Classic rock has been branded “dead” one too many times. Although many die-hard fans will beg to differ, the truth is simply that classic rock is now a mere shadow of what it used to be. While there are new rock bands that may have yet to attain the classic rock status in the next 20-30 years, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to reproduce the immense and unforgettable influence and legacy that The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and many others have left behind. For the all-time greats — massive air play and online streams continue to be the order of the day. But in the coming years, the classic rock of the last generation will soon become the oldies of today, waning in influence, recognition and interest. Some 30 years ago, it was The Rolling stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and a fine array of other bands and artists. The big riffs, big voices, huge arena shows, long hairs, intricate compositions, political rebellions and big band concert t-shirts that sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay which all culminate into the identity of classic rock, are slowly washing away; and the 60-year dominance of rock and roll including all of those in the classic rock category can best be translated to a battle won up to the 80s but a war in the 2000s onwards.
Even though we do not know the path that the journey of rock will take, we certainly hope that the music will continue to evolve with the new generation and draw from its rich history of classic rock to deliver a fine blend to keep the legacy alive.
Introduction to Classic Rock
Classic rock is musical transcendence – living well beyond its time. It has reached through decades of cultural and political change that has largely reflected the times and the turmoil of that era. Because of its strong and wide-ranging influence, it can be difficult to define. Most agree that classic rock has a guitar-driven sound that emerged during the 1960s and peaked during the early to mid-1980s. Many also agree that classic rock was borne out of the album-oriented rock (AOR) of the 1940s and 1950s. Unlike pop, rap, and R-n-B, classic rock is not explicitly a genre, but rather a form of rock that was able to hit legendary status and outreach. The term is mostly used to immortalize music from top selling artists that had a resounding influence on culture, politics, and lifestyle. Bands such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Doors are just some of the groups that moved the heart and soul of an entire generation that dared to question and defy the status quo.
While certain bands may obviously fall into this category, it is also helpful to clearly define what classic rock is not. It is not glam rock, heavy metal, or hair metal. It is also important to understand that it is only a subset of what is often called oldies music.
It is not uncommon for people to assume that all oldies music is classic rock. However, oldies music typically spans from the 40s to the 60s and is characterized as commercially successful songs that may or may not have that distinctive guitar-driven sound. While oldies radio stations might include classic rock in their line up, classic rock stations mostly remain exclusive to the classic rock sound and time-period.
Defining Classic Rock – What makes a song or album classic rock?
As noted, this is a difficult question to answer. To a large extent, classic rock owes its name and popularity to album-oriented radio (AOR) stations of the 1980’s that played a diversity of rock music from the ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Sometimes the artist, airtime, music style, and record sales can determine whether or not a song falls into this category. However, upon considering the long list of classic rock bands, it is evident that there is diversity within this musical universe with bands such as The Beatles and Led Zeppelin pushing their own unique sound under the classic rock umbrella. Although many of these bands are still relevant and popular today, we generally use the following criteria to determine whether or not a song is classic rock.
- It was recorded during the ‘60s to the early ‘80s time period
- It was and continues to be a favorite of millions of fans around the world
- A big-name band or artists recorded it. However, if the album only successfully pushed out one or two hits, the artist or album is most likely not considered a “classic”.
- It still racks up ongoing airplay and driving sales.
Classic rock music stations across the country continue to play that rock sound with the screaming guitars and iconic sounds and bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones continue tell songs and fill playlists.
The AOR radio stations that were aiming to cater to an older audience by playing well-known songs from the past with current hits gave rise to the classic rock genre. Cleveland’s AOR radio station M105 started referring to itself as “Cleveland’s Classic Rock” in 1980 and started playing a variety of rock music from the middle of the 1960s to the present. In 1981, WMET referred to itself as “Chicago’s Classic Rock.” The “Timeless Rock” format, created in 1982 by radio consultant Lee Abrams, mixed modern AOR with popular rock songs from the 1960s and 1970s.
Houston’s KRBE was a pioneering classic rock radio station. Paul Christy, the director of the show, created a format in 1983 that played solely early album rock from the 1960s and early 1970s, with no contemporary music or songs from the pop or dance side of the Top 40. KRQX in Dallas-Fort Worth was another AM station playing classic rock starting in 1983. KRQX shared ownership with 97.9 KZEW, an album rock station. The FM station’s appeal to younger rock fans and the AM station’s appeal to somewhat older listeners were seen as advantageous by management. To entice advertisers, the combined ratings of the two stations may be used. The phrase “classic rock” quickly spread among the public as a way of describing the genre and early album rock songs.
The format’s broad adoption in the middle of the 1980s after the successes of Edinborough Rand (Gary Guthrie) at WZLX in Boston and Jacobs Media (Fred Jacobs) at WCXR in Washington, D.C. Over the course of the following several years, Guthrie and Jacobs collectively converted more than 40 big market radio stations to their unique style of classic rock.
