The evolution of music: Rock and roll to pop

BY Mandi Goodier

11th Nov 2022 Music

The evolution of music: Rock and roll to pop

After the birth of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s, the 1960s saw a music revolution. Mandi Goodier explores the evolution of music in the 20th century

The 1960s music revolution

Rock 'n' roll had spread from the US and marked the arrival of youth rebellion in the "teenager". Music from now on would always come with a hint of rebellion. So inspired were the youth by the sounds of rock 'n' roll, some wanted to get back to its origins and so came a new wave of folk and pure R&B revivals—styles more suited to a decade of political protest. Singers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez led the movement, and Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" (1962) became a civil rights anthem. Music had very much become a vehicle for social change. The protest songs and psychedelia of the 1960s were the soundtrack to sexual revolution and anti-war marches.

Bob Dylan also produced something quite revolutionary for the music world. His second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), put Dylan on the map as a major artist. It wasn't just his songwriting that shook the industry, it was the craft of the album. Previously albums had been an after thought, the result was very formulaic, resulting in many albums leading with the second and/or third single, followed by a ballad, and side two would lead with the first single, then there would be a series of cover songs. Dylan's album broke this formula, and turned the album format into an art form in itself. Of the album, George Harrison said, "We just played it, just wore it out."

While many white musicians were heading backwards, African Americans based in the New Orleans continued to develop the sound of R&B. Funk began to increase in popularity. James Brown was at the forefront releasing hits such as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (1965) and "I Got You (I Feel Good)". Funk would go on to be influenced by psychedelia giving rise to Funkadelic and Parlaiment, and would eventually inform disco.

In Britain, The Beatles created their own musical style with a blend of clear melodies and complex rhythms, informed by R&B. Their 1963 single "From Me to You" began an unbroken run of UK number one hits that dominated the decade, lasting until 1967. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were the group's chief lyricists. Their compositions included "Please Please Me" and "Hey Jude." George Harrison's songwriting capabilities really started to shine through around the time of The White Album (1968), and perhaps reaching his full potential with "Something" (1969). The Beatles stopped performing as a band in 1969 but their influenced reigns eternal. 

"The US meanwhile had given birth to the anti-Beatles in The Velvet Underground"

While The Beatles reigned the charts and went on to acheive international success, R&B was also informing a new British sub-culture known as mods. The mods celebrated jazz and soul, followed British bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, and created new bands such as The Who and Small Faces.

The US meanwhile had given birth to the anti-Beatles in The Velvet Underground. Perhaps the very first art-band, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison et al produced music that drew influence from modernist composers (Cornelius Cardew), literature (Venus in Furs), poetry and pop music. While The Beatles were singing "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "When I'm Sixty-Four" (Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) The Velvet Underground were singing about the dark underbelly of New York sub-culture in songs such as "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs" (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967). The result was sometimes unsettling but always interesting. Their involvement with Andy Warhol, although fraught, propelled their career and possibly led to them becoming the most influential band to have existed—after The Beatles, that is.

Drugs also had an influence on music. Psychedelics and downers, such as marijuana and LSD, influenced psychedelia. This music was characterised by its dreamy sometimes laid back and sometimes erratic sound. It was amplified, made use of emerging technology in guitar pedals and sound effects. Lyrically, the songs would be about love, oneness, freedom, sexual liberation, literature, or sometimes would just be nonsensical. Bands like The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Soft Parade, Jimmi Hendrix, Donovan and Captain Beefheart all varied in style but all embraced psychedelia into their sound.

The rise of the small record label called Motown in Detroit became a byword for soul music—a new singing style with its roots in gospel. Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, and Gladys Knight popularised Motown’s sound. It's a sound that remains popular, although by the end of the decade relations with its artists were becoming strained. Motown songs were typically defined by their drum beat, clean-cut vocalists, and lyrics of lost love, or forever love. Marvin Gaye was one of Motown's biggest names and had recently celebrated his biggest hit "Heard it Through the Grapevine" (1968), but after the death of his long-time singing partner Tammi Terrel, Gaye became depressed and began to rebel against his clean-cut Motown image. Tiring of his creative restrictions and inspired by the witnessing of police brutality in Berkley's People's Park, he released his biggest album What's Going On (1971) on Motown-subsidiary label Tamla.

Metal, glam, disco and extravagance

Thanks to crunchier guitar sounds, distortion and the boundaries broken earlier in the decade, a much heavier form of rock music began to emerge in Britain. Often the riffs would be ripped off from old blues records, the band would be a stripped back four-piece (guitar, bass, drums and vocal) and the songs would ooze male sexuality, contain ludicrous guitar solos and a screaming long-haired vocalist. Who was the first metal heavy band: Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath? Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s metal grew more and more extravegant. Stadiums, bigger hair, more guitars—to the point where in the 1980s it was incredibly tongue in cheek.

