Classic rock should be a retrospective classification. Something bestowed on rock that has through whatever process attained classic status. Yet some artists work it as a style. Rock music that draws heavily on the past and doesn’t really attempt to make a virtue of bringing anything too idiosyncratic to the table. Music that knows the world isn’t perfect but lacks the youthful anger to attempt to change it. Music that greets the slights of life with a wry shrug rather than a clenched fist. You could call it dad rock. You could call it the saddest music in the world.
A few lifetimes ago I spent a year outside of education working in a record shop. Every morning I’d drive in with my dad and we would listen to Terry Wogan on Radio 2. I remember a few songs Terry seemed to play a lot. I’m not sure it they were all his favourites or just what happened to be on the A-list at that point. One song was “Any Road” by George Harrison . Taken from his posthumous final album Brainwashed it’s the jaunty antithesis of David Bowie’s death bed records. If Bowie faced death with an avant-garde flourish Harrison seem to it with a little more than a raised eyebrow. “Any Road” bounces along dispensing words that might be wisdom or nonsense over guitar and banjo. The hook goes:
“If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.”
That could be the moral of the song. Or maybe, it’s the (hopefully not intentionally ableist) observation that:
“It’s a game, sometimes you’re cool, sometimes you’re lame”
It’s a song played with an effortlessness that belies it’s hyper-professional classic rock sheen. It’s someone very talented playing because they enjoy it, it’s someone who was at least aware their demise is imminent. It’s not a sermon or a thesis, it’s slightly stupid, slightly smart.
Another song that Terry played during this period was The Last DJ by Tom Petty who was alive then but dead now. The narrative of the song concerns a DJ who appears to be breaking all the rules and raising merry hell by:
“Saying what he wants to say and playing what he wants to plays”
It has a certain charm, the Heartbreakers flinty chug combine well with Petty’s slight sneer but it’s very much the sound of a man losing touch with the world. The DJ is of course a “he”, the song seems to hearken back to a lost golden age. Is our hero railing again rabid commercialisation and unfettered neo-liberalism or is he simply a grumpy old man venting at an audience who aren’t as interested in guitar rock as their parents might have been?
During this period of intense Wogan listening I happened to find myself in possession of a large pile of classic rock magazine Mojo. The magazines had been left for recycling outside a large house I passed on my way to work. As a music loving late teen without access to the internet I devoured these magazine’s greedily. I found some recommendations and interesting stories but was left with the feeling that everything really exciting had already happened, that my wide eyed wonder at the latest saviours of rock ‘n roll was naïve, that the best I could do was listen and re-listen to The Beatles or The Stones and hope to glimpse the giddy thrill of a past I could never access. Like Petty’s Last DJ these were stories for people whose lives had already been changed; people who’d already had their transformative moments, people happy to hear the same stories over again. The writers wrote with a detached authority, their favourites weren’t some passing fad – the canon might be gently chipped at but it was set in stone.
When I began to write about music a few years later I took some of this to heart. Whilst I only wrote about The Beatles once and raved about UK hip hop, Swedish indie pop and Girls Aloud I still generally attempted to write with a tone of authoritative detachment. I was going to explain why these records were great not how they made me feel. I’d read the arguments about rockism and popism but It was always a sleight of hand, like the middle aged Mojo men I substituted the subjective for the universal. Maybe I was attempting to write myself into a conversation. Maybe now I am merely aping the first person style of much modern internet writing to talk about dad rock. Perhaps I am inventing a new genre – the classic rock confessional. I dare say it’s been done.
Terry Wogan also played The Travelling Wilburys a lot, the ‘80s supergroup featuring the aforementioned Harrison and Petty along with superstar chums Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. This must have been Terry’s personal choice. The records had drifted out of print, I knew this well as a few times a month someone would request them in the record shop I worked and would be disappointed to learn they weren’t available. Though predating “Any Road” and “The Last DJ” by over a decade the Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” trades in a similar world-weariness. It sounds like it’s addressed to a woman but it could be addressed to the group itself, the song is a bunch of slightly sneery wise guys admitting a little vulnerability. Harrison reels off a list of slights and missteps that have apparently left him fragile, delicate. Whilst the rest of the gang give it the dad rock detachment Orbison punctures the lingering sense of superstar smugness with the quietly devasting interjection:
“I’m so tired of being lonely, I still have some love to give.”
It’s the emotional core of the song. Amongst the radio friendly sheen it an admission of something terrifyingly mortal. Orbison would be dead months after the album was released. Where Petty and Dylan chime in with the lines:
“Everybody got somebody to lean on”
Orbison’s time-worn baritone raises the spectre of not having someone to lean on, the prospect perhaps of dying alone. The Travelling Wilburys and much of the later music of golden era rock musicians revolve around a tension between having seemingly been centre of the universe and the realisation that you are now one amongst many. Whilst the Mojo men have constantly pushed to remind their readers of the primacy of rock’s foundation myths the actual actors seem happier to let it go. If classic rock made in the moment means anything it’s the knowledge of its own impending obsolescence.
Tom Petty was never really a heavyweight in the way Dylan, Harrison and Orbison were. Like Lynne he was a fan and follower, a craftsman working within an already established tradition. When not railing against radio programmers his finest songs such as “Free Fallin’” and “Learning to Fly” are at once wide open but deeply melancholic – anthemic but shot through with smooth sadness. On “Learning to Fly” Petty declares:
“Well, the good old days may not return”
Like a long article about The Beatles it’s a form of reassurance. When middle aged men talk about The Beatles – or any music that touched them when they were younger – they are often trying to turn a longing for the good old days into something solid, a nostalgia that substitutes subjective feelings for something that aspires to the universal. Classic rock is often – perhaps unconsciously – exclusionary; very male, very white, very western. It’s a story about rebellion told by the kind of people who are becoming what was being rebelled against. When writing about music, when writing about anything it’s easy to use sleight of hand that makes the personal universal. Music is better than words alone though. When you set this kind of longing to music it’s clearer that the performer’s past is the focus of their longing, the “good old days” might not be quantifiably better than the present but they certainly seem that way for the singer.
Terry Wogan used to call his listeners TOGS, Terry’s Old Geezers and Girls, he would read out there amusing stories on air and create a community amongst strangers. An audience bonded by a shared experience of aging. No wonder he played The Travelling Wilburys a lot. Someone once said it was better to burn out than fade away. A lot of people don’t take that route – even rock ‘n roll stars – as you get nearer the end of the line maybe you need something or someone to lean on, maybe sometimes a song will suffice.