Exploring the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ of Classic Rock With Steven Hyden: Exclusive Interview
The cover art of Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, the newest book from author and music critic Steven Hyden, delivers an invitation to the trip that none of us are eager to take anytime soon. But as you dig into the pages of Hyden’s book, you’ll uncover a more personal journey, one which was initially fueled by an important connection that he made listening to the radio in Green Bay, Wisc. while growing up.
“Radio was how I learned about classic rock,” he writes in the second chapter. “DJs told you which bands mattered the most and assembled those bands into playlists that related an overarching narrative signifying an era.” For Hyden and other music fans who grew up in the pre-internet era, even with the DJ acting as the gatekeeper, it was an important open door to explore.
“For people my age, we came to this music because it was always on the radio. In a way, it was as if these bands were frozen in amber for us,” Hyden tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “Even if you grew up in the ‘90s, for instance, you can still say that you grew up with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, even if those bands weren’t active at that time, they were still a part of your life.”
Twilight of the Gods offers a fascinating exploration of the history of classic rock, with Hyden examining the evolution and progression as well as dissecting the contributions of key bands and artists -- and as those classic rock icons begin to fall away, he takes a look at what the future might look like in a world without them.
Here are some highlights from the chat that we had with Hyden regarding the book.
You do a great job of taking a really interesting look at the history of classic rock and the role that radio played in music discovery in past decades. It would be interesting to be in the shoes of the millennials that are reading the book now, because they’ve come to bands and music in so many other different ways and radio might not be one of those things.
Right, it’s not the radio now. Although, radio, in a way, it still defines what classic rock is, I think, in the popular consciousness. Classic rock was a radio format. You know, because it’s not really a genre and that’s one thing I talk about in the book, is trying to define what this is. I could tell that coming to classic rock, that it was sort of a qualitative thing, like, you’re talking about the best rock music or maybe a certain idea of what rock music is, rather than this generation of bands that was essentially codified by the radio, by saying, okay, these are the bands that we’re going to play all of the time. We’re going to play the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and all of those bands and also maybe leave some bands behind that were contemporaries of theirs, that were from the same era and there’s really no musical reason not to group them under the classic rock umbrella.
But they don’t get played on the radio and they’re not necessarily classified that way, which is an interesting thing. Or some bands are classified as oldies, because of radio formats. Chuck Berry is on the oldies station, so he’s oldies, but not necessarily classic rock. For the younger people, I think even if they’re not listening to the radio, I think they still get that filtered down to them, because of how we’ve talked about these bands for so long. And then they of course, are getting it through Spotify, which in a way, makes it even easier to get into these bands now.
When I was a kid, you had to go to the record store and you had to be selective on what you were going to buy and you had to read books in order to learn about this stuff. Sometimes, those books weren’t very reliable, like Hammer of the Gods. That’s a book I write about in my book and that was a huge book for me. Certainly, as far as the members of Led Zeppelin are concerned, that’s not a very accurate book. But that was kind of all I had to go on for a while. And then I read other books about them. Now, you can just read Wikipedia and be an expert and you probably know more than I did when I was 13, about Led Zeppelin.
I do think that it’s interesting the way that classic rock as a genre has held on the way it has. Sometimes the bands themselves didn’t anticipate that they would still be doing this 40 or 50 years later. This style of music has held on in a way that genres of music from the ‘30s and ‘40s didn’t, for example. As you said, genres have come and gone. You talk about this in your book, but even when you look at how some of these classic rock bands and artists against the odds, weathered the ‘80s and the ‘90s, it’s really pretty remarkable when you consider genres that have basically been killed by the next genre that comes along. These guys might have struggled at one point or another, but ultimately, they endure, which is interesting.
I think there’s a lot of reasons for that. The media and the way things are distributed has a lot to do with that. Let’s just start with the fact that this is great music, too. I love this music and that certainly had something to do with it, but you know, there’s also something to how people weren’t listening to big band music in the ‘70s. They weren’t listening to their parents’ music. The obvious difference is that there’s been a stronger connection between the ‘60s and ‘70s rock music and rock music now. If you love Courtney Barnett or you love the War on Drugs or the National, any of these sort of great bands of today, they don’t sound that different from the ‘60s and ‘70s. A lot of contemporary artists, they aren’t shy about talking about their influences. They love that music too. So there’s a stronger connection there and that’s another reason why.