While metal flaunted masculinity and excess, another style of music occurred boasting the same influences. It flaunted its sexuality in a completely different way, and embraced the flamboyance of costume, make-up, ambiguous sexuality and androgyny. Glam rock was a mixture of rock and melodic pop, characterised by the likes David Bowie, Elton John, T-Rex and Roxy Music. While the sound was radio friendly, the sexual ambiguity of the performers put fear into older audiences, making it ripe for youth rebellion. David Bowie's first appearance on Top of the Pops may seem rather dated and sweet now, but at the time, many saw the image of a man in a dress, with one arm casually draped around the neck of a male guitarist a little much for British prime time television. Early punk agitators from the US such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, would also jump on board the glam bandwagon taking the aesthetic overseas to influence a youth that would go on to create punk.

In contrast, disco music became an international force. Influences fused the psychedelia, funk, and Motown of the 1960s era brought up to date with a pop beat designed for dancing and an emphasis on slick studio production. Bands like The Chamber Brothers and Sly & The Family Stone, Diana Ross and The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On" were huge influences on the movement.

Disco music and venues playing the genre would be the beginning of dance club culture. In America, disco rose in the wake of the Stonewall Riots (1969) which sparked the gay rights movement. This was a time where even a man dancing with another man was an arrestable offence. Gay venues were regularly subject to police raids, and after the Stonewall incident, invitation-only venues became common ground—where men could dance together without the fear of police intervention. Of course, these venues played disco music, and were decorated with fantastic lights and costumes to exaggerate the trippy experience of psychedelics. As the movement grew, it would make icons out of Donna Summer and Diana Ross. 

"The popularity of disco became something for punk to kick back against"

Meanwhile, over the pond, disco had a huge influence on pop music. The well-produced vocal harmonies of Swedish group Abba made them a Europe-wide success after a 1974 Eurovision win with "Waterloo". Their sing-along hits officially took the movement out of the underground and into the mainstream. This was cemented in 1977 when The Bee Gees' career sky-rocketed after scoring the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

The popularity of disco became something for punk to kick back against.

Punk and its wake

In the second half of the decade, the spirit of youth rebellion arose again, this time in the form of punk rock. Leading the new genre, the Sex Pistols confronted contemporary Britain in the lyrics of "Anarchy in the UK" (1976) and "God Save the Queen" (1977). Punk became more than a rebellion, it would serve as the voice for a dissatisfied Thatcher youth, and the state of the working classes. In time it would become the sound of political movements, from anarchists, to left-wing, to the far-right—although not all punk bands subscribe to the latter.

Punk, by its very nature, was short-lived in the UK. As soon as it filtered into the mainstream it could no longer be punk, as punk defined itself as an anti-capitalist movement. As soon as the big corporations got involved and started making money from the movement, it was over. 

The bands that succeeded from that era either lived on by their outrageous reputation at the time (Sex Pistols), remained underground (Crass), or changed their sound. The Clash is one example of the latter. Their earlier style of fast and furious changed significantly as they experimented and immersed themselves in their South London environment. They would appropriate dub beats and reggae into their sound, and were no less politicised "Guns of Brixton" written in 1979, predates the Brixton Riots by two years but completely captured the feeling discontent and the heavy-handedness of the law that sparked the violence. 

In the 1960s, immigrants to the UK and US brought Reggae with along with them, which worked its way into pop culture and took off due to the wild success of Bob Marley. Marley popularised the sound worldwide with hits like "Get Up, Stand Up" (1973) and "No Woman No Cry" (1975). The interest in reggae, especially in communities with mixed ethnicities, would lead to bands blending punk and ska (the precursor to reggae) creating a new movement known as 2 tone. The movement promoted racial unity. Genre poster boys The Specials focused their attention on race, friendship and fighting. 1980's "Ghost Town" was a huge hit about the amount of riots taking place in the UK that particular summer. The style is characterised by its use of trumpets, walking bass lines, aggressive guitars and punk lyrics.

Other punk bands went into more experimental territories. With its sloppy sounds and seemingly talentless vocalists, punk pushed pop music to its boundaries—where was there left to go? Post-punk took it even further. Incorporating all kinds of genres, moments of discord, mocking (sometimes very cleverly) its predecessors, throwing song structures out of the window and being generally conceptual. It was a completely post-modern approach to music. John Lydon of the Sex Pistols formed Public Image Limited, Howard Devoto of The Buzzcocks formed Magazine. 

