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How Did Music Get Here?

One View of Music History in the Rock Era

Music as I See It

As a musician, I've performed in various places, venues, etc., and before audiences that were welcoming and a bit hostile. I've spent my entire musical life trying to find the next thing. In order to do that, it is important to look back over my lifetime and even further back to understand where we've been in music in order to go forward to get to the next level. So, with that being said, let's pull back the curtain to the backstage of music in the rock era and see just what was going then and where it led us, to the present day.

The post-World War II music scene was beginning to slowly change. The music got faster, the singers became bigger than life, and the dances started to head into controversy. Big bands were still swinging, and the vocalists held the music fan's attention almost as much as the songs; Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King, and Johnny Mercer. The ladies were on the rise as well: Jo Stafford and Billie Holiday gave the world a different musical point of view. Many songs seemed innocent enough ("All of Me," "To Each His Own," "Fools Rush In," "Buttons and Bows," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Day By Day") and yet the country was expanding their musical palate. Country and western music was revving up, with artists such as Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold. Their songs were a little more depressing, with subjects including heartbreak and even divorce. The decade was coming to a close and music lovers were being treated to a variety of tunes.

The 1950s started with more of the same music, yet there were hints of something different about to happen. Big bands were starting to filter out of the music scene. Jazz music and country and western seemed to take over for a short time. Artists in the early 50s included Guy Mitchell, Teresa Brewer, Andrews Sisters, Patti Page, Ames Brothers, and Fats Domino. That last name was going to be quite a crossover later in the decade. The country was also changing, as the early times of the Civil Rights movement began waking the population to the plight of others. As African-American artists started to become noticeable, so did the reality of their lives and the discussions began over how to change things for the better.

This was not going to be easy. White artists were still preferred over black artists amid the upheaval of the new conscientiousness happening in the country. Music, something that people usually had in the background of life, began to push forward, bringing with it a new ally in the battle for the rights of those left behind for so long. The industry itself seemed to be hesitant about promoting black singers and musicians for fear of backlash, especially in the are of marketing. The general public did not seem ready for artists such as Fats Domino and Little Richard to truly break out. Those two did anyway. Their live performances and stronger personalities would not be contained.

The early days of what we call rock 'n roll were not something the older generations were ready for at all. Kids who had grown up with swing music and big bands were in need of something new. That's been the key the persistence of musical progress: the desire for something not done before. Radio stations were in constant battles for the public's musical souls. Elvis Presley became the first big idol of the age. He crossed over with country, rockabilly, straight rock, and even gospel. Any station trying to reach everyone played an Elvis record. Other acts, such as Billy and the Comets and Buddy Holly, first reached local audiences before break out tunes such as "Rock Around the Clock" and "That'll Be the Day" pushed them into the spotlight. While other acts seemed to only copy what was already out there, Elvis and Buddy Holly seemed to break a few barriers. It was the excitement and freshness of the music in the mid- to late- 50s that kept kids buying records and getting to the live shows as much as possible.

By the end of the decade, however, things were beginning to go a little off the rails. Jerry Lee Lewis marries his much younger cousin, Little Richard. Well, he's Little Richard, and even Bill Haley had some problems that became public, so rock and roll started to have some very awkward growing pains and no one really knew where it was going next. Then, Elvis went into the Army and the plane with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper crashed outside Clear Lake, Iowa. The innocence disappeared and music reached a turning point in the more modern era.

So, we reached the end of the Red Scare, the McCarthy hearings, and the country went searching for something new in music. The early 1960s still had beatniks left and the coffeehouses filled up with folk artists of the time: Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. There were still some holdovers from the rock/pop/country-ish scene as well: Everly Brothers, Dion and the Belmonts, and Elvis still had influence. Musical tastes and styles were seemingly in a odd state of flux and the public grabbed onto whatever seemed popular. The Kennedy presidency was to bring in a fresh take on society's role in the world. Music needed the same kind of new.

Then came the Beatles and the British Invasion and music found its something new. The influence has lasted longer than most realize.

Okay, let me have an aside here about how influence works in music. We all have our favorite artist, song, lyric, album, performance, etc. If I were to mention any group from almost any era, you could name a song or a live show that is automatically infused in your mind. Music is a part of life we all need and some will try to deny its influence on their lives. Even if listening to music is not a regular part of one's existence, anyone can recognize an artist by name or by song if it is played enough for other people to hum or discuss constantly. Yes, folks, it does happen that way.

