Is Classic Rock Still a Force to Be Reckoned With? Or Just a Ramblin' Man?

26/07/2016 10:10 | Updated 26 July 2016

With The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Heart back in the billboard album top 10, I started to wonder if there is a secret to rock n roll longevity. So I took my hair and my sunscreen along to this year's Ramblin' Man Fair to find out.

Ramblin' Man is a two-dayer, held in Mote Park in Kent - a shortish walk from Maidstone East train station. Surely the perfect place to find out what keeps bands popular for decades. On the bill this year were Thin Lizzy - celebrating 40 years since the release of their breakthrough (sixth!) album - Jailbreak; Uriah Heep - 24 albums and counting; Whitesnake - who have been keeping rock chock full of knob gags since 1977; and those trusty New Year's Eve stalwarts, Europe! Someone HAS to know the secret here.

It's 27 degrees Celsius, and as I made my way to the park through the streets of Maidstone, everyone I encountered was upbeat. This vibe stayed with me, with everyone it seemed, all day. The weather or the prospect of a Rock festival? A bit of both I think. Contrary to image, album titles and song lyrics, Rock isn't really dangerous. Not REALLY dangerous. In my experience, Rock and Metal fans are the nicest you can meet. Perhaps they've exorcised all their anger and insecurities in moshing and headbanging, but for me the exterior was always bark and not bite. As I make my way through the day, I feel that the peacefulness of Rock has reached its zenith here in the Kent countryside.

I'm 40 and I've been going to Rock gigs since Living Colour headlined the Town and Country Club (now The Forum) in Kentish town in 1990. Rock was everywhere then. Rock, metal, glam, thrash, you name it. If it had hair and guitars, it was making money. And it was naughty. Naughty like Kenny Everett was naughty. Rockers did things they weren't supposed to do. Any rocker worth their salt would have bent Terry Wogan's microphone given half a chance.

So I'm in a field with a pint of cider, contemplating an ostrich burger, and I'm thinking - "this is great. This is really NICE. Is this where old rockers go to die?"

But wait. This is no wake. This is no death. This is happening right now. This is actually a celebration of life and its bizarre and unlikely ability to continue, and to thrive. These people are happy because everyone's still doing the rock thing. And it's marvellous.

I came here to see if Classic Rock - a genre that has aggregated all the 20th century rock bands that are still active into one handy pigeonhole - was on its way out. I came here to look lovingly at toothless zimmer-walkers wearing Twisted Sister T-Shirts and being a bit sick over themselves. 'That's me in ten years," I would guffaw. But that's not the truth.

Rock hasn't changed. That's not to say it hasn't developed. But there is a positivity to rock that transcends important obstacles such as politics, economics and time. The lines of coke may be etched indelibly onto their faces, but these guys on the bill today have a lifetime of stories, of experiences. From stereotypical 'whisky and women' yarns to the harrowing death of bandmates, these bands are living history, and many people here are the same age, and have been through their own trials, their own triumphs, but always to a soundtrack by the people that are taking the stage.

The demographic is clearly at the business end of the rock market. But the bulletproof future is there, waiting in the wings also. The Rising Stage is the fourth stage at the festival - after the Main Stage, the Prog Stage and the Country Stage. And it's a showcase of the UK's best up-and-coming artists, including Colour of Noise, Cats in Space and Massive Wagons. And while many rock stalwarts head straight to the main stage to set up camp, there is a vibrant young audience watching these newer acts.

"There are new bands, and they are amazing and important," says Europe's charismatic vocalist Joey Tempest. "They are young bands with power and soul and that's what we need to grab. We've got our back catalogue already."

It's great to hear these elder statesmen of rock saying that young talent needs to be harnessed. And why not - it's not a Them and Us dialectic, the kids are also giving it back.

"You see the mums and dads that used to hang around in the 80s in the back, and then the kids are up front," says drummer Ian Haugland.

Of course, in our current political climate, I couldn't let the opportunity of a BREXIT gag go by.

I asked Tempest if, even though Britain is leaving Europe, Europe plan to maintain ties with Britain.

"Definitely," he laughs. "We are deeply rooted with the UK - the cradle of rock!"

