Cities in Rock 4: Heston, Wallington, and Ripley, Southwest of London, U.K.

Posted on August 17, 2013 by

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I’ve been making an empirical study of the nature of classic rock. Assuming that stations with “Q” in their call letters are straightforwardly canonical, I have been looking over the playlists and trying to derive, a la Northrup Frye, the qualities that make classic rock classic rock. Like any genre, I realize that no particular instance will embody all the genre characteristics, but I have hoped to correlate qualities that would tend to mark tunes as classic. Has distortion: check. High pitched male vocal: check. Absolutely apolitical: check.

It’s a stupid project, of course. Actually, multiply stupid. First of all, I don’t really like classic rock. It was my kid who started me down this path, and for some reason — probably, mostly, because he actually sought my opinion out about something — I decided to take it seriously.1 He asked me because, you know, I was there. At least in a sense. (The same sense that my friend, Steve, ten years older than me, was at Woodstock, which he remembers as an unpleasant camping experience. He never got close enough to hear the bands.) I have a poorly-formed notion of where rock came from and when it mutated into something else. I know what I liked at the time — when I was 12, it was Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, and Steppenwolf. By 14, it was Zep and Yes, with an added peculiar fascination for instrumental rock like Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow and Jeff Beck’s Wired. I saw Heart, The Who, Foghat, and Led Zeppelin in the mid-seventies. I lost interest at approximately Boston, Foreigner, and Duran Duran, which, for me, contra Q, ended the classic era. Of course, there’s no way to untangle my personal history from my sense of history history. But that personal history is not well-reflected in KQ’s playlist, nor do I really understand what all the folks listening to classic rock now are getting out of it. (I cannot imagine someone listening to it now with the urgency I listened to it then.)

Second of all, as much as we like to talk about genre as being a constellation of qualities present in texts — noir involves dames, 45s, muddled resolutions, and a guy trying to keep his integrity in challenging circumstances — genre doesn’t really work that way. The best examples always undermine the genre in some way or another (or else they would be boring, right?). Genre is probably better thought of as a conversation within a community — a set of authors writing to a set of readers who can be relied upon to read in a certain way, within a certain context. The conventions of genre are really the framing device of that conversation, a set of expectations to read against, not the qualities of texts. In fact, you could say that the function of genre is to be upset: how are you going to surprise me?

So take, for example, “Never Going Back Again” by Fleetwood Mac. It has no classic rock qualities, but because of the performer and the context of presentation (on a “rock” album, played on “rock” stations — it still gets played on KQ!), it is read as a rock song, and it is kind of charming in that context, a relief from all that rockin’ riffing. (There was a phase there where every band seemed to have one cut per album of a fingerpicked guitar tune. I think it started with Jefferson Airplane, but I can remember tunes I learned from Roy Buchanan, Jimmy Page, and Steve Howe.)

Finally, the project is complicated by the double nature of genre: it’s a community of readers and a marketing scheme. Classic rock is classic rock because it is played on classic rock stations, and you (OK, me) listen to it because it is what’s available. It is the musical equivalent of fast food: if you want to eat in your car, you have to settle for what can be passed through the window. And then you have to remember that the audience of radio isn’t the folks who are listening, it’s the advertisers paying for it. “Classic rock” delivers a group of people who (apparently) DeVry College, jewelers, and auto dealerships want to reach, and it means what it needs to mean to gather those people. It makes a muddle for a critic.

So the Northrup Frye project is doomed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from it. According to KQRS, July 8, 2013, classic rock began in the mid-to-late 60s with Spencer Davis and Cream. It ended in the mid 90s with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Tom Petty. The median year is 1977. The most normative artist (most songs played) is Bob Seger2 (!) who placed songs on the list from 1969 to 1980. There’s a definite nativist bent to the list: lots and lots of Seger, Lynrd Skynrd, The Eagles, Creedence, Steve Miller Band, John Mellencamp. (However, the Allman Brothers and Poco are missing. No Springsteen, either.) The next largest flavor of rock (aside from the unflavored kind) seems to be prog, kind of a surprise to me. The only women are members of Fleetwood Mac, Heart, and Pat Benatar. As far as I can tell, Santana and Hendrix are the extent of ethnic diversity. One punk tune (“Rock the Casbah”), only a couple of New Wave. No DEVO, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Roxy Music, Go-Gos, B-52s, or even Blondie (although I know they occasionally play Blondie, so sampling error). No White Stripes, Black Keys, Black Crowes, or Black Sabbath. No Seattle tunes from the 90s. Oddly, Simple Mind’s “Don’t You Forget About Me” gets a slot.3 Sex and love, of course, are virtually the only themes, with a few songs about existential aloneness (which, I guess, could be solved by love). No politics, unless you countSuffragette City4 somehow, and no meditations on the nature of modern life. “Bitch” is the strongest language in any of the tunes.

