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Friday, March 04, 2005
Roll Over Beethoven
I don't usually do this, but here's a few more:
For better but mostly worse, that's the face of Classic Rock, a radio format created in the early 80's and still playing the exact same songs 20 years later. Roll Over Beethoven, here is where rock comes to die.
The other day, a friend from work asked me about Freeway Jam. "It's about rock music" I told him. "Like its history, and its players, and its songs. That kind of stuff"
He asked me if I had done anything on Van Halen yet. I said their name hadn't come up.
"How can you write so many pages on rock, and never even mention Van Halen?" he wanted to know.
I had never considered the question before, but I guess it is indeed possible to write a whole book on rock and still never get to Van Halen.
Still, I could understand where he was coming from. When he listens to the radio, which he only does in his car, it's always the classic rock station. And there they are: "Jump" "Panama" "Hot For Teacher" "Why Can't This Be Love?" and "Pretty Woman" Again, and again, and again.
Of course, Classic Rock Radio isn't just Van Halen; about 30-40 names get somewhere between a token song (Nazareth, Mott the Hoople) or two (Blue Oyster Cult, .38 Special) to a rarified dozen or so (Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin).
Classic Rock playlists have varied barely a whit since they were invented. You can always rest assured that if you listen all day, you'll get to hear "More Than A Feeling" or "Carry On Wayward Son" at some point.
In the classic rock radio world, "No Repeat Tuesday" is a big deal; 24 hours without repeating a song. Yet, I consider 80% of Freeway Jam to be "classic" rock, but we've still not run into Van Halen, or John Cougar Mellencamp, or Eddie Money, or Electric Light Orchestra so far, despite the immediate familiarity a lot of rock listeners have with their hits.
Why? Mainly because sane people are sick of those tunes. I can honestly say I can live the rest of my life without ever hearing "Stairway to Heaven" again, and be richer for it. Which is not to knock Led Zeppelin; they're as classic as anybody. But why can't classic rock radio expose people to "Celebration Day" once in a while, or "Your Time Is Gonna Come" or "Hats Off To Roy Harper" even? Blue Oyster Cult was a great band; all you younger kids ought to check 'em out. You'd never guess it by listening to the slick-sounding "Burnin' For You" or their best known song "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" for the 2000th time. Where's "She's As Beautiful as a Foot" or "Then Came The Last Days Of May" or "The Revenge Of Vera Gemini" --their really good stuff?
How about the classic bands who never are played on classic rock radio? The Pretty Things. The Small Faces. The Stooges. Television. The Flamin' Groovies. Little Richard.
Why can't there be "No Repeat Month" on classic rock radio? "No Repeat Year" even. It's not like there's a dearth of material.
It'll never happen now. It no longer needs to anyway; satellite radio and internet radio is where the real interesting listening is nowadays, even for classic rock fans. In some ways, classic rock radio should be thanked for keeping some music alive out there to elicit further exploration by young novice rock fans. But it also deserves a few smacks upside the head for being so wholly unimaginitive, so wholly stodgy, so wholly the opposite of the early FM radio days, when freeform experimentalism and eclectic playlists was the order of the day.
So: since there are a few "classic rock" artists like Van Halen we haven't gotten to, and might not get to for a very long time, a "classic rock" playlist.
To stay true to the format, I'm going to include only the overplayed moldy rock oldies you'll hear any day of the week on classic rock radio.
I don't have my titles tagged "classic rock" so to generate this playlist I'll randomize my whole library (17,004 titles) and visually pluck out the familiar classic rock titles as they appear, in the order they came up in the random playlist.
To give you a sense of how limited classic rock radio format is, I had to scroll down this random playlist 25 positions to reach the first: R.E.M. doing "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" Classic Rock radio didn't get around to playing R.E.M. until the mid-90's. The next track comes up number 54 on the full playlist.
First 10 tracks selected in the above manner are profiled, Jam tags, 1-5 stars, follow:
1. R.E.M.: It's The End Of The World As We Know It ****
This album was R.E.M.'s first to have an actual hit on it, and for many listeners, this was their first exposure to the band. For the first generation fans, who had been following R.E.M. when they were still an underground college band, this was the last really good R.E.M. album. It is definitely a transitional record; the band's final indie release. As for the song itself (which wasn't the hit; "The One I Love" was), it's a silly stream of consciousness rant with their trademark roots-rock playing, here much more uptempo than most of their stuff. Quite overplayed now, it's lost a lot of the freshness it once had.
