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THE HISTORY OF ROCK MUSIC
- 20 May 21
We love rock ’n’ roll: well, it’s hard not to, with its sexy, totally exhilarating back story, and the way it continues to evolve and remain relevant.
Almost 80 years after it burst on to the scene in the United States, the jury’s still out on who actually invented it. The truth is, rock ’n’ roll is a mash-up of genres that aligned at the perfect time, just as people emerged from the trauma of the Second World War craving a complete break from the recent past, and with money to spend.
Join us on a journey through the different ages of rock ’n’roll and along the way, check out the great rock music in our catalogue on our Discover page.
The History of Rock ’n’ Roll
What is Rock Music?
A melding of such as rhythm and blues, jazz, boogie-woogie, blues, gospel and rockabilly, coupled with raunchy lyrics and punchy performance styles, rock ’n’roll is a truly American genre with a rich and complex history, marked by musical experimentation and an anti-establishment attitude.
Rock ’n’ Roll: The Early Years
During the late 1940s to early 1950s elements of the major genres of the time aligned – sparked largely by black musicians – to include raunchier lyrics and performance styles. The term rock ’n’ roll supposedly derived from an African-American slang for sex, and the musical term stuck.
Rock ’n’ roll catered, first and foremost, to teenagers. It came to the fore in a combination of postwar permissiveness and new spending power, especially among white suburban youngsters – it’s no coincidence that the word ‘teenager’ also came into popular use around this time. Rock ’n’roll’s immortal alignment with sex and drugs were all part of this heady mix.
The influential Cleveland-based DJ Alan Freed became an evangelist for rock ’n’roll, and along with DJs in Memphis and Nashville, played a huge role in popularising the genre. Suburban American teens had never heard anything like it, and with its raw energy and sexualised lyrics, it was soon being blamed for the erosion of traditional values. Naturally, it spread like wildfire and by the end of the 1950s, anyone who was anyone was listening to it.
Artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino made undeniably contagious music that was perfect for dancing, with its stomping 4/4 beats and simple, memorable chord structures. And Elvis Presley, who was deeply influenced by black music and became an early musical sex symbol, was immortalised as ‘the King of Rock ‘n’Roll.’
During the 1960s, rock ’n’ roll split into two disparate genres: pop and rock music. Pop was the bubbly offshoot designed for mass appeal, while rock retained more of the gritty essence of the original.
Over in the UK, skiffle bands (a unique subculture with a DIY ethos, inspired by American folk, jazz and blues) had been looking enviously across the pond for years. New bands such as The Beatles were formed in Liverpool while The Rolling Stones, heavily influenced by blues and R&B, emerged in London.
During the Swinging Sixties and the Summer of Love, rock music took cues from the hallucinogenic drug scene. The Beatles released their trippy Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while Pink Floyd dropped their ultra-experimental studio album, Ummagumma.
The end of the decade also marked a major coming-of-age for the genre when Jimi Hendrix, a former soldier, created one of the defining cultural moments of the decade with an incendiary performance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in protest against the Vietnam War.
By the 1970s even more rock subgenres split from its original roots: soft rock, heavy metal, hard rock and more. The psychedelic, trippy sounds of the early 60s gave way to darker, heavier sounds with the holy trinity of British bands, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Once they too went mainstream, rebellious subcultures began to pop up on a global scale.
Glam rock also developed in the UK in the early 70s, marked by outré clothes, makeup and hairstyles, and artists such as the ever-inventive David Bowie and other ‘arty’ offshoots such as Roxy Music.
Queen released their game-changing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in 1975, with an ultra-experimental music video that kick-started the MTV age.
By the mid-1970s, punk picked up the DIY ethic where the skiffle bands had left off, inspired by the widely misquoted mantra that ‘if you can play three chords, you can form a band.’ The Sex Pistols brought punk to the masses by swearing on the BBC – remember, this was back when hearing the word ‘f**k’ on TV was enough to prompt questions in Parliament. Other notable UK punk bands were The Clash, The Slits and The Damned. In the states The Ramones, The Stoodges (whose lead singer, Iggy Pop, was dubbed the ‘Godfather of Punk’) led the charge, while Patti Smith fused punk rock with poetry.
Interested in punk? Why not check out our punk production music playlist.
In the 1980s, rock music became increasingly commercialised. Stadium Rock, spearheaded in the previous decade by the likes of Led Zeppelin, set the tone with driving drums, screaming guitar solos and testosterone-fuelled lyrics. The iconic hard rock band Guns N’ Roses released Appetite For Destruction, which became the best-selling debut album of all time.
Bands such as The Police and Blondie absorbed even more influences, such as reggae, avantgarde, and hip hop into the rock ’n’ roll sound.
As hard, pop and classic rock charted, heavy metal and alternative rock splintered off, with metal and alternative musicians such as Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica also finding mainstream success by the end of the decade.
Grunge, which emerged at the start of the 90s in Seattle, was a guitar-led, feedback-heavy hybrid of heavy metal, hard rock and alternative rock. Bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and The Smashing Pumpkins produced heartfelt, angst-ridden songs with choruses that demanded to be chanted – loudly.
Grunge made a major musical impact in the UK, and although there were notably no home-grown bands, the grunge look heavily influenced British fashion, and the ‘waif’ look swiftly shot a teenage Kate Moss to global superstardom.
In Britain, by the mid-90s, a brighter, more pop-driven answer to the US grunge scene and UK ‘shoegazer’ bands crossed over in a fusion genre dubbed Britpop. Bands such as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede and Elastica created the sound of ‘Cool Britannia’ that resonated with fans around the world.
Since the 90s, things have splintered even further, with fans embracing pop-rock (Blink 182 and Fall Out Boy), garage rock (The Killers and Franz Ferdinand), emo rock (Paramore and My Chemical Romance). At the same time there’s been a strong nostalgic throwback to classic rock.
Rock Music for Creative Projects
Now that you’re familiar with rock music’s history, we hope you’re inspired to incorporate rock music into your next creative project. Whether you’re working on a vlog, podcast, film, TV show or advertisement, we’ve got a high-quality rock background music track for you, so take a look at our rock playlist.
Types of Rock Music
Soft Rock/Light Rock
Soft rock (also known as light rock) has positive, empowering and heartfelt lyrics, smooth structures and harmonious vocals. Soft rock songs (which are often power ballads) are ideal for daytime radio shows, as they have an easy listening, mass appeal.
Hard rock features aggressive, disruptive vocals with heavy drums and strings. It's the kind of music that fans in skull T-shirts and bandanas have a penchant for: think AC/DC, Aerosmith and Van Halen.
Metal rock dials hard rock up another notch. It’s always loud and features harsh-sounding vocals and distorted rhythms. Lyrically, it tends to focus on melancholy, disconsolate narratives.
As we mentioned earlier, rock ‘n’ roll was largely inspired by R&B. The blues rock subgenre of the mid-60s is therefore deeply connected to the genre’s origin, with distinctive sounds that may come from anything from a vocalist to a blues instrument like a piano or harmonica.
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