Calling Festival - Day 1

We take the phrase “classic rock” for granted. It’s one of music’s most casually deployed phrases, yet unlike “indie rock” or just plain “rock,” we rarely see diatribes about the term “classic rock” being reduced to meaninglessness. There is a certain indescribably yet identifiable essence to it. Still, we’re all getting older, and so is the music we grew up with, including the likes of U2 and Nirvana. History is moving on, and classic rock radio along with it. As the stat nerds at FiveThiryEight pointed out, at least one classic rock station out there recently saw fit to blast Green Day’s “American Idiot,” a song released only 10 years ago. That got them wondering what a survey of classic rock radio stations might tell us about how the genre is defined these days. Writer Walt Hickey surveyed the playlists of 25 self-described classic rock stations across the country for a week. One of his findings was that radio’s definition of classic rock varies heavily according to geography:

I found that classic rock is more than just music from a certain era, and that it changes depending on where you live. What plays in New York — a disproportionate amount of Billy Joel, for example — won’t necessarily fly in San Antonio, which prefers Mötley Crüe. Classic rock is heavily influenced by region, and in ways that are unexpected. For example, Los Angeles is playing Pearl Jam, a band most popular in the 1990s, five times more frequently than the rest of the country. Boston is playing the ’70s-era Allman Brothers six times more frequently.

Hickey also found that a staggering (yet not all that surprising) 57 percent of the songs were culled from the 10-year period between 1973 and 1982, and that the most recent year to make a major dent in the playlists was 1991. Among other charts and graphs, he listed the most-played songs throughout his week of collecting data:

So, pretty much what you’d expect, right? Maybe Aerosmith is slightly more dominant than expected, but still, that list offers a portrait of classic rock we can all agree on. Yet a transformation is definitely underway, and as with most things in life, it’s being spurred by money and mortality. Hickey wrote:

It’s going to come down to economics, Wellman said. As baby boomers and Gen X-ers age out of the key advertising demographic over the next five to 10 years, one of two things will happen. Either advertisers will chase them, or classic rock will start to skew younger.

Head to FiveThirtyEight for lots of other fascinating data. In the meantime, let’s mull this over together. How do you define classic rock? Are there certain characteristics that definitively bar a song from that distinction, or, alternately, ones that mark a song as unquestionably part of the classic rock genre? What’s the most shocking song you’ve heard on classic rock radio lately? Sound off below.

[Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images.]

Comments (25)
  1. As of July 7, 2014, I kind of think of it in either one of two categories.

    1) Rock from a definable classic era (for example, the 1973-1982 period described above)

    2) Music at least 20 years old (Sirius XMU uses 10 years as their threshold for Old School)

    However, it’s all loosey goosey. Look at the term “Classical music.” Classical Period music is technically in reference to western art music composed between 1730 and 1820, but the casual listener will group Classical music as pretty much anything that doesn’t sound too Eastern-y, and composed sometime between 1500 and 1900.

    But if we take anything from this (and I’m looking at YOU, hometown classic rock station), Shinedown does not currently, nor will it ever, qualify as classic rock.

  2. to me its pretty much a constant….60s and 70s rock. next topic.

    • You were barking up the right tree but you should have elaborated more. I think “classic rock” is also a genre/label and stuff being made today could be made to sound like “classic rock” and if so, should be considered “classic rock” even though it’s not really classic (even though it will be one day). Same as people who don’t really listen to rap or hip-hop yet lump it all in the same category (“crap”), when clearly to those who do listen to rap and/or hip-hop, there is a difference between the two.

      But to get back to “classic rock”: The moment a band relies to heavily on electronics, or synthesizers, or whatever they use to make themselves sound different from “classic rock” — which Led, Stones, Cream, Beatles happen to epitomize (remember we’re not talking Rock n Roll or Prog Rock) — are not “classic rock”.

      Talking Heads being a case in point. Talking Heads is New Wave (even though they’re Old Wave now or Classic Wave but certainly not Classic Rock). And some of the stuff from the 70s is not Classic Rock because it’s Disco and will forever and always be Disco (even three hundred years from now) and will never be Classic Rock, except to lazy radio programmers who don’t bother to differentiate. So when a classic rock station plays Talking Heads, clearly the programmer doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing. Same for the 60s and early 70s when CAN emerged and other Krautrock bands appeared on the scene. CAN will never be classic rock cause they don’t have that “classic rock” sound although they are definitely CLASSIC. So while I would like any guitar-driven music with clear melodic lines to be “classic rock” or just simply Rock music, basically “classic rock” is any music which is predominantly guitar-oriented that got heavy play and thus became “classic” despite what year it came (or comes) out in.

