I listened to a lot of "classic rock" stations in my time, and as a teenager I noticed that the stuff played on these stations began in 1967, and ended sometime in the early 1980s. Classic rock meant The Beatles after "Strawberry Fields" and Sgt. Pepper, their early Merseybeat material was strictly for the "oldies" stations. The format at that time also excluded metal (although early Van Halen still got airplay), meaning no Sabbath or Iron Maiden. (This has changed recently now that people my age are into nostalgia, I now hear classic rock stations play plenty of Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, etc.) It wasn't until very recently, however that I discoverd that 1981 is the last febrile year of "classic rock" as it is classically conceived. (By that I mean "blues based, guitar centered rock music that is not punk or metal.")
Here's a rundown of bands and their highlights:
In 1981 the king daddy of classic rock bands, The Stones, released Tattoo You, their last album of any great worth. Overly optimistic fans usually declare the latest mediocre Stones record to be "their best since Tattoo You" (or "their best since Some Girls if especially hopeful.) This album, which is mostly a collection of outtakes and reheated false starts, contains their last two enduring songs, "Waiting on a Friend" and "Start Me Up." Charlie and Keith really found a groove on this record, and it's a shame that they never got it back. So good it almost makes up for Emotional Rescue. It can't make up for three decades of lame output by supposedly "the greatest rock and roll band in the world."
Foreigner, a band which I despise, put out 4 in 1981, their biggest seller. (Nothing makes me cringe more than Lou Gramm's overblown singing style.) OK, I'll admit that I kinda like "Urgent," especially the killer sax solo courtesy of the legendary Junior Walker and that "Waiting For a Girl Like You" has a nice vibe to it.
Apart from "Mr. Roboto" I loathe Styx too, even if "Lady" can lay claim to being first power ballad. (It's either that or Aerosmith's "Dream On.") 1981's Paradise Theater is their last classic rock album before they delved into the New Wave electroworld on Kilroy Was Here. The album's nostalgic and elegiac themes in songs like "Best of Times" certainly reinforce the notion that mainstream rock music was running out of gas.
Blue Oyster Cult
BOC didn't survive long into the 1980s, but 1981's Fire of Unknown Origin brought us "Burning For You," their last memorable single and perhaps their best.
I am cheating a little with this one, since High Infidelity dropped in 1980, but it became the #1 rock album of 1981, spending 15 (!) weeks in the top slot. Even though I have ties to Champaign, Illinois, (their city of origin), I can't get over the fact that REO is pretty lame. That being said, High Infidelity manages to be the one moment where they transcend mediocrity and approach greatness. Case in point: "Keep on Loving You" is THE definitive power ballad, capable of launching a thousand awkward high school slow dances.
Like REO, Rush saved their best album for the early 1980s: Moving Pictures. They did so by embracing synthesizers and a more modern sound, most famously on "Tom Sawyer." If you can get past the rockstar navel-gazing of the lyrics, "Limelight" rocks pretty feckin' hard, too. With Rush's current renaissance among the young, their contributions to classic rock's dusk might be the most enduring.
And then there's Journey, a group which I had professed to hate for years, but now acknowledge a semi-secret, sheepish affection for. At a time plagued by histrionic hard rock vocal theatrics, Steve Perry was the only guy who could really pull it off while still keeping his dignity. 1981's Escape spawned the only power ballads that can challenge "Keep On Loving You" for the crown: "Open Arms" and "Don't Stop Believing." I am not embarassed to admit that the latter gives me goosebumps every time when it kicks into "streetlights people" section. (And not just because my Chicago White Sox used it as their theme on the way to the 2005 World Series.) Don't just take my word for it. In our digital age, so contemptuous of the past, it is among the most downloaded songs. On top of that, they crafted one of the great moody songs to drive down an empty highway to at 4AM: "Who's Crying Now," which my childhood Top 40 station kept in rotation into the nineties. If 1981 is classic rock's dusk, Escape is its owl of Minerva.
Yet before I lavish too much praise upon the classic rock era's autumn, we must remind ourselves that 1981 barfed up Billy Squier's "The Stroke," perhaps the genre's absolute nadir. (One rock station I used to listen to in Chicago actually had commercials bragging that it didn't play this song!) It's about as subtle as a fart in a spacesuit, and just about as tuneful.
Let's face it, the best rock of 1981 doesn't hold a candle to any year between 1967 and 1972. By 1981 seventies giants Zeppelin had broken up. The next year former greats The Who put out the underwhelming It's Hard, their last original record. In 1983 Roger Waters helmed the good ship Pink Floyd into the self-indulgent, unloveable rocks of The Final Cut. By that time a pop revival led by Michael Jackson and Def Leppard's cotton candy brand of metal, along with MTV and its merry band of British New Wavers, made what we now think of as "classic" rock obsolete. Given the choice, I'll take "Rio" over "The Stroke" any day.