Is it too late? Has classic rock been bludgeoned to death, far beyond any hope of recovery?
When it comes to the music itself that’s clearly not true—there remains a trove of worthy rock’n’roll that was made in the generation that spanned 1965 (or so) to 1985 (or so). But the genre we employ to refer to much of the music from that era—i.e., classic rock—has twice now gone through the market-driven ringer of over-simplification and reduction, to its great detriment, and ours. By 2018 the genre of classic rock has become not just moribund (hell, the genre is dead by definition) but horribly, fatally uninteresting. Personally speaking, if I never again hear any song that is closely associated with the central core of the classic rock library (I’m looking at you, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), I will be quite satisfied. (Well, okay, I still kind of like “Layla,” but I would, I’d be okay without it.)
I understand that music evolves. And that, as music evolves, the songs of the past retreat, becoming all but irrelevant to the musical wants and needs of succeeding generations. This is not the problem. If classic rock were simply being ignored, the music could still be accessed by anyone curious enough to explore things a bit. The problem is that classic rock has instead been shrunken and packaged into something that it never was in the first place. And the genre has gone through this diminution process two different times over the years, leaving the music funneled into a tiresome library that is a miserable shell of its former self (or shelf, for that matter).
As with any good capitalist story, things got interesting for rock’n’roll when it started making money. Rock came of age as an artistic medium in the late ’60s, was let loose on the FM radio dial in an unfettered manner beginning in the early ’70s, and had its first golden age right then and there. That was pretty much of an organic and symbiotic process: FM radio promoted rock music as a worthy avenue of musical expression precisely as the quality of the output increased interest in the new FM stations that were playing it—so-called “progressive” radio stations that were willfully blending a freewheeling variety of contemporary sounds: there was prog rock but also folk rock; there was glam rock and likewise southern rock; there was psychedelia and (yet to be named but extant) power pop and a certain amount of British Invasion pop; and then there was music that blended well into the mix even as it arrived from seemingly external genres such as blues, R&B, funk, soul, and jazz. And then of course there was the music that seemed all but genre-free for being at the foundation of rock’n’roll culture: the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin.
As the listening audience grew, the ad sales grew. And as the ad sales grew, economics inevitably began to dictate the aesthetics. On-air talent could no longer be trusted to create a profitable product. And once consultants were brought in to focus a station’s musical offerings on lowest-common-denominator appeal, the expansive playlists of free-form radio were chiseled into the restrictive format known as Album-Oriented Rock (AOR), which began in the early ’80s and took over the FM dial for a few persuasive years. AOR stations retained a generic core of music that “rocked,” reinforced by newer music that rocked both a bit harder and with minimal personality—thus the rise, in the ’80s, of bands like REO Speedwagon and Styx, Journey and Kansas. Ironically, each of these bands began in an authentic effort to make music for progressive radio, where they rarely were embraced. Their songs tested great in focus groups, however, and as they became staples of AOR radio, whatever individual charisma each band might have had was buffed to a faceless shine. All the more regrettable, these bands spawned replica ensembles (cf. Loverboy, Night Ranger, White Lion, etc.) whose musical specifics were vacuumed into the hard-rocking miasma that had overwhelmed rock’n’roll radio and in so doing laid the seeds for what was all too soon to be known as classic rock.
Because, yes, classic rock as a radio format began in this mid-’80s moment, as a new-wave-turned-New-Romantic-induced round of synth pop was, thanks to MTV, becoming mainstream. There remained a Middle-American audience that still craved its guitar rock, and that’s what classic rock radio stations were happy to churn out for the next two decades or so. Along the way, alternative rock came along (never mind hip-hop, a whole prodigious line of discussion), spawning new radio formats while simultaneously hardening classic rock into more and more of a museum piece. And that’s where it remained through to the 2010s: a radio format with an increasingly older audience, somehow satisfied listening to the same few hundred songs, over and over and over, hosted by DJs who, if they actually remembered what progressive radio sounded like, probably tried not to.
As streaming took over music distribution here in last five or six years, classic rock became another genre for playlists to cover, but all too often the end results were reductions of reductions: the limited landscape of classic rock radio either winnowed down further or—worse—expanded without nuance or prowess by amateur playlist makers who cut and paste randomly from their own personal favorite artists and albums. These playlists tend to be hard-rock-oriented, with an occasional nod to prog rock, and in any case pretty much never display the artistic and musical breadth that classic rock actually has to offer.
And so, now, the question: can classic rock be rescued from this ignoble fate? As much as I’d love to think otherwise, I’d say the answer is no, probably not in any immediate or widespread way. It’s just like this: if a significant and vocal plurality of the population gets steered away from reasonable discourse and an understanding of what facts are, those of us who know better are not going to penetrate their bubble of ignorance. Same on the musical front, where bubbles of ignorance are perpetuated by the technologists currently in charge of musical distribution. The best we can do is seek out and identify those souls operating from a place of aesthetic merit and authenticity, and offer encouragement and support. That philosophy underlies my efforts to find the musicians I feature on Fingertips, and I can only hope that I myself occasionally land, however serendipitously, on someone’s screen—someone willing to give an ear to my humble efforts at music curation in a world where much louder and tech-oriented voices tend to prevail.
So if classic rock is to be rescued at all, it will be like this, through small, artisanal undertakings such as my recently posted Spotify playlist, called “Classic Rock You Aren’t Tired Of” (see link below). It’s a work in progress, and has begun with 176 songs by 176 different artists. Eventually I aim to populate the list further with multiple songs by certain key bands. But if you’ve read this far, perhaps you’d be willing to give it a listen in whatever form it’s in right now. One thing I can guarantee is that this playlist is far more representative of the music on which classic rock radio was based, even if the format quickly betrayed its own origins. Whether you’ve heard a lot of this or very little of it I think you may be in for a treat. (Insider tip: be sure to shuffle the playlist for best effect!)