"It depends on whether you ask an American or a Briton as to which punk scene influenced which"

Meanwhile in America, a less politicised version of punk had arrived simultaneously—it depends on whether you ask an American or a Briton as to which scene influenced which. American punk was characterised by fast playing and a similar DIY aesthetic which went against the grain. Like the UK, it was concerned with doing away with the sentimentality in much of 1970s music—taking it back to basics. 

The Ramones sung about high school, and sniffin' glue and all kinds of banal topics, while making sly digs at American culture (a lot of song titles would include things that The Ramones either wanted or didn't want: "I Wanna Be Sedated", "I Don't Want to Grow Up"). Television would perhaps have one of the biggest influences on the future of punk (and indeed post-punk) with their seminal album Marquee Moon is one of the finest albums ever recorded. Bassist Richard Hell might well be the father of the punk look with his cropped hair, ripped t-shirts and leather jacket. It is said the Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm McClaren saw him on a visit to New York's legendary CBGBs, and took the image back with him to be styled out by collaborator and designer Vivienne Westwood. 

One thing that can be agreed on in terms of the origins of punk is that the key influencers were The Velvet Underground (US) and the staccato guitar work of Dr Feelgood's Wilko Johnson.

The 1980s New Wave and The New Romantics

German band Kraftwerk arrived in 1978 with their album The Man Machine. They came from the Krautrock movement taking place which spiralled out from post-war Germany, whose identity was at the time split. West German youths were inspired by the music of the western 1960s but strived for something to set their country apart, their approach was then more minimal and more experimental. Kraftwerk were the ultimate anti-guitar band, all their instruments computer-based, making use of advancing technologies and synthesizers. The sound was quickly adopted by David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno, and would go on to influence the direction of 1980s pop.

Bands such as Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark (OMD) were drawn to the electronic sound as it mimicked their environment; industrialised cities and working class areas like Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield. These bands produced huge hits, "Enola Gay" (1980) and "Don't You Want Me" (1981). This cleared the way for more bands such as Depeche Mode and inspired the New Romantic movement.

Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran drew on glam rock, elaborate outfits and make-up to perform the melodic pop of the New Romantics. 

In the US, vocal soloists took the lead. Madonna's debut album (1983) produced five US hit singles, including "Holiday" and "Lucky Star". Only two other vocalists could compete: Prince, who had number ones with "Let's Go Crazy" (1984) and "When Doves Cry" (1985), and Michael Jackson, whose Thriller (1982) became the most successful album of all time, selling 42 million copies by the early 1990s.

Rap and electronic dance music

Though early forms of rap can be traced back to blues in the 1920s—or even earlier, in the syncopated storytelling of West African griots, set to percussion—the genre truly broke onto the scene in the 1980s and 1990s. Its distinctive style spawned a host of pop subcultures, including hip-hop, which took its percussive effect from "scratching" (manually rotating) vinyl records and sampling musical phrases to create new tracks, often set to an electronic drum beat.

Digital sampling using computer technology opened up new forms of dance music. In Chicago, a mix of black disco and pop—using studio sampling and dubbing—became known as house music, named after the dance club Warehouse.

From Chicago house music, acid house evolved, stripping away vocals and melodies and replacing them with the sounds of the synthesizer.

The 1990s

In the early 1990s in Seattle, heavy rock and punk combined to create grunge—fast, thrashing rock with melodic overtones. The sound brought commercial success for Nirvana, and their album Nevermind (1991) popularized grunge worldwide.

British pop musicians reacted to grunge with the distinctive sound of Britpop. Oasis and Blur, influenced by earlier British bands like The Beatles, Madness and The Kinks, competed for the top position in the charts.

Dance music and rap continued to develop derivative styles. As the 1980s ended, the minimalist electronic sound of techno jumped from its birthplace in Detroit to Europe. There, beefed up with stronger beats and bass lines, it evolved into hardcore and, by the mid-1990s, jungle music.

In the pop charts, mainstream solo vocalists and "teen" bands dominated. Madonna's sound matured with her album Ray of Light (1998), an introspective and danceable selection of tracks.

Canadian singer Celine Dion recorded "Because You Loved Me" (1996), the highest-selling adult contemporary single of all time, and a year later she could be heard on radio stations the world over singing "My Heart Will Go On," the theme tune to the film Titanic.

In Britain, a female quintet, the Spice Girls, eclipsed the success of popular boybands such as Take That when sales of their albums Spice (1996) and Spiceworld (1997) made them the most commercially successful UK pop artists of the decade.

In the late 1990s, bands like Green Day and Foo Fighters drew elements of punk and rock ‘n’ roll together and created a somewhat aggressive, yet radio-friendly sound. Unique and still accessible, their work broke into the upper reaches of the rock ‘n’ roll charts at the end of the century, and influenced a slew of bands that would rise to fame in the early 2000s.

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