People still playing rock music today keeps that music alive. One of the things I love about rock music is the continuum aspect of it. Which isn’t true in every genre. I think that hip-hop, for instance, is much more about the moment and reinventing itself and not discarding the past necessarily, but not leaning on it as much as rock music does and that’s what makes hip-hop really exciting. Well, what I love about rock is just that idea that you can draw a line between something that’s happening now to something that’s happening 50 years ago, which is much more of a blues or folk-type tradition, which is what rock comes out of, that idea that you’re preserving the roots, but you’re also putting your own spin on it. It’s sort of like, one foot in the past and one foot in the future, which I’ve always thought is one of the great things about rock and roll. But yeah, the radio, again, I think that if classic rock radio hadn’t come along, playing all of these bands all of the time, I don’t know if people like me would have discovered it. Maybe eventually. But I think it made it so much easier to hear it. There’s really no other genre where that’s true. There are oldies sort-of country stations and there’s throwback hip-hop stations, but in rock, there’s always been this thing where the past has kind of been the present, all of the time.
Contemporary bands are almost competing with the past in a way, in terms of just touring dollars. You know, they’re on the road at the same time. So it’s a very interesting thing. But now we’re at a point with distribution and the media and technology whereas you said, it’s not like in the past where you would have a trend that was popular, like hair metal or something and then it falls out of fashion and then you never hear hair metal bands on the radio anymore and you’re going to hear a new kind of rock band. Now, what would happen is that if you love hair metal, you just go to your favorite hair metal websites and you can keep track of the bands that you love just as easily as before. So many different things can co-exist now at the same time. So that’s another thing that I guess works in classic rock’s favor, even as the radio declines, there’s so many different silos now, that if you’re into this thing, you can love it forever, even if it’s not the predominate cultural trend at the moment.
You dig into some interesting topics with this book, including the concept of the “good bad” album, mentioning the Black and Blue album by the Rolling Stones as one example of a “good bad” album that’s a favorite of yours. But you call “Memory Motel” overrated. I’d be curious to hear you talk about why you think that one is overrated. You also call “Fool to Cry” the dullest track the Stones ever recorded. I have to imagine you’re going to hear from some folks about both of those things.
Not yet. I haven’t gotten too many complaints. I don’t know, like I was on GoodReads today and I was reading some of the reviews and that was probably not a good idea. I mean, most of the reviews were nice. But yeah, you know, the thing is, the book has a lot of opinion in it and a lot of this stuff is obviously subjective. So when I say the song is overrated, that’s obviously my opinion. There’s room for many opinions about these things. There will be people, I’m sure, who will read it and get offended. When it comes to [music], that’s something that’s very personal and it gets integrated into your life, so if there’s a record or a song that you love and it’s meaningful to you, when someone comes along and says, “Oh, that’s not any good,” it’s almost like they’re spitting on your wedding photos or burning your yearbooks. I mean, it’s a personal thing, I fully understand that.
One of the things I thought would be more controversial about the book is the chapter where I was trying to define what classic rock is. Really, I was trying to frame it in a way where I was saying, “Well, this is how I’m defining it for the purposes of my book.” Because this is obviously a nebulous term. It means many different things to other people, so I’m not necessarily trying to come up with a definition in an academic sense that everyone can use. This is how I define it, you’re reading my book, so just so you know where I’m coming from. When I extended the era of classic rock into the ‘90s and I said that Nine Inch Nails record [The Fragile] was the last classic rock record, again, it’s sort of talking about rock music in a certain kind of way with a certain kind of cultural prominence or popularity and also, just a reflection of classic rock radio and how that’s evolved and ‘90s bands are now a part of that.
When I brought up Nine Inch Nails, I thought for sure, there will be people who hate that and don’t understand where I’m coming from. Because they feel it’s just ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s like, it stops at The Long Run by the Eagles or something, that’s the end of classic rock. Or Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, that would be the end of classic rock for some people. Which I totally get and I understand. You can’t really do anything about that. To me, I feel like I tried to write the book in a way where even if you don’t agree with everything, it’s still entertaining to read. Reading a book is like taking a road trip with the author sometimes and the person needs to be a willing passenger in your book. They have to sort of buy into the concept of what you’re doing. If they don’t buy into it, then you’re not going to get where you’re going. But just like any road trip, you might not like everything the driver does, but if you’re committed to being with them, you’re going to make it to the end and you’re going to be okay. So hopefully if there’s bumps in the road, people will still want to ride with me.
