Rock ‘n’ Roll has been the most popular music genre for almost a century now. It is a better liberator of masses than probably the United Nations. Comparatively a newer genre, rock ‘n’ roll started out as a fusion of popular genres of late 20s and early 30s, namely jazz, blues, old country and western. It is one form of music that we all can easily connect to. It has taught us how to love, respect and live our lives king-size. According to a Rolling Stones magazine survey in 2015, a staggering 88.2% of the world’s population deemed rock ‘n’ roll to be the most popular music genre - a mind-blowing achievement when we consider the fact that there are more than 120 different music genres to choose from. A more spectacular achievement of rock music is arguably the fact that it provokes a culture, or a lifestyle choice that most other forms of music fail to provide. We don’t listen to rock ‘n’ roll; we live and breathe it. It is a fashion statement, a way of life that has influenced generations after generations and will continue to do so in the years to come.
The journey of rock ‘n’ roll popularity is festooned with cultural demarcations, drug overuse, sex, and a whole lot of crazy elements in human lifestyle. It is the very definition of a dangerous form of living. Yet, it has succeeded to prevail over our music and lifestyle choices. Taking a look back at the glorious past of this massively prevalent music genre, maybe we could try and revisit the early acts of rock that has ultimately led to this mass-cultural spree.
Music and Arts
The existence of music can be traced as far back as the mid 1600s. The guitar was not a common instrument then. The early musicians resorted to two-stringed acoustic instruments that provided a limited number of notes. It was not a bad thing because funnily music back then was regarded as a meager profession undertaken by people who could not find a well-paying job. Musicians, although revered by the lower stature of society, were looked down upon by the lords and ladies of the court. The Mozarts and the Beethovens were yet to influence the world. Then came the magical 1700s when instruments based on keys became popular, especially in Roman and Greek societies. That gave birth to the first mass-produced musical instrument for the creamed: The Piano. This grand revolution in musical notes gave people the understanding of chord progressions and note variations. Musicians were no longer treated as inferior. In fact, music for the first time was considered equal to arts and culture. There was Da Vinci on one side and Beethoven on the other. By late 1700s, musicians all over the world started experimenting on other instruments that provided greater variations in notes. This act kept on for another 50 years until one day in a small county in early Spain an instrument was born, which provided a greater variation in chords and made music on-the-go possible. That instrument was, of course, the guitar. Being lightweight and relatively cheaper than any other instrument at that time, the guitar became the instrument of the masses. It was being produced on a large-scale- almost twice as many as all other instruments put together. It soon hit western America, Europe and southern Asia. In southern-Asia, although classical Indian instruments were very popular, people soon warmed their hearts towards the guitar. The culture responsible for popularising the guitar was probably the old western. In America, Mexico and in some parts of Great Britain, music was becoming increasingly popular because of the guitar. Old country music from America, folk music from Mexico and RnB from Britain captured the music scene in the early 1900s. Theatre was still a better entertainer than music back then but everything changed very quickly. Nobody knew of the revolution that was to follow.
In early 1910 up to late 1920s, due to the existence of instruments such as the double bass, the harp, the piano and tambourines, jazz and blues music were the ones people resorted to when they found the malarkey of theatre a little too monotonous. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a genre yet to be discovered. The phrase “rock n roll” used to have a sexual connotation attached to it. The phrase has two meanings. It appeared to mean dancing but was also associated with sex. It was first used in the title of Trixi Smith’s 1920s song “My baby rocks me with one steady roll”. However, a disc jockey from Ohio, named Alan Freed was the first one to come up with the phrase “rock n roll” in the early 50s. By then, the rock ‘n’ roll culture was well under way. It soon caught on in Great Britain as well. Rock back then, hit the world in two forms: On one side, there was a fusion of electro-blues and RnB charts which hit discs in America, and the other, a sort of toned-down version of classical blues and jazz fusion, which became popular with British teenagers. Early works by jazz singers such as Frank Sinatra, Buddy Holly, and Nat King Cole showed the influence of Alan Freed’s disc, which became popular with both Black and White teenagers in America. Freed eventually named this crosscurrent of musical styles and influences such as electric jazz, boogie, gospel, blues, RnB vocals groups and country as “Rock n Roll”. Thus, the greatest musical genre in the world was born. The rock ‘n’ roll acts then were very different from the ones we know today. It generally featured small influences in classical jazz singers like Bill Haley and Chuck Berry. However, in 1953, Bill Haley and His Comets were the first to hit the pop charts with the first true rock ‘n’ roll song, taking their single “Crazy Man Crazy” to number 12 on the charts. Bill Haley did a remarkable encore when his song “Rock Around the Clock” topped the charts in 1955. Unfortunately, just when rock was starting to become a popular genre by 1957 in pop culture, an ill-fated flight took the lives of popular rock n roll artists Buddy Holly, The Big Booper and Ritchie Valens. The future of Rock ‘n’ Roll looked bleak until one day in late 50s, a certain rock artist came to the rescue of our favorite genre. This artist was none other than the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. His single, “Heartbreak Hotel” hit the charts by storm landing him the record for being the first-ever rock artist to have an album cross the million sales benchmark. He soon followed his act up by singles such as “Jailhouse Rock”, “A little less conversation”, etc. By the end of the 50s, rock ‘n’ roll became popular enough to target younger generations in a colossal scale, thus paving the way for many class acts to follow.
