nostalgia isn’t going to be what it was, or something like that

When I was a child there was music which was, whether you liked it or not, inescapable. I have never – and this is not a boast – deliberately or actively listened to a song by Michael Jackson, Madonna, Phil Collins, Duran Duran, Roxette, Take That, Bon Jovi, the Spice Girls… the list isn’t endless, but it is quite long. And yet I know some, or a lot, of songs by all of those artists. And those are just some of the household names. Likewise I have never deliberately listened to “A Horse With No Name” by America, “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head or “Would I Lie to You” by Charles & Eddie; and yet, there they are, readily accessible should I wish (I shouldn’t) to hum, whistle or sing them, or just have them play in my head, which I seemingly have little control over.

Black Lace: the unacceptable face(s) of 80s pop

And yet, since the dawn of the 21st century, major stars come and go, like Justin Bieber, or just stay, like Ed Sheeran, Lana Del Rey or Taylor Swift, without ever really entering my consciousness or troubling my ears. I have consulted with samples of “the youth” to see if it’s just me, but no: like me, there are major stars that they have mental images of, but unless they have actively been fans, they couldn’t necessarily tell you the titles of any of their songs and have little to no idea of what they actually sound like. Logical, because they were no more interested in them than I was in Dire Straits or Black Lace; but alas, I know the hits of Dire Straits and Black Lace. And the idea of ‘the Top 40 singles chart’ really has little place in their idea of popular music. Again, ignorance is nothing to be proud of and I literally don’t know what I’m missing. At least my parents could dismiss Madonna or Boy George on the basis that they didn’t like their music. It’s an especially odd situation to find myself in as my main occupation is actually writing about music; but of course, nothing except my own attitude is stopping me from finding out about these artists.

The fact is that no musician is inescapable now. Music is everywhere, and far more accessibly so than it was in the 80s or 90s – and not just new music. If I want to hear Joy Division playing live when they were still called Warsaw or track down the records the Wu-Tang Clan sampled or hear the different version of the Smiths’ first album produced by Troy Tate, it takes as long about as long to find them as it does to type those words into your phone. Back then, if you had a Walkman you could play tapes, but you had to have the tape (or CD – I know CDs are having a minor renaissance, but is there any more misbegotten, less lamented creature than the CD Walkman?) Or you could – from the 1950s onwards – carry a radio with you and listen to whatever happened to be playing at the time. I imagine fewer people listen to the radio now than they did even 30 years ago, but paradoxically, though there are probably many more – and many more specialised –  radio stations now than ever, their specialisation actually feeds the escapability of pop music. Because if I want to hear r’n’b or metal or rap or techno without hearing anything else, or to hear 60s or 70s or 80s or 90s pop without having to put up with their modern-day equivalents, then that’s what I and anyone else will do. I have never wanted to hear “Concrete and Clay” by Unit 4+2 or “Agadoo” or “Come On Eileen” or “Your Woman” by White Town or (god knows) “Crocodile Shoes” by Jimmy Nail; but there was a time when hearing things I wanted to hear but didn’t own, meant running the risk of being subjected to these, and many other unwanted songs. As I write these words, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, a song that until recently I didn’t know I knew is playing in my head.

And so, the music library in my head is bigger and more diverse than I ever intended it to be. In a situation where there were only three or four TV channels and a handful of popular radio stations, music was a kind of lingua franca for people, especially for young people. Watching Top of the Pops on a Thursday evening, or later The Word on Friday was so standard among my age group that you could assume that most people you knew had seen what you saw; that’s a powerful, not necessarily bonding experience, but a bond of sorts, that I don’t see an equivalent for now, simply because even if everyone you know watches Netflix, there’s no reason for them to have watched the same thing at the same time as you did. It’s not worse, in some ways it’s obviously better; but it is different. Of course, personal taste back then was still personal taste, and anything not in the mainstream was obscure in a way that no music, however weird or niche, is now obscure, but that was another identity-building thing, whether one liked it or not.

