“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” Paul Simon once observed (he himself the beneficiary and the victim of that rule of popular culture). That fact has resulted in any number of chart-toppers and wannabes; they’re not all necessary, and God knows they’re not all good. But they all form the basis for looking at rock music in its truest sense, in the context of an event, not a process; a living thing, rather than the stuff of a museum.
The failure to embrace this democratic principle, which is fundamental to the creative process in general and rock in particular, is one of the several shortcomings of I Hate New Music, veteran rock writer Dave Thompson’s classic rock manifesto. This work is offered as a kind of spiritual call to arms, a bid to reclaim rock music and its laissez-faire values from what Thompson sees as a corporate takeover of the music of his youth, leading to an emotional vacancy that’s made the rock genre a shadow of its former swaggering self.
Something of a rock ‘n’ roll misanthrope, Thompson, a contributor to Rolling Stone and Melody Maker, embarks on this journey through the past with sharp tongue and sharp elbows. But the author reveals how being so aggressively retrograde, being such a fan of music of the past, is a curious resistance to a future coming toward him—one that’s been coming toward him—whether he’s ready or not.
It’s true enough: A manifesto is necessarily a personal document, one’s statement of principles, and as often as not a willful departure from what’s considered to be the mainstream of thought. Your blues ain’t like mine, or his or hers. A certain philosophical license is built into such an enterprise; a manifesto is that achingly personal cri de Coeur, an announcement not so much of what matters as it is a statement of what matters to you.
So armed, you discover Thompson’s manifesto is less a statement of principles than a reactionary rant that’s neither especially original nor enlightening. It engages in not just the personal perspective intrinsic to the form, there’s an intractability that undercuts his authority as a music writer, even as it reinforces the singular perspective. Thompson makes an ironic request of the reader: Respect my authority as a music writer, while I fail to respect the chameleon nature of the music I claim to love.
For Thompson, rock music’s creative juices stopped flowing in 1976 or so, when the genre became a focus-group exercise in musical impersonation. From then on, rock’s true sense of personal expression ended: corporations drove the musical agenda, band reputations became more established by publicists and PR than by persistence and relentless touring, and we embarked on an era of creative impoverishment, a musical world bereft of inspiration—not just a teenage wasteland, but a wasteland for all of us.
Thompson maintains strict adherence to a definition of “classic rock,” a phrase that’s frankly become more of a radio-station advertising device than anything else. Thompson, though, gamely attempts a definition:
Classic rock is music without frontiers. It is music that was created within the most unfettered of environments, devoid of any expectation or notion beyond creating a great record…From ‘Born to Be Wild’ to ‘The Boys Are Back in Town,’ from the searing blues of Free to the operatic bombast of Meatloaf, classic rock is not about dates or time frames or history. It is about snatching the listener out of the humdrum here and now, and taking off…heading out on the highway, looking for adventure, and climbing so high.
A worthy objective for all of rock music. But musicians who came of age any time after 1980 might be surprised to discover that their best efforts don’t fit into Thompson’s musical world view, mostly because of changes in technology, corporate structure, and a shift in the collective attitude—things those younger musicians have nothing to do with.
A favored Thompson whipping boy is the rock-music charity event. In a survey of rock charity events from the first Live Aid concert, in 1985, to Live Earth in 2007, Thompson laments the homogenizing, sanctimonious effect of rock singers when their presence is superimposed on unspeakable global tragedies:
Prior to Live Aid, when politics met rock ‘n’ roll the collision was ugly. It was the sound of rifle-wielding National Guardsmen wading into a crowd of half-stoned longhairs singing ‘Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,’ or firing live ammo into a group of protesting students… Post-Live Aid, it was still real. People were still starving, dying, being locked away for their personal beliefs, or chained and beaten for their sexual preferences. But it somehow seems a lot less frightening when another third-rate pop star stands up to do a Geldof… Once, tragedy demanded direct action. Today, it is apparently enough to sing a song about it
But that curmudgeon’s-eye view, narrow and parochial, overlooks how those songs and the artists who sing them can be agents of direct action, appealing to the public in the cultural context they’re accustomed to. Who better to deliver a message than someone you’re already listening to? That message is even more powerfully multiplied in the Internet age—in ways from performance to fundraising. That’s an aspect of the evolution of rock charity projects Thompson only glancingly entertains.
A boilerplate aspect to his argument runs throughout: we’re made aware of Thompson’s passion for rock’s “outlaw mystique”, of his ardent defense of an anti-corporate mindset. Thompson bemoans the rise of the entertainment conglomerate and a follow-on diminution of invention from rock’s musicians; he proposes that the impact of corporate culture on rock has made real personal expression all but impossible. There’s little room in his book for considering those champions of the DIY aesthetic who’ve ventured beyond the corporate mainstream to make their own statements to great personal effect, if not always multi-platinum record sales.
