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AOR: The term, it's history and musical meaning

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© 2015 Kim Palmer. The following text or longer excerpts from it may not be used without the author's permission.

 

 

TOPICS:

 

1. The AOR-term and it's history

2. A historical summary of AOR music

2.1 The 70's

2.2 The 80's

2.3 Present times

3. Subdivision of AOR music in three general styles

3.1 The classic style

3.2 The lightweight style/westcoast rock

3.3 The hard style/MHR

4. AOR - pop or rock music?

 

 

 

1. The AOR-term and it's history

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AOR is a term originally used as a name for an American radio format. American music researcher Paul Friedlander (1996: 262) mentioned in a section on 80's rock music the AOR-format as "... the dominant rock format for youthful American listeners." The following quote concerning the AOR format, we find in Moore (1993: 129):

 

"According to Barnes (1990), adult-oriented rock (as an American radio programming format) grew out of American 'progressive rock', and tends to consist of 'white', 'safe' rock, with something of an emphasis on playing music from the 'golden age' (about 1967-75)." (Moore, 1993: 129)

 

This quote indicates that the AOR-concept (as a name for a radio format) goes back to the 70s. Support for this claim, we also find in Blokhus and Molde (2004: 310), who in a section on the 70's singer/songwriter genre, discusses the term:

 

"This adult pop [the singer/songwriter genre, my remark] was, with its broad appeal, to pave the way for concepts in the market such as AOR - Adult orientated Rock (or Radio), AC - Adult Contemporary, and MOR - middle-of -the-road." (Blokhus and Molde, 2004: 310, my translation)

 

From this quote we can clearly see a problem, namely that the "R" in AOR can be both "Rock" and "Radio". It is therefore hardly surprising that the term sometimes causes some confusion when it is used, and that many people have such different views about its meaning. Friedlander (1996: 262) stir in the soup further by using the name Album-oriented rock (AOR) radio. In this sense both "Rock" and "Radio" are in the same term, but its still aimed mainly to the radio format itself, and nothing music stylistically. Though when the term is used as a music stylistically concept, there is no doubt that the R stands for "Rock".

 

We have already noted that the term dates back to the 70s, but that it back then mainly where used as a description for a radio format. What this format meant, was that from the radio stations keep focused on playing music from bands and artists whose records did not only contained a few hits, but consistently strong songs that could appeal to a wider audience. The Swedish AOR-expert Magnus Söderkvist answer the following in an interview in the magazine Backstage on the question how he would define the AOR-concept:

 

"Adult or Album Oriented Rock. Adult or Album can really go on an out. Album stand to the record being a whole concept and not just one other hit. Something that appeals to the older, more adult listeners, therefore, Adult."

 

One can therefore say that the AOR radio format from the beginning was about playing Album-oriented Rock for adult audiences. Still, as shown in the quotation above and the previous discussion, it is impossible to put a clear meaning in the term AOR. The term, like many other musical concepts, and style names, has meant different things to different people in different times and can exist in several variations. None of them can be said to be incorrect. To conclude this discussion of the three letters in the term, one can say that AOR by definition could mean any of the following: Album/Adult Oriented Rock/Radio

 

 

2.0 A historical summary of AOR music

2.1 The 70's

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AOR as musical phenomenon was an exclusively American phenomenon. Many of the style forming bands in the genre descended from the USA and their music was played by the adult-oriented rock radio stations around the country. However, it is difficult to put an exact year on when AOR for the first time is used as a music style term. Some Swedish music magazines, like Sweden Rock Magazine (henceforth continue short "SRM") and Backstage, talks about AOR as a genre that is emerging in the U.S. during the 70th century's latter half. The same basis has Blokhus and Molde (2004: 335), who condemns the fact that many rock bands in the mid 70's were criticized for creating music based on commercial interests rather than artistic. They further discuss the record industry's economic expansion during the decade:

