What Exactly is Classic Rock? Part Two

What Exactly is Classic Rock? Part Two

Written by Jay Jay French

In Part One (Issue 143), Jay Jay talked with FM DJ Joe Rock of Long Island’s radio station WBAB, and asked the question: just how, exactly, do we define classic rock? One measure: the station plays songs from around 1968 to 20 years ago. Another indicator: while some artists and song choices were obvious – “Stairway to Heaven,” Free Bird” – others were not, including a distinct lack of Beatles songs.

John French: Did you realize that, going into this conversation, you primarily played songs from 1968 to around 2001?

Joe Rock: It was there in my mind, but I never [really] thought of it [in that way].

JF: Well you can thank me for that. What are the current Top 10 classic rock artists that you play?

JR: Queen, Def Leppard, AC/DC, Van Halen, the Stones, Zeppelin, the Police. Journey. Aerosmith. And Tom Petty.

JF: OK. Now, is there a bullseye year where more songs are played from that year than any other?

JR: It’s as surprising to me as it’s going to be to you. 1983. Because we’re talking radio format and not the genre [itself].


Joe Rock. Joe Rock.

JF: So, in other words, if you were to listen to every song played over a one-week period at WBAB, the majority or the songs that get the most play are from 1983. That’s the year that the Police released “Every Breath You Take.”

There’s this whole big thing about 1971 being the greatest year in the history of rock. I wrote an article for Goldmine called “Sunset, Sunrise.” Sunset meaning the Beatles ended in 1970. We were all sitting there slitting our wrists. Then 1971 shows up with Who’s Next, Every Picture Tells a Story, Aqualung, Imagine, Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat, Carole King’s Tapestry; some of the greatest, most iconic albums ever. But to your classic rock audience, a majority of the songs played were released in 1983. What artists and albums would be referring to?

JR: Def Leppard, Pyromania. The Police , Synchronicity. ZZ Top released Eliminator. Other albums included U2, War; Journey, Frontiers; Yes, 90125. Quiet Riot, Metal Health, the first heavy-metal album to hit number one. Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell. Ozzy Osbourne released Bark at the Moon. Billy Joel had An Innocent Man. Sports from Huey Lewis was a huge hit. Cuts Like a Knife, Bryan Adams. Oh, KISS had Lick It Up. There you go. Uh-Huh by John Mellencamp.

JF: By the way, this coincides with the beginning of MTV making a difference, doesn’t it?

JR: Yes. Oh, absolutely.

JF: All right. Let’s talk about alternative rock as opposed to classic rock. So, Bowie is…he can be lumped in the alternative category, as well as the straight rock category. What kind of support does Bowie get from your station?

JR: We’ll not only play stuff from Let’s Dance, but also “Rebel, Rebel.”


JF: But you won’t play anything from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars?

JR: No.

JF: Why would that be? It just doesn’t test well?

JR: Yeah, that’s really it. People hate me when I say this: media is a reflection of the people who consume it. So, if you listen to our station all the time, we’re going to play what you tell us you want to hear. We’re a business.

JF: Would you play [Lou Reed’s] “Walk on the Wild Side?”

JR: We used to, but it’s been a few years.

JF: But it seems to me like one of those tracks that people do not object to, do you know what I mean?

JR: Until you’re sitting in a doctor’s office in the waiting room and they have our station on.

JF: And you hear that lyric about the woman performing a sex act.

Now, let’s talk about the Police. They’re really an alternative band, and you don’t really play alternative artists in general. Are the Police and U2 the closest you’ll play to alternative rock?

JR: Yeah, probably. A lot of people saw those bands as new wave, but they were still “rock” enough to be rock.


JF: What about Blondie?

JR: I love playing Blondie. I really want to redo that song, “One Way Or Another,” punked out with me singing it (Joe has a band called the Joe Rock All Stars which yours truly occasionally plays with), just so people can hear how extremely disturbing the lyrics of that song are.

JF: Well, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police is pretty freaking creepy, right?

JR: Yeah. In an interview Sting once said that people tell him they use it for their wedding song, and he has to look at them twice.

JF: What do you think about the controversy of the lyrics to the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” at this point?

