Classic British Rock at Backstage Originals
The Roots of British Rock Music.
1) Where Did it All Begin?
Rock music as we know it today, can be traced to a great number of influences; from Blues to Classical, from Jazz to Soul, from Folk to Ethnic and stopping off at all points inbetween. The true starting point, however, is not so much to be found in musical style but is instead, to be found in attitude. With this in mind, the roots of Rock Music become much easier to unearth.
The American music scene in the early 1950’s provided little to entertain it’s teenagers, who were instead expected to enjoy the music that ma and pa listened to and to pretty much behave as ma and pa did. The simple reason for this is that American teenagers had never been presented with a style of music that it could claim as it’s own, one that ma and pa definetly wouldn’t like. Given the religious morality that presided over the nation at the time, this is hardly surprising. However, in 1954, the release of Bill Haley and the Comets’ ‘Rock around the Clock’ marked the beginning of an entirely new era. The song was not a big hit on it’s initial release, but a year later, it was used as the music in the opening sequence of and throughout the movie ‘Blackboard Jungle’ (a movie whose central theme involves teenage anti-social behaviour in the classroom) and the song became a massive hit, with teenagers packing the cinemas in huge numbers to hear the song alone, with scenes of violence erupting in some instances. Rock n’ Roll was born and rebellion eagerly followed. And rebellion it was; Rock n’ Roll was condemned as being ‘the devil’s music’ and Church ministers appeared on live television smashing Rock n’ Roll records, much to the amusement and relief of the fans at the time, I would imagine. It seemed that the parents definetly didn’t like it.
Along with the attitude, the other equally crucial factor that led to the popularity of Rock n’ Roll was the development of the electric guitar. The instrument had been in use for several years, especially for Blues musicians, but had played little part in mainstream music. Advances in technology led to the development of better amplification for instruments such as bass, (formerly always an acoustic double bass) guitar and drums. The instruments themselves also improved in quality and by the mid 1950’s, the electric guitar defined the sound of Rock n’ Roll music and the line-up up of guitar(s), bass, drums and vocals is still a mainstay of Rock to this day. The guitar also took the role of the lead instrument, drawing on Blues, Jazz, Country and other influences and the ‘guitar hero’ was born, with such greats as Scotty Moore, James Burton and Link Wray pushing the boundaries and having a major influence on subsequent generations even now.
As Frank Zappa once reputedly said; “The electric guitar is the only instrument you can be truly disgusting on.” This instrument was now here to stay.
2) The 1950’s
During the course of World War 2, it is estimated that around 1.5 million American troops were either stationed in Britain or passed through the country on their way to fight in Germany. This led to a greater cultural exchange between the two nations and after the end of the War, the people of Britain subsequently absorbed American culture with great enthusiasm and relish; movies, literature, television and music were all to have a lasting influence on British culture, but in the case of music, these roles were soon to be reversed.
The youth of Great Britain soon adopted Rock n’ Roll as their own, in spite of the opposition of traditional British society and by the late 1950’s, home-grown artists were competing with the American originaters of the genre. Amoung the more notable contributors were Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Billy Fury and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, whose song ‘Shakin’ All Over’ ranks up there with the Rock n’ Roll classics, both for the song and for the guitar
riff, which has since become a classic in it’s own right. Businesses quickly spotted the marketing opportunities and youth was catered for as it had never previously been, with fashion, music, television, cinema and others all fighting for a share of this new, lucrative market.
3) The 1960’s
By the time the1960’s arrived, music had become the language of youth culture and it seemed as if half of the nation had decided to form a band and consequently, live music could be found being played virtually anywhere on any night of the week. Rock n’ Roll had run it’s course and British musicians were now drawing their inspiration from other musical sources, notably Beat music, Blues and Folk. By the early 1960’s, three main bands had established themselves as major acts: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who and each of these bands seem to represent a different aspect of youth culture and attitude.
Of the three, The Beatles were the bigger commercial success and the experience that they had gained from sheer hard work and relentless gigging enabled them to craft songs of a standard rarely heard from bands at that time. Unlike others who drew upon Blues or Rock n’ Roll, the major influence upon the Beatles was the Beat music of Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The Beatles represented the acceptable face of youth but were equally the objects of sheer adoration for most teenage girls.
