Rock ‘n’ Roll Repeatedly Rolls

Rock and roll, as an influential and largely appreciated genre of music, has evolved and developed over the years, leaving a rich history laden with detailing aspects about society and the broader world as a whole.


Ana Grave / Unsplash

Rock and roll is one of the oldest genres of music in the United States, dating back to around the time of the First World War. As a result of the traumatic experiences that the Great War induced, expression in different forms of art decreased. However, rock and roll revamped the reverence for personal expression such as to develop common ground, thereby appealing to several different audiences and demographics. When asked about why he likes rock and roll music, “ I just want to play music that makes me feel alive and feel like me,” said Susan Cohen ’23.

It is The Forbidden Riff — a title that drives the image of Indiana Jones evading dozens of booby traps to obtain this seemingly sacred acquisition. 

What exactly is the treasure? Well, a sequence of notes for a recorder paired with some guitar chords that no guitar store owner would permit. 

Lead guitarist Jimmy Page initiates the band’s most recognized piece with a melody reminiscent of a tune prevalent in English folktale. Together with lead singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham, they are Led Zeppelin: an English rock band formed in the late 1960s. 

Most guitar store owners usually forbid the opening of the 1971 hit, “Stairway to Heaven” because it is overplayed. They have experienced the hundreds and possibly even thousands of beginner guitar players, in their endeavors to master the string instrument, pick up the few chords required to be played for the song’s hook: simplistic but sophisticatedly impactful; neither heavy nor abrasive, but striking — a piece that hooks listeners the first time they hear it and each time after that. 

The song reached everywhere, coming to the United States shortly after its release. Even so, the song never charted, not because it had a negative reception — which it undoubtedly did not — but because the band did not release it as a single. What rock and roll fans received was an entire album, Led Zeppelin IV, containing some of the most influential pieces of rock music that the band released, such as “Black Dog,” “When the Levee Breaks,” and more. 

However, Led Zeppelin’s mark on American rock culture was not the first. Unlike in 1775, there was no Paul Revere for this British invasion: this time on rock music. Several widely-recognized bands, in addition to Led Zeppelin, such as The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” The Rolling Stones from “London’s Marquee Jazz Club,” The Who, Queen as much later rockstars, and more each contributed to the shifts in American trends related to rock and roll. 

Fans of the art resonate with rock and roll music because of its instrumentation and lyricism, as well as its icons, fashion, and more. “Purely Guitar riffs, catchy melodies, and varied singing,” said Pritish Anand ’23 when asked about which aspects of rock and roll most appealed to him. 

In response to the same question, Will Bruner ’23 said, “I like the instrumental aspect, like the guitar riffs.” He added, “my favorite band is Led Zeppelin because of the genius guitarist.” These bands usually come to mind when one thinks of rock and roll. However, this widely-recognizable genre of music did not have a name until 1951. 

In 1951, Alan Freed coined the term rock and roll, simply writing it as “rock ’n’ roll” in order to describe the increasingly prevalent riffs and chord progressions that were diverging from what he usually heard in typical blues and country music. The introduction of multitrack audiotapes allowed for the innovation of assorted layers of different recordings, allowing for distinctive features in the genre like harmonization within a single track along with the backdrop of complementary instrumentation. 

Although revolutionary developments to the technological production of music indispensably contributed to the renown of rock music, sociopolitical patterns, especially after the two World Wars, further conferred the genre’s appeal. Expressionism in art, including musicians’ tastes, faltered after the Great War in the sense that people felt less connected in terms of society, spirituality/faith, and the natural world at large.

Rather, escapism was the pièce de résistance. Individuals sought to indulge in paraphernalia redolent of the supernatural, being aware and largely fearful of the destruction that the world demonstrated in the First World War. The Second World War further exacerbated this effect of plummeting self-expressionism. The works of Jackson Pollock near the late 1940s and early 1950s reflect this sense of abstract expressionism that did not receive much display prior to the twentieth century. Pollock’s technique of drip painting led to the formation of jagged lines of varied colors: the artist expressed the paint on his canvas as paint itself — an attack on painting, art, and expression on their own.  

