I listen to the signals
That the ancient strangers play
What are they doing here?
Something so familiar to my ear
“Classic Rot” —Dramarama
When Dramarama penned that song for their fourth album Vinyl, I thought for sure that they were making a statement about the state of radio—a swipe at their inability to muscle in to traditional rock stations that were too wrapped up in playing the classic rock tunes of twenty-years prior to consider a band like Dramarama. Ironically, Dramarama is a band so attuned to the rock styling of their ancestors that they should have found a nice home on any classic rock station.
But they weren’t, and that was a drag to me.
Not so much for my affection towards Dramarama, but because I was utterly convinced that rock radio was destroying the bands I so revered. Around the time Vinyl was released, I had had it with the Doors, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, and any number of bands that you will hear on any given hour on “The X,” “The Fox,” or “The Incontinent Eagle.”
It wasn’t so much that I despised the bands, but I most certainly hated the few songs that radio programmers seemed to focus on, day in and day out.
Consider Led Zeppelin. Why does radio only seem to focus on two songs from their album Physical Graffiti: “Kashmir” and “Houses Of The Holy?” It’s a double, for Christssake. It has enough material to sufficiently “get the led out.” There’s nothing on that record so out of character that even a novice Zep fan wouldn’t recognize. If even the most unfamiliar Zeppelin listener heard “In The Light” they’d be able to discern it was the work of the band and—most importantly to radio programmers—continue to listen until the next spot break. But programmers seemed intent on playing it safe and focusing on a pair of tracks that will eventually cause them to seek something fresher.
There’s nothing wrong with “Kashmir,” but I couldn’t understand how anyone who’s in the business of entertaining with music wouldn’t think at some point, “Do you think our listeners may be getting tired of hearing ‘Kashmir’?”
For me, the answer was a wholehearted “Yes!” and fueled by a bit of Gen X cynicism, I began rebuking classic rock—now labeled “Classic Rot” thanks to that Dramarama song—and programmed my car radio to nothing above 91 MHz.
Combining this with a virtual admonishment of those needle-burned albums (The Doors‘ debut, Pronounced ‘Leh-‘nérd Skin-‘nérd, Boston‘s debut, Frampton Comes Alive, etc.) created an intentional void of all manner of song that I could recite in my sleep.
“What song is it that you want to hear?” asked Ronnie Van Zant.
The sound of all of Skynyrd’s master tapes going down in a stalled Convair 240, please.
The purge was necessary, and it forced me to examine other types of music. My music collection began to drift into rock’s polarizing enemy: rap. It swelled with its stepbrother grunge, got stoned with trip-hop, and stumbled over everything shoegazed.
It also got me to look deeper into the charts from those same periods that spawned classic rock. If I knew that Dark Side Of The Moon began its infinite run on Billboard’s charts in 1973, I looked for the records that it pushed to the wayside on its assent. The road to number one was littered with such awesomeness as Neu! 2, John Cale‘s Paris 1919, and Roxy Music‘s For Your Pleasure. Hell, even some of classic rock’s usual suspects let loose with some nifty under the radar records that A.O.R. programmers deemed too obscure for listener ears.
Fast forward to a few years ago when Brad Delp, the undeniably talented lead vocalist for Boston, decided to grill indoors and silence those enviable pipes. It probably would have been easier to tune to one of the heartland’s endless classic rock stations and wait for the obligatory spin of “Foreplay/Long Time,” but I wanted to make a point with a Soundscan sale that I’d see my Mary Ann walking away again with my own copy of Boston.
I never owned it before, and truth be told, I didn’t need to. When it was released, a kid from the neighborhood brought it over to let me primitively record it with a monophonic cassette deck. I put the recorder against the speaker of my record player, pushed “play” and “record” simultaneously, and quietly left the room for seventeen and a half minutes before doing the same thing for side two.
Take a look at Boston and you’ll understand what I mean about not having to actually buy it. Only “Something About You” is a song not currently in rotation at your local classic rock station, and it probably should be as it’s no different from the album’s seven other tracks. But again, the program director of your local classic rock station is a chickenshit and only refuses to add it because he’s afraid the owners will question “What’s that Boston song that I didn’t know the words to?”
It’s because of him that I don’t tune in to his station, and as a result, don’t pay attention to his advertisers, and it’s why my iPod rocks a better playlist than anything his station auditorium tests could ever muster.
It’s also because of him that I’m able to listen to Boston again. And The Cars. And Street Survivors. And any number of previously shunned titles that I vowed to never play. With that spin of Boston, I heard the band’s debut in a new light, and it had nothing to do with Tom Scholz’s remastering job. It sounded just like it did on the day I stuck a J.C. Penny cassette recorder in front of my record player.
It was a classic rock album again.
There are a few albums that I still can’t take. I picked up Led Zeppelin IV from a garage sale in Bloomfield, Iowa for a quarter about 10 years ago and have yet to play it. A co-worker got me the Eagles‘ Greatest Hits Vol. 1 for Christmas once because he noticed I “liked music.” It never made it out of the shrink-wrap, and the $4 I got for it at the used record store immediately bought a more suitable gift: a pack of American Spirit yellows. And even though there are tons of memories in the grooves of my copy of Born In The U.S.A., I’ll settle for my own synapse visions than wading through another round of “Glory Days.” They’re wrecked—not permanently, as I’ve discovered—but they’ll require a bit more distance to save it from the taphos that is classic rock radio.