Rock and Pop Music in the 1960s and 70s
At the start of the 1960s there was a thriving ‘popular’ or commercial music scene in the USA and a fast-growing one in the UK. The popular jazz and blues styles which had taken America by storm in the first half of the 20th century had combined with the fast-growing country music of the American South, and the 1950s had witnessed the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues. Rock ‘n’ roll was a huge influence on British 1960s band The Beatles, who began their career playing covers of American hits before hitting it big with their own unique brand of music in 1962. Another major British band of the 1960s, The Rolling Stones, were more influenced by rhythm and blues and similarly found great success with their own songs. Bands that composed their own songs were a new concept in the 1960s and Britain led the way in this, with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other British bands like The Kinks and The Animals becoming hugely popular in the USA, leading to the term ‘The British Invasion’.
As the 1960s progressed, these and other artists began to look at how they could develop their ‘uniqueness’ in an ever-increasing competitive commercial market, and so music became less like the simple rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm and blues of the 1950s and more ‘experimental’. The Beatles saw their great rivals as not the Rolling Stones but American group The Beach Boys, who, led by the innovative genius Brian Wilson, were pushing the boundaries of pop music in albums like Pet Sounds and Smile. Paul McCartney of the Beatles in particular was heavily influenced by Wilson’s writing, and John Lennon, the other great songwriter in The Beatles, was particularly interested in providing a ‘voice’ through his songs to the burgeoning psychedelic or ‘hippy’ culture that characterised the late 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic.
Another development of the late 1960s was the increased popularity of the electric guitar as a solo instrument, and the development of rock music which was primarily guitar-led. Great guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton of Cream and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin became rock’s equivalent of the virtuoso violinists and pianists of the 19th century’s Romantic period. While some, like Hendrix, carved out successful (though short in his case) careers as solo artists, others built bands around them and in the early 1970s there was a powerful British and American rock scene, with bands like Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Australian band AC/DC finding great success. ‘Mod’ bands from the 1960s like The Who also embraced the ‘rock sound’ in the 1970s.
Alongside the developing rock sound of the early 1970s, two other styles of commercial music began to develop apace. One was an off-shoot of rock called Glam rock, which occupied many positions in the UK charts in the first half of the decade. Probably the most influential band in this genre was T. Rex, whose flamboyant front-man Marc Bolan appeared on television in 1971 dressed in satin clothes adorned with sequins and glitter. Glam rock was particularly successful in Britain, with other artists including Slade, Sweet, David Bowie and Roxy Music, and there was a smallish Glam rock ‘scene’ in the USA with Alice Cooper at its forefront. Freddie Mercury of Queen was often considered a Glam rock star but, as we will see, there was much more to Queen’s style than just this.
The other style becoming popular in the early 1970s was one that was heavily influenced by the folk music of 1960s legends Bob Dylan and others, and which became known as singer-songwriter since most of the leading artists played guitar or piano and wrote and performed their own songs as soloists, or with a backing band. Artists at the forefront of this movement included Elton John, James Taylor, Neil Young, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel and Paul Simon (one half of the duo Simon and Garfunkel) and through them the folk-influenced ballad became popular – usually a more reflective, personal and down-tempo love song or story song such as Elton John’s Your Song or Billy Joel’s Piano Man, both of which were released in the early years of the 1970s.