Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock and roll music
If you want to dance with me
—Rock and Roll Music, Chuck Berry
Rock and Roll is a form of popular music originally emblematic of the freedoms, joys, sorrows, romance and rebelliousness of youth. It emerged in the 1950s, blending country/western and the blues. The emphasis is on the “back beat” — the second and fourth beats (ta TA ta TA). This is the opposite of the military march, with accents on the first and third beats (TA ta TA ta).
Cultural studies professors and musicologists also say that a lot of rock and pop music runs roughly at the same tempo as – or as a multiple of – the human heart beat. This claim is a bit vague but rock certainly does connect on a visceral level.¹
Early rock’s brightest lights were people like Chuck Berry (1926-), Little Richard (1932- ), Bill Haley (1925-81), Buddy Holly (1936 -59) and “The King,” Elvis Presley (1935-77). These guys nearly killed the old crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Sinatra was hip enough to joke about it when Elvis appeared on his TV show in 1960. And in 1977 Crosby embraced the, at the time, spiky David Bowie because he recognized his immense vocal talent. So the old crooners were down but certainly not out.
The 60s and 70s saw pop/rock expand into a different kind of beast. Recording technologies (like the multitrack tape studio), the rise of FM radio, and the changing values of the hippie era opened up new sounds, techniques and styles.
Dianna Ross and The Supremes helped to define the Motown sound (music from a record company based in “Motor City,” Detroit).
British groups like The Beatles and The Moody Blues brought in symphony orchestras and made rock accessible to kids from 2 to 102.
Meanwhile, Traffic and Americans like The Doors (with Jim Morrison), Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin challenged conventional parents around the world. Teens and young adults were openly getting drunk, doing drugs and practicing free love.
In this unhinged era of purple haze and paper suns, there were still lots of sharp business people ready to profit from millions of young consumers. Rock took on different styles and marketing categories. The two dimensions, music and money, thrived in a more finely tuned kind of reciprocity.
Suddenly we had Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Progressive Rock, Funk, Raggae, Soul, Easy Rock, Disco, Glam Rock, Pop Rock, Bubble Gum Rock, Comedy Rock, Folk Rock, Christian Rock, to name a few.
Some of the biggest 1970s stars were Paul McCartney and Wings, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, David Bowie, Genesis (with Peter Gabriel), Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, Yes, Led Zeppelin, ELP, Santana, Supertramp, The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Heart, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller, King Crimson, The Alan Parsons Project, Rush, Bob Marley, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, The Who, The Guess Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Eagles, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, The Bee Gees, EWF and Stevie Wonder.²
Disco also hit the scene in the 70s. Donna Summer is arguably the grandma of EDM, along with her grandpa producer Giorgio Moroder. Moroder still makes commercially viable music today. And producer Nile Rodgers, another 70s survivor who helped David Bowie commercialize “China Girl” in the 80s, recently worked with the EDM star, Avicii.
One of my favorite 70s songs is “I’m Not In Love” by 10CC (1975). The band used analog tape loops to achieve what we now take for granted with digital tech. The tune is so well done and ahead of its time, I still get goosebumps when I hear it.
The 70s were great to live through but things had to change. Toward the end of the decade pop music was overblown. Progressive rock collapsed in on itself with pretentious, uninspired, pale reflections of former glories.³
Enter Punk Rock, New Wave and Rap.
Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols are often cited as the inventors of Punk Rock. And minimalist bands like Devo, The B-52s, The Talking Heads and The Police (with Sting) were part of a “New Wave.” Most of the New Wave fizzled out fast but The Talking Heads made their mark into the early 90s. Their existentialist, deconstructionist songs have been studied by academics interested in postmodernism. Rappers Delight (1979) is usually credited as the first rap record to reach mainstream audiences, based on “Good Times” by Chic.
Groups like Soft Cell, Eurythmics and Art of Noise used sequencers and digital sampling with a new minimalist response to the excesses of the 70s. A key feature of 80s pop was the “orchestral hit” — a full orchestral sound burst from the touch of keyboard. Sampling was also essential to rap and hiphop.
