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Rock & Alt Rock Music History (With 19 Music Videos!)

Updated on February 5, 2021

The 1960's meant the Beatles ...and a musical revolution

The Beatles - As the 1960s evolved from rock'n'roll to pop rock to psychedelic rock to the many other forms of rock, so did the Beatles.

Although the Beatles were together as an international sensation for only 6 years (1964-1970) their music and appearance made quite a change during that time. They continued to evolve as the culture and lifestyle of their audience changed as well.

For more about the Beatles' early years and to get a glimpse of the feelings of that era, read "The origins of popular music, part 2". Or just keep reading, and get back to that later.

British Invasion invades America: The Beatles were from England and were the fuel for what became quickly known as the "British Invasion", a gigantic wave of similarly-sounding bands for the next few years.

When Beatles music began being played on Top 40 formatted radio stations across the USA in January & February of 1964, it was only two months after the assassination of American President John Kennedy (22 November, 1963).

Americans were still in shock that their handsome youthful president was suddenly gone, and as a result, when the Beatles exploded onto the world music scene, people were still in mourning and were desperate for a change and something very, very new. The Beatles provided that relief for millions of young Americans.

Years later, people would realize that the early 1964 Beatles music (and the late 1963 Kennedy assassination) became the dividing line between "the fifties" and "the sixties".

THREE stars, one band: Besides their visual and music appeal, the Beatles also had another magic trick that no bands before or since had (gasp): THREE LEAD SINGERS! Up until that point, bands always had ONE lead singer! Those three lead singers each had a trick up their sleeves: they were each powerful and accomplished SONGWRITERS, too! These three lead singers and songwriters were John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Each of them wrote their own original material, and swapped and shared lead vocals from song to song. Plus, (get this) the two that were NOT singing lead on a song would provide backup harmonies. Further, in quite a number of early Beatles songs, John and Paul would alternate lead vocal duties within the same song.

Re-read the previous paragraph again: it's a key point that is rarely mentioned in articles on the Beatles, but I'm convinced it was truly one of their secret weapons to success.

Even today, most artists of all genres find some segment of Beatles music that influenced their careers.

Sgt. Pepper makes music history: The 1967 Beatles album, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is praised almost universally as one of the greatest albums of all time. It dominated the rock scene for their entire legendary "Summer of Love" and for years to follow. Most musical acts of the time made adjustments in their own performance and songwriting to evolve along the same lines, to continue to reach the changing audience.

Watch their hair grow: One of the first things that adults notice about the Beatles was their "long hair". It went from mop-top, seen in the first video on this page and in the video within my earlier HubPages article, "The Origins of Popular Music, part 2" to much longer and much wilder during their final concert on a London rooftop in 1969 (click the third Beatles video on this page to watch that concert video).

The Beatles became role models for millions of American youth who were going through the same changes not only in in hair, but in clothing, attitude, and lifestyle.

The Beatles and other popular mass-appeal artists of the late 1960s were a mirror of young adults and of a generational shift in attitudes as "rock & roll" became "rock".

Rock music of the 1960s led to a wide variety of spin-off genres, including "hard rock", "soft rock", "folk rock", "acid rock", "psychedelic rock", and by the 1980s the birth of "glitter rock", "glam rock", and a genre that continues today, "alternative rock".

Classic rockers that make millions today

The Rolling Stones - As the Beatles evolved through the sixties, the Rolling Stones did not, instead finding a successful rock formula and style, and sticking with it.

Lead singer Mick Jagger andto lead guitarist Keith Richards write the vast majority of their songs. The Stones continue to pack giant stadiums, even today, enjoyin generations of fans from 5 decades.

Besides the Stones' 1980s classic "Start Me Up" (which we link to in the next paragraph) which was used by Microsoft as the official launch theme of their Windows 95 computer operating system), listen to any of these other Stones' hits: "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" or "Honky Tonk Women" from the 60s', "Miss You" or "Shattered" from the 70's or "Undercover of the Night" from the 80's.

Click this link to listen to the Rolling Stones perform "Start Me Up". When the song is over, click your browser's "back" button to return to this page.

The Eagles - This Southern California band began growing millions of fans very early in this band's growth, in not one or two but three genres, simultaneously: the pop charts, the rock charts and the country music charts.. Their many early hits like "Tequila Sunrise", "Desperado" and "Take It Easy" appealed to people across multiple genres.

