It's Only Rock 'n Roll: Liking Classic Rock in 2014

It's Only Rock 'n Roll: Liking Classic Rock in 2014

There’s a certain amount of apprehension that comes with any discussion of classic rock. Our conception of the classic rock fan is dominated on one hand by the image of the curmudgeonly dad in the Blue Oyster Cült shirt, or, on the other hand, of a proud, 12-year-old commentator on a live video of Led Zeppelin on YouTube. Even if many of the songs which constitute the canon of that "genre" aspired to push musical envelopes, their celebration as the "greatest rock music ever made" comes off as distasteful. Even so, there are several contemporary musicians who draw, explicitly or not, from the genre. Acts like Chris Forsyth (a passionate Neil Young fan), Ukiah Drag, Tonstartssbandht, and Tony Molina all engage with classic rock and its legacy. Recalling his love for classic rock as a child as part of the same interview that produced the Tonstartssbandht travelogue, Andy White said,

We’d hear a song on the radio and I’d be like "Mom! They’re playing that Led Zeppelin song on the radio." And my mom would be like, "Yeah, no shit, they were the biggest band in the world for a decade." And you realize, everyone has heard these bands. and the DJ would be like, “The greatest band of all time. Let’s get the Led out." And you get to thinking that maybe people are too excited for this.

This suspicion of the idolization of classic rock makes sense when you consider where the term emerges from. It has its origins in the early ‘80s, when album-oriented rock radio stations began to use classic rock as a descriptor for playlists rooted in the music of the 1960s and 1970s. An article from a 1986 issue of Billboard reflects on the sudden proliferation of the classic rock format, looking upon the the development as a symptom of the increasing conservatism of rock music on the radio. This etymology is revealing-- classic rock emerged from the desire to commercialize nostalgia.

The spread of the format in the 1980’s reveals a pessimism about the vitality and commerciality viability of contemporary rock music in the face of emerging music forms like hip-hop and house music. Classic rock casts the music of the '60s, '70s, and '80s as that of a bygone, mythological era. When we speak of classic rock, then, we’re not talking about a specific type of music, or even a time period; most people, after all, would not refer to Can as classic rock. Rather, classic rock is a set of imaginings and narratives, centered around larger-than-life figures.

The baggage surrounding classic rock is palpable. As Andy White went on to claim in the aforementioned interview,

There's this culture in classic rock of being like, "It’s the greatest fucking music that has existed or will ever exist. I wish I was born in the '60s." That’s so fucking fatalist, man. Don’t you want to listen to new music that excites you? Then one day somebody buys a hip-hop album and they’re like, “Oh, I like rap now."

For any forward thinking musician, particularly one that his or herself went through a phase of classic rock idolization, reconciling the music with the mythology that surrounds the genre can be a frustrating task. For Tonstartssbandht this involves placing distance between oneself and the mythology surrounding classic rock while relishing in the power of the riff. As Tonstartssbandht drummer Edwin White declared,“Riffs are powerful! Electrified, distorted blues music is, at least for me, an incredibly powerful type of music." Their music draws from classic rock in a way that is playful and loving. Songs get twisted in unpredictable ways: “Black Country,” in its studio recording, consists of the White brother’s vocals layered over a distorted sample of the riff-filled classic, “In a Big Country.” This appropriation is itself turned on its head in the band’s most recent live record, Overseas, in which the brothers perform the song using traditional rock instruments, guitar and drums.

The White brothers' recollections of their early exposure to classic rock through the radio as children resonates with a set of narratives surrounding the genre. While the out-of-touch dad is presumed doomed to only buy new albums by old rock acts and, in moments of adventurousness, Wilco records, young classic rock fans are expected to someday move beyond the year in middle school they spent smoking pot and listening to Pink Floyd. It makes sense then, that popular representations of the classic rock era like the movie “Almost Famous” center on adolescent figures. Coincidentally, Larry Fellows, the almost silent bassist of that movie’s fictional band, Stillwater, was played by Mark Kozelek, the principal member of Sun Kil Moon. Although Kozelek’s music doesn’t resemble what one might traditionally associate with classic rock, his work has frequently drawn from its legacy. His first solo EP, Rock n’ Roll Singer, featured tracks with AC/DC lyrics that bared absolutely no resemblance to the originals.

The centerpiece of Benji, his most recent Sun Kil Moon record, is a song called “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same.” The song ties Kozelek’s reflections on his youth-- his feelings of melancholy and his flirtations with violent masculinity-- with his memory of watching The Song Remains The Same in theatres. The Song Remains The Same, a concert film of a series of shows Led Zeppelin played at Madison Square Garden, is one of the mythic documents of classic rock. Bombastic and self-indulgent, the film is infamous for its fantasy sequences, which featured individual members on adventures-- in Robert Plant’s sequence, he is a knight trying to rescue a ‘fair maiden.’ “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” presents the film’s most vulnerable moments as the ones with which Kozelek most identifies. Here the mythology of classic rock is neither affirmed nor even attacked. Instead, Kozelek engages with the entanglements of classic rock and its narratives with adolescence. Elsewhere on the same record, “Dogs” by Pink Floyd becomes a central metaphor for his early, conflicted, sexual experiences.

