Rock and Roll
Rock and roll music managed to do what nothing else could in the mid-twentieth century: it integrated white and African American cultures by melding the distinctive musical styles of each. Although it seemed to burst on the scene almost overnight in the mid-1950s, rock and roll was actually the culmination of more than a century of musical experimentation. With its heavy back-beat and amplified guitars, early rock and roll was raw and rowdy. It appealed to a young audience in a way music never had before. Rock and roll was more than music: it was attitude and style.
In the beginning
Many music historians consider the rhythm and blues hit “Rocket 88,” recorded by Ike Turner (1931–2007) and Jackie Brenston (1930–1979) in legendary record producer Sam Phillips's (1923–2003) studio in 1951, the first rock and roll song. That same year, Cleveland, Ohio , radio disc jockey Alan Freed (1921–1965) popularized the term “rock and roll.” Other songs that brought rock and roll to a wide audience were Bill Haley's (1925–1981) hit “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which was a rhythm and blues hit when recorded by Big Joe Turner (1911–1985) and a rock hit when covered by Haley, both in 1954.
But it was Elvis Presley (1935–1977) who earned the title of the King of Rock and Roll. With an unusual ability to absorb various musical-influences
and mix them into a perfect balance, Presley released “That's All Right (Mama)” in 1954 and became a singing sensation. This Memphis, Tennessee , musician mixed blues and country music with a danceable, thumping beat and triggered a musical revolution. Presley continued to release one hit after another throughout the decade as rock took hold of the nation's youth. Jerry Lee Lewis (1935–) joined his peer on the rock scene when he released “Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” in 1957. African American musicians Chuck Berry (1926–) and Little Richard (1932–) rose to fame in those years as well. Buddy Holly (1936–1959) took inspiration from Presley and released several hit singles before his untimely death at the age of twenty-two. Despite his short life, he is considered a pioneer of rock and roll. These musicians infused sounds from various music genres—rhythm and blues, country, gospel, and boogie-woogie—to create the new electric sound of rock and roll.
1960s and 1970s
No single musician or band had greater influence on the rock and roll sound of the 1960s than the Beatles, originally from Liverpool, England. They dominated American music charts throughout the decade, beginning with their first hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964). It was the sound of the Beatles that helped rock expand beyond the raw power of earlier songs into more progressive and musically rich melodies that reflected the political and social changes sweeping the nation at the time. (See Beatlemania .) Traditionally considered a folk music singer, Bob Dylan (1941–) contributed to this shift in rock and roll, more with his music's message than its style. Other influential musicians who brought folk and rock music together were the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas and the Papas, and Simon and Garfunkel.
The so-called British Invasion brought more rock bands to the United States, notably the Rolling Stones. Starting around 1964, many
British musicians recorded songs that climbed U.S. music charts. Some of the most popular bands and individuals include the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who, Dusty Springfield (1939–1999), the Hollies, and Herman's Hermits.
Psychedelic rock Folk rock gave birth to psychedelic rock, a form that tries to replicate the mind-altering experiences of hallucinogenic drugs. This form became popular in the mid-1960s and was played by Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd (a British band that gained popularity in the States), British singer Donovan (1946–), Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970), and the Doors.
By the end of the decade, rock and roll had become such an integral part of American culture that rock festivals were being held around the country. The most famous festival was Woodstock, a three-day arts and music festival held in 1969 in upstate New York . Hundreds of thousands of fans attended to hear the sounds of Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Page 1330 | Top of ArticleCreedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin (1943–1970), and the Who, among others.
Progressive rock Progressive (prog) rock bands pushed compositional boundaries by incorporating elements drawn from other genres, such as jazz and classical. Their songs were not always structured in the conventional verse-chorus way but rather in story fashion. This form became popular in the United States in the late 1960s and reached its peak in the mid-1970s with bands such as Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, Rush, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Bubble gum pop, another form of rock, has a lighter sound. Often called soft rock, its sound was epitomized in the 1970s by bands like the Partridge Family, the Osmonds, and the Carpenters, and singers such as Olivia Newton-John (1948–), Neil Diamond (1941–), and Barry Manilow (1943–).
Although disco enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s, the United States saw a second wave of British and American rock bands reach new levels of fame during that time. Hard rock and heavy metal bands like Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Queen relied on heavily amplified, guitar-driven songs. Music critics generally rejected harsh, hard-driving metal, but bands like Kiss and Queen achieved huge popularity. As metal became more popular, bands began touring and performing for large audiences in stadiums. So-called “arena rock” brought a wave of bands like Journey, Boston, Styx, Heart, and Foreigner in the late 1970s.
Punk rock and new wave were primarily a response to the commercialism of disco, hard rock, and arena rock. Stripped down and using only three chords, punk music was easy to play. Many consider the Ramones the first American punk band, and they gained notoriety beginning in the mid-1970s. Contemporaries included Page 1331 | Top of ArticlePatti Smith (1946–), the Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag. Britain's punk scene was flourishing around the same time, with bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
Punk was a social phenomenon, but it did not get significant airplay, nor did it sell a lot of records. In the late 1970s, new wave emerged as a softer version of hard-core punk. Bands such as Talking Heads, Blondie, and Devo played this form of rock. Other rock bands, including the Go-Gos and the Cars, were largely crossover pop bands who incorporated some of the new wave sound into their music.
1980s and 1990s
Although the 1980s brought less innovation in rock, many solid rock bands that had enjoyed success in the past continued to build their fan base. Songs from the 1975 album Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen (1949–), received repeated airplay and catapulted the singer and his E Street Band to fame. That popularity continued throughout the 1980s. His 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. sold fifteen million copies in the United States alone and became one of the best-selling albums of all time. Other bands with long-lasting appeal include Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Pretenders, and the Police. British rocker David Bowie (1947–), who had emerged on the American rock scene in 1975, remained popular throughout the 1980s as well, though he infused a more pop sound into his music.
Glam metal artists were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Also known as hair bands, these musicians used music videos to increase their fan base. Glam metal featured distorted guitar riffs, power chords, and guitar solos. The earlier glam metal bands included Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, and Ratt. Poison enjoyed commercial success, and the band Bon Jovi appealed to audiences of glam metal, hard rock, and country rock.
The term alternative rock was coined in the early 1980s as a label for bands that did not fit into the mainstream genres. Examples of these bands were R.E.M., the Cure, the Smiths, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies. Like punk, this genre did not sell a lot of records, but the musicians heavily influenced those who were coming of age in the 1980s. By the 1990s, alternative had become mainstream.
Grunge became popular in Seattle, Washington , in the mid-1980s. Its musicians rebelled against mainstream rock by fusing elements of Page 1332 | Top of Articlepunk and heavy metal. The result was music featuring distorted guitar and a fuzzy sound caused by amplifier feedback. The lyrics were filled with apathy and angst. Arguably the most popular grunge band was Nirvana, whose frontman Kurt Cobain (1967–1994) died of a drug overdose in 1994.
Cobain's death seemed to signal the end of the grunge era, and the post-grunge sound evolved. This was a more radio-friendly, pop-sounding form. Popular post-grunge musicians include Tori Amos (1963–), Foo Fighters, Creed, Collective Soul, Alanis Morissette (1974–), Fiona Apple (1977–), and Jewel (1974–).
By the end of the twentieth century, the rock genre was splintered. For early rock enthusiasts, the genre was a form of rebellion, a way to question authority and rally the young. By the 1980s, the cable channel MTV had infused the genre and all its subcategories with a sense of commercialism. Rock and roll purists considered this a sellout, an unforgiving compromise. At the start of the twenty-first century, the heirs of pure rock continued to make their own kind of music.