Earlier today I read an article in The Atlantic suggesting that maybe classic rock was more of a loose tribe than it was an actual musical movement. The more I think about it the more I have to agree. This works on multiple levels ranging from the most entry level definition as found on classic rock radio to the haughtiest of elitists with the deepest knowledge of the genre. This is something I’ve actually dedicated a fair amount of thought to in the years, what actually unites Journey with Nirvana? Especially when one was outspoken against the musical movement of the other? This is perhaps a great example of where the dichotomy is both musical and ideological suggesting that classic rock is really just an appellation for music that baby boomers happen to enjoy. But even that doesn’t seem to be entirely correct since bands like the Melvins could fall under that definition when they have proven time and time again that they are anything but.
The more I think about this the more I realize that almost every genre is just sort of defined by its tribe of people. Look at the pop punk bands who have been deemed cool by the hardcore scene elders. There is often no rhyme or reason to it beyond “How many degrees removed are you from Bad Religion”? That’s not exactly a great differentiating factor if you ask me. It seems fairly obvious that those who get tied into a particular genre are just brought in by the lodestone of the community more than anything else. The broader the genre then the looser the ideas that define the tribe are. Classic rock is just the prime example of this because it is both perhaps the broadest ‘genre’ and also the one which the most people seem to be most familiar with, largely because of proud fathers passing down the music from ‘back in their day.’
Of course classic rock’s breadth is also going to be its inevitable downfall. As much as we might like to think that classic rock is a big beautiful family, it’s going to eventually go the way of the Baroque period. A few nerds will be able to name a decent handful of artists and the sub-movements within the Baroque period but that will be about it. Do you really think that even ten years from now kids will be discovering The Moody Blues after being told Led Zeppelin is the beginning and end of classic rock? What if that kid doesn’t like Led Zeppelin and just never gives classic rock another chance? Odds are this has already happened. I’d argue it’s possible to claim to be a massive classic rock nerd without ANY knowledge of The Moody Blues. The odds are there are teenagers out there today who fit that exact descriptor. This is where the tribe mentality breaks down and we start to lose out on some beautiful and powerful music.
There is an argument to be made that this is just how things work. Quite frankly, it’s sometimes a little surprising to me that classic rock keeps coming back in new and rehashed ways about once a decade. It speaks to the staying power of baby boomers and their ability to completely dominate the culture that we have built up in post-war America. However it also speaks to just how goddamn good some of this music was. I think that it’s very hard for anyone to deconstruct a Led Zeppelin song and say it is objectively bad. The amount of raw talent that was available in Led Zeppelin makes them a truly unique beast. The same can be said for pop stars of any generation. That being said – more classic rock artists seem to have held on for a few reasons, while it is of course important to note that it was a lot harder for a classic rock band to get their material recorded and distributed than it is today, we also can’t pretend to diminish the fact that this was a genre that was in many ways defined by over the top heterosexual masculinity.
The final thing to realize about classic rock and its staying power, but also why it remains more a tribe is that it was a time of both great experimentation and also deification. It meant that someone like Black Sabbath could experiment with some of the first noise tracks, but because there was a relative paucity of heavy rock stars it didn’t matter that they were pushing experiments so far, they still got groupies. People look back on these icons who got to experiment but still experience wealth and popularity and construct a fantasy around it. This fantasy doesn’t reflect the lives of thousands if not millions of musicians who toiled away in obscurity, but even these musicians added to the tribe. It was an eager herd of new chiefs who wondered if there time would ever come. This wondering led to boredom which led to growing up, but many never forgot the promise of rock and roll. This promise still hasn’t died.
I don’t think that we will ever see a movement as big, vast or tribe like as classic rock ever again. This is not just because of the changing formats of music, though that will be a force, but moreover, I think, probably because of the demographics who were into classic rock and their ability to dominate the cultural landscape. All I’m saying is you don’t get much straighter than Thin Lizzy, and though ABBA are objectively a better band on all fronts, which one is taken more seriously? Let’s just accept that classic rock is a tribe and always has been. There is no consistent sound beyond perhaps the use of guitars, bass and drum kits. Why overcomplicate things when there is so much to love?
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