me, reads my diary aloud on the bus), wondered if I should send it under a new pseudonym to the publishers who rejected it last time, pulled the wings off a bee in the park, looked into an art gallery and slashed a couple of canvases while the cold bitch who works there was on the phone, snatched a doll from a child and broke its head off, laughing, came home, baked beans on toast, farted a lot, masturbated, played Doom for three hours, fell asleep with my boots on, woke up and remembered to check Momus' blog to see if he'd reacted to my character assassination. He hadn't, but there was some anonymous spoof diary under my comment, probably by Momus. Will incorporate it, as my own work, into my novel.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 08:37 am (UTC)
Tired

This is a tired old argument and you know it. Here's another old one; the so called innovative music of the 60s and 70s was largely based on blues progressions that had been written by poor blacks as early as the twenties or thirties. What made it different and new sounding was it was now played by young white men and electrified. Again another old idea but Adorno is right when he spoke of popular music trying to keep itself fresh by superficial nuance and though musically at a root level almost identical Jimmy Page's recycled blues riffs do sound superficially new when played on a huge stack. Technological innovation kept pop music sounding fresh sometime up until the late 80s but has now pretty much exhausted itself which maybe is why your recent efforts to sound young and groovy by pasting on some blip blop beats to your chansons didn't really work.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 09:48 am (UTC)
Re: Tired

Adorno is right when he spoke of popular music trying to keep itself fresh by superficial nuance

This hits the nail on the head. The touble is "make it new", these days in indie pop culture, really means "let's be mannerist and tinker about with a genre, without really exiting from it". In other words, the so-called experimentalism is actually perpetuating the old genres, if in slightly more baroque form. I don't think there's any easy way out of this. After all, true artistic revolutions don't come about very often, maybe once every fifty years or so. We've got to rethink the whole modernist/postmodernist paradigm of what "new" might mean.

In the meantime, we are truly living in a zombie culture, where these genres just live on as undead forms. The interesting thing about the Internet is not that it has invented new forms and genres, but it has given (through youtube and the like) the old forms even more exposure, has perpeuated them and calcified the zombie culture.


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 09:48 am (UTC)

There's really no need to be so self-conscious about these things. It doesn't matter if pop music has run its course or not. Saying it has or it hasn't doesn't make a difference, either. For the artists, if you have something to say, then why not say it, without wondering about whether the artform is dead or not? I know that it's part of an artist's job to think about their own artform, but after a point, just thinking about it is stultifying. If it's that dead, give it up.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 10:02 am (UTC)

love the diary skit momus, really - good work. glad to have irked you. it's not that i'm a bitter misanthrope, it's just that i dislike humbug, hypocrisy and pomposity. it naturally leads to the consequence that I dislike you. there's a certain other reason but we can't go into that here. suffice to say i know what a horrible person you really are. i know the definition of epigone because my limited greek stretches to taking the word apart and i've read aeschylus. both your stated definition and the way you employ the word are quite different. i have no literary pretensions at all, but yes, well spotted, i can put a sentence together.


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bugpowered
bugpowered
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 10:23 am (UTC)

it's not that i'm a bitter misanthrope, it's just that i dislike humbug, hypocrisy and pomposity.

Oh, don't we all.

there's a certain other reason but we can't go into that here.

Yeah, he fucked your girlfriend. Get over it already!

(She wasn't *really* your girlfriend after all: she just lived next to you, and often let the windows open when she had a shower.)

i know the definition of epigone because my limited greek stretches to taking the word apart and i've read aeschylus. both your stated definition and the way you employ the word are quite different.

Your limited greek? Well, I have unlimited greek (I was born into it).

And Momus' usage of epigone is absolutely fine --both in the (ancient and modern) greek sence and in the sence defined in english dictinaries. Such as:

ep⋅i⋅gone  –noun
an undistinguished imitator, follower, or successor of an important writer, painter, etc.


(from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/epigone)

After "reading Aeschylus" here's another literary task for you: check the origin and definition of the work "Javert" (often used metaphorically in moder greek).


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autopope
autopope
Autopope
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 10:39 am (UTC)

There's a school of thought that suggests art forms have a life expectancy roughly equivalent to a human life span -- call it 75 years. By the end of that time it has become formalized, the original practitioners are dead, the second generation to hit the stage are elder statespeople, and most importantly the first audience is dead of old age. By 75 years, the medium has acquired conventions and formality.

I write SF for a living. SF is about 90. It's indisputably a formalized art form these days -- trying to do something new is rather difficult, and most of the practitioners are just playing variations on the classics.

