Since I became Classic Rock’s “front man” back in the ‘80s, the “Death Star” rumors about the format have never entirely gone away, still swirling around more than three decades later.
In those early years, there were many fears about Classic Rock's mortality. The most frequently mentioned was that the collection of music that became known as Classic Rock would burn out. People would get tired of hearing Zeppelin, the Stones, Skynyrd, and Aerosmith. But alas, that didn’t happen. In fact, enthusiasm for the music continues to be strong. Ask any radio researcher about how Classic Rock continues to score in perceptual studies and music tests. To this day, there is rarely much “burn.”
Then there was the rash of Classic Rock songs being used in movie, TV, and commercial soundtracks. Some thought that overexposure in other media would detract from the music’s appeal. But, in fact, the use of these iconic songs all over films and television have introduced Classic Rock to new generations of fans. And the smart selection of anthems in TV spots has helped make brands. Think about how Cadillac resuscitated themselves in 2001 with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock And Roll” as the soundtrack.
And of course, the “Demographic Cliff” – the never-ending fear that as Classic Rockers turn 55 years-old and fall out of the coveted 25-54 advertiser sweet spot, they will not be replaced by younger consumers. But Nielsen continues to show 18-34 year-old record-setting ratings for the format, once again defying the odds.
But the one area where I’ve fretted about is the concert arena. I have long theorized that part of Classic Rock's good health as a radio format is attributable to how many bands are still viable touring acts. Many legendary bands have continued to tour, often among the leaders every year in box office revenue. Last year, the successful Desert Trip shows at Coachella reaffirmed core artist strength. In markets big and small throughout North America (and the world), Classic Rock bands continue to tour, delighting millions of original fans, as well as many new ones.
But 2016 was a tough year for Classic Rock fans, because of the passing of icons like David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and of course, Prince. And thinking down the road, what happens when a key member of great Classic Rock bands passes on?
The Who is a case in point, losing Keith Moon in the late ‘70s, and then in 2002, bassist John Entwistle passed away in a hotel in Las Vegas. Throughout it all, the band has continued to successfully tour, using different drummers (including Zak Starkey, son of Ringo) and bassists.
And how has Queen been able to keep performing live despite the death of its incomparable lead singer, Freddie Mercury, in 1991? First Paul Rodgers, and now Adam Lambert have successfully filled in, delighting fans. The fact that Queen is one of the best-testing Classic Rock bands among all demographic groups is due at least in part to its touring, as well as its Broadway show, aptly titled “We Will Rock You.”
And could the E Street Band possibly survive the loss of “The Big Man” – Clarence Clemons – who passed away in 2011? Yup, he was replaced by his nephew, Jake Clemons, who continues to tour with Bruce Springsteen to this day.
Journey has survived the loss of its signature lead singer, Steve Perry, with several replacements, including Arnel Pineda who they found on YouTube. Whether Steve Perry shows up for the band’s induction in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next month, is almost irrelevant. Journey has done just fine with and without him.
And so when Glenn Frey passed away just over a year ago, those dark thoughts about the end of the Eagles as a touring act materialized. Yet, rumors abound there will be festivals this summer featuring the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.
As Pollstar recently asked, “Who will play Glenn?” That’s a great question because along with Don Henley, Glenn Frey was the backbone of that band. The story suggests the possibility of Jackson Browne (friend of the band and writer of “Take It Easy”), as well as Duncan Frey, Glenn’s son.
Perhaps the most interesting rumor, however, is Vince Gill. The Country legend performed “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” at the Kennedy Center late last year, and also recorded “I Can’t Tell You Why” for an Eagles tribute album. As Pollstar also points out, Gill was inducted into the Guitar Center Rock Walk by none other than Eagle Joe Walsh.
That move would do more than revive the Eagles. It would cement the marriage of Country and Rock N’ Roll, a relationship that artists including Bon Jovi, Metallica, Kid Rock, and Bob Dylan have all explored. At a time when Country could use a steroid and Classic Rock always enjoys bigger tents, the Vince Gill as Glenn Frey rumor is a tantalizing one.
And whether it becomes a reality or not, it is safe to assume that long-time Eagles manager and impresario Irving Azoff will find a way to keep the band in the forefront, having navigated and negoatiated myriad crises over the decades.
And in some ways, the Eagles' resourcefulness and survival instinct may serve as a metaphor for the entire format that we now know as Classic Rock.
When the Who's Pete Townshend penned one of the most famous lyric in music history, “I hope I die before I get old,” he could not possibly have fathomed the reality that while he has indeed gotten old, the Who's music never will.
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