The word retro is used to refer to a self-conscious fetish for period stylization in music or clothes/design, but the word has come to mean almost anything that relates to the relatively recent past of popular culture. YouTube’s gigantic collective archive of music makes the past readily accessible, playback on devices like iPods, grey tours by bands coming out of retirement, and a recent revival in vinyl albums of the past, are all distinctive features of retromania as we know it today.
Internationally there is a Hollywood mania for remaking blockbuster movies or popular TV shows, re-packaging live theatre from decades earlier, franchising popular movies into series, sequels, prequels, and seemingly endless re-imaginings, even as fashion – Marc Jacobs, Azzedine Alaia, and Anna Sui – ransacks the styles of previous eras (Mad Men stars like John Hamm and January Jones above revived the styles of the 1960’s) , and vintage clothing continues to boom, toys, gaming, food, interior design, travel, architecture, and even ringtones are plundered from the past.
So are we forever to just re-enact the old sentiment of rock, channel the ghosts of another era – Johnny O’Keefe (above right), the Easybeats, Daddy Cool (above left), the Saints, INXS, Midnight Oil, Crowded House, Silverchair (above centre) and Savage Garden – is the rebellion over, or will new rock or retrorock as it is sometimes known, borrow from the past to create a brave new world of Australian music?
Over the decades pop music’s metabolism has buzzed with dynamic energy, creating the surging-into-the future feel of periods like the R&R and rockabilly of the 50’s, psychedelic sixties, the post-punk-seventies, the hip hop eighties, and the rave nineties. But in the 2000’s there was a curious slowness as the decade marched forward, sure enough electronic dance music had been the musical vanguard of change in the 90’s, but the pop present became increasingly crowded out by the past – archaic memories of yesteryear, retrorock borrowing from ancient styles to such an extent that it seemed as though we were no longer at the threshold of the future.
The first ten years of the new century turned inward, referencing the musical styles of past decades, no doubt catalysed by the glut of biographies, memoirs, rockumentaries, biopics, commemorative issues of albums, and the re-emergence of classic vinyl. Bands seemed to reform unendingly, nostalgia/ superannuation tours proliferated, often as a prequel to returning to recording again. The 2000’s became the decade of rampant recycling, bygone genres were revived and renovated, vintage sonic material reprocessed, recombined, repackaged, often by new young bands, who would apply new technology and bring a new attitude to reactivate the music of the past.
During the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s there were groups of musicians that kept the spirit of the first wave of rock & roll alive, playing music that unabashedly celebrated everything prior to the British Invasion – rockabilly, doo wop, rhythm and blues, soul music, surf rock, Brill Building pop, Motown, and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, re-appeared and often dominated the charts. Retrorock tried to sound and feel like old-time rock & roll, classics and obscurities from the late ’50s and early ’60s were covered with relish, and new songs were written in the same spirit. Sometimes, they were faithful to the letter, writing songs about dances and rock & roll with no irony; other times, the new tunes were laced with humor and parodic spirit, either way, the music stayed the same — a celebration of the early days of rock & roll, from Chuck Berry to pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys.
This period of retrorock worship in the 1970’s coincided with the release of the movies American Graffiti, Grease, and That’ll Be the Day, the TV shows Happy Days and its spin-off Lavene and Shirley. The period also saw the rise of such acts as The Sha Na Nas, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, and locally Daddy Cool who wrote original songs that paid homage to early rock and doo wop, followed later in the 70’s by Ol ’55, and the Silver Studs, who were quick to capitalize on the kitsch retro style of early rock bands, combining great harmonies, and clever theatrics, with a keen sense of pop dynamics, in a genuine if at times parodic homage of the early rockers. Music festival acts like Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs were doing very loud, extended versions of hits by Eddie Cochrane, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent, ageing rocker Johnny O’Keefe made a triumphant return to the Sunbury Rock Festival in 1972, and John Lennon released his solo album of golden oldies, Rock and Roll in 1975.
In the 1980’s they would be followed by the Stray Cats, The Rubettes, Racey, Showaddywaddy, Mud, Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust, and even Jade Hurley in Australia, who turned a one-hit wonder chart success (How I Lied) into a career-long Jerry Lee Lewis tribute act. In short there were plenty of performers who were active perpetuators of the myth that this bygone era of innocence and naivety, remained the font of all that was honest and valid in rock music.
