The decadal, spiralling proliferation of rock music
While initially considered a passing fad and condemned as the devil’s music, this now highly varied musical form has become a global phenomenon. Once the private guilty pleasure of alienated teenagers seeking to differentiate themselves from previous generations, rock has reached a point of ubiquitous acceptance.
Rock and roll’s history is a relatively easy topic to approach. However, rock music as a cultural phenomenon is much harder to elucidate. This is because this strain of volatile, rebellious, unpredictable, and to some extent even music has continually reinvented and redefined itself since its emergence in the 1940s in North America. It has been inherently resistant to cultural norms, and its restless format has only fueled the fire in those who would go against conventions. Instead of just remaining a musical style, rock and roll has gone on to influence lifestyles, fashion, and languages in ways few other social mediums could. However, its origins have been debated for years now. Elements of rock music which are now considered standard, first popped up in blues and old country songs during the 20s and 30s. But it came into its own around the 1950s.
To describe the genre simply, one can say that the rock genre is a combination of brisk and spontaneous music played with electric guitars, bass, and drums; usually accompanied by lyrics sung by a vocalist. However, a closer look at its evolution indicates how different styles and influences have shaped it over the years creating various subdivisions that have fluctuating structures and elements.
Roots of rock
‘One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock
Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock
Nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight’
- Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets
Rock music came into being after taking elements from popular musical genres during the 1950s among the pioneers being Billy Haley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. After the coinage of the term ‘rock and roll’ by an Ohio disc jockey, Alan Freed, in 1955, this hybrid child of jazz, country, gospel, folk and blues finally had a name. These early rock music stars kickstarted the genre’s popularisation, thereby introducing a paradigm shift that shocked the musical world. The frantic dance crazes, fashion, and pop culture that followed the early history of rock music became iconic trends which later evolved and branched out as the genre matured and grew. At first rock and roll was all about adolescents. Its lyrics articulated teenage problems such as school, cars, summer vacation, parents, and, most importantly, young love. The heavy beats, loudness, lyrics, and animated delivery indicated defiance against conservative adult values and authority.
The first rock and roll record to achieve popularity in the USA was Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & his Comets and was released in 1955. Haley composed songs that appealed to the youth because of their exuberant beats, danceability, and enticing lyrics. With his debut record, Haley ended the craze for sentimental ballads popular in the 1940s and early 50s. However, his most significant accomplishment was translating black rhythm and blues into a format that was easier for adolescent white audiences to comprehend.
Change of chords
‘There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’’
- The Times They are A-Changin by Bob Dylan
As the world moved into the 1960s, it slowly came to grips with rock and roll. People all over the world started witnessing the impact of rock music and societal development. The 1960s saw the fractures created by the Vietnam war being mirrored in the music and lyrics of the artists of the period. Rock music played a massive role in American culture as it turned towards social protestations, sexual rebellion, and drugs. Many groups attempted to approximate the aural experience of psychedelic drugs through their music by producing long, repetitive, occasionally extravagant compositions with surreal lyrics.
As opposed to the era’s safer pop music, rock music’s aggressive and rebellious ascension provoked the kind of sexual liberty that proved shocking during a conservative age. During the 1960s, it sparked a sense of freedom and youthful rebellion that was perpetuated by bands like the Rolling Stones. Their music embodied themes that dealt with fear, doubt, and apocalypse while at the same time epitomising the rebellion and disrespect to detractors which parents and authority figures had begun to hate. From being singles artistes, bands began transforming into musicians who were producing cohesive albums that elevated the genre to new cultural heights, regardless of the controversy they courted. As Americans slowly started to fathom the boldness of the style, the world of music observed a British wave that would forever change the direction of rock music. The Beatles strolled onto the scene influenced by Elvis and other artists, then adding a brighter, more meaningful twist to it. Not only was their version of rock grounded in its fundamentals but they let it breathe with their thought-provoking lyrics. They took not only the US and the UK, but the whole world by storm, becoming one of the most influential rock bands of all time. In 1967 they made history with their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was later acknowledged as the first ever ‘concept album.’
This new age of rock saw the emergence of other artists who would be considered more psychedelic, radical and hippie compared to their predecessors. This included the likes of the almighty Pink Floyd, The Who, The Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and so on. These bands started a counter movement with their hypnotic melodies and drug-induced themes and subsequently, various subgenres started sprouting up. Progressive rock, led by Pink Floyd (and later by the likes of Yes, King Crimson, Camel, Jethro Tull, Genesis, etc), experimented with different instruments and psychedelic song structures. Folk Rock, popularised by Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, etc, combined traditional acoustic rock with blues inspired undertones. And of course, around the end of the 60s, Black Sabbath introduced the world to heavy metal, which led to an altogether separate movement of raw and uninhibited music fueled by a darker level of aggression unheard of by any of rock’s other children.
