by Tom Hallett
She left the room for ice, taking along the standard motel room bucket as well as the complimentary plastic garment bag left hanging in the closet (no doors, permanent hangers). She obviously planned on getting a lot of ice. Suddenly alone and too buzzed to appreciate silence, I fiddled with the radio dial. Bad new Nashville country inundated the ‘waves, separated only sporadically by formulaic, Clear Channel-owned Lite FM stations, religious broadcasting, and the occasional news/sports program. I was actually reaching for the stack of cassettes I’d brought along (Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, a best of Warren Zevon, Bowie’s Young Americans, and Neil Young’s double live LP Live Rust—nothing planned, just random grabs from the racks), one hand still mindlessly twirling the dial, when the glorious power chords of the Ozzy/Randy Rhoads nugget “Crazy Train” came blasting out of the mini-boombox speaker.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Twenty-five, thirty years ago, we had no idea
that the stuff we were doing would someday be called 'Classic Rock. .”
— Don Brewer, Grand Funk drummer/Writer of “We’re An American
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Raised On the Radio” — The Ravyns
‘Classic, adj. 1. Of the first or highest rank. 2. Serving as a standard,
model, or guide. 5. Of, or adhering to, an established set of artistic or scientific
standards and methods. 6. Of literary or historical renown. n. 9. An artist
or an artistic production of the highest class. -The American College Dictionary
Rock ’N’ Roll, 1. A style of popular music with a heavily accented
rhythm, related to hillbilly and blues forms. 2. A dance performed to this music,
usually with vigorous, exaggerated movements. 3. Of or pertaining to this music.
-The American College Dictionary
That’s right, I said to the speaker. No stereo, no surround-sound, no
Dolby “B” buttons here, pal. Was it a life-changing moment? I’d
almost be inclined to say “No,” but in retrospect, I guess the moment
was cathartic enough that it made me start to think about writing a column about
“Classic Rock.” And if I dig just a little deeper, I guess I’ve
been thinking about it for some time. I don’t know if it was my 15-year-old
son’s request for a little musical history (he’d been hearing some
’60s and ’70s tunes on the radio he’d never heard before,
and asked me why I didn’t give him some of those songs on the mixes I
make him. I was taken aback, thinking I’d played ALL of my own oldies
collection for him or around him at some time, but he told me that he’d
only heard the beginning of most of the songs, because either I or one of my
pals would usually scoff loudly and immediately change the dial, tape, CD, etc.
How horrible is that?), or seeing a couple of my fave local outfits (Ol’Yeller,
Little Man) proudly displaying the message, “File Under: Classic Rock”
in their press-kits or on their websites, or some combo of all of the above.
Somewhere along the line, it became not only “hip,” but a given
that “Classic Rock”—all of it—totally sucks. And any
statement that sweeping and grand has GOT to be wrong. When did it happen? Who
says it has to be so? Why should I care? I dunno, times three. All I know is
that it’s time to set a few things straight on the matter.
Let’s start with the definition of the term “Classic,” as
listed above. And for argument’s sake, let’s just use definitions
2 and 5. Even tossing aside the grander proclamations of definitions 1, 6, and
9 (oh, if six WERE nine ...), we’re still left with a pretty heavy statement.
Add that arcane definition (from 1966, when the “establishment”
was just getting around to realizing that they’d have to include the term
in dictionaries) of “rock ’n’ roll,” and you’ve
got the makings of a societal institution obviously much more deserving of respect
than it’s given by the majority of music writers, publications and periodicals
these days, let alone a whole generation (some of them my age—40 or older—and
some, more logically, much younger) of music lovers.
I should clarify here that I was not raised in the big bad city, where the dulcet
strains of Bad Company, Led Zep and Blue Oyster Cult battled for the airwaves
with college and public radio shows championing the Clash, Devo and Pere Ubu.
All we had, for the most part, was hard rock radio out of Duluth or AM from
Chicago and some older guys’ music collections to dig through. The Red
Owl grocery store in Deer River didn’t carry Sex Pistols albums or Jam
singles or NME. Frankly, I didn’t hear most of those “hip”
bands until I left the frozen sticks of northern Minnesota and began thumbing
my way around the country. By then, of course, the term “Classic Rock”
actually existed in the American vocabulary, and, as an invisible institution,
was well on its way to becoming a veritable cash cow for radio station owners,
promoters, record companies and advertisers the world over. Yes, it’s
true, I completely missed that defining moment when them soul-searchin’
college students decided that the only way to completely embrace a new form
of music (punk, new wave, “alternative,” whatever) was to totally,
irrevocably reject the preceding one (specifically, nearly all commercially
successful rock music released between the years 1965 and 1989, with a few notable
exceptions to be listed momentarily).
Historically, though, that’s not the way things usually work. For instance,
when old-school country blues and field hollerin’ began morphing into
early city-slicker jazz, most of those innovators were more than happy to spout
at length about their influences and predecessors, not a whit of irony to be
found. Similarly, when early rock ’n’ rollers began forging their
primal sound, many props were given to forms of the past—even if the songwriting
credits, thanks in part to a gaggle of greedy producers and label execs, didn’t
always reflect that respect.
