"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 28 November 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Long Live Rock


For all the ink that's been spilled about how we're living in a cultural moment dominated by bland, corporate pop music purchased by 11-year-olds; for every faux-obituary that's been written for two guitars, a bass and drums; for every profile that has for the sake of moving units downgraded U2's life mission from relieving Third World countries of their nightmarish debt to making the world safe for semi-tuneful wailing over guitar sonics; one fact stands in complete and utter opposition. On any individual stretch of I-70 between Baltimore and Cove Fort, Utah, at any time of the day, one need only begin turning the FM radio dial from 88.1 toward 107.9 to find someone, somewhere, playing a Bad Company song.

The short on top, long in back world of Classic Rock has long been America's least appreciated cultural touchstone. But what really makes this workhorse radio format deserving of a multiple-lighter salute is its interstate, multinational, pan-demographic dominion. Who doesn't know the chorus of "All the Young Dudes" better than the preamble to the Constitution? Who hasn't driven over the speed limit to "Radar Love"? Is anyone so hard of heart as to begrudge the surviving members of Canned Heat their royalties from Pepsi? In last year's joint Summer of Sam, Spike Lee braved condemnation by counter-historically making his punk rock leading man a fan of The Who. Clever Spike, always alive to the esperanto-like universality in composers like Aaron Copland and Stevie Wonder, knew that no punk chestnut could equal the epic sweep of those twin anthems "Baba O'Reilly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" — the stegosaur and triceratops, respectively, of leadfooted monster rock.

Like the emergence of Led Zeppelin and America's involvement in World War II, the rise of Classic Rock features both a broad historical explanation bordering on myth and a grittier exegesis driven by commerce. In sweeping, poetic terms, Classic Rock is an offspring of America's late 20th Century tendency to periodically fall swooning under the power of decade-by-decade nostalgia, given specific momentum by the size of the generation most likely to feel a romantic tug of the heartstrings for the guitar-heavy rock of the late '60s and '70s. In other words, Classic Rock comes from the same collective unconscious that gave us W.C. Fields film retrospectives and Happy Days, but with better demographic staying power. And as long as we're being poetic, we can reserve a couplet or two for the usual comments about those post-War kids. Their sheer numbers practically guarantee Classic Rock a healthy core audience for at least a few more decades. More important, boomer media personalities have given those bands a veneer of romantic respectability. Without that generation's hard-won knowledge that cultural posing is itself a respectable opiate of the masses, no one would be able to fill outdoor anniversary concerts with kids who wouldn't be caught dead listening to any member of the original line-up not named Santana. The Biggest Generation's faith in the singular quality of its own coming-of-age may be the crucial force that keeps oldies stations from having an extra 15 years from which to select their playlists.

A more detailed explanation for the emergence of Classic Rock ties its origin into the ossification of FM radio formats in the '70s and '80s. Much of the music now identified as Classic Rock enjoyed its initial radio exposure through the freeform programming favored by progressive rock deejays like Tom Donahue in the late '60s and early '70s. Those shows, which quickly engendered copycats of varying sincerity and skill, favored playlists as catholic as the individual deejay's tastes allowed and distinguished themselves from competitors on Top 40 radio by playing multiple cuts from a single album. With FM radio's increased revenue possibilities in the 1970s (the new breed of audiophiles demanded stereo; car manufacturers added FM to their radios) came the usual raft of payola and high pressure sales tactics that helped standardize playlists. But the true demographic-driven homogenization came with the rise of the radio consultants who saw programming strategies and content as two completely different, exploitable activities. Fascinated by the potential of interspersing a few album tracks with more easily-recognized favorites, Lee Abrams helped pioneer the Superstars format. His company, Burkhart, Abrams Inc. showed stations how to sound enough like the rock-intensive stations to cut into those audience shares while featuring enough broadly popular material to further loosen Top 40's hold on the market.

