It’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is.
– Noel Coward

Nostalgia strikes when you least expect it. You’re sitting in a café putzing away on your smart phone when some long-forgotten tune comes on the radio in the background. Suddenly, you’re caught in a Proustian tractor beam and boarding the mothership of memory.

Song supplies a key that opens the door to the past. This implies there is a keyhole somewhere in the brain. According to some neuroscientists – and there is a long-running academic debate about this – everything we’ve ever heard is encoded holographically in our nervous systems. In the early sixties, Canadian neurologist Wilder Penfield explored the brains of patients with severe epilepsy in search of causes for their disease. He would stimulate the exposed brain tissue in fully conscious patients and by observing the patient’s response, as the electrode was moved gently from point to point over the temporal lobe, he was often able to pinpoint the area of damage responsible for seizures. Occasionally, he would alight on a spot where the patient would experience an extraordinarily vivid scene from the past, a voice or a fragment of music. If Penfield stimulated the exact spot a second time, the recollection would repeat, like a vinyl disc scratched by a DJ.

We’ve all experienced a moment where a piece of music has teleported us back to some joyful or painful time in our lives. This budget time travel can even be instigated by a disliked song or an advertising jingle. The brain is promiscuous when it comes to musical attachments. Personally, I will forever associate Paul Young’s Every Time You Go Away with dental work, ever since a Richmond dentist hummed it all the way through a root canal.

Music will often conjure up a complex constellation of feelings, with an attached sense of longing or loss. We call this sense “nostalgia,” a Greek word combining nostos (returning home) and algos (pain or ache). The term “nostalgia” was coined by 17th century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation as an umbrella term for symptoms displayed by Swiss mercenaries in the service of European monarchs. When they were stationed far from the Alps, the mercenaries apparently fell prey to a morbid state of homesickness. Hofer described the illness as a “continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibres of the middle brain in which the impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling.”

As noted by psychologist Charles A. Zwingmann, “to ward off [this debilitating] nostalgia, Swiss soldiers were forbidden to play, sing or even whistle Alpine tunes” because Alpine melodies haunted the listener with “an image of the past which is at once definite and unattainable.” Nostalgia was regarded as the soul’s yearning for a home to which the sufferer could no longer return. (You might say the 17th century Swiss mercenaries were the world’s first emo kids.)

You might not be able to go home again – in the sense of returning to the vanished world of your youth – but thanks to digital technology, the soundtrack of your life is always on tap.

Musical nostalgia in its current form is a joint discovery of the American music and film industries. The founding document is the 1984 film The Big Chill, which starred an ensemble of A-list Hollywood actors as a group of supernaturally droll and attractive boomers who gather at a weekend memorial for a dead friend. This was one of the first Hollywood films that did not commission theme music. Instead, director Lawrence Kasdan put on his hardhat and took a trip down the pop cultural mineshaft. Rock classics like Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine and The Temptations’ My Girl lent the film a depth and resonance it might have otherwise lacked.

With The Big Chill, it was like the entertainment industry had discovered a whole new continent. On Hollywood’s side, there was the big box office effect of attaching musical nostalgia to blockbuster films. On the music industry’s side, it was a double win: songs leased to Hollywood productions could revive the radio play and resale of old hits.

This was back in the glory days of vinyl albums, well before the balance-sheet terrors of CD ripping and digital downloading. Today, with their profits under siege, music labels are pushing musical nostalgia through a different angle: boxed sets. I’m talking about those multidisc packages that honour an artist’s entire career, complete with b-sides, bootlegs, big hits, live versions and filmed performances.

In 1990, Atlantic Records repackaged Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits as six vinyl albums or four compact discs, in a stunning boxed set decorated with crop circles. 1995 saw the release of The Beatles Anthology, in which a collection of tinny demos found in the vaults of the BBC seeded a television documentary series, three double albums and a book focusing on moptop history. Over the next two decades, the packaging of boxed sets became increasingly elaborate, the multimedia spin-offs more impressive and the prices stiffer. (Elvis Costello recently discouraged fans from buying his compilation, The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, calling its $249.00 price tag “either a misprint or a satire.”)

Yet these past efforts are chump change compared to EMI’s recent remastering of Pink Floyd’s catalogue. From the PR blurb, it sounds like the marketing equivalent of the Normandy invasion, featuring “CD’s, DVDs Blu-ray discs, an array of digital formats, viral marketing, iPhone Apps and a brand-new single album “Best Of” collection.”

The marketing angle is to convince Floyd purists this seductive package is a need, rather than a want, while persuading file-sharing freeloaders their mp3 Floyd collections sound like AM radio tracks broadcast through mercury amalgam fillings. The Discovery Box Set contains all 14 digitally remastered Floyd albums, for the grand price of $175. Or if you prefer, you can purchase each album separately, in either the entry “Experience” format or the full-scale “Immersion” format. The $113 “Immersion” format of Wish You Were Here includes live and unreleased tracks on five discs, including SACD and vinyl LP, plus booklets and even a freaking scarf. (No word yet if the “Immersion” version of Roger Waters’ bummer classic, The Wall – $119, seven discs, available February – will come with a bag of weed to take off the misanthropic edge.)

