The past 35 years of rock history | EW.com

Music

The past 35 years of rock history

The past 35 years of rock history -- We trace the evolution of rock and the key albums that reinvented the genre, from Elvis to The Beach Boys, The Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, Prince to Run-DMC, and more

1955-1959
Roll Over Beethoven
And tell Sinatra the news: A rebellious sound is born

In the beginning there was the melodic, mainstream pop of the comfortable, white middle class. And then there was what was considered lower-class stuff: country, for instance, and the rhythm & blues of urban blacks, music too isolated to threaten anyone — until Bill Haley recorded a bouncy song called ”Rock Around the Clock,” which in 1955 showed up on the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle, a movie about disaffected teens, and became a No. 1 hit. That’s when the rock & roll earthquake, now certified by the pop charts, officially began. Conservative citizens thought the end of civilization wouldn’t be far behind.

Of course, Haley — an easygoing country bandleader who happened to hit on the right trend at the right time — wasn’t the first of the rockers, or anywhere near the best. Before him, black musicians like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino had developed their own, much more aggressive sound. Teenagers loved it; record companies stole it, hiring amiable white singers like Pat Boone to make imitations tame enough not to roil the mainstream.

And then came Elvis, the first and ultimate crossover. Presley sounded both white and black, easy and tough. He electrified young (and especially female) America and terrified its elders. To cash in on the disgust of older citizens, a Cincinnati used-car dealer even guaranteed he’d ”break 50 Elvis Presley records” whenever anybody bought an auto.

But the early giants never completed their revolution. Presley was drafted in 1958; Berry had legal trouble; Jerry Lee Lewis, who had pushed the country and R&B blend nearly to the edge, was derailed by scandal after marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Manufactured white teen idols took over, among them Fabian and Frankie Avalon, whose only magnificence was their slicked-back hair.

Key Albums
Various artists, Rock and Roll: The Early Days (RCA)
Elvis Presley, Elvis’ Golden Records (RCA)
Jerry Lee Lewis, Jerry Lee’s Greatest (Rhino)
Various Artists, Doo Wop Ballads, 1954-1961 (Rhino)

1960-1963
Twisting the Nights Away
A new sensation, across the nation, includes silky R&B and fun, fun, fun

A sexy young president sat in the White House, and a new frontier beckoned rock into uncharted territory. Out in Detroit, songwriter-producer- entrepreneur Berry Gordy built what he liked to call a musical family — and with it a major record company. Motown taught young black singers slick show- business moves and decked them out with a new, light, and catchy kind of R& B. Out of that schoolhouse came a seemingly endless line of hitmakers — artists like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder (who made his first record when he was just 12), and the Supremes, who brought black music back to the mainstream.

In New York and Los Angeles, meanwhile, producer Phil Spector was transforming rock-tinged pop into a heart-stopping ”wall of sound,” made up of girl groups like the Ronettes singing over an oceanic orchestral pulse. On the West Coast, the surf was up for the Beach Boys, whose soaring vocal harmonies gave punch to those twin California teen obsessions, surfing and hot rods. Kids blared these songs from car radios and hit the discotheques at night to try out the latest dance craze. Back East, a folk-music revival started that soon would spill over to influence rock. Eager singers like Peter, Paul & Mary stripped their music down to the bare bones — voices accompanied only by acoustic guitars — and brought their lyrics alive with an earnest political commitment never heard in pop before.

Key Albums
Various Artists, The Motown Story (Mowtown)
The Beach Boys, Little Deuce Coupe/All Summer Long (Capitol)
Various Artists, The Best of the Girl Groups, Vol. 1 (Rhino)
Peter, Paul, & Mary, Ten Years Together (Warner Bros.)

1964-1966
Meet the British
England’s newest hitmakers keep us dancing, while American folk-rock makes us think

By mid-decade fans could define themselves by answering one easy question: Who do you like, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? Because — while it was the Beatles who made girls scream as nobody had since Elvis — the two bands together defined the twin poles of the British Invasion: sweet and light versus nasty and dark. In the middle came groups of all descriptions, stretching from the bluesy, hard-bitten Animals to the downright silly, cuddly Herman’s Hermits; one by one, they swarmed up the American charts.

The Brits changed the face of rock & roll. At the forefront now were bands — not just singers, no matter how pretty they might be, but true ensembles that added up to something greater than the sum of their parts. And the musicians themselves actually wrote the songs. ”Hope I die before I get old,” the discontented Who sang in ”My Generation.” No wonder they sounded nothing like the romantic Hollies — these groups reflected what their members really thought, and how they lived.

