Chuck Berry invented rock and roll in 1955. He 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
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 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, first with Gerry And The Pacemakers and then with 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.
The most influential bands of the second generation were the Kinks and the Who. Both went on to record concept albums and "rock operas" that paraphrased the British operetta at the sound of rock music. While Kinks were still proponents of melodic rock, the Who's manically amplified guitars were already pointing towards a noisier and less gentle future.
Cream and Led Zeppelin upped the ante when they started playing very loud blues. Cream's lengthy solos and Led Zeppelin's fast riffs created the epitome of "hard rock".
The impact of British electricity on the American scene was equivalent to an earthquake. Kids embraced electric guitars in every garage of the United States and started playing blues music with a vengeance.
On the East Coast it was Dylan again who led the charge. His first electric performances were met with disappointment by his fans, but soon "folk-rock" boomed with the hits of the Byrds and Simon And Garfunkel.
The psychedelic movement that had been growing across the country somehow merged with the wave of electric rockers and the protest movement. They became one both in New York and in San Francisco. The Velvet Underground and the Fugs turned rock and roll into an intellectual operation.
On the West Coast both San Francisco and Los Angeles reacted to the boom of rock and roll in typically eccentric manners. San Francisco, that was becoming the mecca of the hippies, begat "acid-rock", and Los Angeles, whose milieu had produced countless literary and cinematic misfits, begat Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, two of the most influential musicians of the century. Zappa and Beefheart recorded some of the most experimental records ever and turned rock and roll into a major, serious art. San Francisco's bands, led by the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, endorsed complex harmony and improvised jams, thereby moving rock music towards the intellectual excesses of jazz music.
Psychedelic rock was spreading across the country, and spilling over into Britain. Soon America produced the Doors and England produced the Pink Floyd, two bands whose influence will be gigantic. Texas psychedelia went unnoticed, but bands like Red Crayola were far ahead of their time. Detroit was also left out of the main loop, but nonetheless the MC5 and the Stooges helped move rock music one notch up the ladder of noise.
The boom of rock music in the United States helped resurrect the blues. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin became stars, while countless white blues musicians flooded the clubs of Chicago and San Francisco. The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival reached new peaks in the revisitation of traditional white and black music. In the south this revival movement will lead to the boom of "southern rock" and the likes of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Country music was still a Nashville monopoly, but several artists were merging it with eastern meditation, jazz improvisation and rock's freedom. Sandy Bull, Robbie Basho and John Fahey were playing long instrumental tracks that easily rank with the most ambitious pieces of the avantgarde.
In the meantime, black music was going through a metamorphosis of its own. Soul music turned into a form of party music with Tamla Motown's acts such as the Supremes, and rhythm and blues mutated in a feverish genre called "funk" for obscene performers such as James Brown.
In Britain, rock music took more of a European feel with the underground movement that was born out of psychedelic clubs. Canterbury became the center of the most experimental school of rock music. The Soft Machine were the most important band of the period, lending rock music a jazz flavor that would inspire "progressive-rock". Among the eccentric and creative musicians that grew up in the Soft Machine were Robert Wyatt, David Aellen, and Kevin Ayers. Their legacy can be seen in later Canterbury bands such as Henry Cow, no less creative and improvisational.
Progressive-rock took away rock's energy and replaced it with a brain. Traffic, Jethro Tull, Family and later Roxy Music developed a brand of soul-rock that had little in common with soul or rock and roll: long, convoluted jams, jazz accents, and baroque arrangements derailed the song format. King Crimson, Colosseum, Van Der Graaf Generator, early Genesis, Yes and started playing even more complex, theatrical and hermetic pieces. Arrangements became more and more complex, insturmentalists become more and more skilled. Electronic instruments were employed frequently. Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Third Ear Band and Hawkwind created genres that at the time had no name (decadent cabaret, world-music and psychedelic hard rock).
The paradigm soon spilled into continental Europe, that gave its first major rock acts: Magma, Art Zoyd, Univers Zero.
Even Britain's folksingers sounded more like French intellectuals than oldfashioned storytellers. The folk revival of the Sixties was mainly the creation of a fistful of three collectives: the Pentangle, the Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. But around them singer songwriters like Donovan, Cat Stevens, Nick Drake , John Martyn, Syd Barrett and Van Morrison established new standards for musical expression of intimate themes.
The deaths of the Doors' Jim Morrison, of Janis Joplin, of Jimi Hendrix and
countless others, sort of cooled down the booming phenomenon.