The 60s birthed so many new styles. The Beatles and the Beach Boys experimented with different instruments, interesting orchestral arrangements, and brought the bass guitar into the mix, finally. The protests of the Vietnam War brought artists and groups into the fore as well, with songs that directly addressed the world around us. "Eve of Destruction," "For What It's Worth," and "San Francisco" gave us some things to think about, giving an alternative way of talking about the problems facing our society and world at large. The Summer of Love led into Woodstock and the end of second act of the rock era.

Here comes the 70s, a time when rock, pop, soul, disco, punk, and glam mixed together and crossed over each other to form the craziest decade and start of the third (short) act of the era. Drugs found its way into so much music from the mid-60s into the early 70s. Artists from this time even admitted as much, although some not until later in their careers. Now, if one was not looking for it, the sounds of the music from back then just seemed to be a way to just get away from everything. Some acts broke ground in live shows and the concept album started growing up. Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Frampton, and Wings brought the live show into a new time of influence. Now, I cannot mention the decade without the throwback to the 1950s when Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Rick Nelson had comeback hits that brought about a revival of sorts to the days of innocence. The musical Grease grew out of this time and is still an influential musical today. Disco seemed to put dancing back into the spotlight and almost every artist of the time had a disco record. This was, of course, not always welcome ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" was just about the most disgusting display—ever).

Let me say at this point that the decade was on the edge of something and not many were ready for it. Live shows were getting bigger and bigger. Disco shamed those of us who did not have the moves into keeping up. So, where was it all leading to? Punk, of course—what I consider the "bottoming out" of the industry as a whole. The backlash of the decade of excess (disco to be specific) gave way to a hollowing out of how music was created and performed. Kids were just banging away on instruments they could not play at all and people were now into it. As some acts were having to cut back on the grandness of their shows, punk was giving in to the baser instincts of rage and emptiness. I recall the night when Comiskey Park in Chicago encouraged people to bring their disco records to be burned in between doubleheader games. It was both a disaster and a relief, at least to me. To me, it was about time disco died. I have rhythm, but not the smooth moves that others seemed to have that girls loved.

By the end of the 70s, the music industry was taking stock, trying to recover from the excesses of the time. Bands and solo artists were stripping things down to the bare essentials. They played their instruments well and jettisoned the elaborate stage shows. Straight forward music with songs people actually listened to. Music one could dance to, but not having to learn complicated moves to impress anyone. They called it New Wave. I guess it was appropriate.

Ah, the 80s. How to put this? Okay, here it goes. Techno, metal, hair bands, Springsteen, Prince, synthesizers, great soundtracks, Live Aid, Band Aid, Farm Aid, fun rap... hmm, need I say more? A decade filled with something for everyone. I could name a year and something will come to you that everybody will agree with you on. Let's see... 1985. "Der Kommissar," "Too Shy," Queen at Live Aid and Born In the USA. Had enough?

As the 80s drew to a close and the dawn of the 90s happened, again the industry seemed to sag and lag a bit. People were not into the same things as before. Yup, you guessed it. Something new. So, what happened? Pop music started to move on the dance floor again right before grunge crashed the party. Rap was now getting its wings as well. The old guard was fading a bit. The Beatles were not on anyone's minds as much, the Rolling Stones and The Who were more of a live tour thing, and the 80s stars faded into the background. The time of Clinton and the Contract With America brought out artists who tried to push back against the politics of the day. And of course, towards the end of the decade, a lull occurred. That led into a few revivals (Cher) and brought about the rise of the kids (Britney Spears, Christine Aguilera) and boy "bands" (N'Sync, 98 Degrees). The new millennium exploded with more rap artists than ever, more kids bursting on the music scene and, yes, American Idol. So-called "reality shows" appealed to some part of the American experience that rejected the poor writing on television. The music became more slickly produced and what sold decades before was being relegated to the bargain bins.

Today, the music we hear has evolved, but not always for the better. As I see it, the industry is due for another period of bottoming out. Of course, I've been waiting for that since about 2009, so I guess I'm not holding my breath. As long as record companies operate with the idea that only they know what's great in music, then I will be holding on to that idea that we will hear the next "My Sharona" before I go to the Great Beyond. 

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