The Question of Nostalgia

Jerry Lucky Commentary April 2014

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2014 All Rights Reserved


I had the opportunity to see the band Yes on March 20th perform three albums in their entirety. It was one of those events that seemed too good to pass up and certainly one that I never expected to see. The last time I’d seen Yes was in 1979; it was the concert in the round tour and I had fond memories of the event. This time a slightly modified line-up of the band were touring (this was the second night of the Canadian leg of the tour) performing three complete albums. They started with the entire Close to the Edge then moved on the Going for the One before taking a 20-minute break returning to complete the trilogy with The Yes Album. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening hearing and watching many songs I was familiar with along with some that seemed almost new to me. In the midst of the concert I wondered; “Have they EVER performed “A Venture” live in the past?” The band had a small but adequate video display behind them that displayed appropriate graphics including album and song titles as they went from one composition to another. Between song chatter was minimal. It would have been enjoyable to hear Chris Squire, Steve Howe or Alan White share some stories but you can’t have everything, right?


While talking with a buddy in advance of the show the question of “nostalgia act” came up. A few years back a radio station asked me questions of this nature in regards to the touring Moody Blues. Needless to say it’s something that stirs up much debate. In thinking about this recently it made me wonder if perhaps the very concept of what constitutes “nostalgia” is changing. My trusty Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines Nostalgia as: a feeling of sadness mixed with pleasure and affection when you think of happy times in the past. I get a sense that when someone labels a band a “nostalgia act” that’s not quite what they’re thinking. Seems to me some people who use the term throw it around in a more pejorative sense, as if suggesting that somehow being a “nostalgia act” is inferior to a “contemporary act.”


My own view is more akin to what the dictionary offered and in that sense I’ve come to realize EVERYTHING that is not current and new will in some sense provoke nostalgia. At the time the radio station posed the question to me; “Are the Moody Blues just a nostalgia act?” I said that as long as a band is still making new music and staying relevant I didn’t think they were. But now I’m wondering if that was the right question to be asked? Does it really matter since everything after a certain time becomes nostalgic? The inevitability of it is comprehensive.


They were thinking, I think, about those PBS programs we’ve all seen, where bands from the sixties like Gerry and The Pacemakers or Herman’s Hermits come on stage and perform their hits from the sixties. Bands like this make no pretense to keep up with new material. Many of them had left the music industry. Being on stage for them, in those programs is specifically to create a sense of nostalgia. So is that any different from what Yes were doing on that night of March 20th? I think not, why else would you pick three albums from your past and play them now. Fact is all sorts of things can provoke a sense of nostalgia. Everything from smells to photographs can elicit fond memories of the past. So when Yes decided to tour performing three old albums, what other purpose did they have in mind than to provoke a sense of nostalgia; a feeling of sadness mixed with pleasure and affection when you think of happy times in the past.


Perhaps the term Nostalgia Act is the problem? In our headlong rush to label and even perhaps over-label things in our lives, we’ve come to call those bands nostalgia acts to identify them as something from the past, relevant today only by what they did in the past. Unfortunately some will use the term in a negative manner, seeming to suggest that only new music is important or relevant. Somehow I don’t think when the symphony orchestra gathers to perform a Mozart symphony that they see themselves as a “nostalgia act?” No, I would suggest any negative view of “nostalgia” seems more likely a product of a culture that wants very much to avoid seeming to growing old.    


There is another aspect to this question that makes the issue greyer still, if you’ll pardon the pun. In the audience were many young people for whom the music of these three albums was still new. So here you have an audience made up of many grey-haired folks for whom memories were flooding back mixed with many younger fans that were excited to be seeing Yes perform these tunes for the very first time. Nostalgic for some and a new experience for others. Perhaps it’s something to do with growing older, or perhaps it has to do with gaining more world experience, but I’m coming to change my views about what constitutes a “nostalgia act.” More specifically I no-longer feel that being a “nostalgia act” is much different from being a “contemporary act.” After all if I might paraphrase a philosopher I once read;today’s music is the nostalgia music of tomorrow that I was so excited about yesterday. At least that’s what I think.


Jerry Lucky  (4/1/14)