Rock & Roll Nostalgia: Look Back With Longing

A new generation of rock consumers – weaned on the still-potent myths of the Sixties and walled in by the formula-ridden radio of the Eighties – ignored the new music erupting all around it and looked back instead to the buzz that was

American musician Richie Havens performs onstage at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, New York on August 15th, 1969. Credit: Ralph Ackerman/Getty

Between sets at a Blue Öyster Cult-Foghat double bill at Madison Square Garden recently, I was accosted by a bunch of wide-eyed teenagers from Staten Island who had spotted me scribbling in a notebook, figured I was a critic and decided to pick my brain about the state of rock. As we talked, it turned out that what they wanted to know wasn't what I thought about the latest English trends, or about New Wave, or even about Springsteen versus Seger. They really wanted to know what rock was like in the Sixties. Had I seen the Doors, the Stones, Hendrix? Had I been to Woodstock?

Born in the mid-Sixties and spoon-fed rock mythology while they were still too young to go to concerts, these kids are the new generation of rock consumers. They have grown up nostalgic for a past they've only experienced secondhand and, rather than looking forward to a new rock culture of their own, they are looking back with longing toward another time, another place.

In fact, there is a new rock culture emerging. Internationalist rather than American in spirit, it's more hardheaded than utopian in its response to the cold realities of today's TV-hipped computer world in which human life seems increasingly perilous and cheap. This attitude is evident in the music of dozens of new bands: from the reggae of Black Uhuru to the disco-swing-Latin fusion of Kid Creole and the Coconuts; from the postpunk musings of Public Image Ltd. to the reggae-influenced pop of the Police; from the street rappings of Kurtis Blow, Frankie Smith and Grand Master Flash to the icy, erotic songs of Grace Jones. But in conservative, Reaganized America, there were only scant hints of this new wave of music in 1981. Instead, to most Americans, rock & roll, our greatest cultural export of the last quarter-century, has come to symbolize a younger, more golden time – a time when our global fears seemed more removed and our personal futures more secure.

Certainly, the Rolling Stones' triumphant 1981 tour – which opened in Philadelphia on September 25th, hit more than 20 cities and sold more than $25 million worth of tickets – suggested that maybe time could stand still. At 38 and in great physical shape, Mick Jagger still pranced like Pan incarnate, while a healthy, rejuvenated Keith Richards dominated the band musically, propelling his mates to performances vastly superior to any on the last couple of tours.

The Stones' U.S. trek coincided with the release of their ballsy, heartfelt album, Tattoo You. Critics almost unanimously hailed the LP as the group's best since 1972's Exile on Main Street, and it shot straight up the charts to Number One. Without question, 1981 belonged to the Stones, and it seemed fitting that this band – the heroes of the Sixties and Seventies – should once again reign in 1981.

The euphoria brought about by the Stones' tour at the end of this year stood in stark contrast to the anguish and grief that followed the murder of John Lennon, near the end of 1980. While it couldn't begin to compensate for Lennon's loss, the tour at least demonstrated that the high-rock culture wasn't totally wiped out. And the emotional response to Lennon's death demonstrated the depth of that culture's impact on the American consciousness. John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S., and Ono's moving memorial, Season of Glass, also fared surprisingly well.

The year was filled with other reminders of the Sixties. Simon and Garfunkel's glowing reunion at a free concert in New York's Central Park attracted more than half a million fans. The highlight of the show? Simon's compelling performance of "The Late Great Johnny Ace," a song dedicated to Lennon. The Moody Blues also regrouped in 1981, and as they toured behind their Number One LP, Long Distance Voyager, their rendition of "Nights in White Satin" drew five-minute ovations.

Then there was the Doors revival. A greatest-hits package sold more than a million copies; several of the band's studio albums, re-released at discount prices, made the charts; and Jim Morrison, with his mixture of the mystical and the demonic, the poetic and the sleazy, emerged as one of the most representative rock heroes of the early Eighties. The only problem: Morrison died 10 years ago!

Other significant Sixties-related events in 1981 included the successes of former Traffic leader Steve Winwood's gold Arc of a Diver and the Who's platinum Face Dances, and the continuing resurgence of the Kinks with a fine, funny hard-rock album, Give the People What They Want. And at least two Bob Dylan compositions, the magnificent "Every Grain of Sand" and the rocking "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar," proved that another Sixties demigod was not ready to be counted out.

But while the air was filled with nostalgia – and more than a whiff of necrophilia – there was also a continuing search for values and a sense of community among some Seventies rockers and their audiences. Riding the crest of his double-platinum masterpiece, The River, Bruce Springsteen wound up a nearly year-long tour, including a nine-week European stint, in September. Springsteen was greeted as a symbolic American hero – the equal of Elvis or Dylan – and his tumultuous performances in England were witnessed by virtually every major British rock star, from Pete Townshend to Elvis Costello to the Clash. In June, Springsteen inaugurated the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, half an hour away from New York City. His six shows there attracted nearly 120,000 fans and cemented his position as one of rock's greatest performers. And on August 20th, at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Springsteen played the first of several rock concerts benefiting the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Though nowhere near as articulate about the blue-collar work ethic as Springsteen, Styx made a conscious attempt to inspire its audience with the triple-platinum Paradise Theatre LP and a corresponding tour. But Styx' success was equally noteworthy for the way it demonstrated the enormous gap that has developed between critics and the public. Damned as faceless, bland and formulaic by most rock writers, bands like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Journey and Rush nonetheless had banner years in 1981, selling millions of records and dominating the airwaves.

