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Songs That Defined Their Era

Updated on January 17, 2019
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I have worked in education and entertainment and am also an historian and businessman currently studying at the Open University.

Rock Around The Clock-Bill Haley and his Comets

One two three o' clock, four o' clock...ROCK!
One two three o' clock, four o' clock...ROCK!

Once Elvis Presley came along, Bill Haley was considered about as rock and roll as Billy Graham. Nevertheless, at the very beginning, former country and western band Bill Haley and his Comets (formerly The Saddlemen) were just as revolutionary as Elvis, The Beatles and the Sex Pistols in the mid-1950's and their anthem, "Rock Around The Clock" oversaw the advent of popular music as we know it today.

Originating from rhythm and blues, a simple twelve-bar three chord trick featuring slap-bass and performed by white people (at least until Little Richard and Chuck Berry took it to another level), rock and roll was initially considered to be a fad. Although not the first rock and roll song, "Rock Around The Clock" featured as the soundtrack for the 1955 film about juvenile delinquency, "Blackboard Jungle", which contributed hugely to its success.

The Comets continued to perform with numerous line-ups over the years, in the 70's making a comeback on the retro-circuit and returning to the charts in 1974 thanks to the film "American Grafitti". Haley himself had some success in Mexico as he was fluent in Spanish and recorded several songs there. However, he developed a brain tumour and in 1981 died of a heart attack in his sleep aged only 55. Love it or hate it, "Rock Around The Clock" marked a turning point in youth culture across the Western world.

Rock Around The Clock

Heartbreak Hotel-Elvis Presley

Take a walk down lonely street...
Take a walk down lonely street...

THE definitive song about teen angst, "Heartbreak Hotel" was inspired by a man who leapt to his death from a hotel window, leaving a suicide note saying "I walk a lonely street." Teenagers of the time talk about their hair standing on end and their lives being defined upon first hearing Elvis's voice.

Written by Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden a year earlier, Axton had been hired as a music promoter for a festival where former truck driver Elvis Presley was playing. Impressed by his performance and the reaction of the crowd, she played a demo of the song to him. Equally impressed by the song, it became his first release in 1956 on RCA and went on to change the world. Elvis's subsequent story is well documented. Elvis was the first true rock star-to this day known as "The King of Rock and Roll". Ironically, Elvis actually didn't like rock and roll. Deeply conservative, he hated the counter-culture of the late 60's that evolved from it, believing the Beatles to be a bad influence on the youth with their advocating of recreational drugs. He famously was made a drug enforcement agent by Richard Nixon, despite using recreational marijuana himself.

Elvis died in 1977, becoming a gift for conspiracy theorists all over the world-the same people who claim the moon landings were fake and that the world is really flat. People as diverse as John Lennon, Bill Clinton and Billy Connolly have acknowledged their first hearing of "Heartbreak Hotel" to have been a life-changing moment for them.

Heartbreak Hotel

She Loves You-The Beatles

You know that can't be bad
You know that can't be bad

It is difficult to appreciate just what a phenomenon the Beatles were if you didn't actually live through that era. Never before nor since have any performers had the impact that the Fab Four did on the status quo. "She Loves You" was the song that started Beatlemania in the UK in 1963. To this day it is both The Beatles best selling single and the best selling single of the 60's in the UK. It was the following single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" which broke the USA in 1964, spearheading the British Invasion of what had hitherto been an exclusively American music scene.

"She Loves You" was written after a concert in Newcastle Upon Tyne and finished off at Paul McCartney's home in Liverpool. The story goes that the band played it acoustically to McCartney's dad who wasn't keen on the Americanisms and suggested "yes yes yes" as the refrain, much to the band's amusement. The song hit number one for four weeks, dropped down then returned to the top again-an unusual achievement both then and now.

"She Loves You" had huge advance orders and its chart success coincided with the band's appearance on Sunday Night At The London Palladium. With the release of "She Loves You", the Beatles would never be able to perform again without hysterical fans screaming all the way through their songs, the main contributory factor to their decision to stop playing live.

She Loves You

The Times They Are-A-Changin'-Bob Dylan

Come gather round people...
Come gather round people...

Bob Dylan does tend to divide audiences. He's either a genius, he has an irritating voice, or both. Hugely influenced by Woody Guthrie, Dylan performed as a folk singer in clubs in Greenwich Village, New York, and signed to Columbia Records. His second album, "The Freewheeling Bob Dylan" featured several anthems such as "Blowin' In The Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", establishing him as a singer/songwriter of note. His acoustic guitar and harmonica defined him so much that he was famously (and on record) called "Judas" at a concert in Manchester for going electric.

The 1964 release of his third album and its title track, "The Times They Are-A-Changin'" was adopted by the Civil Rights Movement and was also sung at the March On Washington, where Dylan and Joan Baez performed together a year before the song was released. Its lyrics are universal and are still as relevant today as they were at the time.

