Dad Rock: By Dads, About Dads, For Dads
By Reece Skelley (he/him)
Dad rock has always been a derogatory term. I’ve hurled it more than my fair share of times at artsy-fartsy, fluffy, and stuffy, crusty old guys playing the pentatonic scale for decades on end. And yet, behind cliché hides warmth; behind the flock of stereotypical white-haired Gibson crusaders lies an under-appreciated - and underutilised - level of artistic merit. So, I’m here to appropriate the term and push the boundaries of what dad rock can be by reviewing albums that I believe embrace different fundamental pillars of the term. It’s by dads, about dads, for dads, for sure - but that shouldn’t stop the music being for us as well. In fact, one day it has to be for us. We should at least get to choose what it is. Hopefully, these three albums give you a head start.
Aeon Station - Observatory
When all that you know / or believe to be true / goes wrong / hold on
Observatory feels like a lecture from my dad. Not a judging lecture like “cut your hair and get a job” (although I did hear that a lot), but a motivational lecture; the world will kick you down, and not all your plans will bear fruit, but giving up is not the answer. It’s all the more potent coming from a 50-ish-year-old Kevin Whelan who hadn’t released an album in almost 20 years - that album being one of my favourites of all time, 2003’s The Meadowlands. Observatory also took a decade in and of itself - no matter how long the music gestated and aged alongside Whelan, its sentiment still rings true.
Observatory is also emotionally diverse in spite of how minimalist its structure is. ‘Hold On’ appropriately opens the album with a piano-led lullaby. On the other end of the spectrum, raucous rock anthems like ‘Fade’ and ‘Better Love’ soar to the stratosphere with nothing more than passionate power chords and Whelan belting notes as far as his vocal range can take him.
Ultimately, Whelan’s story embodies the reality of being a modern musician - and personally, the kind of musician I expect to be. Not just in the superficial similarities, like playing righthanded guitars upside down. Aeon Station, like The Wrens before them, embraces perseverance; working the 9-5 day job and using the little time you have at the end of the day to nurture your artistic calling, bit by bit.
Essential dad rock needs to be by dads. In the right hands, it allows them to impart their wisdom and experience towards a generation that struggles to be heard. We live in a wild-west cowboy frontier where video game companies own Bandcamp and local bands are lucky to hit double-digits at Whammy bar. Who wouldn’t want a guiding hand?
Gang of Youths - angel in realtime.
I dunno what to feel / I dunno how to feel right / but I want to become my own man, I guess
angel in realtime. made me cry. Significantly. Like, a LOT. I thought I had reached the point where ‘spirit boy’ couldn’t affect me again, and then the live video with orchestral accompaniment came out, and Lord have mercy. Dave Le'aupepe takes the band’s “shed rock Springsteen'' reputation and shuffles in electronic polyrhythms, Indigenous and Pasifika vocal samples, an entire orchestra… the works! And it works! But it’s a hard album to stomach sometimes, because that musical density works in the service of an equally dense emotion: grief.
Dad rock has dealt with grief before - Roger Waters expressed grief for his lost father throughout Pink Floyd’s discography - and through that, we inadvertently have to reckon with our own mortality. So how does angel in realtime. separate itself from the pack? By refusing to foster resentment, and instead fostering understanding. ‘brothers’ provides both conflict and resolution in a single couplet concerning one titular brother, Matthew: “our father left him at the hospital / but if he forgives him, then I should too.” In other tracks, Le'aupepe juxtaposes the tragic nature of the lyrics with upbeat songwriting. ‘in the wake of your leave’ encapsulates this perfectly; it’s hard to write about survivor's guilt or inadequacy, let alone after a funeral, and make it sound triumphant.
Essential dad rock needs to be about dads. Without them, it’s just rock. And “just rock” doesn’t roll off the tongue well, or sound as cool. On a serious note: without them, we have no baseline for where we’ve come from. It may not be all positive, or reflective of who we want to be – but as long as the backlight illuminates our way forward, it’s worthwhile.
Electric Light Orchestra - Out of the Blue
Hey you with the pretty face / Welcome to the human race
In 1978, my dad lost his copy of Out of the Blue in a dastardly coup waged by his significantly older aunt, when he was a wee boy. They battled in the seas, the skies, and even the cosmos (you can probably see them in the background of the album cover), but it was to no avail; his dreams of sitting under the kowhai tree, listening to ‘Mr. Blue Sky’, had turned to stone. Until 2022, 44 years later, when a really cool son of his found a copy in an op-shop for twenty bucks and restored his lost youth. At least, it’s more fun when I put it that way.
Make no mistake: ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ is pure cheese. British people writing piano ballads about cowboys? Undeniable boomer energy. But in spite of - or maybe because of - all that, Out of the Blue is effortlessly timeless. ELO cribs from the Beatles’ strong pop sensibilities, without falling into McCartney’s mawkish vaudeville or Lennon’s outlandish pessimism. It also serves as the peak of the band’s use of the orchestra, later albums cashed in hard on disco, synthesizers, and futuristic concepts - Focusing on the ‘E’ and scrapping the ‘LO’ almost entirely. In short: it’s the best representation of the band.
Essential dad rock needs to be for dads - and I don’t just mean as a present. I struggle to connect to my dad because we're from very different eras and enjoy very different things - but we’ve always been able to bond over music because I’ve always had something to inherit from him. When it’s for him, it’s an heirloom, something that I can keep to my dying days - or pass on to whoever comes next. That’s the power of dad rock, baby.