Growing up in a time when this isn’t the case and the only music kids are subjected to is the taste of their parents (admittedly, a minefield) or fragments of songs on TV ads, if they watch normal TV or on TikTok, if they happen to use Tiktok, is a vastly different thing. Taylor Swift is as inescapable a presence now, much as Madonna was in the 80s, but her music is almost entirely avoidable and it seems probable that few teenagers who are entirely uninterested in her now will find her hits popping unbidden into their heads in middle age. But conversely, the kids of today are more likely to come across “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on YouTube than I would have been to hear one of the big pop hits of 1943 in the 80s.

Far Dunaway as Bonnie Parker; a little bit 1930s, a lot 1960s

What this means for the future I don’t know; but surely its implications for pop-culture nostalgia – which has grown from its humble origins in the 60s to an all-encompassing industry, are huge. In the 60s, there was a brief fashion for all things 1920s and 30s which prefigures the waves of nostalgia that have happened ever since. But for a variety of reasons, some technical, some generational and some commercial, pop culture nostalgia is far more elaborate than ever before. We live in a time when constructs like “The 80s” and “The 90s” are well-defined, marketable eras that mean something to people who weren’t born then, in quite a different way from the 1960s version of the 1920s. Even back then, the entertainment industry could conjure bygone times with an easy shorthand; the 1960s version of the 1920s and 30s meant flappers and cloche hats and Prohibition and the Charleston and was evoked on records like The Beatles’ Honey Pie and seen onstage in The Boy Friend or in the cinema in Bonnie & Clyde. But the actual music of the 20s and 30s was mostly not relatable to youngsters in the way that the actual entertainment of the 80s and 90s still is. Even if a teenager in the 60s did want to watch actual silent movies or listen to actual 20s jazz or dance bands they would have to find some way of accessing them. In the pre-home video era that meant relying on silent movie revivals in cinemas, or finding old records and having the right equipment to play them on, since old music was then only slowly being reissued in modern formats. The modern teen who loves “the 80s” or “the 90s” is spoiled by comparison, not least because its major movie franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park are still around and its major musical stars still tour or at least have videos and back catalogues that can be accessed online, often for free.

Supergrass in 1996: a little bit 60s, a lot 70s, entirely 90s

Fashion has always been cyclical, but this feels quite new (which doesn’t mean it is though). Currently, culture feels not like a wasteland but like Eliot’s actual Waste Land, a dissonant kind of poetic collage full of meaning and detritus and feeling and substance and ephemera but at first glance strangely shapeless. For example, in one of our current pop culture timestreams there seems to be a kind of 90s revival going on, with not only architects of Britpop like the Gallagher brothers and Blur still active, but even minor bands like Shed Seven not only touring the nostalgia circuit but actually getting in the charts. Britpop was notoriously derivative of the past, especially the 60s and 70s. And so, some teenagers and young adults (none of these things being as pervasive as they once were) are now growing up in a time when part of ‘the culture’ is a version of the culture of the 90s, which had reacted to the culture of the 80s by absorbing elements of the culture of the 60s and 70s. And while the artists of 20 or 30 years ago refuse to go away even modern artists from alternative rock to mainstream pop stars make music infused with the sound of 80s synths and 90s rock and so on and on. Nothing wrong with that of course, but what do you call post-post-modernism? And what will the 2020s revival look like when it rears its head in the 2050s, assuming there is a 2050s? Something half interesting, half familiar no doubt.

All the stuff and more; why bands should split up and never, ever reform


Firstly, let’s acknowledge that there are a few reasons that bands who have long since split up should reform, but they are mostly reasons relevant to the band itself and not their fans;

  • unfinished business (various kinds)
  • reaping the rewards (personal, financial) that they didn’t get the first time around
  • because they (think they) are better songwriters/musicians than they were before – that kind of thing. 
  • It’s fun being a band again

BUT – much as I loved Lush, Ride, Slowdive, The Stone Roses, Pixies and definitely wish them all well, do I want new albums by them?  Even if (as seems unlikely – and in the case of The Pixies definitely wasn’t the case) the new albums are “better” (whatever that means) than their old ones, part of the appeal of those bands (leaving aside nostalgia and the age I was when I first liked them) is the completeness of their discographies; a whole story, from start to finish.


