What are the dirtiest words in rock & roll right now? Try the epithets ''established'' or ''veteran,'' which suddenly seem to be synonymous with certain chart death. Is it really curtains for classic rock? The mid and nether regions of the Billboard 200, where new albums by the likes of Rod Stewart (No. 117) and Elton John (No. 92) are unexpectedly stiffing, would certainly seem to support that claim. Also dropping fast after strong starts are Bruce Springsteen's hits disc (No. 109) and Pink Floyd's live one (No. 63); floundering its way off the charts altogether is the Unplugged package from Bob Dylan, which didn't even go gold.
''I think there may be a generation of rock artists that have seen their best days,'' says Ken Barnes, former longtime editor of R&R, the top radio-chart publication. ''Boomers exerted abnormal influence over pop for a long time you had a crop of late-'60s and '70s artists who stayed around forever, and maybe they've finally worn out their welcome. A new generation has put their choice of artist in the spotlight.'' Adds an editor at another trade magazine: ''More than one retailer is bemoaning the fact that the tried-and-true superstars are no longer. Pearl Jam is like Elton John used to be. But Elton ain't Elton anymore. Even Springsteen's next record is a question mark.''
Rock radio formats reliant on ''recurrents'' have taken a hit too, while the number of alternative-rock stations nearly doubled over the past year. This summer, two sagging heavyweights in the album-oriented-rock mold, WNEW in New York and KLOS in L.A., disingenuously declared themselves ''alternative,'' to signal they were getting the Led out and joining the Bush league. Hits magazine declared album rock kaput and inaugurated a new chart, ''Active Rock,'' tracking oldies-shunning hard-rock stations that would rather break the next Soundgarden than rest on their Sabbath.
''It's one of the quickest wholesale changes I've witnessed,'' says Barnes. ''Rock radio woke up and saw that rock's center had moved, and then scrambled to catch up.'' Veteran jock Jim Ladd, who lost his gig when L.A.'s KLSX switched to talk in July, agrees. ''The consultants think people in their 30s and 40s only want to listen to 'White Rabbit' ad nauseam. But what rock radio should be doing is exactly what Neil Young did. Who did he record his last album with? Pearl Jam.''
Bad news there, though: Young's PJ-augmented Mirror Ball (currently No. 67) isn't living up to sales expectations either indicating that, chart-wise, even youth by association may not be enough.