Is Classic Rock Dead?
What is classic rock? Who gets to define the phrase, and who decides what bands or artists fall into the category? Did those of us who spent our youth listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Ten Years After—to name a few—believe that we’d be listening to the music fifty years later, and that we might choose to call it “classic rock” to distinguish it from “modern rock” or “contemporary rock” or, even, “indie rock”? Could we see a future in which, as Stillwater’s manager Dennis Hope in Almost Famous points out, we thought Mick Jagger would still be out there trying to be a rock star at age 50? Did we think we’d still be out there rockin’ when we were 50, worshipping at the altar of our rock gods?
Well, back then, many of us didn’t see too far beyond the moment of lighting up and being stoned again with Deep Purple or Savoy Brown (does Savoy Brown count as classic rock?) or Johnny Winter or Grand Funk Railroad. I’m sure if we took a minute to think about it I guess we’d have screamed that these guys—and they were all guys—are gods, and their music is eternal and of course we’ll still be listening to it when we’re 64. Well, sure, some of the music still rocks—there’s no substitute for dropping Mountain’s “Theme from an Imaginary Western” on the turntable and turning it up loud, especially on Leslie West’s guitar solos, or doing the same with the Stones’ “Sweet Virginia”—but the music no longer expresses the mythology of the rock and roll as it did then. Back then, the albums enticed us to travel on a spiritual journey to find ourselves; we read liner notes or rock criticism as our scriptures; auditoriums or stadiums were the sacred places where we met up with our religious communities to worship our gods and to be transformed in those moments; dancing, screaming the lyrics were out rites, and we even had grass or booze as our sacraments.
As it turns out, thinking about rock as religion is hardly new; religious thinkers in the late 1960s were already teasing out the similarities if only to sound relevant to their students. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a whole new musical genre called Jesus rock emerged; Christian bands embraced rock music since they thought it would reach young listeners already tuned into Zeppelin or the Beatles and wrapped their lyrics in the wah wahs of electric guitars. That moment did persist into contemporary Christian music in the guise of worship bands, and indeed, some of the lovers of that music do worship the leaders of those bands as gods and seek transformation in the music.
So, Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey St.) is old news in so many ways. Reading rock as religious experience goes back to the start of rock and writing about it, though most of that writing doesn’t come from creative critics like Hyden. It comes, as I point out, from folks who want to keep religion relevant for young folks by illustrating the similarities between their music and the character of religion. Hyden’s book falls short when he tries to overlay Joseph Campbell’s misguided scheme of the hero quest on rock, for Campbell was little more than a popularizer who taught that every mythology was the same, no matter where you found it. In addition, Hyden then repeats an already well-worn cliché about rock as religion, and it feels almost as if he’s justifying to himself why he still loves classic rock—whatever that is to him, for he includes a decidedly pop musician like Billy Joel and the yawn rock of U2 as classic rock.
Yet, the beauty of Hyden’s book is just that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he clearly admits by the time he was born (1977) most of the artists now played on classic rock stations had broken up or some of whose members had died. Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock is a fan’s notes, grappling with the reasons that rock means so much to him and whether or not this music is indeed in its death throes. To his credit, Hyden admits that the phrase “classic rock” is a marketing tool—that is, if classic rock radio stations didn’t play this music, we wouldn’t have classic rock; he also points out very cannily that even among radio programmers older rock—Chuck Berry, Little Richard—gets played on “oldies” stations while any music after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band finds airplay on “classic rock” stations. As he points out: “Clearly, my definition of ‘classic rock’ is shaped by classic-rock radio…The overriding factor in determining who was classified as classic rock—and who was classified as folk, punk, new wave, or metal-was mainstream popularity. If you sold millions of albums played arenas, and benefited from a major record label plying disc jockeys with cocaine and microwaves in order to get your music on the radio, you were classic rock. If you were beloved by critics, played clubs and theaters, and earned way more street cred than dollars, then you were slotted in one of the ‘cult-artist’ genres.”
Hyden compares his own discovery of classic rock music with the hero’s quest for enlightenment, and he draws out the contours of the mythology of rock where the artists are gods whose music—especially in their live shows—can transform its listeners. “It was one thing to follow pop music as it unfolded in real time—that just felt empty in comparison, as ephemeral as yesterday’s paper. But classic rock told ancient fables about the highs and lows of success, the excitement and danger of sex, the intoxication and degradation of drugs, and the myriad paths to enlightenment and eternal damnation. It was an awe-inspiring universe loaded with stories that had a beginning, middle, and end, just waiting to be explored.”
And he ponders the transformative moments of live shows: “As I wrapped my head around ‘Turn the Page’ and ‘Do You Feel Like We Do,’ I understood the tenet of rock-show mythology: seeing a great band play is a transformative event that can change the world. But where did this belief come from? What was the big bang (or series of bangs) that established the rock show as the pivotal ritual for citizens of rock ‘n’ roll nation? Why exactly do we feel like we do?”
Many of us who grew up with “classic rock” have long known what Hyden belabors in this entertaining book: “classic” rock died in 1972 or 1973, so the gods have long been living in twilight. Most of us no longer worship the artists or bands as we once did, and the shows now are mostly tame and sometimes tedious, even for the artists themselves. There’s little transformation happening at those shows.
Where Hyden gets it just right, though, is in emphasizing the way we feel when we hear a certain song—and some of us now play a game where we choose the songs by these bands that we wanted played at our funerals, that’s how enduring the feeling is—by a certain band: “I just keep going back to how classic rock made me feel when I first discovered it—I want to believe that this music can still connect me to something important and immortal. The mythology matters.” In that regard, the music will endure as long as it affects fans; this is the affective school of rock criticism. Hyden excels at capturing why music makes us feel the way we do and why it’s the reason we’ll always listen to this classic rock.
In spite of the superficial thesis of rock as a spiritual journey, Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock is often humorous and engaging, and his view of classic rock and who’s in the canon and who’s not will surely start a few discussions. That’s the point of his book anyway; classic rock exists only in the heart and ears of the listeners and endures because of the music we love so much it hurts, even long after the musicians are dead.