Kim Freeman of Billboard magazine asserts that “although classic rock’s roots may be found further back, 1986 is typically considered as the year of its inception.” Oldies made up 60–80% of the music played on album rock stations by 1986 because of the format’s success. Even though it was initially a small subgenre of AOR, album rock had lost market share to classic rock by the end of 2001.
The adult male 25–34 age group was the primary target audience for the classic rock format in the middle of the 1980s, and it remained the group’s largest until the middle of the 1990s. The demographics of the format shifted toward older age groups as its audience became older. The greatest demographic for the format was the 35–44 age group in 2006, and the 45–54 age group in 2014.
The 1950s: Rock and Roll Comes to Life
The rhythm and blues genre strongly influenced the emergence of rock-n-roll during the 1950s. Artists ranging from greats such as Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra were also instrumental in helping new artists develop their sound.
“The Beatles and the Stones were basically inspired by American rhythm and blues.” – Mick Taylor
“My brother fell in love with rhythm and blues early and gave me a strong dose of it.” – James Taylor
“Everybody started calling my music rock and roll, but it wasn’t anything but the same rhythm and blues I’d been playing down New Orleans.” – Fats Domino
“It used to be called boogie-woogie, it used to be called blues, used to be called rhythm and blues… It’s called rock now.” – Chuck Berry
“When you sit down and think about what rock ‘n’ roll music really is, then you have to change that question. Played-up tempo, you call it rock ‘n’ roll; at a regular tempo, you call it rhythm and blues.” – Little Richard
In 1953, Bill Haley and His Comets released one of the first true rock and roll songs, with their song, “Crazy Man Crazy”. It debuted at No. 12 and was the beginning of the cross-over from R&B to Rock ‘n Roll. By 1955, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” became the most-played hit in the country, topping the Billboards music charts. Many people would sneer that rock and roll would fade. However, rock and roll proved to have more staying power that saw the emergence of other bands like The Coasters, The Crows, and of course one of the greatest musical successes of all time, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, and Wanda Jackson were other major acts that moved rock and roll to center stage.
The 1960s: Rock Music Came of Age
The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the programs that changed the landscape of television. Originally titled The Toast of the Town, The Ed Sullivan Show initially presented vaudeville to the small screen. But later on, it wasted no time in taking advantage of rock and roll’s nascent popularity (most likely in a bid to attract the younger viewers).
Elvis Presley was, no doubt, the most famous rock and roll star during his time so it is only natural that every television bigwig wanted to get his hands on him. The show’s host, Ed Sullivan, had initial reservations about guesting Presley because he thought of “The King” as “too vulgar.” But after he saw rival Steve Allen beating him in the ratings for guesting Presley, Sullivan changed his mind and made a deal with Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker.
Presley’s eventual infamous third and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show had him shown only from the waist up as not to show his suggestive hip gyrations that had earned him the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis.”
Sullivan first got to witness Beatlemania when he encountered a frenzied crowd rushing to greet a plane landing on London’s Heathrow Airport in 1963. When he asked what was all about, he was told it was for the Beatles. ” Not the one to be left behind when it comes to discovering new sensations, he asked again, “Who the hell are the Beatles?” In less than a year he would provide the answer to America who the Beatles really were. And the rest is history – The Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, and approximately 73 million tuned in to watch the mop tops charming the fans with their new sound and charisma.
After bringing Elvis Presley into every living room in America, Sullivan became the biggest star-maker who opened the door for more rock and roll artists including Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, The Doors, and other British Invasion acts like the Rolling Stones, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and others aside from the Beatles. Television greatly afforded new rock acts to show their talent and celebrity potential.
Rock concerts’ popularity also grew. Festivals, such as the Monterey Pop Festival, sold out in 1967 with over 55,000 fans attending during each of the three days. The top bands of this era were The Beatles, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Doors. In 1969 the Woodstock concert topped all concerts with over 400,000 people descending on a dairy farm in the Catskill mountains of New York.
During the late 60s, psychedelic rock started to emerge from the UK and drew inspiration from blues rock and other genres. This style of rock was inspired by the growing use of perception and mood-altering drugs. The goal was to embody the emerging counter culture in rock and roll music. Some of the more well-known bands and artists include Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, The Beatles (notably their eponymous 1968 album, aka “The White Album”), Eric Clapton, Deep Purple, Steve Miller Band and many more.
The 1970s: Rock vs. Disco
Despite disco’s rise to prominence during the 1970s, it did not diminish classic rock’s popularity. By the ‘70s, bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Grand Funk became full-blown celebrities and were touring the world to sold-out venues and raucous crowds.