JR: I don’t even…

JF: Jagger says now he’s embarrassed by the lyrics. But “Brown Sugar” does make it onto radio, and the other day I was with somebody, and I said, “listen to the lyrics. ‘Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans. Scarred old slaver says he’s doing all right. Hear him whip the women just around midnight.’” Jeez…

The Kinks, Dave Clark Five, and the Animals are three of my favorite bands. You don’t play any Dave Clark Five, am I correct?

JR: Never did. The Animals were on classic rock radio before I worked in it. But only two songs were played, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

JF: Would it be a complete waste of time from a demographic standpoint to play them?

JR: Absolutely, because people just don’t recognize them. People don’t recognize songs like “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” from ZZ Top!

JF: You don’t play “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks, but you play “You Really Got Me” by Van Halen, correct?

JR: No, we will play “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks, and that and “Lola” are the only Kinks songs we’ll play.


JF: So you do go back a little further than 1968 on occasion.

Do you like the Dave Clark Five, or are you not familiar with them?

JR: I love them, but to me, you listen to them, it’s a dated sound.

JF: It is said there can never be enough books written about the Beatles. Can it be said there can never be enough Led Zeppelin played on classic rock radio?

JR: Yes.

Zeppelin was something I didn’t start to really investigate until later in their career, so I’m not as burned out as some other people are on the band, because I wasn’t there when the first album came out.

JF: All right, let’s go through this chronologically. What Zeppelin songs do you play?

JR: “Good Times, Bad Times,” “Communication Breakdown,” “Dazed and Confused” sometimes, “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Ramble On.” “Moby Dick,” believe it or not, does make some appearances. “Heartbreaker” with “Living Loving Maid” also comes in and out.


JF: And of course, you’ve got the holy grail, the Bible, Led Zeppelin IV, where you just put the f*cking record on and go take a leak, I guess (laughter).

JR: It’s probably easier to tell you what we don’t play [from the album]. “Battle of Evermore,” “Four Sticks,” “Going to California,” “When the Levee Breaks.”

We play “Kashmir” and a few others from Houses of the Holy.

JF: Anything from The Song Remains the Same?

JR: No.

JF: Well, obviously you play a sh*tload of Zeppelin.

JR: There used to be a point in time, not that long ago, when we played a Zeppelin song every hour.

JF: Well, back in the days when Top 40 was really Top 40  they played the same 10 songs every hour. If you were number one on WABC, you got played 24 times a day.

Now, I’ve always loved Queen. I always thought that they were a phenomenal band. But has Queen made some sort of Secretariat move on classic rock radio and just hopped, skipped, and jumped past people? Where do you put Queen these days?

JR: Queen just [hit again] all of a sudden, and I think it was before the Bohemian Rhapsody movie when people started to realize [again] what a great band they were. We’re playing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “You’re My Best Friend,” “We Will Rock You,” “We are the Champions,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Under Pressure.”


JF: Queen, to me, has become like AC/DC. There’s a lot of love for Queen, like a lot of love for AC/DC. How much AC/DC do you play?

JR: I feel like we play everything, because so many of the songs have a similarity to them.

JF: I’m not saying this in a way that’s snarky, because I love them to death. They have a formula like the Grateful Dead. They make the same record over and over again, but for some reason, you just go out and buy it. You know what I mean?

[AC/DC singer] Brian Johnson came onstage with us [Twisted Sister] and did “Whole Lotta Rosie,” and it was pretty awesome. Brian is a wonderful guy, and him being onstage with us was one of the high points of my life.

In the Southern rock genre, I asked you about the Allman Brothers (in Part One of this interview in Issue 143). The Allman Brothers were the first and arguably the most legendary Southern rock band, and yet you don’t play them. When did that stop?

JR: Probably [around] 2016.

JF: Look, they used to play a month in a row at the Beacon Theater. There’re not too many groups that can do that, Joe.

JR: But they’re not releasing any new music. They’re not touring anymore. It’s out of sight, out of mind in a lot of ways. When was the last time you pulled out an Allman Brothers album and put it on?

JF: Years and years and years ago. But to be fair, you play a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I will say that Skynyrd has more songs that are known, probably, than the Allman Brothers. What other Southern rock do you play?

