The Oddity of Classic Rock: Top Ten Songs at 4:33


Jun 24 2009, 6h06

I don't listen to a lot of classic rock radio, or to much commercial radio of any kind, but when I have tuned in to the local classic rock station, it feels a little like traveling back in time. With a few isolated exceptions (U2, a little Pretenders, Nirvana and Pearl Jam), the classic rock format today is pretty much the same as the classic rock format 20 years ago. It's not a genre, because it has no formal attributes; rather, it is a grouping for commercial purposes, one that has remained curiously stable for a long time.

And what is it, exactly? It's not just old hits, but a specific grouping of some hits and popular album tracks, primarily those that retain a certain masculine swagger--although that's far from the sole criterion. It's insufficient to say merely that classic rock is comprised of songs that make its target audience feel good about their relationship to their adolescence, as that's probably true of any "oldies" format. Like a certain famous conceptual piece at this length, it is a container whose contents are only implied.

What's interesting is that the specific markers of that adolescence (Led Zeppelin, the Stones, The Who, etc.) have retained their validity for so long, and that even within the discographies of individual bands residing in the classic rock sweet spot, there are subcategories of "classic" and "not classic."

For example, you will encounter Lola, but not David Watts; you can be Comfortably Numb but not Fearless; visit with Ziggy Stardust but not The Bewlay Brothers. Much of this, on both sides of the divide, is high-quality, challenging stuff, but the songs that make the cut seem to have been hyper-familiarized and safely absorbed into the larger culture. On a subjective level, it's a safe generalization to say that the songs that make the cut are "songs that I'm tired of," which is more an indictment of how frequently the culture throws them at me than any inherent lack of quality in the songs.

Project Index

The Top Ten Songs at 4:33

1) Born to Run--Bruce Springsteen
Obvious choice here, which I was somewhat anxious to avoid. But being obtusely contrary just for the sake of seeming original and/or iconoclastic is vain hipsterism. And this is one of the "classic rock" songs that I'm not really tired of, even given my problems with the Springsteen mythos.

"Born to Run" is Bruce’s most fully-realized slice of myth, the one that feels most connected to actual lives. It's so full of barely-contained energy, like the teenagers he’s singing about, whose skulls resonate with the rock-operatic feelings into which the lyrics tap directly. It encapsulates and exalts the time when every action, every thought, seems to lead either to triumphant escape or to death; there is no in-between: “I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul.” From the perspective of age, it seems silly and melodramatic to act that way, but being inside of those feelings is terrifying, exhausting, exhilarating, unforgettable. I wouldn’t want to go back there, but I miss it nonetheless.

2) John Allyn Smith Sails--Okkervil River
Some might say this song glorifies a suicide; it certainly doesn’t condemn it. Contrary to the arguments of the song nannies (a straw man I just made up, but hey!—song nannies!) great art doesn’t always have to give good, safe advice, or any advice at all. In fact, the best art probably resists any such easy reductions. Sung from the perspective of the dead alcoholic poet who has run out of poems and reasons for being, it’s brilliant songwriting and one of the very rare rock lyrics that reads as poetry all by itself on the page.

(If I was really concerned about my hipster cred, this is the song I should have put first.)

3) Universal Corner--X
Smoky, seductive, and almost sounds as if it could fit in a classic rock playlist. In fact, there’s no intrinsic reason why it couldn’t, but X’s brand identity doesn’t fit the implied contents of that container. Check out the Peter Gunn theme in the fade, and John Doe's Morrison-esque timbre as he echoes "LA Woman" when he sings the verb "rises."

4) Adam's Apple--Aerosmith
Toys in the Attic created the center of American hard rock in the 70s, and this is perhaps its best track, built around a somersaulting two-guitar riff, and the delightful way Stephen Tyler screams “she ate it” as if it’s the most shockingly amazing thing that ever happened. Also, as if he’s pre-emptively making fun of himself the way the Pixies made fun of stuff like this with “Rock Music.”

