Jukebox Heroes: A Long Delayed Return to Classic Rock -- Which Can Be Pretty Damn Good

Maybe classic rock's most bothersome aspect is that it traffics in arguably one of the most fertile creative periods in rock history, but leaves the impression that most bands never wrote more than three or four songs.

It might be hard for younger music fans to imagine, but there was once a time before MP3s, before iPods, before online streaming, when you were at the mercy of whatever radio signals reached your area. As a kid and teenager, I faced the following basic options: country, gospel, modern R&B, and classic rock. There was no MTV, either, since local churches, full of "won't someone think of the children?" fire, had successfully browbeat the local cable company into not carrying the channel.

So when I went off to college, it was like door after door opened before me. I finally got my MTV, along with its 120 Minutes program, and heard acts like the Cure, Mojo Nixon, They Might Be Giants, and the Pixies. I hung out with people who were listening to Metallica, John Prine, Joy Division, and Townes Van Zandt. I went to parties and heard the Violent Femmes. I went to more parties and heard... the Violent Femmes. I went to even more parties and heard, well, more Violent Femmes.

OK, so it wasn't all diversity all the time. It was enough, though. It was eye-opening and life-changing, and I can't imagine the effect some of this music might have had on me if I'd heard it right at the start of my formative years. From my late starting point and for the next 20 years or so, I never looked back, seeking out exciting new sounds whenever I could find them.

Trying to stay on the new music curve, though, means that you hear a ton of crap. In fact, I've been coming to the realization that a lot of discovery actually waits for me in the past, which surely had its share of dreck, but which also holds a lot of treasures that have stood the test of time.I was listening to Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" the other day for the first time in forever, and I thought, "Man, he could really sing. What does the rest of his stuff sound like?"

Before I go off on such a grand new/old adventure, though, I have to admit that classic rock radio (along with the Grand Old Opry and Hee Haw episodes that played nonstop at my grandparents' house) set the parameters for what I enjoy in music to this day. I love the humanity in that lonesome yell that Ford unleashes at the end of "Sixteen Tons", I love the by now clichéd sound of an amplifier cranking to life at the start of a song, I love the rawness and emotion. So even if I was always trying to find something new, I have to admit that the game was rigged by some ingrained prejudices against certain kinds of rock music.

Feeling elated by Animal Collective? Not me. I'd rather shimmy to the J. Geils Band. Maybe its a sign of limited musical scope on my part, but when I listen to a song like Animal Collective's "Summertime Clothes", I can appreciate it on an intellectual level, but it doesn't make a connection. Some might consider that a sign of musical childishness. Fair enough. A friend of mine reacted to "Summer Clothes" as if it were a religious experience, and that's cool. Maybe I'll come around some day. Until then, I'll just keep turning up the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" in anticipation of that blissful, unscripted moment when Merry Clayton's voice breaks.

Nevertheless, when I recently told a few friends that I was intentionally going to listen to nothing but classic rock for a month, it always came out sounding like some self-inflicted punishment or exile. When we were growing up, our local classic rock station was a high-wattage monolith that dominated the airwaves, and no one escaped its reach without bringing along some kind of baggage. Why did I decide to do this? I'm not even sure. Maybe it was some kind of burnout that sent me back to square one, or some dare to myself to see if I could actually make it without turning the radio dial, junkie-like, as far left as it would go.

In the process, however, I found that I'm more appreciative of many of these old classics than I thought I would be. It took a lot of years to get to this point, but I'm finally able to listen to Pink Floyd's The Wall or Steve Miller's Greatest Hits albums, again. Of all the albums I couldn't escape, perhaps these two were played the most (A word of advice: any party that gets more than two or three songs into The Wall is spiraling to a place you don't want to be. Escape while you can.)

Still, even with the awareness that I could listen to this stuff again whenever I liked, it's a frustrating experience to go back to. Classic rock, like most any other format, constrains itself. In the case of my local station, it freezes your listening to a very tightly-defined musical period of time, say, from the Beatles (but only after they started hitting the drugs) to some vague point in the late '80s/early '90s that can accommodate a little bit of late hard rock.

It's also a format that's content to skim the surface of that timespan. Never mind mining Bob Seger's catalog for hidden gems like "No Man's Land" when you can just queue up "Old Time Rock & Roll" or "Night Moves" (which I have to admit is pretty awesome). Why play Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet" when "Sultans of Swing" sits right there at the top of the stack? Maybe classic rock's most bothersome aspect is that it traffics in arguably one of the most fertile creative periods in rock history, but leaves the impression that most bands never wrote more than three or four songs. On the other hand, it does let you hear the Rolling Stones' "She's So Cold" without having to so much as glance at their Emotional Rescue album, so there's a benefit right there.