In fact, the Eagles' 70's country music strongly influenced an entire generation of country songwriters and performers in the 80's, 90's and today.

Musically, the Eagles specialized in vocal harmony, because everyone in the band played instruments and sang every song, whether they were the lead singer or not. Songs like "Best of My Love" and "Take It To the Limit" show off their skills at harmonizing with each other.

But the most successful legacy of the Eagles remained in rock, where the band continued to write and perform songs which became instant rock anthems like "Life In The Fast Lane" and "Hotel California".

LISTEN: Click the video above to hear a live concert recording of the Eagles #1 rock hit "Hotel California", the title cut from one of their most successful albums.

Music Trivia:  The Eagles are so popular that their album "Greatest Hits Volume I" is the biggest selling album of all time! That Eagles CD has sold more than any Beatles, Elvis or Michael Jackson album, and the CD and song downloads from that disc continue to be major sellers today on iTunes.

U2 - Lead singer Bono and lead guitarist The Edge are frontmen for the band U2, one of rock's most successful and longest-lasting bands.

This page features "Vertigo" from just a few years ago, but the string of U2's powerful hits goes back over 25 years, from early songs like "One", "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and i"New Year's Day", to later career classics including "The Fly" and "Where The Streets Have No Name".

The power and style of U2 is consistent and unmistakable, and continues to be one of rock's biggest draws in concert and on recordings, byear after year.

Click this link to listen and watch U2's "Vertigo" video from 2004.

Elton John - Mostly, he's known as a singer-songwriter piano player, with slow or easy listening ballads. But at the peak of Elton John's long musical career in the early 1970s, he also had plenty of on-stage theatrics with wild on-stage outfits, and fast, loud rock music.

Here are two examples of Elton's music, from loud to soft:

Loud: click here to hear Elton John singing "Saturday Night's Allright for Fighting", from his biggest album, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." You'll hear a dominance of heavy guitar and drums from his hard-driving rock band, but also his piano playing cutting through at key moments, too.

Soft: by contrast, click here for Elton's first hit, "Your Song" from 1970, while you read the lyrics & listen to the soft piano and voice in this video.

Fleetwood Mac - One of the 70's top rock bands, Fleetwood Mac had an unusual gender mix: two women and three men. Both women, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, were singer-songwriters, while the band's lead guitarist Lindsay Buckingham was also a lead vocalist on the songs he wrote.

Click here to visit the VH1 site, to watch Fleetwood Mac perform "The Chain", just one cut from their biggest album, "Rumors", which was also also one of the most-purchased albums worldwide, from the entire decade of the 1970s. NOTE: when this video is over, remember to click the "back" button on your browser to return to this page.

Jimi Hendrix - If there were "gods" of rock music, Hendrix would be one of them. He is universally regarded as one of the most respected electric guitarists of all time.

On this page: click the video box to watch & listen to Jimi and his band doing "Foxy Lady", showing his aggressive performance style and brilliant solo guitar work. The mysterious and still unexplained circumstances around Hendrix's sudden death in 1970 at age 27 stunned the music world. But during that short time as a major performer, he left behind many albums and millions of fans.

Pink Floyd - Listen and watch their live performance of the song "Time" on this page, one of the best known songs from their biggest album, "Dark Side of the Moon."

You'll see how Pink Floyd creates deep emotional experieces in their listeners. The type of music you'd listen to with the lights off.

Their music was often moody and somber with philosophical lyrics, but other times etherial and soaring. But never were Pink Floyd songs superficial or pop-ish.

Most successful albums enter the music popularity charts, rise up to their most successful peak, then slowly work their way back down over a period of 3 to 6 months, depending on the success of the album. But that did NOT happen with Pink Floyd's 1973 album "Dark Side of the Moon", one of the best-selling albums of all time. This album holds the award for staying on the Billboard Top 200 charts the longest: a massive 741 weeks (about fourteen YEARS on the album sales charts).

More of rock's best performers

If any of these songs made you want to hear more from rock's biggest starts, check out these artists: Eric Clapton, The Who, Janis Joplin, Aerosmith, The Moody Blues, ZZ Top, Boston, Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, Journey, Pat Benetar, Foreigner, Alice Cooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Doors, The Allman Brothers, The Doobie Brothers, The Pretenders, Deep Purple.