5) Houses in Motion--Talking Heads
Some classic rock stations play the Heads from time to time, but never this song. It violates the classic rock code: too edgy and uncomfortable; funky but not in the service of partying; ultimately too bleak, too black, and too nerdy; and those simultaneous achievements are its triumph.

6) I'm Expanding My Mind--Superdrag
Psychedelic power pop that chucks formulaic pop structure, appending a plangent two-minute guitar melody as extended coda.

7) Stormy High--Black Mountain
The uncomplicated pleasures of hard rock, groove and grind. Perhaps that is what classic rock stations are selling? Uncomplicated pleasure? I acknowledge that Black Mountain is exactly like a band of that era, and would fit in perfectly on a classic rock playlist—but they don’t. Because something unfamiliar, even in the same genre, is complicated? I don’t buy it, I don't get it.

8) Everyday--The Raveonettes
An eerie slow-motion replication of Buddy Holly’s winsome original, half Blade Runner dread, half nursery rhyme.

9) 16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six--Tom Waits
So, a man hunts an elusive black crow, symbolizing an unattainable desire. Then when he catches the crow, he keeps it inside his guitar and tortures it. There are so many ways to go with that metaphor, I don't know where to start.

When Tom Waits gets mad at his kids, does he threaten to "whittle [them] into kindlin'"? Because that would be kind of frightening.

10) Runaways--XTC
Beatle disciples XTC offer (thematically) the same song as “She’s Leaving Home,” with no additional insight to add, but it’s a great melody and an inventive arrangement.

Lots to talk about, but here's a little spur: at what point in the future does the classic rock format die or change into something else? When it changes, what does it change into? I am especially interested in hearing from people who listen to a lot of classic rock radio now, since those folks will have a better handle on it than I do.
Envios aceitos
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  • triphoppenskip

    Interesting stuff. I used to listen to a lot of classic rock stations when I was driving to work because all the modern rock stations around here suck. And I often wondered why it was always the same few songs by the same few bands.

    Jun 24 2009, 21h56
  • rockrobster23

    Sam, it's especially ironic that the playlists are so short given that the classic rock format evolved from AOR, which was all about "deep cuts" and exploring beyond the hits. Noah, yes, what we think of as "classic rock" is largely driven by what's played on these stations, which means that their programmers are engaged in acts of rock criticism and canon formation, just as actual rock critics do. In fact, they are probably just as (if not more) influential. A question I left out: when I was writing this journal, I was thinking about my experience with American radio stations, but it occurred to me later that radio in other countries may be quite different, even if it goes by the same name. So: is "classic rock" a different animal in England? Germany? Is it the same kind of format, just with different "hits" (i.e., an equally limited playlist)? Or is it qualitatively different?

    Jun 25 2009, 5h11
  • rockrobster23

    That's one of the possibilities I had in mind for "where does classic rock go from here?" That is, same idea, but time shifted forward.

    Jun 25 2009, 14h54
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    "is "classic rock" a different animal in England" doesn't really exist as a radio format (probably does somewhere on digital radio with no listeners), we've never had the range that exists in bigger NA markets. Exists as a magazine demographic, and I reckon the area covered is very similar.

