The Aging Punk 017

Saturday, 01 January 2011

Classic Rock was born in 1965, with the release of The Beatles' Rubber Soul and Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home. It experienced its' peak over the next ten years before experiencing an inevitable decline, and eventually petering out by around 1975 or so. That makes Classic Rock – the art form, not the individual artists – between thirty-five and forty-five years old; prime time for a mid-life crisis.

If you take a good look around, the signs of this musical mid-life crisis are everywhere across the spectrum of rock music. The mid-life crisis usually takes on one of two cliched forms: either one attempts to recapture one's youth (the classic red Ferrari and divorce for a younger woman scenario), or to totally reinvent oneself (starting a new career unrelated to the old one). Both of these are running rampantly through Classic Rock today.

The most obvious is the attempt to recapture one's youth. There are two closely related manifestations of this in Classic Rock today. One is the multitude of reissues and repackaging of Classic Rock albums. From group releases like the entire Beatles catalog to Dylan's albums which were originally released in the Sixties reissued again now in their original mono format to John Lennon's catalog to the massive repackaging of classic albums like Exile in Main Street, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Raw Power, our musical heritage is being resold to us anew. Something “new” is always added to these packages – be it outtakes, a previously unavailable live recording, a hardcover book, a video documentary, or all of the above – and while these additions often have some value on their own, they are also always an attempt to convince us we are getting something new for shelling out our money again. It's a clever ploy, but face it – the added material is really just a new toupee.

The second, related phenomenon is bands performing their old albums in their entirety. Roger Waters, Steely Dan and Cheap Trick have all elected to hit the road performing 'Classic Album X' in its' entirety, and those are only the first names that leap to mind; there are more. This move is so popular that even bands which fall far outside my parameters – Weezer, The Pixies, Sonic Youth – have indulged in it. It is certainly a popular move with the fans as well, whose own mid-life crises no doubt play a role here. What better way to recapture your youth than to hear that album you first got stoned to once again, live?

This practice does have some merit in and of itself, besides the obvious nostalgic value. It gives bands a chance to play some of their more obscure album tracks; songs they may never have played live before. Also, with a couple of exceptions – The Who with Tommy and Pink Floyd with The Wall – most bands never played these albums whole even when they were new. Still, it is an exercise in nostalgia and, frankly, an admission that the band doesn't have anything new worth playing; or at least nothing that is popular enough to fill a concert hall.

I recognize that a lot of this – especially the repackaging of old albums – is a blatantly commercial move, often made by record company executives independent of the artists involved. Still, I see it as a sort of surrender; as an admission that the creative energies are, if not tapped out entirely, on the wane.

Conversely, there are some artists who are greeting their age not by looking back, but by moving forward; who are reinventing themselves. 2010 has been a great year for these. First, there are several artists who have moved forward by looking back. That is, they have produced fresh, vibrant music by returning to their roots. The primary example here is Elton John, whose collaboration with Leon Russell, The Union, is both a repetition of an early musical friendship and the freshest, most exciting music either has produced in years. Other examples include Eric Clapton – who has forsaken pop songs for years in favor of delving into his first love, the blues. In the same breath, Tom Petty took the Heartbreakers back into the garage for a powerful collection of basic rock jams and released them as Mojo.

Then there are a handful of Classic Rock stars who are producing music unlike anything they have ever done previously. Robert Plant's Band of Joy, although in some ways an outgrowth of last year's collaboration with Allison Krauss (which was also a surprising new direction for the golden god of cock rock), sounds completely unlike anything in his career. Its' combination of roots and alternative rock is a welcome addition to today's music, and sounds as thoroughly modern as Muse or Arcade Fire.

Plant isn't the only innovator, either. Neil Young (always a restless soul), while not doing anything completely new on his latest release, Le Noise, still managed to produce an album unlike anything else in his voluminous catalog. Even Paul McCartney, whose name is almost synonymous with cheesy pop and bland MOR rock, has been playing around with electronica and sound experiments in his Fireman side project.

Where all this will go is unclear. Rock n' roll has always been a young man's art form so, unlike those performers in the jazz or blues idioms, we are somehow surprised that anyone over thirty-five can continue to rock, but the argument can and has been made that the creative urge is a lifelong thing. Most artists don't stop feeling the desire to create new work at any age. In many arts (literature is a great example of this), many patrons have produced their best work in their maturer years. The question is whether this can become true in rock music as well; whether the expectations of both fans and artists can be adjusted to include the possibility of powerful work being produced not only past youth, but continuously as the artists age. Classic Rock's current mid-life crisis reveals hints of both directions. Some artists continue trying to recapture their younger glory, while a handful are aging gracefully and are continuing to produce fresh, significant work. In the end, I am hopeful that enough Classic Rock artists will choose that latter path that someday “Geezer Rock” will not be an oxymoron.

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