I’M FROM PITTSBURGH, which means I listen to classic rock when I’m driving. Magic 97 initiated me into the Who, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the Stones; I bought tapes of Buffalo Springfield and Steppenwolf at NRM; I fed jukeboxes at the Squirrel Cage and Gene’s Place and put elbows down into placemats whose Yuengling residue seemed forever glued to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. In Pittsburgh, classic rock plays in the stands selling unlicensed Steelers swag on Penn Avenue, and in a thousand dive bars from East Carson to Liberty. Growing up, classic rock was simply part of the city; my love of it couldn’t be helped. Though I now hold a PhD in Renaissance literature, I know Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper better than Paradise Lost. Fragments of Donne and Milton may cling to memory, but the lyrics of the entire Zeppelin discography will likely remain on permanent recall.
UPROXX music critic Steven Hyden and I seem to understand each other when he writes, “For as long as I can remember, classic rock has been there for me.” Author of Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me (2016), Hyden interrogates his favorite, dying genre in Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, exploring the draw of classic rock as a foray into music once considered “adult” or “dangerous.” To many other (particularly white and male) adolescents like myself, classic rock was an elaborate system of influences, with hierarchies of guitar gods and Rolling Stone lists of the greatest albums, an omnipresent and yet insular music already old by the time we fell in love with it — a love which has led to a life where, regardless of my recall of George Herbert, I can still perform “Sympathy for the Devil” without having to look at the karaoke screen.
With its Wagnerian title, Twilight of the Gods is both ars poetica and trenchant critique. A classic rock Stations of the Cross is performed, where Hyden analyzes his initiation through radio, his study of albums as musical scripture, his concert-going as sacramental experience, his bootleg recordings as forays among the catacombs, the devotional completism of knowing deep cuts, and the cultural role of cover bands. Along the way he charts how technology and time’s winged chariot have conspired to make the form increasingly ephemeral, signaling the twilight of which his title speaks. Hyden’s deconstruction of this mythos is rigorously honest, so that even as a still-devoted fan he can admit that classic rock has bolstered the “suppression of women and people of color, the glorification of alcohol and drug abuse […] reactionary conservatism […] endless Woodstock retrospectives […] phony Satanism […] drum solos, [and] the stubborn sleaziness of Gene Simmons.”
Classic rock has sublimity, sure; but there are also tales of mud sharks and groupies, Sunset Strip debauchery whose recounting grows less charming with every year; there are the suffocations of boomer nostalgia that ignore every musical innovation from punk to techno, and of course there is the appropriation of what was once radical music marshaled to reactionary ends, as witnessed by anyone who saw Donald Trump at the Quicken Loans Arena in 2016 (only a few miles from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) while “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blared out of loudspeakers (despite the protestations of Mick and Keith).
Hyden informally explains the market forces that led to such an all-encompassing category, one which could somehow include both the redneck revanchism of Lynyrd Skynyrd alongside the transgressive, queer operatics of Queen. Such incongruous pairings, “Radio Ga Ga” and “Freebird,” joined together between advertisements for car dealerships and local rib fests. Hyden argues that classic rock has never been an organic development, but rather an after-the-fact construction that is largely arbitrary. In and of itself, classic rock isn’t anything in particular.
David Bowie is, but his great influence Lou Reed isn’t — save for his only hit “Walk on the Wild Side.” Billy Joel and Elton John are, but the less commercially successful, though musically similar and more critically acclaimed pianist Randy Newman isn’t. Bob Dylan kind of is, though he’s rarely actually heard on FM radio, but the equivalently gravelly voiced Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen aren’t. Punk historically isn’t classic rock; indeed it’s arguably the great enemy of classic rock, but some tracks by the Clash or the Ramones have snuck onto radio in the last decade or so. The Beatles are sometimes classic rock, sometimes not. You won’t hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on a classic rock station — that would be an oldies song — and you won’t hear “I Am the Walrus” on an oldies station. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would seem to be the dividing line between the two, with Hyden arguing that the celebrated album is “responsible for a lot of rock’s intellectual baggage.”
Disco, with its ecstatic dance exuberance, wouldn’t be considered classic rock, alongside the attendant implications of racism and homophobia that such a strict delineation implies. It’s a strictly enforced exile, even though black and Latin dance music’s influence is obvious in the music of the Talking Heads and Blondie, or in the Stone’s triumph of “Miss You.” Motown is never encountered on classic rock radio, and other black rockers like George Clinton or Sly Stone are also rarely heard. Jimi Hendrix is seemingly the only black musician to be featured on those stations, a performer in an artistic form that owes its entire existence to the African-American musical tradition. As if to elucidate the sheer contingency of the entire genre, Hyden notes that as Generation X ages, you’re just as likely to hear Nirvana as Journey, Smashing Pumpkins as CCR, Pearl Jam as Guns N’ Roses. Classic rock is both flexible and strangely strict.
