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Rock Music

Updated on January 27, 2011

Rock music is a form of popular music that is characterized by a pronounced, amplified beat. Electric guitars are almost always the main instrumental sound source. The modern rock band's basic elements are one or more vocalists, an electric lead guitar and bass guitar, and drums. A rhythm guitar is often included, and many bands also use an organ or piano, or both. In addition, some bands go far beyond this basic instrumentation and add horns, reeds, electric violins, country fiddles, or Indian sitars.

The Sources of Rock Music

The term "rock" is a shortened form of "rock-and-roll" which was coined in the middle 1950's by a Cleveland broadcaster, Alan Freed, to replace "rhythm-and-blues" a term that Freed thought had too many racial overtones. Rhythm-and-blues was itself an updated, urbanized stylization of the blues and had been developed mainly by rural or country-oriented black musicians. When the music was renamed rock-and-roll it also underwent an elemental change, particularly when white performers saw how eagerly young audiences responded. "White" music (that is, essentially conventional popular music with a decided country-and-western flavor) was blended with rhythm-and-blues, and young people continued to hold a proprietary attitude toward it. Noting this, songwriters tailored their lyrics accordingly.

Elvis Presley, a Memphis truck driver, became the hero of this emerging musical style and culture. As one writer put it, Presley was "young, private, unsharable—exclusive teenage property." He wore long sideburns and wriggled his hips as he sang. Some parents, accustomed to the largely bland musical styles of the 1940's and early 1950's, were outraged. As the youth market expanded, many performers played key roles in the development of rock-and-roll, including individuals such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard (Penniman), the Everly brothers, and La Verne Baker, and groups such as the Crickets, the Coasters, and the Platters.

The Beatles and Bob Dylan. More influential still were the Beatles, the quartet of English performers that emerged in the early 1960's. They became popular in England in 1962 and in the United States the following year, and they remained very popular until they dissolved their group in 1970. At first even more primitive, raw, simple, and unpolished than the early rock-and-roll bands, the Beatles almost singlehandedly revived rock from a slump caused by the increase of popular interest in folk music in the early 1960's. Once their popularity was established the Beatles started to experiment, using exotic instruments, classical musicians, and sophisticated recording techniques to create a highly influential form of "studio rock."

During the folk-revival period much attention focused on Bob Dylan, a young Minnesota songwriter and performer. His melodies were like old folk tunes but his lyrics were not. They were "relevant" (before that term became a cliche) to the problems of his generation. Soon the Beatles and other rock groups were also writing "relevant" songs, a change that might be said to mark the beginning of true "rock" and the end of "rock-and-roll." That is, rock-and-roll was about high school, drugstore romances, surfing, and hot rods, whereas rock was less about such subjects and more about serious concepts. As the folk-revival period waned in the later 1960's and rock drew a larger and more heterogeneous audience than had rock-and-roll, Dylan also toured and recorded with a rock band.

The Beatles, themselves the product of many influences, in turn influenced a wide range of rock groups, from hard-rock or blues-based groups, such as the Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf, and The Who, to softer, folk-based groups, such as the Bee Gees, The Byrds, and Simon and Garfunkel. These groups also drew on pre-Beatles sources. Thus the Rolling Stones were directly influenced by bluesmen such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters. Other influences included John Mayall, leader of several English blues bands, and the Yardbirds, a group that served as the proving ground for such guitarists as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page.

Acid Rock

In the middle 1960's, as experimentation with drugs became widespread among the young, "acid" rock evolved - so named after the drug. A landmark album for this kind of rock was the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The best acid-rock group, according to both critics and public, was the Jefferson Airplane, and the most extreme acid guitarist was Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970.

Acid rock, raw and dissonant, tried to recreate in music the experiences obtained under the influence of drugs. Drug experimenters claimed that a listener had to be "stoned" to hear such music properly. Those who made the music maintained that it simply reflected what people were doing, but others claimed that the music was in fact influencing the young to experiment with drugs. Eventually some radio stations banned such songs, and at least one company stopped recording them.

Woodstock and After

The almost symbiotic relationship of rock music with the youth culture was underscored by the Woodstock Art and Music Fair held in the summer of 1969 near White Lake, N.Y. A crowd of young people (estimated at 460,000) overwhelmed the fair's facilities to hear many well-known groups and individuals perform. For various reasons (including local legal opposition to other planned events) it seemed unlikely that the Woodstock festival would be equaled for many years.

Rock music eased toward simplicity in the 1970's, as presaged by the Beatles' Abbey Road and Dylan's Nashville Skyline. Solo vocalists, such as James Taylor and Neil Young, became more popular as groups declined. Rock was already so diversified as to include Frank Zappa's complicated, satirical music as well as the basic rock-and-roll of the Creedence Clearwater Revival, and (regardless of momentary developments) it promised to remain a varied and otherwise unpredictable music in the future. Its audience had become larger through the years, making rock a prominent part of modern music.


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