    Jun 25 2009, 21h59
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    An interesting set of songs thrown up at this length. Nothing absolutely to-die-for best song ever (well maybe Born to Run, but I haven’t ripped my 7” yet).. but lots that is very very good. To the extent that I’m taking the excuse that Robbie has already mentioned them to cut out the Okkervil River and Talking Heads songs which would otherwise feature in my top 5, so as to keep the list down to 12. 1) The Velvet Underground - What Goes On. Classic Rock? I’m guessing a bit here, having had almost no exposure to the radio format, but - Yes, in theory.. No in practice 2) David Bowie - Drive-In Saturday. Classic Rock? A straightforward yes. 3) The Band - Up On Cripple Creek. Classic Rock? Not exactly rock maybe, but I think another yes. 4) Tubeway Army - Down In The Park. Classic Rock? Probably anathema to classic rockers. This was the single before “Are Friends Electric”. It didn’t get radio play, and wasn’t a hit, but I still think it even better. “Down in the park with a friend called 5” “We are not lovers, we are not romantics, we are here to serve you”.. Oh, the alienation! 5) Del Amitri - Keepers. Classic Rock? Hardly. Before becoming purveyors of bland mainstream balderdash, Del Amitri made an absolutely marvellous debut album (from which this is taken). The lyrics were the best part, it was no surprise that Justin (Del Amitri) Currie was cousin to Nick (Momus) Currie; but the tunes and musicianship were great too. 6) Microdisney - Past. Classic Rock? Forgotten by everyone. Least popular of my top 50 acts (leaving aside bloody Rinaldo Alessandrini, which is another story), yet they seemed on the verge of pop stardom for a while – even after splitting up, as High Llamas and Fatima Mansions. But yes, classic rock – in my head if nowhere else in the world. 7) Built to Spill - Still Flat. Classic Rock? In another five years, yes. 8) Mott the Hoople - Angel Of Eighth Avenue. Classic Rock? This track is too gentle, but I’d guess lots of Mott fits the format. 9) Dead Kennedys - Holiday in Cambodia. Classic Rock? Certainly. 10) Sandy Coast - My friend Abdullah. Classic Rock? In Holland perhaps. They had several hits in their homeland. 11) Scott Walker - The Amorous Humphrey Plugg. Classic Rock? Classic, yes. Rock, no. 12) The Human League - Almost Medieval Classic Rock? Probably bring out the NRA constituency of classic rock listeners. Marvellous as Don’t You Want Me et al are, I prefer the artier, less pop Human League of the first two albums. And the word hyper-familiarisation above brought on a strong urge in me to misquote the Human League lyric “dehumanisation, is such a big word. It’s been around since, Richard the Third”.

    Jun 26 2009, 20h50
  • rockrobster23

    Interesting--it doesn't seem that the classic rock radio format exists in Europe, at least not in the same form as it does in the States. Here, "oldies" refers to a more pop/soft rock sound. Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac would be one of its few areas of intersection with the classic rock format. Oldies would probably also play Human League (the hits), Duran Duran, etc., but classic rock never would. It's not manly enough--seriously, no kidding! At least that's my extrapolation from what I hear. On the other side of the coin, classic rock stations would never play old punk like the DKs. I think it's the remnants of a grudge that 70s and 80s rockers held against punk for being, well, "anti-rock," in a sense. That is, for the way that punk exploded and/or made fun of the pretensions of "serious" rock. Funny that a band like Nirvana, which would not have existed without punk, easily makes the cut--perhaps because their general gloom fits the "serious rocker" mold better. I remember "Down in the Park" very well, and you're right, classic rockers would think it weenie music. I also agree that Built to Spill is an excellent candidate to be considered "classic rock" (even in the narrow North American radio sense) not too many years from now. However, if they're playing bands like that (90s indie guitar bands), it begs the question of whether it's still the same format. Then, it would be more like "old college radio." Which would actually be something I would seek out, should I happen to be in a car with a working radio.

    Jun 27 2009, 5h34
  • triphoppenskip

    You know I never thought about it until you brought it up but there are several punk bands that should fall under the "classic" label but you never hear them. Yet as you mention classic rock stations are starting to play some of the early 90's grunge. I wonder if some of that has to do with the region we're in. Punk never really seemed to take a big hold here in the South. I wonder if classic punk gets any playtime in the North or an the coast?

    Jun 27 2009, 18h21
  • rockrobster23

    That is an excellent question. We need to find a midwestern or coastal classic rock listener who can educate us.

    Jun 27 2009, 19h10
  • triphoppenskip

    I find it odd that punk is getting the shaft like this. Many punk bands were highly influential. I guess they may be too controversial for most commercial stations.

    Jun 28 2009, 19h37
  • heatherc

    I don't remember punk getting much airplay on regular commercial radio, while grunge did, so I wouldn't expect it to make it to a classic rock station. I haven't listened to such a station in ages, but I'm pretty sure they play(ed) "Lost In The Supermarket," but there were very few truly mainstream punk songs. Also, maybe I'm wrong about this, but it seems like what you hear on classic rock are often songs that tend to be longer and have more guitar work than most of the punk I'm familiar with. Love your number 2 choice!! Because it is written from the first person there wouldn't be any condemnation for the choice the character makes. Will's also done it for Shannon Wilsey and Jobriath (Bruce Wayne Campbell).

