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|Written by Christine Seabrook|
|Tuesday, 30 March 2010 00:00|
It is almost impossible to say exactly who was responsible for the era of rock 'n' roll. Was it Johnny Cash, when he incorporated his country, folk, gospel, and blues roots and extended them to the more fast-paced sound that would soon be considered rock 'n' roll? Was it Elvis Presley, whose provocative, high energy shows created the badass, greaser attitude of early rock 'n' roll? Was it the early iconic musicians like Busoni and Varese that first used technology and synthetic sounds in the electronic music era? Though their music sounds nothing like anything now known as rock 'n' roll, they were the individuals who first put electronic sounds to use in terms of the art of music and gave it a great deal of notoriety. (A great example of this is Edgard Varèse's "Poème électronique," which was created to showcase the design of the Phillip's Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels' World's Fair in Belgium. It is literally impossible to describe the composition in words; for those who are unfamiliar with it, listening to a clip of it is definitely a musical experience. Keep in mind when listening to it the year in which it was created and that as the visitors walked through the building, the music was accompanied by lights changing colours and projected black and white photos that were said to accent the song). Or did the creation of the electric guitar spark the era of rock 'n' roll?
Binding a musical genre with steadfast terms is a difficult process -- bound by nothing ironclad, no real rules or guidelines, determining the criteria for a musical style and the purity of each song is a difficult process. For the purposes of this article, the evolution of rock will be delineated by the major icons of rock 'n' roll, beginning with Elvis, and carrying through to today, where the hottest "rock" band on Billboard Top 100 is Three Days Grace (?). Maybe while writing this, I can figure out who killed rock, too.
Let's start with the 1950s when it all began. Local malt-shops are filled young, puppy lovers: girls in poodle skirts with their hair in a perfect ponytail, boys are in khaki pants with their Brylceem-ed hair and preppy shirts. Someone steps over to the jukebox, and, of course, Elvis is their number one pick. Born Elvis Aaron Presley in January of 1935, he would become one of the largest musical icons to have ever lived . . . or still live?
His debut single "Heartbreak Hotel" is still a household song, along with many of his others such as "Hound Dog," "Don't be cruel," "Jailhouse Rock," "It's now or never," and at least a dozen others. He was able to release chart topping hits nearly up until he overdosed in August of 1977. Hailed as the King of Rock 'n' Roll, his hair style, dance moves, and hometown were all part of Elvis-mania.
Other major rock influences to come out of the 1950s include Buddy Holly, best known for his thick-framed glasses. Holly is said to have been influenced by Elvis and went on to influence many artists over the following two decades. Performing in one of the first influential bands to ever exist in the rock 'n' roll world, as one of The Crickets, Holly released such hits as "That'll be the Day" and "Peggy Sue." Unfortunately, two years after their debut and release, Holly died in a plane crash at the age of 22, ending the band's potential. Two other big names of the era include Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, whose wild antics created controversy (including Lewis marrying his 13 year-old cousin . . . can we say taboo?) but who without a doubt had a huge impact on rock music today because they so ingeniously incorporated country, folk, and rock together and have left their legendary mark on music with country/pop crossover hits like "I Walk the Line" (Cash) and "Great Balls of Fire" (Lewis).
Taking it to the 1960s, where go-go boots, beehives, and Woodstock reigned supreme. The vinyl on the record player by the rock music fan could have come from a wide range of possibilities as the 60s were the beginning of the giant rock explosion that gave rise to many of the most influential classic rock artists to ever live. The most influential artists of this decade were easily The Beatles. The band, consisting of its four well-known members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison, began in Liverpool in the early 1960s, and for the better part of the decade spent their time releasing the most original songs the world have ever been privileged to hear. I don't think there are many people in the world incapable of naming at least one of their naming popular songs. They began their career with some catchy, simple tunes with similar styles to the songs of the 50s, but as their fame progressed and expanded, so did their musical style . . . whether or not this had to do with their minds expanding, I'm not sure. But with the creation of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, the most eye-opening and original long play song compilation hit the world. With the creative use of synthetic and orchestra sound as seen in "A Day In the Life," the Beatles definitely had no fear in showing the world the diversity of their talent. Maybe they found their fearless attitude in the big bands of the day that they were influencing and being influenced by: Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Rolling Stones, Credence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, and dozens more.
There wasn't as much of a rock transition from the 60s to the 70s, as many of the big bands were still going strong, but there was instead a bit more genre-collaboration, with Rod Stewart, David Bowie, and Elton John creating some of the earliest pop-rock songs, the earliest sounds of metal-rock coming from Black Sabbath, and hard rock coming out of Australia in the form of AC/DC.
The tape decks of the 80s would be blast another key part of rock 'n' roll history. From biker-themed to hair bands to glam rock to extreme pop rock . . . the rock 'n' roll of the 80s is easy to pin-point for the most part -- the common factor is excess. Don't get me wrong, I love the music of the 80s. With the diversity in the big names like Twisted Sister, Scorpions, Billy Idol, Guns N' Roses, and Bon Jovi, there was always some sort of rock to be listened to. Whether you enjoyed the more raw sounds of AC/DC, the extreme sounds of Billy Idol or Scorpions, or still carried on with the pop-rock and metal, it was here that rock 'n' roll definitely took on a plurality of identities.
The diversity of 80s rock would feed into the alternate genre that marked the 90s. Fuelled, many would say, by the new rugged sounds of Nirvana, the classic rock that many were accustomed to would never really be the same. It would take on a new face forever. Said to be a collaboration of classic rock meets the pop rock music of the 80s, the New York Times came up with the best definition: "it's guitar music first of all, with guitars that blast out power chords, pick out chiming riffs, buzz with fuzztone and squeal in feedback."
Nirvana first formed in 1987 and peaked in the early nineties. With such songs as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Come As You Are," and "Lithium," their grunge sound was something new to society, who had grown tired of big hair and pleather pants. Their time atop the charts was short-lasted as a result of lead singer Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994, but their influence continues to be felt. Many other alternative rock bands helped to fuel the movement as well, including Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.
The alternative rock era lives on today in some ways, depending on where you draw the line between pop-rock and alternative. Personally, I don't listen to enough popular rock music to even begin trying to distinguishing anything anymore. But I do know that some entrepreneurs that have tried.
The history of music is as complex as evolution itself. It is often impossible to decipher who began a certain movement or pop culture phenomena, who the key influencers were influenced by, where their style came from. An entire network of artists and their influences would need to be created in a giant web like an artistic genome project. Pandora's Music Genome Project is one such project that I was more familiar a few years ago, when access was given to residents outside the US. Now Canadian access to the website is restricted. The basic format of the site would be to key in an artist or name of a song, and Pandora would generate a list of songs or artists that were similar based on elements like melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, or lyrics instead of genres and cover appeal.
Pandora is just one method of mapping music using the precise criteria developed by the network's creators but does not encapsulate the entire story of musical evolution. Evolution in Darwinian terms refers to the differentiation of the various parts of an organism. If evolution is an on-going process, then musical fans around the world should have much more to look forward to in the future, perhaps with the birth of a new genre of music or the re-birth of a classic favourite.
Tags: alternative, buddy holly, elvis, evolution, genre, grunge, jerry lee lewis, johnny cash, music, music genome, nirvana, pandora, rock, the beatles