One of my earliest memories of listening to rock music would probably be going on long drives with my father while he played Pink Floyd, The Police and Queen, and we’d just hum along to their songs. That was the time when a deep-rooted love for rock took a hold over me. So it was no wonder that 12 year old me was heartbroken when I found out that Freddie Mercury was no more and that The Beatles had had bitter fights and disbanded a long time ago. Then, like many other people of my age, I tried the new-age bands of “our” times, but they never struck a chord with me (pun intended). Maybe it was the fact that most of the artists today rely heavily on synthesizers and autotune and lyrics that they paid someone else to write. While I’m not discrediting them or saying that they have it easier, it’s fascinating to see a large chunk of the youth still obsessed with a variety of rock bands over a large span of time, much before they were born.
Most people tend to have rather polarizing views when it comes to rock music. Many find it easy to assume that rock, as a collective, is something which involves loudly singing lewd lyrics and playing noisy instruments. On the other hand, I’ve had people assure me that they would sell their soul for a Led Zeppelin concert. But, why this obsession with old bands, you might ask. Why not listen to bands from your own time? What led to this obsession and craze over this genre of music? To answer these often asked questions, I decided to go on a musical journey of sorts, looking into the type of rock music we’ve had in the past few decades and how it evolved with time.
1950s: The Birth of Rock and Roll
The 1940s and 50s were fascinating times as artists started stepping out of their comfort zones, creating a medley of various black musical genres of the time, including rhythm and blues and gospel music, with country and western. Up until then, music was also seen as a something that meant different for different races. Rock and roll was made for a multiracial audience. It appeared at a time when racial tensions in the United States were entering a new phase, with the beginnings of the civil rights movement for desegregation. The coming together of white youth audiences and black music in rock and roll, led to strong white racist reactions within the US, with many people condemning its breaking down of barriers based on colour. However, and as corny as it may sound, music was able to get people together. Singers like Big Joe Turner, Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, the Everly Brothers, and Carl Perkins were known for popularising this completely new genre of music. Out of these, it was Elvis Presley who became the most famous, earning the title, ‘The King of Rock and Roll’, with hits like Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock giving him unprecedented fame. However, some experts argue that rock ‘n’ roll seemed to be on a decline towards the end of the 1950s due to the death of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in a plane crash and the departure of Elvis for the army.
Yet, this was just the beginning and the foundations of rock and roll were soundly set.
1960s: Girl groups, Psychedelia and The British Invasion
The early 1960s saw many women groups becoming popular and some bands now had three women singing in harmony. Some popular women groups at this point of time were “The Crystals”, “The Shangri-Las” and “The Ronettes.” However, this phase didn’t last too long, since most of these groups relied on handlers and ended up splitting.
Then The Beatles landed in the La Guardia airport, on the 7th of February 1964.
This is often considered the start of the British Invasion in which a large number of rock and roll, beat and pop performers from Britain gained massive popularity in the U.S. The Beatles rose to a popularity that was unprecedented and unparalleled. The British Invasion helped internationalize the production of rock and roll, opening the door for subsequent British (and Irish) performers to achieve international success. This meant the end of instrumental surf music and girl groups in the US.
Psychedelic rock originated in the mid-1960s among British and American musicians; the sounds of which invokes three core effects of LSD: depersonalization and dynamization; all of which detach the user from reality.
1967 saw the Beatles release their definitive psychedelic statement in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, including the controversial track “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, the Rolling Stones responded later that year with Their Satanic Majesties Request, and Pink Floyd debuted with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Key recordings included Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and the Doors’ Strange Days. These trends peaked in the 1969 Woodstock festival, which saw performances by most of the major psychedelic acts.
The genre bridged the transition from early blues and folk-based rock to progressive rock and hard rock, and in a way contributed to the development of sub-genres such as heavy metal, which can be surprising to some metal fans.
1970s: The growth of hard rock, punk and glam rock
The 1970s saw the emergence of hard rock as one of the most prominent subgenres of rock music. Bands like Alice Cooper and Deep Purple were highly popular by 1972.The guitar sounds became heavier and the riffs faster. By the second half of the decade, several bands had achieved star status, namely, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith and Kiss. Arena rock grew in popularity through progressive bands like Styx (“Come Sail Away”), and hard rock bands like Boston (“More Than a Feeling”).
Heavy metal music (though not recognized as a separate genre from hard rock at the time) gained a cult following in the 1970s, led by Led Zeppelin, Queen, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, with their styles later influencing other bands like Judas Priest and Motörhead, which eventually started the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the 1980s. Psychedelic rock declined in popularity after the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and the breakup of The Beatles.
Rock music went to a whole new level due to Led Zeppelin and as rock music began to get louder, the music led to harder sounds thanks to bands such as Black Sabbath. Popular punk bands include, “The Ramones,” “The Clash” and “The Sex Pistols.” The songs written by these bands were often fast tempoed and relating to political issues.
Glam rock is a style of rock music that developed in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s performed by musicians who wore outrageous costumes, makeup, and hairstyles, particularly platform shoes and glitter. Glam artists drew on diverse sources across music and throwaway pop culture, ranging from bubblegum pop and 1950s rock and roll to cabaret, science fiction, and complex art rock. Artists delving into this genre included Elton John, Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury of Queen, and perhaps the most famous, David Bowie, who became the poster child of glam rock in the US.
