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Rock music, originally and sometimes still called rock and roll, is a musical style or genre that originated in the United States in the 1950s, and became a worldwide phenomenon at some point thereafter. Rock music was one of the original crossover styles where White performers performed material taken or imitated from Black musicians. This was the cause of the first moral panics that attended rock music. There have been many since then, and rock music has always been a significant aspect of cultural warfare since its beginning.
At the confluence of Black and White
Rock and roll found its origins in the rhythm and blues music (R&B) of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The song Rocket 88 by Ike Turner in 1951 is one of several records sometimes called the first rock and roll record. There are other contenders, but this record suggests the approximate period during which rock music emerged as a distinct genre. Its immediate ancestor was rhythm and blues, then often called "race records" because the performers and initially most consumers were African American.
Other formative influences were swing band music and other "hot" or danceable jazz of the period. The introduction of amplified guitars and other electric instruments were a key technological innovation that made rock music possible. These technologies enabled small ensembles to make as loud a noise as a full swing band playing unamplified instruments, and enabled venues to have room-filling sound while hiring far fewer musicians. Amplified instruments also became key components of some Black musical styles, especially Chicago blues. These "race records" became mainstays of late night AM radio DJs, who found regional and national audiences due to the propagation of AM signals at night. Once the music was on the air, there was no preventing White audiences from listening in at home. The music as a style took off when White performers like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley began performing rhythm and blues tunes and allowed the R&B style to influence their own performances.
This in turn spawned the first of several moral panics about rock and roll music. Racial tensions were high generally in the United States at the time. The Civil Rights Movement came into full swing during this period, and serious initial attempts were made at desegregating public schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. The music, much more popular with young people than with their elders, was condemned by racists and conservative elements in American society as one more threat to traditional race barriers.
A countercultural style
International popularity came when American blues, R&B, and folk music became popular in the United Kingdom. Acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones adopted American pop and R&B styles and brought the genre to international popularity The Beatles got their start performing in Germany, while the Stones were founded by folks who met each other due to their hardcore fandom of then-obscure American electric blues records.
Increasing musical sophistication came as a result of several factors. Rock mixed with the folk revival of the early 1960s. A major scandal ensued when Bob Dylan included electric guitars in his band, but his electrified sound gave Dylan even bigger hits. The 1960s counterculture and the influence of psychedelic drugs such as cannabis are also credited with making rock music more complex. Apocryphally, Dylan is supposed to have turned on the Beatles to marijuana; but increasing musical sophistication is evident even in pop acts like the Beach Boys, whose Good Vibrations (1966) is a symphonic miniature in sonata form.
It is difficult to disentangle moral panics generated specifically by rock music from other culture war issues at the time. The New Left and movements against the Vietnam War influenced rock music during this period. Acts such as Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, and John Lennon of the Beatles were some of the many rock acts that made explicitly political and even "revolutionary" music during this period. In hindsight, the irony inherent in wealthy rock stars declaiming rants for revolution on major record company labels is more obvious; but during this period many rock stars became Very Serious People, and their opinions were sought and valued by many.
Conservative horror at rock music during this period is somewhat difficult to sort out from conservative horror at such things as long hair and the studied informality of hippie dress, and right wing rejection of the New Left and antiwar movements. Merle Haggard's well known country song Okie from Muskogee condemns marijuana, LSD, and student protest movements, while (rather hypocritically) praising "white lightning", i.e. moonshine whisky. His response represents an epitome of right-wing reaction to the music and lifestyles of the young during this period.
"Rock music" as a genre tended to break up during this period. A number of reasons existed for this. FM radio tended to replace AM as a vehicle for music, offering greater fidelity but far less range. The rise of FM stations also expanded the range of music available on radio and diminished the role of the Top 40. It also marked the end of a period of eclecticism in radio offerings.
- Christian rock
- Heavy metal
- Rock Against Communism
- Rock Against Racism
- Modern art and architecture
- G. C. Altschuler, All shook up: how rock 'n' roll changed America (Oxford: Oxford University Press US, 2003), p. 35.