What Exactly is “Classic Rock”?

Matt Palmer (Sheer Mag) and Ryan Mangione (Advertisement) discuss.

Matt Palmer plays guitar in the Philly-based rock band Sheer Mag; Ryan Mangione plays guitar in the Seattle-based rock band Advertisement. Recently, the two got together to discuss a topic close to their hearts: What exactly is “classic rock”? Check it out below — and check out Advertisement’s new record, Escorts, which is out now on Feel It Records. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Matt Palmer: Well, me and Ryan want to talk about classic rock in the 21st century, and how it’s changed. At first we were interested in classic rock radio — what is and isn’t considered classic rock, why Green Day and the Foo Fighters get played on classic rock radio but the White Stripes and The Strokes don’t, even though there’s obviously overlap there. I was looking at a classic rock playlist and it’s early Green Day and Foo Fighters that gets played. 

Ryan Mangione: Right, it’s like Dookie.

Matt: Yes. And maybe a little bit of “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” or maybe if you’re lucky, you get some “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” But you never hear “12:51.” We were thinking that we’d start with our own personal musical biographies, just to set a baseline — why don’t you start?

Ryan: I mean, I had a funny path to it, because me and a couple of the other guys in Advertisement, in high school we grew up going to this teen center that had shows that Jason from Dreamdecay used to run. It’s defunct now, but we got to know him through that as a father figure of sorts. My old high school band played our first or second show there, and Jason came up afterwards and handed me a piece of paper like, “Check out these 10 bands.” It was some usual suspects — Stooges’ Raw Power and Marquee Moon and stuff like that. 

Matt: How old were you? 

Ryan: 15, 16, something like that. There was some stuff like Neu!’s ‘75 on there. But it was presented totally out of context. It wasn’t like, “These are these different strands of music history that each have their own history.” It was just kind of presented like, “Oh, yeah, this krautrock record actually exists in perfect harmony with Television.” I think there was that Wrangler Brutes record Zulu on there… So it was funny, because I went deep on those couple records, and this was pre-everything being on Spotify or Apple Music, so I wasn’t able to fill in the [gaps].

Matt: Also, you’re younger than me, I feel like we have to say. I’m 33. 

Ryan: Yeah, I’m 27. So this was probably 2011. So there was access to figure shit out, but I also just wasn’t very digitally literate at the time. So it took a second to retroactively figure out, Oh, these are actually very disparate pathways into music

Matt: It’s a very non-linear approach. Everything is presented with the same significance.

Ryan: Yeah, it was sort of a flattened thing of, These all exist and make sense together. I mean, there’s kind of a tying-in sensibility with all of it, but it wasn’t until years later that I’ve really put the pieces together around [how] there’s a whole history around Krautrock, or the Stooges being a proto-punk band or whatever. 

And then obviously, I got into punk in my later teens and played in a couple bands in Seattle prior to Advertisement that we all kind of met through, and became the impetus for starting Advertisement. But I think even starting Advertisement came out of a place of feeling like, we listened to punk and played in punk bands but it was never the primary reference. It was just the scene that was available, you know? 

That’s maybe a hack biographical answer, but that’s kind of always stuck with me.

Matt: You got this list — the Ten Commandments of Rock.

Ryan: Essentially, yeah. So I feel like I started in a very scattered way. Because, you know, some people grow up with parents who have sick taste in music and are like, “I grew up listening to jazz and the Stones and James Brown,” or whatever.

Matt: Well, that’s how I started. My dad was a huge fan of the Beatles and everything. I had a pretty grounded classic rock education. 

Ryan: Was he showing you stuff?

Matt: Yeah, for sure, The Beatles and The Beach Boys. And then, you know, I wore Sean John jumpsuits in middle school and was really invested in the Ja Rule versus 50 Cent beef — that was really important to me. But at the same time, I was selling Eminem Show CDs in sixth grade, and packaging the first Hoobastank album — I was like, “Buy The Eminem Show, I’ll throw in the Hoobastank record for free.” 

Ryan: So sick.

Matt: And then I got into The Strokes through my mom. 

Ryan: Oh, really? 