"The 70s was the decade when it started to become normal for lp's at selling several million, and the bands had mass appeal regardless of geographic connection or specific subcultures - this was AOR-rock in the broadest sense." (Blokhus och Molde, 2004: 335, my translation)

As main representatives for this early type of AOR-rock, Blokhus and Molde (2004: 335) mentions bands like The Doobie Brothers, 10CC, America, Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. The fact is, however, that these bands have relatively little to do with the type of music that we now call AOR - which again highlights the fact that musical style conceptions often change over time. Bands like Doobie Brothers and The Eagles, however, should counted as some of the first bands whose music became known as AOR (as a direct effect of them being played frequently on adult-oriented radio stations), and are therefore important. They are primarily important forerunners of the style branch within the AOR that usually goes under the name of westcoast rock (or just westcoast). Distinguishing features for this early AOR music was a very polished and well produced sound, often performed by professional studiomusicians. One mixed elements of both jazz, pop, and soul, and added strong melodies - a concept that hardly was considered original or innovative but could appeal to a wide audience and therefore resulted in a major commercial success for the bands. All these elements were to become central in AOR in general, and westcoast rock in particular. Another important style former in the early AOR scene was the group Steely Dan, who Blokhus and Molde (2004: 372) referrs to as "typical for the westcoast pop" and "the most important style formers and trendsetters within perfectionistic studio productions in the seventies pop music" (my translation).

<--- Early westcoast pioneers - The Eagles

 

As previously noted, however, it is unusual for these early adult-oriented rock- and pop groups to nowdays be associated with the genre AOR. If you ask a fan or a critic to mention a "classic" AOR-band, it is more likely that he/she mentions names such as Journey, Boston, Chicago or Foreigner. These are certainly groups that also became known during the 70s second half, but whose musical identity to a greater extent was characterized by rock expression, rather than pop (unlike eg The Eagles). For example, Journey and Chicago both started out as a jazzrock bands in the 70's, to in the early 80's develope into more pure AOR bands. In both Bostons and Foreigners early works clear influences from rock can be reflected (in the form of distorted guitars and blues harmonics). The fact is that both of these bands were considered as pure rock 'n' roll bands at the time. The same applies more or less to the other bands which today are considered some of the real style formers/icons within the AOR: Toto, Kansas, Reo Speedwagon, Styx and Survivor. What is remarkable is that the main representatives within AOR all have a clear basis in the rock, although influences from other genres such as jazz, pop and soul also have been included (this does not at least apply to Toto, Chicago and Journey).

 

 

2.2 The 80's

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Now, we have found that AOR was a genre that emerged in the U.S. during the 70th century's latter half. The genres glory days was, however, in the 80s, when bands such as Journey changed style from the jazzrock format to a more pure AOR-sound. In the case of Journey, this change was clearly manifested on (for the genre) groundbreaking records such as Escape (1981) and Frontiers (1983). Also bands like Toto, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon and Survivor released under the same time period some of their most significative records, which subsequently have come to be regarded as classics in the genre.

 

 

 

In this "golden age" of AOR (from about 1980-85) lots of new bands emerged, not only in the U.S. but also in Canada and Europe, who were all influenced by the AOR-style established in the 70's by bands like Boston and Foreigner. Other bands with long careers behind them in other music styles, such as Chicago, joined the AOR to either change style completely, or make one or a few records in the "new" style. Some hard rock bands flirted with the AOR-style on certain songs, or made one record that more or less contained the same ingredients and musical expression as the established AOR bands works. Of bands usually regarded as hard rock bands but at times (mostly in the 80's) has moved within the frames of the AOR genre, can be mentioned bands like Kiss, Triumph, Bon Jovi, and Def Leppard, among others.

The popularity of AOR declined somewhat during the latter part of the 80's. The reason for this had much to do with the (then) recently established genre of "poodle rock" (a designation that certainly has been used on several AOR-bands) which was a strong competitor to the AOR bands of playtime on MTV and rock radio stations. Band like Motley Crüe, Poison and Cinderella were perceived as something new and cool, compared with the AOR-bands whose style by now (at least from the radio channels and media sources) was considered a little "out" and passé. In any case a lot of AOR records were released even during this time and the style continued to influence both new and old bands around the world. It was not until the breakthrough of grunge in the early 90s that the genres glory days certainly could be considered as over.