The growing musical honesty energized folk performers like Simon & Garfunkel, who wanted to spice their music with a pungent dash of rock. But it was Bob Dylan, then the great young hero of folk, who dealt the old ways their biggest blow. He felt the wind of a fresh era blowing through his heart and needed something more potent than an acoustic guitar to convey it. When he assaulted the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with an electric band, the audience — threatened by the populist roar of rock & roll — booed him as a traitor.

Key Albums
The Beatles, Meet the Beatles (Capitol)
The Rolling Stones, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) (Abkco)
Various Artists, The History of British Rock; Vols. 1-4 (Rhino)
Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (Columbia)
The Mamas and the Papas, 16 Greatest Hits (MCA)

1967-1970
Revolution
Guitars get louder, songs get longer, clothes get weirder, and people strange

America, 1967: A new, wilder, more generous social order looked more than possible. It already seemed to be bursting forth on campuses and in the streets. In rock, San Francisco led the way, with bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane stretching all previous limits with the length, complexity, and sheer volume of their music. Now anything could happen. Jimi Hendrix wrenched surging sounds from his guitar; he tortured it, played it with his teeth, even set it on fire. Janis Joplin wrestled with her songs and with herself; she howled her pain, proving, among much else, that in the new world of truth and raw honesty, a woman who by old-fashioned standards wasn’t pretty could still be sexual — and a star.

Rock exploded onto a new kind of radio: On FM stations, songs didn’t have to be pop hits. Bands could spiral into endless, blues-based jams, just like Eric Clapton’s Cream; they could hurl sharp but lively curses at the war in Vietnam, just like Country Joe and the Fish. One wholly anti-commercial group emerged — the Velvet Underground, who, sponsored at their start by Andy Warhol, tore rock to shreds and knit it back together as art.

The possible directions seemed limitless. James Brown brought a new political consciousness to his already-steamy brand of funk. Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding blended pop with the earthy strains of gospel, arousing both blacks and whites with an inspired new brand of soul; Sly and the Family Stone mixed rock into the R&B stew, inventing a hybrid that seems explosive even today.

San Francisco inspired a swell of countercultural unity that climaxed in 1969 with three days of peace, love, and song in the mud at Woodstock. Four months later, the illusion was shattered. At a festival at California’s Altamont Speedway, a fan was stabbed to death while the Rolling Stones played. The ’60s were ending, and so was the dream.

Key Albums
Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced? (Reprise)
The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Captiol)
The Doors, The Doors (Elektra)
Cream, Disraeli Gears (RSO)

1971-1974
What’s Going On?
Rock is ch-ch-ch-changing, thanks to the power chords, sensitivity, and tons of makeup

With the counterculture fading away, rock & roll’s musical community splintered into fragments. What remained was the equivalent of a mammoth FM radio dial, with something for everyone and nothing special leading the pack.

At one end of the dial were folk-based singer-songwriters, led by the soft- spoken likes of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Turn the knob and out came raucous Southern rock or the easy Southern California sound of the Eagles. Fans of costume jewelry could plunge into the glitter rock of David Bowie, who reveled in loud guitars and on stage flaunted androgyny, plus loads of mascara. Serious listeners, meanwhile, could find portentous music proud of its classical influence played by so-called ”progressive” bands like Yes.

Whirl the knob to the black stations and you’d find the sleek sound of Philadelphia soul, the driving funk of George Clinton, and, on the latest albums from Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, a sharp (though still compassionate) new political edge. With the racial tolerance of the ’60s starting to ebb, none of the new black music spoke much to whites — or at least it didn’t speak easily, as the wholesome pop of Motown and the gospel eruptions of Aretha Franklin had the decade before.

Tear the knob almost off the radio and, at the furthest end of the musical spectrum, out shambled bands like Led Zeppelin. They played a profoundly un-adult form of music called ”heavy metal” — a bruising, primal gut rejection of peace signs, aging hippies, and other leftovers from the era of love beads. If any further proof had been needed that the ’60s were finished, this was it — available on (what else?) quadrophonic 8-track tapes.

Key Albums
Led Zeppelin, untitled, known as Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic)
Joni Mitchell, Blue (Reprise)
Sly and The Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Epic)
Elton John, Greatest Hits (MCA)

1975-1980
Stayin’ Alive
Punk’s raw frenzy renews the music and disco hustles us back to the dance floor

It started in dark, dingy clubs in Manhattan, then continued in England and L.A. Alienated kids ripped their T-shirts, jabbed pins in their noses — and recorded the freshest, most abrasive and exhilarating music heard since the ’50s. With the established stars sounding tired, bands like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash blasted rock back to its basics. Forget complexity: Songs now were two minutes long again, and all that mattered was the fury and the beat.

