You may be wondering when exactly did rock/pop music begin? There’s no clear answer to this. Some might say that it started with the advent of rock n roll with Bill Haley and the Comets in 1952. Others would say Elvis, although not the first but surely the original truly global superstar. Yet none of these were really the first. Rock n roll has its roots in blues which has its roots back to the 19th century with black immigrants trying to escape from their slave driven lives. Fast forward to the early 20th. century and some of the earliest recordings on 78 began to appear. Players from this time such as Bobby Jo and Robert Johnson helped to form the structure of early blues
Robert Johnson had recorded only thirty songs during his short life as he was prevented from achieving true fame while alive by being poisoned by a jealous husband. He died shortly before he was being sought to appear at the ‘Spirituals To Swing’ concert in 1938 by record producer John Hammond. As a result, his reputation only took off after Hammond released an album of his recordings for Columbia in the early sixties. Later blues exponents like Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton admitted borrowing heavily from these early stalwarts.
In the 50’s, artists took the basic blues style and used electric guitars, drums and double bass for the first time creating early rock n roll, later known as rockabilly. Stalwarts like Chuck Berry, Buddy Hollie and Jerry Lee Lewis were the most famous protagonists here. Later Elvis in the US and to a lesser extent, Cliff Richard (later leading the Shadows) in the UK brought rock n roll to a truly worldwide audience. This paved the way for the 60’s beat era which could be considered the true beginning of pop music as we know it today, certainly as far as bands were concerned.
In the 50’s and early 60’s, it was mostly lead solo artists with just a backing band. With the advent of the beat era, bands dominated with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys from the US taking the world by storm. Even so, The Beatles later admitted being heavily influenced by those earlier rock n roll and blues artists. They mostly played rock n roll and blues covers at their pre-fame Hamburg concerts. in the early 60’s. The Beatles however, were the first band to successfully blend classical music textures with rock n roll to form perfectly crafted pop songs. While bands like The Rolling Stones continued with the mainly rock n roll theme,
The Beatles took their finely crafted style further in the seminal album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in 1967 by utilizing new studio techniques and instruments never used before. They used a new instrument called ‘the Melotron’ This was basically a keyboard which played looped tape recordings. of real instruments. The most famous sound from this was probably the flute used on the ‘Strawberry Fields’ single recorded at the same time but later dropped from the album. The Melotron though, was cumbersome and unreliable and had a rather grainy sound. Even so It was regarded as the forerunner of the electronic sampler, invented nearly 20 years later. Infinitely more flexible than the Melotron, the sampler helped build the framework for modern pop,dance and R&B music.
The Beatles ‘Sgt.. Pepper’ album with its groundbreaking recording techniques was preceded the year before by their ‘Revolver’ album. These LP’s helped popularize a new wave in music known as psychedelic or acid rock, named after the mind bending effects of LSD drugs. Pink Floyd also recorded their debut album ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ in the studio next door at the same time that The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper. It was reported that Pink Floyd were a direct influence to The Beatles as a result. This new style incorporated new guitar effects like Fuzz, flanger anger and delays. These were used along side the earliest portable synthesizers such as the therein and mini Moog. invented by Bob Moog.
In America, the Beach boys responded with the ‘Pet sounds’ LP in 1966 and later that year released the first big psychedelic hit ‘Good Vibrations’. About this time, the band ‘Jefferson Airplane’ recorded their debut album which was also the first LP to come out of the new San Franciscan music scene. This got the record industry’s attention and they had two of the earliest psychedelic hits ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody to Love’ in 1967.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Jim Morrison joined with members of The Psychedelic Rangers and Rick and the Ravens to form ‘The Doors’ They were initially turned down by Columbia but were signed to Electra Records and released their self titled debut LP in 1967. The album included the 7 minute long hit single ‘Light my Fire’ one of the first to break the typical three minute pop and rock song barrier.
Back in Britain, radio broadcasting was very limited because the BBC were the only organization allowed to broadcast on the mainland and had just two pop music shows The Saturday club and Easy Beat Radio Luxembourg partially filled the gap but it was left to pirate radio, broadcast from ships out at sea with DJ John Peel’ which enabled the new style to reach a mass audience, often eclipsing the BBC in popularity. The BBC responded in the end with the advent of Radio 1 in June 1967. With the existing labor government making pirate radio illegal in Britain several months later, Du’s like John Peel rather than risk arrest joined radio 1 which had a much more informal and relaxed style as opposed to the staid and conservative approach favored by the BBC until then. This perfectly suited psychedelic pop and rock and John Peel championed this in his late night shows. playing new genres of music and introducing new and unsigned bands in the Peel sessions. He did this for nearly four decades until his death in 2004.
By the end of the 60’s after the break up of the beatles, mainstream music was about to change direction yet again both in style and fashion.