A funny thing happened on the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- a surprising amount of classic rock has turned out to be a lot less enduring than previously believed.
Music that used to seem daring, exciting, inventive now sounds dated, quaint, cliched. It isn't that the songs simply seem old; it's as if they belong to an era so distant that it's hard to imagine how anyone could have possibly considered the stuff hip.
I'm not talking about music from another era, either. After all, you'd expect listeners who grew up in the rock era to have a hard time grasping just what it was about Eddie Cantor or Rudy Vallee that drove their fans wild.
But the Who? The Jefferson Airplane? Deep Purple? Those acts aren't exactly ancient history. Deep Purple still has a recording .. contract, the Airplane got together for a show with Signe Anderson recently, and the Who are reportedly considering another reunion tour.
Yet an awful lot of what many fans would consider their finest work now sounds old and musty -- laughable, even. Listening to it today, one thought keeps recurring: What on Earth were we thinking then?
Maybe it was the delusion of youth. Maybe it was the spirit of the times. Maybe it was the drugs.
Whatever it was, it has long since worn off. And with that in mind, here's a look at 10 classic rock acts, and why they don't seem so classic anymore.
In the '60s, the Who was the quintessential mod band, writing about class consciousness and generational anomie with a realism the Beatles or Rolling Stones never managed. In the '70s, the Who came on like punk pioneers, the godfathers of anger, noise and unfettered destruction. In the '90s, the Who hit Broadway as rock's answer to Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
What's wrong with this picture?
It isn't just the notion of rock rebellion competing against "Cats" for the Saturday matinee crowds that grates. It's the fact that "Tommy" -- allegedly the Who's greatest work -- could make the transition from rock masterpiece to schlock showcase so easily.
But "Tommy" isn't the only part of the Who's repertoire that has turned cheesy with age. Sat through "A Quick One While He's Away" lately? How about "The Who Sell Out"?
Let's face it -- apart from "Quadrophenia," most of "Who's Next" and a smattering of singles ("My Generation," "Substitute," "I Can See for Miles"), most of the Who's back catalog sounds pretty corny at this distance. (And don't even mention the band's '80s albums, the listenability of which is summed up by the title of the band's 1982 release, "It's Hard.") Some of that has to do with Keith Moon's drumming, which may have once seemed the ultimate in instrumental anarchy but now simply sounds sloppy; some may be the fault of Roger Daltrey, one of the most incredibly stilted singers in rock. But mostly, it's the result of a songbook that depended more on attitude than melodic invention. Because as we all know, the only thing worse than adolescent rebellion is commercialized adolescent rebellion.
Is there anything worse than artistically ambitious folk-rockers? Sure there is -- artistically ambitious folk-rockers on acid. Hence the pretentious and self-indulgent muddle that was the Jefferson Airplane.
There's no denying that the Airplane had some first-rate instrumentalists aboard, particularly guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. But what the band did with that talent was more than slightly suspect, pursuing the instrumental abandon of jazz without bothering to develop its rhythmic acuity or harmonic discipline.
Apart from "Somebody to Love" (which, by rights, belonged to Grace Slick's old band, the Great Society), there's little in the Airplane's songbook that bears hearing today. Nor has the group's sound, from Slick's stentorian declamation to drummer Spencer Dryden's pulseless thrashing, aged especially well. Guess you had to have been there . . .
Had Janis Joplin been a sober, self-effacing, sexually inhibited young woman, would she have been able to sing the blues as well as she did while messed up and screwed up?
Would she have become as famous a rock star?
And that's the problem. Because whatever Joplin's reputation as a hard-living libertine might have meant to rock fans in 1968, it adds nothing to the sound coming out of our speakers 25 years later. As such, even the best of her work sound exaggerated and overwrought, coming across more as a caricature of the blues than the genuine article.
On album, that isn't entirely her fault; Joplin's performances moves from execrable to passable when she finally gets competent backing on "I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!" But instead of fully realized performances, what we get from her are flashes of excitement scattered amid clouds of bluesy over-emoting -- not totally unlistenable, but hardly the stuff of greatness.
