The Rolling Stones, Springsteen … The Killers: what actually is ‘classic rock’? | Pop and rock

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In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all

The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen, to name just three, are all rock acts who have earned classic status. But are they “classic rock”? The term, it turns out, is not easy to define. Is it linked to popularity? Or a certain era? Is it a genre in itself? Or, as time plods on, has classic rock merely come to be defined as any old track with guitars on it?

If we are to define classic rock by sound alone, then there are some key characteristics. Tracks that fall into this category will often be guitar-led, with a fairly simple chord progression and influenced by rhythm and blues in its purest form. The idea of these tracks being deemed “classic” is supported by how enduringly successful they are. Take the Eagles, whose album Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) became America’s best-selling album of all time in 2018 after being certified 38-times platinum.

Classic rock is intrinsically linked with the adolescence of “boomers”: those born between 1946 and 1964. This would suggest that it is defined not necessarily by a specific sound but by a specific era. This places the “golden era” of classic rock roughly between 1964 and 1982. Thinking of the popular rock acts of the time, however, their catalogues cannot necessarily be defined by just one term, suggesting it’s more of a genre label. Rockin’ in the Free World hitmaker Neil Young’s 1982 opus Trans, for example, is typically looked upon with disdain by classic rock purists for sounding more Soft Cell than soft rock, due to its synth-heavy production. In this regard, an artist can’t necessarily be classic rock through and through; it is too simplistic a term to ascribe to catalogues that stretch over several decades.

While the golden era is seemingly indicative of the youth of boomers, this also suggests that perhaps classic rock could just be an amalgamation of the anthems of one’s adolescence in a more general sense. While Woodstock 99 – the new-gen take on the 1969 countercultural festival behemoth – is now rightfully dismissed as a misstep from a bygone era, perhaps it was also a marker for a new generation listening to their future classic rock artists. So is the definition just dependent on the passing of time? Could we soon see the likes of Blink-182 and Limp Bizkit lumped under the same umbrella as Black Sabbath and the Who?

Streaming effectively keeps the notion of classic rock alive, carefully curating playlists for the archetypal classic rock fan, but this has not stopped more contemporary acts, such as the White Stripes, sneaking in. This suggests that the aforementioned idea of an ageing population as opposed to a specific generation might be a more likely marker of classic rock as the years go on.

Perhaps, however, there is one thing that trumps all when it comes to the debate on what constitutes classic rock: marketing. With the origin of the term stemming from US radio stations trying to appeal to older audiences and keep listening figures up, classic rock is really just a means of repackaging music that is no longer deemed to be directly relevant by those of a younger generation. Basically, the Killers are the new Queen and we’re all just going to have to get used to that.

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