To put it in simpler terms, Elvis Presley didn’t sit around insulting
or making ditzy, “ironic” statements about Big Mama Thornton, whose
“Hound Dog” he brought to the top of the charts. He may not have
personally done a whole hell of a lot for her or her career back then, but think
of it this way: Would most people even be aware of Big Mama’s version
if Elvis hadn’t remade it? I think not. That doesn’t mean the next
logical step—Pat Boone watering down Elvis’ watered-down version—was
a good thing. It wasn’t. It was, actually, pretty fucking evil, other
than the fact that it may have brought a few stragglers into the rock fan fold
who were completely oblivious to Elvis, let alone Big Mama. But hey, Pat redeemed
himself with a whole album of metal covers a few years back, so we’ll
let bygones be bygones.
This also redeems, in part, some people I’ve griped about over the years.
Sure, it was shitty that Jimmy Page copped a butt-load of riffs and licks from
old blues guys, but again, where would those guys be now if he, or someone like
him, hadn’t done it? The very fact that I KNOW that “When The Levee
Breaks” was first a hit for a woman guitar player named Memphis Minnie
before World War II proves that Page did some good for the cause. And now, if
you didn’t before, you know it too. Spread the word, pass it on, that’s
what the form is all about, from the Scottish ballads to the American slave
cries to the gut-bucket blues to the shooby-do-wop street-corner be-bop, baby,
it’s your history and your present and your future, so sit down by the
fire (or the stereo, or the stage ...) and listen to them tales!
Let’s talk for a minute about Grand Funk Railroad drummer Don Brewer’s
(he’s got the Quote Of The Week, listed above) statement. When I interviewed
him a few years back, the band was touring, had written a few new tunes, and
was involved in a great project to help war victims in Bosnia. (And that’s
not a rare thing among “Classic Rockers,” either. Joan Jett regularly
does USO tours for overseas U.S. troops, Sammy Hagar has been involved in loads
of charity projects, and even tarnished ole ’80s cheese metal acts can
be found aiding Toys For Tots, local children’s funds and homeless advocacy
organizations—how many critically acclaimed, popular shoe-gazing “alterna”
folks are jumping on THAT bandwagon?) I’m not saying they’re more
moral or better people than anybody else, just that it’s pretty fucking
cool that they do those things without expecting, or usually even receiving,
any notice from the music press or the average radio listener.
Anyway, back to Brewer. He told me some great road stories (how he wrote “We’re
An American Band” while on tour—yep, most of it’s true, especially
the part about “sweet, sweet Connie”), talked about the band’s
early days in Upper Michigan, where they were actually one of the first rock
’n’ roll bands signed to an indie label and expressed a bit of confusion
as to how and why his band—and their contemporaries—became tagged
with the “Classic Rock” label. I told him I’d never been able
to figure out why it was so uncool (in both camps, the hard-core “Classic
Rockers,” as well as the unswerving “Indie,” “Punk”
or “Alternative” rockers) to love and have in your collection music
from ANYBODY YOU FUCKING LIKE!! He laughed then and I was glad to give him a
grin. It’s true, too, and anybody who doesn’t have their head buried
in their ass knows it. There’s not a damn thing in the world wrong with
liking an old Bad Co., Peter Frampton or Journey tune. Anymore than there is
something wrong with digging the shit outta the Pixies’ “Debaser”
or Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon,” or The Butthole Surfers’
Locust Abortion Technician album. Dig it: THEY ALL ROCK!! Maybe not all
the time, maybe not every song, but your taste should not be dictated by what
some lonely wanker in a record shop or some geeky college radio station DJ or
some stuck-up, trend-sucking music “writer,” or even some cute girl/guy
in a club says or thinks.
Fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em all.
Just as there’s a perfect moment to throw on a Drake tune, open a nice
bottle of wine and lay back in a tub fulla bubbles, there’s also a perfect
moment to throw on a pair of shorts, crack the top on a cheap brew, sit on the
stoop and crank out Billy Squier’s “Lonely Is The Night.”
Or Zep’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Or ZZ Top’s
“Just Got Paid.” I guess the issue here is really retaining that
rock ’n’ roll spirit of rebellion that ties lovers of both styles/genres
of music (which really are one and the same, for the most part, but we’ll
get to that later) without selling yourself short. Listen, there’s no
reason why you should divide your CDs into “Classic,” “Punk,”
“New” or any other lame-ass categories. Go alphabetical if you want
to find your shit quickly. Get more creative if you don’t have a significant
other or a day job. Either way, mix dat shit up, G. Word.
That’s all the space we’ve got this week, folks. Tune in again next
time, same spot on yer ‘Dial, for part II of “Redefining Classic
Rock”. Until then- make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news, gigs, CDs you’d like
to see mentioned in this column, or you’d just like to find out where
Terry Jacks stands in the whole she-bang, send replies to: (temporary e-mail)