 

 

2.3 Present times

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The AOR scene today is made up of old 70 - and 80's bands that occasionally release new material, but also new, young bands and artists that are inspired by the classic bands. The audience consists of a small but dedicated crowd of enthusiastic fans, mostly people born in the 50's and 60's who were present at the time and whose interest certainly is true, but perhaps mainly of a nostalgic nature. A small portion of the AOR audience consists of a slightly younger audience who has discovered the music via the internet or maybe some parents record collection. Furthermore, there are a few record labels that have specialized in re-issues of old AOR records, new works from old classic bands or new bands that play in the classic style (including Frontiers Records in Italy, Renaissance Records in the U.S. and record label/mail order company AOR Heaven in Germany). Special festivals that only houses AOR-bands or bands with some related style are organized every year in among others England (Firefest) and Germany. AOR today is in other words a relatively narrow genre, but that in no way can be said to be dying.

 

 

3.0 Subdivision of AOR music in three general styles

3.1 The classic style

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AOR is a concept which is exclusively used in the field of music journalism. The concept is also likely to be a music journalistic construction. From my experience, it is also not that many bands and artists who themselves put the epithet "AOR" on their music. Neal Schon, guitarist of Journey, is skeptical of the term and do not appear to like to be linked with it:

"I have always believed that Journey was wider than the label that were put on us. We where stuck up with other bands that in reality wasn't similar to us at all; Styx, Reo Speedwagon - bands with completely different influences." (Sweden Rock Magazine, #31, 2005, p. 38)

The reason for this "stacking together" of the first generation of AOR-bands depended as already discussed perhaps not primarily on the basis of the purely musical, as Schon points out. Other factors, like where the music performed (in large stadiums) and where it was played (on adult-oriented radio stations) played a major role in the stacking together of bands like just Journey, Reo Speedwagon and Styx. But of course there were also musical similarities. Blokhus and Molde (2004: 415) uses the term heavypop for the type of music that these bands practiced and define the basic concepts of AOR-music as follows:

"Take a dose of heavyguitar and a vocalist who sings with a heavyrockers energy - in the tradition of either Page or Plant. This is combined with pop music's melodiosity, harmonizing, arranging (some synthesizers) and not least a refrain that can be remembered." (Blokhus and Molde, 2004: 415, my translation)

AOR-expert Magnus Söderkvist is on the same track and answer the following on the question on how he would define AOR music:

"Melodic rock with good vocals, but still with power and heavy guitars. Keyboards are often used but not always. A prime example is Journey, especially the records "Escape" and "Frontiers" (Backstage, 1993, #19, p. 24)

These two quotes summarize quite well the general view today among fans and music critics about what AOR stands for purely musical - at least when it comes to the "pure", so to speak classic AOR-style, which is generally stamped on bands like Journey. In connection with this style, however, two additional concepts has to be clarified, namely pomp (or pomprock) and arena rock. What kind of connection does these have to the classic AOR? Regarding arenarock it seems that this term pretty much is synonymous with the classic style:

"Arena Rock developed in the mid-'70s, when hard rock and heavy metal bands began to gain popularity. The music became more commercially oriented and radio-friendly, boasting slick productions and anthemic choruses, both on their hard rock numbers and their sweeping power ballads. Most of these bands earned their following through saturation airplay on FM radio and through constant touring. Bands like Journey, REO Speedwagon, Boston, Foreigner, and Styx became some of the most popular bands of the mid- to late '70s through this circuit" (All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=77%3A2694)

Regarding the term "pomp", it is a term often encountered in the AOR-world. Pomprock is a very broad concept which among other things has been used to describe the band Queens music, a band which, paradoxically, almost never is mentioned in AOR-contexts. When you encounter the term "pomp" in the AOR world, however, it mostly is about a more progressive, experimental branch of the classic AOR genre. Bands frequently mentioned in connection with this style include Kansas and Styx. In this article, I would, however for the sake of simplicity include this branch in the overall classic style, since pomp after all, has many fundamental similarities with the classic AOR style.

