Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Rock of Old Ages Letter from California-June 20, 2005

Every red-blooded soda drinker who was around at the time remembers the New Coke fiasco, but here’s a recap for the uninitiated. A company (Coke) spends a hundred years making their product (Coke) amazingly popular and world-famous. Times get a little tough and they decide to replace this 100 year old product with something that tastes like cola Kool-Aid. People go crazy like they have the Rage virus and destroy entire cities until the company (still Coke) returns the old product, but with a super cool new name.

Classic Coke.

Back in those days, the word “classic” usually proceeded “-al music,” which, then as now, made people want to cry with boredom in advance and get it out of the way. Now, of course, anytime somebody wants to make some lame old product, performer or food sound like we should care about it, they just stick the word “classic” in front of it. Beat up old ’81 mustard yellow Datsun doesn’t sound too exciting, but Classic Sunset Orange Datsun B210 makes it sound like you’re taking it on Antiques Roadshow. Yeah, only if you can dig it out of your backyard first.

Classic Coke worked. People liked it even more than they did when it was just plain old Coke, because now it was “classic.” Not surprisingly, lots of companies decided that their products deserved this treatment too, so suddenly you had classic TV dinners, classic Hefty bags, classic root canal treatments, whatever.

Not coincidentally, somebody got the idea to create a new format for radio stations called “Classic Rock.” These stations’ primary audience was (and is) people who dreamed of spending their whole lives holding up a cigarette lighter in an arena, singing along to “Freebird.” 20 years later, those exact same people are still the ones listening. Sad, but true.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the hard-rockin’ music of the 60s and 70s. Once, as I was listening to a Classic Rock station, it occurred to me that it was like listening to the record collections of my Mom’s younger sisters. My mom has six brothers and sisters, so, even if you know them, you can’t be sure which ones of them I’m talking about (Amy, Cathy). As I listened, it wasn’t hard to imagine myself as a little kid, leafing through the albums (like a CD but less laser-based), pausing to gaze on the freakish picture that covered Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” record. He’s wearing a shiny jacket and walking through a wall into a scene that looks like the merry old land of Oz, as decorated by Junior High School students. (Come on, people. You’re telling me you didn’t know Elton wasn’t, uh, a ladies’ man back then? I had an excuse for not getting it. I was 4.)

Seriously, though, hundreds of great songs came from that era, and as I sat there as a child, sorting through those records, with the smell of, let’s just say, incense in the room, how could I have known that those same few hundred great songs would one day be played over and over and over and over and over again on radio stations, well into the 21st century? In 1985, when Classic Rock radio took off, the idea of putting “The Boys Are Back in Town” or “Hotel California” was a refreshing alternative to listening to Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam or Kajagoogoo. But now, it’s tired. In fact, every holiday weekend, including the recent Memorial Day, brings the “Classic 500” countdown of “Classic” songs, which is basically the same 500 songs they always play, but now with a number before them. What’s going to change? There’s no new “classic rock” so the countdown’s not exactly full of suspense, is it?

Now, it’s 2005 and time to face some facts. First, and most importantly, it’s time to accept the reality that the long organ solo in the middle of “Light My Fire” by the Doors really sucks eggs. It’s just pointless and tiresome and thinks it’s way better than it actually is, much like The Doors themselves. It probably sounds a lot better if you’re smelling incense.

Second, Classic Rock fans need to know that while we’re sorry you’re not young anymore, there’s nothing that listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” is going to do about that. It’s been a long time since you rock and rolled because you’re 50.

For everyone else, a warning: baby boomer nostalgia could very well kill us, but I predict a counter-trend. Here in Los Angeles, a radio station launched promising to “play whatever we want,” which translates into a crazy, unpredictable mix of rock, pop, r&b and even rap. They have no DJs, don’t take requests and make fun of their advertisers. And it works, which means it will probably grow, which is ok, because it’s a fresh alternative to what’s out there now.

But ask me how I feel about it in 2025.


  • At June 25, 2005 at 10:03 PM, Blogger Candace said…

    You make an excellent, if obvious (albeit not to me) point, on the "classic 500."

    btw, I prefer "Adult Alternative" to "Classic Rock" it sounds better.


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