Then & Now: Classic Rock

“Rock is dead; long live rock!” -Title of The Who’s unreleased 1972 autobiographical album

It’s fitting that today’s epigraph comes courtesy of The Who, one of rock’s longest-running acts and—perhaps more than any other single band—the one most responsible for creating what’s often called “Classic Rock.” Rock and roll was well into its second decade in 1972, but it was in large part the success of the Who’s 1971Who’s Next that solidified the genre forever. 

For many years after that high water mark of rock, the term “Classic Rock” would be used more to describe the dominant genre of radio station programming than a particular style of music. But that’s changed; as America’s tastes have broadened in the first decades of the 21st century, rock has increasingly become a collection of genres, each one garnering dedicated fans but none of them dominating as before. If rock increasingly becomes a retro genre—as the data presented in this Inside Radio article suggests—Classic Rock has emerged as a definable (and broadly popular) style.

So, what does Classic Rock mean today? As always, we’ll dive into its roots and trace its sometimes-twisted course before landing back at the present day, with perhaps even a glimpse into the future.

The Roots of Classic Rock

Though Rock and Roll had clear forebears stretching back to the very beginning of the ‘50s—many consider Ike Turner’s 1951 hit “Rocket 88” (credited to vocalist Jackie Brenston) to be the first Rock and Roll song—the genre wouldn’t erupt into the public consciousness until 1955, as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley exploded onto the airwaves. 

Rock and Roll quickly became commodified; within a few years, opportunistic performers such as Pat Boone were selling millions of records by offering bland, sanitized versions of other (often African-American) artists’ songs. For many, this is the time and place rock and roll died, but report’s of the genre’s death were—as they say—greatly exaggerated. If in the first years of the 1960s, Rock and Roll competed for airtime with Pop, Jazz, Folk and R&B, it was about to undergo a major makeover.    

Ray and Dave Davies were two brothers from the working-class neighborhood of North London. After finding middling success on the city’s nascent R&B circuit, their band underwent the requisite name changes and finally ended up as the Kinks. After winning a recording contract, the band released a couple of singles with little response. Finding themselves on the verge of being dropped by their label, they decided to risk their careers on a new approach.

It’s a good thing for us that the Kinks did though. That third single—the groundbreaking “You Really Got Me”—was for many the moment Rock and Roll became “rock.” The Kinks would undergo many more transformations and permutations in a long career, eventually settling on a commercially successful form of arena-rock that was, in its way, a pale imitation of the spark that animated many of the band’s early releases. 

But the importance of “You Really Got Me” can’t be overstated: In retaining the idioms of Rock and Roll and R&B—but freeing otherwise slavish copyists from merely recreating these musical styles, a path many of the Kinks’ peers still pursued—this newer, freer style of Rock became the crucial ingredient in Classic Rock, then still nearly a decade in the future.  

The rest of the 1960s would be a time of unprecedented growth and change in popular culture and, more broadly, launch a global youth movement. Music would expand, morph, and diversify at seemingly breakneck speed, and many of the genres we’ve examined previously—including Punk, Soul, Garage Rock and Funk—would either come of age or begin their initial exploratory phases in this tumultuous decade.

But without any doubt, the 60’s were the years that Rock established itself as the primary genre of youth culture and, increasingly, the airwaves as well. And as had happened before—as when the first explosion of Rock and Roll coincided with the rise of Top 40 radio—the two mediums would play a large part in shaping and influencing each other’s ascents.

On My Radio: Classic Rock Arrives

If the ‘60s brought a slew of Rock subgenres to the mainstream, the beginning of the 1970s can be described as more cautious, even reactionary. While obscure art-rock experimentalists like Captain Beefheart were probably never going to make much of a dent in commercial radio anyway, much of the record-buying public seemed to have retreated towards rootsier, less confrontational styles of Rock, as epitomized by the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, regarded by many as their finest album.   

As we hinted before, radio had a large role to play in the ascent of Classic Rock. If at the beginning of the 1970s legacy AM stations still commanded a size-able market share, by the decade’s end, FM stations—capable of broadcasting in stereo, and in generally greater fidelity—were firmly at the top of the market. And what genre was best suited for FM both in terms of demand and its association with the mobility of an automotive culture? You guessed it: Classic Rock. But that still doesn’t necessarily tell us what it is.

In many regards, Classic Rock can be defined by what it’s not: It’s not Country, Exile… contains elements of Country, and one of Classic Rock’s greatest success stories—the Eagles—built their career in large part on a Californian style of Country Rock. And while many avatars of Classic Rock had been deeply invested in the late-60s Psychedelic Music movement, Classic Rock is largely free of the perspective- or consciousness-altering shifts that define that sub-genre

Perhaps most of all, while Classic Rock touches upon many of Rock’s fiercer elements, by and large it pulls back on the aggression. Thus for every Black Dog there’s a Stairway to Heaven; for every Born to Run there’s a Meeting Across the River. Harder than the Soft Rock then competing for airtime (but far less confrontational than the Punk beginning to bubble up through the underground), Classic Rock was above all democratic. Demanding no particular affiliation or geographic location, requiring only that one be positioned near a record player—or, crucially, a car radio—it would in large part come to define the face, if not the sound, of Rock from that point on. After the 1970s, Alt Rock, Grunge, and any other subgenres would come and go; for the mass of Americans rock fans, when you switched on a radio, you were tuning it to Classic Rock.

Splinters of Rock: Is Classic Rock a Dinosaur?

In a sense, this leads us back to the beginning, with The Who claiming “Rock is dead!” while pledging their undying love. While Rock as a whole is still one of the most popular musical genres, it’s fallen behind both Hip-Hop and Pop, at least when it comes to album consumption. And it’s fair to say that while it appears there’s no shortage of up-and-coming Rock bands, by and large the cutting edge of popular music lives in those aforementioned other genres, namely Hip-Hop and Pop.

That’s not to say the genre of Classic Rock isn’t fertile ground for up-and-coming songwriters. In the ‘80s, songwriters who had first found their audiences in the ‘70s—notably Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen—found further commercial and artistic success by mining and synthesizing many of the previous decades’ themes and sounds. And in the coming years, younger artists—love ‘em or hate ‘em—such as Hootie & the Blowfish and Foo Fighters covered much of the same territory, a middle ground between relying on nostalgia on the one hand and experimentalism and expansion on the other.

So what’s ahead for Classic Rock? If it has become merely another “retro genre,” it’s in little danger of dying out anytime soon. Relying on a broad and accessible common language, it’s an ideal canvas on which aspiring songwriters can project any number of themes, ranging from the romantic to the political to the intimately personal. Its seemingly endless capacity for regeneration offers ample proof that the public’s demand for a musical genre—particularly one so stimulating, comfortable and well-worn—can roll on, and on, and on.

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