The Rolling Stones were almost the polar opposite of Beatles, playing songs drawn from the Blues and appearing to be menacing and rebellious, not the kind of boys that a young girl would take home to meet the parents. Where The Beatles appealed to the innocent fantasies of teenage girls, the Stones’ female audience were generally older and no longer needed to fantasise. Jagger’s brand of sexuality was groundbreaking for the time but set a mould for many a front man to come, whereas guitarist Keith Richards simply embodied the Rock n’ Roll attitude.
The Who on the other hand, played songs that represented the frustrations of the youth of the day and they expressed these frustrations further by smashing their instruments to pieces onstage with tremendous force and aggression, with guitarist Pete Townshend truly assaulting the guitar to the point where one almost felt sorry for it.
And so the invasion of America began, with The Beatles landing in the U.S. in 1964. An incredible 75% of American television viewers tuned in to watch the band’s T.V. appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and their tour culminated with the band holding the top five placings in the Billboard Hot 100 singles Chart and thereby opening the floodgates for other British bands such as the Stones, the Troggs, The Kinks, the Who and many others.
Along with the music, they also took the fashions and hairstyles with them and so Great Britain became the coolest place around and where it had previously imitated American youth music and culture, the roles were now reversed. American musicians found new inspiration from bands such as The Yardbirds (whose line-up of guitarists had featured Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, the three top guitar-players of the time), The Stones, Cream and others. Musical virtuosity was fast becoming the order of the day and British musicians led the way until, in 1964, an unknown American guitarist called Jimi Hendrix arrived on these shores and completely immersed himself in the music and culture of London. When he did burst onto the music scene, Hendrix became an overnight sensation, taking virtuosity to a new level whilst making it look all too easy. After Hendrix, the image of the guitarist was changed forever and the egos of many of the guitar greats of the time were severely deflated in the process.
By the late 1960’s, the music scene had diversified and had given rise to several sub-cultures such as Psychadelic Rock, Progressive Rock, Heavy Rock, Folk Rock etc. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd were beginning to fill huge venues ( both here in Britain and in the U.S.) and were showing off a lot whilst doing so. In complete contrast, Black Sabbath first appeared on the
circuit in 1969 and appeared, in musical terms, to come from another planet entirely. (They actually came from Birmingham) Unlike other bands of the era, their music was not influenced by Blues or any other style of the time and musical virtuosity held little interest for them. Instead, the major factor in their musical style was the sound of fear. One night, whilst watching a large queue of people standing outside a cinema which was showing a Boris Karloff horror movie, bass player Geezer Butler remarked to guitarist Tony Iommi how strange it was that people would spend so much money just to be scared. The film was called Black Sabbath and in that moment, Heavy Metal was born, though it would be a few more years until other bands caught on.
4) The 1970’s
At the beginning of the 1970’s, the major Rock bands from the 1960’s were now huge and music was a very lucrative business indeed and British musicians were thriving in the States. Most of the big acts were by now indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle of sex and drugs, and it was the Rock n’ Roll that seemed to suffer the consequences. Glitter Rock was the new mainstream chart sensation in Britain, with bands such as Slade, The Sweet, Alvin Stardust and Gary Glitter topping the music charts on a regular basis and mostly playing, rather ironically, stylised versions of traditional 1950’s Rock n’ Roll to a largely teenage fan-base. The musicians tended to wear vast quantities of low-quality make-up, platform boots and, not surprisingly, gaudy, glittery clothes. Few of these bands succeeded in the States and few lasted beyond the Glitter Rock phenomenom. Glitter Rock quickly evolved into Glam Rock and it was Glam that spawned some of the most important and interesting bands of the decade. Marc Bolan and T. Rex kicked the whole thing off, with Bolan’s perfect features, memorable vocal delivery and immaculate Rock Star poses catching the imagination of the music-buying public and in the process, appealing to both teenagers and to a slightly more mature audience. However, Glam really took off when bands such as Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music and David Bowie broke onto the scene. These bands brought an intelligence and a creativity into the music and viewed Rock as an art form. Bowie in particular, with his background of art, music and design, bought conceptual and visual art into Rock to a degree never before seen. He came across as an alien being, strange and androgynous and this was precisely his intention. His creation of Ziggy Stardust, the ultimate Rock Star, and the subsequent character of Aladdin Sane have continued to be amongst the most durable images in music history, spanning generations and appearing to be almost timeless. However, always ahead of the game, in 1975 Bowie presented a complete change of both musical direction and image with the release the the Soul-influenced Young Americans album and with his subsequent forays into electronic music and the Berlin scene.