After the excesses of the mid Sixties, a more peaceful way to rock nirvana
had already been proposed by Bob Dylan and others when they rediscovered
country music. And "country-rock" became one of the fads of the Seventies,
yielding successful bands such as the
Reggae became a mainstream genre thanks to Bob Marley. Funk became even more
absurd and experimental with George Clinton's bands.
Hard rock begat heavy metal, that soon became a genre of its own
(Blue Oyster Cult, Kiss, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Rush, Journey, Van Halen).
The Seventies were mostly a quiet age, devoid of the nevrastenic battage of
At the turn of the decade, the main musical phenomenon was the emergence of a new generation of singer songwriters that were the direct consequence of the previous generation's intellectual ambitions. Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley, Nico, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Tom Waits, and the most famous of all, Bruce Springsteen, established a musical persona that unites the classical composer and the folksinger.
In Britain, the musical decadence led to decadence-rock, personified by dandies David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Eccentric remnants of progressive-rock such as Robert Fripp and Peter Gabriel started avantgarde careers that led to an expanded notion of rock music. New musicians such as Kate Bush and Mike Oldfield helped liberate rock music from the classification in genres and opened the road to more abstract music. But the single most influential musician was Brian Eno, who first led Roxy Music to innovate progressive-rock and then invented ambient music.
Largely neglected at the time, German rock (often referred to as "kosmische musik") was probably twenty years ahead of British rock. Kraftwerk, Amon Duul, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Faust, Neu Can made some of the most important albums of the era. They laid the foundations for popular electronic music, for modern instrumental rock, even for new age music and for disco-music.
THe Seventies were largely a decade of consolidation, rather than innovation, but two phenomena erupted that would have a strong impact: disco-music and punk-rock. Disco-music was the first genre to use electronic instruments for commercial, mass-scale music. The beat of dance music would never be the same again. Orchestral arrangements became as ordinary as a guitar solo. Punk-rock had an even greater impact, because it came with the emancipation of the record industry from the "majors". Thousands of independent record labels promoted underground artists and soon the music scene was dramatically split between mainstream rock (descendant of Presley and Beatles) and alternative rock (descendant of Zappa and Grateful Dead). Punk-rock per se was fast, loud rock and roll music, but it quickly became a moniker for all angry music of the time.
From the ashes of decadent acts such as the New York Dolls, the Ramones made punk-rock more than a sound, they made it a religion.
The Sex Pistols led the prolific British school of punk-rock. Punks were not necessarily angry, anarchic and suicidal: the Clash and the Fall were punks with a brain.
New York punks were as intellectual as the folksingers of twenty years before. Patti Smith, Television, Suicide and Feelies were the main acts of the "new wave". The new wave was truly a new wave of creativity, that harked back to the mid Sixties, when bands were competing to innovate. The Pere Ubu and Devo in Ohio, and the Residents and the Chrome in San Francisco led the way for hundreds of bands that went beyond the song format and offered music as bizarre and revolutionary as Zappa's and Beefheart's. Tom Petty, in California, was one of the few musicians of that generation to remain untouched by the experimental frenzy.
Blondie, Talking Heads and Madonna took the idea to the discos of New York. The Fleshtones and the Cramps led the myriads of bands the rediscovered the Fifties and the Sixties, in the wake of the "american graffiti" movement.
The number of solitary geniuses grew exponentially and counted on eccentric figures such as Zoogz Rift in Los Angeles, renaissance men such as Bill Laswell in Boston and demented industrial composers such as Jim Foetus in New York (via Australia).
Rock and roll was born again. Just like in the mid Sixties, each year yielded scores of brilliant musicians that were rewriting the canon of rock music. In Britain first came industrial music, invented by Throbbing Gristle as a hybrid of avantgarde and rock music, and then dark-punk, whose main proponents were Joy Division, Siouxsie Sioux, Public Image Ltd, the Cure, the Killing Joke, the Sisters of Mercy. The Pop Group was the most innovative combo of the time, and spawned the careers of Rip Rig and Panic and Mark Stewart, predating the fusion of soul, jazz and hip hop.
In the United States the new wave was replaced by the "no wave" of
the Sonic Youth, the Swans,
while punk-rock evolved into "hardcore" and myriads of bands terrorized
New York (Misfits),
Boston (Mission Of Burma, Lemonheads),
and above all Washington (Bad Brains, Pussy Galore, Fugazi).
The West Coast had its share of hardcore violence, but somehow
Los Angeles (Black Flag, X)
and San Francisco (Dead Kennedys, Flipper,
Camper Van Beethoven) managed to remain more experimental.
