It’s hard to fathom today, with the pop charts ruled by Mariah Carey and the Goo Goo Dolls labeled as “rockers,” but long before rap emerged, rock was the music of rebellion. From bringing together the races when segregation was the norm, to the pop culture phenomenon that was Elvis and the Beatles, to the social commentary of Bob Dylan, to the punk movement, to the onset of grunge, rock has always been a catalyst for revolutionary societal change.
The most influential group, both in terms of effect on other musicians and effect on society in general, certainly is the Beatles. But they, too, had their influences. What is now called rock music began long before John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964.
The post-World War II popular music scene in the United States was dominated by swing and the easy listening vocal stylings of Perry Como and Patti Page. But a new sound was emerging on AM radio in the South — a three-chord hybrid of rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie and country music performed largely by black musicians in small bands, usually featuring guitar, bass, drums, piano, vocals and, often, a saxophone or horn section. In 1952, the new sound was anointed “rock and roll” — a black slang term for sexual intercourse — by influential disc jockey Alan Freed.
Important early songs included “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Roy Brown, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by Lloyd Price and the crossover hit “Sixty Minute Man” by the Dominoes. But, as a sign of the times, the music didn’t take hold of the country until white musicians like Bill Haley and the Comets began making records. Haley’s 1955 smash “Rock Around the Clock” is widely cited as the commercial birth of rock and roll.
rock1.jpg – 9574 BytesElvis Presley took the new sound to new heights, spending 25 weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts in 1956 with four hits, including classics like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” on his way to becoming the King of Rock & Roll and an icon of unrivaled proportions. Presley ushered in a golden era in rock music as the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly also came to define the new music. Just as black were as likely as whites to be fans of Elvis, whites were as likely as blacks to buy up Little Richard records or turn up at Chuck Berry concerts.
With Presley in the army and then making forgettable movies, Lewis and Berry in trouble with the law and Holly dead after a 1959 plane crash, the early 1960s marked a down period for popular music with the notable exceptions of the surf music popularized by the Beach Boys and the growing stable of stars on the Motown label, founded by producer Berry Gordy. Smokey Robinson was the first of the talented Motown performers and his hit “Shop Around” allowed Gordy to sign many other artists, such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Steve Wonder, all of whom would take turns topping the charts throughout the next two decades.
Still, without question, the most musically significant happening of the period was the British Invasion, which lifted America in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The Beatles led the way in 1964 and from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” through “Hey Jude” to “Let It Be” the Beatles had an unprecedented hold on the pop charts and on popular culture. From long hair to drug use to a “peace and love” agenda, whatever was endorsed by the Beatles, was embraced by the masses. Musically, the group grew with each album, continually experimenting with new sounds, such as feedback and backwards looping as well as incorporating full orchestras and even Indian instruments into rock. In the span of six years, they went from making fun but simple Chuck Berry-type records with Beach Boys harmonies to the sonic psychedelia of Revolver to the lush instrumentation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the first pop music album endorsed by classical music critics) to their spare but hard-rocking The Beatles (known as the White Album) to their pop masterpiece Abbey Road, which employed the best aspects of all of the above. Their influence is still easily heard when listening to current artists like Lenny Kravitz, Oasis and the Foo Fighters.
rock2.jpg – 13181 BytesThe Beatles, of course, weren’t the end of the British Invasion. Some 35 years later, long after “Satisfaction,” “Honky Tonk Women” and “Jumping Jack Flash”‘ became classics, Glimmer Twins Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the rest of the Rolling Stones are still playing to sold-out stadiums. Other important British Invasion groups from this period included the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Animals and the Who, whose lead guitarist, Pete Townshend, would go from guitar-smashing mod to originator of the concept album by the end of the decade.
rock3.jpg – 16023 BytesAmerican bands initially had no answer to the British Invasion. The most influential “Made in America” music was being penned by the greatest lyricist in rock history, Bob Dylan. His “finger-pointing” folk songs of the early-1960s included “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and his influence continued after he plugged his guitar into amplifiers in 1965 and sang “Like a Rolling Stone.” The American tradition of social and political commentary, begun in popular music by Dylan, was continued in the late-1960s by the likes of Gaye, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as well as Brits Lennon and Townshend. Rock music and the hippie culture it spawned helped turn the tide of popular opinion against the war in Vietnam.
rock4.jpg – 15535 BytesMeanwhile, as the lyrics were getting heavier, so, too, was the music. Guitar virtuosos led the way, as Jimi Hendrix and ex-Yardbirds Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, all of whom were firmly rooted in the blues, pioneered the hard rock movement. “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” by Clapton’s late-60s band Cream and “Purple Haze” by Hendrix were early hard rock tunes and Page expanded on the new sound with one of the most successful bands in history, Led Zeppelin, on such songs as “Whole Lotta Love.” By 1970 Black Sabbath had taken the genre to an even heavier level. Eliminating any semblance of swing and relying solely on heavy riffs, heavy metal was born.
