In the second half of the 20th century, rock music became such a phenomenon partially because the musicians associated with the genre possessed a level of over-the-top showmanship that out-shined other contemporary acts. Many of the most iconic rock bands and musicians didn’t just write and play infectious, rebellious anthems — they acted them out onstage, helping to create their own images and myths while inspiring future generations of musicians to test their own physical limits while becoming involved in the music in new ways. What follows is a list of some of the most iconic and identifiable moves in rock and roll, as explained through the musicians that popularized them.
1. Chuck Berry: The Duck Walk
Chuck Berry, the godfather of rock and roll, captured the attention of white and black audiences alike in a segregated America with his energetic mix of rockabilly and R&B. His showmanship became a pillar of the genre he pioneered, particularly his famous “duck walk,” which has been imitated by the likes of AC/DC’s Angus Young and even by Marty McFly. Berry explained in his autobiography that his signature move was something he invented on accident as a child, when he went beneath a table to fetch a ball by “stooping with full-bended knees, but with my back and head vertical.” His family found it funny, so Berry kept doing it, even trying it in concert when he first played his music in New York in 1956. Berry holds that he invented the duck walk, though some maintain that T-Bone Walker invented a similar move back in the 1930s.
2. Elvis Presley: Hips Shaking
Rock music has often sparked controversy for the daring of its performers to push the boundaries of good tastes. Likely the most famous of the early rockers, Elvis Presley sparked controversy with his dancing, incorporating gyrating hips that suggested a sort of sexuality that American audiences weren’t comfortable with. After a 1956 performance of “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show, the producers were flooded with hate-mail complaining about Presley’s lewd dancing, and Presley was famously filmed in closeup for an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show to prevent the same controversy. Despite the complaints, audiences screamed with glee in response to Elvis’s dance moves, and his early performances led to his unprecedented success and a record-breaking number of advance orders on his next single, “Love Me Tender.”
3. Pete Townshend: Guitar Smashing
Though its studio albums were often intricately produced and even introspective in lyrical content, The Who became famous for its raucous live performances, which would often end in the four band mates destroying their own equipment in a frenzy. During the songs, guitarist and head songwriter Pete Townshend would perform his signature windmill strum while singer Roger Daltrey would swing his microphone by its cord and drummer Keith Moon wailed away on his drumset like a madman. The windmill strum and microphone swing are often imitated, but nothing really compares with the pure rock-and-roll destruction of Townshend’s guitar smashing.
The first major rock musician (artists within other genres had done so, however) to destroy his equipment onstage, Townshend wrecked his first guitar during a gig at the Railway Tavern in 1964, when he accidentally hit the ceiling with the head of his guitar. Incensed by the audience’s laughing, he proceeded to destroy the entire guitar. This stage move, which The Who eventually phased out, was replicated again and again by other musicians, including the ever-destructive Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
4. Jimi Hendrix: Teeth Picking
Commonly cited as the greatest guitarist in rock history, Jimi Hendrix’s natural skill with a guitar lent itself well to all sorts of showboating. Beyond playing guitar between his legs and destroying his guitar by setting it on fire or smashing it, a la Townshend, Hendrix captured the imagination of thousands of young rockers when he played the guitar with his teeth live in concert. Having seen an artist play with his teeth while growing up in Seattle, Hendrix learned to replicate the move himself, saying that, “The idea of doing that came to me … in Tennessee. Down there you have to play with your teeth or else you get shot. There’s a trail of broken teeth all over the stage.” During his famous performance at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, Hendrix even played the entire solo for his song “Hey Joe” with his teeth.
5. Mick Jagger: Rooster Strut
The influential blues rock of the Rolling Stones would never have become so influential were it not for the showmanship of the band’s frontman Mick Jagger, whose showy vocals are matched only by his fearless onstage performances. To this day, Jagger sings the Stones songs onstage while waving his arms and grabbing at the air, before the musical break kicks in and he employs his signature rooster strut. The easily identifiable walk has become the subject of many parodies and a Maroon 5 single, partially since it’s so easy to imitate — Jagger simply puts his hands on his hips, bobs his head, puckers his lips, and struts around the stage in time with the song. Despite the parodies, Jagger’s stage presence, including his poultry-esque dancing, has already become the stuff of legends, as he’s often emulated and praised as rock’s greatest frontman.
6. Angus Young: Guitar Spasms
Angus Young, the guitarist of long-running Australian rock band AC/DC, has always worn schoolboy short-shorts while performing with his band onstage, his unusual getup well-suited to the band’s unapologetically immature brand of rock music. Young became the band’s central figure for his distinct look as well as his onstage performances, which frequently incorporated Chuck Berry’s famous duck walk. He helped to popularize his own stage move as well — the guitar spasms, when Young would fall to the ground during a guitar solo and flail around on the ground as if throwing a tantrum or having a stroke in time to his playing. The move is a pure expression of his energy as a performer that enthralled crowds and spawned countless imitators. It was even parodied in the hilarious rock mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.