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Mama Let 'em Play

St. Louis may be the center of the classic-rock universe

As new waves of musical taste and style crash onto the beach of public consciousness every year, the layers of residue left behind get thicker and thicker. Even when they fade from the charts, genres never really go away. The number of adherents may rise and fall, but most popular music styles of the past century (Dixieland, noisecore, Philly soul, cowpunk -- the list could go on all day) will always have their armies of true believers.

This process is helped along by a host of developments in the music industry. As major labels consolidate -- often dropping artists and loosening up some of their less-profitable back catalog -- smaller outfits are increasingly filling in the gaps. Reissue CD labels, be they general like Rhino Records or specialized by genre, are busily working to get every record ever made back in print. This vast and bewildering diversity makes it possible for true fanatics of a certain style to focus ever more narrowly on their obsession; if you're into '60s rocksteady or '50s bel canto, you can easily drop your entire music-buying budget on nothing but that.

And it turns out that tech nerds and rock & roll are on the same side: The Internet has made it easier than ever before to feed esoteric musical habits. The photocopied fanzine and passed-around mix tape have been supplemented and largely supplanted by Web sites, eBay and MP3 files. Musical adventurers with Web access can, within minutes, find whole communities of like-minded listeners, swapping knowledge on rare records and reissues.

Sherre Birenbaum of Disc-Connection: "We'll always sell major artists like Clapton and REO, but then there's the people who come in with their list after the Klassics show on Sunday."
Jay Fram
Sherre Birenbaum of Disc-Connection: "We'll always sell major artists like Clapton and REO, but then there's the people who come in with their list after the Klassics show on Sunday."

The landscape of the music industry is evolving into something that resembles the music industry of, say, the 1940s: A few enormous corporations release profitable mass hits, while a legion of specialized regional and individual labels keep their particular musical flames burning. This model has worked in the punk-rock scene for, oh, 20 years now, and the punk scene owes its continued existence to its independence from the whims of corporate accountants.

And so begins the tale of the classic-rock underground. To the hippest among us, it may seem odd to consider classic rock an underground commodity. Even today, with the music far from the mass-media spotlight, St. Louis boasts three major radio stations devoted to it, and the gods of its pantheon still embark on lucrative tours every few years (Eric Clapton, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the Rolling Stones). Classic-rock reissue packages and boxed sets still bring in a decent piece of change. In this top-down view, classic rock is as commercial as ever. But if the superstars are doing fine, what about the lesser lights, the utility infielders of the classic-rock league? Whither the hardworking, shaggy-haired, leather-fringed rock band with a couple of regional '70s hits to their names? And, just as important, what about their fans? Do the major labels have anything to offer these people?

Frankly, no. So they're doing it for themselves. And St. Louis is, in many ways, the hub of it all, thanks largely to KSHE (94.7 FM). From its inception in 1967 as the first FM station to play rock music in St. Louis, KSHE followed an iconoclastic and unusual programming strategy. Alongside the standard-issue Led Zep and ZZ Top chestnuts, the station has long featured lesser-known acts, eventually building a large playlist of what are now called "KSHE Klassics." A recent listener to the KSHE Klassics show (8 a.m.-noon Sundays) would have found a surprisingly eclectic batch of classic-rock obscurities: the synth-based prog-pop of Ambrosia, the leaden boogie of Foghat and -- what do you know -- the Clash's 1980 LP track "Police on My Back."

Scott Davis, the Little Rock, Ark.-based Webmaster of the Classic Rock Homepage (rockclassics.tripod.com), has compiled a master list of such chestnuts by hundreds of artists ranging from Ace to Zephyr. A quick perusal of the list reveals many a KSHE favorite: April Wine, Nektar, Missouri. Each gets its share of KSHE airplay.

"I don't want to plug KSHE too much," says Davis, who grew up in St. Louis, "but there's no other station in the country like it. Where else will you hear artists like Touch, String Driven Thing, Earthquake or Diesel? In a lot of cities, you mention one of these groups or artists, and you get a blank look." During the genre's '70s heyday, these acts reached broad mainstream audiences in St. Louis while remaining cult pleasures elsewhere. And, as Davis says, when these fans traveled to other cities, they'd discover that the music they grew up with in St. Louis went unheard elsewhere.

Sherre Birenbaum was one of those fans. In the late 1970s, she decided her master's degree in sociology wasn't going to lead anywhere satisfying, so she began selling LPs at record shows. By 1981, she was able to open Disc-Connection in Maplewood, a store specializing in obscure rock in the classic style -- which, by the way, Birenbaum likes to call "heritage rock" after a Rolling Stone story on KSHE. The KSHE audience, along with fans of local acts like Pavlov's Dog, came to know Disc-Connection as a reliable source for their faves. A large "Wall of Classics" display heralds rare, collectible and recommended discs and serves to jar the memories of the store's graying clientele. The general impression, regardless of the observer's musical taste, is of a store run by people who enjoy the music they sell.

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