JANUARY 24, 2019
AS SPOTIFY and its streaming competitors plunge us into previously hidden oceans of music history, Simon Reynolds’s Retromania argument about the dangers of nostalgia might seem more pressing than ever. In his persuasive 2011 book, Reynolds held that recorded sound led to “a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.” We’re drowning in the past, Reynolds argues, and compelled to repeat this nostalgic impulse repeatedly, obsessively, unless we deliberately turn away from reruns and remakes. You can sense this most intensely around the holidays, when the dinosaurs — the Beatles, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Yardbirds — release their gaudy box sets. Alternate takes, remixes, leftovers, and demos have turned as seasonal as tinsel.
But eight years since Reynolds first made his case, much of this freeze-dried nostalgia functions within a transformed media landscape: rock-bottom distribution costs (YouTube + wifi = infinite access), and the concurrent flattening of all media services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) have created a unique and unforeseeable explosion of content. Call it the single most plentiful moment in consumer history. And don’t downplay the notion that the end user has, for perhaps the first time, a supreme advantage: free music flows at our fingertips, while artists and labels clamor for our attention. This past fall, Apple Records released two deluxe Beatles box sets of material from 1968 and 1971 in a furious pas de deux between the band’s interests (the White Album, hitched to both Paul McCartney’s and Ringo Starr’s neverending oldies tours) and Yoko Ono’s response (John Lennon’s Imagine — The Ultimate Collection, to celebrate its 47th birthday). A gajillion cynics rolled their eyes, as scholars and Fab-heads dug back in.
The “glass-half-full” response to Retromania’s relentless examples might include how durable an aesthetic the 1960s offered us, even as it paraded as gleeful, spontaneous, completely unpredictable, and organic to its particular historical moment. The music itself has not only moored radio for decades but also opened up the style for boomer progeny, inviting everybody to hear gospel and R&B, rockabilly, and country-and-western ancestors with new ears.
Retromania weaves an important argument about the challenge of our new media-saturated age — how to renew rock ’n’ roll’s vitality when competing with its own rich past, when that past occupies a larger chunk of everybody’s daily life than ever. But inside Reynolds’s argument lies a tantalizing question: what if the music from that past, from Chuck Berry to the Beatles, strikes aesthetes as original, inventive, and durable — even 50 years later, in this new and entirely unpredictable context?
Exhibit A: The deluxe White Album box set (six CDs plus a Blu-Ray) recently debuted in the top five, and its moment feels closer, its tensions more relevant, than at any point since its original 1968 release. Even before they left for their Indian meditation retreat earlier that year, the Beatles back-shifted from psychedelia. The piano-based single, “Lady Madonna,” harked back to Fats Domino (if not Fats Waller), and most heard it as an early indication that the whole “getting back to your roots” impulse might turn into a trend. By July, the Band’s Music from Big Pink appeared, and the roots revival found its totem. (This title also got remastered again in 2018.) Psychedelia, which had lit the flower-power parade, began to sound quaint; it had never seemed like its regalia could get strung out into much more than a subgenre. Sgt. Pepper ended with “A Day in the Life,” a stark, painfully estranged piece that gently undermined its record’s confections. Its giant, inconclusive final chord turned from exclamation point to giant hanging question mark.
When the Beatles’s White Album appeared in late November 1968, it caught the sound of an era listening to itself unravel. Its audience had witnessed a dreadful reckoning for protesting the Vietnam War, both by watching antiwar figures Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy get murdered, and then suffering the stick-blows of Mayor Richard Daley’s police outside the Democratic National Convention that August (“The whole world’s watching! The whole world’s watching!”). The trials of the Chicago Eight the following season presented the generation gap as epic courtroom procedural, with Judge Julius Hoffman ordering the only black defendant, Bobby Seale, bound and gagged, before sentencing him to four years in jail for contempt (this was overturned on appeal).
In this climate, 1967’s Sgt. Pepper would have sound frivolous, even hypocritical. Lennon became obsessed with releasing “Revolution” as a single, so the Beatle could “comment” on their surroundings, the Paris insurgence, the Prague Spring, and how the youth movement erupted seemingly everywhere in everyday life. McCartney and Harrison strongly opposed Lennon’s impulse, and for perhaps one of the few times in their career, succeeded in voting him down. Lennon revved up the slow version recorded in May (recorded on the day when President Charles de Gaulle slipped out of France) for a scorching ambivalence that spilled from gnarly guitars. Even so, McCartney had brought in a ballad of exquisite breadth and swagger, “Hey Jude,” which obviously commanded the next single’s A-side.
As Lennon revamped his original “Revolution” take, he also lopped off its experimental second half and began toying with the bizarre tape effects for a new tangent: “Revolution 9.” At the time, this experiment sounded like the twisted final page of a book that had started with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus,” and the frantic orchestral squalls interrupting “A Day in the Life.” Few took it seriously, and most considered Side Four a wash: it became the least played album side on both the record and the entire Beatles catalog. That last lap sounded “like some dark attic that you had to summon the courage to peer into, let alone explore,” writes John Harris in one of the package’s better experiential liner notes.
