Foreigner have just issued a new Greatest Hits album reminding us that the late-1970s and early 1980s never actually went away. These songs--"Cold As Ice," "Hot Blooded," "Double Vision" -- are as familiar now as they were back then when they were considered new, if not cutting edge. Well, over here at Camp You Can't Win, I decided to try and figure out where Foreigner fit in. Apparently, they're considered AOR--that's Album Oriented Rock, which oddly enough in common usage includes bands that actually had "hit singles" despite their "album" orientation. For example, REO Speedwagon are considered AOR, yet the reason they became successful isn't because they had millions of fans listening to You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish, but because at the turn of the decade they had a huge hit with "Keep On Loving You" and then some other hits that kept them on the radio. Led Zeppelin were a true "album" band, yet no one really considers them AOR. And what about Jethro Tull? Progressive rock, I guess.
AOR seems to be a euphemism for some vague idea of "corporate rock," but while something like Jimmy Page's the Firm (just look at the name) or Starship (sans their Jeffersonian roots) certainly seems influenced by the concept of corporate synergy, I wouldn't think the kids in Loverboy or the weird hippies in Supertramp saw themselves as part of a shareholder revolution. Certain bands, however, automatically come to mind when you say AOR. They're on this list. And then there are others who…well, WHO CAME UP WITH THIS DESIGNATION IN THE FIRST PLACE?
I'm still trying to figure out if it's a derogatory term or not. It shouldn't be.
Well here goes…
25) The Firm: What could any of the members of Led Zeppelin do once they'd decided not to continue after their drummer's death? Whatever they did would be considered a disappointment. Page worked on some film scores and started this odd group that just by their very name made them seem the antithesis to the determinedly anti-commercial Zep. I guess they figured calling themselves the Power Brokers would've been too much.
24) Zebra: These guys showed up just a little too late to join the party. They got on the radio and even had a bit of a hit there with "Tell Me What You Want" and they made the kind of "sturdy" albums that musicians seemed to enjoy. They drew dedicated followers and represented an interesting blend of conservative rock n' roll, where you could be wild but not crazy…a bit like a musical mullet.
23) Player: "Baby Come Back" was a lite FM hit single, but you should've heard their albums! They should've been bigger than they were, but like Christopher Cross they just sailed away into oblivion pretty quickly.
22) Loverboy: Some people considered them "New Wave." I like thinking of them as "Hair Metal," since singer Mike Reno could power ballad with the best of them and it's better for overall sales. "New Wave" always had a stigma attached to it. Don't get too close--you might "catch it" or something.
21) Triumph: There's always something a little charming about bands from Canada. I had a friend in high school who once told me he was into "good rock" and when I asked him what that meant, it was completely obvious to him that it meant many of the bands on this list and Triumph were among them. Who would I be to argue with someone who knew the meaning of "good rock?"
20) Billy Squier: Billy wanted to be a rock star real bad. He was in a band called Piper and when they didn't work out, he managed to get a solo deal. After sending his first album just about straight to the cut-out bins, he suddenly had a hit with Don't Say No and tunes like "The Stroke" and "My Kinda Lover" which made the radio seem like a decent place to be in 1982.
19) Pat Benatar: She eventually headed closer to middle of the road, but her first three--arguably four--albums featured a smooth hard rock that made sense to pop ears. And she had one of those looks that girls felt the immediate need to imitate. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? Pat, consider yourself flattered.
18) Kansas: I'm more inclined to consider these guys progressive rock, except there's a rule in the bylaws of rock that clearly states that any band that chooses a U.S. geographical location as their name will automatically be deemed AOR by default. Think about that the next time your drummer wants to name the band Wisconsin.
17) Chicago: Chicago were around for so long that they mastered several different genres and once the "horn rock" phase of their early work seemed about done, Peter Cetera seemed to find these guys a new home next to Phil Collins. What a retirement community that must be.
16) Jefferson Starship: Before they became just Starship and after the Jefferson Airplane, they were Jefferson Starship, a band that managed a few hits while mostly treading water and waiting to figure out what that "next level" was. "Miracles" turned out to be a huge hit and "Count On Me" was on the radio quite a bit. Red Octopus seems to be one of those albums that while many copies were bought, few were listened to.
15) Styx: Here's another perfect example of a band that from a technical standpoint were more AOR when they started, yet by radio programmer definition, do not qualify until they start having actual hit singles. One thing you have to admit here, you don't find many bands today trying to sound like these guys. And if they're out there, they don't get much attention from anyone.
