Classic rock songs take on modern form

Billboard's chart of the top-selling digital download tracks reflects the hottest tunes of the day: Leading the most recent list is rapper Soulja Boy, whose debut, Crank That (Soulja Boy), is also No. 1 on the Hot 100, ahead of Kanye West, Nickelback, Timbaland and Fergie.

But dig deeper and you'll find classic-rock chestnuts from as far back as three decades, including Journey's Don't Stop Believin' and Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird, a sign that baby boomers' love for the music of their youth goes on and on and on and on, no matter how modern the medium.

"When you see some of these older songs there, it is a reminder to you that it isn't just kids who are buying downloads," says Billboard's director of charts, Geoff Mayfield. "It is something adults are getting into, too."

Don't Stop Believin' sits at No. 81 and has been on the chart for 35 weeks — more than five months before it served as Tony's swan song on The Sopranos finale. Before that, it also appeared on Family Guy. "There is something ubiquitous about that particular song," Mayfield says. "It does seem to resonate with gray-hairs, but kids seem to dig it, too."

Other artists making the latest chart: Guns N' Roses (Sweet Child O' Mine, No. 119, 36 weeks on the chart), Survivor (Eye of The Tiger, 141, 88 weeks), Aerosmith (Walk This Way, 152), Bon Jovi (Livin' on a Prayer, 165), The Eagles (Hotel California, 190) and Queen (We Will Rock You, 183, and Bohemian Rhapsody, 192).

Sales spike after ads and additions to library

Virtually all rock music is now for sale digitally at online stores such as iTunes, eMusic and Rhapsody, except for notable holdouts such as The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Classic rock songs may wind up on the charts after being used in commercials or included on an iTunes playlist, says David Card, analyst with Jupiter Research. "Some of these are evergreen titles that boomers maybe bought on vinyl (or) as CDs, and it's an easy way" to transfer them to portable music players, he says. "Or sometimes, it just hasn't been available and becomes available in a digital form."

Case in point: Ringo Starr's It Don't Come Easy made its debut this week at 149 in its first week on iTunes.

Hovering at No. 145 is Free Bird, which has been on the chart for 24 weeks — a spot below West's Gold Digger. Another Skynyrd song, Sweet Home Alabama, has been on the chart longer, 36 weeks, and is now at No. 185.

'A new generation of fans'

It has been 30 years since the band's lead singer, Ronnie Van Zant, who co-wrote the songs, died in a 1977 plane crash along with guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, Cassie, a backup singer, and manager Dean Kilpatrick.

But Free Bird is in current rotation on the Guitar Hero 2 video game; it also appeared in the 2004 video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The song is included in the iTunes Essentials Classic Rock playlist along with Sweet Home Alabama, also a top-selling ringtone, and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Skynyrd's manager, Ross Schilling, says digital sales are "very important" for the band, which reunited in 1987 with Ronnie's younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, as lead singer. "I would like to think that those people who are downloading the band's music — legally and illegally — are being turned on to music that they may not have been familiar with, creating a new generation of fans," he says.

The large number of young people at the band's concerts surprises Van Zant: "It's pretty thrilling as far as carrying the music on." Of the band's songs being downloaded onto computers and played on phones and in video games, Van Zant says: "I just wish my brother could come back and see it. But I'm sure he's up there saying, 'Check that out!' "

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