Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Most pop is nostalgic. Discuss.

In his new book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley writes about "Wonderful Land" by The Shadows.

It was probably written as a hymn to America....but what I hear in it is a British dream of the future, the primary coloured optimism of post-war Britain, people moving to the new towns ringing London, the space and light in the bright open spaces of Crawley and Stevenage...just months before the Beatles' annexation of British pop, Wonderful Land sounds vast, blue-skied and still so sad.

Which is lovely. But here's another thing.  I was barely into my teens when it came out and yet it already made me think of times gone by. I was talking to Richard Williams at Word In Your Ear about great Saturday night records and he said his favourite disco singers always have a little sadness in their voices. Maybe that's just one feature of a bigger thing. The great disco records actually have some nostalgia and melancholy about them, as if the best Saturday night were long in the past and the best you can hope is to summon up a little bit of what it felt like. "Wonderful Land" isn't a disco record but the land it refers to seems to be in the past.

"Wonderful Land" is also one of those records which can never sound quite as good as you remember them sounding the first time you heard them. I listened to it on You Tube just now and it didn't glow the way it does in the back of my mind, which is a double hit of nostalgia, I suppose. That's a feature of any record you've lived with for fifty years. The version imprinted on your memory, the version you can call upon any time you close your eyes, is always going to be the most powerful one.

You could go further and say that actually the truly great pop records are the sad ones. Funny that a form of entertainment meant to celebrate the now should be so nostalgic.

I'll be talking to Bob about his book at next week's Word In Your Ear at the Old Queens Head. We'll also have Mark Lewisohn, Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer and the amazing giant 45s of Morgan Howell. Tickets here.


  1. I was discussing Boogie Wonderland the other day, specifically it's lyrics. That particular Saturday night song is pretty dark lyrically. It's basically saying you've lost everything, you're alone, the only thing you've got to give you any hope at all is the music. There's not even nostalgia in that one!

    Midnight creeps so slowly into hearts of men who need more than they get
    Daylight deals a bad hand to a woman who has laid too many bets
    The mirror stares you in the face and says,"Baby, uh, uh, it don't work"
    You say your prayers though you don't care; you dance and shake the hurt

    Dance, boogie wonderland. Ha, ha, dance, boogie wonderland
    Sounds fly through the night; I chase my vinyl dreams to boogie wonderland
    I find romance when I start to dance in boogie wonderland
    I find romance when I start to dance in boogie wonderland
    All the love in the world can't be gone
    All the need to be loved can't be wrong
    All the records are playing and my heart keeps saying
    "Boogie wonderland, wonderland"

  2. Yeah, I was always quite taken with the lyric which I could just about make out as what you said.

    Although, I did think the end of the first verse was "you dance and jiggle, hur hur hur hur hur.."

  3. I think the "listening on You Tube" depreciates the experience. The rather sad sight of 4 gauche young chaps miming badly is not a patch on the mind images one has when a CD is popped in or a green centred vinyl 45 is spinning on the Dansette. I heard Wonderful Land blaring from somebody's car stereo at a car boot the other day and it stopped me in my tracks. Sublime!

  4. The same applies with vintage TV. Programmes that are often fondly nodded about, can on re-watching be lifeless dry and dull. A component of the best (UK) comedies is usually a splash of sadness in the script - typically trapped/confined circumstances. Dad's Army, Steptoe, Likely Lads, Fools and Horses, Porridge

    If you haven't (but I'd expect good odds that you have) - try Nik Cohn's ‘Awopbopaloobop’ - written at the sunset end of the sixties with only fifteen years of pop/rock history to compress between its pages. (via an intro that back dates to the palais age) It's the perfect companion to Michael Braun's Love Me Do and almost the Old Testament of Rock Writing

  5. Was only talking to Pete Paphides this morning about Awopbopaloobop. Course when he did the tour d'horizon he only had to cover about ten years. There are sections of that book I can quote verbatim.

  6. I'm not sure the melancholy of disco is about nostalgia. I think it's a kind of tacit acknowledgement that the euphoria of the dancefloor is a pretty fleeting thing: that sooner or later the lights are going to come up and the drugs are going to wear off and you're going to have to go back to real life, which, as the lyrics of disco records are always reminding you, is full of heartbreak and woe.

  7. I think Bobby Goldsboro put it quite succinctly when he said: 'See the tree how big it's grown. But friend it hasn't been too long, it wasn't big.'

  8. I think the point about familiar music changing over time is an interesting one and I agree you don't ever really recapture the emotional connection of the early listens.
    I first heard Yes' "Close to the edge" in mono on a tinny, cheap Waltham cassette recorder in what was my first example of music of substance and depth. I still get goose bumps when I remember the feelings it stirred as I listened through several times without pause so as to absorb what I was hearing.

  9. "Funny that a form of entertainment meant to celebrate the now should be so nostalgic."

    But that sentence illustrates precisely why pop music is so nostalgic, surely? With radio and TV so obsessed with the latest crazes and so eager do preempt the zeitgeist; as soon as The Next Big Thing becomes the trend, the ephemeral nature of culture – especially recorded music – means that nostalgia is the inevitable flip side. All we can do is embrace it. I used to feel happy that I'd never heard of many of the 1970s bands and albums you cherish ... but with Sara Cox starting a 'Sounds Of The 80s' show on Radio 2 this Saturday, I have to concede that even the decade that shaped those of us in our late thirties is now also the stuff of nostalgia.

  10. This is a little presumptuous, but Bob Stanley and I may be sharing a folk memory. Back in the 70s (I think), Christopher Booker (I think) made a short series of programmes about how much he hated modern architecture. Well, of course, Booker's too smart for it to be that reductive, but still.
    And I very clearly remember clips of new housing estates, Dads washing Fords while Mums kick-started twin-tubs, accompanied by "Wonderful Land". And this mattered because, pre-Arena, no one ever used pop music in documentaries, the content was simply spoken to camera. So - although the track was 15ish years old, although the Shads had been very old hat for a very long time, there was still a slight sniff of revolution in hearing Wonderful Land.
    It is a GLORIOUS record. In terms of optimism, only Telstar comes close - of course, they were released within months of each other, and of course, everything changed forever immediately afterwards.

  11. Interesting, listening again, to what is added in nostalgic terms by the strings. I had no memory at all of the strings. But there they are and there's the wistfulness.

  12. Barely in your teens? You and I were both eleven when Wonderful Land was a hit David. Hank's influence on British guitarists of the 60s is incalculable. He may seem square looking back now, but everyone from the Beatles and Clapton down will cite him as an inspiration/influence. First UK Strat, first major UK guitar band and what a great sound he had.