JR: 38 Special. I know Don Barnes from 38 Special well. We (Joe Rock and the All Stars) opened for them a few times. They’re really not a Southern rock band. People think of them as one. But they are much more. With the harmonies and everything they do, they are much more [like] a British invasion band that just happens to be from the South.


JF: All right: Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Ozzy. Tell me about what you play from these three artists.

JR: Priest, “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” and “Breaking the Law.” Sabbath, “Paranoid” and “War Pigs.” Nothing from the Dio era. Which kills me because I love Dio in both Sabbath and Rainbow.

JF: Who made that great decision?

JR: It’s popular among a certain group of people, but not among the masses.

JF: When Twisted Sister was playing in the bars, we’re talking ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82, towards the latter part of the Sabbath era, we covered was all Dio Sabbath, no Ozzy Sabbath, none. Nobody wanted to hear it.

Okay. You play how much of Ozzy?

JR: A lot. Of course we’re playing “Crazy Train.” What the heck is the one that he did with Lita Ford? [“Close My Eyes Forever – Ed.]

JF: Speaking of Lita Ford, let’s talk about women on classic rock radio. Where are they?

JR: They’re in there, but not as much as they should be in my opinion. Joan Jett, Blondie…

JF: Janis Joplin?

JR: Janis Joplin, no. Heart, yes. Stevie Nicks.


JF: But you won’t play the Go-Go’s?

JR: No. They’re pop. And you can’t go by who’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…

JF: If I used that as my parameter, I’d shoot myself.

I also had my issues with the 2019 exhibit at the Met (Play it Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll), which I’ve been respectful about. But I still believe they didn’t do enough educating at that exhibit. I think, when you walked in that main hall, they should have had a giant poster of a Les Paul, a giant poster of a Stratocaster, a giant poster of a Telecaster, and it should have said, “While there are many guitars on display here, these three guitars are responsible for 95 percent of every guitar solo you’ve ever whistled in your head,” and given examples of the songs played on those guitars. At least teach somebody something, instead of just throwing red meat out there.

Although, the Beatles didn’t play any of those guitars until later in their career, and wrote the greatest rock songs of all time. They couldn’t even afford good guitars in the beginning, which is hard to believe.

Where does the Grateful Dead fit into all this?

JR: They really don’t. They’re in a class by themselves. Every now and then we’ll play “Touch of Grey,” but that’s it.

JF: So, you don’t play “Casey Jones” or “Friend of the Devil?”

JR: Nope.

JF: And yet, these are great tracks, from the two most accessible albums they made, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. They have a massive following, and yet, and yet, you don’t really give them much airplay. Any opinion as to why?

JR: This is going to sound weird, [but their music is] a niche. It’s just a big niche.

JF: It’s a f*cking gigantic niche, is what it is. But can you say that AC/DC’s a niche?

JR: No, because to me, you listen to an AC/DC song, that’s a rock song. Some people [consider them to be] metal. I don’t. They’re this band that everybody just loves.

All right. Tell me about the classic rock format, market-to-market, and how much of it is custom-made for the  particular market that the station is shooting for.

JR: Maybe 15 percent of the programming depends on the market region. The band Head East. Are you even aware of  them?

JF: No.

JR: One of their songs is called “Never Been Any Reason,” and in certain places in this country, it gets played on classic rock radio. I don’t even get it. Molly Hatchet, who had their big hit, “Flirtin’ With Disaster,” gets played more in Florida, because they’re locals.

JF: What about the Beatles as solo artists?

JR: You’ll hear (John Lennon’s) “Imagine.” You’ll get (Paul McCartney’s) “Live and Let Die,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Band on the Run.” For George Harrison, “Got My Mind Set on You.”

JF: Do you think that Nashville, which is becoming more like heavy metal with a twang, could ever fit into the genre? Because today’s country is closer to Def Leppard than Hank Williams.

JR: I think [country] is going to [always] be its own world, but…there are a lot of rock bands who [tell me], “Hey, you  know country’s not that bad.” I answer, “That’s because you’re listening to rock.”

JF: Def Leppard with a cowboy hat! Which isn’t the worst thing, you know?

JR: I like country. I like Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle. But some of this other stuff…I saw Jason Aldean opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and thought he had an acceptable set. But you probably could have put a drum machine on and not  changed the beats per minute for the entire show.