This era witnessed the emergence of blockbuster films centered on themes of calamity and destruction as such genres of movies quickly rose to prominence too after World War II, a source of entertainment but more so of escapism. Alan Freed’s 1951 delegation of rock music as a distinct, separate genre served as an additional outlet for people, garnering affinity similar to that which they felt with the successful blockbuster films of that time. As such, rock music flourished in England until eventually making its way to the United States, an event that is known as the British Invasion of music. 

However, that is not to say that some forms of rock music did not exist prior to Alan Freed’s coinage. Rather, individuals created rock and roll music long before it was given a name as seen in Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Singing about the tragedy of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 from the perspective of a poor family man that worked on a floodbank in the state, McCoy contributes the vocals as Minnie furnishes the song with mellow instrumentation: the early beginnings of soft, classical rock in 1929.

In 1971, during the same time that they recorded “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin produced an honorary tribute to this song released in 1929. Despite a few modifications in the form of repetitions to the main chorus thereby doubling the duration of the piece, Led Zeppelin principally maintains the original essence as McCoy and Minnie had endowed. 

Songs are a medium of expression and their forms always involve audible articulations, unlike other styles of art ranging from sculptures to novels, that advance a type of unique, idiomatic motif. The words of Minnie and McCoy are forever immortalized by their tuneful utterance in Led Zeppelin’s cover, exemplifying the effect of songs on society, such as the damage and loss of infrastructure that the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 entailed.  

Rock music transformed under the advent of the electric guitar, often attributed to musicians such as Les Paul, George Beauchamp, Charlie Christian, and more as they introduced the instrument in neo-genres like electric blues, nu jazz (electric jazz guitar), and more. However, the popularity of the electric guitar and other amplified instruments superbly flourished under the features of one Robert Allen Zimmerman, more commonly known as Bob Dylan. The recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, Dylan, significantly influenced rock music for reasons similar to why the genre appeals to Pritish Anand and Will Bruner, thereby solidifying Alan Freed’s specification of this special category of music. 

As Bob Dylan continued to compose his pieces for the tens of thousands of people that would watch him live and on-stage, he knew there were at least tenfold more eagerly waiting in the comfort of their homes to listen to him. Radio was an important invention as its advent allowed for widespread broadcasting and subsequent dissemination of things like President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even Bob Dylan’s music as it was played live in concert halls or Johnny Cash’s prison performances

The spread of music only bolstered in an exponential manner with tele-broadcasting. In addition to hearing the guitar riffs, vocals that emphasize hyperbolic lyricism, and catchy melodies, rock lovers were able to resonate with rockstars’ iconic fashion styles with the use of television. Many argue that it was the introduction of TV that ushered in the British Invasion of 1964.

Several English bands, like “The Beatles,” “Herman’s Hermits,” “The Rolling Stones,” and more, had their music heard worldwide. Despite the bands’ influence reaching worldwide in the 1960s, the prominence of classical rock maintained well into the following decades with many rock and roll enthusiasts believing that the genre peaked in the 80s. 

One event from this golden era of rock and roll that blatantly stands out is Live Aid. In lieu of the Ethiopian famine of 1984, Bob Geldof sought to organize a rock and roll concert fundraiser, featuring the most influential bands of the era. Acclaimed artists like Paul McCartney of The Beatles, Elton John, Madonna, Toto, Queen, and more all joined the show. The format: twenty minutes for each band in which their best songs are performed live such as to yield donations that would be provided as relief for famine-stricken families in Africa. Live Aid was a great success, raising over 127 million USD for the regions that underwent frequent failures in harvests, harsh droughts, and barren land. 

