Rock music began in the 1950s as a fusion of country and R&B, but the influential and initially controversial genre proved its longevity as it spanned across multiple decades. Even today, as it’s often eclipsed by hip-hop and electro-tinged pop music in the Billboard charts, rock endures in the DNA of popular songcraft and in the hard-edged production and instrumentation of many underground and alternative acts. The long history of rock music, encompassing literally hundreds of movements and subgenres, is impossible to condense into something easily digestible. But we tried anyway, using specific artists to summarize the origins and the impact of several key eras and movements within rock and roll music.
1. Elvis Presley
Rock and roll music became a significant cultural force in the mid-1950s, as multiple artists culminated showy, energetic public images while releasing hit singles bridging the genres of rockabilly, country-western music, R&B, and of course, rock music. The biggest star of this formative period for rock and roll music was the Memphis-based singer Elvis Presley, whose 1954 single “That’s All Right (Mama)” is often placed in the running for the first bona fide rock song. Skewing closer to rockabilly than more soul-centric counterparts like Little Richard, Presley became a musical and cultural icon following a string of successful singles and controversial television appearance where viewers reacted with both scorn and screaming admiration to his sexualized hip-swiveling dance moves. Elvis Presley personifies the early days of rock and roll, when it was a new but powerful and controversial cultural force, still having some difficulties in distinguishing itself from its genre forebears.
2. The Beatles
The American rockers of the 1950s gained a following across the Atlantic Ocean among young Brits who idolized their rebellious styles and musical sensibilities. British youth culture created several types of rock-influenced subgenres, including Merseybeat and dixieland-jazz infused skiffle. British counterculture didn’t hold much weight until the arrival of British four-piece The Beatles in the United States, when they were greeted with ecstatic shouts from female fans and upturned noses from music critics. Despite the initial derision, the Beatles were a lasting phenomenon thanks to their synthesis of Everly Brothers-style vocal harmonies with Buddy Holly-esque instrumentation, and their success signaled a wave of British imports trying to replicate their unprecedented success, including The Kinks, the Animals, the Who, and Herman’s Hermits. Stealing the spotlight away from rock and roll and R&B acts that preceded them like Elvis and Fats Domino, the British Invasion bands represented the international influence of rock music while their later album-wide experimentation reflected another important ’60s rock movement.
3. The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Beatles expanded beyond their initial four-piece sound to encompass more complex instrumentation and recording techniques, introducing sitars and guitar feedback into their musical personality as they both mirrored and helped to advance the psychedelic rock movement taking off elsewhere around the world. San Francisco and the surrounding area became the hot spot for the psychedelic movement that appealed to a drug-centric counterculture of the 1960s. Widely attended music festivals like the Monterey Pop Festival helped to make stars out of bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience that excelled in a live forum. Discounting the use of LSD, psychedelic rock was founded upon guitar experimentation, and no one was more impressive with a guitar than Hendrix himself, who did things with improvisation and feedback that changed the way guitars have been used since. The experimentation of Jimi Hendrix and contemporaries like the 13th Floor Elevators and Jefferson Airplane gave rise to an era of rock music where live performances were given greater weight and bands allowed themselves to explore new avenues in rock music, even as many of the genre’s pioneers, like Hendrix, either died or lost relevance by the end of the decade.
4. Led Zeppelin
Due to their British origins, the Rolling Stones are easily lumped into the British Invasion, although their rock songs drew increasing influence from the American tradition of blues music. A veteran of another blues-centric British Invasion band called The Yardbirds, guitarist Jimmy Paige became the founding member of Led Zeppelin. The band often directly aped the lyrics and melodies of American blues musicians, but they gained international popularity by imbuing the songs with rock and roll showmanship and a new kind of heaviness. Thanks to its often eclectic output, Led Zeppelin represents the now long-standing tradition of blues rock, as well as the first generation of hard rock and heavy metal simultaneously pioneered by Black Sabbath. They made music that could be as accessible as it was complex, and as delicate as it was earth-shattering, while their live performances and images are often credited, or blamed, for spawning the stadium rock and hair metal bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
5. Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd is without question the most well-known band to emerge from the progressive rock movement of the 1970s. It’s an easy pick to represent the era also because the band was quite literally born out of the ’60s psychedelic movement. After their original frontman Syd Barrett left the group due to LSD-related mental illness, the members of Pink Floyd struggled to find their footing as a band for several albums before releasing The Dark Side of the Moon, often considered the magnum opus of their discography and of progressive rock as a whole. Progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd sought to expand rock music into something more experimental and artistic, using the foundations of the genre to create album-focused music featuring 10-minute-plus epics that pulled influences from film scores, classical music, jazz and, of course, psychedelic rock. Bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis drew upon the use of intricate orchestration in rock pioneered by the Beatles, the guitar-fuzz soundscapes of Hendrix and the album-spanning ambitions of The Who.
6. The Clash
The hard rock and progressive rock respectively represented by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd gave rise to less-enduring giants of ’70s charts, including Boston, Supertramp, Styx, and Foreigner. These oft-maligned stadium rock staples took control of popular music in the 1970s while a rebellion against such overproduced rock music was fomenting in garages and intimate venues across the U.S. and U.K. Drawing upon the influence of ’60s garage rock and proto-punk bands like The Stooges, the punk rock movement emphasized fast-paced, aggressive, simplistic songs that eschewed the excesses of stadium and progressive rock.
A political movement as well as a musical one, punk rock was far more impactful in England, where bands like The Clash railed against established political and social norms using subversive lyrics and hard-edged sounds. While its eponymous self-titled showcases the early energy of punk rock, its later albums, including the stellar double-album London Calling, show how punk music fizzled out as a mainstream force almost immediately, though it birthed dozens of smaller movements that endured underground through the ’80s and to present day. The Clash began with an explosive burst of anger, but it matured into something more melodic and sonically adventurous, signaling the fall of the movement and the rise of the experimental bands that rose from the ashes of punk.
7. Sonic Youth
Homogenized versions of new wave and stadium rock ruled the ’80s along with synth-heavy pop stars, but the decade was a crucial one for rock music as well, even if the best rock being produced wasn’t topping any charts. Myriad post-punk movements abandoned the restrictive, aggressive sounds of punk while retaining the commitment to a “do-it-yourself” mentality and the counter-cultural sentiments that made rock so monumental in the ’50s and ’60s. Sonic Youth released an impressive string of albums that combined traditional melodicism with sound experimentation that often descended into pure noise.
Like its contemporaries, Sonic Youth was indebted to the aesthetics and sounds of punk, post-punk and even new wave, even while the members became innovators themselves by pushing what one can do with an electric guitar, experimenting with difficult new tunings and timbres. Sonic Youth represents an era of rock music where the most interesting bands were relegated to the underground, gaining fans only by word of mouth, before the breakthrough success of Nirvana and other grunge acts brought the alternative into the mainstream.
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