Looking Back and Forward

My recent and forthcoming live music experiences all involve bands of my youth that have reformed and are touring their old material.1 Wallowing in nostalgia, some might call it.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with bands getting back together. It can be problematic if you are the band that tours as the Dead Kennedys, of course. There’s a whole saga there that I won’t go into, but if Jello Biafra’s not involved, and in fact is actively against it, then it’s not the Dead Kennedys.

Indeed, in his song “Buy My Snake Oil” Jello suggested that a way for old punks to make money off their history would be to

Give in
Ride the punk nostalgia wave
For all it’s worth
Recycle the name of my old band
For a big reunion tour
Sing all those hits from the “good ol’ days”
‘Bout how bad the good ol’ days were

Which is a fair criticism of old bands doing their thing in modern days, I guess. But I see two arguments to counter it, from a gig-goer’s point of view.

Unfinished

The first was made by my friend Andrew, around the time that the Sex Pistols reformed and toured. This would have been in 1996.

“I missed them first time round,” he said when I challenged him about it. “This is unfinished business for me.”

Which was a good point, and kind of made me regret playing the purist and not going.

In 1993 I had investigated going to see the reunited Velvet Underground. But I really didn’t want to see them at an all-seated venue. Partly because I’d had a bad experience seeing Lou Reed a year or so before (despite having had a very good experience with him a year or two before that).

I recall that I phoned the venue — Earl’s Court, I think — and found that it did have some standing room. But those tickets were sold out. So I didn’t go. Regretted that, too. So I’m talking the chance to see bands like the Rezillos, or The Beat and The Selecter, that I missed first time around.

OK, But What is it Really?

The second point about the “punk nostalgia wave” (or any similar accusation of nostalgia) is: that is not what it is.

Because here’s the thing: it isn’t nostalgia if you’re carrying on with something that was always there.

Nostalgia (noun): a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past

according to Cambridge.

But this isn’t that. Because while those bands’ heydays might have been in the past, their music has remained available and frequently-played. You can’t be nostalgic for an album you listened to last week, or last night.

And a live performance always happens in the present.

This train of thought was kicked off for me a couple of years back when there was an article in the Guardian, prior to The Force Awakens coming out. I can’t find it now,2 but it claimed that “nostalgia” was part of the cause of the excitement for the new film.

And I thought, no. Well, maybe for some people. But for many of us, if not most of us, Star Wars never went away. We’ve watched it, talked about it, read theories about it, and so on. It has been part of our lives.

Or take Doctor Who. Sure, there were the wilderness years before 2005, but The Doctor never really went away. The Tardis and Daleks are burned into Britain’s cultural memory, and I think they always will be.

Now if I were to see an episode of, say, Marine Boy: that would be nostalgic. I remember it fondly from my childhood, and have never seen it since. I’ve never even seen it in colour, because those were the days of black & white televisions.3

But I can’t be nostalgic for punk bands or Star Wars or Doctor Who, because they never went away. The sense of warmth and shared experience they bring: that’s not nostalgia, it’s something else. Familiarity, at worst. Or better: community.


  1. Or a mixture of old and new, as with The Rezillos. []
  2. This is why you should always save links, folks. []
  3. God, I really come from another time, don’t I? []
Looking Back and Forward