What is Classic Rock?

What is Classic Rock?

What is Classic Rock? A few years back, I was listening to a classic rock playlist on Spotify. This playlist was full of bands I associate with Classic Rock – Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, etcetera. However, there were a few surprises – Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and even U2. This irked me as I have always thought of classic rock as an era of music – specifically the hard rock of the late 60s and through the 1970s. There is a little wiggle room for this definition mind you – those bands that started in this era and continued their careers into the 80s, 90s, and beyond certainly could still be considered hard rock. A great example, Pink Floyd, continued their career in some form or another into the 90s. 

Back to the question at hand – what is Classic Rock? Are the Beatles hard rock? Is Nirvana? Arguments say yay and nay for both bands. Ultimately, Classic Rock might be one of those terms that really has lost all meaning. We might not find an to answer the question “What is Classic Rock?”, but dang it, I’m going to try!

Does Classic Rock just mean “old rock?”

The first question I must ask – does the definition of Classic Rock use a certain minimum age?  Perhaps Classic Rock has to be – say – 25 years old. If this is the case, that would certainly explain why  one might designate Nirvana as Classic Rock. This also explains why, about ten years ago, I started seeing bands like U2, The Police, and REM in classic rock playlists.

To answer this question, I’m going to go ahead and say – no. Classic Rock does not just mean “old rock.” Classic Rock does not even mean “old rock of a certain genre.” Bands such as Green Day and The Doors have almost nothing in common, other than being rock bands and older than 25 years old. Both bands represent full on different generations of music and listeners. So to lump them together just because they’re a certain age is absolutely absurd. This does not mean that Green Day, Nirvana, et al cannot qualify for “Classic Rock” status. This just says that a certain age is not a qualifier when asking “What is Classic Rock?”.

Is Classic Rock a certain sound then?

If you consider Classic Rock as a specific genre, then it stands to reason that Classic Rock has a certain sound. Let’s look at four artists that are usually  considered Classic Rock, and then compare their sounds. Jimmi Hendrix, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers). What do these four artists have in common? They all had major success in-between 1965 and 1979. All four artists played rock music that relied heavily on electric guitars. That’s about the only thing you can say the four artists have in common.

Jimmi Hendrix and Tom Petty sound nothing like each-other. Consider “All along the Watchtower” vs “American Girl.” Both songs are classic, both songs are rock, but I would never, in a thousand years, put the songs in the same genre. “American Girl” sounds a bit jangly and poppy, whereas “All Along the Watchtower” sounds a bit more like Rhythm and Blues powered heavily by electric guitars. Yes, both songs are powered by guitars, but even those guitars are totally different in sound. Hendrix’s guitars are heavy and more of a hard rock style, whereas Petty’s guitars are – like I said before – more of a jangle pop sound.

Let’s look at The Doors, “Light my Fire” vs Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2.” Both songs are epic, guitar and keyboard driven rock songs mind you. Maybe on paper, they might look to be the same genre, but anyone who listens to the two songs know they sound nothing alike. If the two songs were movies, “Light my Fire” would be a sappy, independent, romantic film. “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” would be an independent film as well, but it would probably be more of a creepy, quasi horror, dystopian film. All this to say – comparing random musicians that most consider to be “Classic Rock” shows us four different sounds. So in asking “What is Classic Rock?” we find that one thing it is not is a specific sound.

Maybe Classic Rock is a certain era of rock.

AS I said before, my definition of Classic Rock has always been rock music made between 1965 and 1980 (give or take a few years). When “Classic Rock” became a thing in the 80s, this served (more or less) as the definition still, even this definition doesn’t quite fit. The Ramones and the Clash both fit this time frame. Both bands are rock, however, we consider them to be Punk – not Classic Rock. Likewise, Alice Cooper and Judas Priest also fits this definition, but they’re more or less hard rock and/or heavy metal (distinguishing these genres is an entirely different article). So, clearly, my Classic version of “What is Classic Rock?” is wrong. That being said – Most sources define Classic Rock as rock and (some) hard rock made in a certain era(s), but no one can really agree what years these era(s) encompass.

So – What is Classic Rock?

Even Wikipedia can’t decide the answer to the question, “What is Classic Rock?” The article on Classic Rock states:

Classic rock is a radio format which developed from the album-oriented rock (AOR) format in the early 1980s. In the United States, the classic rock format features music ranging generally from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, primarily focusing on commercially successful hard rock popularized in the 1970s.


That’s a pretty broad and even conflicting definition…however, I believe the key phrase, “radio format,” says everything we need to know about Classic Rock. Essentially, Classic Rock is not  a specific genre, not a specific time frame, and not a certain age. Classic Rock is, however, a marketing term to describe what certain radio stations play. That’s it. Every source I’ve cited, and several articles I read in research for this article seem to point in this direction.

So – there you have it. Classic Rock isn’t anything more than a marketing term for (some) rock and roll. Having said that – I still feel like sticking to my definition of Classic Rock – that is, Classic Rock has to be of a certain era and guitar driven rock and roll. This of course does not include Punk, Metal, and probably a few others I forgot.  Hopefully, when I use the term (or even the tag) “Classic Rock” I’ll stick to this definition. Having said that – while I am not a Classic Rock station, I am, however, a blogger and quasi disc jockey (you’ve seen my playlists), so I take full artistic license in using the label “Classic Rock” however I feel. Ok, maybe that’s going a little far.

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