Part of this is the "comfort food" aspect of classic rock. We tune in because we want to hear things we know, and possibly remember from our youth. Also, like any other radio format, it does offer what Kevin Dettmar calls the "power of surprise". I have every Led Zeppelin record, and sometimes even stash one or two CDs in my car, but if I hear "Rock and Roll" or "When the Levee Breaks" come on the radio, I'm cranking the dial like Zeppelin crafted obscure nuggets that I may never hear again.

That's all well and good, but after all of this blatheration, what did a month-long classic rock diet teach me?

1. It's impossible to listen to classic rock radio during the coveted drivetime hours without hearing the frakkin' Eagles. My disdain for the Eagles is admittedly irrational, due to an early girlfriend dumping me in favor of a guy who was always spouting off about how "versatile" the Eagles were, but even if I liked them, would I need to hear them during my commute every day!?

2. Tom Petty has obviously sold his soul to the devil, since he's the only person who seems able to write new songs and get them absorbed into the classic rock canon. Robert Plant has enjoyed this good fortune as well, but I'm convinced that my local station bothers playing things like "Little by Little" or "Big Log" only because Plant finally -- in chastened Prodigal Son fashion -- re-embraced his Led Zeppelin legacy with his Now and Zen album and other projects. That said, don't expect any of his work with Alison Krauss to be hitting classic rock playlists anytime soon.

3. Warren Zevon deserves better than to be known as that "'Werewolves of London' guy". He wrote some great songs, people! Let's hear 'em!

4. I'm not a huge fan of later Aerosmith, but I have to admit that Joe Perry's guitar was smokin' for most of the '80s and '90s. That chaotic, clanging solo on "Janey's Got a Gun" totally rocks.

5. It really is impossible to listen to Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" now without thinking of Saturday Night Live's "More Cowbell" skit. That thing's clanging so hard, the writers of "Mississippi Queen" should be asking for royalties.

6. Classic rock stations are high energy nearly all the time. My much beloved NPR station acts like playing anything edgy between the hours of 8AM and 5PM will traumatize sensitive listeners right off of their potting wheels. Meanwhile, classic rock stations are hauling out the AC/DC at 9AM. Yeah, it's probably because a computer somewhere is churning out playlists with no comprehension of what it means to ease into your day, but still...

7. Seemingly the only nod that the entire New Wave movement will get from classic rock radio is that U2 gets played every once in a while. You get the feeling, though, that this happens only because U2 were so big you couldn't exactly ignore them.

8. Special weekends or blocks where a station plays more than one song by a single artist can cause equal amounts of pleasure and pain. Sure, it's great to hear three Kinks songs in a row (most likely "Lola", "You Really Got Me", and "Come Dancing"), but what if they lock in on a band you hate? Personally, I can't stand Loverboy, Boston, or .38 Special. It's not for any logical reason -- it's not like they ever came over and punched me in the nose or stole my girlfriend (Eeeeaaaagles!) -- but for whatever reason, the sound of those bands sets my teeth on edge. That said, classic rock programmers have done their research. Every day has a designated Zeppelin block, or a Stones block, or an, ahem, Eagles block that you can hear at the same time every day.They pull stunts like playing an entire classic album during the lunch hour. They know how to keep you listening, which isn't hurt by the fact that ...

9. This stuff just sounds fantastic. Part of it is surely the Darwinian passage of time, in which less beloved songs fall out of the playlist, but just about any song you hear on classic rock radio sounds great. Lynyrd Skynyrd's three-guitar attack is as clear as day. You couldn't ask for a clearer sounding song than Heart's "Crazy On You", and all those Steve Miller hits coat the ears like honey. Maybe that's one good thing that came from the massive studio bills that bands used to rack up, maybe no one knows how to mic instruments like they used to, or maybe it's the price newer albums are paying for participating in the loudness wars. Whatever the reason, I'm hard pressed to think of many new recordings that have the warmth or dynamics that seem so plentiful in classic rock.

All in all, my exile to the cold steppes of classic rock wasn't all that bad. I had to grit my teeth and bear it whenever certain bands came on, but I ended up hearing a lot of stuff I'd either forgotten about, or had forgotten how much I enjoyed. All the criticisms you always hear about classic rock are true -- as they are for any genre of radio. I used to worry that new generations experiencing classic rock would get stuck in the same flypaper that caught me.

If there's one benefit to the digital revolution, though, it's that someone who hears Creedence Clearwater Revival or the James Gang for the first time can now go to a service like Pandora or Grooveshark and listen to more of those bands, as well as other bands in the same vein. Maybe that will help create a generation of more well-rounded listeners who won't spend 20 years dissing the very music that got them started in the first place.





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