The History of Rock Music

Elvis Presley — Alabama Fairgrounds, Tupelo, Mississippi, 1956 (Image via Public Domain)

The raw, energetic, up-tempo and rhythmic music that developed in the United States in the early 1950s has come to be known as rock n’ roll, which would later grow into the much broader rock music. The term was supposedly coined by Alan Freed, a radio jockey from Cleveland, Ohio, who played African American or race music on his show. The roots of this music comes from an assimilation of different styles of race music like rhythm and blues, gospel, boogie woogie, blues and others.

John Lennon famously said, “If you tried to give rock n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and The Comets, Buddy Holly and The Crickets are some of the other big names of old school rock n’ roll, but the man who made this music universally popular is none other than Elvis Presley. Record labels Sun, Atlantic and Chess were responsible for nurturing this music in its nascent stages. Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, recorded blues men like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf before striking gold with Presley. The invention of the electric guitar was another significant development for this music to explode like it did.

Chuck Berry — Midnight Special, 1973 (Image by NBC Television / Public Domain)

The straight-laced, conventional pop music heard by the white population during the early ’50s was absolutely unappealing to the young. On switching to other radio channels, they discovered an exotic, pulsating music which thrilled their senses and aroused their imagination. The sexuality, wildness and danceable element of rock n’ roll made it extremely appealing. They found music they could relate to. Non-conformity was a rage at that time with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and the James Dean starrer Rebel Without a Cause, glorifying it. This music, being intensely disliked and feared by their parents, was thus much more appealing, thereby creating a booming market for rock n’ roll. The cultural crossover that resulted with white kids listening to black performers and white musicians emulating their black counterparts was an instrumental step for desegregation and lead up to the civil rights movement.

However, by the late ’50s, the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in a plane crash, the departure of Presley for the army, the retirement of Little Richard to become a preacher, prosecutions of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and the breaking of the payola scandal, led to a decline of rock n’ roll. The pop inclined Brill Building then emerged as a force to be reckoned with, as they produced hit after hit, quite like a factory.

The Beatles — Belfast, 1964 (Image by Nick Newberry, Garreth Montgomery from PRONI via Flickr : The Commons)

While America was seeing a downfall, on the other side of the ocean in England, rock n’ roll was gaining momentum along with the skiffle movement. Guitar driven blues music became the tool for the evolution of rock n’ roll into rock music. The Beatles emerged as the champion of this music. Gaining worldwide fame, they went on to tour America and what followed is cited as the British invasion. Bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Who followed in the Beatles’ footsteps. Now, America was in turn influenced by this music. The nature of the songs were also changing, with sexuality and love giving place to socially relevant issues, anti-authoritarian and protest themes.

Post world war economic prosperity and increased experimentation with mind altering drugs began to change the social trends during mid and late ’60s. Psychedelic rock was an inevitable result. Bands such as Pink Floyd , The Grateful Dead; the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jimi Hendrix were at the forefront of creating this type of LSD induced music. The social consequence was the hippie and counter culture movements, whose apogees were the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967 and The Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969.

Swami Satchidananda Saraswati — Opening ceremony at Woodstock, 1969 (Image by Mark Goff / Public Domain)

Now, California became very important during this period, as it was breeding two very different sounds in two different places. San Francisco propelled the psychedelic wave through bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, and later the genre-transcending phenomenon of Santana. On the other hand, Los Angeles held its own with the likes of The Doors, the clean studio music of The Eagles and the folky sounds of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.

One of the most significant bands in the annals of rock music is Fleetwood Mac, by virtue of their versatility. Starting out as a blues rock band under the leadership of Peter Green, it realized its potential of playing more conventional rock music after Danny Kirwan joined, until they found mainstream success in the latter half of the ’70s with a more pop oriented sound and personnel change.

Rock music began to spill over onto other sectors, influencing fashion, film and attitudinal beliefs. From being a rebellion against mainstream societal trends, it became an ubiquitous social identity. Sex and drugs were accessories to this lifestyle as the people who played this music indulged freely in them, thereby influencing their followers. But such an excessive lifestyle took its toll, culminating in the deaths of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison; all at the age of 27, giving coinage to the infamous 27 Club.

Led Zeppelin, 1969 (Image by Dick Barnatt / CC-BY-SA-4.0 )

By this time, a harder and heavier sound had developed from electric blues with formation of bands like Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and later on, Queen, Rush and AC/DC. The late ’60s and early ’70s also saw the shift of psychedelic music into the richer and more complex progressive rock with bands like King Crimson, The Velvet Underground, Yes and Jethro Tull. Pink Floyd also began veering towards a more progressive approach from the Meddle album onward.