There are hundreds more. click here for a long list of best-known classic rock acts.  If you notice a name you've heard of or want to explore, just visit the music video sections of the VH1, MTV web sites, or type the artist's name into YouTube to watch the on-stage charisma and presence of classic rock performers.

Zeppelin, Heart, Springsteen

Led Zeppelin - One of rock music's most notable and durable acts, Led Zep defined hard rock and heavy metal music for decades to come.

Rooted in American blues and early progressive rock but incorporating elements of reggae, rockabilly, soul and middle-Eastern sounds as well, Led Zeppelin's emergence and growth in the 1970s was rarely heard on Top 40 radio.

Zep's lead screamer Robert Plant had his own signature style, as did lead guitarist Jimmy Page's guitar solos, John Paul Jones' bass and the riffs of drummer Jon Bonham making all four men idols and icons for up and coming rock musicians worldwide.

Dramatically breaking the rules of the era, Zeppelin often had #1 albums with no accompanying Top 40 singles.

Listen & watch Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" as performed in concert in 1970, from their official web site.  WHAT TO LISTEN FOR:  (a) the power rock chords throughout, (b) the 'bridge' section near the end becomes a total 'breakdown' of the entire song into a journey through noises, screams and special effects, until it returns with the refrain (chorus) to end.  

To really "get" Led Zeppelin, however, you should also find and listen to these 5 additional songs. In addition to "Whole Lotta Love", these are unquestionably their most famous: "Stairway to Heaven" (one of the most loved rock anthems of all time), the kick-ass classics "Black Dog" and "Rock'n'Roll", as well as the song named after the region of Asia that Indian & Pakistan have been fighting over for centuries, "Kashmir". Make sure you listen to all of these, if you truly want a basic 'Zep Ed' course :).

In fact, original Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page appeared with pop singer Leona Lewis to perform "Whole Lotta Love" during the Summer Olympics in August, 2008.  Click here to watch that performance.   

Heart - Fronted by singer-songwriter-guitarists Ann Wilson (the blonde) and Nancy Wilson (the brunette), these two sisters were the driving force behind the rock group Heart.

Emerging in the 1970s and most noted for their hard rock rhythms and lyrics that appealed to both men and women, Heart's debut album, "Dreamboat Annie" was their biggest.

Heart was sometimes known as "The female Led Zeppelin" because as they were coming up, they would perform their own versions of Zeppelin songs with extreme power and energy.

One of Heart's best known songs, "Barracuda", was resurrected in 2008 as the quasi-theme song for Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin, because her nickname in high school sports was "Sarah Barracuda" because of her relentless technique. That song is showcased on this page.

Both sisters wrote and performed their own material. Nancy Wilson (the brunette) is the lead singer on most Heart songs. Ironically, though, the band's biggest single and their only #1 Top 40 pop hit was a slow, dreamy ballad called "These Dreams", written and sung by Ann Wilson (the blonde).

Bruce Springsteen music is one of the most successful products of the state of New.Jersey! A singer-songwriter and hard rockin' storyteller who was often compared to legendary folk rock pioneer-crossover Bob Dylan a decade earlier, Bruce's first album from 1975 and title cut, "Born to Run" got him on the cover of BOTH Time and Newsweek magazines that year.

To get a feel for the massive energy exhibited by his stage shows, visit to check out "Rosalita" or "Dancin' in the Dark" by Springsteen.

Click this link to watch and listen to "Born to Run" from a 1975 live Springsteen concert. That was 34 years ago, but Springsteen is still rockin' today, from his latest album, "Workin' On A Dream", released at the end of January 2009, to his Super Bowl half-time performance on February 1st, 2009.

ALTERNATIVE rock's roots

The term "alternative rock" was, at first, given to describe rock artists during the 1970s who were NOT successful. Somehow, in the minds of alternative bands and their followers, "selling out" and playing only what the public wanted and becoming financially successful were negative aspects.

Alternative rock originally grew out of the punk rock movement of the 1970s.

What's on the COLLEGE radio station?  Who knows.

Back then, "alternative" rock was also called "college rock", meaning songs played on college radio stations where DJs played almost anything EXCEPT the songs that were played over and over on Top 40 stations, or on small-playlist mainstream rock stations.