Examples of the style names which in one way or another are connected with or can be housed within the classic AOR style: AOR, adult rock/pop, heavypop, melodic rock, pomp, pure AOR, arena rock, album rock

Examples of bands/artists in the classic AOR style: Boston, Foreigner, Survivor, Kansas, Styx, Reo Speedwagon, Journey.

 

 

3.2 The lightweight style/westcoast rock

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Within this branch, Toto and Chicago are often mentioned as stylemakers. The fact that these bands often are cathegorized together with the classic AOR bands are therefore something that can be questioned, but it also shows how strongly connected the terms "AOR" and "westcoast" are. For example, in Japan the term "westcoast rock" is used as an overall term on all forms of the music we in the western world would call AOR. The following quoatations from different music magazines also displays the close relationship of the two terms:

"Pure, early 80's AOR and westcoast rock but still with an exceptional weight in the sound." (about the band Balance, SRM 44:2007, p. 90)

"They were one of the few groups that managed to find a perfect mix of AOR and westcoast rock." (about the band Preview, SRM 44:2007, p. 88)

"Swedish Blind Alley may have a hardrock-ish name but gives us soft AOR with a foot in the westcoastland on certain tracks. Some tracks are really good, like the calm "We Still Belong" that sounds a bit like Journey but with a little more pop and westcoast-spice." (about the band Blind Alley, SRM 17:2004, p. 54)

"Eagles was actually counted to the AOR bands in the beginning, but is nowdays probably considered westcoast rock or M.O.R. (Middle-of-the-Road - lightweight AOR)" (Magnus Söderkvist in Backstage 19:1993, p. 24)

In the last quote we also find part of the explanation to the both terms close interconnection. The earliest bands whose music became known as "AOR", such as The Eagles, as well known had a "softer" and more laidback musical expression than the classic AOR bands that appeared somewhat later. The style later became known as "westcoast" due to the fact that it emerged in studiomusician environments at the U.S. west coast. Just the fact that the bands within this style from the beginning where labelled as "AOR" form much of the basis for the two terms close connection.

As already showed, the westcoast-style orginally developed as a fusion of jazz, pop and soul. When this style in the early 80's were adopted in a more rockier approach by bands like Toto, it was no longer that easy to distinguish it from the established (now "classic" ) AOR-style, and also this is the basis for the terms close relationship. It should not be denied that the styles sometimes ARE difficult to resolve (which is not at least seen from the quotes above). The fundamental difference, however, is that the westcoast-style emerged as a fusion of jazz, pop and soul, while the classic AOR style rather grew out of rock (although also with influences from the aforementioned styles, see section 2.1 above).

In connection with this style, there is also reason for discussing the term M.O.R, which stands for Middle-Of-The-Road. This term has in several contexts been mentioned in connection to the westcoast-style (see for example the quote above about The Eagles). MOR, in many ways, stands out as the pop music's equivalent to AOR. Blokhus and Molde (2004: 333) points out that you really can not speak of MOR as a style genre, but that it is a:

"...expression for an easily listenable pop music that can appeal to most people, and that do not provoke anyone. In other words, a summary of elements from different styles without claims of any autenticity or originality, but with a recognizable effect and hummable as a strength, performed by artists who looked relatively kind and decent." (Blokhus och Molde, 2004: 333, my translation)

 

 