Though marred by the sudden and near successive deaths of gigantic figures (27 Club) and the breaking up of The Beatles, the advent of the ’70s brought compelling changes. Rock music became a mega star from being a cult god. Led Zeppelin were at the forefront. Stadiums and arenas gradually replaced auditoriums and ballrooms as venues. Money and fame brought with it private jets, drugs and women. Business boomed and the industry exploded! Everyone wanted a piece of the rich pie, from concert promoters to record companies. Through extensive and continued airplay, this music spread worldwide. Its influence was so infectious that rock was emulated wherever it was heard. Germany came up with its own brand of minimalistic rock music with elements of electronica, which came to be known as krautrock.

Kiss — Allphones Arena, Sydney, 2013 (Image by Daniel Boud / CC-BY-SA-4.0 )

Imagery became very important. From Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon cover to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, ideas and concepts of an unearthly nature were being transmitted to the psyche. Kiss and Alice Cooper made this glamorous, with painted faces, extensive live shows, theatrics and even using animals as props. Kiss is one of the most economically successful bands ever, selling merchandise ranging from costumes to action figures of band members. The band became a brand! Due to the super success of rock and the obscene amounts of money involved, the music gradually came to be controlled by record companies rather than the musicians. Pleasing the audience became more important than doing honest music. Characters were created by companies along with accessorizing music. The musicians were given roles which they had to fit into.

Along with this, something much darker was breeding. Among the poorer and underprivileged sections of society, a stripped down form of rock n’ roll was becoming popular. A music that spoke what these people were feeling. It was the ‘revolution of the uglies’ — punk rock. Inspired by acts such as The Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop and The Stooges, an angry music came to light. In London, The Clash and The Sex Pistols dealt with anarchic and violent themes, while The Ramones and Patti Smith championed this music in America, with a lot of help from the CBGB Club. While American punk was more about the music, expression and attitude, the punk scene in England was much more. Leather jackets, chains, outrageous hairdos and shocking behaviour became steeples for being acknowledged as a true “punk”. The punks had an indigenous social identity. Being embraced by a large part of the youth, it became a societal revolution in a sense. Though it did fizzle out as suddenly as it rose in a matter of years, it left behind musical treasures such as Talking Heads, Blondie and Joy Division, though such bands went on to fall under the genres of post-punk and new wave.

The Sex Pistols — Paradiso, Amsterdam, 1977 (Image by Koen Suyk / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

By the ’80s, disco was replacing rock as the spotlight hogging superstar. But the decade also brought MTV, revolutionizing the whole way that music was perceived. The Buggles’ prophesizing song “Video Killed The Radio Star” stands as testimony to what changes MTV brought. Now, the music had a face to it! Glamour, absurdity and over-the-top themes and imagery got a free reign in the making of music videos. Music became a consumer product, which was packaged, promoted and presented accordingly. The pros were however quite sensational. Rock music now had made its way into every home that owned a TV. The reach of it had reached its maximum potential, paving way for the more successful artists to be popular like never before. Madonna, Michael Jackson, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Dire Straits were among the primary ones who cashed in on this opportunity.

While MTV’s glamorous world was being swallowed by masses, a separate musical subculture had already formed under the doomy shadow of heavy metal music. The late ’70s saw the rise of a number of heavy metal bands in England, with Judas Priest, Motörhead and Iron Maiden leading the pack. In America, Metallica found enormous success and a large following, propelling metal music into a larger and more mainstream sphere. But the band which shook the whole music industry was Guns N’ Roses. Their wild, raucous hard rock found its way into the hearts of millions with their chart topping debut album Appetite for Destruction. The rest is history.

Pearl Jam — O2 World, Berlin, 2012 (Image by Alive87 / CC-BY-2.0)

As rock became more mainstream and commercial, with MTV being the torch bearer, an inevitable negative reaction was bubbling up gradually in the form of alternative rock, until it exploded in Seattle in the early ’90s as grunge. A grim, distortion filled music characterized by lyrics which spoke of social alienation and apathy, found its home in the hearts of many youngsters who could relate to what the music said. The grunge rockers were independent artists and wanted to stay out of the destructive influences of big record labels, but bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam found success with mainstream audiences, ironically making alternative rock music mainstream.

The death knell sounded for grunge after Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the subsequent breakup of Nirvana in 1994, Alice in Chains’ long inactivity due to Layne Staley’s drug abuse from 1996, Soundgarden’s breakup in 1997 and touring problems for Pearl Jam. By now, rock music had been divided and subdivided into numerous genres, with various different elements fusing together to form distinctive styles. Among these, rap rock, nu metal and Brit-pop become the trending and more successful genres when the world stepped into a new century.

From being the voice of rebellion in its early days to becoming mainstream in its prime, rock music lost itself to commercialization until making a round trip again with alternative rock. Today, a raging genre is post-rock, characterized by stripped down, peaceful and meditative tracks. Does this really mean that rock has passed on?

As I debate this profound question, I cannot help but wonder at the ability of rock music to make me feel alive, as Pearl Jam’s “Black” blares through the speakers.

Crowd at a concert (Image via Public Domain)