Saturday, March 01, 2008

How the 1980’s Destroyed Classic Rock

The music scene seems to purge itself every ten years or so. Sometimes the purge can be traced to a specific event, such as when Buddy Holly’s plane crash in 1959 closed Rock and Roll’s Golden Era, or when Martin Luther King’s assassination changed Motown and soul music into Black Power and Funk.

Other times the purge is more generally executed, like when Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath killed the hippie era, or when Nirvana and grunge came along and annihilated the Butt Rock giants of the 1980’s.

But the transition that is most fascinating to me is the one that took place during my own personal movie golden era. At the same time George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were shaping my youth with movies like “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, the music world was taking a laundry list of classic rock acts and crushing them into mind-numbing adult contemporary submission.

One could argue that the punk and new wave revolution of bands like The Ramones, The Clash and U2 saved rock and roll every bit as much as the Beatles or Nirvana. Because when you take a hard look at it, the 1980’s killed just about every act that was cool in the 70’s. In some cases it did so in such a comprehensive manner that most of my contemporaries don’t even know the artist ever was cool, that they were ever anything other than the sap-beast churning out synth-heavy pop ballads when we were kids.

Here’s a simplified casualty list:

Led Zeppelin: No other band embodies the term “classic rock” more than Led Zeppelin. The hammer thud of their first album was the beginning of the end of the Love Generation, and they owned the 1970’s with their heavy-blues infested rock epics. At the same time, for anyone who listens to anything past the five songs that get radio play on 103.5, Zeppelin also boasts a musical versatility that can only be rivaled by The Beatles (or the Brian Jones-era Stones).

RIP: Then John Bonham decided to knock back forty shots of vodka back in 1980, and no one was left to stop that horrible process that took us from the sincerity of Zeppelin to the transitional rock-junk of Boston to the tragic pop-metal of Poison. “Unskinny Bop”, indeed. Can you imagine anything like that showing up on a Zep album?


The Who: I’ve been lucky enough to see rock’s original Masters of Mayhem twice, but they were always at half-speed. By the time I saw them in Salt Lake in 2006 only half of the original line-up was still intact, with bass player John Entwhistle having succumbed to a cocaine overdose some months earlier.

RIP: The one rock band to ever completely spurn the ballad gave up the ghost when Keith Moon OD’d on prescription drugs back in 1978. After that, they could still rock, but there was no one left to drive Cadillac’s into hotel swimming pools.


The Rolling Stones: I’ll readily confess that I’ve eagerly attended concerts by many of the acts on this list, even though they were well past their primes and on the short side of this 80’s genocide. It’s the only option I have. But for some reason, I still draw the line at the Stones. There’s still a big part of me that wants to believe that—like Michael Jackson—the Rolling Stones were replaced by aliens back in the mid-1970’s, and that everything that has happened since then is a sad fraud that really shouldn’t impact the value of the band’s earlier work.

RIP: Once Mick Taylor officially left the band and was replaced by ex-Faces guitarist Ron Wood in 1975, the Stones went from writing classic albums to writing occasional cool songs, and then by the 1980’s, they became a sad self-parody of their “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” status. You want to know why Mick Jagger can still jump around on a stage like he’s in his 20’s? BECAUSE HE IS AN ALIEN.


The Beatles: Yeah, I know the Beatles broke up in 1970. But until John Lennon was assassinated in 1980, there was always an outside chance that The Beatles could get back together. Lorne Michaels almost pulled it off on Saturday Night Live. But once Mark David Chapman decided to cash in his fifteen minutes of fame and impress Jodi Foster, that dream died. Those singles off the Anthology set were cool, but they were only a faint flicker of what probably would have been.

RIP: Chapman shoots Lennon in the back outside the Sheraton Hotel in December 1980.


Rod Stewart: Here is where we get into the “he used to rock?” realm. The first Stewart track I ever heard was “Love Touch”, a track written for the early 80’s Robert Redford romantic comedy “Legal Eagles”, which would have been a harmless pop theme if it hadn’t come from the same guy that recorded the Every Picture Tells a Story album in the early 70’s. Trust me. Listen to it. The spiky-haired goofball that keeps putting out strange pop cover records now used to rock the house back then.

