When you think about music in general and the moments that planted themselves in the timeline of the industry’s history, what comes to mind? Do you see images of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk? Do you hear Jimi Hendrix’s wailing electric guitar? And how about Madonna all clad in her white wedding dress?
Those are all definite icon moments in music history, but let’s not forget the impact that Woodstock had on future generations. And the rise and evolution of new technologies, from the audio cassette to the iPod, that revolutionized how the world listened to music. This is a chronological list of events that rocked the world of not just Rock and Roll, but of music as a whole, and essentially changed the industry forever.
To go through a timeline without honoring the origins of rock and roll would be a shame. If rock and roll can be defined by dominant guitars, blues elements, rhythm, raw emotions, overtones of rebellion and distorted guitars, then one record can be designated as the first ever rock and roll record.
“Rocket 88,” the 1951 record by Ike Turner (featuring Jackie Brenston on vocals) has all of the ingredients of a rock and roll song. And that’s why it’s considered to be the first record of the genre to have been released.
A “concept album” is an album in which its tracks hold a larger meaning together than they do on their own. This is usually done with a central narrative or theme, whether it’s instrumental, compositional, or lyrical.
Frank Sinatra decided that his 1954 album “Songs for Young Lovers” should be built around a central theme, which was essentially the first time an artist did such a thing. And thus this album was the first popular concept album. It included the songs “My Funny Valentine” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”
Written and recorded in 1955 by Chuck Berry, ‘Maybelline’ incorporated aspects from songs that already existed. It was Berry’s first hit single (or hit of any kind) and is considered to be one of the pioneering rock songs ever. Rolling Stone magazine claimed that this was the first song to establish and utilize rock and roll guitar which influenced countless songs that came out after its release. Beyond its major influence on the genre of music, it also bridged the gap that existed at the time between Black and White audiences in terms of what music they were listening to.
All the teenagers who went crazy for songs like ‘Maybellene’ didn’t believe in things like segregation anymore. While it took about a decade for the Civil Rights bill to be passed, it can be argued that without songs like ‘Maybellene,’ it may have taken a whole lot longer.
If you had to pick one and only one moment that put Elvis Presley on the map in which he exploded onto the national scene, it would most likely be his appearance on ‘The Milton Berle Show’ during the Spring of 1956. The performance was legendary in that what he sang and how he sang it would eventually become his signature style. He was previously focused on singing ballads, but his live performance of “Heartbreak Hotel” on the show, along with his revolutionary dancing, instantly made Elvis the star of his generation and the King of Rock & Roll.
His hip thrusting way of moving drove girls crazy and parents groups and politicians even crazier. Did you know that years after that, when he would appear on American television, they would film him from the waist up? The show he put on that night was the turning point from a young artist to the legend that he became and effectively changed the future of Rock & Roll.
During the summer of 1957, 67 ABC affiliate programs across the country aired one of the most iconic shows of all time. It was called ‘American Bandstand.’ The show was revolutionary in that it opened on a set of a high school gymnasium with clean-cut teens dancing to the not less than clean “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
Dick Clark became the host, and the show was all about the most popular music combined with the show’s teen “regulars” dancing and modeling the latest fashion trends and hairstyles. While there were changes over the years, ‘American Bandstand’ continued to represent evolutions in American music, fashion, dance, and other norms of the culture.
The first-ever Grammy Awards night was presented in Los Angeles by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). All the stars gathered for a black-tie dinner and awards presentation in the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. 28 prizes were awarded, some of those going to Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and the Kingston Trio.
“The GRAMMY Awards were a formal event from the beginning and very much in keeping with the times,” said Christine Farnon, one of the key organizers of the show who eventually became the Academy’s Executive Vice President. “As I recall, no one objected to dressing black-tie back then, though like so much else, that would change eventually.”
Buddy Holly, one of Rock & Roll’s youngest and brightest stars, died in a plane crash in the morning of February 3, 1959. Tragically, he was only 22 years old. The crash also took the lives of Ritchie Valens, J. P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, and pilot Roger Peterson. Everyone on the plane died instantly and basically changed the future of music forever. The three young artists were entering their primes or just starting out and left catalogs of music that went on to influence singers and bands for decades.
One reason the term “the day the music died” was given to this event was due to the absence of many pivotal figures in pop culture. Elvis Presley was absent (he was in the US Army), Jerry Lee Lewis was not around (his career went downhill following his marriage scandal in 1958), and Chuck Berry among others took a break, resulting in a lull in the world of rock and roll.
