2 Jul 2018

The year Napster killed classic rock

From Afternoons, 3:07 pm on 2 July 2018

The classic rock era started in 1967 with Sgt Pepper and ended with Nine Inch Nails' 1999 record The Fragile, music writer Steven Hyden says.  

Hyden has written about this era in Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock.

Altamont - Mick Jagger

The Rolling Stones at Altamont, 1969. Photo: Beth Bagby

Although Hyden is a late period Gen X-er, and was getting into bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin long after they were disbanded (Led Zep) or past their prime (Rolling Stones), FM radio in the States kept the classic rock flame alive, he says.  

While listening to the grunge of his era he was also captivated by Pink Floyd, AC/DC and Black Sabbath et al.

It was an era that kicked off when the album got "serious", he says.

“In the late 60s you started to see the introduction of the artistic pretension into music, the idea that the album could be the equivalent of a novel or a great film - that was something that was ushered in by Sgt Pepper'.

“I don’t even think it’s [Sgt Peppers] the best Beatles album, it’s just what that album signifies for a lot of people.”

The end point came when Napster introduced downloading in 1999. It was the year Nine Inch Nails released The Fragile.

“It was the beginning of the album not being the focal point of what music was," he says. “It was also the beginning of the internet becoming the hub for music culture, as opposed to the rock concert: this was a sort of ritualistic place that people would go to find members of their tribe.”

The Fragile coincided with this changed landscape, and although it entered the charts at number one, it rapidly faded away.

“It doesn’t work as individual tracks, it was conceived as album. It really fell victim to how quickly things changed once people could download music.”

Hyden says we take musical abundance today for granted. Scarcity was the norm when he first discovered music.

“If you had told me when I was 18 I could punch the name of any record into a computer and I could hear it instantly I would have flipped.”

Back then, information about records or bands was gleaned piecemeal, he says, from magazine articles, liner notes on albums, books, older brothers or “cool record store clerks”.

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin Photo: wikipedia

“If I wanted to buy a tape or CD, I had to ride my bike to the store across town and it was like Lord of the Rings.

“I had a fantasy I would have a room in my house that contained every great record ever made, and now we all have that: it fits in our pockets. It’s so mundane now we don’t really appreciate this amazing technology that we have at our fingertips.”

Jerry Garcia, Stinson Beach, CA 1971

Jerry Garcia, Stinson Beach, CA 1971. Photo: ©Henry Diltz/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

Hyden says seeing The Who (or what was left of them) in 2012 brought home to him it was a dying culture.

“These indestructible people you’ve grown up worshiping are like frail old men now, they’re getting into their mid to late 70s and it really does increase the urgency to see a lot of these artists because you never know what will happen.”

Sadly, with the recent deaths of Prince, David Bowie and Tom Petty we know all too well what could happen.

“Who could even imagine a world without David Bowie? He was a figure who seemed like he was a fictional character in a lot of ways.

“Tom Petty was someone I assumed I would take my kids to see one day, he toured almost every summer, he’s always great, he wasn’t that old … when these stars go there’s a feeling of not just loss - it’s almost akin to losing a family member.”

As the great bands of the 70s and 80s are denuded by death, infirmity and retirements, the “Shrunkgroup” has emerged, he says.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1977.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1977. Photo: Wikicommons

Fleetwood Mac replaced Lyndsey Buckingham with Neil Finn (Crowded House) and Mike Campbell (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), AC/DC replaced singer Brian Johnson with Axl Rose (Guns N' Roses) and The Grateful Dead are still gigging with John Mayer replacing Jerry Garcia.

Hyden says there's a reason: people still want to see these bands even if they’re stitched together. Some kind of Grateful Dead is better than never seeing them.  

“There’s going to be a time when none of these people are around.”

And when that happens Hyden predicts the “hologram tour” could be the next big thing.