Dylan went on to become a household name across the world, famous for his socially aware and poetically advanced lyrics and for backing many political causes over the years. Classic albums include "Blood On The Tracks", "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde On Blonde". Widely accepted as one of the greatest, if not the greatest lyricist in popular music, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.

The Times They Are-A-Changin'

San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)-Scott Mackenzie

Hippy anthem
Hippy anthem

A beautiful ethereal ballad or a nauseatingly sentimental pile of idealistic hippy drivel, whatever your take is on Scott Mackenzie's 1967 one-hit-wonder, it cannot be denied that it is the definitive tune of the flower power era and therefore gets included in this article.

Mackenzie had been in a folk group with childhood friend John Phillips, who subsequently went on to fame with the Mamas and Papas. Mackenzie was asked to join but declined. Phillips wrote and co-produced "San Francisco" and also plays guitar on it. The song caught the zeitgeist, becoming the anthem of the "Summer of Love". However Mackenzie would not have another hit.

After touring with an incarnation of the Mamas and Papas during the 1970's and co-writing "Kokomo", a 1988 US no. 1 for the Beach Boys (which also became part of the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise film, "Cocktail"), Mackenzie succumbed to Guillain-Barre syndrome, dying in 2012.

San Francisco (Flowers In Your Hair)

Starman-David Bowie

Let all the children boogie...
Let all the children boogie...

Though not the first rock star to wear make-up, Bowie took the glam rock look that his friend and rival Marc Bolan had created and went a stage further, creating his Ziggy Stardust image and capturing the imagination of millions across the world. It is no coincidence that the advent of glam rock came into being in Britain at the same time as the advent of colour television.

Bowie had already had a minor hit in the late 60's as a curly haired hippy with "Space Oddity" (which was subsequently re-released some years later.) Bowie during this period was studying mime with dancer and performance artist Lyndsay Kemp. Bowie released several albums and had moderate success, but it wasn't until the release of "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" album and the first single from it, "Starman" in 1972 that Bowie broke through, his androgynous image both delighting and outraging in equal degrees.

Bowie's outlandish appearance and his camp onstage antics, draping himself over guitarist Mick Ronson and felating his guitar on Britain's Top of the Pops, brought sexual ambiguity into the musical arena. He was the first rock star to come out as gay, though he was really bi-curious and played this down later in life. Changing his image and style of music constantly throughout his career, Bowie became the first major international rock star after the break-up of the Beatles. Bowie kept his liver cancer secret from everyone other than close friends and family and his death in early 2016 just after the release of his final album, "Blackstar" was a genuine shock. His influence on popular culture can be seen through every decade since the 70's.


Anarchy In The UK-The Sex Pistols

Never mind the bollocks...
Never mind the bollocks...

Much has been written about the Sex Pistols and in retrospect, the entire punk thing seems to have been a storm in a tea-cup, but the world was a different place back in 1976 and people were much more easily shocked.

The real bad boys of rock and roll had been the Rolling Stones in many people's eyes, but the Pistols were genuine street kids and petty criminals with attitude and they weren't afraid to speak their minds. The mid-1970's saw Britain as a country in recession and controlled by unions. There were constant strikes and unemployment was at a record high. A decade earlier, the American former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson had claimed Britain had lost an empire but had failed to find a role. The whole ethos of punk was a kick against an establishment that wasn't working.

Johnny Rotten's sneering irreverence towards nearly everything struck a chord with the disaffected youth of Britain and the punk DIY approach to fashion meant you could look hip on a shoestring. After swearing on live TV (though the programme was only aired in London), the entire British press declared war on them and questions were asked in parliament. Their 1977 song "God Save The Queen", released in the Silver Jubilee year went to number one, but because it had been banned, it was not allowed to be listed in the charts and there was therefore no UK number one the week it occupied the top spot. Genuinely nihilistic, the band only existed for about two and a half years and imploded during their first tour of the US.

1976's "Anarchy In The UK" wasn't a big hit but the energy and attitude of it inspired numerous others to form bands, who went on to inspire others. Paul Weller, Boy George and Kurt Cobain are among many who acknowledged a debt to the Sex Pistols.

Anarchy In The UK

I Feel Love-Donna Summer

It's so good, it's so good, it's soooo good...
It's so good, it's so good, it's soooo good...

Having already worked with Summer on her controversial "Love To Love You Baby" three years earlier, legendary Italian record producer Giorgio Moroder co-wrote "I Feel Love" with songwriter Pete Belotte. With its pulsing beat, created with the use of a Moog synthesiser, which had never been done on a disco track before, "I Feel Love" is considered by most to be the song that pioneered electronic dance music.

