Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hope You Die Before I Get Old: The Case Against Rock Reunions

"I have never, ever, been interested in repeating myself." – John Lydon

When 1950s tribute band Sha Na Na played Woodstock (they were the festival's penultimate act, following The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and preceding Jimi Hendrix) their hyperstylized Eisenhower-era pastiche provided a bizarre anachronism. Here, at the ultimate celebration of the new, the now, and the young, was the world's first "oldies" act, paying homage to the unhip, the out-of-date, and the old. Strange though their trip may have seemed to the attendant Summer of Lovers, Sha Na Na's performance launched a nostalgia craze that left a wide skid mark on the cultural landscape of the 1970s (think "oldies" radio formats, "Happy Days" and "Grease").

Later came the tribute bands; cover acts who painstakingly recreated the look and sound of classic-rock-era bands like The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, etal., often going so far as to reproduce the original stage sets and light shows. This trend culminated with the highly successful 1980s touring show, Beatlemania! which featured a revolving cast of musicians recreating the Beatles entire career--hairstyles, Nehru jackets, mustaches, and all.

In recent years, however, tribute bands have been rendered obsolete. Not that people aren't interested in living in the past (whether their own or someone else's), it's just that now the actual bands have become their own Sha Na Nas, eagerly throwing creativity to the wind and rushing to cash in on the new wave of New Wave and Punk Rock nostalgia. 

A cursory look through the concert listings in any music mag or alternative weekly is likely to induce a Billy Pilgrim-like sense of having come unstuck in time: Recent years have seen the revivification of bands as disparate as Stiff Little Fingers, Pixies, Squeeze, Bauhaus, Human League, UK Subs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Duran Duran, Pavement, and, at a festival celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Chicago-based label Touch & Go that smacked more of high school reunion than label showcase, Killdozer, Big Black, Negative Approach, Scratch Acid, and Jesus Lizard.

In addition, punk pinko stalwarts Crass recently toured with a revival of their 1978 album Feeding Of The 5000, Iggy Pop took his mostly reformed Stooges on the road paying tribute to his former band's first two albums, and Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook is currently touring with a reimagining of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, with strings (can "The London Symphony Orchestra Plays The Pop Group" be far behind?).

New Wave pioneer Gary Numan offered the most literal reinterpretation of his own past, replicating the tours for both his Pleasure Principle and Telekon albums, going so far as to dust off original stage sets, lighting rigs, costumes and set lists.

This year's All Tomorrows Parties festival in NYC is touting time warp pantomimes by Aussie proto-grungesters the Scientists ("performing Blood Red River"), pre-Nirvana Sub Popsters Mudhoney ("performing Superfuzz Bigmuff and early singles") and the Godfather of giving-up-and-giving-the-people-what-they-want, Iggy Pop (and the Stooges, "performing Raw Power"). 

As a general rule, bands anywhere near the prime of their creative abilities are loath to perform past hits to the exclusion of newer material. Despite many fan's expectations, most artists are primarily interested in giving a performance of the latest, if not the greatest. This may be an ego-driven preference, a perhaps mistaken belief that their best years are not behind them, but it at least displays a steadfast allegiance to creative momentum, and an unwillingness to rest on any artistic laurels.

When post-punk pioneers Wire reformed in 1986 after little more than a half-decade hiatus, they toured with an opening band, The Ex-Lion Tamers, whose set consisted of a note-perfect track-by-track recreation of Wire's debut album Pink Flag. This was a clever sop to the old guard fans who had come hoping to hear the oldies that the band clearly was no longer interested in performing, and it freed the band to concentrate on their new material.

Clearly such integrity is, unlike these many newly zombified bands, a thing of the past.

The practical reasons for rock reunions are obvious enough. The various members of Captain Beefheart's various Magic Bands, for instance, never got their proper due, acknowledgement-wise or, more importantly, paycheck-wise. So when the "reformed" Magic Band (actually a mash-up of disparate members of various Beefheart backing bands) went on tour in 2003 and later released a CD and a DVD, they were able to at least partially redress those wrongs.