The early 1970s meant more social upheaval, as androgynous, indulgent artists like glam rocker David Bowie and popster Elton John made gender-bending fashionable and put out the sound track of the times with albums like The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (Bowie) and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (John). A major technological innovation during this period was the synthesizer, which allowed artists to further explore new sounds. A key band of this era was Pink Floyd, whose 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon remained on the Billboard charts for more than 700 consecutive weeks and remains a popular choice in college dorms even today. Country flavored rock bands like the Eagles, the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd also flourished during the early-70s. The Eagles’ 1976 compilation, The Eagles: Their Greatest Hits is the biggest-selling album of all time.
Just as Dylan was fading somewhat from view on the pop culture landscape, America found another voice in the everyman songs of Bruce Springsteen, who spoke for much of the country on his 1975 hit “Born to Run” and on subsequent albums, (like his multi-platinum Born in the U.S.A.). But, for the most part, the mid-to-late 1970s were defined by empty dance music known as “disco.” Popularized in the seminal motion picture “Saturday Night Fever,” disco’s sole purpose was to get people on the dance floor. It featured rhythmic bass lines and strings and was mastered by the likes of the Bee Gees, Donna Summer and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Even rockers like Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones made disco records.
rock5.jpg – 19996 BytesAn important alternative to disco, however, was being nurtured simultaneously in New York City and in England. No synthesizers here. Punk rock was a raw, often atonal sound, but it was also an attitude and an outlet for an angry generation, doing for rebellious youths what rock & roll had done a generation earlier. The punk movement, founded by the New York Dolls among others, was pushed along in the mid-1970s by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, who in 1976 had a No. 1 hit in the United Kingdom with “God Save the Queen.” Other key players in the movement included Patti Smith and the Buzzcocks, but best of all was the Clash, combining anarchist themes and punk sensibilities with a more musical sound, scoring hits like “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah.”
The Clash paved the way for Punk’s more mainstream cousin, new wave, which remained popular throughout the early 1980s with Duran Duran as the main champions of its new romantic offshoot. However, danceable R&B music returned with a flourish with the 1982 release of Thriller by Michael Jackson, who became the first artist in the history of Billboard’s charts to simultaneously have a No. 1 album and single on both the pop and black categories. Helped immensely by music videos, Thriller was No. 1 for 21 weeks in 1983 and six singles from the album entered the top 10. Jackson became not only the King of Pop but also a pop culture icon of the stature of Elvis and the Beatles. Jackson’s only rival, it seemed, was Prince, whose Purple Rain reigned atop the pop charts for 21 weeks in 1984 and spawned two No. 1 singles.
rock6.jpg – 7225 BytesBut another phenomenon was at hand, getting her start with airplay on dance music stations. Madonna released her debut album in 1983. Her self-titled first album and 1985’s Like a Virgin both rose to No. 1 and videos for songs like “Lucky Star” and “Borderline” had teen-agers everywhere emulating her. Just as boys of another generation received bowl haircuts to look like the Beatles, young girls were inside-outing clothes and wearing undergarments on the outside like Madonna. Still a viable commercial artist 15 years after her debut, Madonna proved to have more staying power than any other rock-era female, with the possible exception of Diana Ross.
While the post-Clash 1980s could be categorized as style over substance, a few artists carried on the tradition of Dylan, Lennon, and Springsteen. The band U2 was the most successful of these, with socially conscious hits “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” before blasting into the pop stratosphere with 1987’s top-charting album The Joshua Tree, which produced two No. 1 singles. Another significant development of the 1980s was the return of philanthropy in the form of benefit albums and concerts. Live Aid, in 1985, was the pinnacle of this movement. Organized by Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats, the one-day, two-continent concert featuring the Who’s Who of rock and pop, raised tens of millions of dollars for starving Africans.
nirvana.jpg – 15511 BytesThe metal movement begun by Black Sabbath had degenerated into lightweight music by “hair bands” such as Bon Jovi, Poison and Warrant by the late 1980s. All that was to change soon, however. In 1991, Nirvana burst upon the scene with Nevermind, an album that went to No. 1 on the strength of the grunge anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Nirvana’s “Seattle sound” ushered in a flannel-clad era in which rock was once again the music of rebellion as other bands, most notably Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, also rocketed to superstardom. But, like Hendrix and Doors’ lead singer Jim Morrison before him, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain died at the peak of his powers, committing suicide in 1996. The grunge movement basically died with him.
At the close of the century, the relevance of rock and pop were on the wane, eclipsed by the urban beats and rhymes of the rap/hip-hop movement. Of course, it’s not the first time the genre has been written off. Rock is dead, they say. Long live rock!