From 1967 onward, rock music festivals came into prominence as they became the staple setting in which to hear rock music. Thousands of fans attended such festivals. Although they started out peacefully enough, a certain Rolling Stones show around the time was marked by several violent incidents, including a murder. The androgynous and volatile characteristics of the Rolling Stones were taken to extremes by rock personalities like Alice Cooper and David Bowie; two figures who were perhaps as famous for their ambiguous appearance and outrageous behaviour as for their music.
The 60s, with its controversial array of artistes, had a seismic effect on music and youth culture. It ultimately altered the soundscape and ambition of rock music in all sorts of ways.
Euphonious and cacophonous
‘I’ve watched the dogs of war enjoying their feast
I’ve seen the western world go down in the east
The food of love became the greed of our time
But now I’m living on the profits of pride’
- Hole in the Sky by Black Sabbath
In the 1970s, several of rock’s top names, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors’ Jim Morrison died from substance abuse. This cooled down the booming rock phenomenon, opening the door for a calmer version of rock presented by Bob Dylan and others when they were dabbling with country and folk elements in their music. This was when folk and country rock became one of the fads, yielding successful acts such as the Eagles.
During the first half of the decade, Led Zeppelin gave rock music a broodier, heavier tone they became one of the 70s’ most popular bands. Along with Black Sabbath and other bands like Deep Purple, they became the originators of the hard rock and heavy metal sounds. Later, the metal scene grew and intensified with its fast-paced, abrasive approach. The world welcomed them and warmed up to bands such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon and Motörhead whose influence would later lead to the spawning of countless metal bands and newer, darker, extreme subgenres.
At the same time, artists like David Bowie and Queen started taking rock music into a more art-oriented direction which would later play a significant role in indie and post-punk circles. Pink Floyd and their contemporaries continued with their progressive/psychedelic musings, composing records with complex arrangements and concepts. These concept albums were tied together by a single theme. Although meant to be heard in one sitting, they took more than one listen to be properly digested. As a response to this more sophisticated form of rock music, which many perceived as pretentious and overblown, the late 70s observed the emergence of groups such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ramones. These groups simplified rock music down its core and made their music sound loud, rude and aggravated. These bands combined anarchism and teenage angst with rock and roll to create a powerful new genre dubbed punk rock, which would go on to influence countless bands in the future. Punk became rock music’s oppositional wing, inspiring an audience that still looked for rock music to behave as the antithesis of safer manufactured forms of music. Starting with the Sex Pistols in 1977 and moving beyond Nirvana’s grunge era in 1991, a generation of students used punk similar to the way earlier generations had used folk music, deploying it to position themselves outside a stale mainstream.
The polyphony of perseverance
‘Frankly, Mr Shankly, this position I’ve held
It pays my way and it corrodes my soul
I want to leave, you will not miss me
I want to go down in musical history’
- Frankly, Mr Shankly by the Smiths
Rock and its variations enjoyed different degrees of mainstream acceptance for a while, but as the 1980s began, mainstream Rock started to lose its commercial steam. Creative stagnancy sparked the rise of subgenres to counter the stale environment that plagued the music scene. This decade observed a surge in the popularity of heavy metal bands and the hair metal/glam rock culture, a phase which took the world by storm as groups adopted outrageous outlooks, with the standard features being tight leather pants, crazy long hairstyles, make-up and soaring guitar solos. Bands such as Guns and Roses, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, and Motley Crue cemented their place in rock history during this time with their power ballads, guitar solos, and vibrant live performances. During this period, music videos became a popular promotional and entertainment outlet.
However, on a lighter, less flamboyant note, another version of rock with a more introverted and refined song writing style started to emerge at around this time. Inspired by punk rock’s outsider gimmick and industrial music’s eclectic instrumentation; keyboard-driven English bands like Depeche Mode and R.E.M started displaying a style which would be described as ‘new wave’, a variation of the post-punk sound initiated by the likes of Joy Division and The Smiths.
As more and more bands started experimenting with post-punk elements, balancing introspective and contemplative lyrics with traditional rock arrangements, the music industry saw the introduction of college rock where bands were getting noticed because of their popularity on college radio stations of the time. By the end of the 80s, college rock was in vogue and received its new ‘alternative rock’ tag.
It was also referred to by some as indie rock as the bands were often signed to small, independently-owned labels. Groups such as U2, The Cure, The Smiths, and Sonic Youth received acclaim in these cult rock circles. In the latter part of the decade, several bands, including Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys continued to move down the punk rock path by focusing on political themes. This idea was later adopted by the Grunge movement with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
The 1980s was a time of constant change, with new genres seeing light, as well as the evolution of music television that heralded a new direction for the industry. 80s musicians tried to identify themselves with new sounds, imagery, and expressionism, and they were so successful that 80s music is still influential.
