The class for classic just isn't there in some famed acts Overrated Rock

October 24, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

A funny thing happened on the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- a surprising amount of classic rock has turned out to be a lot less enduring than previously believed.

Music that used to seem daring, exciting, inventive now sounds dated, quaint, cliched. It isn't that the songs simply seem old; it's as if they belong to an era so distant that it's hard to imagine how anyone could have possibly considered the stuff hip.

I'm not talking about music from another era, either. After all, you'd expect listeners who grew up in the rock era to have a hard time grasping just what it was about Eddie Cantor or Rudy Vallee that drove their fans wild.

But the Who? The Jefferson Airplane? Deep Purple? Those acts aren't exactly ancient history. Deep Purple still has a recording .. contract, the Airplane got together for a show with Signe Anderson recently, and the Who are reportedly considering another reunion tour.

Yet an awful lot of what many fans would consider their finest work now sounds old and musty -- laughable, even. Listening to it today, one thought keeps recurring: What on Earth were we thinking then?

Maybe it was the delusion of youth. Maybe it was the spirit of the times. Maybe it was the drugs.

Whatever it was, it has long since worn off. And with that in mind, here's a look at 10 classic rock acts, and why they don't seem so classic anymore.

THE WHO

In the '60s, the Who was the quintessential mod band, writing about class consciousness and generational anomie with a realism the Beatles or Rolling Stones never managed. In the '70s, the Who came on like punk pioneers, the godfathers of anger, noise and unfettered destruction. In the '90s, the Who hit Broadway as rock's answer to Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

What's wrong with this picture?

It isn't just the notion of rock rebellion competing against "Cats" for the Saturday matinee crowds that grates. It's the fact that "Tommy" -- allegedly the Who's greatest work -- could make the transition from rock masterpiece to schlock showcase so easily.

But "Tommy" isn't the only part of the Who's repertoire that has turned cheesy with age. Sat through "A Quick One While He's Away" lately? How about "The Who Sell Out"?

Let's face it -- apart from "Quadrophenia," most of "Who's Next" and a smattering of singles ("My Generation," "Substitute," "I Can See for Miles"), most of the Who's back catalog sounds pretty corny at this distance. (And don't even mention the band's '80s albums, the listenability of which is summed up by the title of the band's 1982 release, "It's Hard.") Some of that has to do with Keith Moon's drumming, which may have once seemed the ultimate in instrumental anarchy but now simply sounds sloppy; some may be the fault of Roger Daltrey, one of the most incredibly stilted singers in rock. But mostly, it's the result of a songbook that depended more on attitude than melodic invention. Because as we all know, the only thing worse than adolescent rebellion is commercialized adolescent rebellion.

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE

Is there anything worse than artistically ambitious folk-rockers? Sure there is -- artistically ambitious folk-rockers on acid. Hence the pretentious and self-indulgent muddle that was the Jefferson Airplane.

There's no denying that the Airplane had some first-rate instrumentalists aboard, particularly guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. But what the band did with that talent was more than slightly suspect, pursuing the instrumental abandon of jazz without bothering to develop its rhythmic acuity or harmonic discipline.

Apart from "Somebody to Love" (which, by rights, belonged to Grace Slick's old band, the Great Society), there's little in the Airplane's songbook that bears hearing today. Nor has the group's sound, from Slick's stentorian declamation to drummer Spencer Dryden's pulseless thrashing, aged especially well. Guess you had to have been there . . .

JANIS JOPLIN

Had Janis Joplin been a sober, self-effacing, sexually inhibited young woman, would she have been able to sing the blues as well as she did while messed up and screwed up?

Quite possibly.

Would she have become as famous a rock star?

No way.

And that's the problem. Because whatever Joplin's reputation as a hard-living libertine might have meant to rock fans in 1968, it adds nothing to the sound coming out of our speakers 25 years later. As such, even the best of her work sound exaggerated and overwrought, coming across more as a caricature of the blues than the genuine article.

On album, that isn't entirely her fault; Joplin's performances moves from execrable to passable when she finally gets competent backing on "I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!" But instead of fully realized performances, what we get from her are flashes of excitement scattered amid clouds of bluesy over-emoting -- not totally unlistenable, but hardly the stuff of greatness.

JERRY LEE LEWIS

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