JF: By the way, just a personal favorite of mine, who never gets played on classic rock, is Dave Edmunds and Rockpile.

JR: Love him, love him. I wish classic rock radio played him.


JF: Where does Bruce Springsteen exist on classic rock radio these days? You are a gigantic Bruce fan.

JR: He’s got a few songs that we play, “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Hungry Heart.” But one of the things that’s hurting him as far as radio play is the politics of the day.

JF: Because he’s so anti-Trump?

JR: It’s not even just so much that; it’s just that he’s outspoken with politics, and [when that happens], like Roger Waters [as another example], people don’t want to talk about the artist anymore [because they get turned off by certain or opposing political views].

JF: Does Bon Jovi get hit with that, too, because he’s become a political activist?

JR: Bon Jovi’s music never really reflected that before, but with his latest album, 2020, it does. So, I’ve heard from people who were long-time fans, saying, “I’m not so much a fan of the new stuff.”

JF: You still play a bunch of Bon Jovi, though.

JR: I feel like we play the entire Slippery When Wet album.

JF: What 10 Twisted Sister songs do you guys play right now? Let’s see…“I Wanna Rock,” We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “I Wanna Rock,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “I Wanna Rock…”

JR: There you go.

JF: We are the most licensed heavy metal band in history right now. Our songs are on more TV shows, commercials, and soundtracks…”I Wanna Rock” was the biggest song in the biggest ad in the Super Bowl of a year or two ago. We just signed a massive deal for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” with Rachael Ray’s Nutrish dog food. It’s their theme song.

JR: I love it.

JF: I mean, God bless America.

One last thing or two. John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival. What kind of coverage do they get on classic rock radio?

JR: We rarely ever play Creedence. John Fogerty very sparingly will show up. But people absolutely love Fogerty.


JF: I think he’s one of our national treasures.

JR: He absolutely is, and he’s a sweetheart of a guy. And for a guy who’s older than the average rock star who’s touring, he’s got an amazing amount of energy onstage. He can play the whole night and still have a list of hits that he didn’t play, even though every song he played was a hit.

JF: He’s a great, tasty guitar player.

A couple of more questions: Neil Young. Where does he fit into the whole picture?

JR: He does not. He’s so much more of a folk guy now than anything. His stuff just doesn’t have the teeth.

JF: Okay, he’s moved on. John Mellencamp?

JR: Mellencamp’s still there absolutely. We play a bunch of his stuff.

JF: Okay. Dylan, nowhere to be seen?

JR: Every now and then, we play “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” and that is it.

JF: If you had a crystal ball: what’s the classic rock playlist going to look like in 10 years?

JR: Not too different from what it sounds like now. It doesn’t seem to really be adding a lot of artists, and they tried to do some of these nineties bands, but nobody cared. Your Pearl Jams, your Nirvanas just didn’t hold the audience. Alice in Chains. It just didn’t happen.

But what did happen is that the movie School of Rock came out. It spawned actual schools of rock, where teenage kids are going in and learning AC/DC and Aerosmith and Van Halen songs. There’s a renewed interest in that music for teens. So, we’re finding teens coming to classic rock radio because we play all these bands that they really love that they perform at the schools of rock. Who would have thought that Jack Black would have had that much effect on music?

JF: If the cutoff for classic rock is 2001, which you said earlier in this interview, in 10 years from now, is it still going to be 2001?

JR: That’s my guess, because I don’t see anybody else who’s all of a sudden giving us music that we’re going to care about. There are brief flashes of bands that are good. Los Lonely Boys put out their first album and it got some attention. We played their first single, and then they never could follow up. There’s Greta Van Fleet. I have yet to give them a good listen, but I hear the Zeppelin thing [in their music that] people are talking about. The only other band I’ve heard about that people are calling a “real rock band” is Dirty Honey. But I don’t see the future [of classic rock] in new stuff, just a renewed interest in the music that already exists.

JF: And that about sums it all up…thanks, Joe!

Header image: Queen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ EddieThomas Steffan, Compadre Edua’h and Carl Lender. Compilation by KPFC based on an idea by Fronteira.


Back to Copper home page