As other bands gained popularity, groups such as The Beatles broke up and each member moved on to pursue solo careers. Then in 1977, rock music suffered one of its biggest losses with the death of Elvis Presley.
Elton John was the best-selling artist of the ‘70s. Hits like “Rocket Man” and “Crocodile Rock” had enabled him to score seven consecutive albums that debuted on the top of the Billboard charts. The 70s was without a doubt the biggest era for classic rock and cemented the genre in music history. (You may note that you will find some classic rock aficionados who would consider Elton John as more of progressive rock or pop rock artist, or sometimes even a glam rock artist)
By this decade where classic rock became wildly popular, fashion styles also changed with tight jeans, high heels and platforms with the ladies. Bell-bottom pants also ruled supreme in that generation and these translated into the preferred styles of rock bands and celebrities. The late 1970s also marked the emergence of electronic music and synth-pop.
One of the greatest bands of the ‘70s was Led Zeppelin, who formed in London around 1968. The band featured a sound that was built around the guitar with lots of blues and, later in their career, heavy metal. The quartet was credited with some of the earliest commercial successes of classic rock bands with their first album, Led Zeppelin. One of their most iconic songs, “Stairway to Heaven,” is arguably one of the top ten greatest classic rock songs of all time.
Pink Floyd was another English rock band who made critical acclaim for their unique mix of psychedelic and progressive rock. The quintet is one of the most successful rock bands in modern music history, having been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Their 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon is regarded as a rock masterpiece that has remained evergreen and one of the most beloved rock albums in history. The album sold more than 50 million copies globally, even more so long after the band left active recording and touring. They are regarded as one of the earliest bands to introduce esoteric and dynamic light effects and pyrotechnics during their live shows. Most of their songs were also considered quite radio-friendly.
The Eagles were established in 1971 and were led by Glenn Frey on lead vocals and guitar, Don Henley on drums and vocals and two other band members. The Eagles were so talented that their eponymous 1972 debut album had three songs that became big Billboard Top 40 hits. Their Greatest Hits album is a case study for most classic rock students in terms of the harmony and the sound range that the band was able to produce. They may not be the greatest ever classic rock band but they are definitely in the conversation no matter how you want to look at classic rock in the 70s.
Aerosmith is regarded as America’s greatest ever rock and roll band and is credited with setting the standard for hard rock and heavy metal from the 70s until many decades later. The Boston, Massachusetts-based quintet developed a unique riff boogie that was hard and loose, easy to listen to and extremely catchy. By hitting notes with both pianos, strings and guitars, they were able to execute a wide range of songs from soulful ballads to rock and roll anthems that came to live on.
The 70s also had a massive impact from The Rolling Stones, with its lead vocalist Mick Jagger experimenting with a wider variety of sound types and genres. The Stones were responsible for some of the best-ever rock songs on any all-time list. Specifically, they are credited with the blues-based rock sound that eventually set the tone for hard rock as we know it.
The 1980s: John Lennon, Classic Rock Radio stations and MTV
Many classic rock bands and performers wasted no time in expressing their feelings and ideas. It is no doubt that they influenced the populace during their era. Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are just a few to mention that changed the landscape.
Importance of Rock Music
Rock music is one of the most popular genres in music today and is enjoyed by people of all ages and walks of life. One of the many reasons rock has a special place in many people’s hearts is its unique sound which can sound powerful and emotional. Thus, it is excellent at portraying a wide range of emotions efficiently. Rock can be used to express happiness, sadness, anger and more.
Rock music and all its different types have proven to be a powerful force in people’s lives as it helps them express themselves and connect with others. It is also commonly used to relieve stress, and you can even use it to escape from your everyday world.
Types of Rock Music
Rock music can be divided into various different subtypes, including classic rock, punk rock, glam rock, math rock, progressive rock, synth rock and more. The first genre appeared in the early 1950s and gradually spread to other parts of the world. Rock was heavily influenced by different genres as well. Blues, classical, country and pop had a notable influence on the rock genre.
Rock music also went through a number of evolutionary phases to evolve into the genre we hear today. There are subgenres for each of those genres, including Heavy Metal and Rockabilly.
How Has Rock Influenced Music Today?
Rock music has had a significant impact on the music industry. Firstly, it has shaped the sound and sound of popular music over the years as composers started to see the appeal of the genre and included elements in their songs. Secondly, rock music has helped create and influence new genres of music. Punk rock, alternative and metal are all heavily inspired by rock music. Thirsty, the genre has been a major contributor to the development of new technologies within the music industry. Recording studios, the electric guitar and the amplifier all came about thanks to rock music.
Rock bands such as Rolling Stones have also had a massive impact on the music industry, and their influence in almost every genre of music is undeniable. Although their early work is based on blues, they soon evolved and created a unique rock and roll style that combined elements of blues, R&B and garage rock.