Who knows? Perhaps the boxed sets of the future will come with nanotechnology and gene-splicing kits, allowing fans to grow miniaturized musical artists like sea monkeys. The next generation will be able to grow their own itsy-bitsy Pink Floyds, with tiny roadies rebuilding The Wall out of packing peanuts.

Take it from me, if you have a car, you already have a Pink Floyd boxed set; it’s called a radio. David Gilmour’s guitar workout Money has been in AM radio rotation since I was in tube socks. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of the band myself. I just keep my enthusiasm to subclinical levels. Rock stars and rappers are the closest things we have to religious figures in secular culture and boxed sets are the marketing equivalent of church reliquaries containing the fragments of saints. Of course, not everyone’s a saint or interested in owning a piece of one. These productions are mostly limited to musical acts beloved by boomers, the principal target demographic. They’re the only folks who can honestly afford this sort of archival overkill.

We’re a long, long way from that famous pre-punk moment in 1975 when John Lydon walked into rock impresario Malcolm McLaren’s London boutique wearing a tattered T-shirt with the words “I hate” scrawled above “Pink Floyd.” You’d think the wall-eyed former lead singer of the Sex Pistols would prove resistant to the nostalgia biz. Not so. When nostalgia combines with the preservation industry, even punk rockers are found to have a stately charm.

Exhibit A: Last month, British archaeologists expressed their delight at the discovery of some graffiti behind cupboards in a London apartment. Not just any apartment, but one once rented by the Sex Pistols. The graffiti – consisting of eight childlike scribbles by John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) – is “a direct and powerful representation of a radical and dramatic movement of rebellion,” according to Dr. John Schofield at the department of archaeology, University of York and independent researcher Dr. Paul Graves-Brown. In the latest edition of the journal Antiquity, the two argue the graffiti is worthy of archaeological investigation and historical preservation.

Dr. Schofield writes, “The tabloid press once claimed that early Beatles recordings discovered at the BBC were the most important archaeological find since Tutankhamen’s tomb. The Sex Pistols’ graffiti in Denmark Street surely ranks alongside this and – to our minds – usurps it.”

With a bit of luck and heritage society finagling, the London flat will become the punk rock version of the Lascaux Caves. It only goes to show if you allow a pop culture artifact enough time, it will age into respectable, preservation-worthy status, like a Charles Manson doodle on Antiques Roadshow. The surviving punkers are old enough to prefer PIN safety over safety pins and the “Immersion” set of Dark Side of the Moon might as well come packaged with Depends. The boomers and Gen-Xers are now the museum-going class and like any other generation, we love any new discovery that puts a spotlight on the soundtrack to our glorious youth.

There is something poignant about the impulse to archive the pop culture past into gallery items and fetish objects. There is great artistry in some of these works and their archival collection is meant, in a certain sense, to ward off time. A song that survives its composer is the closest thing we have in the material world to a tangible spirit (or, at least, the acoustic tracing of a vanished temperament). It’s little wonder we attach a sense of the sacred to music, whether it be Gregorian chants or Seattle grunge.

When you are completely absorbed in a task, a sport, making a piece of art or lovemaking, you are ‘not there.’ This sense of timelessness is most evident with music, in either its performance or its appreciation. The player merges with the played and the listener with the listened. This timeless dimension of music was captured perfectly in a BBC documentary entitled Prisoner of Consciousness. Musicologist Clive Wearing was stricken with a severe brain inflammation that left him with a memory span of just a few seconds. Without a recognizable past or an imaginable future, Clive Wearing told his wife his purgatorial life was “like being dead.” Although he can never remember his wife, he is thrilled each time he sees her.

This is not a man capable of nostalgia, at least not in the usual sense. When he is asked to play a composition by Bach, Wearing initially says he doesn’t know any. Yet he manages to summon up a prelude by the composer when he is at a piano. In examining Wearing, Dr. Oliver Sacks proposed that musical recall is not quite like another kind of memory: “Remembering music is not, in the usual sense, remembering at all… Listening to it or playing it is entirely in the present,” he writes in his book Musicophilia.

There are well-known health benefits from music, for both the healthy and the sick. Even non-speaking patients with brain damage can sometimes be brought to energetic vocal life with music. Sacks notes how remarkable it is that, even in the worst cases of dementia, “there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.” The best music resonates with what’s deepest inside us.

Carl Jung once lamented to a colleague he had “failed to open people’s eyes that man has a soul – a buried treasure in the field.” If you’re a big music fan, you may prefer to think of the soul as a boxed set.



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