As with most pop/rock music,The Beatles are archetypical. If their discography had stretched from 1962 to 1970, but with one strange album from 1979 where they sounded a bit like The Beatles, only in 1979, with maybe ‘Just Like Starting Over’, ‘Getting Closer‘, ‘Blow Away‘ and ‘Wrack My Brain‘ on it, would Beatles fans be any better off? If nothing else, it would spoil the strangely mythical story arc as recorded in the Anthology documentaries etc, not to mention their embodiment of the cultural phenomenon that is remembered as ‘the sixties’. 

Obviously there are many bands with long, good careers, bands who manage to produce something surprisingly great, even in their ‘twilight years’, but nevertheless the classic band (or just human?) trajectory is:

  • early promise (or astounding precociousness)
  • maturity (‘best’ period)
  • post-maturity (weird/interesting period)
  • end (can be many kinds of end)

There are many permutations on this formula, but a relatively short, intense career (5-10 years?) can be the most satisfying one to look back on, especially from the point of view of the record collector who wants to own everything, in every format and version. Ideally (again, from the collecting point of view) a career should make a nice box set (or two; albums/singles, although it’s inevitable that if a band is commercially successful, record labels will make much more than one or two nice box sets out of their work; “reissue, repackage, repackage” etc).

This article was prompted by the seemingly untimely demise of the brilliant avant-grind/death metal/peculiar UK underground band Oblivionized, followed by the realisation that a couple of demos, an EP, and a few split releases, culminating in a pretty much perfect album is in fact a model career. Their work began in a certain style, they perfected that, moved on, experimented, made something new, perfected that and then quit while they were ahead. And it’s all out there, relatively easy to get hold of and there you have it; the complete Oblivionized collection. Might be a bit of a wait for the box set though.


The Smiths are another favourite band with a model career; and at this point it seems like Morrissey has made it pretty certain that a reunion can never happen. Even though I would no doubt want to see them live if they did reform, I’m glad it seems unlikely. As it stands, The Smiths’ career has that Beatles-y sense of symmetry; The Smiths, where they set out their style in its roughest form (actually my favourite album though); Meat Is Murder and The Queen Is Dead refining it and perfecting it; a sense of strain and everything going a bit odd with Strangeways, Here We Come (my second favourite). Plus a fantastic run of singles, some demos and Peel Sessions and a live album; and then end it before it gets to the first not-good album; perfect. For the individual Smiths, as for The Beatles, their post-band careers would be far more erratic, but successful enough (in Morrissey’s case more than successful enough) that they have no pressing reasons to relive their youth as grown-ups, with all of the high-school-reunion awkwardness one assumes comes from that situation.


It’s nice that The Smiths are, thus far, holding firm; one imagines that the financial rewards would be almost irresistable; and normally I think it’s fair to say that financial factors play a part in the majority of reunions of ‘heritage’ bands (classic cases; The Sex Pistols, Velvet Underground). Normally it is circumstance rather than integrity that prevents bands from working together again; too much water under the bridge in the case of Abba, or more tragically The Doors, Joy Division, Nirvana among many others; these bands have untarnishable careers for the saddest of reasons.


It’s entirely reasonable and understandable that artists want to relive their glory years; but they are called glory years for a reason – they can’t come again. Most bands with any kind of longevity are built around the vision of one or two members anyway (except The Ramones I guess) and how many bands that are any good have had more than a decade of productivity without any lineup changes or inferior albums? And how many reunions have resulted in the best album of a band’s career?

Best not to do it people, once the thrill of seeing you in concert has passed you will have taken the shine off your greatest musical achievements; and no-one except your bank manager will thank you for it.