The groups that personified what rock sounds, looks, talks, comes, stays, lays, and prays like in the popular consciousness over the past several decades have not railed against the status quo; they are the status quo as far as the majority of rock fans are concerned. Unlike the niche-oriented rock bands of today, these groups are responsible not only for many of the biggest-selling albums of their time, but of all time. This era of rock and roll transformed the meaning of success in popular music, bringing rock to stadiums and mansions, shopping malls and Super Bowl halftime shows, as well as every wood-paneled basement rec room and teenage car stereo from Eureka, California, to Bangor, Maine. This music spoke to millions of people; it informed their fantasies of power and wealth, influenced their way of looking at the world, and spawned a thriving subculture with a booming economy and a living history that informed every new generation of bands. It seemed to stretch outward toward an infinite future, always new but with clearly visible roots, the perfect conflation of novel poppiness with never-ending mythology wrapped in denim jackets and cheap sunglasses.
Even today, the archetype is so fixed and commonplace as to be thunderously obvious: Long-haired men in tight pants, playing crushingly loud music on guitars and drums in front of tens of thousands of people, and held upright by groupies, mounds of blow, and the luxury of deluxe tour buses and multimillion-dollar record contracts.
And yet this archetype has all but disappeared from pop culture. "Mainstream rock" barely exists anymore. To understand how we got to this point, we're not going to learn anything by examining for the umpteenth time how the Velvet Underground invented alternative music, or watching all of the approximately 214 documentaries on punk, or talking to Ian MacKaye about why Fugazi never sold T-shirts at shows. What we need instead is a Winners' History of Rock and Roll that tells the stories behind some of the biggest bands of all time.1 If we can learn how and why those bands became popular, and what those stories tell us about a larger narrative taking place in American culture over more than 40 years, we can track the fissures and failures that eventually caused rock to slouch toward irrelevance — and determine whether it can (or should) wage a comeback.
Over the next seven weeks, I'm going to be writing about seven bands: Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Metallica, Linkin Park, and the Black Keys. I don't love all of these bands, but I do love some of them. My point is that my personal feelings here don't matter. I picked these bands because they rank among the most popular of their respective eras, and they all remain active in some form to this day. I believe they also represent turning points in rock history that haven't always been appreciated or remarked upon all that much. More than anything I'd argue that these bands are important in ways that few other rock bands in the 21st century — even the ones I adore and passionately push on people at parties — seem to be.
If we can learn how and why those bands became popular, ... we can track the fissures and failures that eventually caused rock to slouch toward irrelevance — and determine whether it can (or should) wage a comeback.
Rock history is written by the losers, in other words, which is why the importance of insurgents is overstated while the people inside the castles — the rich and famous rulers of middle-of-the-road rock and roll — are disregarded or flat-out ignored.
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