Unlike the previous three decades, the lack of a distinctive 1990s pop sound has made rock nostalgia irresistible. The retro movement, in the form of reissues, remasters and, to some degree, comebacks, reconciles the disparate yearnings of ancient foes: capitalism and aesthetics. Never before has so much older music been such a big part of the music market, and never before has nostalgia been less cheap and such diversion from the present.
The past looms large for two reasons. The first is the CD revolution, which in a mere 10 years has changed not just listening and buying habits, but also packaging, marketing and aesthetic expectations. Music outlets aren't just stocking more product; they're also satisfying a wider range of tastes. Second, retro movements blossom when the mainstream lacks vitality. We aging observers tend to count pop's ebbing artistic and political fervor as part of a natural cycle, which allows history some hard-earned attention. Bono may think he's a lightning rod for people's desires, but he's been a billboard for himself for so long that U2's disappointing 1997 tour and ABC's prime-time flop seem like his ego's just desserts.
There's enough blame to go around for pop's moribund state, but most of us blame radio, once the shaper of trends, now frozen in smug marketing formulas. Does 1990s Beck get anywhere near as much airplay as 1960s Dylan? To ask the question summons an overwhelming sense of dial-spinning fatigue. Nirvana's absence from 1990s rock has been as much of a story as Madonna's regal domination of the 1980s, and radio, which was once routinely about the present, could care less.
If you see the glass as half-empty, you curse those slimy radio programmers and their co-conspirators, the major labels, for pillaging rock's precious archives. Now fans can't be content simply owning MCA'S 1994 Who box set, 25 Years of Maximum R&B, they're supposed to line up to buy MCA's new, immaculately remastered album reissues. Compare the box sound to these new releases, and you can't help but shake your head: The individual album reissues win out time and again. Played next to the Mobile Fidelity Lab's pressing of Quadraphenia (once the highest-fidelity source), the new MCA remaster sounds infinitely better. You sold your grandmother for the box and now you need the individual albums as well.
But that cynical stance ignores the complexity beneath retro's surface. Rock critics can complain all they want, but CD changers put a whole century of music at your fingertips, letting you program Merle Haggard next to Leadbelly next to Leo Kottke followed by The Byrds.
Look at the glass as half-full: Rock and its tributaries have legs beyond what anybody has had a right to expect, and the tunes transcend the hype in which they are packaged. Ironically, rock's immediacy snowballed into a sprawling catalog that still has things to tell us. We have much to hear in Steel Pulse and Al Green because their music goes beyond their hits; in fact, their greatest pop moments will outlive us all.
Now the digital versus vinyl clash is nearly moot. There are, to be sure, pleasures still to be drawn from the deep, fluid grooves that petroleum wax lends to sound. But the case is no longer closed. Take the remastered version of Hendrix's “All Along the Watchtower” (from MCA's newly reissued Electric Ladyland ). The acoustic guitar backing is stationed to the right so that all the electric verse noodling can be centered, like so much unconscious commentary on his vocals. This arrangement has simply never made as much sense as it does in this remastering. Those slide figures that pass from channel to channel make way for the wah-wah centerpiece the way fighter jocks pave the way through enemy fire for a bomber.
Radio has tried to play this song into the ground, perhaps more than “Stairway to Heaven,” “Layla” and “We Won't Get Fooled Again” combined. So what makes this remaster so vital, so contemporary? The sonic clarity revives the lost art of the mix, which made Beatles and Led Zeppelin albums such intricate soundscapes. For perhaps the first time, we hear Hendrix's pick press down against his strings, conveying an intimacy with his instrument that we knew was there but never heard so closely.
MCA's Hendrix campaign would stand alone if there weren't such heady competition. Sony's Legacy has cut a swath in the reissue market because of its unmatched catalog and sonic pioneering. Legacy continues to flatter artists who have sat too long in the back seat of rock's pantheon, like The Byrds, who recently offered up The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Ballad of Easy Rider and Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, a series of twilight '60s folk-rock peaks that cast long shadows on everything the Eagles ever attempted. Especially notable here are songs like Roger McGuinn's “Ballad of Easy Rider” and “There Must Be Someone I Can Turn To,” Vern Gosdin's morning-after regret as spiritual renewal. Their version of Woody Guthrie's “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” retains a quiet, definitive glow.
Finally, the reissue movement has been steered in large part by Rhino Records, which got its start by hunting down an audience for middle-brow psychedelic relics like The Zombies' Odessey (sic) and Oracle. Trading in classics and novelties alike, Rhino has built an empire out of nostalgia on sturdy sound and impious marketing. Audiophiles rarely complain about Rhino sound quality, and kids' fare takes on new meaning with Bugs and Friends Sing Elvis, a Looney Tunes Salute to the King.
If the 1970s don't seem as far away from the 1990s as the 1950s did from the 1970s, it's likely because too much happened between 1955 and 1975 for anybody to make sense of at the time. Like Freud said, we understand the present naively: Today's pop market would make old four-eyes proud. (It's sure gonna be a laugh to see how radio looks back on the 1990s.) Retromania has filled out the empty spaces left by aesthetically challenged superstars like Alanis Morissette and Garth Brooks, and the Supertramp reunion aside (predicted in these pages two years ago), not all nostalgia has to make you feel slimed. The child is the father to the man, and the rear-view mirror's objects are closer than they appear.