Tuesday, October 13, 2015

nostalgia as curation

back in the day was still too late
Ah, nostalgia. Can anyone resist the temptation of romanticizing the music of their youth - especially if they just missed it? A few recent documentaries - Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC and the BBC series Music For Misfits: The Story of Indie have come not to bury the past but to praise it.

Music For Misfits is about as BBC as a BBC documentary can get - it's the kind of thing Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers parody so deftly on their IFC show Documentary Now! In the first of three parts, punk rock is presented as a life-changing cultural force that sweeps up every maladjusted youth in its path. Just once I'd love to see a documentary where someone says "Punk was a farce put on by trained monkeys assembled by a fashion boutique to sell terrible clothes." But BBC is in the business of celebrating British institutions and upholding their myths - even the ones that sneeringly sung "God Save The Queen".

Morissey and the Smiths get some predictable fluffing - it is a British indie documentary after all - but more interesting is the story of Factory Records in Manchester and the origins of industrial music. The first episode details how Martin Hannett achieved Joy Division's iconic sound on Unknown Pleasures; using the band's rhythmic post-punk as raw material, Hannett made the songs sound even more distant and forlorn, providing a blueprint for every band that stared at their shoes while mumbling into a microphone.

What's striking is that even as their wave was cresting, some bands considered the moment over. Music For Misfits recounts an infamous live show where, as The Jesus and Mary Chain were gaining critical acclaim, frontman Jim Reid snarled at his audience, "Where were you 6 fucking months ago, you fucking cunts?" Rock critic Alexis Petridis astutely observes, "We now see the 80's through this slightly rosy lens of nostalgia, and nostalgia is a form of curation. You cut out the bits you don't like. You cut out all the crap bits."

everything looks better in retrospect
While indie was quickly turning into dance pop in Britain, on the other side of the Atlantic it was taking a less navel-gazing, more strident form courtesy of labels like Dischord and Alternative Tentacles. Bands like Faith and Rites of Spring weren't content to just sing their feelings; they were singing their feelings AT you. Like a beloved record played too many times, Salad Days locks into a well-worn groove: British punk begets the Bad Brains, which begets the Teen Idles, which turns into Minor Threat, which creates straight edge, which leads to violence at shows, which leads to the counter-movement Revolution Summer, which spawns American indie rock as we know it.

And since this is a documentary revolving around Ian Mackaye and Dischord, straight edge is tackled head on. No one in the documentary (including members of Minor Threat) are unabashedly in support of it; for the most part, the documentary and its subjects take an apologetic tone. Straight edge, after all, led to hardcore going down an even darker road than drug use, as later bands like Earth Crisis and Unbroken succumbed to a more insidious influence: Metal.

Salad Days takes a detour into go-go and DC funk, with Rollins and others describing the one-sided relationship the punks had with that scene and its African American demographic. It always amuses me that punk rockers condescend to and deride heavy metal, but wax lyrical about "black music" like reggae, funk and hip hop. Meanwhile, rappers like Public Enemy and Ice T, when given a chance to collaborate with rock musicians, head straight to metal bands like Slayer and Anthrax. BECAUSE NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR SHITTY PUNK BAND.

[As an aside, the fact that "England vs America", "New York vs DC" etc arguments about punk and hardcore pop up to this day shines a light on the provincial mentalities that fostered those scenes. I'm trying to think if I've ever heard an argument over whether NY death metal was better than the Florida style; and other than the hostility between Swedish and Norwegian bands at a certain point in the 90's, itself a product of centuries of inter-Scandinavian rivalries, that doesn't happen in metal. Besides, everyone knows the Swedes do it the best.]

Brian Baker provides the documentary with the same biting sarcasm that made him a loved/hated figure in the DC hardcore scene, creating the derisive (and derided) term "emo" and shrugging off his peers' activism and the emergent Positive Force movement with, "I was not really concerned about what was happening here at home. I was like: Later, nerds." Sadly, his time with terrible Sunset Strip wannabes Junkyard goes unmentioned and unremarked upon. But it appears to me that when punks abandon their roots, they embrace the very worst arena rock cliches willy-nilly (see also: The Discharge abomination Grave New World, SSD's How We Rock and every "metalcore" band).

If Salad Days can be accused of trying to relive the past, its participants do the opposite. Jason Farrell of Swiz says early on, "It was such a perfect little moment. And it's beautiful that it died." And at the documentary's coda, Mark Anderson of Positive Force proclaims, "Salad days - that's not then, that's now. It is always now. So: Go. Make. It. Real. Now."

A line of reasoning this blog has been taking for some time. Instead of being slavishly devoted to [and derivative of] 70's heavy rock, 80's thrash, the early days of death metal, or whatever scene you wish you were a part of, maybe follow the pioneering spirit of those bands you love so much and come up with your own music. You never now, you might create your own perfect little moment all of your own.

later, nerds.