  3. i remember when the “new wave” bands starting showing up on classic rock stations. And that freaked me out. That’s when I decided it’s a 20 year thing. If it’s 20 years old and still on the radio (or whatever format you want to pick) it’s classic rock.

    I like this topic because I’m 48 and I cannot believe how many of my friends are still locked into 1990-1995. Nirvana and Pearl Jam are now classic rock. Deal with it. (and maybe move on……)

    Also, there is no “magical era” for music. There’s great crap and horrible crap from every era. But this much is for damn sure….ask somebody the following two questions and you will get the same two answers….

    Q “When was the best music made?
    A “When i was 16-24 years old”

    Q “When did all the new music start to suck?”
    A “When I was 24-28 years old”

    PS – I LOVED Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Just like I now love Grimes and Washed Out. Cuz I’m never giving up checking out new music. And on some level I’ll always be a kid. And that’s awesome.

    • I hear you, man! Here’s a relevant SMBC:

      (sorry I don’t know how to embed yet. Can someone teach me?)

    • Well said.

      I am a boomer, but I never listen to classic rock stations (actually not much radio at all). In part I have moved on to newer and sometimes older things (jazz especially). And, in part, while I still think All Along the Watchtower is great I don’t think I need hear it yet again.

      Also, I am in Canada and our classics include bands that gained popularity during a time when Canadian content rules opened the airwaves to some dubious talents that are now “Coming to a casino lounge near you!”.

      I use internet services to get my fix of personal ‘classic’ playlists.

    • Disagree to some extent. Music that was popular when I was 16-24 was awful (rap metal, boy bands, Puff Daddy). Aside from some indie bands from back then, I hated most music that was being made at the time.

      But I loved the stuff made from right before I was that age (classic hip-hop and alternative rock) and loved the classic rock that apparently is still played a lot on classic rock stations. That was certainly an impressionable time to hear all that music, even if it had been made in another era. I would rephrase your convo as:

      Q: “What’s the best music ever made?”
      A: “Whatever I was listening to when I was discovering the opposite sex, hanging out with my high school/college buddies, and altering my consciousness with a variety of mind-expanding drugs and alcohol (if applicable).”

      Q: “When did new music start to totally suck?”
      A: “When I stopped having the time to find all the good new bands that the mainstream routinely ignores.”

      • I can’t help but agree with you. And the most important one is the “when did new music start to totally suck?”. People ask me all the time where on earth I find the time to know just about everytthing about the music scene. I tell them “It’s easy. Every single day I spend 15-20 minuts reading about 3 or 4 different sites. Pitchfork, Stereogum, GvsB, etc”. Which probably seems like a ton of time. But before the internet I had to pour through so many different magazines it was an incredibly hard thing to do to stay up to date on what’s new and cool.

        It’s a priority for me. It always has been. And in case you were wondering I’ve raised 5 great kids, work 12 hours a day at a very demanding job, and have no plans to stop being this way. In 30 years I fully plan on listening to whatever the world has to offer insofar as new music. I can’t wait to tell my granddaughter all about Pink Floyd, Zep, New Order, Pixies, Husker Du, Grimes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, and whatever new cool crap comes down the pike.

        Music keeps me young when all else makes me feel old. Ironically I literally JUST TWEAKED my neck losing my mind to Pixies cover of Head On. So maybe not THAT young……

        • I find that a lot of unit aged friends in the modern day say modern music sucks, but when I went to Glasto with them they had to ask me who HAIM, War on Drugs, Lykke Li etc. where… Like the older generation they’re just tuned out. To me it is definitely people who don’t go searching for music who think contemporary music sucks, no matter the actual age.

          And Blochead I plan to follow your plan of continual musical discovery to the last word.

          • Awesome. I’ve gone through a ton of personal crap in my 48 years on this planet. Things I thought were permanent floating away. People I loved with all my heart broke mine. And through all of this music has been my one true and constant love. I wake up to Beach House. I got to work and listen to High on Fire. On the drive home I listen to Washed Out. Music surrounds me every waking moment of my life (and most of my sleeping ones as well). I spend way too much money on it. Spend way too much time reading about it. Spend way too much time blathering on about it. Like right now…….

