Classic Rock Saturday: The Possibilities of Genre

What is classic rock anyway? Sometimes genre specification make me wonder, especially when I listen to music from numerous genres as I work. However, I often believe the genre, rock music, is not so much a genre as a catchall category for most types of guitar-based music made after 1965. Just like alternative rock, such subgenre categories as hard rock, have become close to meaningless. Those who have suffered through my endless diatribes about certain periods of music know that I reserve specific definitions for other genres: rock 'n' roll to me is a very specific type of music drawing from Sun Records luminaries like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Indeed, bands who play rock 'n' roll today follow this template. Yet it is more about rocking out on bass, guitar, and drums than exploring guitar solos. Rock 'n' roll is also an attitude like punk that gets the job done fast and dirty with little indulgence.

In the last couple days my musical explorations have been specifically situated in the 1960s and 1970s, an era for boomer rock and folky, singer-songwriter meanderings. I have been listening to music that could fit in some type of classic rock subgenre, although there is a smattering of rock 'n' roll here and there. I'm not going into much detail about the differences of each of these bands, but they fit into the niche, if there is one.

I listened to the woefully underrated Kinks' album Muswell Hillbillies. You could not ask for a better exploration of the working class difficulties of 1970s England as filtered through American folk and country music, English music hall affectations, and Ray Davies' storytelling.

I also listened to The Beatles' Abbey Road, which paled in comparison, at least for me this week. I know those are fighting words, but I am still trying to wrap my mind around the Beatles phenomenon. I do like them, but their songs often leave me cold if I listen in heavy doses. Needless to say, I didn't enjoy it as much as the Kinks this time out. Perhaps, it is because I have heard each song a hundred times. They often feel like a singles band to me, but I would like to discuss their merits as an album band with anyone willing to hash out this old argument.

To add fuel to the fire on the merits of pop groups and their ability to release a full, cohesive album of killer tracks, I listened to The Monkees' More of the Monkees, which also felt uneven. Not their best work, it still features "Mary, Mary" and "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone," yet there is too much Davey Jones and not enough Mike Nesmith. The Monkees are not entirely responsible for the album's spotiness because their label released it when they were on tour.

The last record on my list is stacked with 70s hard rock tropes but is still enjoyable as it crosses them all off the list, Brownsville Station's eponymous 1977 LP. In fact, this album is the closest to epitomizing the good and the bad the genre had to offer in that decade, including the right amount of boogie rock numbers ("Martian Boogie"), hard rock songs about romance and sex ("Sleazy Louise, Lover"), and rockers about rockin' (Rockers 'n' Rollers)."

These records each present some songs that could be considered rock 'n' roll, but spend more time solidifying the status of the album as the number one music document of the period. Classic rock is about albums. One problem that keeps popping up again and again in this equation is the amount of filler. Each of these records has songs that do not lend themselves to holistic greatness of the form. They include different experiments which actually underscore the form's longevity. Albums allow artists to spread out and experiment. They can flirt with older musical genres like rock 'n' roll, while bringing in aspects of their country's pasts and futures. Perhaps, that is what classic rock is, an amalgamation of different styles tailored to fit longer playing formats with a bit of stylistic experimentation to boot. Fans were able to spend more time with these records in their bedrooms, getting to know each chord, solo, and drum fill. Too bad classic rock radio makes it feel like a watered down genre by playing only singles off the right records. There is much to learn and appreciate from listening to deep cuts of any genre. While we might not be able to adequately define classic rock, we can respect it for its range and breadth and forgive the form its small indulgences.


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