in Frieze | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

The Reformation

Is the recent trend of seminal bands playing their ‘signature’ albums a cynical marketing ploy or a stab in the eye of iPod culture?

in Frieze | 14 NOV 05

Despite previous dispiriting experiences of dearly loved groups reforming (the Velvet Underground’s 1995 comeback tour was the nadir), this autumn’s opportunity to see the original line-up of Dinosaur Jr revisit their 1987 proto-grunge album You’re Living All Over Me in its entirety was not to be sniffed at – not least for the sake of my teenage self, who missed them the first time round. The gig was part of a new season which ran from August to October entitled ‘Don’t Look Back’, organized by All Tomorrow’s Parties (promoters behind the festival of the same name, and now a big player in staging leftfield gigs and events). Closer to a recital than a regular show, participating bands played their ‘signature’ albums in the same running order as the original. Dinosaur Jr came second in the series, hot on the heels of The Stooges’ Fun House (1970) the night before, at which Iggy predictably, but with impeccably entertaining stagecraft, dropped his trousers and threw himself around like a five-year-old dosed up on tartrazine. Other performances included: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s screaming, theremin-inflected garage trash rendition of Orange (1994); sugary Icelandic electronic outfit Múm bleeping and burbling through Yesterday was Dramatic – Today is OK (2000) on a double bill with Cat Power covering the cover versions of Covers Record (2000); Belle and Sebastian’s dark-side-of-twee collection If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996); and, rather mysteriously given their famous antipathy towards the capitalist spectacle, Gang of Four playing Entertainment! (1979).

Dinosaur Jr’s appeal was always their ability to make ferocious hailstorms of distortion and feedback sound like the most sun-drenched, soaring pop song you ever heard – imagine Neil Young played through a jet plane engine – and this gig did not disappoint. Famously lackadaisical (singer and guitarist J. Mascis once claimed he never read books because turning the pages was too much effort) the idea of them playing a set where they didn’t even have to choose the order of songs was apt. Yet from the opening track, ‘Little Fury Things’ – a soul-shredding roar of agonized noise brightening into warm sweeps of bittersweet harmony – through to the closing menace of
bassist Lou Barlow’s lone, spooked ‘Poledo’ the band seemed genuinely to enjoy the rockslide tumble of this faintly nostalgic gig before sending everyone off with a crowd-pleasing encore of careworn gems, including ‘Freak Scene’ and ‘Budge’.

Something, however, bothered me about seeing them within the inverted commas of the ‘Don’t Look Back’ season. An accompanying booklet was distributed at the gigs, in which a page of reverentially hyperbolic contextualizing notes was devoted to each album and concert. In the preface ATP’s Barry Hogan asked, ‘Have you ever gone to a concert and wished your favourite band had played your favourite song, then gone home disappointed, because it didn’t happen? The “Don’t Look Back” series invites artists to present a retro-spective performance of one of their works in its entirety […] With records being played out as a complete work, there is no danger the favourite song you were hoping to hear won’t be played.’ Here was a contractual guarantee that you would get what you paid for, that the band in question wouldn’t play any dodgy new material. No nasty surprises. In fact, no surprises at all.

Ever since the baby boomer generation settled down, got proper jobs, and started families and adult-oriented rock magazines, the music industry has been consistently raking in the shekels with every imaginable form of reissued sound. In tandem, its marketing departments have developed a shorthand vocabulary that stakes claims to innovation and genealogy, and increasingly functions as both adjectival evaluation and genre category – ‘classic’, ‘seminal’, ‘influential’. This seems contradictory. On the one hand it’s a badge that distinguishes the canon from crap; it wants the music to which it refers to be taken seriously – ‘you need this expensive Beach Boys box set as much as you need Mozart and Dickens.’ Yet how does a genre that is built around such seductive myths as spontaneity, youth, disposability and the channelling of raw power, age gracefully? That many classical composers lived lives far more rock-and-roll than any of today’s musicians is a fact often overlooked, but once music begins to grow away from its original social context, does it lose its edge?

The marketing and mythology of pop ‘after the fact’ (once the band has split up, or sunk into indulgent mannerism) have long been based on exclusivity rather than mass availability – the kind of mentality that leads to nerdy boasts of ‘being there’ when so-and-so played their first gig in an east London flea-pit toilet cistern. Just as the art world has inevitably begun arguing whether historical works of performance art can be archived and re-performed, it was only a matter of time before an event such as ‘Don’t Look Back’ appeared in the realm of music. It raises interesting questions as to the relationship between pop’s understanding of its historical myths and supposed disposability; the formal orthodoxies of gigs – set lists, encores, old and new material; new generations coming to music with different attitudes to its presentation; and the economic demands of the entertainment industry.
‘Don’t Look Back’ aims at a demographic that grew up with post-Punk and the so-called ‘spirit of independence’, the DIY indie ethos that covered everything from the underground hardcore and industrial scenes through dance music to the kind of jangly wistfulness found at student union discos. No longer set in opposition to the major label record industry, it is fully assimilated by it. With tickets upwards of £20, these are events aimed at ‘fifty quid man’, that breed of high-earning professional who splashes out £50 on a fistful of new CDs and DVDs every weekend at his local Virgin Megastore or through the iTunes Music Store.

It could be argued that ‘Don’t Look Back’ is the antithesis of iPod culture, which, owing to the undiscriminating splintering of any recorded collection into individual mp3s, some have decried as spelling the death of the album, the end of well-crafted suites of songs. An interesting historical comparison would be Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears’ treatment of Franz Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise (A Winter Journey, 1828), his musical settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller. Schubert died aged 31, without finishing correcting the proofs to the final collection of lieder, and it wasn’t until Britten and Pears’ performances that the full 80-minute cycle was heard as one – until that point most people had been used to hearing Die Winterreise almost as we would listen to highlights from a shuffled iPod playlist. Brian Wilson’s final unveiling of Smile in 2004 is another useful parallel. Here was an album conceived as an ‘American symphony’; what essentially started life as a studio project had developed into a song cycle for the context of live performance, pieces performed back to back via complex segues and contrasting textural transitions. Yet in the case of many bands, songs are never written with any specific order in mind, and, played live, they inevitably differ to some degree from the studio recordings. Bands can also get too used to studio versions – repeated listening to a ‘definitive’ recording can turn what was a heartfelt yelp in the studio into an over-rehearsed and cold self-imitation if they choose slavishly to replicate that sound live.

With its sprawling progeny of genres and sub-genres, pop music grows older by the day, and at some point has to find a way of dealing with its own pasts and forms in constructive ways that bypass the marketing terminologies that so tiresomely strive to canonize. In the words of Dinosaur Jr’s song ‘Budge’: ‘there’s tons of rubble to sift through.’