Rock and Roll, also called Rock, is a form of popular music, usually featuring vocals (often with vocal harmony backing), electric guitarss (and saxophone in the early days) and a strong back beat. Rock and Roll emerged as a defined musical style in America in the 1950s, though elements of rock and roll can be seen in rhythm and blues records as far back as the 1920s. Early rock and roll combined elements of blues, boogie woogie, jazz and rhythm and blues, and is also influenced by traditional folk music, gospel music, black and white, and country and western. Going back even further, Rock and Roll can trace a direct lineage to the old Five Points district of mid-1800s New York City, the scene of the first fusion between heavily rhythmic African shuffles and sand dances with melody driven European genres, particularly the Irish jig.

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Table of contents
1 Origins of "Rock and Roll"
2 History and Milestones
3 Social Impacts

Origins of "Rock and Roll"

Rocking was a term first used by gospel singers in the American South to mean something akin to spiritual rapture. A double, ironic, meaning came to popular awareness in 1947 in blues artist Roy Brown's song "Good Rocking Tonight" (also covered the next year by Wynonie Harris in an even wilder version), in which "rocking" was ostensibly about dancing but was in fact a thinly-veiled allusion to sex. Such double-entendres were nothing new in blues music (which was mostly limited in exposure to jukeboxes and clubs) but were new to the radio airwaves. After the success of "Good Rocking Tonight" many other rhythm and blues artists used similar titles through the late 1940s including a song called "Rock and Roll" recorded by Wild Bill Moore in 1949. These songs were relegated to "race music" (the music industry code name for rhythm and blues) outlets and were barely known by mainstream white audiences. In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey Alan Freed would begin playing this type of music for his white audience, and it is Freed who is credited with coining the phrase "rock and roll" to describe the rollicking R&B music that he brought to the airwaves. The term, with its simultaneous allusions to dancing, sex, and the sound of the music itself, stuck even with those who didn't absorb all the meanings.

History and Milestones

Early North American rock and roll (1953-1963)

According to some, notably music historian Peter Guralnick, the first rock and roll record was "Rocket 88", by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (written by 19-year-old Ike Turner also the session leader) and recorded by Sam Phillips for the Sun Records label, in 1951. Many other records recorded in the same period are also contenders for this title. Others have pointed to the later broad commercial success with white audiences of Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" or "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and his Comets as true starting points. Still others point out that performers like Fats Domino were recording blues songs as early as 1949 that are indistinguishable from later rock and roll, and that these blues songs were based on themes, chord changes, and rhythms dating back decades before that.

Whatever the starting point, it is clear that rock and roll appeared at a time when racial tensions in the United States were coming to the surface. African-Americans were protesting segregation of schools and public facilities. The "separate but equal" doctrine was overturned in 1954. It can hardly be a coincidence, then, that a musical form combining elements of white and black music should arise, and that this music should provoke strong reactions, of all types, in all Americans.

Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, rhythm and blues music had been gaining a stronger beat and a wilder style, with artists such as Fats Domino and Johnny Otis speeding up the tempos and increasing the backbeat to great popularity on the juke-joint circuit. Despite the pioneering efforts of Freed and others, black music was still taboo on many white-owned radio outlets. However, savvy artists and producers quickly recognized the popularity and potential of rock and roll and raced to cash in with white versions of this black music. Black performers saw their songs recorded by white performers, an important step in the dissemination of the music, but often at the cost of feeling and authenticity. Most famously, Pat Boone recorded sanitized versions of Little Richard songs (Little Richard retaliated by getting wilder, creating in "Long Tall Sally", a song so intense that Boone couldn't find a way to cover it). Similarly, Ricky Nelson recorded Fats Domino. Later, as those songs became popular, the original artists' recordings received radio play as well (though this seldom resulted in any renumeration to the original artists). The cover versions were not necessarily straightforward imitations. For example, Bill Haley's bowdlerized cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" transformed Joe Turner's humorous and racy song into an energetic teen dance number, while Georgia Gibbs replaced Etta James's sarcastic vocal in "Roll With Me, Henry" (covered as "Dance With Me, Henry") with a perkier vocal more appropriate for an audience unfamiliar with the song which James's song was an answer to (Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie").

On March 21, 1952 in Cleveland, Alan Freed produced the first rock and roll concert. The audience and the performers were mixed in race and the evening ended after one song in a near-riot as thousands of fans tried to get into the sold-out venue. Rock and roll was clearly here to stay.

