In an era before iPods, internet radio, and life on demand, there was an annual spectacle that took place in backyards, garages, and living rooms around the country during the weekend that symbolically marks the beginning of summer. It may have been called a slightly different name in your hometown, but the idea was the same: playing the top 500 classic rock tunes of all time in descending order. Of course, they weren’t considered “classic” tunes at the time, just “Rock-n-Roll”. It was known in my hometown as The Memorial Day 500, which was hosted by WDVE in nearby Pittsburgh. Obviously, the name is a play on the Indianapolis 500, historically held the same weekend. It also appeared to be roughly the number of songs including commercials that could be played in a three-day span. A tradition was born.
Friday at noon, the countdown would begin. At first, the songs would be played in a seemingly random order, almost as if it was any other day. By sunset, you’d start to notice some patterns forming, a method to the madness. Occasionally, you’d be saddened to hear a personal favorite that you’d hoped would have made a better showing. When, in the first countdown I can remember, “Eye in the Sky” by the Allan Parsons Project flushed out in the 400 range, I probably tried calling the station to complain.
Then the first nightfall came. What a shame to have to sleep while the countdown continued. In the morning, the radio would be on before a t-shirt and shorts. One might wonder what gems were played overnight that we’d never know about. Would we ever be allowed to see the list when it was all over? Probably not. Saturday, there was a steady improvement in the vintage of songs played. You’d likely hear the tenth-best Who song that day, maybe “Squeezebox” or “Substitute”.
At times, you’d think briefly about how the list was created, but didn’t want to dwell on it, as it would diminish the meaning. Not unlike like Santa Claus, if you thought about it too much, it would make you question if it was real. How could anyone quantify such a massive and comprehensive list? Back in the day, there was no internet, where millions of fans could submit their input to the station. I think listeners were instructed to send in post cards in the spring, listing their favorite songs. But even with that input, would the station employees really stay up all night ranking songs? And how did songs greater than 300 even make the list in the first place? Was there someone out there who really thought that “Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo” by Rick Derringer was the greatest classic rock song of all time? If Derringer himself didn’t nominate it, how does such a song make the list? The questions were probably better than the answers.
The countdown was woven in the fabric of holiday activities. Softball games, cookouts, and swimming would all be done with the radio on. As friends and relatives would come by the house, they’d always offer debate on the rankings. “Can you believe that “Barracuda” fell out so early?” one might ask. And if anyone ever had to step away from the radio for a few minutes to shower, or cut the grass, they’d return with the same question: “what number are they on?” I recall one time walking outside our house and asking the question. One of my sisters replied, “I don't know, but they must be getting close, they just played 'Nights in White Satin'”. I’m not sure I’d even heard the Moody Blues classic before then, but somehow it made the list even more intriguing.
Some songs were so great, that they couldn’t be played at other times of the year. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly was one of these gems. Like a fine wine, it could only be enjoyed on special occasions like the 500. When the seventeen minute epic masterpiece showed up in the top 10, you knew we were on sacred ground. It was always in the same grouping with other top ten anthems such as "Layla", "Hotel California" and "Aqualung". There did appear to be a correlation with the length of the songs and their ranking. Also, live versions seemed to bode well. Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like I Do”, was an example. I was always pulling for "Free Bird", because I loved Ronnie Van Zandt asking "what song is it you wanna hear?" during the infamous live version.
Every year since I could remember, "Stairway to Heaven" was the top song. The question was always not about who would be number one, but who would be number two. I don't know the year, but was certain that the sky would fall when "Stairway" was not crowned king of all things classic rock. When it was played in the number two slot, shock and disbelief ensued. To this day, I don't even know what song dethroned it. What could have shifted in the classic rock universe to prompt such a monumental change? Did somebody suddenly write a song that was more worthy than "Stairway"? Are you joking? "Stairway" will always be the number one song, whether one is from Seattle, St. Louis, or Scranton. Even if one doesn't care for it, nor learned to play the 7th fret notes in the key of G on an acoustic guitar, it was the king. Undisputed champion. If Alex Trebek posed the answer, "This song is known by all as the greatest classic rock song of all time", the contestants would all be tapping their buttons eagerly to say, "what is 'Stairway to Heaven'?"
So this weekend, while you’re cooking out and going to pool parties, turn on the local classic rock station where you live. If your station has given up the ritual, try streaming one that is keeping it real. As you hear the radio count down past "Light My Fire", and "Purple Haze", recall those fun times of the past, and teach your children this storied tradition of Memorial Day as you create new memories with them. For it is the three days of the year that the classic rock gods keep us glued to the radio. Don’t get upset if you hear a U2 or Bon Jovi song slip in. They’ve paid their dues. Besides, last time I checked, Zeppelin isn't releasing much new material these days.
Monday night, I'll be eating my last hot dog, hoping that Lynyrd Skynyrd will be somewhere near the top.
Have a great weekend.
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