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Classic Rock 101

If you can answer that question definitively, then you can probably also tell us who it was that put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong. There’s little agreement on the definition of rock, much less the more specialized genre of classic rock. Rock ‘n roll appears in many dictionaries, but its definitions vary substantially.

It's important to make a distinction between Classic Rock and Oldies. Classic Rock grew out of a radio format that used to be called AOR -- Album Oriented Rock. Classic Rock defines entire albums, whereas the Oldies genre encompasses selected singles that were commercially successful.

What Makes Classic Rock Classic? Is it the artist? Not automatically. While a group or artist may have released classic rock albums in the '70s, there’s no automatic guarantee that everything they ever recorded, or will record, is automatically classic.

Is it radio airplay and record sales? Not exclusively. In 1979, The Knack had the top-selling single of the year, My Sharona, from an album that went platinum in less than two months. After two more albums that were received far less enthusiastically, the group disbanded in the early 80s.

Is it a particular musical style or lyric theme? Not so much. Led Zeppelin and The Beatles both recorded classic rock albums, but they hardly performed the same kind of music, or had the same musical style.

Who Started It? Originally, the term was coined to define a radio format that featured rock music primarily from the 1970s. Later, the format was expanded to include some '60s and even '50s rock. Today, you’ll even hear grunge, punk, and '80s hair bands on classic rock radio stations.

Perhaps the best answer to the question lies in the word classic. Virtually every available dictionary definition of classic includes a key test. The most telling aspect of the adjective is that it describes something about which the same opinion has stood over a long period of time. People listen to it, and feel the same way about it today as they did when it was first recorded.

Put It To the Test If you aren’t sure whether a particular song or album should be considered classic rock, subject it to this test:

When was it recorded? If it was within the past 15-20 years, it hasn’t been around long enough to be considered classic, no matter how big a hit it was or who recorded it. On the other hand, the mere fact that it was recorded 30 years ago doesn’t automatically mean it’s considered classic.

How big a hit was it? It may have been a personal favorite of yours, but in order to qualify as classic, it has to have been the personal favorite of a few million of your closest friends, too.

Who recorded it? This will no doubt be a factor in how big a hit it was, but if only one or two songs from a particular album were widely accepted, it isn’t likely the artist or group falls into the classic category.

Can you still hear it on the radio and find it in the record store? Purple People Eater may have been a huge hit in 1958, but you won't hear it on a classic rock station today. As with automobiles, there’s a big difference between classic and antique.

Just as classic rock radio stations don’t agree universally on what exact time period encompasses classic rock, there isn’t a hard and fast dictionary definition for us to apply. Through the process of listening to it, learning about it, and discussing it with others, you’ll eventually be able to know it when you hear it.