So with “Memory Motel,” why does it not hit the mark for you personally as a Stones fan?
I think the song is fine, but I just know that it’s always mentioned as the great song on that record and I think the greatest song on that record is “Hand of Fate.” I love that song. “Crazy Mama” is a great song. But I like “Memory Motel.” I just don’t think it’s a great song on that record. “Fool to Cry,” I was meaner to and I don’t think that’s a very good song, I just think it’s a boring song. I kind of like the live versions of “Memory Motel” more than the one on the record. Actually, the first time I saw the Stones, I saw them on the Voodoo Lounge tour and I write about this in the book, but they played “Memory Motel” at that show, which was pretty cool. So yeah, I’m not going to take too many shots at “Memory Motel,” but “Hand of Fate” for me, is such a great song. That’s my favorite song on that record.
Black and Blue is the album the comes out of the experience of the Rolling Stones auditioning new guitar players to replace Mick Taylor. They end up using the recordings with those guitarists on the albums. It’s really an incredible thing that you can’t imagine anybody else but the Stones pulling that off.
Yeah, I mean, it really kind of speaks to, I guess, Mick [Jagger]’s frugalness in a way. It’s like, we can’t waste this time. We were playing these songs and they exist, so why not use these recordings? And the Stones were not in good shape at that point. Keith [Richards] was not in good shape and I think the band was pretty exhausted. They were sort of in that lull before Some Girls, where they really kicked it back again and had a good two- or three-year run with records. Although, you know, Tattoo You, I guess is just sort of leftovers, but I love that record and that’s the last Stones record that I think is great. I love Tattoo You a lot, especially the second side of the album, which is so great -- all the ballads on that side are just awesome, it’s such a great mood record.
The rock side of Tattoo You is pretty good, there are some songs that are kind of boilerplate songs -- they feel a little generic. But all of the ballads on the second side, starting with “Worried About You” and up through “Waiting on a Friend.” You’ve got “Heaven” and “Tops” and “No Use in Crying.” But Black and Blue, you can definitely point to that as being a make-or-break point for the Stones. They could have just petered out then and they somehow regrouped and made Some Girls. I love that record for that reason, it’s sort of a fascinating look at the Stones at that time.
We’ve seen so many classic rockers pass away over the past few years and you assign a timeline that in 10 to 15 years, most of the rest of the artists that we know and love will be gone. That’s a sobering thought, but it’s obviously very accurate when you look at the current age of a lot of these people. And as we’ve seen with some of the people who have already passed, when you factor in the hard living and the rock and roll lifestyle, it might be sooner than that. How much will it matter when the current crop of classic rockers are all gone? Right now, you’ve got bands that are still at the arena level, shed package tours, small theaters and county fairs. Obviously, this is not all going to drop out at once, but it seems like the industry could take a hit of sorts.
Yeah, it will be interesting. You know, we’re reaching a point where I wonder how many people are going to be playing arenas and stadiums. There are certainly pop artists that can do that. And there are still a good number of rock bands that can do it, but it seems like that might be in a little bit of decline. I don’t know. It’s curious to contemplate. You know, people need stuff to do. So even when certain bands are gone, people seem to find something else to take its place. ... I think that sometime artists, they can be elevated sometimes by openings. If a certain band goes away, maybe people go see another band that’s similar to that. They just want that experience, they want to be able to go to a show.
One example that just popped into my head is when the Grateful Dead, when Jerry Garcia died, there was a big influx of Deadheads into Phish’s scene. Phish was already a big band, but you know, a lot of those Deadhead people who wanted to go see a jammy rock band, they kind of elevated Phish a little bit. We’ll go see this band now. So I’m curious to see, you know, maybe Wilco or something gets elevated a little bit. Maybe they start playing bigger venues, because “we’re going to go see a rock show,” what bands are they going to go see? This band’s been around for a while and they have a lot of good songs, so maybe we’ll go see this band now, even if we’re not a huge fan. People go see the Stones now, even when they don’t really love the Stones. They just go because it’s a big rock show. Or they go see U2 or something. So that will be curious to see. I don’t know. I’m fascinated to see how these things play out.