The Pandora's box of branding and demographics was now officially opened, led by a basic programming strategy that worked well across any number of types of music. What Burkhart, Abrams and other high-priced consultants (Detroit-based programmer Fred Jacobs is credited with the term "Classic Rock") brought with them were national playlists by virtue of the length of their client lists, and a cold, jaundiced view of desirable target audiences and single-market positioning. Classic Rock evolved from progressive rock into the album-oriented rock (AOR) format and finally into an even more blunt strategy designed to hold onto that sizable original audience as they grew older, playing to the notion that all radio audiences favor music with which they're blissfully familiar. (Interestingly, while Abrams now evangelizes satellite radio for his current employer, he cites getting back to "the spirit of the early '70s" as his goal in building content formats.)

Whether by strict format or natural inclination, Classic Rock stations force upon their listeners an ethos of cool defined by the standards of 1968 through 1974. For listeners who grew up in that time period, those stations provide nostalgia and affirmation. One effect on younger listeners is to play on suspicions of having just missed out on a cultural golden age. Further complicating matters is that such specific formatting has limited the expression of this valued past to a more limited range of music: turgid, heavy, blues-based rock. During the 1980s, particularly in those markets where the Classic Rock station was the only station that played non-charting rock music, one was more likely to hear similarly blues-based rock from newer artists like Robert Cray, the Jeff Healy Band and whichever Vaughn brother had an album out than to hear music that boasted the right pedigree (Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa) or the right attitude and chord structure (The Replacements). When you hear Indianapolis-based syndicated deejay team "Bob and Tom" express their familiarity with studio guests Los Lobos through second-hand praise they've read from fellow Hoosier John Mellencamp, you get a pretty clear indication that rock and roll has walls no one can quite define. Seen through the unforgivingly focused eyes of Classic Rock, the Talking Heads are a one-hit wonder, Billy Joel stopped making albums after 1979, and Freddy Mercury retired.

Classic Rock was surprisingly revitalized by the rise of the Alternative Rock format in the 1990s. (You can give Fred Jacobs some Allan Freed-like bystander/creator credit for that one, too, although at least one station claims his actual contribution was to pepper the playlist with enough oldies that the owners wouldn't dismiss the idea outright.) The less strictly-programmed Classic Rock stations entered into the last decade of the 20th Century with a significant Seattle problem: Much of the music sounded enough like 1970s hard rock to permit inclusion onto the playlists; but not all of it did, and the personalities involved were so dour it could make the average morning "Zoo Crew" long for the bacchanalian vapidity of an early-'80s wuss-rock bassist. A competitive format gave Classic Rock deejays and on-air personalities the permission they needed to dismiss the bulk of newer bands as emotionally fragile poseurs. The result was airplay for Ted Nugent's charming potshots at Kurt Cobain's corpse, Todd Snider's "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues", and 10,000 crude Courtney Love jokes. A format created and promoted as a reaction to the mind-numbing monotony of Classic Rock playlists had in some ways given the decades-old programming strategy something against which to react.

It's probably best left to the individual to decide how much credence one should give the voices emerging from the King Biscuit Flower Hour archives as a potential bulwark of a counter-counterculture offensive. For every tough-ticket Cheap Trick club date complete with stadium-ready opening band, there's the scary Kinko's manager vibe of a Chuck Negron PSA. But Classic Rock has its own, more modest virtues as well, easier to grasp and ultimately more important. As much as the movie Spinal Tap eviscerates the stratospheric arrogance and venal stupidity of stadium rock bands, the fact that Classic Rock listeners embrace the band as both satirical comedians and as makers of real music reflects surprisingly well on their collective ego. And when one hears about Wall-collapse-era Berliners able to sing perfect English along with "Sweet Home Alabama," or peruses the number of aging American and English bands still touring overseas, or hears Russian rock bands crediting the Doors and the Grateful Dead along with the more credible Lou Reed, domestic demographic explanations no longer apply. In a certain sense, the scorn one heaps upon the simplicity of music and presentation in what's known as Classic Rock turns into a reluctant admiration for breaking everything down into a rhythm-driven prayer for blissful excess and self-aggrandizement so painfully simple every single person can understand it. Nothing can be a parody until we decide it is; nothing is relevant unless you agree it should be; and it isn't really rock unless it's loud, silly, and repeated over and over again for years and years until even though you hate the song you know every last drum fill and guitar solo by heart. Rock on.


courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black