STAIRWAY TO HELL
Woodstock isn't the only musical entity celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It's also been a quarter of a century since FM-rock radio came of age as a major commercial force--and broadcasters playing variations on this programming style continue to draw big ratings in virtually every city in the country. But what began as an exciting and liberating form of entertainment has evolved into the most predictable format on the airwaves: classic rock. The redundancy of most classic-rock playlists makes the sound of a leaky faucet seem fresh by comparison.
In an effort to determine just how repetitious are classic-rock outlets, Westword surveyed a handful of radio listeners in several metropolitan areas: Denver, Los Angeles, Omaha, Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago and New York City. In the process, we discovered a few quirks specific to certain areas. For instance, New Yorkers are virtually alone in having Billy Joel shoved down their throats, while Denverites hear a startlingly high volume of Stevie Ray Vaughan, an artist virtually ignored during his lifetime but now being played, um, to death.
Overall, however, classic-rock stations from coast to coast keep spinning the same songs by the same performers until you're ready to find a broomstick and go looking for Jeffrey Dahmer. Moreover, the cuts of choice often have certain characteristics in common. Many of them are pretentious--alleged epics with shifting themes and passages. Many of them make drug references, the better to appeal to former users who'd be using still if not for their employers' fondness for random urine tests. And most of them are long. Our theory? Many classic-rock DJs are incontinent, playing lengthy tracks so they can spend extended periods on the toilet. Better than Depends, dude.
What follows is our correspondents' list of the most overplayed classic-rock songs: four songs apiece by the 25 acts that dominate the stations, as well as the top ten overplayed songs by performers whose other work gets aired less frequently (see sidebar, page 82). These ditties constitute the bulk of many classic-rock stations' libraries: If a law were passed making it illegal to play them, the format would be brought to its knees.
Say, that's not a bad idea.
25. JIMI HENDRIX. The only African-American who made the classic-rock grade--and he barely did so. Obviously, the white people who make up the vast majority of classic rock's listenership know what they want to hear: more white people.
Runners-up. 3. "Fire" (1967): Trust us, this was once hot stuff. 2. "Foxey Lady" (1967): In the Sixties, women thought being called this was a compliment. Say it now, mister, and get a knee to the groin. 1. "Crosstown Traffic" (1968): Often used prior to traffic updates. Clever, eh?
The Winner. "Purple Haze" (1967): The most popular dope-tinged tune by a musician who overdosed on smack and died after choking on his own vomit. Make mine a Coca-Cola, barkeep.
24. DEEP PURPLE. Yeah, we were as shocked as you are that these dinosaurs lumbered onto the list. Proof that Dazed and Confused was a documentary.
Runners-up. 3. "Hush" (1968): Too bad Ritchie Blackmore didn't take this song's advice. 2. "Highway Star" (1972): Also used prior to traffic updates. A brilliant idea! 1. "Woman From Tokyo" (1973): The closest thing to Asian music in classic rock.
The Winner. "Smoke on the Water" (1972): Its riff may be the dumbest of all time. To guitar what "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater" is to the piano.
23. THE POLICE. A downright contemporary act, by classic-rock standards. Which is to say, it's only been defunct for around a decade.
Runners-up. 3. "Message in a Bottle" (1979): We wish this message was only in a bottle. 2. "Can't Stand Losing You" (1978): The rare Police song that exhibits a sense of humor. No wonder it wasn't a hit. 1. "Synchronicity II" (1983): Popular with classic rockers because it sounds a lot like Yes.
The Winner. "Roxanne" (1978): When this was released, a Rolling Stone reviewer wrote that it sounded like Santana without a lead guitarist. Still does.
22. THE BEATLES. Once a staple of classic-rock stations, the Fab Four have faded of late. Meaning that plenty of music by worse bands is being played more than theirs.
Runners-up. 3. "Come Together" (1969): Considered cool because Aerosmith covered it. 2. "Golden Slumbers" (1969): The concluding passage of Abbey Road; classic rockers like it because it has a drum solo in it. 1. "Birthday" (1968): Played whenever anybody has a--well, you know.
