The New Classic Rock

Top-Classic-Rock-SongsI grew up in New Jersey in the 70’s and 80’s so you could easily surmise that I was exposed to a shitload of classic rock radio. I recall putting on a “Doors concert” in my first grade class followed by a KISS concert in my second grade class. So yes, I was into music at a very early age (and in hindsight, had some pretty cool teachers).

Both of my older brothers were rock music listeners. They didn’t stray far from the norms of the time: Van Halen, AC/DC, Rush, Aerosmith etc. One of them even ventured off in to some heavier stuff like Sabbath and Priest (who also had some classic rock radio staples) which in turn turned me on to metal bands. It was hard to escape classic rock radio in New Jersey. The question now, looking back is, what exactly is classic rock?

Do we define classic rock as an actual genre of music like we would with blues, reggae, jazz, or soul? Every “genre” of music can have sub genres (which have only grown exponentially in the past 20 years) but I think in my older age I find myself thinking: are The Who really “classic rock” or were they just played on radio stations that, over time, turned bands like The Beatles, The Stones, and Zeppelin into “classic” rock. I don’t think when Mick and Keith first met on that train platform in the early 60’s they said to each other, “hey, mate, let’s form a classic rock band!”

To elaborate more on this point I will use the example of one of my all time favorite bands: Pink Floyd. To most every person walking the face of the earth in the past 30 years Pink Floyd is a hugely successful classic rock band. On radio stations you can hear any one of nearly a dozen “hits” they have, they’ve sold over 100 million records, sell out stadiums, and are generally revered in the rock world as one of the greatest bands ever. Think about the Floyd’s pre-Dark Side music though. I will argue that you can, and should, consider Pink Floyd the first real alternative band. If you want to get portentous, you can call them the first Art Rock band (along with their American counterparts to the counterculture The Velvet Underground & The Mothers Of Invention). Their music was far from the masculine, sometimes brutish tones of The Who. Far from the pop sensibilities of The Beatles and even further away from the blues-inspired twang of The Stones. Pink Floyd were “weird” during an era where people were trying to be weird. They were the band that actually was weird.

I don’t listen to much radio these days and if/when I do it’s usually Sirius and it’s never “classic rock” stations (if I never hear “Hotel California” again it would be too soon). However, the few times I have been exposed to radio in the past few years I have noticed something happening in between the 78,593 spins of “You Shook Me All Night Long”  and “Baba O’Reilly”: I now hear “Evenflow”, “Everlong”, “Give It Away”, and “Black Hole Sun” mixed in with “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Born To Run.”

It wasn’t too long ago when bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, RHCP, and the Foo Fighters were considered…wait for it…”alternative” (how fuckin’ 90’s right?). Think back to the early 90’s: when Pearl Jam broke they were alternative, they were the alternative to the overplayed classic rock we grew up on and the bloated LA hair metal scene. Soundgarden seemed edgy, shit, Nirvana was edgy and certainly an “alternate” to the shitty bands that were popular the time.

Now, when I hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio right after “Tiny Dancer” things get put into perspective quite easily: perhaps these bands were never actually “alternative” bands after all. The Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam never shied away from their classic rock influences. Eddie Vedder found just as much coolness in Neil Young and The Who as he did in Fugazi and The Ramones. Tom Petty, to the Pumpkins and many others, was just as cool as Iggy Pop. Sure, Kurt Cobain had a certain distaste for the overt excess of some mainstream rock bands, but he also professed his love for the digestible pop of The Beatles and Cheap Trick. Alice In Chains wore their love of Heart on their sleeves and uber-underground band The Melvins make no apologies for loving KISS.

I am not going out on an edge here by saying that the alternative bands of the 90’s were influenced by their beloved 70’s classic rock. You would be hard pressed to find even the most devout punk rocker not tapping their foot to Sly & The Family Stone or expressing how cool Lou Reed is. And saying that radio overplayed all the previously mentioned bands is an understatement. But good music is good music no matter how old it is and no matter how many time’s you’ve heard it before. You might not want to ever hear “Stairway To Heaven” again, but if you do, can you actually say it’s not a great song?

This leads to me to start thinking of all the bands that have become popular in the past 15 or so years and wondering which one of them are going to have their songs sandwiched in between “Dream On” and “Ramblin’ Man.” We are already hearing The White Stripes in there (and at every sporting event), The Black Keys are about as obvious as the sun, but who else might make the cut? The Dave Matthews Band? Weezer? Queens of the Stone Age? Jackie?

I would love to read some of your responses in the comments section below. Perhaps there are bands just coming out now that in twenty years will be “classic” rock. Maybe there are bands I am simply not thinking of that fit into this mold.

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5 Comments

  1. I’d never thought of it like that before but I think you are right about what was was edgy and alt is now just popular rock from a while back. Does the word ‘classic’ basically mean vintage rock, as in rock that was created a certain amount of decades ago and so now it’s considered to be classic. I was listening to the pumpkins last night with my bloke (who’s 15 years older than me and into Floyd, Zappa and Ozrics) and I said “I loved this alt band so much as a teen” and he laughed and said “Alt? It just sounds like standard rock music to me.” I s’pose it does by comparison!

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  2. Just the older we get the more “classic” the music we listened to while we were younger gets. The 80’s hair bands , Bob Jovi, Scorpions, Ratt, Cinderella. Etc I hear on classic rock stations

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  3. As a bit of a curmudgeon, for me classic rock died out in the early 60s. I was happy to see the Stones revive the power of it as the best part of the British Invasion along with the likes of Hendrix and Johnny Winter. Later on the punkers did some interesting stuff with Joan Jett and The Runaways and Pat Benitar coming to mind. Rock with elaborate stage productions generally leaves me cold. I’d much rather go to some small club and experience a good garage band play Stevie Ray Vaughan or something.

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  4. I worked in radio throughout the 90’s. As the decade waned, bands like Pearl Jam, STP, AIC, and Soundgarden morphed into “crossover” status as they began to get played on regular rock radio. The “Alternative” staples that had once defined a cultural transition in music popularity were now considered more of the norm. I remember remarking to someone at the tail end of the decade that these artists were “the next wave” of Classic Rock.

    Unfortunately, as these pioneers exited the Alt spectrum, they made way for lesser acts as the genre struggled to find an identity. The watered down grunge-ish sounds of Creed, 3 Doors Down and Nickelback began to claw their way up the Alternative charts. Don’t even get me started on the rap/metal hybrids that seemed to define the genre in the early 2000’s…

    Let’s hope as Classic Rock continues to be inclusive of only “the classics”, the genre stays a bit elitist in who it allows in… I don’t think I could take it if I heard Limp Bizkit on Classic Rock radio.

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