    Jun 29 2009, 0h33
  • rockrobster23

    Heather makes a perceptive observation: "longer and more guitar work" equals "musicianship," which (to many traditional rock listeners) is what classic rock has and what punk lacks. That canard is true, on a very vague/general level, but of course it misses the point that one need not be a virtuoso to play punk. I'm going to throw out a gross generalization and say that classic rock listeners want to have gods, and punk rock listeners want to have talented buddies. That idea breaks down when you look at it too closely, so stand at an appropriate distance to behold its sort-of-truth.

    Jun 29 2009, 8h26
  • masto65

    Damn! looks like I am really late for the party. Oh well. Interesting topic folks. Out in my garage I will listen to the radio. Just to be on the safe side I tune in the oldies station out there. At least I can live with hearing "Classical Gas" once more but if I hear "You Shook Me All Night Long" I might take a life. And a couple of weeks ago my wife had come out there to talk to me and while we were standing there we noticed that in between the usual 60's and 70's hits they were throwing in very 80's tracks like "Rio". It was a little odd. But I would say the "oldies" station seems to have a 25 year barrier. If it was a hit and it's more than 25 years old it's fair game. And I would agree with Rob the "classic" station seems to be much more about the classic definition of a rock song. Which will eliminate most of the punk acts. Now I have heard the occasional "Rock the Casbah" or "Should I stay or Should I go" but I don't know if I would necessarily put those in the punk category just because they were written by the Clash. And as far as the age rule on classic stations I think it's a lot more relaxed if it has all the benchmarks of the traditional classic rock song. I have heard Black Crows and Blues Traveller songs because they kind of have that same feel. Oh well my lengthy 2 cents worth.

    Jul 1 2009, 4h35
  • masto65

    Whoa! almost forgot my list thanks to my rambling. Wish The Worst • Old 97's Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything • Superchunk Petrol (Metro Screen) • Severed Heads Beating of Another Heart • Graham Parker Where Youth and Laughter Go • Broadcast House Burning Down • Jimi Hendrix Experience The Hanging Garden • The Cure Sangré De Cristo • Scud Mountain Boys Know my name • Nightmares On Wax Water • PJ Harvey Okay this had the weirdest combonation of stuff I think I have come up with in the half dozen of these I have participated in. And an extra track to Rob because I was thinking of his "Many Bells Down" project. Kaltbruchig Acideath • SPK The one that got away this week was “Holiday in Cambodia” Masto.

    Jul 1 2009, 5h19
  • rockrobster23

    I didn't know about that Old 97's record; for some reason I have always assumed that Wreck Your Life was their first. Anyway, that's a pretty good summary of the apparent "rules" for the radio formats we're talking about. The thing that I am still the most curious about is what drives the playlist decisions for the classic rock format. In commercial radio these days, I'm sure everything is tested and focus-grouped, so the programmers are not just making it up as they go. Clearly, there is a large audience (to which Masto does not belong) for whom hearing "You Shook Me All Night Long" is a happy event, and who respond negatively to most punk (but positively to Nirvana and the White Stripes). I'd guess we are talking about distinctions that are more cultural than strictly musical, and I kinda know what they are in my bones but they're hard to articulate. I bet there are some pretty interesting ClearChannel internal memos about this topic, and we will unfortunately never get to read them.

