History of Rock Music

Chuck Berry invented rock and roll in 1955. Berry was a black man playing black music. But times had changed: white kids were listening to rhythm and blues throughout the Northeast, and white musicians were playing rhythm and blues side to side with country music. The music industry soon understood that there was a white market for black music and social prejudice, racial barriers, could nothing against the forces of capitalism. Rock and roll was an overnight success. The music industry promoted white idols such as Elvis Presley, but the real heroes were the likes of Chuck Berry, who better symbolize the synergy between the performer and the audience.

The black rockers, and a few white rockers, epitomized the youth's rebellious mood, their need for a soundtrack to their dreams of anticonformism. Their impact was long lasting, but their careers were short lived. For one reason or another, they all stopped recording after a brief time. Rock and roll was inherited by white singers, such as Presley, who often performed songs composed by obscure black musicians. White rockers became gentler and gentler, thereby drowning rock and roll's very reason to exist. Buddy Holly was the foremost white rocker of the late Fifties, while cross-pollination with country music led to the vocal harmonies of the Everly Brothers and to the instrumental rock of Duan Eddy.

The kids' malaise returned, with a much taller wave, when folksingers started singing about the problems of the system. Kids who had not identified with Woody Guthrie's stories of poor people, identified immediately with folksingers singing about the Vietnam war and civil rights. Bob Dylan was arguably the most influential musician of the era. He led the charge against the Establishment with simple songs and poetic lyrics. A generation believed in him and followed his dreams. Music became the expression of youth's ambitions.

At the same time, the story of commercial rock music took a bizarre turn when it hit the coast of California: the Beach Boys invented surf music. Surf music was just rock and roll music, but with a spin: very sophisticated vocal harmonies. California had its own ideas about what rock and roll should be: a music for having fun at the beaches and at the parties. The Beach Boys' vocal harmonies, a natural bridge between rockers and doo-wop, turned out to be a fantastic delivery vehicle for the melodic aspect of rock and roll, that black musicians usually buried in their emphatic shouting.

The times were ripe for change, but a catalyst was still needed. "Mersey-beat" changed the story of rock music forever. Mersey-beat came out of nowhere, but it came with the power of history. Britain had had a lousy music scene throughout the early Sixties. Mainly, British rockers were mimicking Presley. Mainstream Britain did not identify with rock and roll, was not amused by their "rebel" attitudes, did not enjoy their frenzy rhythm. To a large extent, though, the seeds had already been planted. Britain had an underground before America did: the blues clubs. Throughout the Fifties, blues clubs flourished all over England. London was the epicenter, but every major English city had its own doses of weekly blues. Unlike their rock counterparts, who were mere imitators, the British blues musicians were true innovators: in their hands, blues became something else. They subjected blues to a metamorphosis that turned it into a "white" music: they emphasized the epic refrains of the call and response, they sped up Chicago's rhythm guitars, they smoothed down the vocal delivery to make it sound more operatic, they flexed the choruses, enhanced the organ arrangements, added vocal harmony. In a few years, British blues musicians were playing something that was as deeply felt as the American blues, but had a driving power that no other music on Earth had.

In the early Sixties veterans of that scene, or disciples of that scene, led to the formation of bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Animals. The Rolling Stones became "the" sensation in London and went on to record the most successful singles of the era. The Yardbirds were the most experimental of them all, and became the training ground for three of the greatest guitarists ever: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Page. From their ashes two blues bands were born, the Cream and the Led Zeppelin, that in a few years will revolutionize rock music again.

Liverpool did not have a great underground scene but had a more commercial brand of rock bands. The producer George Martin was instrumental in creating the whole phenomenon, with both Gerry And The Pacemakers and the Beatles, the band that went on to achieve world-wide success. The smiling faces of the Liverpool kids were in stark contrast with the underground club's angry blues animals. But the two complemented each other. "Beatlemania" stole the momentum from the blues scene and understood how to turn that music into a mass-media attraction. Rock music as a major business was born.

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