2. .38 Special: Teacher, Teacher ***
I almost left this off; it has been a long time since I've heard it on classic rock radio. .38 Special played a southern-fried album rock; their lead singer, Donnie Van Zant, is Lynyrd Skynyrd's late Ronnie Van Zant's kid brother. This is in a similar vein to their bigger, and better hits: "Caught Up In You" and "Hold On Loosely". Used as a theme for a 1984 movie, this has a very poppy sound, although the relatively primitive 3-chord structure is played fairly raw, a plus.
3. Billy Idol: White Wedding ***
I remember the first time I heard this, in 1982. I liked it; I thought Idol sounded like Jim Morrison, the guitars had a nice crunch to them, and it sounded contemporary. Today, the first two still hold true; alas, this is another tune that has been bleached of interest due to overplaying. Idol's further adventures in rock, which weren't always very cool, further dilute this song's charm. Still, it is a classic of sorts; and, well, the guitars have a nice crunch to them.
4. The Police: Roxanne *****
Here's a track that still holds up well despite being overplayed, like all the rest. Perhaps it is due to the sparse one guitar, bass, drums production, which sounds clean and uncluttered. Maybe it is due to the undeniable hookiness of the chorus and harmonies. Maybe it's the lyrics, which are oddball enough to maintain interest. Maybe it's Sting, who still sounds fresh and exciting here, unlike the maudlin middle aged middlebrow he'd be just a few short years later.
5. Queen: You're My Best Friend ***
I could never get into Queen, not even close. I couldn't understand at the time why anyone would; they sounded ridiculously fruity, despite the good guitar, their arrangements were goofy pastiches, and even their name turned me off. Now, a couple of decades plus later, I look upon them much more fondly. Freddy Mercury's vocals really are pretty good here, the arrangement, a pastiche of soul, prog-rock, heavy metal, and opera sounds better than it looks on paper. Still no favorites of mine, I've come to the conclusion that Queen's Greatest Hits is an okay listen, if you cut out a couple of tracks.
6. Kansas: Dust In The Wind ****
I was 12 when this was new, and loved it then. The eerie violin, the delicate acoustic playing, the tuneful singing, the lyrics that dealt obliquely with death and the transitory nature of life; as a rock tune for stoned teenagers, this is pretty cerebral stuff. As with all classic rock, time has diminished it in my esteem. Aging has also enabled me to see some of the cliche in the sentiments. Still, I love singing this one at karaoke. And I'm toying with the idea of having it played at my funeral, if I can get a guitarist and violinist to play it live.
7. U2: Desire *****
The last great U2 hit single, from Rattle and Hum. While their next LP, the sleazy Achtung Baby was a good one, and their recent stuff is all right, they lost their momentum after this release. At the time of release, it was an exciting number; it has a bold Bo-Diddley beat, good, feverish lyrics that wax significant, fine harmonies. Worth seeking out is "Desire [Hollywood Remix]" which adds some chilling sound effects.
8. Steely Dan: Rikki Don't Lose That Number *****
I may be overrating this, but the "Guilty Pleasure Varient" gives me license to do so. Oddly enough, I've never really gotten deeply into Steely Dan, perhaps the second most interesting band on tonight's playlist, behind the Who. Their music was jazzy, challenging, played with odd time structures, had pleasing texture. I still put them on the "to do" list. However most of their hits, even the overplayed classic rock ones, still manage to retain a shred of freshness, perhaps due to this band's willingness to experiment and stretch out. This is poppy and jazzy, with exquisite harmonies, lyrics with a strange desperation to them, and a very tasty piano hook.
9. Supertramp: Breakfast In America ***
Once one of the biggest arena attractions from England, this lightweight progressive rock band imploded not long after the release of this title track from their most successful album. Roger Hodgeson's vocals, which sound almost like they're recorded on helium, are playful and melodic; the band incorporates a palatable dose of prog-rock into the arrangement and production without sacrificing pop song structure, and the hooks are enormous. All that said, there's nothing particularly outstanding about any of this band's material. It's good fodder on the radio, but I suspect few people dust off their LP's any more.
10. The Who: Won't Get Fooled Again *****
Probably the greatest song on this list, this also represented a sort of high point for the Who, although few realized it at the time. The band had finally broken though in America just two years prior with Tommy, and this was their first studio release since. It was an enormous hit, and solidified the band's reputation in America, assuring them of headliner status forever more. The lyrics are poignant and political without getting explicit, chock full of good lines. The band is stretching out here, getting progressive, adding good synthesizer and reaching the eight and a half minute mark without getting dull. Keith Moon could still play drums like a madman, Townshend's windmill guitar is slashed and strummed, Daltrey delivers one of the best vocals of his life. It still sounds fresh today. In retrospect, the band started to decline with each subsequent release, although they remained pretty good until the breakup.