More Punk and Nostalgia

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Kostis Kourelis brought to my attention a recent New York Times article on an exhibit of Victorian era stereoscopic photographs called “A Village Lost and Found”.  What made this exhibit interesting to punk archaeology fans, was that former Queen guitarist Brian May curated the exhibit and co-wrote the accompanying book.  The New York Times review of the exhibition both feigns surprise that a rock ‘n’ roller like May would be interested in such quaint, esoteric artifacts as hand-colored stereoscopic images and, at the same time, acknowledged the deep nostalgic vein in British society (and its music).  In doing so, the NYT’s author makes reference to one of my favorite albums which lurks around the margins of punk rock, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.

The double album, released in 1968, consists of series of tracks celebrating traditional village life in England.  Topics range from the Village green to picture books, trains, farms, and typical village characters (Johnny Thunder and the deviously rocking Wicked Annabella).  The nostalgic element captured, however ironically, in the Kink’s album continues in punk music.  As I have noted before, punk always had an affection for the pop music of the earlier generation, even though punk rockers from the Germs to the Ramones and the Heartbreakers typically sped up the hooks and contorted the lyrics that gave pop music its wide-spread appeal.  One of my personal favorites is the Germ’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round”.  At the same time punk rockers like Jonathan Richman (especially in his early Modern Lovers tracks like Old World, which is bracketed later in the first Modern Lovers’ album with the track Modern World) produced music with the same whimsical nostalgia as the Kink’s Village Green:

I see the ’50’s apartment house
It’s bleak in the 1970’s sun
But I still love the ’50’s
And I still love the old world
I wanna keep my place in this old world
Keep my place in the arcane knowledge
And I still love the ’50’s and I still love the old world

As I have argued before the archaeological character of these songs is not in their perfect reproduction of the past, but in the preservation of the past through critique.  For example, the Kink’s celebration of the Village Green evokes the nostalgia for the earlier times that shot through modernizing British society. In fact, as Matthew Johnson has described in his Ideas of Landscape, such nostalgia for  an earlier period influenced how archaeologist have studied the landscape and regarded material and buildings from the modern period.  Romantic notions of the earlier, rural world, celebrated its simplicity, inherent virtues (especially of Britishness and, as we have witnessed recently the “real” America of the small town), and purity, and expected some degree of continuity to be visible in the society and culture of contemporary denizens of the countryside and the small town.

Punk tried to make a mess of these idyllic critiques by taking the staid nostalgia and melding it with what to many appeared to be the most fleeting, contemporary, and critical musical genres. In some ways, this finds a parallel between those of us committed to sophisticated and critical approaches to archaeology of the countryside, but still enamored with the illusory, anti-modern character of the countryside.  I can admit to loving to explore the lonely hilltops in Greece, to document isolated ruins, and to embracing the contrast between the bustle of the village or city and the peaceful “isolation” of rural Greece.  I often will pause and listen just to the wind and revel in the absence of the motorbikes or trucks while at the same time scrutinizing the read-out on a state-of-the-art GPS unit or looking at a map showing an aerial photographs and analyzed via sophisticated computer software.  As much as my analyses call into question the notion that the Greek countryside was isolated, I still use view of olive covered hills in my publications and presentations to evoke the exotic character of an archaeological past.  The contrast between my reliance on modern technology to document the past and the romantic image of the rural Greece produces a productive conflict.  My appreciation of the beauty and isolation of the Greek countryside drew inspiration from traditional romantic views of rural life while, at the same time, my approach to field work and conclusions challenges those very same views.  A Punk Archaeology approach embraces these same ironies drawing heavily on traditional of thought while at the same time challenging them.

For more musings on Punk Archaeology be sure to check out our blog here.

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