It’s a pretty common assumption that rock ’n’ roll – at least rock ’n’ roll in the form codified by the classic-rock giants of the late ’60s and early ’70s – is dead. That assumption is not unfair; rock ’n’ roll has splintered into so many subgenres and micro-classifications that, today, everything from Fuck Buttons to Fall Out Boy can be loosely described as “rock music.” In other words, calling a piece of music “rock ’n’ roll” is as practically useless as calling a pigeon-toed, two-headed cow an “animal.”
However, worse than being considered dead, rock ’n’ roll is also considered resolutely passé. For many people today, capital-C Classic Rock is associated with egomaniacal excess, empty instrumental bravado and, most damningly, a soulless and reductive commercial core that aspires only to lowest-common-denominator crapulence for incurious consumers and folks who think that music’s most important purpose is to pump up crowds during halftime.
How did this happen? How did the music that drove a youth revolution into the streets in the late ’60s become the soundtrack to erectile dysfunction medication commercials? How did a decade’s worth of songs produced and enjoyed in a haze of cocaine, whiskey, heroin and unprotected sex become audio shorthand for “call your stockbroker”?
The answer is simple: Truly classic rock ’n’ roll died April 10, 1976, the date that Frampton Comes Alive, the fourth solo album and first live album by British blues-rocker Peter Frampton, hit number one on the Billboard charts.
Frampton was childhood pals with David Bowie, played on a Beatle’s solo magnum opus (George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass), and was the guy Steve Marriott picked to front his post-Small Faces supergroup. All of this points to an artist with a nearly impeccable résumé, yet today he,s known primarily as “the guy who does that thing with the voice box on that song my (grand-) parents like.” Again, how did this happen?
Frampton was a victim of his own success. Frampton Comes Alive was released in January 1976, and it wasn’t expected to function as anything more than a stopgap until the artist could cobble together enough songs for his fifth studio album. During the mid-’70s, it was remarkably common for rock ‘n’ roll artists to release album after album on major labels without ever cracking the Billboard Top 10; as long as they recouped their (modest) recording budgets and as long as they still seemed to be relevant and interesting, rock bands were welcome to hang around on record labels that were largely supported by massive sales of pop singles.
Every now and then, of course, a rock act would score a massive radio hit, but for the most part, rock ’n’ roll was relegated to the free-form waves of the FM band while pop music was reserved for the AM dial. Frampton all but destroyed that barrier with Comes Alive, which went platinum less than four months after it was released, pushing him into the public consciousness not as a rocker but as a hit-maker. A shirtless appearance in Rolling Stone and an ill-advised turn as “Billy Shears” in the Bee Gees’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie did little to help reinforce his rock bona fides.
This success was so detrimental to the notion of classic rock not because Frampton made some predetermined decision to sell out or become a pop idol, but rather precisely because he did not make that decision. He was just making a live album. But in the mid-’70s, the table had been set for such a thing to occur by the rise of the album- oriented-rock radio format. A direct descendent of the free-form FM stations of the late ’60s and early ’70s, AOR was codified by infamous radio consultant Lee Abrams and required that programmers tightly restrict their playlists to a small core of artists and songs, rather than letting DJs play whatever songs on whatever albums struck their fancy. Imagine Top 40 radio, but with good music. At the time, it probably seemed like a good idea.
However, the success of Frampton Comes Alive – bolstered by nonstop spins on AOR stations — opened a Pandora’s box of greed, showing programmers and record-label folks that rock ‘n’ roll could be big money. And the game changed.
Labels looked for more breakthrough artists, nudging established, if low-selling, rockers like Journey, Styx, and Steve Miller into radio-friendly territory, hoping to continue those successes; meanwhile, established legends like Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, and others each had a handful of their songs repeated ad nauseam by unadventurous AOR stations. The result: a “classic rock” playlist that sounds pretty much the same today as it did 30 years ago. Is it any wonder that the genre is thought of so contemptuously by so many? More important, is it any wonder that another album released a few weeks after Frampton Comes Alive topped the charts — the Ramones’ self-titled debut — eventually had such an impact? •