What is it that makes a piece of rock music “Classic”? What is it that can make a bar full of complete strangers start to bob their heads in unison and sing along upon hearing the first three notes of a song like it’s some tribal chant? How does something get so deeply imbedded into our collective memory that it can instantly transport us to another happier place and time while sometime else is consigned to our mental dustbin? How does a fully mature form of music cross multi-generational lines and survive and flourish when other forms of music have all but died?
The answers are not as easy and transparent as you would think. Hopefully in this blog we can dig beyond the obvious and start to explore what makes rock and roll unique enough and malleable enough to have swept across all cultural, social, and economic lines to become the worldwide sensation that it is, all the while retaining its roots while continuing to grow and evolve.
Where do we start? What is the beginning? Is there any single source? As Billy Joel said “Did some one person start the fire?” Much has already been written about how rock sourced its basics from the blues, RnB, gospel, country, so we don’t need to go there.
Like so many ideas, the question started with the seemingly most innocent thing. Several years ago, a few friends came over to listen to some music, drink some good wine and chat about families and life. My four-year old granddaughter was visiting at the time and after listening to enough of our music came in and announced that SHE was putting on the next record. Expecting something cute and Disney-like everyone acquiesced to her demand only to be shocked when she went right past all of the kids records on the lower shelf and grabbed “her favorite” current album “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull. As “Crossed Eyed Mary” began blaring from the speakers (she has a tendency to crank it up) she began dancing and singing along in earnest and it became obvious that she knew every word to the song. My guests quickly went from how cute to what the hell? And by the time she was doing her version of “Mother Goose,” she and I began exchanging knowing glances. I wished that I had the courage to have gotten up and twirled around with her and not have felt ridiculously self-conscious.
But how did she know it? How could a record that came out in 1971, a full forty years ago, be a four-year old’s favorite? This question began rattled around in my graying head and wouldn’t leave until it was answered. In one of those strokes of serendipity, Jethro Tull was coming into town to perform at Wolf Trap and to give a concert performance of “Aqualung” at the XM Radio studios in front of a small select audience. I managed to wrangle an invite from an executive friend at XM who also let slip that Ian Anderson had received an invitation from some students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to come and give a talk to their classic rock music club. Thomas Jefferson has been the number one ranked high school in the United States for the last few years running so I guess his curiosity was sufficiently piqued that he graciously accepted. This seemed to be too good of an opportunity to try to get some answers to my questions, so again I tagged along.
What Mr. Anderson walked into and what I observed was startling different from what both of us where expecting. The “music club” turned out to be an auditorium full of incredibly bright teenagers who proceeded to grill him with some of the most thoughtful, well-reasoned questions that I have ever heard an audience pose to a speaker. They wanted his opinion on the state of the music industry, file sharing and illegal digital downloading. They demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of his music and recording techniques that several times left him grasping at straws and confessing that it had been so long ago that he had forgotten things that they clearly remembered and had to resort to playing his guitar and flute to illustrate his points and answers. Afterwards I had a brief conversation with him. He looked pleased as punch at the turnout, commented on how he had never been grilled like that before, (one kid started quizzing him on the use of faders on a particular track) and along with me started scratching his head on how an auditorium full of teenagers who could all have been his grandchildren, could know so much about his career and music? “I don’t know what it is lately but as I look out from the stage I am seeing more and more young kids at our shows, it’s really weird” he stated. I came right out and asked him if he had any idea what made some things “classic” and other things not and he just shrugged and admitted that he didn’t have a clue. “Just luck I suppose” was the best answer I got from him.
I was right back where I started. If one of rock’s elder statesman, as articulate and well-educated a man as you could ever run across was reduced to shrugging at me, well where else could I turn for some answers to my questions? I decided the answers maybe didn’t lie within the music itself; maybe the answers were cultural, economic or social. Maybe I needed to cast my net a little wider and get some other opinions from outside of the mainstream of the music industry.
So here we are, courtesy of Paul and the gang at PS Audio posing a question to everyone who reads this. What do you think makes a piece of music “Classic”? I am open for any and all ideas and hope that we can get a good dialogue started here. We will probably have to agree to disagree on a subject like this but I am really looking forward to reading your thoughts and ideas about this. So put on a favorite album, strap on your best air guitar and post away.