Like most trends, pop’s minimalist response didn’t last. Instead, 80s pop-rock was mostly about slick studio production, made possible by digital instruments and recording gear. Duran Duran and Tears for Fears are good examples of the lush, 80s studio sound. Meanwhile, Depeche Mode worked digital sampling to create harder, “industrial” music.
In 1980 John Lennon and Yoko Ono released their successful album, Double Fantasy. Sadly, Lennon was murdered by a misguided fan that same year. In 1981 The Moody Blues reinvented themselves with a new keyboardist and a No. 1 album, Long Distance Voyager. And in 1983 Yes rose from the ashes with a totally new sound in “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
Madonna was a sensation in the 80s, along with The Police (Sting), U2, Michael Jackson (the “King of Pop”), Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Winwood, Dire Straits, China Crisis, Queen, Boy George, Wham! and many others. The Cure was an influential art band, lingering somewhere between cult and superstar status.4
The New Age movement and ambient music was also on the rise. Ambient music is a diffuse style pioneered most notably by the producer Brian Eno in the late 70s (Eno also made rock albums). Eno’s seminal album is “Music For Airports” (1978), a soft and repetitive strain of voice and piano tape loops.
Eno’s analog artistry influenced more accessible, digital acts like Enya, various Windham Hill artists and producers like Daniel Lanois. Eno also collaborated with stars like David Bowie, The Talking Heads, U2 and Philip Glass.
The 90s saw more lush studio production with woman singers like Mariah Carey and Céline Dion. Others, like the late Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and The Smashing Pumpkins kept it straight and simple. Alice In Chains took a dark turn with lyrics like, “you’d be well advised… not to plan my funeral ‘fore the body dies…”
Radiohead delivered a sound reminiscent of the 1970s band Jethro Tull. Garbage, Bjork, Alanis Morisette, The KLF and Seal all had their moments. No Doubt had a killer single, “Don’t Speak.” And TLC released a classic album, Crazy, Sexy, Cool.
Veteran rockers who kept up with the times (e.g. Elton John, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen) flourished in the 90s with top-selling albums. Others like Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan lost touch with the pulse of the people.
Rap, Hiphop, Dance, Grunge and Techno (now a branch of EDM) also took off in the 90s, although they all began in the 80s or before, depending on how you look at it. The (late) Guru‘s intelligent and pacifist Jazzmatazz vols. 1&2 were appreciated by listeners of all colors and creeds.
The new millennium saw more powerful woman acts like Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne. Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, who’ve billed themselves as the “longest running rock act,” continued to fill stadiums.
More recently EDM (electronic and dance music) seemed to dominate for a while. The outstanding EDM artists are Avicii, Skrillex, Tiesto, Krewella, Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Zedd and several others.
But pop music is still number one. Acts like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Drake and Kanye West tell us that we still want to hear people in the mix.5
¹ The normal human heartbeat range is 60 to 100 bpm. The default tempo for most digital audio workstations is 120 bpm. In a witty interview, classical pianist Glenn Gould says he dislikes rock because it’s always the same tempo within a given song (e.g. 4/4 time). But some Beatles’ time signatures change within a given song. And I suspect the same is true with Genesis and Yes.
² And many more; this list is somewhat arbitrary, mostly based on my upbringing and personal likes. See top 70s bands. Any account of the history of rock must be biased. “The History of Rock” thread at The Reaper Lounge is contentious at times.
³ It’s almost like there’s a universal curve in pop where things start off great, reach their peak, and then decline to mediocrity or worse. By way of contrast, classical composers tend to get better with age, probably because their music is not focused on youth but on maturity.
4 David Bowie’s touching swansong “Lazarus” seems heavily influenced by The Cure.
5 This is how many people feel but it’s not quite right. Everything has changed, once again. The laptop has replaced the guitar as the new indie folk instrument. Anyone with a PC and a bit of talent can post material on SoundCloud or YouTube. This tends to show how incredibly talented the leading producers are. There are amazingly skilled people behind the buttons, and gifted vocalists behind their effected vocals. Some might have to try doing EDM themselves to fully appreciate its human element.