Rock music -- born circa 1950, plus or minus a couple of years -- is, going by this theory, well into its late middle age, and close to its dotage. The retro necro thing fits this theme perfectly. There may be time for a last gasp before it finally ossifies (some equivalent to the mid-80s cyberpunk wave in SF that briefly flickered the embers into dull red life), but the innate conservativism of the decaying music distribution industry doesn't fill me with optimism.

On the other hand: the coming decade will bring rich opportunities for necrophiliacs. I mean, it worked for me ...


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downwithtunes.blogspot.com
downwithtunes.blogspot.com
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 10:56 am (UTC)
"Rock"?

I wouldn't necessarily disagree when it comes to "Rock", but then surely "rock" is the least interesting category of popular music these days? There's still, as far as I'm concerned, a relentless modernist surge to better what's come before in hip-hop, electronic dance music of various types, dancehall, and a myriad of little genres all over the world with little artistic pretension.

What you have to ask, I think, is who makes the lists Franzon bases his site on? Just as with the ages, it's interesting to note that there are four non-white artists in his top thirty, and that the first artist who's not from the US, Canada or the british isles comes in at place 110! White middle/upper-class western males, tending to be older than the average fan (was)? In other words, the people in charge of music are the people in charge of the world.


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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 11:08 am (UTC)

TOO MUCH CULTURE


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 11:17 am (UTC)

hello bugpowered, good morning. 1. don't we all? obviously not. 2. i'm gay 3. a) i didn't say currie was the only one to misuse the word. b) with respect, your greek is obviously a bit limited. c) javert? can't be bothered at the moment, but will do.

your host is a big boy, he should be able to look after himself.


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bugpowered
bugpowered
Mon, Jan. 12th, 2009 09:24 am (UTC)

i'm gay

More power to you.

a) i didn't say currie was the only one to misuse the word

Who else misused it? The dictionary I quoted?

b) with respect, your greek is obviously a bit limited.

Pretty ironic, when told to a greek...

;-)

c) javert? can't be bothered at the moment, but will do.

Please, do so.

your host is a big boy, he should be able to look after himself.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 12:00 pm (UTC)

Yet no-one writes actual necrophile fic about dead rockstars. Though I did write that Zombie!Bolan fic.

I feel this is a failing.


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rurritable.wordpress.com
rurritable.wordpress.com
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 01:27 pm (UTC)

It's strange, though, how the practitioners of some exhausted forms manage to eke a little more life from them, or go out into the wilderness and return determined to fill everyone in on the crazy. I always thought the old Scott Walker stuff from his money days was an unapologetic reach back to the fifties, to mop up any necro cash that might have remained unspent. He got a little crazy and started doing stuff that ventures occasionally into atonalism, or word salad, or both. Both aspects of his work are a little alien to me. Then you have genuine creative geniuses like Jellyroll Morton, who wasn't above cranking out covers of garbage.
Stravinsky used to bitch about trying to make stuff new. By the time people got their heads wrapped around your last work, your next one was waiting to piss them off all over again. He thought the next genuine musical step forward would be a reevaluation of tonal systems.So far he seems to have missed the boat on that one.
I always thought of the Cocteau twins as a kind of retropop act. I just couldn't quite figure out their reference point in the past. Maybe sixties European cinema soundtracks?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)

I reckon all new music is retro to some extent and twas ever thus. The primeval garage explosion rock artists have been harking back to for several decades was nothing more than middle class white kids trying to replicate the rhythm and blues sounds of that time, and coining a whole new genre precisely because they made such a balls up of it. Same goes for year zero acid house - European club kids trying to do their version of detroit techno which is in turn Afro-american kids trying to replicate kraftwerk...

The difference now is that better technology enables us to have eccess to more info than ever before as to how these original sounds were created and that, in my opinion, is precisely what's killing the music. It's now possible to create an almost perfect pastiche of whatever you may want to imitate which ultimately creates something pretty soulless.

I see most of my musical heroes of yesteryear as people who failed to recapture the spirit of some past glory, because the technology and information wasn't available and also because the endevour in itself was faintly ridiculous (A certain Ratio fancying themselves as the next big funk sensation or Public Enemy trying to be a 90s last poets). In fact, the only music that moves me nowadays still has that preposterous tinge to it (British teenage girls pretending to be Missy Elliot and failing miserably but reinventing hiphop in the process, for example).


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)

Well said.

Oh and and the play that you mention Momus was that before or after Rene Dumal 'Mount Analogue"


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jan. 8th, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC)
To the necropolis

the theme itself seems not immune to endless recycling, but then I guess even Ziggy played guitar.


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