While each artist featured their greatest hits, no band caught the attention of the audience like Queen. Lead vocalist Freddie Mercury, bassist John Deacon, drummer and co-singer Roger Taylor, and brilliant lead guitarist Brian May seized the twenty minutes that they had with the world’s eyes on them. Initiating with their most popular song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ Queen were able to engage the audience with their reminiscence of the song’s poetic lyricism and staple instrumentation along with the unmatched voice of an older Freddie Mercury. After this ballad with which the crowd of 72,000 in Wembley Stadium, London, England sang along, the band concluded their marvelous performance with other hits, such as ‘We Will Rock You,’ until eventually bidding a teary farewell to their fans with ‘We Are the Champions.’ 

Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ transformed the realm of music as they transcended the world’s agreement of head-bashing guitar riffs to literal lyrics. No sense of monotony — their exploration of five genres (a cappella, ballad, opera, rock, and mellow) were not meant to work, claimed the various song producers that refused to experiment with such a preposterous combination. However, when it played, it worked indeed, especially for the millions that listened to it and contributed to its seizure of the top charts in the United Kingdom along with top ten in the United States. 

The song pushed the boundaries of what a rock and roll song could sound like and Freddie Mercury’s vocals also never disappoint,” said Susan Cohen ’23. “My father has been a rock and roll fan for his entire life so it’s not shocking that his love for rock and roll passed down to me. The first rock and roll song I ever heard was ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen and still to this day, it is the most fascinating song I’ve ever heard.” 

Songs are a form of expression and what Freddie Mercury actually strove to portray about himself and his experiences were implicit: unknown to the audience but not taking away from the idea that they were still able to connect themselves to the song. Many tie the song to Mercury’s plea regarding his broader identity: he was a gay man in 1970s London coming from a traditional Persian (Farsi) family, and this song is his own form of expression.

All these factors and more contributed to the shift that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ induced in the role of music. In addition to merely sounding good, songs served as a way to join people together and unify them based on common experiences. Perhaps, it was this implication regarding a sense of belonging that hooked the audience to Queen’s time on Live Aid. 

As a result of this event, the 80s are known as a decade of resilience with the typical image of teenagers dressed as hippies listening to rock music against the will of their parents usually coming to mind. Eventually, classical rock’s imprint on American pop culture decayed after the conclusion of the golden decade for it during the 80’s. Instead, what followed was a revamped version of the genre known as neo-rock (“new” rock) but may also be referred to as progressive rock, punk rock, or funk rock (although some may recognize these names as off-shoots of progressive rock). 

With bands like “Nirvana” and “Linkin Park” later on, neo-rock entails the use of electrical instrumentation in a louder orientation along with more fervently, tuneful “scream-singing.” The theme of scream-singing developed from various improvisations that derived from bands’ hyper-dramatic lyricism. 

Even despite the current trend of rock music as a broad genre today, there is evidence of a yearning for classical rock. After the release of the 2018 movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” that focuses on the life and breadth of the band Queen and lead vocalist Freddie Mercury, several similar movies aim to detail the lives of certain central figures in the genre. For example, “Rocketman” (2019) details the life and achievements of the solo-musician Elton John whilst “Elvis” (2022) depicts those of Elvis Presley. 

The people that are fond of rock and roll are loyal to it as they feel elevated to a certain extent that enhances their persona. Moreover, this development of rock and roll music gave birth to other related types of music. For example, despite the degrees of change, rap music may be viewed as an extremely radical off-shoot from rock and roll music as it still abides by the same structure of relating one’s experiences such that others can establish a connection between the artist(s) and themselves. 

Due to its contributions to music as well as society in general, rock and roll is a genre to be remembered for the ages. The next time that you feel down and out, consider turning on a rock and roll anthem to experience the kind of music that has enticed people from all over the world for decades!

“Purely Guitar riffs, catchy melodies, [and] varied singing are some of my favorite aspects about rock” said Pritish Anand ’23.