Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: The Doors and Retromania

A couple of reviews I wrote that didn't make it on to the pages of Scoop Books.

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years
Greil Marcus
Faber and Faber 2011
...there's a lift in Jim Morrison's voice for the first two times he reaches for the word fire...always he communicates that as an idea that word is new to him...You've heard the word in the song, but you haven't begun to follow the fire as far as it goes – that's the feeling.
As teenager in the 1990s I can testify to the enduring relevance of The Doors. Even if now I hardly give them a second thought, for a few mean years of my own they were everything to me – moody, complicated (so I thought) and subversive. Looking back now it must have been the release of the Oliver Stone film a few years before that brought them to the cultural attention of pimply teens like myself, but at the time it seemed like every generation must have been into The Doors, that was how awesome and eternal they were.

The Doors, according to Greil Marcus, were both a myth and, at the same time, the real deal. They were as stunning in success as they were in failure and much of this happened in the same song, in the same line sung at different performances. Marcus covers different gigs he attended and recordings he has since pored over – different versions of the same song played entirely differently each time. In precise detail he goes through every high-hat clasp, every swirling organ/guitar duel and every incantation of the Jim Morrison lyric. Marcus is a master of describing sound and band dynamics so that a song reads like a tight three act play. There is drama and intelligence in the songs and in the writing.

Chapters cover performances of many of The Doors well known hits. There is a long extended chapter on the 'So-called Sixties' as he describes it, detailing the myth-building of The Doors brand as representative of the myth-building of the sixties as a whole. The book starts and ends with chapters on the song 'Light My Fire'. At times the territory he covers is as rambling as a Doors live performance, but he always makes interesting points along the way and the journey is worth it, if even just to get to the next performance.
Already in 1968 The Doors were performing not freedom but its disappearance. This is what is terrifying: the notion that the Sixties was no grand, simple, romantic time to sell others as a nice place to visit, but a place, even as it is created, people know they can never really inhabit, and never escape.
'The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years' has enough intelligence and cultural relevance to appeal to anyone who is into music and good writing about music. And Doors fans will find plenty of new insights and detail on the songs, band and times to keep them happy. Just don't expect any sensationalist exposé, this book is by and for the music, refreshingly stripped of the myths that often surround the Doors.

Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its own Past
Simon Reynolds
Faber and Faber 2011

In Paul Reynolds categorisation of the past my Doors would be an antiquity, their value would be as a historical reference. Retro as he defines it concerns artefacts from living memory. The Doors are older than my lifetime, Thriller by Michael Jackson isn't, and if I was to get a t-shirt of Michael Jackson stroking a tiger I would be succumbing to 'retromania', a phenomena sweeping the world according to Reynolds.

He goes to great lengths to pinpoint the exact date when we became obsessed with our own past. He puts up various years by pulling out references from music, fashion, architecture and art. He decides ultimately that the decades following an output of pure originality is followed by a down period where we rehash past glories unable to move forward. With music he argues the 1970s and 2000s are two decades where this has happened.

This book weighs in at a fairly substantial 400 pages and over the course of the journey we go into almost every facet of British and American music for the last 50 years. He often uses example after example to make his point, which mostly consist of interesting facts, stories and comparisons between obscure and not so obscure artists. Sometimes this gets a bit much and I found many of the essays rehashing similar ideas, but through a different lens. He is nothing if not thorough, but for me it felt like the ideas were loaded down by too many anecdotes.

Anyone interested in pop-culture theory and particularly music, will get a lot out of this. And those who find themselves trawling through second-hand shops looking for that big find, might be interested in the cultural context in which they operate.

This is certainly an interesting and thoroughly researched work on originality and creative reuse. And like all books that choose to talk about one band over another it will spark both negative and positive agreement.
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