What Exactly Is Classic Rock? Part One

What Exactly Is Classic Rock? Part One

Written by Jay Jay French

First, a note: Jay Jay’s book, Twisted Business: Lessons From My Life In Rock ‘n’ Roll will be out on September 21 on RosettaBooks. You can hear his podcast, The Jay Jay French Connection: Beyond the Music on Spotify, Apple Music and the PodcastOne channel.


Recently I was driving out to the Hamptons and got stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway. This nightmare, which I’m sure many of you have experienced, was referred to by Dan Ingram, former drive time jock on WABC, of the most famous AM stations in the US, as the Long Island Distressway.

This, however, gave me the opportunity to FM station-hop in my rental car.

The station that came in best was the venerable FM music station WBAB.

When Twisted Sister was a bar band in the mid-1970s to early ’80s, both WPLJ and WBAB used to compete with each other to promote many of our local shows. Both stations played pretty much the same AOR (album-oriented rock).

WPLJ disappeared as a rock station years ago but WBAB is still going strong. While WBAB plays rock, it plays very specific rock – classic rock. Its tagline is, “Long Island’s Only Classic Rock Station.”

I have friends at WBAB and so I decided to listen. The drive out took nearly five hours. (The drive back to Manhattan took about two and a half hours because I left very early in the morning.)

Seven hours of listening to WBAB gave me some insight as to the classic rock radio format – and left me with some burning questions. The biggest was, when you consider the Mount Rushmore of bands played on classic rock radio – the Stones, Floyd, Who, Zep, Queen, AC/DC, Police, Lynyrd Skynyrd – how come I didn’t hear any Beatles, without whom none of this music IMHO would have ever been created?


Where does the era of classic rock begin? Where does it end? Who makes the cut and why? What is and isn’t classic rock?

I needed to know, so I contacted one of WBAB’s most well-known jocks, Joe Rock, who is also a very close friend. Here are some excerpts from our interview, with more to come in Copper later.

John French: For starters, please give me some history of the evolution of the format known as classic rock.

Joe Rock: There were two stations that I listened to growing up, WBAB-FM and WNEW-FM. While I was in high school, it was BAB more than WNEW. Post-high school, it was WNEW more than BAB. Then, WNEW deteriorated and went away [as a rock station].

Joe Rock.


JF: When did the idea of classic rock become more than just an idea, and as a specific marketing concept?

JR: I’d have to say post-1980.

JF: When did it become, “This is now going to be called classic rock and it’s going to be a broadcast form?”

JR: That’s got to be a little bit more mid to late ’80s.

JF: Was there a day, a month, where they said, “This is it. We’re the new classic rock,” or something like that?

JR: This is where you can hate me when I say this. I’m significantly younger than you.

JF: Ouch! Okay, thank you, Joe Rock. Now I’m going to go find somebody I can actually talk to and relate to.

JR: (Laughter) I graduated from high school in 1984. So, I wasn’t working in the industry yet. I wasn’t paying attention to those kind of things. The best way to explain it is that a lot of what we’re going to talk about is the difference between genre and format, because they are two completely different things. To give you an example, Mötley Crüe. When Mötley Crüe came out in the ’80s, they were a metal band. Today, they are a classic rock band, because times have changed. That’s where the shift happened, in the ensuing years. I probably say that by the time Dr. Feelgood, which was the Crüe’s best album, was released in 1989, that’s when [stations were] starting to become classic rock, [rather than] being rock stations, or AOR [album-oriented rock stations]. It stopped being, “oh, we’re going to play all these album cuts,” to “no, we’re going to be like pop stations play the hits.”

JF: How do classic rock stations define classic rock?

JR: It’s got to be at least 20 years old. Then in some ways it’s subjective. “Okay, it’s 20 years old, but does it fit the station?” Part of that is going to depend on where you’re located in the country.

JF: So, for example, a band like Sevendust is 25 years old, but they don’t fit the description, correct?

JR: Absolutely not.

JF: Okay. Does Korn fit the description?

JR: No.

JF: Do any of the bands that are considered nu metal that are older than 20 years old fit the description?

JR: Not at all.

JF: Tool? Marilyn Manson?

JR: Nope.

JF: All right, then, what is classic rock about…would you say then that the Ozzfest bands don’t fit the description?

JR: It’s funny, because the majority of the bands who played Ozzfest do not, but Ozzy [Osbourne] absolutely does.

JF: And Black Sabbath?

JR: Black Sabbath, yes.

JF: Deep Purple?

JR: Deep Purple, yes.

JF: Okay, so here’s where it gets really interesting, because the format leaps over some of the grandfathers, in a way. Would it be safe to say that the songs you play from those bands, however, are much later on in their careers?

JR: Well, with Deep Purple, it’s the enduring [1972] hit, “Smoke On The Water.”

JF: Which is one of the great guitar tracks of all time.


Well, let me now ask the most loaded question in the world. If the Beatles were the beginning, the middle and the end of everything, without the Beatles, none of this would happened. None of this, right? Without the Beatles, probably you and I wouldn’t be talking about this kind of music. Would that be a fair statement to make?

JR: I’ll go with that. Yeah, absolutely.

JF: Okay; then how come the Beatles aren’t played on classic rock radio?

JR:  It’s not that they’re not played. But it probably begins and ends at Come “Together.”

JF: What about “Helter Skelter?”

JR: “Helter Skelter,” no.

JF: But that’s a heavy, isn’t it? That’s one of their heavier rock songs.

JR: It gets so weird to try and explain, because so many people try to understand [classic rock programming] in terms of the music, and it’s not strictly that. This [might help it] make sense [to you]: our demographic does not change, but our listeners get younger.

JF: Does that mean that even though they’re younger, they want to hear the same 20 songs as…

JR: Well, first of all, [we don’t play just] 20 [songs].