In part this is because “classic rock didn’t exist as a genre until the early 1980s,” when a radio executive and DJ named Lee Abrams concocted a format first called “timeless rock,” designed to present what was familiar and comfortable, where playlists were “rigidly constructed” for listeners that “already knew [what] they liked.” It was a nostalgia product during the decade that former hippies became yuppies and Woodstock migrated to the FM radio dial. Abrams would be disturbingly successful, for as recently as 2014 “Nielsen Sound Scan reported that American radio stations were still playing ‘Hotel California’ once every eleven minutes” (though I imagine this depends on one’s definition of “successful”).
This process canonized groups like “The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, [and] the Doors” as authoritatively classic rock. Additionally, the ’70s and ’80s saw the rise of the “Caucasian-nerd sages whose bylines live on amid dusty back issues of Rolling Stone and Cream,” men like Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs (and initially they were almost always men) who pored over Dylan’s Basement Tapes or Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks as if they were Midrash. As dodgy as the concept of “authenticity” is, nothing about this process had a corollary to how organic movements evolve; rather the format was simply “convenient marketing.” But as Hyden crucially reminds us, “Two things can be true — classic rock can be a marketing scheme, and it can also be transcendent.”
“Classic rock once seemed to contain secrets about how to live,” Hyden writes, and it’s a contention that I’ve understood well. The chorus to “Baba O’Riley” may be sort of stupid, but it’s also ecstatic, and as true as anything you’ll hear at the age of 16. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even after decades of parody and overplay, remains nothing less than a triumph. Nothing exemplifies anxious teenage desire for freedom more than “Born to Run.” And what fragments shored against our musical ruin remain more perfect than Revolver or Beggars Banquet? We can love the individual music, however, and still be skeptical of the category, asking ourselves, as Hyden does, if “classic rock itself [is] now a problematic relic from a time when white male musicians commanded a disproportionate amount of attention?”
One of the great strengths of Twilight of the Gods is that Hyden is able to hold onto his enthusiasm for Cream and Black Sabbath — his is a fun book — while also imploring the reader to complicate received narratives, to question rock’s strictures. As a critic, he may lack the twitchy amphetamine enthusiasm of a Lester Bangs, or the graduate-seminar erudition of a Marcus. But Hyden is willing to interrogate rock, this genre haunted by an unbearable whiteness of being, a form painted with a whiter shade of pale. The whitewashing of classic rock — a music largely defined by the 12-bar blues — is one of the more offensive aspects of the format, where rock acts from Prince to Parliament Funkadelic are reserved for soul or R&B stations.
Such distinctions matter less now, with our ability to curate musical selections on Spotify into unique playlists. Hyden identifies Napster, during the infancy of our collective internet, as the moment when “classic rock” ceased to have the same strict definition as it once did, for the authority of the album was questioned, “by breaking them down into individual tracks. […] In the process, all of the stuff that made albums seem special […] [was] rendered obsolete.” Alongside the ascendency of hip-hop, as well as music criticism’s willingness to consider pop, there has been a diminishment of rock’s once inviolable status.
Axl Rose is obese; Steven Tyler advertises for Kia; Kansas might be playing at your local state fair. Not that the classic rock paradigm doesn’t endure; there are traces of it in the garage rock of the White Stripes, the baroque stadium anthems of Arcade Fire, and the twitchy, wine-drunk melancholia of the National. All these groups can stand up next to anything enshrined in one of those scrolling late-night infomercials promoting overpriced Time Life CD anthologies of Woodstock retrospectives. Yet Hyden convincingly argues that those bands will never “have the cultural impact of classic rock bands […] [which] exist in a world where the infrastructure that supported classic rock has been obliterated.”
With sadly appropriate symmetry, Hyden began Twilight of the Gods shortly after Bowie died and finished it when Petty passed. The months between saw the deaths of “Prince, Gregg Allman, Chuck Berry, Leonard Cohen, Walter Becker of Steely Dan, Malcolm Young of AC/DC, and Glen Frey.” Rock has always had a predilection not just toward youthfulness, but to death as well, and with the evident mortality of the generation that performed that music, the fan’s mind naturally turns toward final things. Even Keith Richards, after all, shall one day pass.
Twilight of the Gods grapples with rock’s sacred nature, and not just metaphorically. Hyden writes that “[l]oving classic rock has always been an act of faith.” In the manner of all great art, whether encountered in the Sistine Chapel or on a jukebox, the best of the classic rock canon provides a conduit to transcendence, a means of connecting to rhythms larger than ourselves, and to the communion of those fellow penitents stuck on highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive. There’s something of the irrational about it — something Dionysian. But in its twilight years, what future does classic rock have? Is it facing its last waltz? Hyden argues that as long as a desire remains to feel music’s power to free us, there will be rock, even as “loving classic rock will require a process of animation not unlike a religious ritual. […] Rock shows won’t be like church […] they will be church.”
Ed Simon is the editor-at-large at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and a staff writer atThe Millions. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released later in 2018.