Simon Reynolds 

Paperback Q&A: Simon Reynolds on Retromania

The music critic on travelling through time to grapple with pop's eerie fixation with looking back
  
  

How did you come to write Retromania?
One day I realised that there was something strange going on in terms of rock and its relationship to its own past. There were specific things I noticed from the mid-2000s: the popularity of the "don't look back" template, where bands play their iconic album all the way through in sequence, or the multiple simultaneous revivals (80s synth pop, late 70s post-punk, late 60s folk-rock, etc). But it also came from everyday use of the internet: downloading out-of-print albums from file-sharing blogs or trawling through YouTube, and entering a state of atemporality where the past and the present are intermingled and indistinguishable, in an eerie way. But retromania could be good-eerie, as with so much of my favourite music of the 2000s: operators such as Ariel Pink or the Ghost Box label, where the music was all about memory, nostalgia, the past as a haunting.

What was most difficult about it?
The sheer mass of material to deal with. Retro is a culture-wide paradigm and it crops up in fashion, film, design, all over. The book was pulling me in all kinds of directions, towards things I'd never written about before. In the end I focused mostly on music, because that's where retro most alarms and perplexes me. But even there, the potential scope was vast, because many of the syndromes I was investigating could be tracked back a long way into rock history. One of the challenges – and I expect this applies to any kind of broad-range non-fiction – was deciding what to leave out. The subject could easily lend itself to a multi-volume treatment.

What did you most enjoy?
It's always exciting to write about things you've not grappled with before, because there's a sense of discovery. So the chapter on fashion was great fun, as was the chapter about "nostalgia for the future". That looks at things like the space race and science fiction and how they connected to musique concrete and post-WW2 electronic composers – music I love but have not had much opportunity to write about before. I also really enjoyed the historical aspect of the book, looking back at pop's history of looking back, its nostalgia for its own lost golden ages.

How long did it take?
Nearly three years.

What has changed for you since it was first published?
My ideas have become a lot clearer and sharper, through doing something like 100 interviews and in response to some of the critiques that the book has received. I've not changed my overall view in the least, but I've thought of scores of things I should have put in Retromania. This always happens: a book continues to write itself after you've finished and handed it in.

Who's your favourite writer?
Too many contenders, but if pushed ... Music journalism: Barney Hoskyns was the big influence growing up. Critical theory: Roland Barthes. Fiction: Vladimir Nabokov. Science fiction: JG Ballard.

What are your other inspirations?
Some of the best thinkers about music and pop culture are involved in making it or propagating it, so over the years reading interviews with figures such as Green Gartside, Malcolm McLaren, Brian Eno, and others, has influenced my ideas a lot. Ideas are also sparked from conversations with friends – including the blog world, back-and-forth with friends I've never physically met.

Give us a writing tip.
Get away from the computer as much as possible. For me, the best flow in terms of thoughts and sentences still comes from scribbling on paper, or in the head, while doing mundane household activities, shopping, going for a walk. The computer encourages a kind of fussy writing where you coax a piece of text into existence and then fiddle and finesse it endlessly.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you were starting the book again?
Define my terms more starkly, actually get into talking about what innovation and originality are, the various circumstances in which they occur and different forms they can take. I would also add a more upbeat final chapter, based on talking to people confidently engaged in trying to make future music: people working at the cutting edge of technology or combining sound and visuals. The book does end on an upbeat note, but it's not supported by anything, it's just a vague hope!

 

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