Brief history of Rock (I): 1950-1990

The 1950s: rock ‘n’ roll and the King

Rock ‘n’ roll, an old African-American slang term for sex, has its roots in the late 1940s. Adding an electric guitar and a drumbeat, to a mix of blues, country, gospel and folk music were to be the foundations of rock music. These genres, originally considered ‘black music’, soon entered the mainstream of white, middle-class America.

Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly or Little Richard were just a few of the most notable acts rock ‘n’ roll produced at this time. It is undisputed that the most important musician of the era (maybe ever) was one Elvis Presley. Swinging hips, lewd lyrics and attitude oozing from his every pore, Elvis came to symbolise everything rock n roll was: liberation, change and well, yes, sex.

Towards the end of the fifties rock ‘n’ roll started to fade as quickly as it appeared. Holly died, Richard became a preacher, Berry and Lewis were prosecuted for scandals and Elvis was shipped off to the army. However, the effects were to be everlasting, as a kid from Liverpool by the name of John Lennon had been inspired to create something of his own.

The 1960s: the British invasion and new forms of rock

The early 1960s

Across the Atlantic, musicians in England were watching the likes of Elvis in awe. For the most part, English bands had been mimicking American blues until The Beatles emerged. Shedding imitations, they produced their own unique sound, winning over fans on both sides of the Atlantic. In doing so, they solidified the concept of the ‘rock group’, consisting of a lead vocalist, a drummer, a lead guitar and a bass player.

This dented the popularity of the surviving solo acts from the 1950s like Chubby Checker or Fats Domino. The Beatles became a four-headed beast and everyone wanted a piece of them. This surge in popularity had labels scrambling to find similar sounds and looks, this helped other British bands follow suit, like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Zombies.

The late 1960s

After tiring of their old sound and image, The Beatles made a momentous shift in their style in 1967 (a big year for rock music) when they released Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. This album, introduced new psychedelic elements to their music. Inspired, basically by the consumption of drugs, the objective was to provide an ‘out of this world’ experience for the listener.

Experimental, progressive and psychedelic rock soon came to the fore and produced some of the best music acts of the time: Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and King Crimson. These genres were different to the simpler sounds of the early sixties, and were characterised by extended instrumentals, disjointed song structures and electronic sounds.

The 1970s: the rise of hard rock, punk and Ziggy

The early 1970s

Following the steps of the psychedelic and artistic movements of the late sixties, glam rock was born early in the decade. Characterised by theatrics, androgynous looks and raw riffs and electronic styles, glam rock’s biggest stars were Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Roxy Music and David Bowie. The glam scene was as much an artistic movement as it was a musical one, as fashion and appearance became just important as the music itself.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The reaction to the perceived excesses of the glam rock scene? Punk Rock. Moulded in New York by Patti Smith, in 1976 rock music would once again have a seminal moment as The Ramones released their self-titled debut album, changing the genre forever. Looking to strip rock down to its basics, songs were short, fast and had edgy lyrics.

Gaining plenty of traction in the UK, bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols became very prominent. Punk rock was more than just music for its audience, it became a symbol of anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian sentiments. Punk rock would later spawn several sub-genres like new wave, post-punk, pop-punk and indie rock.

The late 1970s

The faster and harder sound of punk rock had already been channelled by other bands earlier in the decade. Building on the foundations of Led Zeppelin, groups like Van Halen, AC/DC and Deep Purple were the champions of hard rock. More distortion, raw vocals and thrilling guitar riffs.

In 1970, a subgenre of rock known as heavy metal, that had been around the underground scene for a few years, was finally going to the enter the mainstream. Taking their cue from Deep Purple and Zeppelin, but more importantly from Black Sabbath‘s debut album in 1970, heavy metal took the world by storm in the late seventies. Featuring much darker tones, even more distortion, loudness and feelings of aggression, bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Def Leppard and KISS became big.

The 1980s: alternative rock, post-punk and hair metal

The early 1980s

New wave was stealing the show at the turn of the decade; acts like Depeche Mode, Eurythmics and Cars were all over the charts. At this time, commercial rock had been overtaken by pop (not for the first time nor the last). But, in an effort to distance themselves from this movement, the first alternative rock bands started to emerge.

Here is where we find the offshoots of punk rock emerging. Firstly, alternative rock finds its feet as a rejection of commercial rock and pop music. Bands like the Smiths, REM and the Pixies found success in the underground scenes, before going on into the mainstream. A different offshoot took the name of post-punk, The Cure and Joy Division are two notable examples of this genre.

The late 1980s

Glam metal. As the decade wore on, this new genre of metal started to take hold in the USA. Heavily borrowing from the glam rock scene of the 70s, glam metal or hair metal featured outrageous outfits, hair and songs. Power ballads became a big thing, as bands like Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper and Mötley Crue merged elements of pop, rock and metal to create their own sound.

Although very popular at the time, audiences soon started to tire of the excess and flamboyance of these acts, becoming more and more disengaged as the eighties drew to a close. A change was needed and once again rock music would provide another huge shift that would have very important and long-lasting effects. Enter: Kurt Cobain.

Final thoughts

After going through four decades of rock music, some patterns are apparent. There are highs and lows. New generations of artists react to their immediate predecessors, but sometimes look further back for inspiration. Innovation and change were ripe during these decades, and guitar music constantly flowing and moving in new directions.

For me, most interestingly of all this, are those moments we have seen that somehow change everything. Elvis, the Beatles, the Ramones, Black Sabbath… I’m aware that these albums or bands didn’t suddenly just appear out of thin air, that they were a product of the music scene years in the making, be it in the underground or fringes of the mainstream. But still, it’s fascinating to see how seismic those moments were. How they tore everything that was down, and built something new and awesome.

More of these moments will come in rock music, am looking forward to writing about them.

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