Rock is Dead They Say . . .
Stacy McCain contends that, “All great rock music was recorded by the time John Bonham died.” Craig Henry can’t think of any counterexamples and proclaims, “25 September 1980. The real day the music died.”
But that’s surely not right?
To be sure, there’s merit to this assertion. Van Halen, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Bob Seger and even REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, Billy Joel, and Tom Petty released their seminal albums in 1979 or 1980 and never matched their peak after that point. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash came in 1977. The Eagles broke up in 1980. Styx jumped the shark in 1981.
I hate rap, the pop form that has dominated the last quarter century or so and, in any case, it’s not rock and roll.
But REM, for example, put out some great music throughout the 1980s. Journey’s best album, “Escape,” came out in 1982. ZZ Top had some solid albums in the 1980s, although their best, “Deguello,” was released in 1979. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which I personally think dreadful, usually makes the upper reaches of the “best rock song ever” lists. It was released in 1991. There have been plenty of great ballads throughout the years, of course. Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” (2001) is a relatively recent example.
That’s some pretty weak tea, though, compared to the best music from 1956-1980.
Then again, this is almost certainly old fogeyism. Most of us form our strongest attachments to music during the period from, say, junior high to college graduation. After that, we tend to like new songs that remind us of stuff from those days.
What’s long fascinated me, with the passage of time, is comparative distances. For example, when I was seriously forming my musical tastes, the Beatles were already “classic rock” and the earliest British Invasion stuff, from 1964 or so, was considered old. The rock and roll of the mid- and late-1950s was already spawning nostalgia like Buddy Holly movies and the “Happy Days” television series. The music I was listening to then is now much, much older than even Buddy Holly was then.
UPDATE: Bernard Finel suggests several possibilities:
Aside from the amazing groups/acts already active from before 1980 — such as the Rolling Stones, Queen, David Bowie, X, Rush, and the Clash — that continued to make superb music… you have dozens of brilliant bands since, including unambiguously great rock groups like U2, REM, Green Day, etc. etc. etc.
I’d say most of the mentioned old bands did their best work before Bonham’s death but the Stones’ “Tatoo You” (1982) indeed had numerous great hits. I don’t know that Queen had anything great after 1980. Ditto Bowie or Rush. The Clash had one significant hit, “Rock the Casbah,” after 1980. I’m only vaguely aware that X existed as something other than a minor letter of the alphabet.
REM, as previously acknowledged, was the one truly great post-1980 band that sprung to mind. U2 is almost universally thought a great band; I respectfully dissent. Green Day doesn’t much appeal to me either, except for the ballad “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”
Scott Swank lists several examples of post-1980 artists he thinks were great but inadvertently makes my point; most of them are hip hop, funk, Latin or otherwise non-rock. Stevie Ray Vaughan, who is arguably R&B rather than rock, is one that I would have listed had he occurred to me. I’m not sure I’d put Elvis Costello into the same league as, say, Elvis Presley but I very much enjoyed his work.
I hasten to add that I like quite a bit of music from the post-Bonham era, including material right up to the present day. But I’ve long grown tired of music radio, including the satellite variety (my wife has XM and I have Sirius) so tend to get exposure to the new stuff haphazardly.
In addition to the age issue noted previously, it’s also a function of the blurring of lines that started with the mega-popularity of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” While undeniably a great album (albeit not my cup of tea even though I was in high school at the time) it wasn’t “rock” in any meaningful sense of the word. “Thriller” killed rock radio and MTV.