            My 19 year old son sent me a text the other day…..”Hey pop. I’ve been listening to this new Swans. This is really, really hard music to enjoy. I’m gonna give it another week of non-stop listening and if I don’t stop hating it by then I’m moving on.” It really made me laugh because I feel the exact same way about Swans. But more importantly it made me happy because it was the moment I realized my son will have the blessing of music with him all of his life, just as I do. And I’m beyond stoked that I was able to help him find that road.

    • You are 1000% correct about being kid-like always, as long as you keep up with current music and have good taste. That being said, if I were asked those two questions you suggested, my first answer would be: “The best music is always being made.” And to the second question, I would answer: “Find the wrong bands (or swallow what you’re being fed by the media) and the music will for the most part suck; find the right bands (i.e., do drugs and/or have interesting connections to turn you onto really different music) and you’ll be transported to infinity and beyond.”*

      *I apologize for the Toy Story quote, I know it’s lame. But if I referenced Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (which has some classic rock in it too, if you’re (ahem) old enough to recall, I would’ve had to go shoot myself in the head after submitting this comment….

  4. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart (ruling on pornography):

    I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["Classic Rock"]; . But I know it when I see it…

  5. the country music station plays soft but there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off

  6. I love every song on that list (well, maybe not Styx) but boy do those songs seem a million years old.

    There’s no strictly classic rock station where I live, so this goes out to you guys with the access and desire: how deep does classic rock actually go into the 90s? Nirvana, Pearl Jam, okay, I can see classic rock radio playing those songs. Do they play the Breeders’ Cannonball? Tori Amos? Helmet? Judging from the list above, and general knowledge of how playlists have tightened all over the place in the US, it seems like they probably only put on the most played-out grunge songs from that time period. The ones that a sixty-year-old won’t change the station for if they hear them.

    Personally, I would probably love an 80s/90s classic alternative station that played all the stuff that was actually popular on alternative rock stations at the time, like the Smiths, Pixies, Lemonheads, Replacements, etc. But then again, when I am in the mood I just do that on Spotify anyway.

  7. I live in Mexico, so my perception might be a little skewed from the American standard, but I heard Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply” on what’s supposed to be classic rock radio just last month. It was actually on a segment where the DJ chooses 3 songs and people vote on what they want to hear; Savage Garden beat out GnR and the friggin’ Backstreet Boys. There’s definately a change underway —I believe that, eventually, 60s-70s rock will go the way of even older music, like big-band, crooner songs, or (here in Mexico) boleros. As the generation that experienced it moves into senescence, their music will be considered pure nostalgia.

  8. The most shocking song you’ve heard on classic rock radio? I’d say “Shock The Monkey.”

  9. Shockingly not one Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stone song on this list because both, for me, have to be the most associated acts with classic rock. Is it not a coincidence that most of the bands on that list are still around and touring? Hmmm.

    So in regards to “newer” acts being bunched in with “classic rock”, it’s a generational thing. As touched upon in the article, its come down to the generations that have bridged the gap. These “newer” acts like Pearl Jam, U2, Nirvana, etc and all the kids that grew up listening to bands of the 60s, 70s and early 80s and are now the key age demographic along with our parents that might have introduced us to “classic rock”. So in essence, post ’80s is just the second generation of classic rock.

    • I think the reason you don’t see a Zeppelin or Stones or Beatles song on that list is because there are too many to choose from so it’s unlikely that one in particular is going to get as much play as the two or three stand out biggest hits by other acts that weren’t quite as massive.

    • Good point about Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. In the article, they say this:

      “The top 25 most frequently played artists — the likes of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and the Rolling Stones — together account for almost half of the spins on classic rock stations in the U.S. Another way of saying that is 5 percent of all the bands played on these stations made up nearly 50 percent of the song plays — which shows that there is at least a classic rock core.”

      So yeah I think ‘street hassle’ is right – a lot of different hits. I am constantly surprised and impressed by the variety of Led Zeppelin songs that are played on the local classic rock stations – a lot of songs that I thought of as deep cuts.

  10. I agree that “Classic Rock” is a term most commonly thought of as being from the late 60s-70s. “Hey man, is that Freedom Rock?”

    Though a lot of the time I feel like today’s alternative radio is stuck a bit too much in that classic rock mentality. Playing Pearl Jam, Green Day, and other bands that have mass appeal every hour and generally only playing today’s emerging (or even established artists [Tame Impala, The National]) way too occasionally or late at night.

    (not mentioning names Live105)

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