RIP: Disco killed the Rod we once knew. Do we think you’re sexy, Rod? Well, I guess it depends on your point of view. It was the beginning of the path to “Downtown Train”, that’s for sure.


Elton John: The Elton of the 1970’s may have never quite been the epitome of the macho classic rock superstar, but he sure as heck wasn’t that guy that primps around England fraternizing with royalty and singing at national funerals. Take the time to listen to his early 70’s catalog and you realize that, like Rod Stewart, he could actually rock pretty hard. Even when he wasn’t, songs like “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man” were still great.

RIP: Then somewhere along the line he wrote that song about Marylin Monroe, and by the mid-1980’s he was ripe for my favorite Rocker Cat Fight of all time, where he accused the Stones of being repetitive and Keith Richards responded by accusing John of only writing songs for “dead blond chicks”.


Billy Joel: As a child one of my favorite albums was Joel’s The Stranger, one of those rare records where you actually dig every song. “Movin’ Out”, “Only the Good Die Young”, and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” were just a few of the tracks that came out of Joel’s Golden Era, where Mr. Piano Man ruled the dingy bar sound with his rag-tag group of Long Island cohorts. But…

RIP: Then he met Christy Brinkley, and by the end of the 80’s he was recording strange life retrospective songs that popped up in junior high history class curriculums.


David Bowie: More than anyone on this list, Bowie probably best came to represent the musical style of the 80’s, rather than come off as a watered-down rocker trying to fit in with an era he didn’t belong to. That’s mostly because Bowie had already made a habit of re-inventing himself every fifteen minutes anyway. But even if you like tracks like “China Girl”, if you take the time to listen to the stuff from Bowie’s Mick Ronson era, you’ll have to admit that the guy used to be a lot more about rock, no matter how insane an outfit he was wearing on stage.

RIP: The process probably started the time he got suspended mid show out on a stage crane arm in the middle of his Ziggy Stardust tour, but it was cemented in stone once he showed up opposite Jennifer Connelly in “Labyrinth”.


The Police: This is always the one that gets me in trouble, because so many of my friends are big Sting fans. Nevertheless, I must hold my ground. In the late 70’s, Sting led the Police through the crest of the punk/new wave movement, slamming down killer tracks about hookers named Roxanne and student-teacher crushes. But by the end of the 80’s, Sting was off hanging out with the Royal Family like Elton John. And why is this?

RIP: Because for some, strange reason, Sting thought it would be cool to show up in David Lynch’s sci-fi epic “Dune” wearing an inflatable Speedo. I kid you not.


Joe Cocker: The vast majority of the population doesn’t read the liner notes that come with their CD’s. Well, actually the vast majority of the population doesn’t even buy CD’s anymore, but that’s another post. What I mean to say is that 99 of 100 people have no idea that the same guy that sang that awesome epic cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends”—the one that starts off “Wonder Years”—is the same guy that teamed up with Jennifer Warnes to record that cheesy love ballad “Up Where We Belong” they used in “Officer and a Gentleman”. Yeah, the same guy in the sweat-soaked tye-dyed T-shirt at Woodstock that looked like he was having an exorcism on stage sang a love theme for Richard Gere and Debra Winger. Oooohhhh…..

RIP: “Up Where We Belong” may have been the nail in the coffin, but the process probably got started after Cocker’s infamous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, which supposedly brought him close to death after a huge record-setting substance abuse marathon.


Jefferson Airplane: In the late 60’s, Haight Ashbury’s auxiliary Royal Family (next to the Dead) were recording protest songs, playing at Woodstock, and taking lots and lots of drugs. By the 1980’s, The Airplane had evolved into Starship, they were singing about how they “build this city on rock and roll”, and lead singer Grace Slick was greeting the press at her front door with a shotgun.

RIP: Somewhere in there someone spent a little too much time with the White Rabbit, and never made it back from Wonderland. As Rick James might say, LSD is a heck of a drug.


So it’s sad that so many great 70’s acts got wiped out in the 80’s, but in recent years I’ve come to know the great bands that emerged from their ashes. The 80’s gave us Poison, but it also gave us The Specials, U2, REM, and a whole host of other legitimate acts. Maybe the folks down at CBGB’s saw it coming, and made sure to book a generation’s worth of rock-saving punk and new wave bands. Maybe people will always be moved to make cool music. I hope that’s true.