In this respect, one can not deny some similarities with AOR, and perhaps especially the westcoast rock ideals which largely relies on the same concept. As examples of MOR-groups, Blokhus and Molde (2004: 333) mentions (among others) Bay City rollers, Osmonds, Neil Sedaka, David Cassidy and Tom Jones. Brolinson and Larsen (1999: 199) also mentions ABBA as a typical MOR group, which consistently through their career has moved within a variety of styles. So what do these groups and artists have in common with the westcoast rock? The answer to this would probably require its own investigation, but in general you can

not talk about any general musical similarities: the westcoast

 

 

 

rock formation were based on a fusion of jazz, pop and soul, while the above-mentioned artists music can be based on the convergence of completely different styles. With westcoast rock's similarities with MOR in mind, regarding the basic concepts discussed by Blokhus and Molde, it would be tempting to imagine westcoast as a kind of "hard" MOR-style (in similarity to melodic hard rock respectively AOR, more about this further down), at least when it comes to a band like Toto. We shall however not go deeper on the MOR-term here. What is important to emphasize, however, is that many MOR-performers music also has been stamped as "lightweight" AOR (eg The Eagles), and therefore it is not quite right to only tie the westcoast rock to the lightweight AOR-style. More examples of artists who has been stamped as "MOR", but whose music from time to time have strong connections to the AOR-style, include Richard Marx, Michael Bolton and Starship. The point is in other words that the lightweight AOR-style do not only house westcoast and its representatives, but also some artists and bands who have been imputed with the MOR-label, and which not only can be connected to the westcoast style (although some musical parallels exist).

Style names that in one way or another are connected with or can be housed within the lightweight AOR-style: westcoast rock/pop, MOR (Middle-Of-The-Road), soft rock/pop, adultpop/rock, AC - adult contemporary, FM Rock, high-tech AOR, lite AOR

Examples on bands/artists within the lightweight AOR-style: Toto, Chicago, Michael Bolton, Richard Marx, Airplay

 

 

3.3 The hard style/MHR

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If one imagine the AOR music on a horizontal scale, one could imagine that the pure AOR-style lies in the middle, while the westcoast style is located further to the left. Even further to the left, we find styles such as pop and soul. Sometimes the westcoast style borders more in this direction, to sometimes stylewise move more to the middle. If we move to the right of the pure AOR on the scale, we soon find ourselves in the borderland to the melodic hard rock. The limit for which kind of music should be called AOR respecitvely melodic hard rock is often subtle and can be debated indefinitely. The term "Melodic hard rock" (henceforth abbreviated "MHR") is, like the westcoast, strongly linked with the term AOR. Just like westcoast and pure AOR, the styles often slips into one and another and the musical difference between what is known as AOR respectively MHR is often very small. It should certainly be noted, that MHR is a problematic concept, since in principle all forms of hard rock - from the 70s classic hard rock to today's most extreme metal forms - more or less can be said to possess at least some form of melodic element. From an AOR-perspective, however, MHR most often is about some element in the music differing from the pure style, for example that the electric guitar provides a more prominent role in the sound or that the use of keyboards is not as widespread as one is used to when it comes to pure AOR. The term "melodic rock" is often used by music critics to describe this fusion of AOR and hard rock/metal, but even the meaning of this term may not always stand out as totally obvious for the uniniated. The below quotes from different numbers of Sweden Rock Magazine also points at the difficulties to describe the kind of AOR-music that deviates from the pure style and instead approaches the heavier rock (or the other way around):

"...truth to be told this is a quite ordinary melodic hard rock record with AOR garnish." (about the band Airless, SRM 31:2005, p. 63)

"They delivered classic hardrock-AOR from the hardplayed Zeppelin stage..." (about the band Jaded Heart, SRM 37:2005, p. 77)

"Despite this it's a pretty decent CD, with a mix of AOR, a bit glam and melodic hard rock." (about the artist Johnny Lima, SRM 17:2004, p. 60)

"Good melodic hard rock, or AOR with balls, and good guitar playing." (about the artist Danny Danzi, SRM 19:2004, p. 57)

"Maybe wrong to call this AOR, would probably like to rephrase it to - melodic hard rock." (about the band Zeno, SRM 39:2006, p. 76)