JF:  If I ask people, “What do you think is classic rock?” they’ll go, “‘Stairway to Heaven,’ Lynyrd Skynyrd, Who’s Next, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.'” They’ll name four songs, and they’ll go, “that’s all you hear.” Now, we know it’s not all you hear. However, you will admit that there is a core group of songs that do represent what is considered the classic rock bullseye. Would that be fair to say?

JR: Absolutely.

JF: Okay. What would those songs be?

JR: Well, “Stairway to Heaven” is obvious. We had a feature on the radio station for a while called “The Perfect Lunch Hour.” Listeners would write in [with] a list of 20-something songs, and we’d play their requests for the hour. Every single lunchtime request we got had two songs on every single list.


JF: Let me guess. “Stairway to Heaven” is one, and “Free Bird’s” the other.

JR: Yes.

It’s tough, because it’s like, I’ve played those songs a million times. [But] because people want to hear them I’ve found a way to [always] listen for something different That’s how I’m able to continue. Look, as a DJ, you’re under the same [constraints] as [being in a] band. Can you imagine, as a member of Twisted Sister, going out and doing a show where you don’t play “We’re Not Gonna Take It?”

JF: No. To be fair, to be absolutely fair, of course, you have to give the people what they want. You have no choice.

JR: We do play the Kinks [who have an album called Give the People What They Want].

JF: By the way, the most-played song in the Twisted Sister canon is “Under the Blade,” okay? Because it goes back way longer than “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” We’ve played it every single show since Dee wrote that song, except one night somewhere in Europe, and the only reason why we didn’t play it that night was I looked at Dee and I said, “man, what I wouldn’t give for you to not put that on the set list.” He goes, “I do it for you,” and I said, “What do you mean?” “Because that’s your signature song. I thought if I didn’t put it in, you’d kill me.” I said, “You’re doing it for me? I f*cking hate that song. I can’t take it anymore.” He said, “All right, I won’t put it in tonight,” which was kind of funny.

So, if you play a Beatles song you’ll play “Come Together.” Ironically enough, that is their number two Spotify song around the world. It makes sense for you to play the song, because you’re ratings-oriented.

No one doesn’t love “Come Together.” Do listeners like the Aerosmith version more than the Beatles version?

JR: I feel like there’s more attraction to the Beatles version than the Aerosmith version. [But people] remember the [song from the] movie [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band] that the Aerosmith version was from.

JF: I consider the Mount Rushmore of rock to be the Beatles, Stones, the Who, Zep, Floyd, Queen, Black Sabbath, AC/DC. Call me crazy. We could kind of agree for the time being on that?

JR: Yeah.

JR: Okay, the Beatles have one song. How many songs do the Stones have represented on classic rock?

JR: I give the Stones somewhere between five and eight. It goes as far back as 1968, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” [and] would be as new as “Start Me Up,” which was 1981. “Sympathy for the Devil” shows up from time to time.


We want to play what people hear, so we ask people to let us know what they think. One of the things you can do on our radio station is listen to us on our app, and you can vote up or down on the songs that we play. And we pay attention, so if you tell us you’re tired of the song, we’re going to stop playing it. So songs come and go from the playlist. It doesn’t stay the same all the time.

JF: But “Start Me Up” is the most recent song by the Stones?

JR: Yeah.

JF: Which is ’81, which is 40 years ago. Okay.

JR: Yeah, well, I made you feel older before, you just made me feel old.

JF: But I’ll be the first one to say it that they haven’t made a good record since that album.

JR: Maybe not a full album, but I wouldn’t say that necessarily.

JF: Well, you can get a good song here and there, but when you talk golden age of the Rolling Stones to me, you’re talking about Beggar’s Banquet, you’re talking about Let It Bleed, you’re talking about Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! You’re talking about Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. That’s what you’re talking about with the Stones. Their golden age.

JF: I compared them to the Beatles’ golden age in a Copper article (Issue 117).

If you look at the Beatles and you go, “Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, Abbey Road,” and you put those against the five Stones’ albums, as great as the five Stones albums are, the Beatles crush all competition.

How many Who songs do you play?

JR: Three or four. The oldest is probably “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” That’s ’71.

JF: Wow. That’s bizarre to me. You don’t play, and you won’t play anything from Tommy, and you don’t play “I Can’t Explain” or “My Generation?”

JR: “My Generation” pops in and out from time to time, but nowhere near as often as some of the others.

JF: All right, so Floyd. How many Pink Floyd songs do you play?

JR: Oh, my god.

We play a lot because…well, we’re playing stuff from The Wall. We do play stuff from The Dark Side of the Moon. That’s really the majority of where all the Floyd stuff comes from. [We also play] “Wish You Were Here.”


JF: You’ll play “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” probably somewhere in there.

JR: No. In the 20 years I’ve been in radio, we probably haven’t played it in the last 18.

JF: Wow, interesting. Yet, you get a lot of requests for Floyd, though, right?

JR: Oh, absolutely. But, okay, so this is what you have to understand. I was talking about it before. Our demographic remains the same, but our listeners got younger. We’re aiming for people who are 25 to 54. That’s the majority of the people who listen to radio stations. It’s not that there are no people outside of the demographic who listen to it, but that’s essentially who [the listeners are].

It’s pretty evenly split between men and women. Now, you look at people between 25 and 54, the albums that they know the most are Dark Side and The Wall. They don’t know the other albums.

JF: All right, what is the earliest-year recording of any band you play?

JR:  1968. “Born to Be Wild,” Steppenwolf.

JF: Okay, so you play songs from 1968 to 20 years ago. Then, that pretty much ends your classic rock time frame.

JR: Yep.

To be continued.


Header image: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, 1977. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jim Summaria.

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