Monday, 23 May 2011

Adams vs. Roses: Different Kinds of Retromania

On the surface of it, She Bangs the Drums by The Stone Roses and Summer of '69 by Bryan Adams are strikingly similar records. Both opt for a sort of ecstatic sun-worship aesthetic. Both draw on the guitar revivalist culture of the late eighties, standout early examples of what Simon is about to classify definitively as retromania. Both have acquired "anthem" status over the last 20-25 years (though in very different contexts). Both are, let's face it, very good, if not great pieces of music.

Classicism is of course the unifying thread. The Stone Roses were traditionalists far more often than they were acid-house-loving modernists, and nowhere is this more apparent than on She Bangs ..., at least on a strictly formal level. The snare drums are histrionic and drenched in reverb, the basslines treble-heavy, the guitars chunky and onanistic.

In fact, remove Ian Brown's vocal line from the equation, and this is, like Summer of '69, an almost G'n'R-style Californian rock party tune: Bill and Ted soundtrack fodder. Listen to the guitar parts in the respective tunes, to the almost identical mixture of Byrdsian jangle and vigorous melodic riffs.

Both She Bangs ... and Summer of '69 are songs of escapism. One pertinent reaction to the miseries of Reaganite and Thatcherite rule was to depart from earlier traditions of protest and critique and posit a fantasy world of endless summer and Dionysian moments. In Summer of '69, the social-critical mode of Springsteen is briefly invoked:

Me and some guys from school
Had a band and we tried real hard
Jimmy quit and Jody got married
I shoulda known we'd never get far

But this is undercut by a sense of nostalgia and conservative pessimism that is even more extreme than that of, say, Bon Jovi's Springsteen-lite Livin' on a Prayer. Aint no use in complaining, says Adams, with tragic pathos.

Summer of '69 may attain to incredible lyrical heights in its key verse:

Standing on your mama's porch
You told me it would last forever
Oh the way you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never
Those were the best days of my life

But overall it is a profoundly hopeless record, a record that both musically and lyrically succeeds in completely burying the energies of a past epoch (the sixties) by perfecting its form and refusing to go anywhere with it. No wonder the hypnagogic pop contingent finds solace in fetishizing this sort of MTV-era romantic-melancholia.

She Bangs ... is equally in thrall to the past. However, its variety of retromania differs crucially from that of Summer of '69. Here tradition is treated with exuberance and even iconoclasm, a fact that is underlined by some startlingly eloquent lyrics:

I can feel the earth begin to move
I hear my needle hit the groove
And spiral through another day
I hear my song begin to say
Kiss me where the sun don't shine
The past was yours
But the future's mine

There is a sense here of the past being positively appropriated. What must not be lost in the discussions about retromania is the fact that certain kinds of backward-looking music over the past three decades have attempted to drag the past into the future, by using classic templates as a means of cultural empowerment. If we need to be clear that this sort of "Britpop" ultimately ended in farce, we also need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water by privileging only radical futurism (which is actually only really possible at certain brief moments in the development of an art form).

For me, She Bangs the Drums embodies a spirit of newness and affirmation, a Motown-esque hymn to youth and the future. If Oasis and others would ultimately marry this affirmative impulse to Thatcherism and nostalgia, The Stone Roses showed that progressions of form could be nuanced and joyous - meaningful steps forward in a difficult period - and that this need not necessarily contradict an ethos of collectivism and subversion. Unlike Summer of '69, She Bangs the Drums was an emphatically hopeful tune of 1989, because it spoke to a living alternative community in a powerful way about the possibility of change.

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