The Winner: "Hey Jude" (1968): One of the few Beatles songs long enough to allow DJs to get a good bowel movement going.
21. CREAM. The Eric Clapton-led trio was known for its endless jams, but today its in-concert offerings are even too snore-inducing for classic rock. Stop the presses.
Runners-up. 3. "Badge" (1969): As brief as any classic-rock regular. That's why it's not played as often as... 2. "White Room" (1968): Trippy and drony, but not what you'd call colorful. 1. "Born Under a Bad Sign" (1968): Yeah--this one.
The Winner. "Sunshine of Your Love" (1968): It's about acid, right? Oh, sorry, we were flashing back.
20. U2. By far the list's youngest band. If you had any doubt that Bono and friends are pompous dolts, check out how well they fit in here.
Runners-up. 3. "I Will Follow" (1980): When they were pompous younger dolts. 2. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (1983): Not bloody enough. 1. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" (1984): This ode to Martin Luther King Jr. would be out of place on a classic-rock station if it weren't for the fact that four white blokes sing it.
The Winner. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (1987): Whining raised to an art form. You can stop looking now.
19. THE GRATEFUL DEAD. They're paunchy, they're tottering and they're using fewer narcotics than they did during their prime. Sounds like the classic-rock listener profile to us.
Runners-up. 3. "Uncle John's Band" (1970): The Dead try to harmonize. Scary. 2. "Casey Jones" (1970): Another salute to dope. Let Casey drive you to the Betty Ford Clinic. 1. "Touch of Grey" (1987): Their biggest hit--until they release "Touch of Formaldehyde," that is.
The Winner. "Truckin'" (1970): Jerry and crew don't play this one in concert much anymore. DJs, take the hint.
18. THE ROLLING STONES. The Stones have cranked out so many great tracks that it's difficult to choose among them. So classic-rock programmers don't. They choose only these.
Runners-up. 3. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (1969): But sometimes you get a little extra time in the lavatory. 2. "Gimme Shelter" (1969): Gimme a magazine. This could take a while. 1. "It's Only Rock `N Roll (But I Like It)" (1974): Better than Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," but only just.
The Winner. "Sympathy for the Devil" (1968): Also known as "The Newt Gingrich Story."
17. YES. The folks who love this band really, really love it. The only things they love more are their pocket protectors.
Runners-up. 3. "I've Seen All Good People" (1971): Who they define as "folks with pocket protectors." 2. "Close to the Edge" (1972): This one is so long you can cross several New England states befores it's over. 1. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" (1983): The song that brought them into the Eighties. They've since slipped back a decade or two.
The Winner. "Roundabout" (1972): The symbol of Yes's quasi-classical snootiness. Artists or swillmeisters--you be the judge.
16. CROSBY, STILLS AND NASH. How's the ol' liver, Dave?
Runners-up. 3. "Teach Your Children" (with Neil Young, 1970): Here's one class they'll want to ditch. 2. "Our House" (with Neil Young, 1970): Squint just right and David Crosby looks exactly like Wilford Brimley. 1. "Marrakesh Express" (1969): The threesome's first smash. Couldn't they have stopped at one?
The Winner. "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" (1969): Written for Judy Collins, who, one hopes, was appalled by it.
15. BOSTON. Guitar nerd Tom Scholz has made one beloved recording and a slew of imitations of that one beloved recording. Guess which one gets played.
Runners-up. 3. "Peace of Mind" (1976): Off the first album. 2. "Foreplay/Long Time" (1976): Also off the first album. 1. "Let Me Take You Home Tonight" (1976): Which album? Duh.
The Winner. "More Than a Feeling" (1976): Yessir, the first album. It's more than a feeling, all right--it's nausea.
14. THE DOOBIE BROTHERS. With a name like theirs, they can rev up nostalgic potheads--the kind you see at Radio Shack looking wistfully at the alligator clips.