The psychedelic music of the 60’s which featured such bands as Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Blues Magoos, was echoed through the music of such local bands of the 1960’s and 70’s as the Wild Cherries, Taman Shud, Tully, and Lobby Lloyd’s Coloured Balls, and has been re-invented decades later, most notably by Perth band Tame Impala, the alter ego of Kevin Parker. The distorted free form jams and sonic experiments of 60’s psychedelic bands are now being blended with electronic music, hip hop, and other genres, and incorporating the use of such retro effects as tape delays, phasers, sitars, fuzz tone boxes, and pitch modulators, as Tame Impala has taken its highly influential retrobrand of psychedelic rock into global markets.
Generally, the lyrical content of contemporary psychedelia differs from early psychedelic music which focused mostly on absurdity and drug use, although there are still plenty of drug references to ecstasy, marijuana, mushrooms in and around the songs of Tame Impala. But mostly the lyrics focus on social issues like identity, isolation, introspection, moral and political paradox, and the vocal melodies tend to weave together with the music to create a Spectorish “wall of sound” for the new millennium. The main point in modern psychedelic music is to make the listener feel as if they have transcended into a dream-like state, so the end result is not too far removed from what the fans were looking for back in the famously blissed-out era of the 70’s.
New Rock or Retrorock was in full swing internationally early in the new millennium with The White Stripes, and The Strokes re-inventing the sounds of New York punk and late 1970’s electric blues bands, and the Hives took up the cudgels for 1960’s garage rock. In Australia in the noughties, The Vines were forever damned with a burdensome prediction when hailed as “The Beatles Meets Nirvana”, while Jet (above left) were successfully re-inventing the Motown sound of the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, with a dash of Iggy Pop, and becoming the musical identity de jour for the new Apple iPod. The Rogue Traders (above right) were artfully appropriating the power chords of Elvis Costello, The Knack, and Tears For Fears and having hits here and internationally, Silverchair were plumbing the angsty depths of Nirvana and Pearl Jam’’s grunge and exporting their music back to Seattle from which it had originated. Wolfmother (above centre) were tearing up the charts here and overseas with chords, riffs, psychedelic lyrics, a mystical persona, and hard- rock pretensions reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, and were being quickly followed down the same route by Airbourne. Vintage-style soul had also emerged with Amy Whitehouse, Adele, and Duffy, and in short time those who had been the pioneering innovators of the past, had become the curators and archivists of the past, perpetuating retrorock in all its forms, into the future.
Then there was the bastard child of retromania, mash-ups of various scraps of music from diverse sources, often splicing together thousands of sampled sounds, lyrics, TV/movie soundtracks, so that it was impossible to trace the lineage and provenance of the finished work. This was sometimes referred to as hauntology or hypnogogic pop, which found its earliest expression in the mid-eighties as analogue formats were increasingly replaced by digital formats and sampling became more commonplace. Early practitioners of this dark art were UK’s Pop Will Eat Itself (Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!) and KLF/The Timelords (Doctorin’ the Tardis), but the genre really took off around 2001 when the Apple iPod was launched.
Melbourne-based Robbie Chater, Darren Seltmann and Tony Di Blasi (above), were typical techno geeks, beguiled by a sampled music and riff-pilfering genre also known as plunderphonics, who became known as the Avalanches, and in 2001 created a landmark album called Since I Left You which became an international hit.
It’s not possible to fully explore the phenomena of retrorock in this blog, because it is endlessly re-inventing itself, particularly in a digital age of internet connectivity and unprecedented access to source material. It would also be trite to damn retrorock as irrelevant or unoriginal, popular music continues to borrow from the past as it always has, originality may even be overrated, after all it’s not so much what you borrow from the past, but what you actually do with it, that really counts.
It may be easy to conclude that certain decades were more highly original and ground-breaking than others – the 60’s and the 90’s for example – and that they were followed by decades that often amounted to merely asset-stripping of the past, and yet appropriation of music will always be an integral component of future trends. New forms of music will continue to emerge, and new artists will trawl the musical nooks and crannies of the past, in the mean time we should celebrate the euphoria of retrorock in all its various forms, safe in the knowledge that the future, whatever it may be, is out there.
Over the next two weeks enjoy the retrorock of some of Australia’s most accomplished performers – Jet, Tame Impala, Wolfmother, The Avalanches, The Vines and Ol’ ’55.