Guitars And "Danger" Could Help, But Shouldn't Define The Format

The articles hit within a few days of each other.

There was L.A. Weekly's look at how much of what alternative KROQ Los Angeles played wasn't "rock." The article cited KROQ's support of Daft Punk, Avicii, and the brief window where it played "I Kissed A Girl," before Katy Perry became pop radio's core act. Those artists stretch the current parameters of the format, but the article also cited Lorde, who nobody has a hard time considering :alternative" today, even if she's not a guitar act.

The L.A. Weekly article looked askance at Macklemore & Ryan Lewis being played on the station that "broke the Sex Pistols, Blondie, Duran Duran, Sublime and Red Hot Chili Peppers," then "No Doubt, Hole, Bad Religion, Rage Against the Machine and the Offspring." Then it invoked specialty host Rodney Bingenheimer's history with Black Flag, Social Distortion and Dramarama, (but also the Bangles and Go-Gos).

Around the same time, in a Sands Report article at the 20th anniversary of 1994's "new rock revolution," Kris Metzdorf of KRXF Bend, Ore., asked "where have all the guitars gone? All these songs that are shared with AC, top 40, and triple-A radio stations are so namby-pamby and most of the artists are faceless!  . . . Dang, let's get dangerous again."

I can't deny the "faceless" and "namby-pamby" part, at least for certain records. The formula of loping minor-chord verses and rousing "whoa-oh-oh" choruses is roundly recognized as a cliché that has spread to every corner of pop music now, (because it works). And it's fair to ask where the axes have gone, especially since Cage the Elephant and Black Keys, who had been holding it down for traditional blues-based guitar rock, have come back with much poppier music recently. 

Personally, I'm enjoying that last part. Some may wince at my contention that the Black Keys' "Fever" owes something to Foster The People, filtered vocal and all, before it turns into Electric Light Orchestra at the end. But neither reference is an insult in my worldview. Alternative chart acts already have fielded a half-dozen songs that belong on pop radio this summer, even if the typically long crossover period means that only a few rock songs will likely get there.

So does alternative radio need to rock? A little more. But only a little.

In its more-than35-year-history, alternative radio has spent no more than ten years as a true "rock" format. As often, it was pop music for a hipper world. By cherrypicking a handful of acts, the L.A. Weekly article avoids acknowledging how much of KROQ's keyboard-based "roq of the '80s" landed on crosstown top 40 KIIS, not "rock" radio. Even then, the list includes Duran Duran. And alternative radio first played Daft Punk 17 years ago.

The '80s alternative acts that became part of the classic rock canon -- Police, U2, the Clash, Talking Heads -- are a relative minority. Alternative acts had to run that gauntlet twice: once for acceptance at rock radio when new; then again at classic rock. It wasn't that long ago that the Classic Rock programmers that I worked with would classify INXS as an "MTV nugget," as if they that band were barely more "rock" than Cyndi Lauper or "99 Luftballons."

Because alternative radio enjoyed its widest success in the grunge era, some radio people dismissed the years immediately preceding it, in which alternative played Morrissey, the Cult and Tracy Chapman, as the format's charming but inchoate amateur hour. Through the '00s, as alternative was creeping away from active rock, (albeit with acts like the White Stripes, Silversun Pickups, and Muse, with classic rock aspects of their own), there was a period of ratings decline, and the disappearance of the format altogether in some markets. That also made the move back to "true.alt" look like an act of programmer self-indulgence.

From this, you might infer that alternative does best when it rocks. Grunge, with its echoes of dazed-and-confused Led Zeppelin, did draw in some of the rock guys who were thought to have had little use for the format before. But so did the wider availability of better programmed radio stations. And this heyday lasted for roughly half of that 1993-2003 decade when the alternative format rocked.

For those remaining five years, in the late '90s/early '00s, one shouldn't remember the era when alternative rock sounded like active rock as a guitar-rock period. It was the time when alternative played Metallica, but it was also the era when House of Pain and Cypress Hill became staples. Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, Linkin Park, Kid Rock, Korn, and Tool: some are regarded more fondly than others now, but all contributed to the genre's sonic evolution. What made them "rock" was their shared aggression.

So how many more guitar songs does alternative need? I'm in favor of a few more power-chord anthems on alternative radio. In the last decade, power-chords have been good to whatever format is offering them. A decade ago, that was Bob- and Jack-FM playing Boston and Pat Benatar. Today it's country radio, with its own nod to corporate rock, another reference I make with no disparagement intended.

But the records that have most excited people about alternative radio over the last few years are the records that combine Metzdorf's danger with some pop bounciness: Awolnation's "Sail," Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive," and currently Kongos' "Come With Me Now." They are sonically aggressive, but broadly palatable. They have their own versions of power-chord simplicity, but they are not "guitar records." You can easily trace "Sail" or "Radioactive" back to Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus."

And that means you have to rethink the appeal of the grunge period as well. It wasn't just Zeppelin's DNA at work there. Depeche is still well to the left of INXS in the "MTV Nuggets" category for most rock PDs, but "Personal Jesus" now sounds like a rock record to me. Rather than treating Pearl Jam and Nirvana as the anecdote to late '80s synth-pop, you could say that grunge acts took the Smiths' moroseness and rocked it out. Depeche Mode's "Blasphemous Rumours," "Sail," and Pearl Jam's "Black" are mopey in similar ways. Only the era and artist image varies.

At today's alternative, the pop takeover is hardly complete. Alternative's chart panel is still a mish-mosh of stations. Scroll below the format's top 20 and you will find the Chevelle-type active rock crossovers that certain stations still play, as well as the less edgy pop-flavored songs that won't achieve consensus airplay at the format. As they did 20 years ago with Hanson, many labels still take any neutral-image act to alternative first, but I sometimes wonder why they bother. Haim could be on their fourth American hit now, instead of finally gearing up for their first, if they hadn't committed to the glacial pace of most rock-to-pop crossovers.

Last summer, I wrote about a handful of fast-building alternative stations that augured well for an alternative radio breakthrough. Some of those stations have leveled off now. But KTCL Denver is top five, even after a down ratings month in March. In February, it was tied for No. 1 in the market. Because it is co-owned with an active rock station, KTCL has long walked a line between rock and pop. In Denver, at least, the next "new rock revolution" has already happened. 

Nationally, that next new rock revolution would benefit from a few more "rock" records, but not from becoming a rock format. It was a balance that worked for a broad coalition of new and old fans in the first five years of the format's guitar-era, a time in which all the first generation acts hadn't yet been pushed out of the format. Programmers talk about the "Jewel-to-Tool" aspects of the format becoming unmanageable in the late '90s. But shipping the pop fans off to the burgeoning modern AC format didn't work so well, either. We now see that alternative needed some Moby with its mopey. 

If there were somehow more mass-appeal guitar-rock records than alternative could accommodate, it would give active rock stations something to play as well. Some active rock PDs are still coming to grips with Awolnation and Black Keys. They needn't sweat those records, but they also need a few rocking, melodic hits of their own. Pretty Reckless' "Heaven Knows" is that. Occasionally, an act with a regular chart presence at the format such as Halestorm or Volbeat will release a poppier change-up single as well. But for the most part, it's active, not alternative, that needs something new. 

Active Rock is proof that danger--something it has in abundance--isn't enough for either format by itself. Some combination of danger and hits is right, and alternative isn't that far away.