I grew up in 1980s New York with not one, but two big “classic rock” format radio stations: 92.3 WXRK (which also had Howard Stern in the mornings), and a solid switch-to-during-commercials backup in 102.7 WNEW. There weren’t many palatable radio alternatives at the time; the term “alternative”, as applied to music, hadn’t even been invented yet—that genre was still called “college rock”. Rap was just beginning to find a wider audience, and the FM radio dial was dominated by the pure, sugary pop of Michael Jackson and Madonna, or “oldies” stations that, if they were feeling daring, might play some early Beatles.
Thus, I cut my teeth on Pink Floyd, The Doors, The Who, and the rest of the clearly defined classic rock oeuvre, including “newer” bands like Van Halen, U2, and The Police. This choice was reinforced at every turn by older brothers, and by the soundtracks at roller rinks, arcades, and bowling alley birthday parties. After four years of college prep English classes and exposure to Shakespeare, Melville, and Dostoyevsky, I chose to quote a Led Zeppelin song in my senior high school yearbook.
Eventually, I expanded my musical tastes and all but stopped listening to the radio, but classic rock was always ready to welcome me back whenever I needed something familiar. Over time, I grew to love the unashamed cheesiness of Styx, the blue-collar perfection of George Thorogood, the one-hit wonderment of Thin Lizzy, Norman Greenbaum, and The Romantics.
I never lost my enthusiasm for a good classic rock countdown, and part of the appeal lay in classic rock’s clearly-defined limits: The Allman Brothers and Lynryd Skynyrd marked the southern boundary, while New York drew a line in the sand with Billy Joel and The Ramones. There were sure stops, and ready band names, in Chicago, Boston, and even Kansas (because “Topeka” just doesn’t have the same pizzazz). Brief excursions to America, Asia, and, under the right circumstances, Europe, were also occasionally acceptable—though the latter only for the “final” countdown.
Some countdowns stuck with the long-weekend friendly figure of 500 songs; others worked their unique station ID or frequency into the mix, with New York’s Q104.3 playing the top 1043 classic rock songs, and the University of Pennsylvania’s 88.5 WXPN tabulating the 885 all-time greatest (and perhaps more entertainingly, the 88 worst). The language of a countdown’s title might change slightly—”best” songs, “most influential”, “biggest”—but the content was usually the same.
Though driven by annual listener votes, I once considered such canonical lists, and the songs on them, as mainstays—anchors in the ebb and flow of a fickle music-listening public’s changing tastes. Every year, “Stairway to Heaven” would be the number one song, and all would be right with the world. But somewhere along the line, things seemed to change.
Kiss and Bon Jovi made their way onto the playlists of stations that 20 years earlier would have led record-burning crusades against them. As time passed, songs from the 1990s began to appear, a phenomenon I’m not necessarily against—I prefer Alice in Chains to Alice Cooper, and Soundgarden’s “Spoonman” to Heart’s “Magic Man”, ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”, or even Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”.
But the current state of countdowns seems to be confusion—what’s classic rock, and what isn’t? Does Aretha Franklin qualify? The Grateful Dead? Tears for Fears? Living Colour? Faith No More? Radiohead? The White Stripes? What about Frank Zappa, conspicuously absent from such lists, in perpetuity? A longtime classic rock countdown staple is “American Pie” by Don McLean, in which a live folk singer croons about dead rock’n’roll singers—which is, apparently, close enough.
Though it’s sometimes only clear in retrospect, time does bring change—in 1987, WNEW’s top 1027 songs of all time featured Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper, and Kenny Loggins in the top 100, with The Thompson Twins and The Go-Gos in the top 200; you’d be hard-pressed to find them on any such list today. Chicago’s 1982 WLS “Rock Hall of Fame” top 500 included Dolly Parton, Barbra Streisand, Debby Boone, The Bee Gees, and Neil Diamond, and the same goes for them, only more so.
Tastes also differ as one looks farther afield, and geographical preferences in classic rock have been the subject of extensive analysis at the statistics-driven website fivethirtyeight.com.
Idaho’s 96.9 (“The Eagle”) top 500 includes most of the 1980s “hair bands” that once drew snickers from classic rock purists: Poison, Ratt, Motley Crue, or Warrant’s “Cherry Pie”, anyone?
New Zealand’s “The Rock” radio station offers a harder-edged countdown than most, with Dire Straits, Fleetwood Mac, and The Cranberries within its 2018 top 50, but a top 10 that includes Pantera, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, and a band from New Zealand I’d never heard of, called Shihad.
That kind of obvious local bias is one of the things that makes comparisons between lists interesting. 102.9 WMGK’s Philly 500 regularly includes the homegrown Philadelphia band The Hooters, who are typically absent from countdowns anywhere else in the country. Do they deserve their Philly 500 placement? I would say yes, my sister-in-law no.
And it’s these kinds of questions that get people talking, or more often, arguing. Luckily, like most things that matter in America, we get to vote on it—a bit of democracy, subject to listener passions and quirks, rather than algorithms and statistical analyses. Notch a tally for one of the traditionally top-ranked songs If you want to back a winner, but I’d encourage radio listeners to exercise their option to “write in” a vote for something weird or unknown—a song you love, but haven’t heard on a classic rock countdown before. Because when all is said and done, what’s classic is simply whatever we decide it is.
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com. His books can be purchased at amazon.com.