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Classic Rock? Moldy Oldies

POPPING OFF: An occasional forum commenting on timely issues in the world of pop music. What do you think about "classic rock" radio? Write Popping Off, Calendar, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

May 10, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

Nostalgia, as they say, isn't what it used to be. And nowhere is the truth of that maxim any more apparent than in the crusty, moldy, positively moribund world of rock radio--where a new mutant format, "classic rock," has reared its doddering head with a ratings splash in many major metropolises.

In Los Angeles, the recent addition to the airwaves is KLSX-FM (97.1), which--in one of its many nauseous, self-congratulatory station mottoes--has an angry-sounding announcer proudly spitting that this heroic broadcasting outlet is nothing less than "the station that brought classic rock back to Los Angeles."

Oh, you bet. As if no other station in town has had the guts lately to play Free's "All Right Now" or the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" or Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

To listen to the format for long, any gullible soul would reach the conclusion that virtually all the "classic" rock 'n' roll ever released was recorded by top-selling white artists approximately between the years 1972 and 1978.

And though the folks who concoct KLSX's self-righteous slogans seem to be under the distinct impression that no other outlet in L.A. has the courage required to narrow its focus to this little era of rock history, one has only to turn the dial a few notches over to the almost equally rigor mortis-bound KLOS-FM (95.5) to realize that even non-classic album-rock radio is still focused on the '70s--either genuine oldies from the period or artists who have their roots there.

What KLSX and the others of its ilk across the nation have done is take that conservative attitude to its extreme, continuing to repackage the familiar without risking the potential "shock of the new" in the slightest.

So we know that new is taboo, but just what makes old rock classic?

Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis? Right attitude, but just too darned early to be classic. New York Dolls or Sex Pistols? Right era, but didn't quite sell enough records to be classic.

And, needless to add, you won't likely be hearing Gram Parsons, Funkadelic, ABBA, Leonard Cohen, the Ramones, the Ronettes, Elvis Costello, Big Joe Turner, or a host of the most important figures in rock 'n' roll, all of whom, for varying reasons, just don't fit the small-minded guidelines of what it takes to be classic.

It's easy enough to gather that a narrowly defined segment of mid-'70s rock is what a few marketing executives have determined it takes to make a fast buck off late-blooming baby boomers and their little brothers and sisters.

Still, can anyone really fathom that we've gotten to the point where people are nostalgic for a time that was less than a decade ago? Nostalgic for Boston , no less? Is Irangate so disillusioning that we pine for those lazy, hazy days of Watergate instead? What the hell has gotten into us?

Don't blame it on the music: There's never been a better time for new rock 'n' roll. The rich and varied smorgasbord that the avid rock fan has spread before him right now would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Those who are indelibly attached to the pop-rock of the '50s and '60s can find those sounds living on in the work of captivating new artists like Chris Isaak, the Smithereens and the Bangles--while on the other end of the spectrum, there's a thriving underground for those who prefer innovators with no discernable roots whatsoever.

As far as brand new acts go, Concrete Blonde's sizzling recent debut is every bit as promising as, say, the first album from Led Zeppelin. And a Top 40 that has expanded to include acts as intriguingly dissimilar as Crowded House, Prince, Bruce Hornsby, the Beastie Boys, Fleetwood Mac, World Party, Peter Gabriel, Run-D.M.C., Steve Winwood, the Georgia Satellites, Poison and Paul Simon is arguably the healthiest Top 40 of the rock era.

Markets, however small, have opened up and continue to thrive for pop, punk, metal, rap, country-rock, balladry, dance music and various cross-genres in-between, all of which have little or nothing in common other than a mutual debt to Elvis or Alan Freed. Many of us--hard as it may be for album-rock radio programmers to believe--even enjoy bits and pieces of all those styles.

But then, that diversity may not sit well with those who pine for the days when rock was a unilateral force that seemingly united a single counterculture--a romantic notion that, incidentally, is a myth of no little fabrication. Even in the hippie era--and yes, on into the beloved mid-'70s--rock was a loose medium representing a wide spectrum musically and philosophically.

And only when an honest attempt is made to represent that diversity can a rock station claim the label classic. Until then, local listeners can only hope and pray to someday be blessed with a radio outlet--whether its music is old or new or, best of all, both--that's as eclectic as Los Angeles.

As for KLSX, will it be able to find and keep a place in L.A. listeners' hearts?

Radio trade magazines report that in other cities where similarly formatted "classic rock" stations have been around for a year or more, the outlets have tended to get off to a fast start in the ratings--and then plummet dramatically. Intense nostalgia for the recent past can be fun for a season, but even the most conservative listeners, it seems, occasionally like to be confronted with the shock of the new.

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