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December 19, 2022
The History of Classic Rock

Explore Music History: Roots of Classic Rock

Celebrate the familiar sounds of classic rock with zZounds! From timeless rock radio staples to the neo-classic hits of more recent times, what we consider classic rock has been shaped by taste-making radio DJs who had the luxury of hand-picking any songs they thought could be hits, no matter the style, without the genre-constraining limitations of today's radio stations. While a vast number of genres have come and gone with time, the hits that we consider classic rock have maintained their relevance upwards of 50 years later.

In the spirit of this celebration, we urge you to grow your hair out long, throw on some dusty old vinyl from your parents' record collection (played at maximum volume, of course) and check out our history of classic rock!

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More Than a Feeling
Nothing gets your motor runnin' more than tuning in to your favorite classic rock station. You might not know every lick or every rhyme, but man, can you have a good time listening to a classic cut. What makes classic rock so...classic? We think it's three things: maximum power, approachability, and a classic guitar riff. Can anyone resist the charms of "Sweet Emotion," "Start Me Up," or "Kashmir"? Those songs bury themselves under your skin because there's something timeless about their melodies. Classic rock is so ingrained in our brains, you only need to hear the name of a track to instantly start singing and air-strumming your favorite bit.

Before classic rock existed, most rock groups had to compete with other genres on the radio for attention. R&B, jazz, country, pop, and folk music could be heard side-by-side with tracks from Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry. Radio DJs of the era had the freedom to integrate such varied genres under one playlist. There was no reason, or space, to separate these styles -- too many new genres were being combined at will, at any given time. There's a reason why The Who's massively successful compilation album was called Maximum R&B, and The Beatles and Rolling Stones covered countless hits in various genres.
Maximum Power
What caused the shift towards a distinct, harder rock sound? We'd argue that a new crop of artists had to solidify what exactly made them unique. As electric guitars were increasingly amplified -- and egos increasingly inflated -- standing out among the crowd and your peers meant you had to make your songs memorable. The rise of huge Corporate Rock stations in the mid-'70s increased this shift in direction. As important as singles were in the early '50s and late '60s, a hit single in the '70s could be the difference between gigging in bars all your life or earning millions and selling out arenas.

Before this shift to "single-minded" radio, deep cuts -- songs full of experimentation that typically reside in the middle of LPs -- were the turf of radio DJs. Those early tastemakers would compete with each other to discover the next great unknown band, song, or style. As the record market grew to unprecedented levels, the pressure grew more and more for stations to spin certain hits that guaranteed the most ears on commercials. DJs increasingly lost their power to dig deep and deviate from dictated playlists.
Deep Cuts
Arena rock, hard rock, and blues rock all experienced their heyday during this period. Black Sabbath would release "Paranoid," Alice Cooper "No More Mr. Nice Guy," Van Halen "Jump," and Cheap Trick "I Want You to Want Me," all while sonically diverse cuts resided on the same albums, making you think twice about whether you're listening to the same artist. Imagine going to see Bruce Springsteen and his band play "Born to Run," and hearing a track like "Darkness on the Edge of Town." These hugely influential artists had to run with the radio beast in order to be heard and push ahead artistically.

As time went by, Classic Rock, as a style, grew increasingly strained. More rock groups like Fleetwood Mac, Boston, and Elton John were able to navigate the radio dial with different styles and start to show the cracks in this format. Corporate Rock's reaction was to limit airplay to rock bands from the early '70s all the way up to the early '80s.
For Those About to Rock, We Salute You
In the '80s and early '90s, artists reacted to corporate radio's status quo by developing new sounds. Heavy metal, New Wave, Punk, and Grunge artists -- think Mötley Crüe, U2, the Clash, and Pearl Jam -- would create anthems that completely ignored maximum airplay ploys. They wanted to be rock stars, but weren't ashamed to do it through their own devices. It was only after millions of loyal fans requested their songs that they become the huge megastars as we know them today.

Today, with new music streaming technologies and satellite radios, we're beating back the corporate rock beast and turning towards a new page in classic rock history. Bands like Nirvana, Talking Heads, or Peter Gabriel, which normally wouldn't slot easily into the format, are being driven by listeners to appear on that part of their radio dial. We could be passing a point where Classic Rock isn't as "classic" as we know it. Hearing Green Day, a punk band, on Classic Rock radio, proposes an idea of how using musical gifts wisely can get you standing on the shoulders of giants. And if your favorite classic rock anthem inspires you to do just that, zZounds is here with all the tools you need to get started.