For Kozelek this kind of engagement is invariably melancholic. But for others it can be playful and fun. Consider the ecstatic energy which permeates King Tuff’s self-titled 2012 record. The album toys with the signifiers of classic rock-- relishing in a world of SGs and Stratocasters, and bats with skulls for heads. This is an engagement with the mythology of classic rock that affirms King Tuff’s love for it even if he is wary of taking it too seriously. Tracks like “Alone and Stoned” celebrate (with a hint of trepidation) the transportative power of listening to music on your headphones while being, uh, alone and stoned. Classic rock, with its monstrous mythology, invites the listener into its cosmology. On “Bad Thing,” King Tuff sings about, “Looking like an innocent kid,” while playing a stratocaster even though he knows that he isn’t one.

This playfulness can take on an even more irreverent tone. Composer Keith Fullerton Whitman’s ongoing series, “Greatest Hits,” is a set of manipulations of pop songs from Whitman’s youth. Classic rock radio fodder like John Cougar Mellencamp, the Police, and, of course, Led Zeppelin are the subject to this treatment. While it might seem sacrilegious to a classic rock devotee to turn “No Quarter” into a fuzzy puddle, Whitman’s own notes provide some perspective on the project. The manipulations use fragments of the songs, which are chosen, according to Whitman, based on “how much my nostalgic recollection of it differed from its contemporary reality.” This sort of engagement, which acknowledges the influence and importance of classic rock to one’s development as a musician without putting too much stock in the reverence which surrounds it opens up a number of possibilities.

Artists like Keith Fullerton Whitman and Mark Kozelek subvert the commercialized nostalgia of classic rock to make art that is challenging and uncomfortably personal, respectively. A recent study of classic rock radio is revealing of how far stations are willing to go to exploit people’s nostalgia for the music of their youth. According to an industry insider, new songs are added to playlists through the work of test groups who assemble, “A cluster of people who like the music that makes up the core of classic rock, and then [the test group] finds out what else they like. They like R.E.M.? Well, R.E.M. is now classic rock.” The majority of songs featured on stations across the country center around the 10 year period between 1972 and 1983, with the last year to have significant presence being 1991. This makes sense, as the heyday of grunge and alt-rock might constitute some of the last mythological periods in rock music, with the cultish reverence of Kurt Cobain rivaling that of Jim Morrison.

It is an oft-repeated claim that nostalgia operates in twenty year cycles. Much has been made, as of late, of the resurgence in interest in 90’s guitar rock. Classic rock of the '70s-- especially on the Black Sabbath side of the spectrum-- certainly weaved its way into grunge and other '90s guitar rock. In a way, bands seeking influence from the '90s are reckoning, however implicitly, with the legacy of classic rock. Of course this takes different forms than it may have  twenty years ago. It’s hard to imagine a band writing a song like "Black Hole Sun" and thinking it sounds sinister. While it might be hard to hear this reckoning in the music of Krill or Speedy Ortiz, the influence comes most into view in the work of Tony Molina.

His record Dissed and Dismissed draws most immediately from Guided by Voices and Weezer, the arch-jocks and arch-nerds of '90s guitar pop. The tracks are all succinct: a riff, a hook, a solo, and that’s all she wrote. But some of the riffs veer into New Wave of British Heavy Metal territory, and the baroque, twin guitar solos scream Thin Lizzy. This makes sense when you consider the way Molina’s more immediate antecedents drew from classic rock. Weezer positioned themselves very deliberately in the '90s as a successor to arena rock bands, with big hooks and heroic guitar solos played on flying V’s. Of all the way '90s bands reckoned with the rock music in the '70s, Rivers Cuomo’s methods seem to resonate most with today’s. He lays it all on the line on “In The Garage,” when he sings, deadpanned, “I've got posters on the wall/My favorite rock group KISS/I've got Ace Frehley/I've got Peter Criss/Waiting there for me.” It’s a moment that’s simultaneously funny, self-aware, and utterly sincere. The dude loves Kiss, and he knows it's goofy that he does. It’s this kind of playfulness, which draws inspiration from classic rock not with a pair of tweezers but with plastic beach toys that resonates more today.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. There’s something undeniably compelling about assigning a mythic reverence to cultural moments. For better or for worse, it’s even generative. After all, many of the musicians we now associate with classic rock drew heavily from the mythology surrounding pre-war blues which proliferated in the 1960s. It’s not hard to see how, in that instance, the implications of that mythology extend into even more sinister territory than making a quick buck. If the constant affirmations of the supremacy of classic rock which pervade media appear especially crass to us, it’s because the fatalism and cynical opportunism are so blatant. But just how far from tacky is our current fixation with sounds of the past? The alt and indie rock of the 90’s may currently be enjoying a resurgence in interest, but music derived from synthpop of the '80s has had a continual presence in contemporary music for over decade, such that it practically constitutes a genre in and of itself. The line between productive appropriation and fastidious imitation can be hard to distinguish. The provocative ways in which artists like Kozelek or Keith Fullerton Whitman engage with classic rock provide possibilities for navigating that boundary. 

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