14) Heart: Heart never fit comfortably in any box. Sure, there's the two young sisters angle, Led Zeppelin fans who devour hard rock but have folkie souls, arena-capable performers who could easily exist in a small room, eventually glammed up to slip in with hair metal acts and do the power ballad with more force than their male counterparts. Were they AOR? As much as any other claim. As Jackson Browne might say: "That Girl Could Sing."
13) Toto: Toto could play rings around the competition, which is probably why the competition hired them so often to play on their records. Why spend valuable studio time screwing up your session when for a reasonable fee you can have dedicated professionals come in and nail it for you in one take? Then the guys got wise and said, why shouldn't we do this for ourselves? And they did.
12) Genesis: Again, the Peter Gabriel led Genesis was a true album-oriented band. You were supposed to listen to the entire album, in sequence, and take notes for the quiz afterwards. Then Gabriel left and the guy sitting behind the drums who no one probably even noticed at first--since seriously, who notices the drummer with all those drums in the way?--a guy named Phil Collins comes along and transforms the band beyond recognition into a radio band with hit singles that all sound like what Phil Collins would eventually sound like as a solo act. Weird. And for this, they become an AOR band.
11) Asia: You didn't have to tell progressive rock musicians that there would be better money if they wrote hit singles and got played on the radio. Musicians may not be the most business-oriented of professionals, but they eventually notice the lack of zeroes on a check. Besides, even the best musicians appreciate it when not every song is 20 minutes and requires every last inch of dexterity to pull off.
10) REO Speedwagon: Popular for years in the Midwest with songs that never reached the masses, REO Speedwagon were suddenly everywhere with "Keep On Lovin' You," a song that doesn't have nearly enough verses.
9) Journey: "Don't Stop Believin'" has become a "cultural touchstone" thanks to The Sopranos, if not just the damn radio. They continue to tour without singer Steve Perry, which would be fine if they were out there performing lots of the "jazz-rock" they were so immersed in before Perry came around. But something tells me that isn't the case.
8) Queen: Freddie Mercury loved being in the spotlight and the spotlight loved Freddie Mercury. But attention should be paid to that curly-haired guitar player standing over to the side. Brian May may lack Mercury's stage-dominating charisma, but he knew how to orchestrate the band and get a mighty guitar tone.
7) Supertramp: Well, they had a hit in 1979 with Breakfast In America, which sounds pretty damn innovative and good these days. These guys could play their instruments and they weren't afraid of woodwinds, falsettos and rhyming as if the dictionary was right at their disposal. Supertramp defined AOR by accident.
6) Boston: Unlike Supertramp, Boston defined AOR by design. Tom Scholz was a tech wiz and a perfectionist who set out to record the perfect rock album. The self-titled debut album took years and when it was done it took years for people to tire of it, as it continued to sell and excite long past most albums' expiration date.
5) Rush: One of the most critically dismissed bands of all-time, mostly because drummer Neil Peart wrote painfully serious lyrics that scanned like they came from a sociology textbook that were then delivered by a singer who sounded like Daffy Duck shrieking on helium. Rush were actually very good at what they do--and over 30 years later sound better than just about any hard rock band that has emerged in their wake. What to make of that?
4) Foreigner: Do yourself a favor and listen, really listen, to "Juke Box Hero" and listen, really listen, to the intensity of Lou Gramm's vocal. Can any man get that excited about "one guitar?" In reality, the answer is no. What makes this song so great is that Gramm has no use for logic or reality. He sounds like a man who unashamedly believes in that one guitar. That's why it's so damned irresistible.
3) Blue Oyster Cult: Some feel I should've included them on my best heavy metal band list. I hear you. I'm not really sure where these fellas belong. AOR doesn't seem quite right either. But "Don't Fear The Reaper," "Godzilla," "Joan Crawford" and "Burnin' For You" belong to the radio and always make it a better night when they're played. What better compliment.
2) Cheap Trick: I always wish these guys had more "Surrender" up their sleeve. But they did manage three very cool studio albums and a few stray tracks to go along with the weirdest look of any mainstream rock n' roll band. And the live album At Budokan started the unfathomable wave of Budokan live albums from other performers. Surprisingly, Kiss did not attempt this.
1) Steely Dan: Were they AOR? Well, they made albums and they weren't much concerned with hit singles, though they had enough of them to keep them on the radio despite the fact that they played "jazz chords" that should've alerted evil radio programmers to their evil intentions. Steely Dan were trying to corrupt the youth of America with JAZZ. It didn't work. Just as they are to common sense, teenagers are immune to jazz. Face it, they liked the idea that the music sounded weird and druggy. I like it because the songs are never about what you think they are.