Saturday, August 29, 2009

Does it have to be old to be a classic?

The first classic rock station I ever heard was WCKG in Chicago.

As a teenager living through the vast wasteland that was '80s music, I loved CKG. I loved the whole concept of "classic rock" as a genre. It was as if someone had perused the soundscape of the '60s and '70s and picked exactly the kinds of songs I would have listened to if I'd been of age at the time. Chicago, Clapton, Pink Floyd ... having all these artists in one place was a real treat when I lacked the funds to buy all the records I wanted.

If there was one fly in the WCKG programming ointment, it was this: they occasionally played new tunes.

I wasn't opposed to new tunes on general principle. After all, I hadn't been aware of most of the old stuff when it came out. "Stairway to Heaven" debuted when I was two years old; obviously I wasn't in it for the nostalgia. Hell, I liked the idea that somebody was still making this kind of music. But WCKG conditioned me. Just as Pavlov's dogs salivated whenever a bell rang, I groaned every time the DJ announced that "It doesn't have to be old to be a classic." Because the songs they played after that always sucked.

Other listeners must have agreed with me. Somewhere along the way, the station quietly dropped its policy of ever playing new songs.

Fast-forward a couple decades. I live in Tucson, which has two classic rock stations, 96.1 KLPX and 107.5 KHIT. Of the two, KHIT is more populist. Between tunes they cheerfully announce that "You know every song we play." Hard, soft, art rock, 3-minute pop ... As their call letters suggest, it doesn't matter as long as the song was a huge hit back in its day.

In recent years KHIT has been adding more and more '80s music to its playlist. Some of the choices seem a little odd. Others make more sense. "Jump" by Van Halen? It has a synth-pop feel that pre-Casio '70s musicians never dreamed of, but Van Halen is still all about the guitar. "I Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty? Absolutely. In terms of singing, Tom Petty is basically Bob Dylan with a few voice lessons.

KLPX has a more coherent aesthetic -- a sense of itself and what it's about. The songs they play seem to belong together. The station leans toward harder material, so when they throw Def Leppard or Guns 'n' Roses into the mix, it doesn't seem out of place. The newer songs aren't exactly classic classic rock, but they feel like a natural progression of the genre.

Here's what gets me. These bands didn't stop making music in the '80s. If Petty's "I Won't Back Down" (1989) is classic rock, why not "Room at the Top" (1999) or "The Last DJ" (2002)?

The obvious answer: they will be in 20 years, if they stand the test of time (get radio play on other stations) and can therefore be considered safe.

KHIT trades on nostalgia, so I understand why they make the programming choices they do even if I find them annoying. Their entire selling point is that they don't threaten listeners' sensibilities with anything they (gasp) might not have heard before.

KLPX? No idea.

The whole state of affairs is a little depressing. Don't get me wrong, nostalgia has its place in music -- an important place. But one of the distinguishing features of so-called classic rock (to me, anyway) is that it never sounds dated. Rock and roll from the '50s sounds dated. A whole lot of pop from the '80s sounds dated. Classic rock, whether I like or hate the particular song, manages to sound fresh and relevant right now, wherever right now happens to be. That's its power.

For a radio station not to give new rock music a voice because people might not take to all of it right away goes against the spirit of rock music. Rock is not safe.

And then, before I can shake my fist in the air, I think of WCKG. What were they playing when they said it doesn't have to be old to be a classic? I cannot for the life of me remember. Maybe that's because whoever picked the music had awful taste and played only forgettable garbage. That seems unlikely, though.

Maybe they were playing Van Halen. Or Tom Petty.

I don't think most of us are nostalgia fiends who can't stand to try anything new, though those people exist. I think the problem is that most new music -- of any era -- is either crap or just OK. It takes patience to wade through all the mediocrity to get to the shiny gems you'll want to hear decades later.

What's your experience? If you're especially attached to some genre of a bygone era, do you also seek out today's gems? Do you still look forward to what's coming next?


DeppityBob said...

Excellently written, as always. It IS a conundrum--is it classic just because it's old and was once popular? I don't think of Def Leppard as classic because I was never thrilled with their stuff to begin with. Tom Petty always had that classic-rock feel, but yeah, I would love to hear our local CR station, WAOR (incidentally, the first classic rock station in the country), play more "deep cuts" like you mentioned. They play some wide-ranging stuff, but pretty much all stuff that you've heard before. After all, they want SOMEONE to listen. But 80s stuff? I don't know if anything out of then can be called classic, other than maybe some Jethro Tull or Metallica (there's a combo). All the other stuff is just pop.

cinderkeys said...

Well, hence my distinguishing between "classic rock" and "classic classic rock." Not the most scientific of labels, but you know what I mean.

Take the Talking Heads. I had no use for them when I was a stupid teenager in the '80s, but now I listen and realize they were onto something. (Partly due to your influence, as I recall.) Were they classic classic rock? Nope. Did they have interesting and vital songs? Yep.

I wish I had Citizen Kane-style funding to buy a radio station. I'd throw in enough stuff that everyone knows and loves to reel them in, then fire off maybe one really good new song per hour. Could work. :)