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volume 1
august 1998

Why has nostalgia become so big?


  Some answers to the riddle of the nostalgic nineties
  by Geoff Baldwin
  In 1995 and 1996 the Beatles-CD's Anthology 1, 2 and 3 appeared on the market. They sold million-fold. In this event there surfaced a longer existing trend of nostalgia. Now this wave of nostalgia is rolling over our radio and television stations and it threatens to submerge our cinema's and theatres. What drives and urges people in the nineties to look back to the sixties? Is it the happy memory of the baby boomers, now growing old and glorifying what happened in their youth; is it the ending evolution of rock music; the specialization of rock music in different styles and publics; the manifestation of a new generation gap? Or, is this nostalgia a silent revolution against the new ideology of "cool glamour" radiating from nowaday's musical and political culture? Geoff Baldwin, editor of the magazine Radio Review, poses the question and takes the reader along some of the answers.

1 Reliving the past. I have been churning, in my mind, of late why nostalgia seems to have become such a big thing during the 1990's. Why are we looking back into the past? In terms of radio and TV, as well as films and theatre, things don't seem to be quite what they used to be. I suppose the reason that I have been giving this matter consideration is because it has come across to me, in the time that I have been editing the magazine Radio Review, that a lot of people in their mature years, myself included, seem to be reliving their lost youth, to one degree or another!
  In radio terms, this has been brought home to me by response to my mail-outs which demonstrate that a lot of people still have some interest in collecting memorabilia about radio stations of the past — i.e. mainly but not exclusively the offshore stations — but who, apparently, cannot be persuaded to take any interest whatsoever in commercial radio of the 1990's! Not least of these reasons must have to do with the big changes that have taken place over the last ten years or so. These are noticeable, in particular, in the way music is now produced, the way radio stations are programmed and formatted and the style of presentation that today's presenters offer, as compared to their predecessors from yesteryear.
2 The happy memories of the baby boomers. Obviously, we live in a world dominated by the concept of time. Our whole pattern of life revolves around the 24 hour cycle of alternating day and night, the 7 day week, the 30/31 day month, the 365 day year and so on. Our human lives are a ticking clock from cradle to grave! lt is inevitable, therefore, that the more of our life span we have lived, the more we have to look back on and the less we have to look forward to — at least in terms of our earthly lives. This, then, partly explains the concept of nostalgia but I think that there must be more to it than that.
  I do wonder whether the concept of nostalgia is something that has gripped my own generation of so called "baby boomers" more than others. I say this because it is in the post war years of the 1950's and 1960's that the firm roots of all facets of the modern entertainments industry were laid down. Certainly, I should point out, of course, that my generation didn't invent these things. Sound radio dates back to the 1920's, of course, and there was a boom in radio listening in the 1930's and 1940's and stations like Radio Normandy played their part in the early development of commercial radio.
  In terms of the broader field of entertainment, film making also goes back long before my own generation, from its beginnings with silent movies, through the boom years of the 1930's with the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and many more. TV, on the other hand, is the one big area of entertainment that did really develop and take off in the post war era, from the 1950's onwards and the modern radio and TV industries have developed in tandem with one another, over the last 35 years or so. Of course, it is this period, spanning four decades that those of us now in our 40's and 50's have strong recollections of. Many of those now in their thirties will have some of the same influences but to those in their twenties it is more like looking back into history! So, to a degree, at least, it is a question of a generation gap that has emerged.
  Pop memorabilia dating from the 1960's can be quite valuable and it reflects the importance that we have placed on this short period of history when so many things seemed to explode into life at once. There were the Beatles and the pop music explosion, the pirate radio boom, the arrival of fashion and youth culture, the political tension of the cold war, the spy films, James Bond, the growth of commercial TV and England winning the world Cup! Finally, in 1969, there was the culmination of the space race, with man landing on the moon for the first time.
  Above all, perhaps, there was the main reason why all of these things came together at once. Economically, things were booming and there was very little unemployment. We still have those famous words of Harold Macmillan ringing in our ear: "You've never had it so good." And, indeed, looking back, it seems that, in many respects, this was true.
3 The founding years of pop and rock music. In musical terms, during the 1960's, the foundations of a whole pop and rock music industry were being laid down — although we didn't think of it, in those terms, at the time. lt's development continued through into the 1980's. The musical progress seemed to go hand-in-hand with the type of radio we had, whether you listened to a pirate station, to Radio 1, Radio Luxembourg or to one of the independent local radio stations that emerged from 1973 onwards.
  Left: The Beatles in 1964

