Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Face the Strange: What was Classic Rock Radio?
In terms of structures that coalesce on different levels, rock music has many things in common with other cultural contexts. Rock has produced movements, conglomerations, and different corpuses of work that have manifested at different times. Many of the structural movements around rock music, especially regarding dissemination, have been dictated by mercenary concerns. Rock is, of course, a commercial art-form. One of the more curious developments involving rock music, where dissemination and commercial presentation are concerned, was the rise of “classic rock radio,” that took root and thrived from about 1985-1995. The dissemination of “classic rock” on classic rock radio stations involved the creation and maintenance of a discrete corpus of music— what radio stations deigned “classic.” What’s fascinating about this corpus is how arbitrary it appeared to be— and the demographics that dictated this arbitrary appearance. The first assumption that radio stations made is that, thirty years on, listeners in target groups would have no interest in what were already characterized as “oldies”— first generation rockers like Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, etc. So, the classic rock corpus wasn’t a lofty bid for comprehensiveness— radio stations were aiming for an audience for whom rock began with the Beatles. The rock music master narrative (which hasn’t, over the long term, proved to be particularly reliable) has always asserted three central sixties titans— the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. The Beatles and Stones were both so consolidated into the classic rock corpus as to have some predominance; but one quirk of the corpus is that Dylan was almost completely excluded from it. Occasional airplay would be given to “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively Fourth Street,” but there was always a better chance of hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd or Foreigner.
Was Dylan that much of a commercial underling as to merit non-inclusion? In this niche, he was. Yet Dylan has been the subject (and this was already established) of dozens of books, serious articles, profiles, and movies. It would be unlikely that a “Don’t Look Back” style documentary would be made about Foreigner. Dylan has always been a media darling; classic rock radio unearthed the dirty little secret that a large mass of the general public does, in fact, prefer Foreigner to Dylan. Yet other occurrences around the classic rock corpus confounded the possibility that all decisions were made in favor of crass commerciality. Dylan was on one side of Foreigner; on the other side would’ve been Kiss, who had by then outsold almost everyone in the classic rock canon. Dylan got bits of intermittent airplay; Kiss got even less. The natural conclusion to be drawn is that the creators of the classic rock corpus found Kiss’s songs not worthy of inclusion. But what the AOR bands (like Foreigner) had over Kiss remains unclear. The Kiss exclusion, considering their sales numbers (and that other hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin received heavy airplay) was baffling. Black Sabbath’s exclusion, considering their low sales profile, made some sense; they may even have been considered too heavy. But the truly droll aspect of the classic rock corpus often manifested in playlists that seem to have been generated on other planets. Try to make sense of a run of songs like this:
Heart, “Magic Man”
David Bowie, “Changes”
Supertramp, “The Logical Song”
Pink Floyd, “Us and Them”
Billy Joel, “The Entertainer”
John Cougar Mellencamp, “Pink Houses”
Led Zeppelin, “D’yer Maker”
It’s not just that the songs are cross-generic— each song is at such a tangent to those before and after that an argument can be made that heterogeneity defined the classic rock corpus. However, the wild extremes represented involved not only genres but values. “Changes” and “Us and Them” are both serious songs that address serious themes; the Mellencamp song seems about half-serious; the rest are kitsch. Thus, the experience of listening to classic rock radio was extreme; you could easily be delivered into the sublime or the ridiculous. The only internal logic seemingly operative was to keep the integrity of the corpus intact. Specific contexts on these stations opened for “adjuncts” to the corpus to appear. The most obvious was late-night— that if you tuned in at 2 am, you might hear Fairport Convention or the Velvets. Another feature accompanied new releases of adjunct artists like Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and XTC— it was a sign of respect to air the first single a handful of times. But, over the decade that classic rock radio stations were prominent on FM in the States, surprisingly few adjuncts managed to consolidate a place in the corpus, which did manage to retain a good amount of integrity. The happiest experience for these stations was when a corpus stalwart hit a new commercial peak— this happened with Yes and George Harrison in the late 80s. New, successful singles could be incorporated without loss into the corpus. Unsuccessful new singles by high-ranking artists (like the Stones singles from Steel Wheels) would be incorporated for a while as a sign of respect, then discarded.
Things could be amped up owing to the Zeitgeist, as well— the late 80s wound up being a boom-time for Led Zeppelin, whose high stock went up even higher in the corpus. Led Zeppelin were one of the few bands to have entire albums consolidated into the corpus; at any time, you might hear anything from II or IV. Boston’s first album was almost completely consolidated; Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors; the Eagles’ Hotel California. Greatest hits compilations aside, the Beatles and the Stones (for some reason) could boast of no such thing. Zeppelin had an edge as the reigning British band, bar none; but you’d never hear much from III, Physical Graffiti, or (especially) Presence. Another surprising exclusion was post Diver Down Van Halen; the 1984 singles (their biggest hits) were scarcely visible. You could hear the Kinks do “Low Budget” but not “Waterloo Sunset”; and you were more likely to hear early Animals than any Kinks. It could be asserted that the demise of classic rock radio killed off the Animals as anything but “oldies.” Possibly it killed off Eagles’ album tracks too.
All these events are complex and nuanced, if inexplicable. The classic rock corpus was comforting, but my friends and I were made restless by it. By the late 80s, and having missed the Smiths the first go-round, I was deep enough into rock to despair of hearing anything new, produced in my lifetime, as strong as the Beatles, Stones, and the rest. What happened next (the Alternative Revolution) answered that despair in an authoritative enough manner that the classic rock corpus, as a gestalt, was made almost instantly obsolescent. But it remains interesting, for its quirks, and for the way it created an illusion of permanence. Bodies of work, if presented to the public in a regular enough fashion, do seem to hold a sense of inevitability. However, there is nothing natural or permanent about the classic rock canon, and what it left out was as revealing, ultimately, as what was included. It wasn’t “just the crap” or “just the good stuff”; it was some of both, pieced together in such a way that cohesion was never possible. The target market was clearly late Boomers; but early Boomers were still too young to be an oldies crowd, and suburban kids like myself were getting a kind of education too. Was it an education that Nirvana and the rest later erased? For me, not much. If you’ve heard “Feels like the First Time” a thousand times, you’ll never get it out from under your skin.