Nearly two decades back, nostalgia already seemed played-out. I remember how in 1989 the Cure released Disintegration, but Rolling Stone put Jagger and Richards on the cover because they wanted to talk about the Steel Wheels tour. Jefferson Airplane had reunited and somehow got MTV airplay. Poco had reunited; so had Crosby, Stills & Nash.
All those efforts represented a clinging after glories long gone, if they were ever there to start with, feeding an audience that didn't want challenge, only comfort. Doubtless I thought—or at least, I hoped—I'd never see something similar with the music I liked that was right there, right then.
And now Rolling Stone publishes yet another retrospective about how wonderful it all was in the late '60s, confronting us with the realization of Santayana's dictum about those who forget the past, and how bands from all eras surrender and (maybe, maybe not) give themselves away.
Whoever figured out the oldies-tour-as-moneymaker thing was astute. The model has worked for decades since, for different generations, different audiences. Sometimes, just one key act is enough—Earth, Wind & Fire are playing the same venue two nights before the Rockin' the Colonies tour featuring the Psychedelic Furs, the Alarm and the Fixx, for instance—and other times, it's a package bill like this, sold as yet another British Invasion after-echo, its title redolent of everything from Beatlemania to Spinal Tap to, I guess, Coldplay (is "Snoozin' the Colonies" taken yet?).
One can view this phenomenon with a certain sense of justice, though. The Psychedelic Furs are the deserving headliners, but in the '80s, they weren't the stars among these three, not by a long shot; it was the Fixx that had the hits, and not just the KROQ/91X hits, but the hits. They were charting on Billboard, Casey Kasem was counting them down. "Saved By Zero" was a weird track in context then, and even more so now, an astringently odd bit of chilled pop funk with a strange title and unfamiliar but not unattractive singing. The Fixx had other hits, they were a bit strident, and then they seemed to disappear.
As for the Alarm, I still remember the first time I heard them. It was 1987, and U2's The Joshua Tree was everywhere. I heard "Rain in the Summertime" and wondered why I didn't remember that from the album. Then I found out it was another band entirely. For that reason, I couldn't take the Alarm seriously; lead guy Mike Peters meant well to a fault, but his style was obnoxiously anthemic.
The Psychedelic Furs didn't register with me at all until later than that, even—sure, I knew about Pretty in Pink, but I didn't own the soundtrack, much less realize that the version of the song on there was a newer one. In retrospect, the Furs' albums have held up the best: The first two are still a collectively invigorating blast of rough beauty, one killer song after another, vocalist Richard Butler's rasp balancing out his overt Bowie-isms. Newer bands such as the Rapture still cover the early songs all the time. After a random mainstream detour, the Furs wrapped up their first career with a few more fine records, and the string of poppier hits they had along the way were often lovely if not always as stellar.
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The Internet's great for finding out what they're all doing these days away from this tour. Butler has a solo album out, for instance, while Peters is sadly dealing with a continuing health problem. His VH1-sponsored reunion with original guitarist Dave Sharp was only temporary; officially, this is the Alarm MMVI that's performing, while the Fixx are readying a new record.
And yet what Rockin' the Colonies offers, what the bands know, what the audience knows, too, is mostly nostalgia. There'll be announcements of new songs, which may inspire gentle applause. The hits will appear, and people will cheer and sing along. It's not rock as karaoke, but rock as kabuki, familiar stories, warm memories and polite thanks from the stage, a smooth professionalism that's laudable. Touring isn't easy; living off music isn't easy—not then, less so now. Who can blame these bands or any musician in a similar situation? Who can blame listeners who will pay for the familiar? Take one look at the success of the Police tour this year if you need proof of the appeal.
But the best music these bands made was once unfamiliar, once wasn't a mental crutch. Twenty years on, it seems a cold comfort to realize that. Meantime, I'm looking forward to the imminent Cure tour. Am I any less willingly complicit?
ROCKIN' THE COLONIES TOUR FEATURING THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS, THE ALARM AND THE FIXX AT PACIFIC AMPHITHEATRE, 100 FAIR DR., COSTA MESA; WWW.OCFAIR.COM/PACIFICAMPHITHEATRE. TUES., 7 P.M. $25.