Rock and Roll Never Forgets

This year's Arrowfest, the crown jewel of Houston's live classic rock calendar, has easily the best lineup ever: Styx, Peter Frampton, Kansas, Blue Öyster Cult, America, Grand Funk Railroad and, um, Nelson (don't ask). Among them, these acts are responsible for about a gazillion hits, from "Come Sail Away," "Do You Feel Like We Do?" and "Carry On Wayward Son," to "Godzilla," "Horse with No Name" and "We're an American Band."

And the classic rock era, which roughly encompasses the years 1967 to 1977, is seeing a resurgence in popularity -- and not just from the usual aging hippies and mulletheads. Now, their kids have discovered that Mom and Dad's music isn't so bad after all. Teens today are embracing classic rock as an antidote to vacuous Top 40 pop, bling-bling rap and overwrought, angsty nü-metal.

"The music is more genuine than what's coming out today. And they just seem more original," says 16-year-old Justin Anders of Spring High School, whose favorite groups include Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Grateful Dead, Aerosmith and the Steve Miller Band. "And the music is strange -- that's cool."

Joshua Hart, 15, of Clear Lake High, adds that "the music just sounds better, and I like a lot of the guitar solos." The fan of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones learned about these groups from his father's record collection. "He'd play it all the time, so that's the music I grew up with."

That tendency extends even to the offspring of classic rockers, or so says Frampton himself. "Last year, my 16-year-old son listened to nothing but Limp Bizkit and Blink-182, and now he loves Pink Floyd. There is hope!" laughs the man behind one of the era's biggest records, Frampton Comes Alive! "Sometimes I'll see three generations of one family at my show, and it's the younger ones who know all the words."

USA Today recently ran a feature detailing the trend. Even some of today's bigger contemporary acts like the White Stripes, Jet, the Darkness and Kings of Leon pay homage to Almost Famous-era music while putting a contemporary twist on it.

The VH1 Classic video channel, the soap opera-like Behind the Music series, ubiquitous classic rock radio stations and a parent's well-stocked record collection all help spread classic rock around, but this relatively low-tech music also spreads via high-tech conduits. Instead of rifling through dusty record bins to find a copy of Queen II, consumers today can easily download whole albums or order them online. Another recent trend has seen most classic rock bands come out with affordable, double-CD anthologies -- perfect introductions for the newbie.

Older favorites are also keeping up with the new technologies. There was the hit Led Zeppelin DVD How the West Was Won last year, and Frampton Comes Alive! was recently rereleased in DVD 5.1 audio with bonus tracks. Incidentally, Frampton says that record is both the biggest success and the 800-pound gorilla of his career.

"I don't have a clue why it was so big," he says. "But the live audience makes all the difference. It was a phenomenal band and phenomenal night. There's an energy that comes off it."

Classic rock bands also tend to have seemingly bottomless wells of "unheard" material. Roark, the single-monikered host of KPFT's Friday-afternoon show Uncastrated Classic Rock, loves to plumb these hidden depths. You'll never hear Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" on his show, but you'll hear their "Flight of the Rat."

"Think of an album that had a couple of hits off of it. There are still eight other songs that [most people today] have never heard," he says. "I love finding that stuff, and I'm running into more young folks on the street who like classic rock now."

Roark's show is also the only place you'd hear mostly forgotten bands like the Charlatans, Fuzzy Duck, Barefoot Jerry, Bloodrock, Frijid Pink and Wishbone Ash. The age of CD reissues has made much of this music available for the first time since it originally came out.

A lot of the credit for spreading the history and music of classic rock bands goes to the Internet. It's something that Frampton feels the record companies were wrong to ignore, then slow to respond to, which cost them. "I have to say, I credit Steve Jobs and iTunes with single-handedly saving the songwriter's way to live, and I'm not talking about me," he says. "Because of legal downloading, things [might] change in the industry now."

"The Internet is the main way that I find out about these bands and get their music," says Cody Fritter, 17, of Cy-Fair High School. His divergent tastes include David Bowie, Parliament-Funkadelic, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix.

Then there's the current concert experience. Though they haven't had a new chart hit in sometimes decades, classic rock summer package tours are big business. Groups like Skynyrd, the Who, Little Feat, Boston, Bad Company, the Allman Brothers Band, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, Journey, Yes and Chicago still pack 'em in. A smaller group of acts -- the Stones, AC/DC, Rush, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Santana and Aerosmith -- can still even make the charts and critics' lists with new music.

And even bands that can't tour again (Led Zeppelin, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles) maintain amazingly healthy record sales for their back catalogs. The runaway success of the Beatles 1 CD, with material that had already been repackaged countless times, proved something of a shocker.

Still, today's touring classic rock bands do have an inherent problem with member attrition. Whether it's attributable to age, infighting or death, the band on stage with the famous name most likely won't be the same one that recorded the famous material. This is a hot-button issue with classic rock fans. A few bands, such as the Who, excepted, no one usually minds the loss of the original drummer or bassist. But if the band is touring without the original front man or lead guitarist, the current incarnation's claim to the band name becomes more tenuous.

These days, many touring editions of acts are without their distinctive classic front men. At Arrowfest, Styx and Grand Funk no longer have Dennis DeYoung or Mark Farner. Journey, the Grateful Dead and the Doors are other examples. But does that really matter if the crowd has had enough beer and the "new guys" sound reasonably like those on the records?

"Absolutely not. You can still have fun at those shows, and the 'leftover guys' know what they're doing," Roark says. "You still get all those great songs."

Jeb Wright, co-creator of the Web site Classic Rock Revisited, disagrees somewhat. "This bothers me. It's pretty obvious that a lot of the bands keep the name to get a better paycheck," he says, before making an about-face. "But in reality people need to make a living. The diehards can complain, but the crowd still sings along." (A subissue are the squabbles between fans of a band's "original" [the first] lineup versus the "classic" [most commercially successful] version. Bands like the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and the Doobie Brothers fit this description.)

The downside for the artists is that often the festival crowds want to hear the hits and just the hits. Nothing will send the audience to the bathroom or beer line quicker than hearing this announcement from the stage: "Thank you! And now, here's something from our new record."

And that's a shame, because many of them still make extremely viable music. Frampton's fine recent release Now is a case in point. "You start off underground, and you end up underground," Frampton laughs.

The "classic rock" radio format debuted nationally in the mid-'80s, and Z107 out of Lake Jackson was Houston's first station, a mantle picked up today by 93.7 The Arrow. Of course, we wanted to get some comments about Arrowfest from Arrow DJs, and morning team Dean and Rog agreed to an interview. However, the idea was nixed by the Arrow's rock programming director Vince Richards, who was apparently upset about criticism of Clear Channel Radio that has appeared previously in this paper in an opinion column (see "Racket," February 12).

Still, they'll be at Arrowfest -- along with everyone from teens to grandpas. It was Bob Seger who said that "rock and roll never forgets." This is especially true of classic rock. Its listeners haven't forgotten. Nor, it seems, will their kids.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero