It was music cheaply made and seemingly disposable. It was decried as immoral and derided as brainless. In an American era of relentless striving for suburban, middle-class respectability, it combined the blues and country music of the black and white rural working classes. It was called rock & roll, and it became the most popular music in the world.
BMI was founded in 1940, and by 1954 had become the performing rights organization of choice for many songwriters, including the greats of both the blues and country genres, among others. In the same year, a cover of “Shake, Rattle And Roll” — a jump blues written by an African-American composer, Jesse Stone (using the name Charles Calhoun), and first recorded by an African-American singer, Big Joe Turner — hit the Pop Top 10
The floodgates were opened, and the first wave of rock & rollers came pouring through. Many of them wrote or co-wrote the songs they sang: Little Richard with “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti,” Fats Domino with “Ain’t That A Shame” and “Blue Monday” (co-written with Dave Bartholomew), and Buddy Holly with “Peggy Sue.” One of the era’s greatest writer/performers was Chuck Berry, who painted a wryly humorous portrait of post-war American life in songs like “School Days,” “Rock & Roll Music” and “Too Much Monkey Business.” Its supreme idol, Elvis Presley, relied on the prolific pens of composers such as Otis Blackwell (“Don’t Be Cruel,” “Return To Sender”) and the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (“His Latest Flame,” “Little Sister”).
The first thrilling wave of rock & roll subsided even before the end of the ’50s. But in the early ’60s, the sound began to mature and mutate in a hundred different forms. The Southern California suburbs brought forth instrumental surf music (the Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run”) and Brian Wilson‘s early Beach Boys masterpieces (“Surfer Girl,” “I Get Around”). Producer Phil Spector created a series of towering three-minute rock & roll symphonies, working in collaboration with the husband/wife songwriting teams of Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich (the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”) and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”).
In February 1964, the Beatles arrived in New York to begin their first US tour — and changed rock & roll forever. Where once the identity of a rock & roll group consisted of nothing more or less than its hit songs, the Beatles were four brashly distinctive personalities in one band. Two of them, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, comprised a prodigiously gifted songwriting team that churned out instant classics like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Eight Days A Week,” and “A Hard Day’s Night.”
The Beatles solidified the electric guitar’s role as the premier rock & roll instrument (supplanting the signature ’50s sound of the tenor saxophone) and inspired an army of earnest imitators in garages across America. They touched off a “British Invasion” which generated classic rock songs by Mick Jagger & Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud”), the Kinks’ Ray Davies (“All Day And All Of The Night”), and Pete Townshend of the Who (“My Generation”).
Rock & roll became “rock” sometime in the late ’60s. Cream was legendary for its extended live jams long before “Sunshine Of Your Love” (co-written by band members Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce with lyricist Pete Brown) cracked the U.S. Top 10. Jefferson Airplane were in the vanguard of the San Francisco sound with “White Rabbit” (written by lead singer Grace Slick) and “Crown Of Creation” (by singer/guitarist Paul Kantner).
The ’70s turned rock into a big business, one dominated by major record labels, arena concert tours, and increasingly restrictive radio formats. The Eagles, with their beautifully crafted country-rock, were the most popular American rock group of the decade. The team of drummer/vocalist Don Henley and guitarist/vocalist Glenn Frey proved crucial to the Eagles’ success, composing such all-time hits as “Desperado,” “One Of These Nights,” and “Best Of My Love” (the latter with John David Souther).
But by 1976, a new crop of street-level rock & roll bands were banging on the stage door. In Britain, the Sex Pistols wrote and recorded “God Save The Queen.” Promptly banned from BBC radio and many retail chains, the song became a number two hit anyway. From the streets of New York, Richard Hell & the Voidoids serenaded the “Blank Generation.” In the mid-’80s, these harshly innovative sounds would be rendered commercially viable by such bands as Ratt (“Round And Round”).
At the start of the ’90s, the so-called “hair metal” combos were themselves displaced by the flannel-clad “grunge” rock bands of the Pacific Northwest. Part Beatles and part Black Sabbath, Nirvana was among the best of this new breed. The trio’s singer and guitarist, Kurt Cobain, was also a gifted songwriter (“About A Girl,” “Heart Shaped Box”) whose suicide in 1994 marked the decline of the musical movement he’d done so much to create.
Around the time of Cobain’s death, Rage Against The Machine emerged from Los Angeles. Rage combined intense Zeppelin-style guitar rock with the lyrical cadences of hip-hop in radical protest songs like “Bulls On Parade” and “Testify,” all co-written by band members Tim Commerford, Zack De La Rocha, Tom Morello, and Brad Wilk. Rage’s multi-platinum success inspired a horde of lesser imitators, following a pattern at least as old as rock & roll itself.
And, as styles continue to grow and evolve, rock paints a broad swath across the musical landscape, with groups such as Maroon 5, Foo Fighters and Nickelback providing the impetus to carry it deep into the 21st century.