The Reformations

In this age of endless reformations it’s easy to overlook the bands who survived as ongoing creative concerns. The indie superstar perennials (i.e., the only bands making enough money to continue to live on music) stand out — Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Melvins — but most others are a rebooted and rehashed occurrence giving bands a chance to finally take the bows they never get first time around. It also somehow feels reasonable, bands that have gained significant posthumous popularity receiving the chance to earn the money they never had an opportunity to first time around — I’m strangely accepting of it.

What’s most interesting is that this is a genuinely new mass phenomenon in music akin to the BBC’s discovery a few decades ago that, contrary to their policy right through into the 1970s which saw them erase numerous tapes of their shows, people often do want to watch repeated content and that there was a market for video recordings of such material. Music, to an even greater extent than television, has been a market piling new trend on latest fashion on quick fad. We’re not much over one hundred years from the first commercially available sound recordings and still witnessing new deviations and adaptations of this cultural element.

The release of greatest hits recordings started fairly early and has never ceased being a critical source of sales. Live recordings soon followed and archive recordings got going by the late Sixties when Jimi Hendrix had appalling trouble with unscrupulous characters reissuing his pre-Experience material and when the first major bootleg releases (Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes) commenced. Tribute records were more recent, the first came out only in 1981, and they’ve maintained a minor league existence ever since. The biggest shift though was the reissue of albums on CD from the mid-Eighties onwards — this gradually led to the desire to move beyond LP lengths and to fill space with bonuses and extras to encourage purchases.

Discovering that people were indeed willing to pay to buy material that, essentially, they already had was a crucial moment. Gradually reissues gained the same weight as new releases, magazines began reviewing them side-by-side, entire reissue sections entered magazines. The record company’s responded to this by placing more weight and effort into the reissues, ladling on the b-sides, the demos, the live shows until eventually the market diverged into straight reissues (usually with the pointless word Remastered emblazoned to try and claim some justification for the release as the reissued albums became CD-era) and the larger Deluxe edition for the fanatics. The arms-race didn’t cease there, however, soon Deluxe editions edged over into three disc versions until eventually the entire concept of the Super-Deluxe came about. Next the programme of reissues became a matter of packaging; the long established concept of the box-set (way back in the 1930s substantial 78 RPM vinyl sets used to come in boxes which was part of their elite cache) became a regular part of the armoury and still people were willing to buy in sufficient quantities to justify further box-sets and anniversary editions.

Somewhere in amidst it all, the same concepts became applied to live acts; if people were willing to pay to repurchase the music, there’s no reason they wouldn’t pay to see the bands essentially engage in high-quality karaoke. Reformations had always happened going right back to the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special, but usually a reformation involved new material being written and an attempt to resuscitate a career because of the feeling that progress had to be made. Other artists had never gone away, they’d simply been repackaged into Golden Oldies tours and smaller venues and package tours — but the last decade has seen a fresh development.

The idea of progress has come to a halt. A few decades of seeing that people were quite happy to pay an inflated price to see a band that they never caught in their heyday (i.e., Sex Pistols Filthy Lucre Tour of 1996), as well as the realisation that most long-term artists increasingly end up playing a greatest hits medley as a crucial and favourite component of a show (i.e., everyone from Elton John to Bon Jovi), led to the realisation that a band could be resuscitated and pushed, zombie-like, onto a stage without any need to do anything new at all. This was a cheap and easy way to make substantially more profit than a lot of new acts and ongoing artists would reap — the ticket prices can be higher, the band will take a lower cut to get the second chance, there’s no need to plan around album releases or recording commitments; just get ‘em up, on stage and done. And, of course, that’s a perfectly satisfying music product for the audience; there’s nothing wrong with one quick evening of nostalgia, or that one-off sight of the heroes you never caught working through the songs you never saw when they were still a natural entity.

One element may be that the pop world has degenerated into an endless remarketing of echoes whether in the form of the kareoke contests that fill primetime TV or the reappropriation of tunes wrapped into beat-heavy remixes and major league pop product that fill the charts. With audiences used to the small endorphin thrill of recognition even the most non-mainstream audiences are simply more used to hearing the past reiterated.

And that’s the truth…There’s nothing wrong with it. A few artists, still caught in their own desire for artistic authenticity and a sense of creative validity, take the chance to whack some new music out; but Swans are a rarity in that they’re currently doing phenomenally well by being one of the few outfits to genuinely go someplace new with the music even if I don’t enjoy either of their newest recordings anywhere near as much as I did Soundtracks for the Blind or Swans Are Dead.


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