Thursday, May 12, 2005

Classic Rock is Dead---or is it? (Part I)

This week was Bono's birthday. I know that because the radio station made a really big deal about it.....20 years ago when I was on my way to my high school youth organization's Spring Convention. But it wouldn't have shocked me to hear a radio station making the same big deal about Bono's birthday this past Tuesday because they are just as hot now as they were then. Considering the music landscape of today, that is nothing short of amazing.

If you think I'm speaking as a partisan U2 fan, think again. In my collection of 300 or so CDs, a grand total of 0 are by U2 (though I probably should have picked up "War" or "October" at some point). I thought "The Joshua Tree" was one of the most overrated rock albums of all time. I am fairly sure that their version of "Helter Skelter" is one of the worst Beatles remakes ever. Finally, when I hear Bono's buffoonesque screaming of "Uno...Doz....Tres....Catorce," I get a strong urge to punch somebody...hard!

But U2 has my respect. They have my respect because in the 1980s they were often the only new band that classic rock elitists would admit to liking and they have my respect because in 2005, they are the only members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that are still on the top of the game. Sure, The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton remain popular and sell out arenas, but none of them have put out a relevant album with staying power since the 1980's (the last Bruce album to really stand the test of the time was "Born in the USA" back in '84).

U2 on the other hand continues to remain fresh and hip and their new music is welcomed with the same enthusiasm as their old. Back in April, I went to The Eagles sold-out concert at MSG and on the two occasions that they played a song less than 20 years old ("Hole in the World"; "Love Will Keep Us Alive"), the audience responded with either confusion or ambivalence. At a U2 concert, I would imagine that much of the audience expects a set list that draws heavily from the three most recent albums.

I remember back in the Spring/Summer of 1983 when the band was just beginning to catch on. Two things struck me at the time. First, that they were being embraced by a contingent that otherwise hated 80's music. Many a Classic Rock fan who otherwise insisted on a steady diet of Stones, Floyd, Doors and Zeppelin adopted U2 as the one then-current band that mattered. Second, that they were being embraced by another, equally surprising contingent. Their records were being bought by listeners of Top-40 radio, despite the band receiving next to no airplay on those very stations. In fact, U2 would not score a Top-20 until 1987. By contrast, Men at Work was working on their fourth Top-10 hit in 12 months during the Summer of '83. Talking about the two groups back then, many might have predicted that twenty-two years later one band would still be releasing platinum albums and the other would be merely the answer to a trivia question (and probably a difficult one at that). But how many would have picked the right group?

I was a Freshman in college in the Spring of 1987 when "The Joshua Tree" came out. As I said earlier, I never much cared for that album, but I was quite impressed by the anticipation and hype surrounding its release. Back then, the vinyl (and tape) versions of the album would become available 2-3 weeks before the CD and there were plenty of people in the dorms who bought the vinyl (knowing darn well they were going to buy the CD a couple of weeks later) because they simply couldn't wait that long to own the new record.

U2's status as the token 80's band for classic rockers was taken to a new, sometimes absurd level by K-Rock (92.3 in New York City, back when it was classic rock from 1985-1996 or thereabouts). The station would play up it's classic rock identity by filtering its records through a slight distort over the air and having its DJs sound like Steven Wright's character in "Reservoir Dogs" (Yep....he was the DJ that you heard throughout the flick). But whenever they wanted to show that they "didn't believe a song needed to be old, to be classic," they'd play some U2. They'd even play the 12-inch version of "Desire" which sounded downright ridiculous throught their distort sound, but their point was clear: 80's music s__ked, but U2 was cool!

Now the band has come full circle. They're the one classic rock band that are not being labeled as aging dinosaurs and have kids waiting in line to buy their new albums and concert tickets. They're also proof that classic rock and roll is not dead, even though at times it seems like it's in a coma. I'm not quite sure what it is that U2 is doing right, but whatever it is it seems to be working.

Vive Le Rock!
P.S.---I recently purchased Pete Battistini's "American Top 40 With Casey Kasem (The 70's). It is a must-own for all AT40 fans and I e-mailed Pete to thank him for putting it together and see if he needed any help with an 80's version (there's none in the works at this time). I also asked him to visit "Life is a Soundtrack," and he took me up on it.
He made a very interesting observation about my first post (from June 20, 2004). He was wondering if I was mistaken about listenting to the countdown on WNBC in June of 1982, since ABC-affiliates cornered the AT40 syndication market around that time. Well, the countdown did switch from WNBC to WPLJ, but I don't believe that happened until Thanksgiving Weekend 1983 (I remember turning on WNBC on the return ride home from spending the holiday weekend with my grandparents and was shocked that the countdown was nowhere to be found). But.....Pete's note helped me remember another point relevant to the June 20th post. When I noted that I had a late start on the morning of December 11th, I must really have had a very late start. When the countdown switched over to WPLJ, the times changed as well from 9-1 to 10-2. So, I must have not turned on the countdown until around 10:30 that morning. Thank you Pete, for keeping me accurate.