So much so that Los Angeles saw the emergence of a generation of bands
with roots in the "beach-punk" scene but whose sound was far more complex
(Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Universal Congress,
fIREHOSE ), a school that culminated in the solo career of
Henry Rollins .
Australia boasted one of the most intense scenes, from the early days of
the Saints and Radio Birdman to the later days of the Lubricated Goat.
The whole national scene benefited from the emergence of independent music recording. Los Angeles nurtured the Paisley Underground and the cow-punk scene: the Dream Syndicate and the Gun Club emerged from that creative revival. All sorts of neo-rock bands roamed New York, notably the Band Of Susans. Boston gave two of the most influential acts, Dinosaur Jr and the Pixies, that de facto invented "grunge" rock. The southeast became one of the cradles of a melodic genre that mixed folk-rock and pop (B52's, REM). Seattle saw the revival of hard-rock and the boom of grunge (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam). Chicago witnessed the birth of Steve Albini's evil genius with the Big Black. Minneapolis was the real catalyst: the Husker Du and the Replacements, and later the Soul Asylum, changed the whole notion of punk-rock and created the premises for a return to the rock song format with a new impetus. Kentucky was another surprising center of action: the Squirrel Bait started a dynasty of convoluted mainly instrumental punk-rock that would continue with the Slint and the Tortoise.
Psychedelia in the age of punks begat the Butthole Surfers in Texas, the Flaming Lips in Oklahoma, the Phish in New England and a whole legion of gurus in New York: Mark Kramer, Dogbowl, Jarboe, Lida Husik, Azalia Snail. And Mercury Rev, the whole band demented enough to compete with the Flaming Lips.
Roots-rock lived on the side, propelled by the occasional success of the Black Crowes, by the distinguished career of the Del-Lords and by the phenomenal energy of lesser known bands such as the Fetchin Bones.
Australia's rock school expanded dramatically and entered the charts, while preserving artistic merit with bands such as the Church.
Most of the impulse for what was happening actually came from tiny and far New Zealand, that had nurtured an independent scene since the days of the Tall Dwarfs, the Clean and the Chills, a school that would peak with Roy Montgomery's ambitious works.
In the meantime another street phenomenon of the ghettos, hip hop, revolutionized the music scene and bands such as Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy crossed over to the rock audience. Producers such as Tackhead were instrumental in redefining the concept of "composition".
Britain followed a different course, almost in the opposite direction, towards simpler and more commercial music. It all started with the modernist sounds of Ultravox, Wire and XTC, and their vaguely robotic melodies. Then Japan and Simple Minds turned that sound into pompous pop songs. And finally Orchestral Manouvres in the Dark and others created synth-pop, that typically was pop played on electronic instruments and sung by a female or gay singer (with a few notable exceptions). The Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys were probably the most artistically successful of the many that climbed the charts. The Irish U2 and the Smiths turned sharply towards melody.
The Nineties continued to see the expansion of alternative rock, both
artistically and commercially. The general trend of the era was towards more
and more abstract music, music that has lost its original label of dance/party
First and foremost, the Nineties were the decade of singer songwriters who play ever more abstract compositions: female composers such as Tori Amos, Lisa Germano and Juliana Hatfield, male composers such as Matthew Sweet, Magnetic Field, Smog, Beck . From Australia, Nick Cave taught everybody else, bridging the generation of Tom Waits. Canada had Jane Siberry and Loreena McKennitt. Ireland had two of the most unique voices, Sinead O'Connor and Enya, soon joined by Iceland's Bjork. In England, only Polly Jean Harvey ranked with these masters.
"Foxcore" was a brief fad propelled by West Coast all-girl punk bands such as Hole, Babes In Toyland, L7 and Seven Year Bitch.
Industrial music staged a dramatic comeback in Chicago with two of the most visible acts of the decade: Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. New York followed suit with Cop Shoot Cop and Type O Negative, San Francisco with Neurosis, Steel Pole Bath Tub, Thinking Fellers Union. Texas with a florid industrial/psychedelic school that included the Pain Teens and the Vas Deferens Organization.
Gothic rock came from the sun belt (Lycia, Black Tape For A Blue Girl) and was never as popular as the northern variant of industrial music.
Hard sounds still ruled in the aftermath of grunge, and New York (Unsane, Helmet, Surgery, Monster Magnet) and Los Angeles (Tool, Stone Temple Pilots, Kyuss, Korn) had their share of the pie.