JERRY LEE LEWIS
Let's give credit where credit is due -- Jerry Lee Lewis single-handedly transformed rock and roll piano, infusing it with a frenzy that lifted it above either the sanctified shout of gospel or the bass-driven abandon of boogie-woogie.
After making that breakthrough, however, Lewis never quite came up with a follow-through. So from 1957 on, he found himself in the unenviable position of spinning endless variations on either the country raunch of "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" or the reckless intensity of "Great Balls of Fire." Over and over and over again, with diminishing intensity.
While he certainly warrants a place in pop history, alongside such Sun Records alums as Billy Riley and Warren Smith, his legacy is hardly the equivalent of what true greats like Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash accomplished.
Have you ever laughed along as Beavis and Butt-head made snide-but-accurate comments about how stupid old hard rock videos look? Then you know what it's like to listen to the Deep Purple catalog.
Even if you overlook the symphonic pretensions of "Deep Purple in Rock," it's hard to find much about this band's pompous and overblown approach to the blues that isn't utterly laughable. It isn't just the should-white-men-be-allowed-to-sing-the-blues inanity of singers like Ian Gillan and David Coverdale; the playing is pretty ridiculous, too, from Jon Lord's "Phantom of the Opera" organ solos to Richie Blackmore's self-impressed grandstanding on guitar.
Granted, they did come up with "Smoke on the Water," giving rock a guitar riff simple and catchy enough that any half-wit can play (and most have). But "Highway Star"? "Space Truckin' "? "Mad Woman From Tokyo"? Pure "Spinal Tap" stuff -- and that's this band's best material.
Maybe rock and roll really did need a band that blended bad poetry with lounge-band organ noodling -- if nothing else, it proved that rock could survive even the tackiest of middlebrow pretensions and still give Mom and Dad the willies.
That may be reason enough for Oliver Stone to celebrate the Doors, but there's no reason the rest of us have to. Face it: Take away his assiduously cultivated sexual menace, and Jim Morrison is just the Robert Goulet of rock, a crooner whose sound is too fatuous to work on any but the most indestructible melodies.
And even though the Doors can claim a couple of memorable melodies, even their best singles are far from golden. After all, wouldn't "Light My Fire" sound a lot better without the organ solo? And why is it that the beat to "Hello, I Love You" bears such a strong resemblance to the Henry Mancini instrumental, "Baby Elephant Walk"?
THE FOUR SEASONS
With a voice somewhere between a seagull's squawk and fingernails on a blackboard, Frankie Valli was the most annoying front man in the history of rock. So, naturally, the Four Seasons' most famous singles actually emphasize his screeching delivery, from the pants-too-tight shriek of "Sherry" to the closed-the-car-door-on-my-hand wail of "Big Girls Don't Cry."
Worse, when Valli finally gave up his annoy-the-dogs falsetto, he replaced it with the sort of syrupy croon that left most listeners longing for the edgy excitement of Vic Damone. It's enough to make even Sha Na Na seem like rock royalty . . .
When the Animals first hit the scene, the band was universally celebrated as the most credible R&B; act in Britain, proof that white men really could come up with a credible imitation of soul.
Which was great as far as it went. But now that all the blues and soul records Eric Burdon drew from are easily available, why would anyone bother with such a pallid imitation?
THE MOODY BLUES
At their best, the Moody Blues combined the orchestral splendor of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" with the intricate vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds." Unfortunately, the band neglected to match the melodic interest of either.
Consequently, even the band's most enduring material -- "Nights in White Satin" and, uhhh . . . did I mention "Nights in White Satin"? -- seems wispy and under-developed. Add in the conceptual clutter and half-baked mysticism found on albums like "In Search of the Lost Chord" or "A Question of Balance," and you're left with the sort of stuff that makes even Rod McKuen seem deep.