Personally, I came to terms with al! the many changes that there were in pop and rock music over the years. The Beatles and Stones, the Beach Boys and many others set the standard for the sixties but it was in the 1970's that it all blossomed into a wonderful variety of musical trends. There was progressive rock, Heavy metal, Glam-Rock, Disco, soul, funk, blues and concept albums. Then Punk Rock came along to try to shake things up when it was deemed that music was getting stale with the domination of rock music by the so-called "super groups". I enjoyed a lot of this "New Wave" of music and a lot of the bands that it spawned and also the subsequent New Wave of British Heavy Metal, as it became dubbed, which brought to prominence bands such as Saxon, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.

Even into the 1980's, there were a host of new bands making good music and, as in previous decades, these were well promoted on pirate radio, in the form of the newly returned Radio Caroline and, for a while, of course, on the faster paced Laser 558.

4 The specialization of rock music. However, it was, of course, during the early eighties that we saw the beginning of a new wave of pirate stations promoting specialist music formats. The pirate Radio Invicta had been the pioneer of black or soul music back in the seventies, but by the early 1980's a whole new wave of black music pirate stations had come on the air in London — the term dance music had yet to be invented. LWR, JFM, Horizon, Solar and DBC were some of the prominent names on the air in this period. Some years later, another station KISS FM was to become famous by going onto to achieve legal status, by being awarded one of the new ILR licences.
  Perhaps we didn't tend to think about it, at the time, but this period was probably, the first warning sign that popular music was to undergo a radical change. LWR, for example, used to boast a diet of soul, funk, reggae, HL-NRG, Hip-Hop, Jazz and Blues. With the music scene beginning to fragment, this was then, the first sign of a move towards "narrow casting" radio stations — as opposed to the "broadcasting" stations that we had become used to - which have now become almost "the norm" in the 1990's.
  During this period, because Radio 1 was still dominant — with a huge audience — playing mainstream pop music and ILR stations were doing much the same thing, the underlying trends were not really noticeable, at that stage. However, the early signs of another part of the trend towards specialist format stations also originated with the pirate stations of the day. Radio Sovereign became the first pirate station to concentrate on playing nothing but "oldies" and this idea was picked up by the two offshore stations broadcasting at the time. Laser 558 introduced its "Sixties Sunday" playing nothing but oldies on that day and Radio Caroline also, subsequently introduced a programma called "North Sea Gold", doing the same sort of thing.
  A more definitive sign of the change, though, came when Channel 4 introduced its "Chart Show" in the mid-1980's and, in addition to looking at the climbers and fallers in its mainstream pop chart, it also featured a "Heavy Metal" chart and a "Dance Music" chart. The specialist charts, subsequently, became the "Rock Chart", the "Indie Chart" and the "Dance Chart" and the show moved to ITV. This breakdown of pop music has long since become the normal basis for looking at what is selling in the marketplace and even the broader-based pop magazine Record Mirror had to concede defeat some time ago, in the face of competition from the newer and more specialist pop and rock magazines.
  I guess that my first reaction to the changing music scene was that this was just a temporary phenomenon and that traditional types of pop music — as I saw it — would reassert themselves, when the latest fashion died out. However, what I failed to understand was that these changes were more permanent.
5 Changing times and changing music. Where I once worked, my boss used to say that an individual's music tastes were well established by the age of 25 and don't progress beyond that stage. I would agree with this but I would tend to say that all our preferences and prejudices have become well established even earlier than that, in our teens. Clearly our attitudes to many things do alter over the years, as we mature, but, on the whole, I think our basic interests and views tend to become somewhat "set in stone" and some might say even narrow minded.
  Certainly, a lot of the changes — for the worse — in society have been blamed by commentators on the sixties and the start of the so-called permissive society. This isn't a theme that I intend to go deeply into here and now, but I do feel that my generation was one of the craziest of the lot! What that period was about, in my view, was the beginning of a "progression" towards a Free market or "Free For All" in everything and that is a subject that I will come back to, at a later date.
