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.