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Play it again, Sam

Nostalgia has long been the key to pop’s survival

Artillery Row

On the face of it, the early to mid-1970s should have been a peak period for pop creativity. After all, wasn’t this the height of the now critically acclaimed glam and prog rock movements? An era known not just for its Pink Floyds and Led Zeppelins, but for its top-notch soul and folk/rock singers Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon to mention just a few.

Yet on closer investigation the new avant garde wasn’t quite what it appeared to be.

Take zeitgeisty media darlings Roxy Music, whose single Street Life was just a little too left field for me to add to my then ten-year-old self’s collection of 45 rpms, a sorry pile formed of Suzi Quatro’s Devil Gate Drive and Marmalade’s Beatles knock off Ob La Di, Ob La Da

Roxy’s lurid Bacofoil outfits gave kids like us the impression they’d been beamed down from the planet Zarg

Roxy’s lurid Bacofoil outfits and Eno’s not entirely musical synth soundscapes topped with Ferry’s staccato-style vocal delivery gave kids like us the impression they’d been beamed down from the planet Zarg, but soon Ferry, followed by the even more zeitgeisty Bowie with Pin Ups, would record an LP of songs from the decade before. No longer the glam dude in the brocade jacket and gold platform boots, the Roxy frontman was now poolside in LA fitted in a retro white tux.

Even in the cheaper seats of the chart rundown, things were hardly what you’d call visionary. We had Mud, Alvin Stardust, Showaddywaddy and other pantomime rockers representing the 1950s, then an imported high cholesterol diet of ‘good ole’ country and western: Dolly, Tammy, Charley etc. Remember the crash-inducing trucker’s anthem Convoy?

And if you still believe, like in any BBC Four or Sky Arts rock doc, the seminal cultural moments of the 1970’s were Lou Reed’s Transformer or Bowie putting an androgenous arm around Mick Ronson on Top Of The Pops, think again. Daytime radio staples included Paper Lace, The Wurzels, Brotherhood of Man and Whispering Grass, a comic duet by Windsor Davies and Don Estelle that occupied the number one slot for three whole weeks in June 1975.

(Incidentally, the same summer saw a brief 1940s fashion and swing revival in London’s nightclubs and yet another release for Glenn Miller’s wartime hit In The Mood.)

Pop music has always been a retrospective business

The point of this somewhat revisionist history class is that pop music has always been a retrospective business, and if the ‘nostalgia pendulum theory’ is to be trusted, we are witnessing culture repeating itself roughly every 30 years. Patrick Metzger, theorist and identifier also of the common vocal trait the ‘Millennial Whoop’, explains: 

“It takes about 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture when they were young to become the creators of culture in their adulthood. The art and culture of their childhood helped them achieve comfort and clarity in their world, and so they make art that references that culture and may even exist wholly within that universe.” 

And, like it or not, since their fellow creatives — designers, directors, producers, musicians, influencers and so on — grew up in the same period, they start mirroring each other’s work “in a kind of feedback loop where all parties involved want to contribute more and more work that revives that same zeitgeist.” 

To add weight to the theory, Metzger analysed over 500 movie remakes from the last few decades including Planet of the Apes and Ghostbusters, finding that the average time-to-remake is 23 years. Likewise, some leading cultural touchstones such as ET, Alien, and Stand By Me, all of which heavily influenced hit Netflix series Stranger Things, set in 1980’s small town America, were found to be made roughly 30 years before the series began in 2016.

Okay, but if Metzger’s theory is a watertight one that means we’re now wallowing in grungy 1991 — yep, Nirvana’s Never Mind has just had its 30th anniversary vinyl re-release — and very soon we’ll be drowned by a tsunami of swaggering ex-Brit poppers and Ginger Spice squeezed into a flimsy Union Jack dress.

Evidence suggests there’s an increasingly ready audience for such rear-view window glancing

Evidence suggests there’s an increasingly ready audience for such rear-view window glancing. Abba, a sort of Fleetwood Mac lite in avatar form, are now peddling Voyage, the long-awaited album and “custom-built show” while, after a two year lay-off, tours are finally kicking off for dinosaurs Deep Purple, Ozzy Osborne, Chic and Diana Ross. Meanwhile relative youngster Rick Astley of Never Gonna Give You Up fame has just finished a series of sell-out dates singing songs by, erm, The Smiths.

At the multiplex, Queen and Elton John biopics have already scored huge box office hits. They are the new way of telling our national story, according to film critic Mark Kermode. Soon to hit the screens are feature films about The Beatles, David Bowie, and Sparks. 

Online, there are no shortage of outlets for the die-hard rock fan. Veteran music journos David Hepworth and Mark Ellen have moved seamlessly from print journalism into podcasting with Word In Your Ear, closely followed by the The Rockonteurs with music biz insiders Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet and Guy Pratt, the ex-Pink Floyd bassist.

Interactive listening parties like these are becoming the much-needed glue between the artist and the audience

But perhaps the most surprising hit on the internet is Tim’s Listening Party, hosted by Tim Burgess, lead singer of The Charlatans. In the absence of any visible music industry, thriving new venues or high street record shops, interactive listening parties like these are becoming the much-needed glue between the artist and the audience — at least 75,000 followers and 850 bands seem to think so anyway. 

Fatalists who predict an increasingly bland, global and celebrity-driven pop landscape should take heart from the fact that shortly after our annus horribilus of 1975, a band calling themselves The Sex Pistols played their first gig in a top-floor common room of Saint Martin’s School of Art, before an audience of 20. For a brief moment afterwards punk swept away the old guard, turned the clock to year zero and broke the dreaded nostalgia cycle. Tragically, at least for those of us who fought valiantly in the punk wars of the late 1970s, it returned with the certainty of an extended Dave Gilmour guitar solo!

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