Back in My Day- A Look at the Rise and Fall of Generational Rock (Part One)

Across distance and time, music has brought people together, regardless of cultural or sociopolitical differences. One might even go so far as to say that music is a sort of social lubricant, forming a barrier that eases the friction between different groups that seemingly have little-to-nothing in common. If you were to attend the live concert of a band that has been around for decades, you’d see just how diverse the crowd is. A band like ZZ Top, who has had the same lineup since they formed in 1969, would inevitably draw fans of country and western, the blues, hard rock, outlaw country, southern rock… we could go on and on! You’d see people in boots and ten-gallon hats, bikers clad in leather vests and Harley Davidson T-shirts, and even a more casually-dressed younger crowd who grew up watching MTV and can remember the sound of the old hot rod that Billy Gibbons slapped on the cover of their hit record, Eliminator. The identity of these fans, at one point or another, was closely tied into what music they listened to. If you think about it, it’s what brought them together to see that show in the first place. But how did rock music become so intimately tied to the lives of generations of young rock fans, and how has that changed over the years? Do we still culturally identify with rock music like we did 50 years ago? 

Looking back on the decades before the turn of the millennium, we’re able to clearly see the influence of music on the youth of each generation. Time and time again, young people have wielded their music and culture like a broadsword against the social norms of their time. This “counter-culture” has grown and splintered across the decades, remaining influential to this day. One could reasonably say that the first real “generational” tie between music and culture begin in the 1920’s. Coming out of the first World War, the United States was growing, not just in population, but economically, culturally, and in influence. The US became the forerunners in world finance, and this newfound prosperity, after years of rationing and sacrificing during the war, gave the era a sense of excitement and wonder at all the newfound possibilities. Everything was hip and cutting-edge, and being risqué and adventurous was the hot ticket in the Roaring 20’s. At that time, jazz was the popular style of music, and behind the dark, hidden walls of the speakeasies across the country, the rebellious young men and women (the famous Flapper girls of the time) danced to the playful, sensual music, unafraid of bucking the system and the social standards of their time. Their beloved jazz music and its performers, like Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, created a deep fear in the heart of traditionalists, who viewed their movement as the death of morality. While young people have rebelled against authority throughout history, this is the first time that rebellion had a soundtrack, a form of music that triggered feelings of free-spirited dissent and the desire to break the psychological hold of authority. The morals and ideals of older, more traditional generations would continue to clash  over the subsequent decades, but the biggest battles would be fought over a style of music that became synonymous with the 1950’s… Rock-n-Roll. 

In the 40’s and early 50’s, blues and R&B were still a form of underground music, and even it’s biggest stars struggled to break free of the “Chitlin’ Circuit”. Black music was considered racy, raw, and much too controversial to be played on mainstream radio. But in 1951, a Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed began playing rhythm and blues hits during his set, marking one of the first times a radio station actively sought out a multiracial audience. He brought to the attention of white people across America a gritty, soulful sound they had only heard interpreted in country and western music. This “rock-n-roll” music, as Freed called it, inspired a young man from Tennessee to combine country and R&B into a uptempo, good-time groove that shook up the world. 

Rock and Roll, thy name be Elvis… Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi
Sept 26, 1956
© 1978 Roger Marshutz—MPTV

When Elvis Presley appeared on American television in 1956, the world changed forever. His hip-shaking and pelvic-thrusting did not go over well with parents in the US, and neither did his sensual singing or raucous guitar-strumming. The press tore him apart, and parents complained in droves, but the young people loved him! His music, along with the speedy blues guitar riffs of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, the sock-hop rock of Bill Haley and His Comets, and fiery piano boogie-rock of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, came to defined the openly rebellious attitude of the American youth of the 50’s. Link Wray’s famous instrumental “Rumble”, with its gruff, distorted power chords, was banned from the radio for fear it might incite gang violence. Songs like “Maybellene”, “Great Balls of Fire”, and “Hound Dog” were being blasted through the speakers of every malt shop, sock hop, and beer joint across the country. These young people were hell-bent on destroying the incredibly powerful social taboos of sex and racial integration, using black music played by white people to offend the delicate, prudish sensibilities of the traditionalists. While the Jazz Age of the 20’s certainly used their music to rebel against social order, this was different. This first generation of rockers used music to openly display their dissent and improve their social situation in their time. There are obviously a variety of motives behind the rise of rock-n-roll, but it did spark a slow-burning fire. The young children who were watching this go on around them didn’t forget the power of music, and the counterculture of the 60’s, with its emphasis on music and the arts, became an even bigger proponent of open rebellion against the establishment. 