By the early 60s, rock ‘n’ roll had managed a concrete stronghold in music charts. The works of Presley continued, followed by contributions of country-rock gods of the 60s: Bob Dylan and John Denver. By 1964, the rock scene shifted to Britain with class acts of the time: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin. While the Beatles and The Rolling Stones concentrated on pop-rock love ballads and British rock acts, Led Zeppelin and The Who brought about songs which related to social conventions and political statements. This wonderful variation was the cause of discovery of rock music in the lesser customs at the time, which eventually resulted in the formation of many garage bands throughout the world. The formation of garage bands reflected the influence rock music had on the younger generations. This solidified rock music’s position. The British bands at the time were also responsible for one of the biggest phenomenon in rock music’s history: The British Invasion. The British Invasion was the growing widespread popularity of British music, all around the world. By the end of the 60s, rock music was the most popular genre all around the world, influencing the younger generations in countries like Ireland, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan and India. Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Who, Cream and The Rolling Stones were turned into gods in the younger minds at the time. The 60s also saw a certain musical frenzy known as “Beatlemania”: It was the massive fan-following and craze that The Beatles brought forward throughout the world. The Beatles have rightfully claimed the throne of being the biggest rock ‘n’ roll act in the history of music.
The 70s saw the age of expansion of the rock ‘n’ roll genre. Psychedelic and Progressive rock had started to become popular with the contributions from Pink Floyd, Cream, Janis Joplin, and The Doors. The age of psychedelia saw the rise of the term “rockstar”. By mid-70s, frontmen of major rock acts of the time started gaining more popularity than the bands as a whole. Freddie Mercury of Queen, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Jim Morisson of the Doors, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton of Cream and the Lennon-McCartney duo of The Beatles started gaining massive fan-following and individual fame. This also meant that by that time, band members were household names and revered as “rock-gods”. By mid-70s, major rock bands started touring the world in their own private jets, performing in massive gigs in stadiums all around the world in front of capacity crowds. This spread rock influence even further, resulting in hugely successful rock acts from other countries: AC/DC from Australia, U2 from Ireland. It was during this time that the first ever Indian rock band was formed: Mohiner Ghoraguli from Calcutta. The 70s was probably the best era in rock. We had Jimi Hendrix’s fingers and Freddie Mercury’s vocal range. The greatest rock song in the history of music, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen was also written and produced during this time - 1975 to be precise.
The 80s started on a low note when a stalker shot John Lennon in December, 1980. It was one of the darkest days in the history of music. Very soon, however, the world moved on and welcomed rock music as entertainment business’ very own when television and technology had their play at rock’s influence. MTV (Music Television) was launched in 300 US states in 1981. Early features of classic rock bands from the 60s and 70s saw rock’s fame increase even further. By 1983, MTV was being featured in more than 2000 cable channels. They slowly shifted to modern rock acts. Classic rock was given its much-deserved television recognition when VH1 was launched in 1984. They stuck with tracks from classic rock bands since then. Hardcore hard rock bands such as Guns n Roses and Aerosmith fuelled the expansion of the genre even further. The 80s was also the era of heavy fusion of rock with increased distortion and bass sections, resulting in a music genre known as “Metal”. Although metal music featured in early acts of Led Zeppelin, it was not very popular as it was deemed too hardcore. Influenced by British heavy metal bands like Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and so on, heavy thrashing metal music became popular in America with the rise of bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax forming the big-four of thrash metal. Later acts of heavy metal influenced with progressive rock saw the rise of one of the biggest metal bands in history: Dream Theater. Punk Rock scene was also gaining popularity by this time due to class acts like Sex Pistols in Britain and Greenday in America.
Alternative Rock and its sub-genres Grunge and Pop Punk expanded in popularity and, ironically, exploded into the mainstream during the 1990s. Major labels began luring independent bands away from small record labels. These artists were resistant to the demands of big record companies and were unwilling to change styles to reach a mass-market audience. Nevertheless, many alternative bands including REM, The Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Smiths and grunge bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and others found success with mainstream audiences. Pop and teen-pop continued to appeal to a younger radio audience with the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, 98 Degrees, Hanson and The Spice Girls having major success. Later in the decade, female teen pop artists ascended with major hits by Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears. Contemporary R&B also scored big on the pop charts especially for Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, TLC, Toni Braxton, Lauryn Hill, and Boys II Men. In the UK the term BritPop was coined as new bands Oasis and Blur battled for the top of the charts. Singer / Songwriters enjoyed resurgence, especially for female artists like Norah Jones, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Jewel, Natalie Merchant and Sheryl Crow. Advancements in computers and software allowed for digital music creation and recording on home computers. The Internet and sound compression allowed for digital distribution of music, often bypassing the need for a major label album release.
By the end of 90s, rock ‘n’ roll music lost much of its fabled fame and they were dethroned by Hip-Hop, electro and modern RnB music. As sad as it sounds, rock ‘n’ roll was successful in influencing youngsters for six decades. Classic Rock gave us tunes that will stick in the heart and soul of true fans for years to come. It is one genre of music that will never die. It will never get old - it is forever young. Although some modern rock bands, such as Porcupine Tree, have been successful in preserving rock ‘n’ roll’s key ingredients, the number of rock bands carrying such rock rectitude is far lesser than it was in the past. The younger generation of today is deprived of classic rock elements that influenced the genre in the first place. Even though many rock bands from the past such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Who and so on continue to hold gigs around the world, unless a rock ‘n’ roll’s own brain child of the 21st century is born, the genre will sadly fade away. Rock music still exits, yes but not in the form we’d like it to be. Hardcore rock fans (such as me) thus revert back to class acts of yesteryear. We lack options and sadly, contemporary music does not suffice the urge. The much-celebrated glamour of rock ‘n’ roll way of life is long gone.
As we follow the tide of music revolution, we are eagerly waiting for the next Beatles to take the world by storm once again.
Photography By: Kanika Narang