According to David Bowie, who was working on his Berlin Trilogy of albums with Brian Eno at the time, Eno came into the studio, told him he'd heard the sound of the future and played him "I Feel Love". Already known as a disco and soul diva, Donna Summer's reputation as the queen of disco was cemented by "I Feel Love", which in 1977 became a club staple everywhere, filling dance floors across the world.

By the early 80's, a story had circulated that Summer, a born-again Christian, had claimed AIDS was God's revenge against gay people, and she became the target of a boycott. Summer denied this and later successfully sued New York magazine for printing the rumour as fact. Donna Summer died from lung cancer in 2012. Having never smoked in her life, she believed her illness to be the result of breathing in toxic fumes after the 9/11 attacks in New York.

I Feel Love

Thriller-Michael Jackson

Darkness falls across the land...
Darkness falls across the land...

The classic example of why childhood stardom isn't necessarily an aid to personal and social development, Michael Jackson's freak-show lifestyle generated as much attention as his work. One of the few artists that have merited the title genius, singer, songwriter and dancer Wacko-Jacko, as he became dubbed by the tabloids, was consistently brilliant as an all-round entertainer of the first degree.

A professional performer from the age of 6, Jackson became an international name in the early 70's along with his brothers as the Jackson 5. During the late 70's, he began his collaboration with producer Quincy Jones, releasing his 5th solo album "Off the Wall", which announced his arrival as a genuine star in his own right. However it was the next album, "Thriller" which broke all the records.

In 1975, Queen had released "Bohemian Rhapsody" along with what is generally considered to be the first pop video. Michael Jackson took this to another level with the 1983 fourteen minute "Thriller" video, with its dancing zombies and Vincent Price voice-over. Jackson made the music video an art form and to this day, "Thriller" is the only music video to have been inducted into the USA's National Film Registry.

Far from being a victim of his own success, Jackson continued to have hits through the 80's and 90's, though his work was overshadowed by his changing appearance and allegations of child abuse. The stress led to his being prescribed a whole cocktail of of pharmaceuticals and eventually in 2009, his body just gave up under the strain. Jackson's physician, Conrad Murray was subsequently charged with involuntary manslaughter.


Smells Like Teen Spirit-Nirvana

Here we are now, entertain us
Here we are now, entertain us

Grunge music was a fusion of punk and heavy metal, though by the early 90's labels had really become obsolete. Nirvana's success brought it to the mainstream. "Teen Spirit" was originally written by singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain as a main guitar riff which was adapted by bass player Krist Novocelic and drummer Dave Grohl and therefore is the only Nirvana song to credit all three members as the writers.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" became the opening track to Nirvana's second album, "Nevermind". It caught the zeitgeist of the time, standing out as a return to traditional rock music and an anthem for disaffected youth. Released in late 1991, the song and the album went multi-platinum around the world. However the band were uncomfortable with its success and felt themselves living in its shadow.

Kurt Cobain hit the headlines regularly for his heroin addiction, his roller-coaster marriage to Courtney Love and their issues over custody of their daughter, Francis Bean. In April 1994, Cobain was found dead at his home after shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. Grohl went on to find fame as lead singer of the Foo Fighters while Novocelic has appeared with numerous bands and singers in the post-Nirvana years. "Teen Spirit" continues to be ranked among the top hundred songs ever on various polls every few years.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Honourable Mentions

My Generation-The Who-1965 ("Why doncha all f... f...?" Enough said.)

The Israelites-Desmond Dekker and the Aces-1969 (The song that brought reggae into the mainstream)

Rapper's Delight-The Sugarhill Gang-1979 (The song that brought rap/hip hop into the mainstream)

Do They Know It's Christmas?-Band Aid-1984 (A strange choice but it did mark a point where musicians discovered their consciences, not to mention spawning a whole load of horribly contrived and insincere charity songs over the next few years.)

Wonderwall-Oasis-1995 (Never off the radio at the time and it took the place of "Smoke On The Water" as the most unoriginal and tedious default song to play if you were a guitarist but not good enough to annoy people with "Stairway To Heaven".)

Wannabe-The Spice Girls-1996 (Even stranger choice but they were right in the public consciousness whether we liked it or not. The ultimate triumph of marketing over substance.)

Although bands and singers have continued to establish themselves in the psyche of music lovers everywhere, none of them can be said to have defined a particular era since the 90's. As the years go by, popular music is no longer the counter-cultural movement it was and is now homogenous, as reflected by the X Factor and American Idol. In the words of the great Noel Coward, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is". The tedious pub bores that go on about the 60's have a point to some degree. Everything that has come in music since has reflected that time. No particular song has come along and defined a particular era in quite the same way as those listed above. However I daresay many will disagree. Do feel free to contradict and let me know what should be added to, or indeed deleted from the list.


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