Full disclosure, I am old enough to remember when the stuff played on “classic rock stations,” was edgie, non-mainstream, alternative rock. “What is that noise?” was a common response and reaction from the parental generation of the time. It was hard to find, too. In my home town of Madison, WI there was one oddball, “hippie station,” that played this stuff. The station was my savior in so many ways. This is why I find the reactions of so many people my age to anything new so perplexing. There are even many that believe there was some kind of popular music heyday that they were born into, and anything that came afterwards was garbage and can never compare.
Yes, the mid to late 60s and early 70s showcased breathtaking innovation. It was part rediscovery (as the best of it all was blues based--or some would say “blues rip-offs”) and part rebellion born in a time of cultural and political upheaval as well. This unique era fostered leaps forward in many ways and set some incredible standards. The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Humble Pie, Cream and many others, have set a standard that will be emulated and copied for many, many years. Some of this music (though not all) still stands the test of time, and I know of a lot of young people today that have rediscovered it and find it just as powerful as I did in my teens. That said though, I think it is dangerous and hypocritical to simply pine for the old days and dismiss or ignore anything else that comes along. It’s especially dangerous for musicians.To me, those who dismiss anything new and talk only about this mythical golden age of music, are missing so much. I’ll get to that, but I also think much of the conversation falls into the age-old “kids these days” mentality. It is the same thing many in my parent’s generation said about the very music you hold up as golden. Maybe the more things change, the more they stay the same. Either way there is a ton of myth, hypocrisy and missed opportunities here. Here are just a few observations and responses based on things I hear all the time:
- The 60s and 70s were a “golden age” of popular music:
I’m not sure there has ever been a golden age of popular music. Popular and mainstream has always been commercial, formulaic and more about marketing than substance. The innovations have always run counter to, and with a bit of a middle finger towards what is mainstream at any given time. Ironically these things sometimes become mainstream later, but they rarely start out that way. In the 60s (and even the 70s) there were two Rockin Robins for every Whole Lotta Love. I don’t really see that this has ever been different.
- Alright then, but that great music we see as Classic Rock was more mainstream because it was just so great and will never be surpassed.
As I said above, most of what we see today as “classic rock” is often assumed to have been mainstream at the time. It was not, especially in the beginning. It wasn’t on most radio stations and was controversial when attempts were made to highlight it in media. Over time that began to change, as it became obvious the new music was something that couldn’t be ignored. Magazines and other media sites that covered this new music seriously were very much backroom, alternative operations as well. For a time more mainstream publications only covered the “classic rock bands” we know today as cultural interest items that were only noteworthy because of their strangeness, loudness and growing popularity with, what was seen by many, as destructive elements in society until certain people realized there was money to be made and jumped on the bandwagon. It was not that way in the beginning. This was music you had to search for.
- What we know today as Classic rock is just the best ever period. Rock died in the 70s and nothing will ever compare.
I agree to some extent. I believe that some things described now as “classic” will remain so for a long, long time. I mentioned above that I have met many people in their teens and twenties who have rediscovered this. Current bands like Greta Van Fleet and Rival Sons certainly give more than passing nods to the greats of the 60s and 70s. That really says something in and of itself. However, I can assure you that rock is not dead and that there is a lot of really, really innovative and powerful music being made today and ignoring that is not healthy. If you want guitar driven, “guitar hero” rock that moves body and soul the way the best should, we may be in a sort of “heyday” or “renaissance” right now. More on this later.
- Nobody wants to play or learn guitar any more, guitar sales are declining and it’s just a bunch of pre-programmed garbage out there--all computers and synthesizers.
That may be true in part. A series of articles from a couple of years ago pointed to declining sales of guitars and a corresponding declining interest on the part of young people to learn to play guitar. Video games were blamed as well as a lack of “guitar heroes” in mainstream music. I always maintained that this was a cyclical thing and new evidence shows it to be the case. A 2018 Rolling Stone article indicated that guitar sales are as strong as ever. Another Rolling Stone article from that same year pointed to a fascinating trend. A Fender study concluded that half of all new guitar players are female. I believe that this is in part due to several high profile, guitar-wielding female artists. Orianthi, St. Vincent, Ana Popovic and Joanne Shaw Taylor in the blues world and Lzzy Hale in the rock world are all skilled players with increasing name recognition and visibility.
Regarding “electronica” and computers in music, there will always be innovation in instrumentation. I doubt that will go away. It may not be bad at all. Either way, like earlier electronica waves, it ebbs and flows and there will always be room for flat out, balls to the wall, guitar driven rock. The power and energy is one thing that does stand the test of time. Say what you will about the growing popularity of bands like Greta Van Fleet, I believe it’s a trend and that they are examples of much more to come.
- There’s no real, great rock and roll made today and no real guitar heroes like Page, Clapton, Beck, etc. Everything interesting was made in the past.
Someone actually said this to me recently. My reaction is always visceral and immediate. You won’t see it or hear it if you don’t look. The guys mentioned above were just copying their heroes anyway and were shocked that the mainstream didn’t know who any of their blues great heroes were. The people mentioned above knew (and still say) that they stood on the shoulders of giants, just as anyone picking up a guitar today stands on their shoulders to some extent. That reality did not diminish them or their skills and mastery. Nor does it diminish the skills and mastery of (just a few examples) Mark Tremonti, Miles Kennedy, Gary Clarke Jr., Marcus King, Orianthi, St. Vincent, Joe Hottinger, Lzzy Hale, Chris Robertson, Ben Wells or the slightly older Pete Thorn, Joe Bonamassa, Joe Satriani, Tom Morello, Slash, Greg Martin, Paul Gilbert or (my personal favorite) Richie Kotzen. All of these people certainly owe a debt to Page, Clapton, Beck, etc., but they have their own voice too, as well as unarguable virtuosity.
More than that, attitudes like this ignore a whole new resurrection of high virtuoso level progressive--mostly instrumental and sometimes referred to as “Math Rock”--rock. Bands like Polyphia, Chon, Animals as Leaders and others are making and incredibly complex and sophisticated music that incorporates elements of jazz, hip-hop and heavy metal. There is a whole movement of young people following these bands and hanging on every note of Jason Richardson, Tosen Abasi, Rabia Massad and others. YouTube has also made many of these players household names for (mostly) young fans, and given rise to careers of other incredible players and personalities like Rob Chapman, Jared Dines, Steve Terreberry, Rob Scallon, and of course the incredible Phil X. Miss or underestimate any of this at your peril. They are setting some incredibly high bars as players, personalities and entertainers that won’t be matched soon.
I also urge people to dismiss rap and hip hop at their peril. There’s an ugly prejudice that I hear a lot that is not really a whole lot different from the prejudice against newer rock music. There certainly is a pop version of rap and hip hop just as there is in the country world, and all of the shallowness and formulas that one might expect. However, outside of that is creativity, unique voices, and some powerful music. Like anything though, you have to search for it and be open. More on this in future posts.
And that’s the big question: Are you open? If you look, I’m telling you, you will find.