    Jul 2 2009, 7h02
  • masto65

    I think my comment about "You Shook Me..." should be fleshed out a little. There is that group of songs that, lets face it, are just blown out. We all know which songs I am talking about. Those songs that have been used in 20 different commercials. Hundreds of movies. You hear shopping or waiting on hold. They are just ubiquitous pieces of background noise that you hardly even notice anymore. For what ever reason there are, in that category, songs that still don't bother you and there are others that you just say "enough already". And this seems to be different with everyone. Songs I still have not reached my listening threshold with, Green Onions, Classical Gas, Mr Blue Sky, Voodoo Chile, Blitzkrieg Bop etc.. Songs that I could never hear again and be quite satisfied, Margaritaville, Stairway to Heaven, Hotel California, We Will Rock You, etc.. anyways you get the point. Oh well just a side note. But I think this might be some sub discussion when discussing the whole oldies, classic rock radio thing.

    Jul 6 2009, 16h56
  • rockrobster23

    Excellent point, and an easy hook for another list: blowouts past their expiration date, something along those lines. Of course it's a different discussion, but "worn out" songs are inherently a danger when we're talking about playlists that don't change a whole lot over periods of decades. Then you have the movies, commercials, etc. on top of that.

    Jul 6 2009, 18h04
  • rockrobster23

    "Last Christmas" is the answer to the question, "What is the most annoying Christmas song?" (See journal titled "Bad Teacher"). But I would argue that it wasn't any good to begin with, unlike the songs Masto listed. That is (for me anyway), it reached its oversaturation level the very first time I heard it.

    Jul 6 2009, 20h51
  • triphoppenskip

    I would rather have bamboo shoots rammed under my fingernails than listen to Hotel California again. I could also do without Sweet Home Alabama and Turn the Page.

    Jul 6 2009, 21h53
  • rockrobster23

    Ha! I just brought up this topic to my roommate and the first thing out of his mouth was "Turn the Page." Bob Seger's catalog is a minefield of this stuff.

    Jul 6 2009, 22h04
  • rockrobster23

    This discussion is a natural lead-in to the next list, which will be 6:30 to 6:39 (the first/shortest of the ten-second intervals). Yep, "Hotel California" is in that bunch, and it just may show up on the list, as I stubbornly insist that it is a good song. But the competition is fierce; at first glance, there are at least five songs at that length that I'd be very happy with in the top slot. Don't expect anything quick; these long-song journals take a while to put together, since I am equally stubborn about actually listening to everything before I write.

    Jul 7 2009, 7h46
  • rockrobster23

    Damn, these things get unwieldy when they go to the second page--sorry Noah, I didn't see your comment because I didn't click on the "see all comments" link. Anyway--"Last Christmas" is not a bad example, because it IS overplayed--and I'm sure someone(s) liked it at one point and then had it shoved down their throats enough to develop an aversion. On the other hand, those people remain hypothetical for now, because I don't know any of them.

    Jul 7 2009, 8h15
  • rockrobster23

    Seriously, "Autobahn" on a classic rock playlist? What station? That doesn't fit my theories at all! If they play that, why not Gary Numan? Thomas Dolby? Tears for Fears?

    Jul 7 2009, 8h23
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    Hmm.. different continents - I've never knowingly heard Turn the Page (assuming it to be a Bob Seger track).

    Jul 7 2009, 20h28
  • rockrobster23

    I imagine Bob Seger's appeal in England must be pretty limited. It's heartland America rock, of the bland mid-70s variety, lacking the spark/grit that seems to translate well overseas for the spikier country or blues-flavored bands. It's not bad, exactly, but it's just not quite as good as most of its comparables: not quite as rocking as Ted Nugent, or as tuneful as Mellencamp; songwriting a couple of notches below Tom Petty's. I would probably remember him more fondly were it not for the "overplayed" issue, which was greatly exacerbated by the use of his song "Like a Rock" to sell pickup trucks in an ad campaign that has seemingly lasted a decade. Anyone who watches American football knows what I'm talking about.

    Jul 7 2009, 21h46
  • masto65

    It seems maybe I have struck a common chord with a couple people. The reason I brought it up was as Rob said when you have a fairly static playlist the shit will get old sooner or later. But like he also pointed out I was thinking of songs that at one time you, like most people, thought were pretty cool, but they just couldn't leave them alone. They just beat them to death. And in the case of a couple of those songs they then squatted over the corpse and then farted in its face.

    Jul 8 2009, 4h25
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