  However, getting back to the subject of music and entertainment, generally, the other reason for the large degree of nostalgia clearly seems to be that the decades of the 1960's and 1970's brought us most of the original material in terms of TV shows, music and, of course, pioneering commercial radio stations and there was just enough of all of these to keep our interest and to make us value them, whereas today the "Free Market" has brought us near to saturation point, in terms of films, TV and radio stations. And, the vast majority of the current day programming varies from the mediocre to what can only be described as trash!
  I did, at one time, believe that pop music was, probably, a phenomenon that had a limited life span with a youthful period, a middle age and an old age and that this would coincide, approximately, with the life expectancy of my own age group. To an extent, this has proved to be the case, with some of the original bands like the Rolling Stones, apparently, intent on going on with live performances until they drop!
  Clearly, though, popular music is going to continue, in one form or another, for some time yet. It is just the direction that it is going which creates the division and highlights a growing generation gap. The problem for today's musicians is the same as for today's film makers and today's TV programme makers. There are isolated incidents of quality and originality but they are few and far between!
  In the field of music, guitar riffs and melodies have, largely, been replaced by electronically produced sound, remixing of records and much faster and repetitive drum beats. Now and then there is some new creativity going on but all too often, these days, it is just a question of recycling and reworking old material, in an attempt to make it acceptable to today's young record buying public. This is, above all, probably, the reason why those of us in our middle age, are regressing back to what we know from the past. It's tried and tested! While, at one time, I would have thought the change was purely down to the rise of what is now given that all embracing term "Dance Music". In fact, I began to realise that most of today's music lacked any real melody and that, if anything, Indie Rock and Britpop sounded even worse to me because they seem to have replaced what I would call "traditional rock and album music", in the charts and on the radio. At least with dance music, it does throw up the occasional creative talent and some tunes that are genuinely "catchy" to listen to.
6 The new generation gap. I guess that another element that plays a big part in the nostalgia drive is that, once you join that part of the population "the over 40's", you begin to notice more and more the fact that most of the TV and radio presenters appear to be much younger than you! In fact, a lot of the programming is now made by the under 40 age group, for the under 40 age group! I realised this when reading a copy of the Trade magazine Broadcast and an article about the "Who's Who" of movers and shakers in the TV and media production industry. All the people featured were in their thirties. So, it isn't surprising that few of the programmes made are going to appeal to me or my contemporaries! Obviously, what is going on in the media is just part of a far bigger issue that, over the last two decades has transformed the work place from one having employees of all age groups, to one that is dominated by workers in their twenties and thirties, with older workers having been "retired" early whether they like it or not.
  When I was a mere lad, in my teens and twenties, it was normal to aspire to progress in your chosen company, hoping to reach a position of some responsibility — in management — by the time you reached your forties and fifties but, as we all know, the world of work has changed so much that, whatever your age, just hanging on to your job for any length of time, is quite an achievement these days!
  If it does sound as though I dwell on age factors too much. Well, I don't think that I have been one to do this until very recently. I realise that people of all ages can have a hard time and there are much bigger structural changes in society and the economy that are also at work here and making the future for everyone that bit uncertain.
7 Rebranding Britain. No! The thing that has concentrated my mind on these issues, is the government. As you will recall, we had the election of "New Labour" to power 13 months ago and, ever since, I seem to have been reading this dirge in the newspapers about "Cool Britannia", and the rebranding of Britain. lt is this, more than anything, that seems to have brought the whole matter to a head.
  Of course, Tony Blair is credited with this term — although he denies ever having expressed it, in those terms. A recent article in a national newspaper did a two page spread on "Uncool Britannia" comparing various facets of life new and old. The one I liked best, though, was the picture of the Beatles with the caption: "Uncool but The Beatles are without question the best band in pop history." This was put opposite a picture of Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis and their caption read: "Cool but Oasis are still foul-mouthed yobs." Enough said!
  However, from the angle of radio and music, the most interesting part of this feature, was an article by veteran broadcaster Tony Blackburn. As most of what he says ties in with the points that I am trying to make, I thought that I would finish this particular feature by reprinting his article. It reads as follows:
  Right: Oasis in 1997