Matt: Yeah. Well, my mom was really into Limp Bizkit — she had three copies of Significant Other, because she was kind of a stoner and would just lose them and just buy another copy. So now we just have tons of copies of CDs that we’d buy over and over. Then for Christmas, my dad got me Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, The Clash’s London Calling, and the greatest hits of Motown when I was, like, 16. And then through the Clash I got really into punk and ‘80s hardcore. And then indie rock, and eventually listened to a little bit of math rock in college. Then I sort of gravitated more to the music my dad initially showed me, like Dylan and the Stones, The Who.

Ryan: So you had the foundation going from a young age.

Matt: Yes. And I was obsessed with Bob Dylan — used to be able to name every Bob Dylan record in chronological order. I was obsessed with the mythos of him turning electric and Pete Seeger chopping his amp cable in half with an ax. 

It’s one of the big ideas we want to talk about, which is: the way that art and music is digested and consumed now is all out of order. I used to think Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones were contemporaries.

Ryan: Right.

Matt: I got them confused all the time, because they both had big mouths. 

Ryan: Yeah, they’ve both got flounder face.

Matt: And now after years of scholarship, I can tell them apart.

Ryan: [Laughs.] Yeah. I think that’s something we’ve talked about already outside of this conversation — that fascination with the lore, the history surrounding certain bands or movements or moments in time. Because now it’s something that I am fairly familiar with, at least as far as it concerns bands I’m interested in. But I had such the opposite of that trajectory. I remember there was an older girl who lived in the same neighborhood as me and my brother, and she would drive us home from school sometimes; she had one of those big CD cases in her car, and had Danzig and Metallica’s black album. She was the first person to show us that music. It was funny because I feel like the “standard” trajectory is getting into rock, getting into punk, getting into metal or something like that, but I missed the punk part from the get-go and got into metal first.

Matt: I missed the emo part.

Ryan: I think that’s a shared missed reference. But I remember it blew my mind realizing. Oh, other people have known Danzig exists forever. It’s because of that encountering it with a total absence of any lore or cultural context attached to it. Which I feel like connects a bit with this sort of split of talking about rock in the 21st century.

Matt: Well, we chose the 21st century because it felt like — I mean, I jokingly wrote down on our list of talking points, “9/11?”. But it serves as a pretty good dividing point for what we’re talking about. That’s kind of when I feel like the classic rock radio playlists became completely frozen in time. So what is the difference between rock music pre-9/11 and post? I think a huge element is probably sincerity and irony. It feels a little harder to be a sincere, classic rock band now. We talked a little bit before, while we were prepping, about the costume of classic rock. I mean, we both love the Darkness.

Ryan: So good.

Matt: They wear the costume very well, but even though they’re so outlandish and there is such an extreme Spinal Tap aspect to them, they’re not ironic.

Ryan: No, not at all.

Matt: They’re sincere. And they don’t have maybe the same hang ups — like it doesn’t feel sarcastic like some classic rock revival bands seem like they do now.

Ryan: Yeah. I mean, I feel like part of it is just the idea that any band that comes out post-turn of the century that’s nakedly staking a claim of being like, “We’re a rock band, we play rock music!” — there’s this assumption that there’s something funny or kitschy or ironic or costumey about it, you know? I mean, the Darkness is a good example. For the longest time, I only knew that one song, and I thought they were kind of a joke band. And then by happenstance, I got into that record and realized, Oh, fuck, there’s great songs on here.

I feel classic rock as a term is the way to denominate something that has a sort of absence of identity, or an absence of any sort of specific direction, in the sense that if someone like is like, “I’m a huge Strokes fan,” you assume that they probably also know this larger lore around the turn of the century New York scene.

Matt: They probably know about Interpol.

Ryan: Yeah. They’re familiar with the persona of Julian Casablancas or whatever. 

Matt: Is that the last guy that was kind of like that? 

Ryan: I don’t know. I mean, I got really into that Robert Christgau essay about classic rock. One of the tenants of it that stuck out to me was this idea of the fascination with these certain figures — and he’s talking about figures that he sees as being outside of classic rock proper — people where there’s a sense that there’s a cult of personality, but that it’s not just about the seductive lure of, “Who is this person, what’s their biography?” But it’s a sense of, “I understand the larger sensibility that this person is coming out of and can place myself within that.” It’s less of, “This person’s an aspirational model, I want to be like that,” and more like, “I feel like I am that person and this speaks to something.”