The music and culture of the 60’s are hard to pin down to just one decade, and there were many, many types of music that grew from the dramatic environment of that time period. 1959 marked the end of the “rock-n-roll” era, partially due to the tragic deaths of Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper in the infamous plane crash on February 3rd known as “the Day the Music Died”. In the early years of the 60’s, established acts like Chuck Berry and Little Richard lost their positions at the top of the charts, as R&B and pop acts took over the soundscape. Musically, things really started to get rolling around the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and continued to snowball until the early 70’s. There was so much free-flowing creativity, and artists watched as people struggled to make sense of the shifting political paradigms. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights struggle, and the quest for personal freedom made the young people of the 60’s extremely passionate about their personal causes, which everyone seemed to have. The folk stylings of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Joan Baez left a strong impression on the generation’s artists. Their altruistic nature, pointed political observations, and appeals for peace and love resonated with their generation. While there was certainly no shortage of influences, the hippie movement that gained traction in the mid 60’s held the grassroots folk music of their generation in high esteem, and it was truly at the core of their ideology. 

Seth Kahaian, seasoned rock journalist and founder of Seth’s Rock Report, believes the decade brought the artists and the culture creative freedom, self-confidence, and all that comes with it .

“The 1960’s were a different animal altogether”, says Kahaian. “(In) this era, the artists and bands of the day discovered that they could write their own songs. Prior to this time, most of the hits were written for the artists and bands. Considering these artists and groups were approximately the same age as their fans, what they we were singing about or expressing was very relatable to their generation.”

Love was the theme of the 1960’s, and in a time period of intense social unrest, the music and culture of young people in the 60’s never strayed too far from the four-letter word. The Beatles and their stranglehold on the pop charts changed the way music was marketed, and Beatlemania really helped create the image of the “rock star”. American audiences couldn’t get enough of this new popular rock style, and the British Invasion introduced us to bands like The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Zombies, and the Kinks.

“The British Invasion artists and bands became the influence of America”, says Kahaian. “You can really hear the impact in the Seventies.”

The Who’s “My Generation” was an anthem for the teenage angst of a generation

Ironically, many of these bands were influenced by American rock-n-roll, but the southern blues influence on groups like the Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Animals had Americans going back to discover artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Freddie King, and Robert Johnson. Many of these seasoned bluesmen experienced a career revival due to their newfound popularity.

Psychedelic rock, with its blues and folk roots, gained popularity and paved the way for the innovative rock music that would blossom in the coming decades. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, and Janis Joplin all brought something different to the table, but they all were speaking for the same values and the same people. Their bold experimentation and skillful blending of established genres of music with psychedelia has left a lasting influence on subsequent generations. For the first time, rock music was being used as a vehicle for pretty much any emotion one wished to convey, even if a little LSD was necessary to enable the listener to hop on and enjoy the ride. The blues and jazz influences on rock music cannot be understated and, once again, by taking the music traditionally played by blacks and using it as a spiritual conduit for their own pain and misunderstanding, the young people of the 60’s made their stand against the War in Vietnam, against racism, and against a society that didn’t share their views on free love and peace. By organizing huge festivals like Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival, the 60’s “flower children” were able to show the world that their music and art was beautiful, meaningful, and powerful. Because of the popularity of the performers they were able to draw in, a staggering number of people attended, demonstrating the strength and unity of the rock community to the outside world and changing the cultural landscape of the 60’s. This generation was the first to directly tie their culture, morals, and political views to rock music, and even after the hippie movement faded away, the power behind the message remains.

Woodstock was more than just a music festival… it was a cultural statement of intent.


Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for Part Two of our Three-Part series on Generational Rock!

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