THE FALL OF COLLEGE ROCK AND THE RISE OF “INDIE” or, INDIE ROCK AS THE GENTRIFICATION OF PUNK
Of all the types of rock music, perhaps the one that is least considered and most overlooked is ‘college rock.’ Like today’s indie rock, it was named for the circumstance of its proliferation, rather than some characteristic or aesthetic of the music (e.g. heavy metal, noise, punk, grind, et al). Anthemic and smart, college rock produced clean pop songs which still resonate with listeners today. But what was it exactly and why did it disappear? And why is there no cult of stalwarts who maintain its legacy, as there is with nearly every other sub cult of rock ‘n’ roll (goth, ska, mod, punk, rockabilly, oi, etc)? There is, for example, no Robert Gordon or Paul Weller figure of college rock rallying a “college rock revival;” at least not on the near horizon.
Though usually associated with groups of the early 1980s, college rock existed for a short time before and afterwards as well, through the heyday of college radio. The genre’s groups, though often signed to major labels, did not typically enjoy mainstream popularity but were instead cult favorites (of course, some of the groups –such as Talking Heads and REM– eventually became very successful).
The genre wasn’t called “college rock” because it was produced exclusively for or by students but rather for the radio stations which were its champion and proponent. As opposed to commercial stations, which were committed to a highly restrictive “top 40” format, campus or college radio, having come of age in the wild and wooly dawn of FM, was fairly free-form in its programming. College stations saw promulgation of lesser heard groups as their responsibility and mission. They were staffed by music enthusiasts who worked without pay, and who saw college rock as a desperately needed alternative to the platinum tedium of “classic” and top 40 drivel.
While university students certainly comprised some of the audience of college rock, all kinds of people were potential listeners. Still, because of its ivory tower associations, a certain kind of education and class background were assumed of both the producers and consumers of college rock. If Lou Reed and Iggy Pop were the godfathers of punk, Zappa and Richman might be considered the “ur” college rockers.
College rock often had a vaguely political or satirical bent. After the campus takeovers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Universities in the 1980s were still considered progressive institutions, places where social consciousness and political activism could be found alongside toga parties and keg-stands. Universities had deftly weathered the culture wars of the ‘60s by pretending to be outside of commerce; benevolent institutions created as places for pot smokers to congregate and talk trash. By the ‘80s, “St Elmo’s Fire,” “Animal House,” and the Reagan-era frat revival were incinerating campus radicalism, but there were still a few lingering totems of the student power movement; one was college radio. College rock could therefore be seen as a last gasp of the revolutionary student movement of the ‘60s.
College rock could be defined as an aesthetically progressive version of radio rock, but without the year zero pretensions of “punk.” Though just a scant decade earlier rock had been vaunted as the vanguard of a new revolutionary consciousness, by the ‘70s it had become passive, reactionary, and even conservative; particularly since its courtship of the country music audience with the “southern rock” gambit (which begat Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, America, Molly Hatchet, Crazy Horse, et al). At the other end of the spectrum was “punk” which, though initially entertaining, had become alienating, remote, militant, and noxious (looking and sounding). A “college rock” permutation was therefore considered necessary for casual middle class rock fans, left cold by heavy metal, punk rock, southern rock, and the breezy West Coast sound of Steve Miller Band, Fleetwood Mac, and the Eagles.
As a musical genre, college rock’s characteristics are not necessarily apparent to the listener. While it had some of the same bourgeois sensibilities as modern “indie” rock, it lacked the willful obscurantism. While indie rock is marked by “slacker” cynicism, aloofness, introversion, and an obsession with formalism, college rock was still goofy, political, risible, idiotic. There was hope and playfulness in college rock. It was still rooted in the ambition of making a “hit”; popular music for radio play. College Rock also had to be fun. Frat rock (i.e. Swinging Medallions, John Fred’s Playboy Band) and soul groups had long been mainstays of campus life, so college rockers were under pressure to entertain in a visceral way. Therefore, there was often a novelty, populist component to college rock that is missing in today’s opaque, elusive, and willfully obscure “indie” world.
As previously mentioned, college rock was played on college radio stations, many of which had powerful bandwidth and far-reaching influence. College stations published their own nationally syndicated newsletter (CMJ) about college rock trends and happenings. Therefore college rock’s production values (in regards to discernibility, high fidelity, etc) were configured for perceived “mass” tastes. Still, it was distinct from normal rock in that it was more elitist and artier, and pandered to the Anglophilia of its middle class audience. While college rock was informed by punk, new wave, and other subterranean trends, it was more “MOR” with a roots element which would have been eschewed by those more radical elements, intent as they were on artifice, newness, aesthetic orthodoxy, and the destruction of tradition. Some college rock bands were Violent Femmes, Guadalcanal Diary, REM, Roches, Was Not Was, Feelies, Shriekback, Johnny Hates Jazz, Rank & File, Replacements, Hoodoo Gurus, XTC, Connells, and Let’s Active. Most groups from Britain or Australia were adopted as college rock as well.
Simultaneous to the college rock phenomenon, the “yuppie” archetype of monied liberal connoisseur was being developed; a foil to lingering post–’60s leftist boomers. The yuppie was an adult version of the monied campus longhair who had outgrown the juvenile provocations and naive politics of their youth and now had a “pragmatic” approach to changing the world. This mostly consisted of buying things that were sensible and high quality, such as Volvo station wagons and imported Italian olive oil. Their co-ed activist impulse was channeled into adulthood into improving their “quality of life” using material things which reflected their values; decorousness, practicality, worldliness, and decency. French cheese, Scandinavian design, Italian espresso, ye olde tyme American folk traditions, and many of the same sundries which would have been admired by the folk and protest movements centered around ‘60s college campuses. The yuppie lifestyle was itself a variant on the “Back to the land” movement of the hippies; a protest against the grotesque mechanization of fast food culture and the pervasive plastic crap of post-war America. But while the hippies’ attempt had been revolutionary, the yuppies concerns were mostly aesthetic.
Central to the yuppie ideology was
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