AOR IS A-OK!
Foreigner and Boston: critical darlings? As the recycling of pop music culture has accelerated in recent years, the inevitable began to occur -- the culture ran out of years to recycle. Forget about recycling the 1960s, which have been revisited since the Rolling Stones played at Altamont, or the early rock explosion of the 1950s, or pre-war Delta blues, or even the early punk explosion. Even forget about the relatively unknown corners of music that have been revived, exploited, and squeezed dry of their juice in the 1990's, such as space age pop/lounge/exotica, Krautrock, acid jazz, and swing. The ogre of revisionist revivalism, out of sheer desperation or foolishness, as now embraced that most maligned of sub-genres: 1970's mainstream rock. Rock, that is, from the decade that has roundly been dismissed as the nadir of commercial rock music. (Unless, that is, you count the 1980's...or the 1990's...)
by Richie Unterberger
What made me begin to suspect that a sea change was in the making? It might have started with the inauguration, about a year ago, of a series of (still ongoing) regular emails from Rhino announcing box set compilations of 1970's staples of FM commercial radio. Rhino, once (and still, by many) considered the leading popular music reissue label in the United States, has unloaded the following box set compilations of late: Deep Purple, the Doobie Brothers, Alice Cooper, Foreigner (just a two-CD set that, but isn't that two too many?), and Little Feat. (You will also, incidentally, be pleased to know that Foreigner, around the time of their anthology release, was still on the road touring the United States, although I actually hadn't heard of most of the towns on the current tour schedule accompanying the email announcement of their archival collection.) Not to mention that its internet-only outlet, Rhino Handmade, has just unleashed some Jo Jo Gunne product on us. Forced to choose between Alice Cooper and Little Feat, I'd guess I'd opt for the former. But even if the choice seems as obvious to most cultural snobs as choosing Al Gore over George W. Bush, it offers just as distasteful a pair of alternatives, and a dilemma one faces with equal reluctance.
It seemed about five years ago that I looked out my window one day to see one of those billboard-for-hire trucks driving a movie-screen-sized announcement around my neighborhood: "The only Byrds we play are Eagles!" Now that, I thought, is a stupid concept: a radio station that not only decides to play 1970's rock all the time, but thinks it's cool enough to boast about it. Whether it's cool or not, the concept, based on my admitted limited exposure to 1970's commercial radio, seems to be catching on. Went to a burrito place in August just off St. Mark's Place in the Village, one of the supposed epicenters of hipness in western culture. On the sound system? An uninterrupted spew of LCD 1970's rock: Foreigner, late-1970's Fleetwood Mac, Toto, the Doobies' "Black Water," Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" of course. No slightly credible singer-songwriters or hard rock to leaven the mix, just the sloppy joes. Thought it was a fluke maybe, but went back a few days later and it was the same stuff pouring through the sound system, all '70's rock, all different songs. Whatever the source for the '70's rock-muzak (there don't seem to be any announcers when I hear it), it seems to be catching on, as I heard it again while shopping for running shoes this month.
One could expect retro respect for the 1970's to infiltrate grossly commercial culture, whether it's a burrito shop, a mini-mall sound system, or a radio station that thinks making fun of the Byrds at the Eagles' expense is a viable marketing plan. However, it's also accompanied by critical reassessment of some of the decade's most overblown stars in hipper quarters. MOJO, usually recognized as the hippest large-circulation music monthly, gave a sympathetic portrayal to Cat Stevens when they tracked him down this summer; in the summer of 1999, there were cover stories on both Queen and ABBA. According to gossip at a party last week, a San Francisco college radio station just broadcast an interview in which Thurston Moore enthusiastically, and apparently without irony, praised the artistry of Styx. Now that really IS going too far. My contact says Moore made sure to add that his enthusiasm for the "Sail Away" pirates was shared by Jim O'Rourke. The message? A-OR is A-OK!*
And what's more, you now seem to run the risk of being unhip if you counter: but it's NOT okay! But heck, I've made a career out of being out of step with both the underground and the overground. Why break the trend now?
Those of us who grew up during the 1970's do remember, after all, what a difficult time it was to come of age if your radio did not receive college stations clearly. There was a reason why so many of us -- and, presumably, the majority, perhaps the overwhelming majority, of Perfect Sound Forever readers -- got heavily into alternative punk/new wave, great lost 1960s rock, avant-jazz, or some combination of genres that was not being played on the high-wattage stations. Doing so at a time when you risked scorn for not voting for "Freebird," "Roundabout," or "Stairway to Heaven" as your all-time favorite song in high school newspaper polls took some courage. But you know why the choice was even more obvious than, say, voting for Al Gore rather than George Bush? It was because Styx, Rush, Toto, Triumph, Foreigner -- and even more palatable people like the Doobie Brothers, Alice Cooper, and Little Feat -- weren't that good. Or certainly more calculated, and not as creative, as what we started looking for instead. At least, that's what we thought. Remember?
The re-evaluation of mediocre mainstream 1970's rock as something worth revisiting -- and scarier still, perhaps something worth absorbing influences from -- is so curious, so off-the-wall, such a non sequitur really, that I only see one explanation. This would be that championing 1970's AOR rock could be viewed as the ultimate iconoclastic statement. Almost everything else that's been neglected from pop's past has been claimed -- not just the obvious things, like Captain Beefheart and 1960s garage rock, but now 1960s French girl pop, German pre-techno artists with hard-to-pronounce names, blaxploitation film soundtrack arrangers, cartoon music composers, South American psychedelic bands who sang in English as a second language. Saying you like that stuff is now hip, but if you want to be hipper-than-hip -- and that's the secret fantasy for all of us, innit? -- embracing any of the above trends is simply jumping on the bandwagon. But flying the banner for Styx? No one's racing up that flagpole. So couldn't praising such bands, and others from 1970's rock's most odious heyday, be seen as the ultimate "outsider" statement, the ultimate cutting-edge badge of courage?
The early-1990's lounge/exotica revival was seen by some as the ultimate example of pop eating itself, and of pretentious hipsters extolling a sub-genre not to unearth unjustly underrated music, but to be so uncool that they were cooler than anyone else. But, as even the most unenthusiastic registered voters must concede when comparing Gore and Bush, there is a difference. Much of the lounge/exotica music exhumed by the early-1990's revival WAS trivial and not worth a rehearing. Yet some of it was brilliant, or at least interesting, and often quite unlike anything that had been heard by listeners born after 1950. And furthermore, it was not a phase of pop music that most of the alternative listening audience had ever been exposed to, and had a chance to reject or accept.
However, many of us DID live through the behemoth of middling 1970's corporate rock that's navigating a commercial and critical comeback. And many of us DID reject it. And it WAS bad. And we ARE older, with many more demands placed on our time than ever -- bills to pay, substandard housing to find and cope with, insane work schedules at our workplaces, and major social injustices to fight. And, of course, there's a very fragmented music scene with too many interesting options to count for rewarding investigation of previously overlooked sounds, from the whole of the twentieth century. And now we're supposed to think that the Styx, Deep Purple, Boston, and Scorpions albums from the 1970's demand not just more respect, but an actual fresh listen?
No, they don't. Because A-OR is *not* A-OK.
(* NOTE FROM THURSTON: "maybe orourke is more than i -- i like the sugar beast that is styx for the sweet pablum orchestral-crap-rock they spew - but at the time (70's) i wouldve, if i couldve, sliced them into dogmeat w/ johnny ramones mosrite")
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