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Rock and Roll 101: The History of Rock and Roll

Pop Art of Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin

Pop art of Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin

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“It used to be called boogie-woogie, it used to be called blues, used to be called rhythm and blues … It’s called rock now.” –  Chuck Berry

Definition of Rock Music

Before we attempt to define rock music, perhaps we should first take a look at the term music. Music, essentially, is the organization of sequential and cyclical sounds, which ultimately triggers – directly, or as a side effect – corporeal and emotional cognition. In other words, music influences behaviors and emotions.

Unlike most other forms and genres of music, rock music developed from a more sociological foundation (which we will explore in subsequent paragraphs). Taken from a purely technical perspective, rock music is identified by its repetitive, loud, beat-driven, amorphous and atonal structure. It employs unresolved dissonance as a primary framework, using, more often than not, rhythmic musical instruments such as bass guitars and drums.

In addition, unlike traditional musical compositions with accents on the first and third beats, rock music places accents on the second and fourth beats, while concurrently playing multiple, intense, syncopated rhythms alongside each other, in polyrhythmic fashion. The emphasis on the second and fourth beat simulates, according to some, our natural sexual rhythms.

Rock and Roll Music History

The use of rhythmic, monotonous drumming of musical instruments as means to alter the human state of consciousness has been traced as far back as ancient Babylon, where it was used by priests to heighten the religious experience of devotees during their service.

This tradition subsequently spread to ancient Egypt, where, as archaeological evidence revealed, its usage was further refined upon, aided primarily by the use of drugs (the famed blue lotus flowers is a particular favorite of the era), to create mass hypnosis, sexual orgies, and even controlled violence during pagan-themed rituals.

This method of worship found its way to Duhomy (modern-day Congo), where it eventually developed into a quasi-religion that we now commonly refer to as voodoo. Centuries later, this ancient form of music was disseminated the world over, largely in part to the slave-trading industry, where New World explorers from Europe took millions of Africans to be sold as slaves in Europe and the Americas. It eventually found its way to the United States. New Orleans in particular, became a haven of sorts for this new brand of polyrhythmic music.

After a long incubation period, the music the slaves brought with them began to evolve and spread all over the region. New musical themes emerged, and just as many suffered from natural deaths with amazing regularity.  Nevertheless, a small number of innovative themes managed to survive the initial wave, and consolidate themselves in the minds of the local populace, which eventually lead to the creation of their own distinct genre in the realm of music. We, of course, refer to jazz, rhythm, and blues – the byproducts of the ancient drum-driven music of the Babylonian era.

With the arrival of these new musical genres, completely new social cultures grew alongside them. Style of clothing, dance moves, lingo, and musical arrangements – the evolution of rock was well underway and will soon reach its climax.

In 1951, Alan Freed, a gangly young Cleveland disc jockey at an independent music station, (WJW), in an effort to cultivate the appearance of hipness (no, being cool did not begin with MTV), used a slang word he heard a couple of times before – rock and roll – to describe the rhythm and blues track he was playing on air, “My Baby Rocks Me with a Steady Roll”. Little that he realized that his choice of the term rock and roll, a ghetto slang for casual sex, would cement his place in the annals of music history.

The term ‘rock and roll’ (sometimes written as rock & roll or rock ‘n’ roll) gained a following and soon after, record companies began to brand their artists under the new genre of rock and roll, and a few of these new acts attained a moderate level of success. However, Bill Haley and the Comets was the first to achieve nationwide success under the genre with hits like Rock Around the Clock and Shake, Rattle and Roll.

Rock and roll has arrived, and while Bill Haley and The Comets is undoubtedly the first mainstream rock and roll icon, they were in fact only laying the foundation for the coming of the King, and the birth of rock. A new dawn was about to arrive, and you can already hear the screams and wails of adolescents across the land.

Bill Haley and The Comets (1966). They are arguably the pioneers of modern rock and roll. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Bill Haley and The Comets (1966). They are arguably the pioneers of modern rock and roll. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Here Comes The Rock

From that moment onwards, the rock and roll industry grew rapidly and soon after, the genre began dominating the charts, contributing almost half of the songs in the Top 40 all over the United States. The market entered into a period of turbulence as new players began to overtake established record companies in terms of sales and sign-ups of new artists. A number of white pop stars’ careers went into terminal decline, although giants of the industry, such as Frank Sinatra, remained unaffected.

“[Rock and roll is] the most brutal, ugly desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.  [It is written and sung] for the most part by cretinous goons [and] by means of its imbecilic reiterations and sly – lewd – in fact plain dirty – lyrics … [It] manages to be the martial music for every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.” – Frank Sinatra

The wave of rock and roll from the American South relentlessly expanded across the nation. The social post-war economic boom, the baby boomers on the throes of adulthood, the simmering racial tension and the perceived moral hypocrisy of white America all played a part in the cultural, musical and moral explosion that was about the arrive.

Bill Haley and The Comets, Chuck Berry with his twists and Little Richard with his effervescent personality and boogie-woogie on the stage, as well as numerous other acts, laid the groundwork for rock and roll and cemented their niche in the industry. However, in 1956, the King arrived on the scene, and things will never be the same again.

The Return of the King: Elvis Presley

Elvis Aaron Presley was born to a working-class family in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935. Presley was a combination of slick-back hair, sideburns and a whole plethora of musical influences, ranging from country and gospel to rhythm and blues. After a commendable start to his career from his maiden 1955 single, “That’s All Right”/”Blue Moon of Kentucky”, the former truck driver was signed by one of the nations’ biggest recording company, RCA Victor, on the back of his unique sound and showmanship (no, Forrest Gump was not behind his distinctive dance moves).

What happened next was beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. By incorporating his new rock and roll sensibilities into his repertoire, Presley turned on the lights during a live performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958.

 

The amalgamation of his musical influences and his rockabilly moves elevated rock and roll from a trend into a certified global phenomenon. The devil-may-care attitude, the suggestive movements on stage and the ad-libbing of sweet nothings to audiences became instant national news.

He was labeled as an immoral and a symbol of the decaying values of the American youth, and a Negro-lover by parents and religious figures, which in hindsight, was probably a big mistake as it elevated Presley into the role of the ultimate rebel, which made him an instant icon and role model for the youth of America.

“Rock and roll is a means of pulling the white man down to the level of the Negro.  It is part of a plot to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation.” – Mississippi Circuit Judge Tom P. Brady, Secretary of the White Citizens Council, 1956

His fame swept across the nation and firmly entrenched himself as the most influential musician of his generation, and later, the century. More importantly, however, he brought an edginess and sensuality into his music, and in the process, he redefined his genre and pioneered the birth of modern rock and roll. The rest, as they say, is history.

“For some of us, it began late at night: huddled under bedroom covers with our ears glued to a radio pulling in black voices charged with intense emotion and propelled by a wildly kinetic rhythm through the after-midnight static.  Growing up in the white-bread America of the Fifties, we had never heard anything like it, but we reacted, or remember reacting, instantaneously and were converted.  We were believers before we knew what it was that had so spectacularly ripped the dull, familiar fabric of our lives.  We asked our friends, maybe an older brother or sister.  We found out that they called it rock & roll.  It was so much more vital and alive than any music we had ever heard before that it needed a new category: Rock & roll was much more than new music for us.  It was an obsession and a way of life.” – Robert Palmer

 

Song of the day: Bob Dylan – Like A Rolling Stone

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