The problems with the terms AOR and MHR is in many respects that their sheer musical content lies very close to each other. Regarding the pure AOR-style, it could without a problem be called melodic hard rock since it's about melodic and hard rock. However, it's important to also see to the context and on what kind of bands the terms are used. If we, for instance, have a band who started out as a pure metalband, to later develope to become more melodic and commercial by involving typical pop elements in their music (and thus, approach themselves the ideals of AOR), maybe it's not in it's full right to for that reason call them an "AOR-band". If we on the other hand have a band, that from beginning have played in this style and who furthermore also stated being influenced by the classic AOR bands, perhaps the name may be more appropriate. Another important aspect to include is of course what main audience the band in question is targeted to. For example, we can investigate the band/artist's texts: are they mainly intended for young people or adults? Are they targeted mainly towards a youthful audience, perhaps one should reflect on if the AOR-term really is appropriate. What is interesting is that most of the bands defined as AOR bands by music critics and fans generally seems to like to describe their own music in terms like "melodic hard rock" or just "rock". An example of this is found in an article in swedish music magazine OKEJ on the Canadian band Honeymoon Suite, where the author Jörgen Holmstedt points out that Honeymoon Suite now has "grown up and become the brilliant AOR band I was hoping for." Later in the article, Honeymoon Suites singer and guitarist Johnny Dee is asked to characterize his bands music:

"It is hard rock, but definitely not heavy metal. Yuck, I hate it when people call us heavy metal. We are a melodic hard rock band that is always trying to find good melodies and choruses." (OKEJ 1986, p. 42)

The fact that Johnny Dee later in the article states Foreigner as a major influence on the band perhaps can give some indication that it in this case is an AOR band we are dealing with. Of course, it also depends on what perspective you have: from the musicjournalists perspective and musical conceptual frameworks, Honeymoon Suites music is "AOR", but from the artists it's "melodic hard rock". This shows once again how strongly interconnected the concepts are. None of them can really be said to be "wrong", but as stated it all depends on what perspective you have.

 

Honeymoon Suite - AOR or melodic hard rock?

 

It is debatable whether you should define the melodic hard rock to a subgenre within the metal genre or within the AOR genre. Simply put, MHR (of the type discussed above) have a lot in common with both styles, and it is really equally right to regard it as a softer subgenre of heavy metal that as a harder style of AOR. Since this article is written from an AOR-perspective, I therefore regard MHR as a harder style within the AOR genre.

Examples on terms that in one way or another are connected with or can be included within the hard AOR-style: melodic hard rock, melodic rock, pop metal, MHR

Examples on bands/artists within the hard AOR/MHR: Red Dawn, Tour De Force, House Of Lords, Harem Scarem, Network, Valentine

 

 

4.0 AOR - pop or rock music?

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Is AOR pop or rock music? It can not really be given a straightforward answer. AOR can, however, regardless of style branch, be considered commercial music. It is music that is made to be played on the radio and which is intended to appeal to a wide audience. This is most obvious in the lightweight style, but also in the other two styles, we find extremely commercial elements like harmless texts, accessible choruses and polished pop productions. From all this, one could certainly regard AOR as popmusic. However, let's not forget that several rock elements also can be traced within the AOR music: the instrument setting and the hard, distorted electric guitars are all components that undoubtedly can be associated with rock music. Another argument that can be used for a categorization of AOR as rock music is that the AOR bands main medium was the album ("Album Oriented Rock"). Certainly AOR bands aimed at hit-singles, which have little to do with rock's original ideals about authenticity and artistry. If AOR is pop or rock music is something that can be speculated upon and it is difficult to give a straightforward answer. Many would probably not object to a categorization of the westcoast style as pop music - however a pop categorization of, for example, Journey, Foreigner or Boston would certainly be met with skepticism by many AOR fans. Based on my analysis, I would like to define the westcoast style as pop music with elements of rock and the other two styles as rock music with strong pop elements.

 

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