Going back to old tunes can be taxing as often than rewarding, but it probably says something about the age we live in that we continuously seek comfort in it, even if we weren’t around for it all originally. In actual fact, it’s probably better if we are coming to old music that we never experienced the first time around. Nostalgia is the killer of the future. We return, expecting the sounds of our youth to elicit the same emotions, and end up disappointed. Much better to come at it with few preconceptions of what to expect. To weave fresh experiences from old fabrics.
Partly I assume that this is because of how often the most important reasons you remember a track as being special have little to do with the music itself. Most often it’s a combination of factors: good memories of past times, the people you were with; the sort of odds ‘n’ sods of a life lived and remembered. The music, the actual notes and movements, lies there almost ephemeral; they remains in your head as triggers, activating those thoughts like hitting the play button on a loop in Ableton.
The way your musical memory plays tricks on you is one of things that keeps your interest up. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve gone back to an old tune and realised that the very thing I’d long associated with it, the magic I’d thought it contained, is conspicuous by its absence. Sometimes that missing element is replaced by another facet, another special ingredient which was one buried under everything else but quickly comes to flavour the experience in a new but equally exciting way. Sometimes though, you just realise that the tune is simply not very good.
With techno and electro, and a few other genres, I don’t find I have too many problems adjusting my ears to 20-30-year-old sounds. Sure, both electro and techno have their share of shaky ‘you had to be there’ moments but it’s interesting just how much has stood the mysterious test of time. With jungle I find a lot of it even more listenable today than I did then, perhaps because I was never so immersed in that scene. Hardcore too – divorced from the things the younger, snobbier, me hated about it, I find its explosive moodiness brilliant.
Oddly, the stuff that I find has lasted best is the material which verged on the cybernetic. I can think of several Detroit classics which are now beginning to feel ropey, not because they are bad tunes – far from it – but because the soulful, humanized elements which made them so damn good originally are the very things which anchor them in the past.
House music in particular doesn’t seem to age well. I sometimes wonder whether the current love of disco is, amongst other reasons, down to the fact that a lot of it seems to have dated better than a lot of early house, while bringing with it the esoteric excitement of true temporal distance. A lot of the house I gorged on in my early 20s is close enough that it doesn’t have that edge to it; it’s still too close in time, and that paradoxically seems to make it feel all the older. The vocals, the beats, the often pedestrian and wobbly speeds. At the heart, though, is that human element, the thing which separated it from the other electronic sounds. It ties it to a world where the escape velocity is too high to let it go.
Some old house tunes manage to break free. No Way Back by Adonis is one of these. Its one of a handful of old house records which still sounds as absolutely fierce as when I first heard it. Even better, it towers over many newer records. The combination of that tightly syncopated beat with that menacing, but joyously unhinged bass line, gives it an energy which sounded alien at the time, and even now that same combination – and the way the simplicity of it fires such complex heat – lends it a freshness that’s almost impossible to recreate. The vocals avoid soulfulness but ratchet up the demented emotional potency instead. It’s a very modern vibe, locked away in a 30 year old tune.
There shouldn’t be any way back, I guess. Not really. But if you’re headed that way its worth remembering that going in search of the past is really only any damn use if it shows you the way to the future. If you forget that, if you’re just there to holiday in your own or other people’s memories, at least find the good tunes and let them move you forward.