These groups – along with such harder rock acts as AC/DC, Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne – were among the only bankable commodities in a year that saw the record industry still suffering from the woes of increased costs, declining sales and an undeclared war with radio over the issues of programming and promotion.

These problems had a direct and devastating impact on music in 1981. With the average cost of making an album at more than $100,000 and the average break-even point in sales at about 200,000 copies, record companies were less inclined than ever to invest in marginally commercial acts or push hard to break new ones. Instead, they continued to rely on proven superstars for the bulk of their sales. Medium-level acts also found it difficult to get their music heard via live shows, as labels virtually ruled out tour support and as fans, finding themselves with less disposable income, became pickier and pickier about which concerts they'd attend.

But the real culprit was radio. As FM stations tightened their formats, only hard-edged arena rock or pop rock by veteran superstars managed to score significant AOR airplay. Even such artistically significant albums as Rickie Lee Jones' Pirates, the Clash's Sandinista!, Elvis Costello's Trust and Squeeze's East Side Story were virtually ignored by programmers. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Hard Promises and Stevie Nicks' Bella Donna, however, fit snugly into AOR formulas and sold accordingly. Among newer English bands, only the Police loomed as a supergroup, with the pop-reggae Zenyatta Mondatta and the more darkly textured Ghost in the Machine both faring well on radio and on the charts.

Records that didn't fit into the AOR scheme of things were dependent on either hit singles or play in rock dance clubs for exposure. And Top 40 radio, like AOR, became more and more formula-ridden. Desperate to break singles, many record companies turned to independent promotion firms, some of which, for a fee, could "deliver" a hit. But the cost was prohibitive (around $70,000 to "buy" a Top 30 single, sources say), and many were convinced that the route was corrupt.

With novelty medleys like "Stars on 45" and TV celebrities like Rick Springfield ("Jessie's Girl") topping the charts, 1981 was an inauspicious year for hit singles, though there were some impressive exceptions. Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes," the Pointer Sisters' "Slow Hand" and Daryl Hall and John Oates' string of Top 10 hits all suggested a new, streamlined pop sound, with the synthesizer a more defined element. Another fixture on the singles charts this year was Lionel Richie Jr., who wrote and produced "Lady" and "I Don't Need You" for Kenny Rogers and "Endless Love" for Diana Ross and himself, as well as hits for his own group, the Commodores.

For the most part, the only black records to score across the board were MOR confections like "Endless Love." The year's biggest funk hits – the Gap Bands's "Burn Rubber" and Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak" – failed to cross over to the pop charts (though James' Street Songs did make it into the Top 10 on the pop album charts). And rap music, which developed into a minor art form through such New York-based groups as Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, remained an underground phenomenon, except for one hit, Frankie Smith's "Double Dutch Bus."

Neither of the two black artists who cast the longest shadows over the year – Stevie Wonder and the late Bob Marley – put out new albums in 1981. Wonder's late-1980 release, Hotter Than July, contained powerful tributes to Marley, "Master Blaster (Jammin')," and to Martin Luther King Jr., "Happy Birthday." Their juxtaposition on the same album implied a political continuity between the American civil-rights movement and Caribbean pan-Africanism, between American soul and Jamaican reggae. It was something that had been stated before, but never by an American artist of Wonder's stature. And Marley's death came in the same year that rock music, in the Caribbean and in England, took on scarily prophetic social overtones. The biracial youth riots against the Thatcher government that swept England during the summer literally bore out the punk-rock warnings of impending anarchy in the U.K.

The Specials' eerie ska hit, "Ghost Town," which topped the British charts at the time of the riots, illustrated the fact that reggae, which had only been a radical-chic pop trend in the early Seventies, had taken such deep root in English rock that it was becoming the dominant pulse. And its adaptation by the Police in a pure pop setting (with an internationalist world view) stunningly demonstrated its versatility as an all-purpose rhythm.

Even though this internationalist spirit of rock, epitomized by reggae, was an established fact in England at the end of 1981, in America it was only a fringe movement. The closest any of the kids I met at the Garden had come to reggae was through the Police; they had only heard of Bob Marley and knew nothing of the music's religious and political roots. But that isn't their fault. And perhaps it isn't their fault that they long for the Sixties, either. The American mass media have effectively dissuaded them from looking farther afield musically than the very narrow style certified as 'rock' by AOR. Until the media find it profitable to promote a wider, more globally aware musical sensibility, or until knowledge of it leaks through the radio-TV edifice to ignite the young generation, American rock will probably continue to feast on its own past. It is a measure of our dread that it was far easier in 1981 to celebrate an old revolution than to prepare for a new one.