At the same time that R&B was turning into rock and roll, country and western music was undergoing a similar transformation to faster tempos and more aggressive playing. In music-oriented cities such as Memphis, Tennessee country and blues music producers such as Sam Phillips would combine this "hillbilly" music with the driving rhythm of rock and roll and rockabilly was born. In 1954, a young man named Elvis Presley would come into Phillips' studio with a request to record a disc for his mother. Recognizing talent in the shy young man, Phillips arranged to have Elvis record some ballads with professional musicians, but that date quickly turned into a jam session as Elvis sang the R&B songs he loved. Elvis' first release for Phillips' Sun Records, That's All Right Mama became the first rockabilly hit and established Elvis as the first true rock and roll star.

DooWop, Girl Groups, and Teen Idols

The British Invasion (1963-1967)

American Rock and roll had an impact across the globe, perhaps most intensely in Britain, where record collecting and trend-watching were in full bloom among the youth culture prior to the rock era, and where color barriers were less of an issue. Countless British youths listened to and were influenced by the R&B and rock and roll pioneers and began forming their own bands to play the new music with an intensity and drive seldom found in white American acts outside of Elvis. By the early 1960s, bands from England were dominating the rock and roll scene world wide, giving rock and roll a new focus. First re-recording standard American tunes, these bands then infused their original rock and roll compositions with an industrial-class sensibility. Although they were not the first British band to come to America, The Beatles spearheaded the Invasion, triumphing in the U.S. on their first visit in 1964 (including historic appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show). In the wake of Beatlemania other British bands headed to the U.S., notably The Rolling Stones, who disdained the Beatles' clean-cut image and presented a darker, more aggressive image, The Animals and The Yardbirds. Other British bands, including The Who and The Kinks, would have some success during this period but save their peak of popularity for the second wave of British invasion in the late 1960s.

1960s Garage Rock

The British Invasion spawned a wave of imitators in the U.S.A. and across the globe. Many of these bands were cruder than the bands they tried to emulate. Playing mainly to local audiences and recording cheaply, very few of these bands broke through to a higher level of success. This movement, later known as Garage Rock, gained a new audience when record labels started re-issuing compilations of the original singles; the best known of these is a series called Nuggets. Some of the better known band of this genre include The Sonics, Question Mark (?) and the Mysterians, and The Standells.

Surf Music and the California Sound

The rockabilly sound reached the West coast and mutated into a wild, mostly instrumental sound called surf music. This style, exemplified by Dick Dale and The Surfaris, featured faster tempos, innovative percussion, and processed electric guitar sounds which would be highly influential upon future rock guitarists. Other West coast bands, notably the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, would capitalize on the surf craze, slowing the tempos back down and adding harmony vocals to create the "California Sound".

Motown and the power of Soul

Psychedelia, Progressive Rock and Woodstock (1968-1974)

As part of the societal ferment in North America and Europe generally, rock and roll changed and diversivied in a number of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

  • As early as the mid-1960s, the image of rock and roll became less like previous musical forms. The Rolling Stones are credited with being the first band to dispense with band uniforms; band members simply wore whatever clothes they wished, and these clothes were often outlandish or controversial. Hair styles also became longer and less tamed. As trivial as these changes may sound today, this break from tradition was shocking to audiences used to clean-cut musical groups in matching suits.
  • The music took on a greater social awareness; it was not just about dancing and smooching anymore, but took on themes of social justice. The counter-culture that was emerging (partly as a reaction to the Vietnam War) adopted rock and roll as its defining feature, and the music began to be heavily influenced by the various drugs that the youth culture was experimenting with. In America, Psychedelic rock influenced and was influenced by the drug scene, and featured long, often improvised jams and wild electronic sounds. Jimi Hendrix, The Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead were leading practicioners of psychedelia. A more esoteric form of British psychedelia is exemplified by the Soft Machine, who accompanied Hendrix on his first U.S. tour.
  • The culmination of rock and roll as a socially-unifying force was seen in the rock festivals of the late '60s, the most famous of which was Woodstock which began as a three-day arts and music festival and turned into a "happening", as hundreds of thousands of youthful fans converged on the site.
  • The music itself broadened past the guitar-bass-drum format; while some bands had used saxophones and keyboards before, now acts like The Beach Boys and The Beatles (and others following their lead) experimented with new instruments including wind sections, string sections, and full orchestration. Many bands moved well beyond three-minute tunes with simple verse-chorus arrangements into highly experimental and diverse forms. Some critics differentiate this more sophisticated and matured form by referring to it simply as 'rock' (as opposed to rock and roll).
  • A second wave of British bands and artists gained great popularity during this period dominant; these bands typically were more directly steeped in American blues music than their more pop-oriented predecessors but their performances took a highly amplified, often spectacular form. Cream and Led Zeppelin were early practicioners of this heavy-blues form and were followed by heavier rock bands including Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. This style of rock would come to be known as heavy metal music.
  • Musicians with classical and formal music backgrounds, including Yes, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer began to play rock music, placing a greater emphasis on musicianship and composition, sometimes dispensing with the raw energy and power that characterized earlier manifestations of rock music. This genre became known as progressive rock, and at its most advanced and complex, was hardly recognizable as anything related to the early years of rock and roll. The first synthesizers appeared during this period, and were adopted by some progressive bands, notably Pink Floyd and ELP.