Techno was the new trend in dance music. Invented in the Eighties in Detroit by the triad of disc jockeys Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, techno crossed the Atlantic and established itself in England and in the continent (Front 242), marching hand in hand with the rave scene. America was left behind (Moby and not much else).
Britain was the place for psychedelic music. It started with the Liverpool revival of Echo And The Bunnymen and Julian Cope, then it picked up speed with dream-pop (Cocteau Twins, the Australian Dead Can Dance, the Norwegian Bel Canto, and later Slowdive, Bark Psychosis, Tindersticks) and with the Scottish noise-pop bands (Jesus And Mary Chain and Primal Scream) and finally reached a climax with the shoegazers (My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen 3, Loop, Spiritualized, Catherine Wheel), before folding into a new form of ambient music.
By the end of the decade, Britain was awash in Brit-pop, a media-induced trance of super-melodic pop that spawned countless "next big things", from Verve to Oasis to Blur to Suede to Radiohead.
The nineties were also the decade of heavy metal (that peaked in Los Angeles with Metallica, Jane's Addiction, Guns And Roses) which soon split into a myriad subgenres (doom metal, grind-core, death metal, etc) and funk-metal (Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against The Machine in Los Angeles, Primus and Faith No More in San Francisco). Marilyn Manson was the late phenomenon that recharged the genre.
Punk-pop was born in Los Angeles in the Eighties, but somehow peaked in the Nineties elsewhere (Green Day in San Francisco, Screeching Weasel and Pegboy in Chicago).
The Nineties were the decade of intellectual rock, when no song could be just a melody and a rhythm but had to be all twisted and deranged. New York leaned towards rhythm and blues (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Soul Coughing, Royal Trux) and psychedelia (Yo La Tengo ), Boston towards psychedelia (Galaxie 500, Morphine) and pop (Sebadoh, Breeders, Belly), Seattle towards psychedelia (Sky Cries Mary, Built To Spill), Los Angeles towards psychedelia (Mazzy Star, Red Temple Spirits, Medicine, Grant Lee Buffalo), San Francisco towards folk and country (American Music Club, Pavement, Red House Painters), Washington towards punk-rock (Unrest, Girls Against Boys), Chicago towards punk-rock (Jesus Lizard) psychedelia (Codeine, Eleventh Dream Day), pop (Green, Smashing Pumpkins) and country (Uncle Tupelo).
Remnants of punk-rock in Texas (Ed Hall), Minneapolis (Cows), Tennessee (Today Is The Day) kept sending shock-waves around the nation.
The Southeastern states came up strong with more and more intelligent sounds (Bitch Magnet, Blind Idiot God, Don Caballero, Grifters) that eventually peaked in the North Carolina school (Polvo, Seam).
Analog synthesizers staged a comeback with Jessamine, Magnog, Labradford.
But new styles kept coming literally from everywhere: Rhode Island (Six Finger Satellite), Arizona ( Calexico), Ohio ( Brainiac), Montana (Silkworm), Michigan (Windy & Carl).
England kept mutating its variant of psychedelia, that now began bordering on dissonant avantgarde (Stereolab, Ozric Tentacles, Pram, Flying Saucer Attack, Porcupine Tree).
The Nineties were the age of electronic music, whether in dance, ambient or noise format. Electronic musicians and ensembles spread to Belgium (Vidna Obmana), France (Air, Deep Forest, Lightwave), Germany (Sven Vath, Mo Boma, Mouse On Mars, Air Liquide), Canada (Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly, Delerium, Vampire Rodents, Trance Mission), Scandinavia, and especially Japan (Zeni Geva, Boredoms, Merzbow, the triad of noise). Britain's revitalized ambient scene yielded Orb, Main, Rapoon, Autechre.
Britain's dance music was far more successful (creatively speaking) than its rock bands: Madchester (Stone Roses), rave (Saint Etienne), transglobal dance (Banco De Gaia, Loop Guru, Transglobal Underground, TUU) ambient house (Orbital, Future Sound Of London, Aphex Twins, Mu-ziq), jungle (Goldie, Squarepusher, Propellerheads), trip-hop (Portishead, Tricky), and plain techno (Meat Beat Manifesto, Prodigy, Chemical Brothers) artists redefined compositional processes and cross-bred countless genres.
Industrial music and grindcore somehow merged and spawned terrifying sounds in the albums of Techno Animal and Godflesh.
The Irish Cranberries and the Scottish Belle And Sebastian are among the revelations of the end of the decade.
Australia still boasts impressive ensembles, and in particular one of the most important instrumental bands, Dirty 3.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.