Matt: Well, they’re in the classic rock pantheon, right? Which beginning in the ‘80s and ‘90s with punk and DIY, there was a huge effort was to destroy the pantheon and not put those people on a pedestal anymore. There are still obviously figures like that, iconic musical figures, but we want to tear them down more than we want to build them up. And that’s not necessarily bad. Obviously, the MeToo movement rocked the DIY scene and a lot of heads rolled. It affected underground music as much as it affected anything. But that was being built to for decades. I remember right after David Bowie died, people being like, “You know he fucked 14 year olds?” And you’re just kind of like, “I don’t even know what to do with this information. Obviously, that doesn’t rock.”

Ryan: I feel like the default, especially now, is a very suspicious sort of mentality. You come to expect that no one’s a hero.

Matt: Kill your idols. 

Ryan: Yeah. And if you feel like someone is speaking for you or representing a collective scene or community or cause, that that is some sort of fabricated bill of goods you’re being sold to flip records or whatever. 

Matt: I think this is a great point. So much of classic rock is built on the myth. Bowie is monumental, gigantic  — no one compares themselves to artists like that, because they stand at the top of the mountain.

Ryan: And it feels like that age is over. 

Matt: No, totally. It is completely over. But a lot of classic rock is built on mythos, and after the foundation of that myth had been eroded through, I don’t know, slacker rock — like, “You’re just like me, we’re in Pavement.” I mean, I saw the guy from Pavement bartending at Union Pool the other day. 

Ryan: Oh, fuck, that’s right. 

Matt: It’s like, “I guess you are just like me!”

Ryan: Yeah. But I feel like, as much as the mythos of the rock heroes been deconstructed, it feels like punk rock, DIY is as susceptible to that. And it’s on a smaller scale or it’s not as glamorous. There’s not money in the same way.

Matt: But the urge to want to worship people has not gone away. It’s just shifted to other genres. Which, you know, rock isn’t as anywhere near as transgressive as it once was. When great classic rock records were being written, it was the ‘60s — you have Vietnam, you have Watergate, you have this huge disillusionment moment. But any transgressive, reactionary idea eventually gets consumed by the mainstream media and then regurgitated as a sort of a zombie version. It becomes like a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. Everything has been sanded down until there’s nothing abrasive about it at all. And that’s what has happened to rock music. 

Ryan: Yeah. Something I even think about just music in general over the last couple of years — I mean, I love Roxy Music and krautrock and stuff like that, but you can’t just do that again. You walk a finer line at this point in time trying to do this music that — it’s not even 15, 20 years old now. 

Matt: It’s fucking 50 years old. 

Ryan: You have to feel a lot more conscious about, “Does this sound good because this is a good or a compelling part or song or idea? Or does it just does it sound good because it’s mirroring the pre-established preferences I have?”

Matt: “Am I checking the boxes?”

Ryan: Yeah, “does this sound like a rock riff?” To turn it to our own bands for a second: I feel that sometimes with the sort of unhandleable mass of information and references, you get into a sort of… not fear, but maybe a sense that people are going to misinterpret it. Does that ever strike you with Sheer Mag?

Matt: Sure. I think that while we still want to make music that references classic rock and is Capital-R Rock music, we also want to do something new. We don’t want to languish or bore the audience with things that they’ve heard before. And I know that Advertisement doesn’t want to do that either. And you guys don’t — the new record sounds amazing. 

Ryan: Thank you. 

Matt: But it is like, How do we use all of these references? I almost feel like I know too much. How do you dispel it into something that’s as concentrated and melodic and satisfying as possible? Maybe the death of the riff is sort of what we’ve been building to. Kyle [Seely], the lead guitarist of Sheer Mag, always says, “If you see a band and you can’t walk away humming one riff, then they don’t have riffs.”

Ryan: Well, yeah, it’s vibe music. You’re like, I got this very clear impression of what this is, but none of it sticks. I think that’s something I’ve been trying more and more to foreground with everything, this idea of: instead of fussing over the right way to do something, figure out how to actually just get yourself to do it, and then you can pick up the pieces later. I think that’s a big part of the picture, not trying to get too surgical or analytical about, Where does this fit with? What are we doing? We’re just kind of trying to lean into, How do I just get this done? 

Matt: It’s a hard balance to not be too precious, but also get what you want.

Advertisement is a rock band based in Seattle. Their latest record, Escorts, is out now on Feel It Records.