Dance Music: Disco and Its Relations

As the idealism of the 1960s waned, some music became danceable again. The "Theme from Shaft" by Isaac Hayes, released in 1971, heralded what became known as disco music. Disco music was producer-driven music that was popular in places such as Studio 54 and other discotheques of the period. By 1980, a disco backlash occurred as the fad died down.

Punk and New Wave: Return to Basics (1976-1981)

Punk rock started off as a reaction to the lush, producer-driven sounds of disco, and against the commercialism of most progressive rock. Early punk borrowed heavily from the garage band ethic: played by bands for which expert musicianship was not a requirement, punk was stripped-down, three-chord music that could be played easily. Many of these bands also intended to shock mainstream society, rejecting the "peace and love" image of the prior musical rebellion of the 1960s which had degenerated, punks thought, into mellow disco culture.

Punk rose to public awareness nearly simultaneously in Britain with the Sex Pistols and in America with the Ramones.

The Sex Pistols chose aggressive stage names (including "Johnny Rotten" and "Sid Vicious") and did their best to live up to them, deliberately rejecting anything that symbolized "hippies": long hair, soft music, loose clothing, and liberal politics, and displaying an anarchic, often confrontational, stage presence (well represented on their debut single "Anarchy in the UK". Their second single release, "God Save The Queen" was a scathing polemic against British traditions ane mores. Despite an airplay ban on the BBC the record rose to the top chart position in the UK. The Sex Pistols paved the way for The Clash, whose approach was less nihilistic but more overtly political and idealistic.

The Ramones (whose first album was actually released months before "God Save the Queen") exemplified the American side of punk: equally aggressive but mostly apolitical, more alienated, and not above (often illicit and self-destructive) fun for its own sake. The Ramones reigned as the kings of the New York punk scene, which also included Richard Hell and Television, and centered around rough-and tumble clubs, notably CBGB, a former bluegrass venue in Manhattan taken over by punks after the owner began booking punk bands on off nights. Punk was mostly an East-coast phenomenon in the US until the late 1970s when Los Angeles-based bands such as X and Black Flag broke through to wide recognition.

Punk rock attracted devotees from the art and collegiate world and soon bands sporting a more literate, arty approach, such as the Talking Heads and Devo began to infiltrate the punk scene; in some quarters the description New Wave began to be used to differentiate these less overtly punk bands.

If punk rock was a social and musical phenomenon, it garnered little in the way of record sales (small specialty labels such as Stiff Records had released much of the punk music to date) or American radio airplay, as the radio scene continued to be dominated by mainstream formats such as disco and Album-Oriented Rock. Record executives, who had been mostly mystified by the punk movement, recognized the potential of the more accessible New Wave acts and began aggressively signing and marketing any band that could claim a remote connection to Punk or New Wave. Many of these bands, such as The Cars and The Go-Gos were essentially pop bands dressed up in New Wave regalia; others, including The Police and The Pretenders managed to parlay the boost of the New Wave movement into long-lived and artistically lauded careers.

Punk and post-punk bands would continue to appear sporadically, but as a musical scene, punk had largely self-destructed and been subsumed into mainstream new-wave pop by the mid-1980s, but the influence of punk has been substantial. The Grunge-rock movement of the late 1980s owes much to punk, and many current mainstream bands claim punk rock as their stylistic heritage. Punk also bred other genres, including hardcore, industrial music, and goth.

