What is Classic Rock?
Driving home from work on Labor Day weekend, I came across an “All-time Best Classic Rock Band” countdown on the radio. The Rolling Stones were playing at the time. I was pleased because I love the Stones, and because I didn’t have to sit through the rest of a surely God-awful list to get to the end. But it wasn’t the end. The Stones came in at number four – 4! – on the list. When the DJ said Pink Floyd was up next, I laughed and changed the dial.
The point here is not necessarily that [insert generic classic rock station] made some unforgivable blunder by putting anyone ahead of the Stones on a rock and roll countdown, because I know these things are subjective. The problem, for me, is one of definition. “Classic Rock” has come to mean something gunked up and weird. Most stations that tout their rock and roll roots are just tattooed Top 40 outfits pandering to a different audience. I know that I am not alone in this opinion.
This is not a crusade, I promise. I am going to be ripping on a lot of music though, which always makes me uncomfortable. Most of my favorite bands have been found by being open-minded and giving something a listen. I would never want to discourage someone else from doing the same. Still, there are always subjective lines to be drawn. To me, every Ke$ha song sounds like a long, wet fart. I can’t help it, but if her music (or any other music I dislike) brings you joy, I don’t judge. I hate music snobs as much as I love music. Some stuff just doesn’t sit right in my personal ears.
I’ve been fortunate to have a mother with good taste in music. Yeah, I heard plenty of Madonna as a kid, but there were always equal parts Springsteen, Van Morrison, Elton John and Jackson Browne mixed in. It’s no coincidence that those are still four of my favorites, and that acoustic/piano-driven music takes up a hefty chunk of my ipod memory. My tastes are many and varied, though, and with the exception of old R&B and a few rock bands which fit both my and the radio’s definition of classic, I very rarely hear music that I truly like on the radio.
“Classic Rock” is certainly a less-than-comprehensive phrase, but it’s used so powerfully to describe music in a way that excludes a lot of great stuff. The four musicians I listed above – with the exception of one or two songs from each – never get airplay on classic rock stations, even though they are all old, well-loved, and most certainly rock and roll. “Springsteen is on all the time!” you say. “Dancing in the Dark doesn’t count,” I reply.
It seems part of classic rock is electrification. I’ve got nothing against electric guitars when they’re bluesy or twangy or distorted in just the right way, but I’ll admit – in a bout of crankiness – that most of that loud, crunchy shit just gets me reaching for the dial. Take Nirvana specifically, and grunge generally. Most overrated musical movement in history. It was fine for a bit in the early nineties, but do I really need to hear Smells Like Teen Spirit for the 10,000,000th time? I got the point the first time.
Sorry, flannel-junkies, but Kurt Cobain was just a dude. Alice in Chains falls right in line. It’s almost like *gasp* musicians who kill themselves gain permanent popularity the minute they pull the trigger or push the plunger. Somebody should tell the guys in Nickelback.
I want to not sound like a dick while I write this, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Screw it. “Stairway to Heaven,” “Hotel California,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” should never be played again on public air. Led Zeppelin is the most overrated band in history. The Eagles are a bunch of pansies. I don’t give a shit about Rush. The Beatles are fine and all, but I never quite “got it” when it came to them being the best ever.
Call them the best ever pop group, fair enough. The Stones are rock and roll. The Band is rock and roll. Hendrix is rock and roll. Give them the mantle and rename the stations. I honestly find myself listening to the pop station and Oldies almost exclusively on the radio. I’d rather hear Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj than Robert Plant or Paul McCartney. Eric Clapton can suck it. The Strokes, The Hives, and every modern “The” band that doesn’t end with “White Stripes” or “Black Keys” should be exiled to Belgium.
There’s so much shitty music on the radio that I wonder what they did with all the good stuff. Surely there are other people out there like me who like the bluesy aspect of rock and roll without the glitter and pretense of Classic Rock Top 40 stations. I want a DJ who speaks, not groans. I don’t want to hear the same shit for the millionth time, or Nickelback, ever.
Nickelback is a great example of the conundrum that comes with defining classic rock. They have basically taken the formula of everything that gets played on your typical classic rock station, and mashed it up into one big shit-sandwich of awful. You can say I’m wrong, and that Nickelback is nothing like [“groundbreaking” rock band of your choice] but really you just hate them because they showed how easy it was to do the same thing that such “greats” were doing.
Write a song about drinking shitty beer, throw in a few oblique references to banging, gather up your favorite power chords, and you’ve got the next classic rock/Nickelback album. Some bands make that formula work. I still love pretty much every song from Green Day’s Dookie, and I’m not even sure if they’d learned to play their instruments yet. The Clash (Strummer, specifically) are one of my personal all-time favorites, and their riffs were rarely complicated. I guess if the music isn’t meaningful, I want lyrics that are.
The problem for me is one of monolithic opposition to change. I honestly don’t mind sitting through a few songs I hate to get to one I really like, but that so rarely happens on Classic Rock stations that it’s become useless to try. It doesn’t seem right. I love plenty of older rock music. My interests and that of Classic Rock stations should intercept more than once every hour or so.
I feel homeless when it comes to radio, I guess. The closest I can get to consistently enjoyable music is by listening to the oldies station. I’m big on old R&B and pop tunes. Give me the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Donna Summer every day over another George Thorogood “Rock Block.” If not that, it’s newer pop and hip hop. I’d rather tap my toes and sing along than subject myself to a bunch of angsty yelling from supposed tough guys. Fuck you, Motley Cru. Suck an egg Axl Rose.
My point didn’t really get made here, did it? This is what happens when I don’t write for a bit. Full on puke on the page. All I’m really trying to say is that radio stations, specifically those focused on rock, could benefit from opening up their playlists a bit. I know people love many of the bands and songs I listed above, and that’s fine, but it’d be a lot easier to sit through some stuff I consider crap if I knew there was something subjectively good coming.
Jackson Brown, Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, The Band, The Stones, Elton John, The Clash, Hendrix, Van Morrison, Billy Joel and so many other great rock outfits get swept under the rug, their “poppiest” stuff finding play on oldies stations, but their best stuff – the bluesy, rock and roll stuff – never making the cut for classic rock. That leaves all of the best tunes in their catalogs relegated to ipods and Pandora stations everywhere – not the worst fate, but where do the new listeners come from? I want to like the radio, I really do. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but if you want me to listen, classic rock radio, for God’s sake mix it up once in a while!Tags: billy joel, blues, classic rock, defining music, defining rock and roll, elton john, elvis costello, jackson browne, joe strummer, levon helm, Music, pop, R&B, rock and roll, rock music, the band, the clash, the rolling stones, the stones, top 40, warren zevon