Bowie’s timing was perfect, for 1976 heralded a rebellion against the megastar rock bands and the make-up wearing prima donnas - the rebellion came in the form of Punk Rock. Once again, the roles were reversed and Britain now drew it’s influence from the Garage scene in the U.S. which had begun as early as 1969 with Iggy Pop and the Stooges and later in 1974 with The Ramones. The Ramones were part of a larger scene based in New York, which also included Patti Smith, Television and the New York Dolls. At the end of their career, which was brief, the New York Dolls enlisted the management services of Malcolm McLaren, who later returned to England and, having seen what was happening in the States, McLaren decided to put together a band in London in the mould of the emerging American Punk scene. That band was to become The Sex Pistols and their impact on the British music scene caused genuine outrage and occassional fear throughout the nation. The real impact of the Sex Pistols came in the form of singer Johnny Rotten, whose sneering vocals and truly unpleasant image were more than matched by his sharp intelligence. Rotten spoke out against the dinosaurs of rock music, he criticised the over-indulgent guitar solos, the preening, painted posers and was equally scathing about society in general - he spoke for a large number of the discontented youth of the nation. However, Punk Rock burned out rather quickly, as was it’s nature, and produced few
bands of note; The Sex Pistols and the Clash being the most prominent. A special mention should also go to X-Ray-Spex, a superb little band whose singer, Poly Styrene was a genuine talent with a sharp line in social observation and a truly unique voice capable of matching that of Johnny Rotten himself for sheer intensity.
In spite of the emergence of Punk, Heavy Rock was still going strong and the influence of Black Sabbath finally came to fruition in the form of Judas Priest, who like Sabbath, also hailed from Birmingham. They had been around since 1969 but only released their first album in 1974. After a few years of constant gigging, the band began to forge an image that became the bench mark for the Metal bands of future generations. Priest’s singer, Rob Halford, did not appear to be like the traditional Heavy Rock band vocalist. For a start, he had short hair and was tall, thin and rather ungainly. A further difference was the fact that he was a gay man and in later years, a fan of fetish clothes - leather, studs, chains, whips etc. It was in the late 1970’s that Halford and the rest of the band (in their heterosexual innocence) started wearing this type of clothing onstage and it soon became the standard gear for Heavy Metal bands worldwide. Halford publicly came out as being gay in 1998 and this news apparently came as a great surprise to their many fans. However those of us who have seen the front cover of their 1979 live album, Unleashed in the East, were not surprised at all. Look it up and judge for yourself.
Judas Priest’s speeded up, intensified form of Metal paved the way for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, as did the no-nonense music and attitude of Motorhead, who seemed to appeal to Rock fans of all tastes. Dressed like bikers, Motorhead’s no-nonsense approach seemed to transcend traditional prejudices against Heavy Rock, largely thanks to singer and bassist Lemmy, who seemed even then to be destined to become an elder statesman of Rock.
New bands, such as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Angelwitch emerged, bringing fresh excitement and energy into a stagnating musical genre. Also worthy of note are Girlschool, an all-female Rock band who played with a power worthy of Motorhead themselves. These bands had little interest in make-up and flashy clothes, preferring instead to wear t-shirts, jeans, trainers and leather jackets, and they had an approach to the music and image that was more akin to Punk than to traditional Rock. The music was played at breakneck speed and was entirely about energy and riffs. Ironically, as Iron Maiden and Def Leppard gained more success, they, like their predecessors, went on to present elaborate stage performances and to play in huge stadiums, but they still seemed to retain more humanity than some of the previous generation had done and they showed a genuine affection towards their loyal fans, again, unlike many of the megastars of previous eras.
And so rock music had turned full circle once again, with the new, young audience rejecting the music of their parents’ generation and instead demanding music performed by bands that they could relate to and that reflected the times that they were living in. Although nothing would ever quite capture the excitement of the 1950’s, when the youth of the day finally broke free from it’s long-term captivity and demanded a voice of it’s own, British Rock has nevertheless provided a vast number of memorable high points and although the music has moved on in every way possible, the attitude still surfaces from time to time and the saying still rings true – Rock n’ Roll Will Never Die.