Long Hair Still Rocks: Metal resurgence (1978-1988)

The early 1980s saw a resurgence of highly commercial, slickly-produced hard rock designed to go over in arenas and stadiums. Key acts from the '80s metal resurgence include:

Grunge and the anti-corporate rock movement (1988-1995)

Current (1995-present)

With the death of grunge-rock pioneer Kurt Cobain, rock and roll music searched for a new face, sound, and trend. In 1995, Canadian pop star Alanis Morissette released Jagged Little Pill, a major hit that featured blunt, personally-revealing lyrics, and spawning a wave of late 90s confessional female rock releases by artists including Jewel, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and Liz Phair.

The late 1990s brought about a wave of mergers and consolidations among media companies and radio stations such as the Clear Channel Communications conglomerate. Critics contend this has resulted in a homogenization of music available and the creation of artificially-hyped acts. In the early 2000s the entire music industry was shaken by claims of massive theft of music rights using file-sharing tools such as Napster, resulting in lawsuits against private file-sharers by the recording industry group the RIAA.

Social Impacts

From its beginnings, rock and roll has been associated with youth, rebellion, and anti-establishmentism. The combination of black influences, suggestive lyrics, and wild response by the younger set made rock and roll shocking and threatening to the older generation. The ability to shock the elders in turn became part of the appeal of the music to young people. Attempts to control the influence of rock often turned comical; after several previous television appearances became controversial, Elvis Presley was famously shown from the waist up (to avoid offending viewers with his suggestive hip swivels) on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956. Hollywood was quick to capitalize on the trend, turning out a series of rock-and-roll themed exploitation films designed to thrill teenagers and horrify adults.

As the original generations of rock and roll fans matured, rock music became an accepted and deeply-interwoven thread in popular culture. Beginning in the early 1970's, rock songs and acts began to be used regularly in television commercials; starting in the 1980s rock music was often featured in film and television program soundtracks. While mainstream rock music was no longer able to shock or offend, new forms of music, particularly Punk rock and Rap emerged to fill this role; people who as youths delighted in the effect rock and roll had on their parents found themselves railing in a similar fashion against their children's music.

Unclassifiable, non-commercial music forms have always played an important part in the evolution of rock music. An ever-expanding group of British musicians known collectively as the Canterbury Scene, largely because there is no other way to classify them, are an example of a relatively unknown, cultish trend in music that is very influential but flies below the cultural radar of all but the most adventurous music fans. A combination of jazz, psychedelia, Dada, John Cage, and other art and literary references, fused reluctantly into a 60s and 70s rock framework, is characterized by bands such as the early Soft Machine and Gong, who, in retrospect, can be said to have pioneered trends such as World Music and experimental music. Audiences for this type of cross-genre experimentation, both live and in recordings, are larger in Europe than the U.S., although in recent years, the popularization of Punk and Rap have opened traditionally mainstream minds to new forms of expression within the rock idiom.

Rock and Fashion

Rock music and fashion have also been inextricably linked. The tough, leather-clad image of early rockers such as Wayne Cochran in the U.S. and the Rolling Stones in the UK influenced a generation of young people on both sides of the ocean. A cultural war broke out in the late 1960s in the UK over the rivalry between the "Mods" (who favored high-fashion, expensive styles) and the "Rockers" (who wore T-shirts and leather); followers of each style had their favored musical acts, who eagerly fed into the conflict by releasing records praising one style and disparging another (the Mods versus Rockers controversy would form the backdrop for The Who's rock opera Quadrophenia). Rock musicians were early adopters of hippie fashion and introduced such styles as the Nehru jacket; bands such as the Beatles had custom-made clothing that influenced much of '60s style. As rock music genres became more segmented, what an artist wore became as important as the music itself in defining the intent and relationship to the audience. In the late 1970s, Disco acts helped bring flashy urban styles to the mainstream, while New Wave groups began wearing mock-conservative attire (including suit jackets and skinny ties) in an attempt to be as unlike mainstream rockers (who still favored blue jeans and hippie-influenced clothes) as possible.

The "Sell Out" dilemma

Rock musicians and fans have consistently struggled with the paradox of "selling out" -- to be considered "authentic", rock music must keep a certain distance from the establishment and its constructs; however certain compromises must be made in order to become successful and to make music available to the public. This dilemma has created friction between musicians and fans, with some bands going to great lengths to avoid the appearance of "selling out" (while still finding ways to make a lucrative living).

See also: