FROM the "don't even think about it" vibe of the chain-link fence surrounding the unmarked building on Venice Boulevard to the security guard at the door, there's a fortress-like quality about KROQ-FM's L.A. headquarters.
The alternative-rock station clearly wants to avoid hordes of teenagers racing through the halls if Coldplay or OutKast stop by for an on-air chat with Kevin & Bean. But it's also amusing to think the station needs to protect itself from radio programmers, eager to learn the latest trade secrets.
In the follow-the-leader world of modern rock radio, KROQ is the leader. For better or worse, it helped launch Nirvana and grunge in the early '90s (better) and rap-rock in the late '90s (worse). Nothing is more guarded than its new research figures, which list the 100 records that generated the most passionate response among KROQ's 1.5 million listeners during 2003.
In an office dominated by a huge, autographed Eminem poster, Kevin Weatherly, Infinity/KROQ's respected senior vice president of programming, clutches the findings with the protectiveness of an NFL coach holding a Super Bowl game plan. As he starts reading the records on the list, you see why. Rock has a new face, one that isn't apparent from simply looking at weekly sales charts or lists of most-played rock records.
For nearly two years, critics have toasted a new set of "retro-rock" or "garage rock" bands that have brought intelligence and individuality back to the music, and this research shows that KROQ's listeners have joined the party.
Of the 10 records most prized during 2003, seven were by bands associated with this new movement, including the White Stripes, the Strokes and Hot Hot Heat. Other new groups, including Jet, also show up prominently in the tally. These bands celebrate rock 'n' roll's classic traits -- blazing guitars at once self-affirming and defiant, themes both questioning and comforting, and musicians who follow their hearts rather than compromising for sales.
Now, if history repeats itself and other stations around the country begin playing more of this new music, rock could make a serious run at regaining its authority and influence.
"I think it always starts on the coast and moves [to the heartland]," Weatherly says. "A lot of the playlists around the country are very conservative because listeners often resist change.
"When the White Stripes first came out, it wasn't an automatic for our format. When we first played them, we had all the Limp Bizkit fans or whatever calling and going, 'What is this? Why are you guys playing this?' " -- just as Smiths and Cure fans had called in 1991 when KROQ started playing Nirvana. "There were people saying, 'Get that crap off the air,' " Weatherly says. "Sometimes you have to force it, sometime you have to stay with it."
This brand of rock is a welcome and sweeping step beyond the one-dimensional anger and aggression of the late-'90s bands whose game plan was to simply exaggerate the legitimate disillusionment and assault of such great early '90s groups as Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails.
That strategy helped scores of acts from Limp Bizkit to Korn sell millions of records, but the music was so dark, dispiriting and hollow that it was not unreasonable five years ago to declare that rock was dead as an important mainstream art form.
That's why songwriter-guitarist Steven Van Zandt speaks of the current rock uprising as nothing less than a revolution. He's been part of rock for four decades, much of it at the side of Bruce Springsteen, and sees this new movement as a reconnection with classic rock, which he thinks started with Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965 and ended with Kurt Cobain's death in 1994.
"After Cobain, we went back from a rock culture to a pop culture, and it is ridiculously inferior to the world we lived in," says Van Zandt, whose syndicated radio show, "Little Steven's Underground Garage," airs at 10 p.m. Saturdays on KLSX-FM in Los Angeles.
"This new generation of kids is looking at hard rock and hip-hop and pop as their father's or their older brother's music. They want something new, something smarter and with more personality, something that can shape pop culture the way rock once did."
Still, it's easy to dismiss these "retro-rock" groups as simply recycling old sounds, the final gasps of a dying musical culture. Rock's share of the album market has dropped from nearly 50% in the late '80s to less than 25% during 2002, and most of these new bands, for all the media acclaim, are almost invisible on the national pop charts.
For every argument that rock is dead, however, there is a convincing argument to the contrary.
Record companies have been signing more daring bands, from the fun-minded rock noir of the Raveonettes to the Southern fried/Stones-accented rock of the Kings of Leon. Indie labels also are introducing valuable new voices at a dazzling pace.