Embracing the identity crisis
‘He’s the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means’
- In Bloom by Nirvana
The early 1990s saw the ascension of another brand of teenage angst-fueled rock which was later dubbed as ‘grunge’. The most popular band during the era was undoubtedly Nirvana whose dirty guitar riffs with distortion and feedback and anguished lyrics became the poster child for grunge. Along with Nirvana, other popular grunge and alternative bands were Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Jane’s Addiction.
Alternative rock became a dynamic trend throughout the decade as college rock which was confined to radio airplay in the 80s, broke out of its niche group and took centre stage. The mid-90s saw indie bands like Blur and Oasis established as popular music in the UK. Other stalwarts like U2 and R.E.M. became colossal icons capable of selling out major live venues and procuring millions in album sales. In America, Nirvana and Pearl Jam became flag bearers for grunge, we well as the entire alternative rock domain. In 1992, when Nirvana’s Nevermind topped Michael Jackson on the album charts, it was clear that alternative music, once a niche market had become the market.
After the suicide of Nirvana’s frontman, Kurt Cobain in 1994, alternative music started to lose its luster setting the stage for mainstream rock’s reemergence. Groups like Foo Fighters emerged from the ashes of grunge and incorporated alternative rock’s energy to re-energise rock music’s mainstream presence. Bands like Limp Bizkit, combined hard rock and metal with bits of rap into a new hybrid called alternative metal. Groups like Korn, Slipknot, Linkin Park and System of a Down followed in with this trend and capitalised on its popularity and success with their pounding rhythms and strong and sometimes shocking lyrics.
Punk persisted into the 90s. However, its popularity increased through a lighter, more adolescent variation called pop-punk with such bands as Green Day, the Offspring and Blink-182. Also in the 90s the continuing popularity of older bands, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin bore witness to its enduring appeal among both the young and the middle-aged. Bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine and The Smashing Pumpkins who thrived during grunge’s heyday but still eluded conventional classifications, continued to find audiences throughout the 90s.
By the decade’s end, rock music was losing its identity. Its stars played to huge crowds, and its music was becoming more commercialised than ever. It had integrated itself into the media spectacle that it was initially meant to shy away from, and could no longer argue to be offering an alternative to it.
After being a dominant force in the music industry for a few decades, rock started to lose market share in comparison to other genres like hip-hop and pop. As hip-hop started to blossom during the 80s and 90s, it slowly took the counterculture mantle from the more matured rock which had transformed itself into a massive moneymaking industry. Though rock and roll’s origins can be traced back to African-American artists such as Chuck Berry, the most successful rock acts comprised of white performers. However, as the hip-hop movement gained momentum during the 80s, the genre’s most prominent acts remained black artists, who represented an alternative to rock music that wasn’t just stylistic but also racial as well.
Nevertheless, as the world progressed into the 21st century, rock music and all its variants kept moving forward despite the momentum they’d lost. Teenagers and even adults still walk around wearing t-shirts of artists immortalised by their sonic legacies. Alternative rock has maintained its commercial prominence today, with indie rock becoming more of an avenue for invention and experimentation. However, no matter how it has evolved, transformed and remade itself, rock and roll still continues to inspire, thrill, fascinate and even unnerve (for which we have Parental Advisory labels now), all because its fundamentals are still intact.
The amalgamations of youth culture and popular music have periodically sent shockwaves through global societies with which each of its variants. This included hippies, teeny boppers, metal heads, punks, rappers, and ravers. As the US model of consumerism has spread worldwide, rock and roll music, and its clothing, language, and behavioural fads have provided adolescents with the foundation for a shared sense of identity. While initially considered a passing fad and condemned as the devil’s music, this now highly varied musical form has become a global phenomenon. Once the private guilty pleasure of alienated teenagers seeking to differentiate themselves from previous generations, rock has reached a point of ubiquitous acceptance.
Irad Mustafa is the former Assistant Editor of ICE Business Times. Previously he worked at Dutch Bangla Bank as an Officer after completing his Bachelor’s in Economics and Finance from North South University. During his free time he enjoys watching and critiquing movies and finding new genres of music to explore.
While initially considered a passing fad and condemned as the devil’s music, this now highly varied musical form has become a global phenomenon. Once the private guilty pleasure of alienated teenagers seeking to differentiate themselves from previous generations, rock has reached a point of ubiquitous acceptance. Rock and roll’s history is a relatively easy topic…