A crowd of 60 or so gathered at the Sunset Tavern on a recent Thursday, jostling to get closer to the night's first band. Among the audience were the usual city suspects—rockabillies and indie rockers and hipsters—as well as a pack of polo-shirted, white-sneakered civilians looking like youngish suburban parents out for a kid-free night on the town.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s The Nutcracker is Back Onstage at McCaw Hall! Tickets start at $27.
Join PNB for a timeless tale of holiday adventure performed by PNB’s amazing dancers and orchestra.

Turned out that's exactly what they were, though they didn't leave their kids at home; their kids were the main attraction. The Lonely H, five 18-year-olds with long, wavy hair, worn-in T-shirts, and faded bell-bottom jeans, stepped out of 1971 and onto the stage. The bell-bottoms they wore were their dads'. And the music they played—from the first Yes-inflected organ riff to a climactic Thin Lizzy cover—belonged to their parents, too.

Welcome to classic rock played by kids born the year Straight Outta Compton was released.

Can it be? Isn't "classic rock" the opposite of "alive and well"? The quality of their music aside—though they do Southern-soul prog rock, or maybe post-emo classic rock, surprisingly well—the Lonely H set in motion many questions. Is classic rock an era or a style? Does it have to be 30 years old or can you make it today? To what degree is radio responsible for it? And why does the term bring to mind Led Zeppelin for some and for others, Styx?

Classic rock is a ghetto of the painfully familiar. By definition, it's old, revered, canonized, trapped in the amber of nostalgia. You might call Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band—released in 1967, the first real, true, cohesive album—its seed (though you might call Sgt. Pepper's the seed for album rock and orchestral pop and the concept album, too). Prior to that record, radio play and record sales were based on singles, hits bought and played one at a time. Conversely, you could call Saturday Night Fever classic rock's doom: By 1977, with the popularity of disco and dance-floor singles (not to mention general punk-fueled anarchy), the era of hour-long, conceptual albums was on the wane. The canon of classic rock arose during the decade in between, inspiring a spectrum of moods and drugs and haircuts. Today we have access to all of it—the music, the fashion, the drugs—pretty much instantly.

The radio definition is limited—turn to any classic-rock station in America (the genrefication is a distinctly American phenomenon) and you're gonna hear the same few songs by the same 200 or so bands, played over and over, as if there were no other music left on earth, let alone other songs by those same bands.

Classic albums are a little bit different—they can come from any genre and any era, but as it turns out, it's mostly stuff from the classic-rock years that enjoys classic-album status. The further we get from that classic-rock era, the less the likelihood for an album to be deemed classic: The more genres that emerge, the more splintered our listening habits, the less likelihood for consensus. Thanks to endless options, there might never be a classic album again.

Think about it: Has there been a certifiably classic rock album since 2000? As much as it hurts to admit it, the answer is no. There's been plenty of good rock, some of which we'll still be listening to in 20 years, and there's been plenty of pop, most of which we won't. There's been a lot of classic hiphop, but that's hiphop.

Arcade Fire? Neon Bible hasn't sold 300,000 copies. Justin Timberlake? Over seven million copies of FutureSex/LoveSounds—mostly on the strength of two songs, which will be forgotten by this time next year. Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP sold some seven million albums, and Fear of a Black Planet is a multiplatinum landmark, but again, that's hiphop. The last rock album to make the cut was Radiohead's OK Computer, which has sold over three million copies, and that came out in 1997. Blame the internet, blame hiphop, blame the kids for making crappy music or the adults for having crappy taste—they're all at fault. But more than anything, blame the rate at which we consume music.

What will happen to classic rock 20 years from now? The style will remain open while the canon will be closed. The transition away from the ghettoization that the mass marketplace requires—from Clear Channel–approved playlists and Best Buy–sized retailers—has already begun. Eventually both will be rendered irrelevant by personalized, niche stations and on-demand stores. For whatever's left of the mainstream, classic rock will be the same ghetto it is now. Lucky teenagers will discover the songs their grandparents loved, but they won't experience Morrison Hotel and Dark Side of the Moon as the rites of passage they were to earlier generations.

At least the records are still around. For the Lonely H, that's enough.

"We have recessed in time to almost exclusively classic rock," says bassist Johnny Whitman. "It seemed that rock was a religious movement—or spiritual, how about that? The Beatles—people were crying at their shows. Elvis was censored. Who fills arenas these days? Kenny Chesney. Top 40 back then was right on."

In the right hands, to the right ears, classic records continue to be a revelation, the Dead Sea Scrolls that prove the existence of a much groovier past. Nostalgia is strong—almost a living, breathing thing, even for those who never lived in the golden days. It's also fair game to appropriate. If the Lonely H want to be classic rock—if they dress like it and sound like it—why not call them classic rock? They're simply changing the definition.

"It's a pretty sweet term," Whitman says. "We're already ingrained if our music's considered 'classic.'"

He's got a point, if only a semantic one. The notion of "instant classic," so long considered an oxymoron, might be an actuality in the iPod era. Ironically, the Lonely H cherish the past exactly because the digitized, downloadable present feels so soulless.

Not just musically, but socially. There's a perception of the '70s as a font of good music and good times that's very appealing to teenagers on the cusp of starting off real lives. "You didn't get MIPs back then; the laws were more lax," Whitman says. "Pure life, more pure music. It was more of a lifestyle."

Support The Stranger

Twenty years from now, a new set of teenagers will jack into an unearthed copy of Hair, Lonely H's newest album, and find nostalgia for an era the band wasn't a part of. Secondhand nostalgia, sure, but it's gonna age so well. recommended