This was the first great rupture in rock & roll’s history. Mainstream fans fled from punk, just as their parents might have run from Elvis or the Beatles. They flocked to stadiums for smooth, heavily marketed acts like Boston and Peter Frampton; they mellowed out to the ”soft rock” of Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac; or they clung to their heroes from the old days, many of whom, such as the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, were still recording, though not always with lively results.

But whatever their taste, many rock fans hated another new genre they found even more repulsive than punk. Disco — the unstoppable dance track for glitter-ball nightclubs across America — stood, or so it seemed, for everything empty, everything shallow, everything that adult, ”meaningful” rock supposedly was not. Yet its appeal to anyone with even a blush of Saturday-night fever fused a new, multiracial, working-class audience, united by their all-but- hypnotized love of a throbbing rhythmic groove. Disco flared, flowered, and then just as quickly died, but its communal ecstasy lived on, paving the way for the rap and dance revelations to come.

Key Albums
The Ramones, Rocket to Russia (Sire)
Various Artists, The Disco Years, Vol.1: Turn the Beat Around 1974-1978 (Rhino)
The Eagles, Hotel California (Asylum)
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (Columbia)
Talking Heads, Remain in Light (Sire)
Elvis Costello, Armed Forces (Columbia)

1981-1985
The Sight of Music
We demand our MTV, and the video generation is hatched

The ’80s began Aug. 1, 1981, the day MTV made its debut with the Buggles’ ”Video Killed the Radio Star” — an appropriate title for a time when even punk (which had evolved into something more refined and respectable, New Wave) was losing steam. Rock video provided a captivating alternative with quick- moving imagery accompanied by brisk, compact pop, much of it played by newly developed electronic machines. Music Television gave rock a visual kick; helped launch a synthesizer-propelled second British Invasion, sparked by groups like Culture Club, for whom costumes and makeup were nearly as important as music; and brought heavy metal back to outrageously long-haired life. It even established its own megastars, among them former kiddie sensation Michael Jackson, elusive Minneapolis wunderkind Prince, and a onetime New York club dancer who shortened her name to Madonna.

All of which made hardcore rock fans wonder, ”Is the guitar dead?” It wasn’t, of course, thanks to the new, resurgent roots rock, led in all its brawny glory by Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, and a stream of heartland guitar bands energized by punk. But new ways of making music were also afoot. Inner-city kids, especially in the Bronx, spiked rhymes onto the rhythms of old funk records ”scratched” on turntables. Called rap, their music came as a shock, surging up from people stigmatized as an inarticulate underclass. It empowered the black youth who created it, melding them into a force that would challenge established pop with the same vigor Elvis had brought to the battle more than two decades before.

Key Albums
Prince, 1999 (Warner Bros.)
Culture Club, This Time (The First Four Years: Twelve Worldwide Hits) (Epic)
U2, War (Island)
Van Halen, 1984 (Warner Bros.)
Michael Jackson, Thriller (Epic)

1986-1990
Rap This Way
A new generation samples raunch & roll and the older generation gets all shook up

The imminent end of rock’s fourth decade brought back two well-worn words from the none-too-distant past: ”generation gap.” Rock was no longer a rebellious soundtrack for alienated teens; now it was beer-sponsored mass entertainment earning billions every year. Pot-bellied fans in their 40s were a common sight; the rockers selling out your local arena could just as well be ’60s veterans like the Grateful Dead. If anyone wanted newer music — but not too different from the old — a new crop of serious singer-songwriters bloomed, led by Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. And thanks to a new medium called the CD, older listeners now had the chance to buy their favorite albums all over again.

But that was only half of the story. The children of baby boomers wanted their own music, and they had it to spare. Rap leapt onto the pop charts; metal spawned a raw new version of itself; a sexy, danceable new kind of R&B emerged, infused with energy rap brought in from the streets; a new strain of ”alternative” rock — dark, harsh, and ironic — worked its way toward the top of the charts.

Those who had grown up with Elvis and the Fab Four scratched their heads. Some launched a war, demanding that ”explicit” albums be, if not banned outright, at least labeled with dramatic warnings. But in a way, this was good musical news. After 35 years, rock hadn’t lost its disruptive edge. It could still bite, slap, and offend; it could still divide the nation into warring camps, locked in much the same debate that raged in 1955. Danny and the Juniors were prophets when, back in 1958, they sang ”Rock & roll is here to stay.” The party is only beginning.

Key Albums
Run-DMC, Raising Hell (Profile)
Paul Simon, Graceland (Warner Bros.)
Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (Geffen)
R.E.M., Document (IRS/MCA)

(Additional contributions: Owen Gleiberman and Bob Mack)