"So many new bands are flashing back," says Sean Ross of Edison Media Research. "White Stripes, The Darkness and Jet; it's all AC/DC. As music gets retro, kids get curious about the real thing."
When rising rock stars rave about The Kinks, sport Hendrix T-shirts or cover Bob Dylan songs, young fans investigate those roots, says Craig Kallman, president of Atlantic Records, home of the Led Zeppelin vault and current sensation The Darkness.
"We're seeing a resurgence of bands that have been inspired by the greatest rock bands of all time," Kallman says. "The Darkness embodies the spirit of Queen, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC with fundamentals that made those bands huge: great songs, a fantastic front man, incredible musicianship and a sense of fun. They counter the dark, angry, self-loathing nu-metal that has dominated alternative rock for so long."
Flamboyant rock stars, blistering guitar solos and hard-rock bombast "all went by the wayside as rap-metal took shape in the '90," Kallman says. When bands like The Darkness and Jet arrived, "the spontaneity, creativity, freedom and energy, all the elements that made rock such a defining sound, cut through to kids."
• Easy access. Classic rock is not only ubiquitous — in TV ads, reissues, reunion tours, soundtracks, copycat bands and recycled hits — but it's also instantly available. An obscure tune is only a few keystrokes away. "The Internet has turbo-charged the renewed interest in great bands of the past," Kallman says.
Finding rare gems used to mean scouring used record stores, garage sales and classifieds. Paid downloads and illegal file-sharing allow easy sampling and cherry-picking. Among the more popular digital tracks, according to SoundScan: Elvis Presley's A Little Less Conversation, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes and Elton John's Tiny Dancer.
"Kids want to experiment, and technology facilitates that," Austin says. "They don't have to shell out 18 bucks to try something. They can preview a track for 30 seconds, and buy it for 99 cents. I'm a big fan of the record store, but it's going to be a dinosaur."
Likewise for "stagnant" radio's narrow formats that don't cater to youth's eclectic palate, Austin says.
"Young listeners are reaching for something else, and they often find it in the past. Don't be surprised if they start checking out Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney."
The Internet has turned grass-roots movements into brushfires as info-age addicts steer search engines toward rock's back roads. It's a phenom that recharges the fan bases of such perennials as the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, David Bowie, Steve Miller and Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose best-of album is a fixture on Billboard's catalog chart.
"We started out appealing to the working-class blue-collar audience, and now we see their kids at our shows," Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington says, noting that teens in attendance aren't rookies.
"They know the words to every song, old or new, and they know our whole history," he says, referring to the deaths of three players in a 1977 plane crash. "I hear from younger fans who learn about us from the Internet or VH1 or their parents or maybe something Kid Rock said about us."
• The riches of rock's golden era. Few modern-era albums linger long on the catalog chart, but hits sets and vintage landmarks, especially Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (listed for an unprecedented 1,390 weeks), show exceptional staying power. Perennials include Bob Marley's Legend, AC/DC's Back in Black and Queen's Greatest Hits. The Beatles, Dylan, Rolling Stones and Zeppelin are reliable sellers.
Why are kids taking nostalgia trips to their parents' playgrounds? Zeppelin's bait, says Kallman, is "mythic lifestyles and iconic personas. The music is grandiose and gentle, shaped by blues and heavy metal and textured by British folk and California psychedelia."
Plus, "they turned the amps up and played as loud as they could," says Jeffrey Log