That is to say, classic rock is pretty fucking corporate.

It wasn’t always like that. The way I understand it, rock (as distinct from rock ’n’ roll) started when a number of English guitarists discovered American blues artists. Just like American blues at home, the influence came in two parts: on the one hand, we got folkies like Bert Jansch, Pentangle, and the Fairport Convention (I suppose this movement led to those fingerpicking solos I mentioned above); on the other, we got what eventually became rock.

Our three cities for today all sit southwest of London, and together make a twenty mile triangle surrounding what appears on the map to be a whole bunch of golf courses. I’ve been in the area a couple of times, but never thought to make any pilgrimages, or, for that matter, play a round of golf. Heston is the birthplace of Jimmy Page. Wallington, Jeff Beck. Ripley, Eric Clapton.

Clapton had the prototype rock career: he was wild and wooly at the start (with Cream), then became a pretty conventional (although great) rock player (Derek and the Dominos; his solo work), and finally ended up as a well-loved adult contemporary artist, defanged and sentimental. (Although, really, he defanged himself shortly after “Layla” in the early 70s) He is the most inducted musician in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (although all three of these guys are members) which tells you what you need to know. STAMP OF INDUSTRY APPROVAL.

Page was my favorite at the time. I gather (I am working from memory here, so correct me if I am wrong) Page was a session musician of some repute in London before he became famous. At the time, I didn’t track his personal story which I think was a bonus since, by all appearances, it was an embarrassing rockstar mess. As a player, though, he is pretty interesting. Clapton is kind of a by-the-book rock player (of course, he wrote the book, so props) — he stays pretty close to his blues background no matter what he’s playing. Page is, by comparison, experimental and constantly edgy, and sounds like he spent some time with Slonimsky in addition to Muddy Waters. He leaves rough edges in his recorded solos, uses a boatload of unconventional pitches and timbres, and, as a composer, is drawn to the unusual rather than the pleasing. So, instead of “Cocaine,” you get “The Immigrant Song.” To my ears, Page would fit right in to today’s “post-rock” aesthetic. (Jack White is just a modern day Page.) Interestingly (to me), my friend Arlo, who for years has been Shawn Phillips’s manager, recently became Page’s manager. I am thrilled to be one degree separated from him. (It doesn’t seem like Page has needed much management lately, sadly. Here’s a cool movie, though.)

But Beck is the real oddball, kind of the anti-Clapton. (I AM THE ANTI-CLAPTON. FEAR ME.) His experimental 60s phase (like Page and Clapton, partly with the Yardbirds) was the most conventional part of his career. From there he just became more and more eccentric, inventing his own jazz out of whole cloth. He is one of those people who followed his sound relentlessly, no matter where it went, and no matter whether there was a market for it at the end. I love that. (Leo Kottke springs to mind in the same sense. Or Joni Mitchell. Or, I guess, Daniel Johnston and Hasil Adkins, although, by this point, we have fallen off the end of the pier.)

(That’s Jennifer Batten at the beginning. Then listen to Beck’s solo.)

It must have been something in the air, there, amongst the hedgerows, megaliths, and crop circles, out in the English countryside. Anyway, that’s my classic rock. KQ can keep theirs.

1 Naturally, I have responded to his request by going nerdily, embarrassingly overboard, confirming his overall intuitions about me. (back)

2 When I lived in Lexington, KY, the guy in the apartment next door was a 50-year-old truck driver from redneckland, who ate salted white onions like apples and played the Bob Seger greatest hits album over and over and over and over at top volume. (I still get palpitations when I hear “Katmandu.”) It got so bad, I ended up sleeping at a friend’s house for a while, during which time my neighbor stole my stereo. (back)

3 My wife’s first college boyfriend broke up with her on the dance floor while this was playing. (back)

4 Honestly, I have no idea what this song is about. This is after looking up the lyrics. Likewise, Paul McCartney‘s “I thought the Major was a lady suffragette.” “Suffragette” must not mean what I think it means. (back)

You are connected to Eunoia Solstice, a web-magazine curated by Jason Quinn Malott, Eric Jenkins, and Stephen McClurg. “Assembly Required” is my twice-monthly column concerning free improvisation, folk music, the apocalypse, and the self in contemporary society. Check out some of the other stuff on offer. Come back soon!

Cities in Rock is mostly a record of associations between music, time, and place — more memoir than musicology. Several authors plan to contribute. Stay tuned!