Rock ‘n’ Revolution
Despite popular revivals in the 80s and 90s, rock today lives largely away from the mainstream. It exists mostly in pubs and bars, and that's okay — it needn’t be widely commercially successful to be good or to have a point. Wherever it goes, its rebellious aura will live on.
There is no music genre more known for its rebellious, shocking reputation than rock. This image developed from the roots of the genre itself, which in the 1950s and 60s achieved mainstream success whilst simultaneously driving a taboo-breaking counterculture that continues to this day.
The formative rock ‘n’ roll acts of the 1950s sprung out of America, drawing inspiration from black rhythm & blues and white country, with a key influence being the guitarwork of queer black gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Among the era-defining artists were Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. These artists and their contemporaries defined rock’s core themes. Chuck Berry’s songs were often centred around a young protagonist — “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Little Queenie” and the autobiographical “Johnny B. Goode”, which yielded perhaps the most recognisable guitar riff ever. Buddy Holly sang about love. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” is a veiled song about anal sex. The elements of the nascent 60s counterculture were forming. Early rock ‘n’ roll was also distinctly multiracial, crossing America’s sharply racialised music charts.
However, by the early 60s, rock ‘n’ roll was in crisis. Chuck Berry was jailed in 1962 for transporting a minor across state lines for sex. Buddy Holly was among the emerging stars killed in a plane crash, inspiring Don Henley’s classic “American Pie”. Henley learned of Holly’s death as a thirteen year-old when he was preparing to run his paper route. Holly and fellow rockers Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper – both of whom also died in the same crash – are referred to in the song in terms that allude to the Holy Trinity. Elvis Presley was serving in the U.S. military and Little Richard had retired from rock to record gospel music. It was in this environment that a new wave of largely British acts emerged, introducing a yet more rebellious style to the genre which would continue to develop over the decade.
These new bands, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, donned mop-tops and smoked cigarettes. Though they often debuted in suits singing sweet songs in unison, by the end of the decade they had dedicated entire albums to psychedelia. They also had an attitude, channelling the angst as well as the emphasis on liberation at the core of the counterculture. The Stones’ breakout single in America, “Satisfaction”, railed against consumerism and expressed sexual frustration while making a reference to menstruation seemingly missed by their detractors.
Another Stones single, “Street Fighting Man”, was released in August 1968 and took inspiration from unrest in France as well as American protests against the Vietnam War. It tells the story of a poor boy who sings for a rock ‘n’ roll band because “there’s just no place for a street fighting man.” The Beatles’ “Revolution”, attracting criticism from the left and conservatives simultaneously, affirmed a belief in pacifism while supporting the causes of the counterculture, denouncing “destruction” and “money for minds that hate”, while expressing the band’s commitment to “doing what we can”. A slightly later avant-garde track off the White Album, “Revolution 9”, is a chaotic depiction of what John Lennon perceived revolution would sound like, with contributions from Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney’s solo acoustic “Blackbird” on the same album paid homage to the American Civil Rights Movement.
In the 70s, rock lost ground in the charts to disco. In this environment, however, punk rock emerged, with its development taking place across Britain, America and Australia. Inspirations included the New York Dolls, British glam rock, The Who (exemplified by their 1965 hit “My Generation”) and The Velvet Underground. Punk was spearheaded by bands including the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, with the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” censored by the BBC at the time of its release. Punk would undergo a revival in the nineties, most notably demonstrated by Nirvana’s breakthrough to the mainstream. Ironically, some of their most successful songs protest a superficial affection for their music that fails to acknowledge its underlying message. This aptly represents the dichotomy between rock’s now-historical commercial dominance and the discontent with prevailing social norms it has always expressed.
Despite popular revivals in the 80s and 90s, rock today lives largely away from the mainstream. It exists mostly in pubs and bars, and that’s okay — it needn’t be widely commercially successful to be good or to have a point. Wherever it goes, its rebellious aura will live on.