Written by Johan von Huff / Images courtesy of R-CAPPA
I live in the inner city, frighteningly close to one of those Australian “Irish” pubs. Though recently granted something of a reprieve due to social distancing laws, I usually hear at about one or two in the Sunday AM the screechings of a certain, persistent handful of 1980s arena rock “hits”. This monstrous batch of songs—the same five each week—will usually ring out “for the punters” like clockwork every weekend as I attempt to repose, ears jammed with whatever I can find to block the horrors. Despite my repeated phone calls, letters, and visits to the relevant government bodies, this facility continues to subject the wider populace to its nightmare ad infinitum. It is as if at this time in the early morning, the venue’s “disc jockey”—or perhaps the very sound system itself—gets progressively more inebriated and nostalgic. He and the mass of dancing, drunk punters begin to coalesce into one writhing, sweaty unit, and collectively regress to a younger, “retro” self. In doing so, they enter and re-enter a bygone era that just refuses to die. There are other, more ephemeral, contemporary “Top 40” songs polluting these endless Saturday nights, but they come and go and are happily forgotten. However, the five key songs in question—standing tall, eternal, and resolutely adamantine—are, to wit: Summer of ’69 – Bryan Adams Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns n’ Roses Jesse’s Girl – Rick Springfield Run to Paradise – The Choirboys Always – Bon Jovi Each one is now seared into my brain through years of deranged repetition. These particular songs (along with other honourable mentions like ‘Khe San’ and ‘Horses’) also appear relentlessly in various combinations at other Australian venues which are known to partly comprise the drunken punter’s natural habitat, or so I am told. They emerge at crucial times of the evening/early morning when sufficient alcohol has been quaffed. And though I hasten to avoid thinking too much on the matter, I do find myself pondering the continuing—nay, the unlimited—appeal of these songs to the primal drunk. How did these songs hit the jackpot? How have they eternally clasped the collective punter consciousness with their vicious talons? How have these songs not lost all semblance of meaning after saturating playlists for eons? Let us be clear: the pop stars and musicians behind these songs did not see the future and rig the game. So how is this possible?
Yes, there are big singalong choruses. And yes, there are what some might refer to as “delicious licks” or “hooks”. These are not in dispute—in fact, these songs each sound approximately the same to me, and I will let Rolling Stone debate the canonical merits of this guitar solo or that “soaring” string section. But these qualities also apparently occur elsewhere, in oceans of other popular music. So, in other words, there must be more to it. Sadly, I know these songs by heart now, and—despite my best efforts—have given some further thought to the matter.
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Neuroscience now tells us that our memories are really, in a sense, only memories of memories—malleable, not to be trusted. Likewise, the nostalgia factory routinely vomits out reboots, remakes, remixes, reformations, revivals, remains, and reminders of artefacts from bygone eras; these “new” nostalgic artefacts often act as simulated memories of past simulations, and make us feel warm and fuzzy. The TV series Stranger Things (2016), for example, self-consciously recreates a “familiar”, much-loved 1980s period setting, often perceived through children’s eyes. Do we relate to Stranger Things because it summons a certain generation’s own collective “adventure” of childhood—or because it recalls an earlier, simulated one? The “1980s world” we see really only ever existed in earlier movies from that era created by an elite repertory of filmmakers—not real life. Indeed: a great, ghastly simulated collective childhood or youth that never existed. We and our memory neurons are now the beneficiaries. Then there are the aforementioned songs, which seem to have predicted our current cultural predilection for nostalgia, years before it was officially a proverbial Thing. Firstly, we have in ‘Summer of ‘69’ a seemingly old man narrator’s invocation of the “good old days” of 1969 (is it too much to ask that we are gifted with a song that laments the old days, that moans about how they were—more accurately—utterly repulsive?). While the good old days as a concept is of course stale (and has been since the good old days, at least), it is worth remembering that it is also usually illusory. Also note that the singer of this song apparently was not even yet a teenager in ’69, so it is strange that he is looking back on this era as if he were much older back then (there are references to starting a rock and roll band, friends getting married, etc). But no matter. The bacchanalian punter is enamoured: from the vantage point of a murky, dismal bar in these dark days of the 21st century, those lost, utopian “days” of the song perhaps somehow ring true, and even inspire a misty longing for earlier and better times—whether they existed or not (by the by, not only do I remember the ‘60s, I can also confirm they were as vile as any other decade).
Listen as the song’s narrator moans about how times change; how, if he could, he would stay in 1969 forever. Indeed. We are always there, while we still have this song playing in perpetuity: a 2020 memory of the 1980s “remembering” the wonder years of the 1960s. A hideous Mobius strip nightmare.
Johan von Huff is a cultural critic and commentator. He is currently taking a leave of absence from faculty matters to focus on compiling his upcoming books, Ex-communications and ex-wives: Collected letters, Volume IV, and Boors will be boors: Selected essays and criticism. Images courtesy of the Research Centre for Advanced Punterism and Post-Modern Anthropology (R-CAPPA)
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