That don’t mean shit! We’re here, and right now!footnote1

(Attributed to E.L. Glass)

If Hopey said it then she was quite right: it is necessary to insist on the here and the now of rock music in this last decade of the century, to remain sceptical of doom-laden periodizations. For it is becoming orthodox to announce the ending of the history of rock, in terminal decline from its high plateau reached in the 1960s. This prevailing view is that of a descent interrupted only by occasional and transient blips of recovery when musicians plagiarize and recycle sixties-like material. In the rarefied air breathed by those who debate the postmodern condition, the end of rock takes its place alongside the more apocalyptic deaths of ideology, the subject, and even of history itself. So, in an aside to this high-toned discussion, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are claimed for the high modernism of popular music, against which stand the diminished figures of punk and new-wave music.footnote2 Thus the modernist peak of the cultural-revolutionary past appears now only as pastiche, swept up in a closed circle of signification comprising advertising image, soap opera and tabloid story. The ‘meaningful’ and ‘authentic’ sixties music of protest and challenge to the established order falls under the dominion of a totalizing self-referentiality in the postmodern world of leisure, lifestyle and the televisual mediation of reality. As Dick Hebdige sees it, the combative strategies of modernism analysed by Adorno—negation, estrangement, non-identity thinking—no longer gain a purchase because everything means everything else and hence nothing at all.footnote3

In less exalted terms, the same core assumptions about the present day are commonplace among djs, who speak of ‘classic rock’.footnote4 Here the music industry and daytime pop radio have conspired to define a sixties-based sound as an (ongoing) classic, though since the mid 1970s available only in the most pallid derivatives. In part, classic rock—especially as defined by some us radio stationsfootnote5—reflects the dominance of white adult male definitions of popular music; in part, too, many commentators are of an age that they remember sixties music as a sentimental accompaniment to excursions into adulthood, while many more were swept up at that time by the enthusiasm for cultural revolution. But critics’ biographies apart, this is a case of the marketing by the music industry of a certain kind of rock music to a targeted audience (aged 25–40?) with the willing participation of many radio djs. What is promoted is ‘classic’ precisely in that it is shorn of any potential to subvert the commodification of popular music.

I want to resist both prongs of this attack on rock music’s now: to reject the concept of ‘classic rock’ as being without value, and the postmodernist analysis of recent rock music as misguided, together with their corollary that the music of the 1960s is pre-eminent in its claims on serious cultural analysis. To set the scene requires the separation of all that is entailed in the concept of ‘modernism’ from any simple adjectival form of ‘modern’. In historical discussions of economic, political and social development, modernity has been specified in terms as broad as ‘post-feudal’ or ‘post-traditional’, connected with rationalism and bourgeois revolution,footnote6 and in debates over its purported end in postmodernity it has been taken to be a ‘socialist’ project of the increasing dominance of purposive-instrumental rationality in human social institutions.footnote7