But today, “Revolution 9” doesn’t sound nearly as far out as it did at the time. Indeed, through sampling, mashups, Photoshop, and Pro Tools, the culture has caught up significantly with the whole idea of audio collage, a fractured, disorienting soundscape, and a series of sonic situations set loose from gravity. That single track still makes the White Album sound intangibly prescient, and in its new digital remix, a marvel of abstract engineering. (For the most trenchant description of “Revolution 9,” see Devin McKinney’s indispensable Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History: “‘Revolution 9’ has the force and violence of battle […] eight minutes of the same freak-squeals, audio gremlins, and hole-popping night terrors that everywhere else appear for mere moments.”) With the “Revolution” B-side, Lennon could not have sounded more rooted, more committed to rock ’n’ roll, but with “Revolution 9,” he never produced anything nearly as experimental again.
Exhibit B: Cut to 1971, when journalists pelted each Beatle with “reunion” question, and the band’s legacy tended to overshadow every solo release. “Sons of Beatles” bands like Badfinger and the Raspberries projected melodic pop with great verve and punch, but were clearly singles artists without the same chewy creative nougat at their center. As Beatles hits cornered radio playlists, the era developed the distinct flavor of aftermath, expressed in Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (1975) and the Eagles’s Hotel California (1976). Here is where Reynolds’s Retromania catches hold. Rock culture, in seeking constantly new revelations, at least had the self-awareness to realize it had entered some kind of tunnel. Only punk would expose corporate rock as a gilded sham, and then only in aesthetic terms, not through any popular embrace.
Lennon’s first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, leapt into the top 10 in 1970, but reached number one only in Holland, and its single, “Mother,” failed to crack the top 40. For Lennon fans, the album proved revelatory, a vocal flashpoint; to others, it sounded wrenching, forced, and draining. It dropped from the charts quickly, and his public exorcism faded from the stage, outmaneuvered by (remember?) Santana’s Abraxas and Led Zeppelin III. By the end of that year, as racist postcards castigating his Japanese-American wife arrived daily, his former bandmates suddenly had more chart swagger. Lennon stared at a galling predicament: how to upstage his metaphorical kid brother, George Harrison.
Harrison’s triple album, All Things Must Pass, kicked down the new year, 1971, to spend seven weeks at number one, succeeded by Jesus Christ Superstar, then Janis Joplin’s Pearl, then Sticky Fingers, and finally Tapestry, which prevailed for 15 weeks. (If you squint and wave off Blood, Sweat & Tears and Simon and Garfunkel, 1970 looks like the first year when rock dominated all Billboard’s number-one album slots.) Harrison’s devout single, “My Sweet Lord,” played on some cosmic, inexhaustible radio loop. His Concert for Bangladesh that summer pulled off a stunning bill that included Badfinger, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, and Bob Dylan, even though its film survives mainly as curio. (Part of Harrison’s charm lay in how cheerfully he let his peers steal his show.) People forget how Dylan owned the proceedings, with a 25-minute acoustic stretch studded with numbers from 1963 to 1966 that made good on New Morning’s comeback. So as far back as 1971, Dylan dodged nostalgia, turning older numbers into completely fresh offerings. (And this early material still centers his live sets.)
And here springs an exquisite tension that Reynolds’s Retromania underplays: how did listeners hear these songs in their original contexts, and how do we hear them today? “Imagine” proved a natural soft-core hit that hasn’t aged nearly as well as Lennon might have hoped. At the time, the song summarized the faith that sprang from every Beatles groove, a twilight undertow to their accomplishment; Plastic Ono Band made clear Lennon’s own grief over the band’s breakup; “Imagine” pointed forward and rang out like a promise to keep utopian ideals alive in an uncertain new decade.
Retromania claims that the biggest innovation in music since 2000 has not been sonic but technical: not the “new Beatles” we have long since stopped waiting for, but Napster, and the decentralization of music distribution. True enough, but hasn’t our aesthetic sense developed alongside it? Where does that put a techno-futurist like Beck, who deploys a lot of White Album techniques across his albums but still sounds inimitable. It pays to recall that while Les Paul invented the solid-body electric guitar (“the Log”) in 1940, Jimi Hendrix didn’t come along for another two-and-a-half decades.
Granted, sentimental nostalgia still rings cheap, and its outsized influence on the wider tastes can seem daunting. But can nostalgia serve a positive aesthetic purpose beyond reminiscing for some “simpler time”?
1968 tested humanists’ resolve, as college students watched their parents’ war machine in full throttle in Vietnam and free speech uprisings get squashed in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Paris. So too does our own era call upon basic human decencies: in response to news of gassing of Central American children at our border, or their separation from their mothers and fathers, or their imprisonment; or in response to the news of yet another mass shooting at a school or synagogue. As we hold fast to ideals like the rule of law inside and outside our own Department of Justice, the Beatles somehow step around time again. The past has never loomed so close, and never seemed so ironically sweet.
Tim Riley is an associate professor at Emerson College, in Boston, where he teaches digital journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times, truthdig.com, and NPR, and he was named Best Cultural Critic by the Los Angeles Press Club in 2016.