FACT: even today, 99% of college radio stations in the USA are staffed by inexperienced DJs who are given free reign to play anything they want. This almost always means they tend to rebel from the accepted and mainstream commercially accepted music, to trends and genres far off the beaten path.

As a result, tune in any college station today and the odds are very high that they have very few listeners. Why? To build a consistent radio audience of any significant size, the station has to play what listeners expect.

Alt rock = indie rock = college rock = "alternative" music 

Alternative or "alt" rock was sometimes also called "indie rock", meaning music from independent record labels, rather than the big labels with the major artists.

Because of this trend, hundreds of alternative bands emerged throughout the 1980s.

Ironically, alternative rock itself became so successful it went mainstream in 1991 with the subgenre of GRUNGE rock artists like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Today, the term alternative rock still has some of that "not as successful as mainstream" feel, but today's top alt bands can make a lot of money.

Alt rock spotlight: R.E.M

Two of the first bands to have that "not on mainstream radio" label were R.E.M and The Cure. Both bands began releasing albums in the early 1980s.

On this page are two R.E.M. songs both before and after their breakthrough success in the early 90's. This first one, "The End Of The World As We Know It" (complete with lyrics!) is from 1987, followed by "Losing My Religion" from 1996.

Alt rock spotlight: RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS

The band Red Hot Chili Peppers (RHCP) emerged as an alternative band in the 1980s and are still performing today, one of the longest running rock acts in history (sharing that longest running spotlight with the Rolling Stones, U2, and the Beastie Boys).

The Chili Peppers began as a bunch of guys from the same high school in Los Angeles. They began their music career with limited success but they kept refining their act through the 80's, and it wasn't until their fifth album (BloodSugarSexMagic) in 1991 before their commercial breakthrough. The Chili Peppers have sold millions of albums and tracks worldwide, their most recent album, "Arcadium Stadium" was released in 2006, and RHCP continues to perform today.

Click this link to watch and listen to "Dani California" from that album. This is a wonderful visual tour of rock fashion through the various styles of clothing which bands wore in the 1950's, 1960s, 1970s, 1980's and 1990's through today. 

Alt rock spotlight: NIRVANA

The band Nirvana was the most successful of the entire grunge rock movement which began in Seattle (Washington State, USA) in 1991 and created by the band's lead singer and songwriter, Kurt Cobain.

Their first album, "Nevermind" was their biggest CD and was driven by the huge success of the single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which ended up being played on hundreds of both Top 40 and mainstream rock stations nationwide. 

Referred to as "spokesman of a whole new generation" by the mainstream media, Nirvana's lead singer Cobain was uncomfortable with this title and attention.  Racked by drug addiction, he later committed suicide in 1994. 

Alt spotlight: PEARL JAM

Pearl Jam was another highly successful alternative rock band from Seattle in the early 1990s.

With lead singer Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam band rode on the bandwagon of grunge rock for a number of years and is generally accepted as one of the three bands driving the growth of alternative/grunge music, the other bands being Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots.

Trivia question: what job did Vedder have before auditioning as lead singer for the band which eventually became Pearl Jam? Trivia answer: gas station attendant.

Click this link to watch and listen to Pearl Jam perform "Even Flow" from a live concert in the early 90's, when they were at their peak.

Alt spotlight: Stone Temple Pilots

The Stone Temple Pilots (STP) debuted in 1992, less than a year after the explosive success of Nirvana, and was instantly ripped by critics as "selling out" the alternative experience. 

Then again, so was the band Pearl Jam equally knocked.  However, at the time, it almost seemed that anyone who was not actually IN the band Nirvana was simply trying to capitalize on the band's success.  It was the eternal debate among alt rock fans which continues today:  if you're a successful band, how can you be an "alternative" band? 

Here's a video of STP with lead singer Scott Weiland performing "Plush", one of the most popular songs from their debut album.  The band existed for about 11 years before breaking up. 

Here are some other, um, "alternative" Alternative acts

If you enjoyed the music of R.E.M, Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots on this page from the early years of Alternative rock, you may also enjoy Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, Hole (featuring lead singer Courtney Love, widow of Nirvana founder Kurt Cobain), Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Oasis.

The Alternative rock movement continues today, through successful acts like The Killers and The White Stripes.   

Content of text copyright (C) 2008 Thomas R. Zarecki. 
All Rights Reserved. 
All music referenced is the property 
of each respective owner. 


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