Rock of Ages

An Aerosmith concert begs the question: If rock and roll is rebellious, why do your mom and dad like it, too?

On the way to the Aerosmith concert at McNichols Arena on April 20, I told my beloved companion that the crowd would likely be populated entirely by guys in their forties wearing unfashionably long hair and tattered Harley-Davidson T-shirts. It didn't quite work out that way, though. True, I saw someone who precisely matched that description within minutes of entering the McNichols parking lot, and I subsequently eyeballed literally thousands more who looked as if they'd used the guy as a fashion consultant. But there were also plenty of exceptions, including the neatly trimmed thirtysomething and his two apple-cheeked sons who stood in front of me in the will-call line. (Apparently, Pop figured that the best way to get out of telling his progeny about the birds and the bees was to encourage them to sing along with "Love in an Elevator.") However, these lads were among the few teenagers in the building; for the most part, the ticket-holders were either in the presence of their guardians or they were guardians themselves.

It wasn't always so. Not so long ago, hard rock was the music of youth--the sound that got hormones sluicing through the systems of more adolescents than any other. But these days, a great many members of what was once the prime metal constituency seem to be looking elsewhere for their sonic kicks. A few heavyweights have come to the fore of late, including Tool, Korn and Marilyn Manson, but they're having trouble making the leap to arena-level popularity; in many cities, including this one, they tend to play theaters or medium-sized halls--and they don't always fill them to capacity. Moreover, their songs have not translated to radio success. Shortly after the Nirvana-led grunge breakthrough, hard-rock stations across the country dumped their formats in favor of a variation on the Seattle style. But ratings never met expectations, and within the past few years such outlets have been scrambling to re-embrace the past. KBPI-FM/106.7 is a case in point: It advertised itself as the "new music revolution" when Soundgarden was growing, but it's now back to the "rock the Rockies" slogan it used when today's dinosaurs were mere lizards.

The result of these changes is a radio hybrid that brings together yesterday and the day before yesterday. For example, a four-song KBPI set I heard on the Saturday afternoon before the Aerosmith gig was made up of "Back in Black," by AC/DC, "Grind," by Alice in Chains, "Natural One," by Folk Implosion, and Aerosmith's "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)." Sitting through it wasn't painful; after all, each of these songs is enjoyable on one level or another. But both "Grind" and "Natural One" are already three years old, and "Back in Black" first hit in 1980, when the average high-school senior was in the midst of choosing between soiling his diaper or spitting up on his mother's shoulder. And although "Dude" initially entered the singles charts in 1987, the first album by the band that made it came out way back in 1973, a full year before Richard Nixon took his helicopter ride to infamy.

Would a kid looking for a brand of music to call his or her own pledge his allegiance to a tune that has already spent more than ten years on the vine? Not if a notably unscientific poll conducted on the day of the show has any validity. To wit: My wife, a schoolteacher, asked a class of seventh-graders if they had so much as heard of Aerosmith. Only one out of nearly thirty had--a boy who is still grumbling about being dragged to a Fleetwood Mac appearance nearly six months after Stevie Nicks left town.

The programmers at KBPI don't seem overly concerned with such matters; their audience share has stabilized after a worrisome mid-Nineties slide. But this short-term strategy--one that's becoming extremely common from coast to coast--has resulted in some severe side effects. For one thing, hard-rock radio, which was once lively and surprising, is becoming as predictable and patronizing as most classic-rock stations. (In fact, there are times when it's practically indistinguishable from them.) Worse, fewer fledgling combos than ever are getting a chance to be heard--meaning that when the Aerosmiths of the world finally hang up their chaps, there'll be few to take their place. And because those who are allowed a smidgen of airtime must fit into a format in which the past is more important than the present, a majority of them will merely rehash established styles rather than invent fresh ones.

Which brings us to Spacehog, the opener on the Aerosmith date. The combo, fronted by expatriate British brothers Royston and Antony Langdon, was hyped mightily upon the release of its debut album, Resident Alien, and managed to eke out a modern-rock hit with "In the Meantime." But the disc was actually little more than a gloss on David Bowie-esque glam in which cheek was meant to substitute for inspiration. The Chinese Album, the outfit's just-issued followup, continues along this path. On it, the Langdons churn out unoriginal riffs in an utterly derivative manner in the hope of pleasing precocious listeners who never heard Spacehog's mentors in the first place, as well as longtime rock aficionados fearful of anything that doesn't seem familiar. Unfortunately, they failed on both counts.

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