By: Edna Gundersen
For USA TODAY
Jamie Horton, 14, considers himself a fairly savvy music-loving teen. The Los Angeles ninth-grader trawls the Internet for rock discoveries and totes an iPod packed with 3,000 tunes.
His favorite band? Queen. Not late-’90s rock outfit Queens of the Stone Age, not late-’80s metal band Queensryche and certainly not latter-day rap diva Queen Latifah.
Jamie reveres the glam-metal British quartet that flourished in the ’70s with mock operatic Bohemian Rhapsody and the anthemic We Will Rock You.
“I don’t like new wannabe punk like Good Charlotte,” he says. “Led Zeppelin was the first old band I liked. Then Pink Floyd. Now it’s The Who and Queen.”
One contemporary band that he does appreciate is U.K. sensation The Darkness. Why? “They’re similar to Queen.”
Jamie is not alone in his obsession with the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. Though difficult to quantify, the trend of youngsters craving oldies seems to be gaining momentum. Kids are snatching up Beatles and Led Zeppelin discs, flocking to ZZ Top and Steve Miller concerts, researching the troubled histories of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Black Sabbath and scouring their parents’ record collections for Jimi Hendrix licks and Allman Brothers Band jams.
“I could be some of those people’s grandpa,” singer Gregg Allman, 56, says of his band’s current flock. Celebrating its 35th year of touring and recording, the Allmans just wrapped up a nine-night stand at New York’s Beacon Theater after releasing new double live album One Way Out. “We see kids out there, and we still have hippies,” Allman says. “I don’t see a gap between generations. It’s all ages, all types. Kids usually say, ‘I found out about you from my dad.’ Or they ask for an autograph for their mama. That makes you feel dated, but we welcome them with open arms.”
Wed to a rootsy blues-rock tradition, the Southern group never pandered to a younger demo, and Allman suspects it’s that purity that drew teens to the fold.
“To last this long, you have to be the real thing,” he says. “I don’t have any gimmicks or fancy clothes or firecrackers. That stuff never crossed our minds. Genuine rock ‘n’ roll — the right phrasing of a drum beat and a bass guitar — can move your soul.”
Allman and brother Duane, who died in 1971, found their direction by searching for the roots of music that flowered in the ’60s. “We wanted to see what we missed, so we found Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy,” he says. “That’s what kids are doing now, seeing where stuff came from.”
‘Yeah yeah yeah’ to the Beatles
Beatles historian Martin Lewis began spotting a young wave of Fab Four fanaticism as emcee of Beatlefan conventions the past 14 years. Boomers constituted half of the audience in 1990. Now 75% of attendees are under 30, and many barely in their teens.
As marketing consultant for The Beatles Anthology, he met with label execs plotting campaigns targeting fans 45 and up. “I’ve got news for you,” Lewis told them. “I’m the oldest guy at Beatlefan conventions.”
Sure enough, a marketing survey showed that the under-30 constituency scooped up 40% of the first Anthology run. “I’ve interviewed those kids,” Lewis says. “I’ve said, ‘Surely you’d rather listen to Justin Timberlake. Why are you here? Were you forced by your parents?’ But they chose to be there.”
Teens saying “yeah yeah yeah” to The Beatles proves “we’ve sold younger kids short,” says James Austin, vice president of A&R at Rhino/WMG, which specializes in reissues and retrospectives. “We tend to think they like only what’s popular on radio.”
In repackaging early rock, targeting fortysomethings was until recently his key strategy.
“In the past year, I’ve been asking myself how we can reach these younger fans,” he says. “They’re a hidden bonus. Kids today are a lot more sophisticated and more open than anyone realizes.”
Catalog sales were up 17% last week over the corresponding week in 2003 and so far this year are 7.6% ahead of last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Classic rock accounts for a sizable chunk of the pop catalog chart, which tracks all albums more than three years old.
Although SoundScan doesn’t identify buyers by age, industry observers detect a significant upswing of teen interest in oldies. The experts point to several factors that explain the trend of forward-thinking cyber kids reaching backward for music:
• Shifting attitudes. Self-respecting baby boomers dismissed their parents’ Al Jolson, Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra records as corny and dated. Kids now exhibit broader tastes rather than the Mod-or-Rocker mentality that divided British Invasion devotees.
“As long as it’s good music, it doesn’t bother me that my dad likes it too,” Jamie says. “He took me to The Who, and that was easily the best concert I’ve been to.”
He favors the “big music” of seminal rock because “the guitars wailed and lyrics had more meaning. Queen went overboard on everything. You don’t hear singers like Freddie Mercury anymore.” Mercury died in 1991. Jamie was 2.
In the ’60s, coming of age meant reinventing pop culture, rejecting heritage and distrusting anyone older than 30. Not so now.
“There’s not so much peer pressure to identify with a particular genre or even generation of music,” says Jeremy Hammond, head of artist development at Sanctuary Records. “It’s much more about defining one’s own unique tastes. Back then, you had to choose a lifestyle associated with a genre. In England, you were in a gang of rockers or skinheads or Mods. Potheads wanted psychedelic music. Those boundaries are gone.”
Classic-rock icons, like classical composers, defy fashion and “overshadow any perceptions of coolness,” he says.
• New bands plowing an old field. Hip emerging bands freely emulate and name-check musical ancestors, kindling fan interest.
“So many new bands are flashing back,” says Sean Ross of Edison Media Research. “White Stripes, The Darkness and Jet; it’s all AC/DC. As music gets retro, kids get curious about the real thing.”