There’s no mention, for example, of Ani DiFranco, whose self-started Righteous Babe label enabled the singer-songwriter to release music on her terms, rather than a corporation’s. There’s also no discussion of Prince’s creative emancipation from the Warner Bros. label, and how that led to his own re-creation as an artist with more or less total control of his own musical destiny. There’s scant mention of how such innovations as music-mixing computer software have leveled the playing field for untried bands seeking to elevate their public visibility without approval from the A&R (artist & repertoire) departments of major labels.
Even a manifesto sometimes has to subordinate personal expressions to matters of public record. Thompson can play fast and loose with the facts in a way that’s either journalistically sloppy or intellectually dishonest. Thompson, for example, says the British Invasion started “in 1963, with the arrival of the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, and so forth…” The Beatles, of course, first arrived in the US in February 1964, followed by the Rolling Stones (in June 1964) and the Kinks (in June 1965). Even conceding the flurry of British acts arriving in the US at that time, Thompson’s timeline suggests a willingness to tweak a chronology of events to reinforce a thesis that’s shaky to start with.
With an equally baffling imprecision, Thompson professes to hate “new music” (“new music sucks”) without offering any meaningful chronological frame for what the hell it is. Does he mean any rock music released after 1976? He might as well be talking about “old art.” Such a vague, spongy term screams for specificity, especially since so much of Thompson’s frame of reference for musical excellence is based in the work of decades past.
What’s so dismaying about all this from a champion of the genre is his inability to reckon with rock music as something of meaning to generations besides his own—to understand how every generation has a benchmark for classicism. Rock music was never meant to be a sound or an experience locked in amber, forever regarded like a bauble in a jewel box, something pulled out every so often to admire and hold up to the light before putting it away again. It’s meant to be interpreted—reinvented—by every succeeding generation, on that generation’s terms.
It’s generally assumed that the phrase “the day the music died” (from Don McLean’s song “American Pie”) is a reference to the day in February 1959 when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were killed in an Iowa plane crash. That may have been true for rock’s charter generation. But for a later generation, that day may well have been the day in September 1970 when Jimi Hendrix passed from the scene. Another generation (or a different cohort of the same one) probably marked the day when Elvis Presley died in August 1977.
For others, that dividing-line day was 8 December, 1980, when John Lennon was shot; for still others, it came in April 1994, when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Every generation of rock fans has its own organic threshold for rock music’s value and importance, its own musical heroes. Every generation makes its own choices based on the challenges of its time. Every generation of rock fans finds music that transmits its own satori, its own epiphanies. That frisson, those moments of discovery didn’t end in 1976.
Matters of fact: In describing the ascent of grunge music, Thompson places its origins in the northeast US, rather than the northwest. He mistakes the cover of one U2 album for another. He misspells the title of one of his self-selected “Top 100 Classic Rock Songs” between 1968 and 1976.
And it’s this list of songs, the last in a series of appendices ending the book, that’s most revealing about Thompson’s frozen celebration of songs that have become the playlist of radio stations whose “classic rock” self-definition has more to do with marketing than with state of mind. Irony of ironies: the “classic rock” he celebrates so aggressively has become the backbone of the very industry he condemns. You might call them the greatest-hits usual suspects: The Who, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Steppenwolf, Blue Cheer, Vanilla Fudge, the Guess Who, Peter Frampton, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, The Kinks…and Jimi Hendrix, whose transcendent version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” finds Thompson sighing for the good old days: “They don’t make records like this anymore.”
This is the core of the fundamental, Luddite sadness of this book, its expression of an inflexibility that (ironically enough) isn’t any different from the attitude of those elders of the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era who liked their music just the way it was, thank you very much. You respect Thompson for his passion and having the outsize courage of his retro convictions, even as you wonder what his life is like now, more than thirty years after the year he decided rock music had died.
Thompson’s right: They don’t make records like that anymore. They’re not supposed to. They can’t. That music is (his words now) “a sonic record of a singular moment, firmly cemented in time and place…” But they’re doing something different musically today, something that speaks to a later generation (and to anyone open-minded enough to listen) the way other music spoke to his own.
Whether it’s great music or not will be determined in the future. But it’s music that’s current and fully present in this time, right now. For better and for worse, there are a hundred new sounds fighting their way into the world.
There’s something happening, but you don’t know what it is…
Do you, Mr. Thompson?