The problem with band reunions are equally obvious. In the case of the Magic Band it was the absence of the Captain himself, whose unparalleled vocalizing and unmatched stage presence could barely be hinted at by drummer John French's workmanlike impersonation. The end result was akin to a masterful art forgery: technically impressive, but artistically empty. The Magic Band shows may have garnered mostly positive reviews, but there's little doubt that history will treat them as anything more than a footnote.

And so it is with all rock 'n' roll reunions. It all comes down to that pesky prefix "re." Rock and roll has always been about newness, youth, rebellion, and often, novelty, and not surprisingly, such things tend to get less new, young, rebellious and novel the second time around. By attempting to reenact their own pasts, reunited rockers inevitably beg comparison to their younger selves. That's not a competetion anyone is likely to win, let alone someone trying to express adolescent angst while closing in on mandatory retirement age. 

This degeneration becomes even more conspicuous in the case of punk rock reunions. It's one thing for aging hippies to dawdle on stage and attempt to revive the Ghost of Flower Power Past. That's just sad. But when bands who were part of a movement that was expressly about breaking with tradition and embracing diversity and change now parrot their younger, angrier selves in the name of "those were the days"-style wistfulness, it seems less like a meager attempt to reignite their youthful rebelliousness and more like a sad capitulation to its opposite.

When the Clash sang "No ElvisBeatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977" it had only been 20 years since the The King was at his peak, a mere seven since the dissolution of the Fab Four, and a scant five since the release of "Exile On Main Street." 

By contrast, Iggy's Raw Power broke its new ground 37 years ago, The Pixies Surfer Rosa is a full one score and two, and Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted is just a hair under being as relevant in 2010 as "Hound Dog" was in 1977.

It could be argued that one thing that makes this newest rock nostalgia different than its Motown or classic-rock era counterparts is that many of these bands (in fact much of the whole pre- and post-punk/new wave/alternative movement) have grown bigger now in legend than they were during their prime in popularity. Unlike Gen Xers, whose moments in the sun were much-revered, well-publicized, and well-attended, the most influential and creative acts of the last several decades have been far more underrapreciated. So whereas a Blood Sweat and Tears reunion could only ever hope to play to a fraction of the number of people at Woodstock, bands like The Stooges, Neu!, and the Magic Band can see their average attendance grow from triple digits to thousands. History has finally caught up with them, and they're simply out there getting their propers.

That doesn't make it any less of a cop out, however. It's still a throwing up of the hands in the face of creative bankruptcy. A putting-back-on of the makeup, as KISS would, and did, have it. A jettisoning of the very spirit of the work they now so meticulously try to reproduce (no reinterpretations, please, we want to hear our favorite albums, in sequence no less, exactly how you'd never in a million years have done it live back in the day). Yes, let's call it what it is: It's a sellout, of the most basic, craven, and cynical kind.

This kind of cultural Eternal Return isn't strictly limited to rock, of course. It's a basic tenent of the modern entertainment industry that nothing can happen just once. Everything must be serialized, sequelized, and franchised to within an inch of its life. Anything that's ever been sold at any time in the past is just fodder for remastering, repackaging, and rereleasing. 

For the post-MTV generations, the redux has become de rigeur. To most modern consumers the remake is the original, as far as their chronology is concerned, and questions of integrity and originality, of neither burning out nor fading away, aren't even worth tweeting about.

And as for those who were there the first time around, they're only too happy to forget all that immature nonsense about living in the moment, flipping off the past, and being part of something new. If it was cool then, how can it not be cool now? 

That an aging generation should attempt to deny their inevitable obsolescence by constantly signifying their own importance is no surprise. That the younger generation takes them seriously is a disturbing disruption of the natural order of things. 

In 1896, the surrealist Alfred Jarry summed up the way things ought to be nicely: "Another lot of young people will appear, and consider us completely outdated, and they will write ballads to express their loathing of us, and there is no reason why this should ever end." 

Except when there are egos to be fed and money to be made.

No comments:

Post a Comment