When rising rock stars rave about The Kinks, sport Hendrix T-shirts or cover Bob Dylan songs, young fans investigate those roots, says Craig Kallman, president of Atlantic Records, home of the Led Zeppelin vault and current sensation The Darkness.
“We’re seeing a resurgence of bands that have been inspired by the greatest rock bands of all time,” Kallman says. “The Darkness embodies the spirit of Queen, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC with fundamentals that made those bands huge: great songs, a fantastic front man, incredible musicianship and a sense of fun. They counter the dark, angry, self-loathing nu-metal that has dominated alternative rock for so long.”
Flamboyant rock stars, blistering guitar solos and hard-rock bombast “all went by the wayside as rap-metal took shape in the ’90,” Kallman says. When bands like The Darkness and Jet arrived, “the spontaneity, creativity, freedom and energy, all the elements that made rock such a defining sound, cut through to kids.”
• Easy access. Classic rock is not only ubiquitous — in TV ads, reissues, reunion tours, soundtracks, copycat bands and recycled hits — but it’s also instantly available. An obscure tune is only a few keystrokes away. “The Internet has turbo-charged the renewed interest in great bands of the past,” Kallman says.
Finding rare gems used to mean scouring used record stores, garage sales and classifieds. Paid downloads and illegal file-sharing allow easy sampling and cherry-picking. Among the more popular digital tracks, according to SoundScan: Elvis Presley’s A Little Less Conversation, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer.
“Kids want to experiment, and technology facilitates that,” Austin says. “They don’t have to shell out 18 bucks to try something. They can preview a track for 30 seconds, and buy it for 99 cents. I’m a big fan of the record store, but it’s going to be a dinosaur.”
Likewise for “stagnant” radio’s narrow formats that don’t cater to youth’s eclectic palate, Austin says.
“Young listeners are reaching for something else, and they often find it in the past. Don’t be surprised if they start checking out Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney.”
The Internet has turned grass-roots movements into brushfires as info-age addicts steer search engines toward rock’s back roads. It’s a phenom that recharges the fan bases of such perennials as the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, David Bowie, Steve Miller and Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose best-of album is a fixture on Billboard’s catalog chart.
“We started out appealing to the working-class blue-collar audience, and now we see their kids at our shows,” Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington says, noting that teens in attendance aren’t rookies.
“They know the words to every song, old or new, and they know our whole history,” he says, referring to the deaths of three players in a 1977 plane crash. “I hear from younger fans who learn about us from the Internet or VH1 or their parents or maybe something Kid Rock said about us.”
• The riches of rock’s golden era. Few modern-era albums linger long on the catalog chart, but hits sets and vintage landmarks, especially Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (listed for an unprecedented 1,390 weeks), show exceptional staying power. Perennials include Bob Marley’s Legend, AC/DC’s Back in Black and Queen’s Greatest Hits. The Beatles, Dylan, Rolling Stones and Zeppelin are reliable sellers.
Why are kids taking nostalgia trips to their parents’ playgrounds? Zeppelin’s bait, says Kallman, is “mythic lifestyles and iconic personas. The music is grandiose and gentle, shaped by blues and heavy metal and textured by British folk and California psychedelia.”
Plus, “they turned the amps up and played as loud as they could,” says Jeffrey Logan, a junior at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, where he founded a Zeppelin fan club called Led Heads.
Members gather to share and analyze classic rock on MP3s, burned CDs and DVDs. Though he admires such modern acts as the White Stripes, Jet, Green Day and Offspring, Jeffrey worships Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Kiss, Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Beatles and similar vets. And he has a whole lotta love for Led Zeppelin.
“Every single song had a unique and flamboyant riff,” Jeffrey says. “I love the crazy guitar and Robert Plant’s screaming voice. Their music is unpredictable and outrageous. It’s a lost genre. We formed this club to spread the word.”
Jeffrey, 17, doesn’t mind that his heroes were also his parents’ faves and that many of them are dead or eligible for Social Security. “They’re just very cool old people,” he says, adding wistfully, “I wish they were still young so I could experience them in their heyday. Music back in the day was about the sound, not about the image like it is now. New bands like Simple Plan and Rooney are kind of repetitive and wimpy. It’s all going downhill.”
• The paucity of contemporary rock idols. Oldies fill a void, says Kristin Clarke of Park Ridge, Ill.
“Before I listened to classic rock, there was nothing I really liked,” says the Lincoln Middle School eighth-grader. “Every new band has one good song and the rest of the CD is garbage. On old rock albums, every song is great. I’m always hitting the repeat button.”
Kristin, 13, got hooked through her brother’s AC/DC and Kiss records, Pink Floyd cliques at school and Chicago’s classic rock station, WLUP (The Loop).
“At first it was weird, but I became totally addicted,” she says. “Aerosmith’s my favorite. I think Steven Tyler is the coolest. Their stuff sounds so good, who cares how old they are? It’s just fun.”
Fun is one lure drawing young Americans to rock’s golden years.
Today’s music ‘clouded by cynicism’
“Look at (the late Who drummer) Keith Moon’s cheeky impudence,” says Beatles expert Lewis. “Eddie Vedder’s image suggests he’d cancel a tour if he broke a fingernail, it would be such a trauma. So much of original music today is clouded by cynicism, a blasé attitude, irony and flippancy.
“Young people like to feel uplifted, but the culture has a sneer on its face so they turn to music, albeit frozen in time, that has an exuberant optimism. Artists in the ’60s and to a degree in the ’70s dared to hope, perhaps naively, that things could get better. Teens should be joyous and optimistic. There’s plenty of time to be bitter and twisted later.”