Runners-up. 3. "Black Water" (1975): The closest thing to bluegrass music in classic rock. 2. "Listen to the Music" (1972): Do so at your own risk. 1. "Long Train Runnin'" (1973): The perfect tune for any woman on a date with a motorcycle gang.
The Winner. "China Grove" (1973): It's about heroin, right? Oh, sorry, we were flashing back.
13. STEVE MILLER BAND. Love him or hate him, you've got to admit that Miller created a rash of hits. Hear them too often, though, and you'll wish that rash had been jock itch.
Runners-up. 3. "Rock'n Me" (1976): Sounds almost as good in its Muzak version. 2. "Take the Money and Run" (1976): An extremely subversive concept--a story song that really doesn't tell a story. 1. "The Joker" (1973): Gives cigarettes ("I'm a smoker") and marijuana ("I'm a toker") equal time. How egalitarian.
The Winner. "Fly Like an Eagle" (1976): Featuring a synthesized intro sure to hit home with you Emerson, Lake and Palmer diehards.
12. BOB SEGER. He says he likes that old time rock and roll. Talk about truth in advertising.
Runners-up. 3. "Like a Rock" (1986): A big favorite with anyone who's been suckered into buying a Chevy. 2. "Against the Wind" (1980): A tornado would be more entertaining. 1. "Night Moves" (1977): Makes losing your virginity seem totally dull. Don't believe it, kids.
The Winner. "Turn the Page" (Live version, 1976): A wealthy rock star whimpers about life on the road. Turn the stomach.
11. THE ALLMAN BROTHERS. The outfit that spawned the rise of Southern rock and inspired the neo-hippie movement. For these accomplishments, they deserve something special--like death by hanging.
Runners-up. 3. "Statesboro Blues" (1971): The dueling guitars. The barked vocals. The loosely structured arrangements. The horror. 2. "Mountain Jam" (1972): If you pass out during this live take, be reassured: It'll still be going when you come to. 1. "Whipping Post" (1971): Like being sentenced to thirty lashes.
The Winner. "Ramblin' Man" (1973): Dickey Betts at his peak. Which ain't saying a whole lot.
10. THE WHO. An act with loads of terrific songs. But only a chosen few meet classic-rock jocks' stringent standards.
Runners-up. 3. "I Can See for Miles" (1967): When Pete Townshend was just learning how to be long-winded. 2. "Behind Blue Eyes" (1971): Getting there--but still not as drawn out as... 1. "Baba O'Riley" (1971): Here we go! Pass the Charmin!
The Winner. "Won't Get Fooled Again" (1971): Yes, you will. Over and over again.
9. JETHRO TULL. When these codgers won a Grammy as best heavy-metal band a few years back, you could hear the laughter from sea to shining sea. Supporters find Ian Anderson's panting through his flute "ballsy."
Runners-up. 3. "Bungle in the Jungle" (1974): Enough to make you hungry for some endangered species. 2. "Locomotive Breath" (1971): We've got smokestack envy. 1. "Living in the Past" (1972): The classic-rock mantra.
The Winner. "Aqualung" (1971): It's sodden, drawn out, bombastic and doesn't make a lick of sense. In other words, a classic-rock landmark.
8. THE EAGLES. The reunion by these millionaires has prompted classic-rock music directors to pump them even harder than before. Damn the luck.
Runners-up. 3. "One of These Nights" (1975): Nearly twenty years later, proof that this song isn't like fine wine. 2. "Life in the Fast Lane" (1977): Another traffic-update soundtrack. Innovative! 1. "Take It Easy" (1972): The closest thing to country music in classic rock.
The Winner. "Hotel California" (1977): When we first heard Don Henley singing the line, "You can never leave," we thought he was joking. The truth is a bitter thing.