Somewhere, in a small town in New Jersey, an artist named Bruce Springsteen (“Born To Run”) became the key figure in rock music as he made music that appealed to and directly addressed the struggles of America’s working classes and frustrated youth. He typified a different kind of genre; heartland rock. This music had a lyrical reference to the life of a working class American and was rather simple and straightforward.
1980s: Hard rock and Heavy metal
This decade saw the resurgence of hard rock music and the emergence of its glam metal subgenre. Bands such as AC/DC, Queen, Def Leppard, Kiss, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Quiet Riot and Scorpions grew in popularity at this time. Some of these bands made up for a sub-genre called hair metal, selling old out arenas to the tune of tens of thousands of fans with hairdos Aqua-Netted to the stratosphere and bandanas choking off circulation to their knees.
This seems funny to most of us, but people even had cults dedicated to these long-haired, bandana wearing, sweaty rock stars. Most fans of rock argue that hair metal whittled heavy metal and hard rock down to a successful pop music formula, making generic music for the masses instead of creating anything new.
Traditionally, heavy metal has been confused with hard rock. However, the 1980s saw the resurgence of heavy metal as a separate genre, with the likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Dio being widely popular British acts. Soon there was an emergence of aggressive Metal subgenres; thrash metal broke into the mainstream with bands such as Metallica, Slayer, Exodus, Anthrax, and Megadeth. By the late 1980s, Metallica would achieve mainstream success and would become one of the bestselling music artists of all time. Other styles like death metal and black metal would remain a subcultural phenomenon, which would peak at some points in this decade and the following years.
1990s: Alternative and grunge
During the early 90s a new style of alternative music emerged, which combined elements of alternative rock with heavy metal. This new genre, dubbed “alternative metal” was typified by bands such as Tool, Helmet and Jane’s Addiction. Other bands including Faith No More, Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine also blended funk & hip hop elements, creating subgenres of this style such as funk metal and rap metal.
“Here we are now, entertain us,” as Kurt Cobain belted out, leading Nirvana to be one of the forebearers of grunge rock. Essentially seen as a less polished and more direct version of rock, grunge rock song writers relied more on freestyle writing, rather than the lyrical excessiveness of bands like Queen and Led Zeppelin. Bands like Pearl Jam were famous for their fusion of riff-heavy stadium rock with the grit and anger of post-punk and grunge.
However, during the mid-1990s, many grunge bands broke up or became less visible. The death of Kurt Cobain in early 1994, as well as the touring problems for Pearl Jam (due to the band’s much-publicized boycott of Ticketmaster), marked the decline of the genre.
2000s: Rap rock and Nu metal
The success of British pop-rock bands in the 90s saw the birth of various indie bands and artists like Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, Franz Ferdinand, Belle and Sebastian, Amy Winehouse, Kaiser Chiefs, The Libertines, Florence And The Machine, and The Ting Tings achieving substantial chart. Irish sensation U2 continued their popularity into the 2000s, influencing many prominent acts of the decade such as Coldplay and Muse.
A lot of people often associate the 2000s with bands like Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Deftones, and Slipknot, all of which popularised a new sub-genre in rock called rap rock which essentially fuses vocal and instrumental elements of hip hop with various forms of rock. However, this too has seen a downfall in early 2000s and then a sudden boom due to bands like 21 Pilots and Death Grips, which continued well into the next decade.
Similarly, nu metal, a genre that combines elements of heavy metal music with elements of other music genres such as hip hop, alternative rock, funk, industrial, and grunge, saw a rapid decline in the later 2000s despite bands like Godsmack, Trapt, Linkin Park and Evanescence having great success.
2010s: A new chapter?
As I write about the last decade, there aren’t many rock bands that come to my mind that have made an impression. While there were bands like The Arctic Monkeys, Florence +The Machine, The Fratellis, The Wombats, The Strokes, My Chemical Romance, Blink-182; all these seemed to fade into the early 2000s and mid-2010s.
So what changed? What made rock seem like a lesser option while looking for a new song for our playlists? Why do we have to depend on an algorithm written by some guy who has probably listened to the same Motley Crue album for the past 10 years? Why is it so hard for us to discover new rock bands?
The major game changer has been the decline in compact discs and rise of downloads in the music industry. This has prompted a focus on Top 40 music; more of Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes and less of rock artists. This also means that music is becoming more people-centric; while some may argue that this means big bucks, but quantity never really translates into quality. More and more bands tend to change their genres in favour of what masses would like.
While bands like Imagine Dragons, Metallica, Coldplay, Green Day still provide an array of choices in rock music, a lot of the bands leave their roots behind in pursuit of greener shores and easier, pop-synth, electro rock music.
However, as much as theorists would like to believe that rock is truly dead, one must remember that none of the bands that we’re so fond of became legends overnight. Led Zeppelin, Queen, Metallica, Deep Purple, The Beatles, et al were nobodies when they started, and it’s their timelessness that made them endure these decades and still have a global fanbase. Who knows, maybe Imagine Dragons might be inclined to release some traditional guitar rocl. Maybe Fall Out Boy will reduce the pop in their punk and sell a rockier sound to an otherwise saturated pop radio. Maybe the My Chemical Romance reunion will the spark the interest of some young kid struggling with his guitar.
Rock will continue to live on as long as even one person talks about how a band of misfits with a couple of guitars and a drum set managed to change their life.
As long as one solitary figure on the bench will choose November Rain, rock will stay.