And then the were off up onto the main stage, galloping around like teenagers. The crowd were baying for The Final Countdown and were not left wanting. And as Europe escaped from under the lights, the huge audience had just about enough time to hit the bars or the food outlets before a band celebrating two anniversaries of very different natures.

2016 is the 30th anniversary of the death of legendary Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott and also the 40th anniversary of "Jailbreak" - an album which saw them break into the US market.

For these anniversary shows the band have enlisted the services of Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton.

Is that cheating, I wondered. Are people allowed to be a more than one iconic band?

"This is the first time I've done anything like this," says Hamilton. "I've never done anything outside of my band, outside of Aerosmith, which I'm kind of embarrassed to say. I should have been out exploring a long time ago!"

Original Thin Lizzy member Scott Gorham, who has really kept the flag - and the brand - flying shares twin guitar duties these days with Damon Johnson, an intensely likeable and lucid man.

"We're happy for Scott Gorham," says Johnson. "He's been the sole bearer of the Thin Lizzy flag since Phil passed."

The precociously talented Lynott died at 36 of heart failure and pneumonia.

But his legacy lives on with these gentlemen, not least Gorham, who continue to give the tunes the live airing they deserve for the people who need them. And that's why, as Johnson outlines, the decision was made never to record new material under the Thin Lizzy name.

"I don't think we wanted to suffer the wrath of the Thin Lizzy fan base," says Johnson. "I'm one of those fans...and if somebody comes to me and says 'hey Damon, you love Thin Lizzy, I hear they're making a new album without Phil Lynott', I wouldn't want to hear about it."

So the Black Star Riders was formed in late 2012, as much to protect the Thin Lizzy brand as to be able to escape from it, I suspect. Even old rockers want to do something new. And perhaps this is the secret.

For Hamilton, Rock can never die.

"There was always a Rolling Stone cover story that said "This is the death of rock". It's annoying to hear people put that out there. But there's just something about it that's persistent. It's like a bad rash that won't go away."

Johnson thinks rock is in pretty good shape in 2016 - and success is feasible as long as you - to quote Judas Priest - deliver the goods.

"That's essentially what the Chili Peppers and Heart have done, and they're both great if you're committed to continuing to express yourself like that, then yeah - it's a great time to be in a classic band."

Johnson generously suggest that the current incarnation is a "tribute to Phil", and it's not untrue, but when they took to the stage as the sun began to dip behind the pie tent, you felt like you were watching something much more special. The twin guitars of Boys are Back in Town are always a highlight - but tonight saw the triple-whammy of a third guitar, played by one time member Midge Ure.

The night was completed by David Coverdale's Whitesnake. Coverdale, never short of a bon mot or two, wanted something a bit cooler to shout that "Hello Maidstone" but he magnanimously made-do after deciding on "Hello Kent".

Chris Ingham, the owner and Creative Director of the fair says the vibe is more important than the commercial success.

"We were determined to come up with a festival which catered to the older rock fan," he says. "People are just relaxing, taking their time, checking out all the different rock bands at their own pace."

Official attendance figures were still being collated at the time of writing but Ingham is happy.

"If you want to go into your commerciality, your business plans - that works", he says.

Married couple Brian (61) and Katrina from Luton are part of the older demographic that Ingham targets, and it's working for them.

"It's just such a lovely atmosphere, we really enjoyed it," says Katrina.

And Brian isn't just here for the older bands. He was singing the praises of the opening act, Inglorious - who formed in 2014.

"I only bought the album last week," he says.

Rachel, a pharmacist from Southampton is in her 30s and chose the Ramblin' Man fair over this year's Download festival, which will please Ingham.

"We were not inspired by the Download line-up which we normally we thought let's try something different," she says, looking resplendent with crimped hair and glittering eyes.

And what about the whole family? Jon Ewen and his partner and two daughters hail from the south coast town of Hastings. The girls, 10 and 8, has their ear defenders handy but took them off for long enough to tell me how much they liked the music. For Jon, it's a relief to be able to find something that the whole family can enjoy together, particularly if beer and "meat" are easily accessible!

With Bad Company visiting Britain in October and and the mighty Black Sabbath embarking on their last ever UK tour in early 2017, the future of Classic Rock appears, for the time being, to be live and safe rather than live and dangerous. And that's how the fans seem to like it.


With thanks to John Shanahan for his tenacity behind the camera!