7. AEROSMITH. At least they rock harder than other musicians who can qualify for the senior discount at Denny's.
Runners-up. 3. "Back in the Saddle" (1977): Gene Autry's still pissed about this one. 2. "Walk This Way" (1976): Of course it's not the rap remake with Run DMC. Thanks to Jimi Hendrix, classic-rock stations already have one African-American's music in their archives--and apparently they feel that's enough. 1. "Sweet Emotion" (1975): It would sound sweeter if it weren't played so frigging often.
The Winner. "Dream On" (1973): A nightmare's more like it.
6. BAD COMPANY. Even if Paul Rodgers rejoined this band, it wouldn't draw flies. But for some unexplainable reason, it keeps drawing airplay.
Runners-up. 3. "Bad Company" (1974): That they are. 2. "Feel Like Makin' Love" (1975): Not after hearing this neanderthalic clunker, you won't. 1. "Rock `N' Roll Fantasy" (1979): It'll have you fantasizing, all right--about switching to talk radio.
The Winner. "Shooting Star" (1975): The tale of a rock star who rises to fame, then overdoses and dies. Likely to have you wishing it were autobiographical.
5. ERIC CLAPTON. With his comeback still in full swing, Clapton's a regular on many different brands of rock station. So you can get sick of him all over the dial.
Runners-up. 3. "Cocaine" (1980): Do onetime indulgers realize this isn't a pro-drug song? Snort! 2. "After Midnight" (1970): Used as a beer commercial while Eric was a chronic substance abuser. Close your eyes and touch your nose. 1. "Layla (Acoustic Version)" (1992): How do classic-rock stations pretend to play something new? They broadcast a wimpy remake of something old.
The Winner. "Layla" (with Derek and the Dominos, 1972): The most impressive thing Clapton ever wrote--or probably ever will. And by now, hearing it (or its unplugged twin) is like Chinese water torture.
4. LYNYRD SKYNYRD. Redneck wisdom dispensed against the backdrop of three guitars spewing empty musical cliches. Pass the Boone's Farm, Bubba!
Runners-up. 3. "Saturday Night Special" (1975): Most of the NRA-boosting yahoos who love this are too dense to realize it's an anti-handgun song. 2. "Tuesday's Gone" (1973): Actually, Tuesdays are shorter than this song. 1. "Sweet Home Alabama" (1974): A single that makes Hank Williams Jr.'s odes to the South seem cerebral by comparison.
The Winner. "Free Bird" (1974): At almost any concert, you can hear pranksters shouting requests for this endless exercise in puerility. Classic-rock programmers obviously don't get the joke.
3. PINK FLOYD. Now we're coming to the big boys. This band is faceless. Dour. Self-important. And a maker of songs protracted enough to allow jocks to eliminate every speck of human waste from their systems before returning to the studio.
Runners-up. 3. "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" (1975): A tribute to a drug casualty. Presented in a casually druggy way. 2. "Great Gig in the Sky" (1973): Soulfulness has never sounded so soulless. 1. "Comfortably Numb" (1979): What do you know! More drug references! In an anti-drug song that sounds great on headphones when you're on drugs!
The Winner. "Money" (1973): Which, thanks to classic-rock stations, they're still raking in.
2. THE DOORS. In the pantheon of classic-rock blowhards, the Doors are kings. The act that laid the groundwork for a thousand interminable organ solos.
Runners-up. 3. "Hello, I Love You" (1968): Another pick-up line whose time has passed. 2. "Light My Fire" (1967): Come on, baby, change the channel. 1. "L.A. Woman" (1971): More effective than Proposition 187 at making people hate California.
The Winner. "Riders on the Storm" (1971): Played whenever the weather turns foul. No rain! No rain! No rain!
And the champion is...
1. LED ZEPPELIN. It's no surprise that Zep rules classic rock (you already knew that, didn't you?). But the shock is the margin of victory. This group is played more often than any other in each of our surveyed cities. Listen to a classic-rock station for an hour and you're apt to hear at least one Led Zeppelin song. And it will probably be one of these.