"Why is it that, despite all the ludicrous hype about Britpop and Cool Britannia the music of the sixties, Seventies and Eighties remains so popular while supposedly unfashionable Radio Two and the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber have millions of loyal admirers? The answer, to me, is simple and does'nt just involve nostalgia."

"The sixties generation invented popular music performed by young people. Up until then the charts were dominated by big bands and elderly crooners, so when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones burst onto the scene, a totally different sound was born."

"If You team this up with the start of the pirate radio ships, the first man on the moon and the sexual revolution, a whole new way of living exploded."

"The Seventies was the decade which saw the best dance music ever and opened the door to the most outlandish and fun fashion: flares, platform boots and glitter."

"For those who wanted to rebel there was punk rock, whereas the Eighties brought us the New Romantics such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet."

"It is as if everything was invented in these three vibrant decades. The problem for today's musicians in trying to be cool is that they can only copy everything that has happened before."

"Computer-generated music is simply not as glamourous as four young men being discovered playing their own songs in a dingy Liverpool club. And the music and personalities of The Beatles seem far preferable to their Nineties copycats, Oasis."

"In theatre, the supposedly "old fashioned" Andrew Lloyd Webber continues to give us not only great shows but spectacle, while in TV and radio — where the number of stations and channels have multiplied — more hasn't meant better."

"Thus the success of Radio Two, which has stuck to the big names and dished up a rich diet of time-tested music which, according to experts," shouldn't work."

"As we move towards the millenium, many people say that everything in the past 100 years will be looked upon as terribly old-fashioned. But will it?"

"Or is it more likely that in 2010 we will still be enjoying the music and shows from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties because they were quite simply better than what's on offer today."

"Personally, I don't much care whether I am considered cool or not, only that people like me."

"I also think it's stupid trying to rebrand Britain. In any case, pop musicians should never side with one political party or another — they're meant to be opposed to such things. If anything is uncool, it's cosying up to New Labour."

8 To be continued. I should have mentioned that the above article was published under the heading "Today's bands are just copies," but I guess that you will have gathered that this is what it is, essentially, about. I agree with most of Tony's comments but I can't say that I'm a great fan of musicals or Andrew Lloyd Webber!
  The other thing that I don't really agree with him on is Radio 2. I do listen to certain programmes on that station — mainly on a Saturday morning — but part of the reason that it is popular still, is because Radio 1 deserted its older listeners and because there are no commercial stations catering for the mature listener. In fact, I have just had a letter published in the trade magazine Broadcast suggesting this and the fact that the 35-55 year olds have been disenfranchised by the current Radio Authority run cartel. If there are any interesting letters, in response, I will let you know.
  I had intended to look at nostalgia from one or two other angles but I will save this for another time, as I have taken this matter far enough now, I think! However, if you have a view on this subject or any of the points raised in this feature, please send your comments to: Letters Page Radio Review, P.O. Box 46, Romford, RM7 8AY and we will publish the best.
  1998 © Radio Review / Soundscapes