What Is Classic Rock Today?

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What is classic rock in 2010? 15 years ago, it was was the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, anything Eric Clapton touched and every band your dad played in his car while he was making out with the girls he met before your mom.

That's how we know classic rock: Big riffs, big voices, intricate compositions, huge arena shows, long-flowing hair, pot smoke - the bands whose concert tees now go for three figures on eBay. Radio stations like 93.7 The Arrow and the old 107.5 ("Z107") helped shape that idea for Houston listeners, but for some, the mere name of the genre has bad connotations.

We knew what oldies meant: The rock and roll pioneers like Buddy Holly and Elvis, girl groups, British Invasion, bobby-soxer pop, some primitive garage cuts, Motown, soul and R&B standards, and some teen ballads. Early Beatles and Stones hits, before the drugs. This stuff was shoved down our throats by the baby-boomers and every single Rob Reiner or Gary Marshall movie we ever saw. "Gimme Some Lovin'," et. al. Music you heard during your second tour in Vietnam.

Then there was the in-between stuff you found on your own or through college radio. Garage rock, proto-punk, heavy metal, thrash metal, punk, first-wave glam, No Wave, post-punk, more adventurous New Wave and hardcore. For the purposes of this blog, ignore all of that awesomeness.

Country is an animal unto itself. Houston has three country stations to choose from: One that only plays the same 40 classic country songs on a loop, another that only plays pop-country, and a third that is mostly the biggest singles from the past 20 years mixed with a few new interlopers.

As for hip-hop and rap, it's all over the dial from the Top 40 stations to 97.9 FM The Box. It's the new rock and roll, and the right single can cross over and be malleable everywhere. You can hear Eminem next to Lady Gaga next to Katy Perry next to Slim Thug.

With the inception of 106.9 FM The Zone a few weeks back, we faced a strange crossroads in our life. The music we grew up listening to on the radio - grunge, bubblegum rock, pop-metal, and everything that came with watching 120 Minutes from 1992 to 1997 - became feel-good nostalgia fodder.

Alternative gold is the new classic rock, and classic rock is the new oldies, and oldies are the new pop standards. Herman's Hermits, The Beach Boys, The Supremes and everything from The Big Chill soundtrack are now where Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Lawrence Welk, and Henry Mancini were two decades ago. Music before all of them, your big-band artists and deeper roots and the like, is nowhere to be found on the dial.

Oldies, 1950-67: The Temptations, the Monkees, the Coasters, Elvis Presley, Van Morrison

Classic Rock, 1968-87: Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Bob Seger

Classic Hits 1968-85: The Eagles, Journey, Queen, Elton John

Album-Oriented/Mainstream Rock, 1970-Present: Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, Metallica

Adult Hits, 1988-Present: Sarah McLachlan, Counting Crows, Madonna, Jason Mraz

New/Active Rock 1991-Present: Nickelback, Staind, Godsmack, Creed

Alternative Gold, 1980-99: Talking Heads, Nirvana, The Cure, The Cranberries

Oldies were for early boomers, classic rock was for late boomers, and now alt-gold is for Generation X and those of us in Generation Y who had a better developed sense of hearing. For instance, you won't hear LFO or Sisqo on The Zone, but you will hear the odd Meredith Brooks and Third Eye Blind single,. (Shut the fuck up, "Jumper" was a cool song in 10th grade.)

For the most part it's alt-rock from the '90s and the things from the '80s that helped shape that sound: Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, R.E.M. and the Cult, plus lots of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alanis Morrisette, etc.

But one day, Nirvana and Pearl Jam will be a new generation's Led Zeppelin and The Who, if they aren't already. For a kid born this week, Kurt Cobain will be a Buddy Holly figure. Michael Jackson may very well be diminished - a legend still, but a discounted name by the time he or she turns 15.

One thing that will buck this whole trend is the curious issue of aging. Artists can remain active and at least partially relevant into their eighth decade. In 1962, would you the average listener think that Paul McCartney or Jerry Lee Lewis would still be alive and making music, and not in a home for the aged?

Last year, a great big 'ol nerdy music book was released by Elijah Wald called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music The author traces the schism that happened in the late '50s and early '60s before, during and after the moment the Fab Four came across the Atlantic. It's not an indictment of their music or the band members themselves, but it delves into how the industry went into profiteering mode after the Beatles' success.

The book also touches on the idea that at one point in time, you could hear everything on the same radio station, with no genre distinctions. The Stones could heard next to the latest Marvin Gaye cut, and so on. Popular music was not compartmentalized. Stations played what was popular.

Ed. Note: It's true. Check out this October 1976 playlist from Houston's KILT-AM.

If we were to carry that practice over to today, Kanye West's "Runaway" would be followed by Arcade Fire. But as time marches on, what's going to happen to alt-gold and classic-rock and hits before it?

Where will you get your Styx and REO fixes? Does Bruce Springsteen become Frank Sinatra? Is Mick Jagger Benny Goodman? Will ArrowFest 2032 have Kings of Leon and The Black Keys?

Where's our blanket?

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