Runners-up. 3. "Whole Lotta Love" (1969): Mr. Plant wants to give you every inch of his love. But beware--some of it may be padding. 2. "Immigrant Song" (1970): Not exactly the band at its peak. But that hardly matters to this crowd. 1. "Kashmir" (1975): Thanks to the new Robert Plant-Jimmy Page MTV cash-in platter, this is also available in a handy Moroccan mix that simulates freshness.
The Winner. "Stairway to Heaven" (1971): The most overrequested song in rock history long ago established the classic-rock prototype: It features a quiet introduction, flighty, mock-poetic lyrics (excuse us, but what was in the hedgerow?), a buildup to an electric guitar frenzy, several chest-thumping rock moments and a hushed conclusion meant to convey depth and timelessness. And, as an added bonus, it's either unintentionally funny or boring as sin, depending on your point of view. That's classic rock at its best.
Have we missed anything? Are there overplayed classic-rock songs that have somehow escaped our notice? Let us know by sending your suggestions to Westword, c/o Michael Roberts, P.O. Box 5970, Denver, CO 80217, or faxing them to us at 296-5416. (No phone calls, please, or our receptionist will kill us.) It's easy, it's fun, and it will make you feel better the next time you hear "Smoke on the Water." Or maybe not.
THE HITS KEEP ON COMING (sidebar)
Although it might seem to be otherwise, classic-rock stations actually do broadcast songs by artists other than those included in our primary list. But not many. Outfits that haven't risen into the golden circle are generally restricted to one song that--can you believe it?--is played incessantly. According to our correspondents, these are the ten they hear most of all.
10. "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," by Traffic (1971). Meandering jamming and a slew of passages stitched together into a sprawling musical quilt. Traffic's recent reunion prompted a massive yawn from concert-ticket buyers, but DJs still hold it dear. Especially when they're in the mood for a nap.
9. "Takin' Care of Business," by Bachman Turner Overdrive (1974). Yet another track first heard by young people in TV commercials. Rock rebellion has never been so salable.
8. "Dust in the Wind," by Kansas (1978). "Carry On My Wayward Son" may be more excessive (a plus for classic rockers), but this appalling piece of treacle still gets aging glue-sniffers misty. Then again, a trip to the hobby shop could probably do the same.
7. "Green Grass and High Tides," by the Outlaws (1975). It sounds a little like Lynyrd Skynyrd, a little like the Allman Brothers and a little like the Eagles, and it's about as long as the average NFL game. That's how classic-rock DJs spell love.
6. "Piece of My Heart," by Janis Joplin (1971). You may not have noticed, but this is the first and only female artist who made a mark in our poll--and among the also-rans, only Heart and Stevie Nicks were even mentioned by our respondents. Is classic rock sexist? Well, is Jesse Helms senile?
5. "Radar Love," by Golden Earring (1974). A quartet from the Netherlands that had two hits (the other one was 1983's "Twilight Zone") and then disappeared from the face of the earth. Who knew at the time that the lyric "The radio plays that forgotten song" would someday seem like a reference to "Radar Love"?
4. "Frankenstein," by the Edgar Winter Group (1973). Among the most popular (and dippiest) rock instrumentals ever made. We'd take "Walk, Don't Run" over it any day.
3. "Slow Ride," by Foghat (1976). Brainless grinder seemingly made for guitarists to throw their long hair to. Maybe that's why Henry Rollins hasn't covered it.
2. "Money for Nothing," by Dire Straits (1985). Upon its arrival, this MTV smash was ballyhooed as social commentary worthy of Randy Newman. In actuality, it's a turgid, one-joke endurance test featuring a guest appearance by Sting. Money for nothing, indeed.
1. "All Right Now," by Free (1970). An underdog victor, the track sounds like Bad Company, because vocalist Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke were in both that band and Free. These acts share in common a catchy approach to meat-and-potatoes rock that becomes downright annoying with repeated listens. Like the kind you're subjected to every day on classic-rock radio.
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