Retro Is Active

Pop-culture nostalgia as we know it began at the start of the 1970s, though looking backward aroused some consternation at first. The country was winding up an era in which there was no time but tomorrow—so why acts like Sha Na Na, full of imitation hep cats from the extinct fifties? By the time Happy Days and Grease were inescapable, everyone understood there was no intention of returning to outdated customs. The past of modern pop music had just become another style resource.

Now the cannibalizing of music from twenty years earlier is a regular ritual. The 1980s were haunted by the sixties, and repackaged and sold them in revenge. Also, for persistent sixties icons, from the Rolling Stones and Crosby, Stills, and Nash on down, it became acceptable to never say goodbye. Recently there have been signs that, on schedule, the loopy, fragmented 1970s are pulling themselves together for a comeback.

This spring, Joni Mitchell led the parade with Night Ride Home (Geffen), a throwback to her meditations on the polarities of love. In quick succession came albums by the Bee Gees, Ric Ocasek (of the Cars), Kraftwerk, Tower of Power, Bootsy Collins, Bryan Ferry, and Chic.

Some unconventional young groups keep faith with the faded dance decade. The most, celebrated are Deee-Lite, absolute avatars of zany. In one of British pop’s endless fashion kinks, a quintet called the Brand New Heavies obsessively re-create the thick, big-band funk of seventies outfits like Earth, Wind & Fire and the Commodores. By rigorously playing down synthesizers and syndrums while pumping up snaky, distorted guitar, their debut The Brand New Heavies (Delicious Vinyl) turns what was originally thought a bit gauche and commercial into neopurism. The rhythm section and horns are good for a healthy hip shake; the silly retro lyrics about cosmic love provoke laughs.

On the American side, Royal Crescent Mob are unabashed admirers of the lean, thorny grooves set down by the Ohio Players (“Fire,” “Love Rollercoaster”) 15 and more years ago. The Mob have quietly become most ingenious rockers, though their refusal to be self-important may cost them attention. On their third album, Midnight Rose’s (Sire/Warner Bros.), they cope with seducing a girl who’s like “Mt. Everest,”denounce the “Pretty Good Life,” and worry about developing a “Drunkard’s Nose.” If enough people would recognize Royal Crescent Mob as a more plainspoken version of the B-52s, they might sustain a career some upstarts could plagiarize in a couple of decades.

M.M.