Next, we enter the 60s – an era pivotal in the formation of rock and roll and music history as a whole…
If there’s any single producer from this era that was just as famous as the bands themselves were, it was Phil Spector. He literally changed sound. While Spector is now known as being convicted of second-degree murder (of actress Lana Clarkson), we can’t deny the fact that he influenced the sound of rock and popular music forever. Spector revolutionized the sound of music itself, or at least how it sounded when played at home – which eventually became referred to as the “Wall of Sound.”
Working with bands like The Beatles, Spector mostly recorded at Gold Star Studios in the 1960s, located in Los Angeles. The goal of The Wall of Sound was to “exploit the possibilities of studio recording” by creating an orchestral style that was dense, allowing the music to come across a lot better than ever before. So whether it was played on a cheap jukebox or a high-end speaker, it was going to sound good. Spector ended up changing the quality of albums in the most important way possible – how they sound. Countless producers tried to copy this technique by recording everything at the loudest possible level, but it only caused distortion. This emphasis on sound changed the recording industry – showing people how good music could and should sound.
James Browns’ ‘Live at the Apollo’ was the first million-selling R&B album and a vibrant look into the greatest soul act ever. It’s hard to really measure just how influential Brown was on modern music. Beginning with his impact on 60s Mod groups, he went on to further be a powerful voice in contemporary urban music.
This album established Brown as an R&B superstar and a force to be reckoned with. In 1998, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and then in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the album as number 25 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Remember back in the day when the most romantic thing anyone could do was make a mixtape of their favorite songs and give it to a lover? Well, that was all made possible thanks to the invention and release of audio cassettes in 1963.
The new technology was released by Phillips at the Berlin Radio Show in Europe. Audio cassettes or tapes as most of us called them, offered more portability and were a lot less expensive and less cumbersome than those reel-to-reel recorders. These tapes allowed people to record music without having to be properly trained. This basically turned every music lover into an amateur DJ… and romantic lover.
The only group that outdid Elvis Presley in terms of what a single television performance meant for their band and the future of Rock & Roll is the Beatles, who on February 1964 appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ The Beatles were already established in Britain, but it was their performance on Ed Sullivan that skyrocketed their fame and turned them into international superstars. And music historians agree that it influenced music forever.
It marked the beginning of what is now known as the “British Invasion” and the beginning of “Beatlemania,” which got so insane that the band had to stop touring because they literally couldn’t hear their own instruments and voices when performing. What’s more amazing than this event was the fact that the group was only together for about five or six years after their appearance on the show.
One of the most iconic images of rock and roll is when the frontman smashes his guitar. It was in the mid-1960s that guitarist Pete Townshend of ‘The Who’ became the first guitar-smashing rock artist. Rolling Stone Magazine included Townshend’s smashing of his guitar at the Railway Tavern in Harrow and Wealdstone in September 1964 in their list of “50 Moments That Changed Rock & Roll”.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Townshend spoke of his decision to start smashing guitars. He said, “It happened by complete accident the first time. We were just kicking around in a club which we played every Tuesday, and I was playing the guitar, and it hit the ceiling. It broke and it kind of shocked me because I wasn’t ready for it to go… And I was expecting everybody to go, “Wow he’s broken his guitar,” but nobody did anything which made me kind of angry in a way, and determined to get this precious event noticed by the audience. I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar. I pounced all over the stage with it, and I threw the bits on the stage, and I picked up my spare guitar and carried on as though I really meant to do it.”
Fan or no fan of Bob Dylan, you can’t argue the fact that he was and still is one of the most influential acts in the history of music. In July of 1965, his fans were really torn when he chose to pick up an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival and add a backing band (the Butterfield Blues Band) and play for nearly 20 minutes. The crowd was divided, in that there were as many boos as there were cheers and awed silence.
This event is considered one of the most important moments in Rock and Roll history because, in one set, Dylan basically ended the Folk revival that he was at the forefront of for nearly a decade. His next single, ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ was six minutes long and changed how people perceived singles and commercial radio. This had a massive effect as other artists decided to go electric to keep up with the times.
Burning a guitar may be considered disrespectful, but when Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967, it was a moment that entirely defined the festival. He got on the stage, and after playing the song entitled “Fire,” in which he delivered one of the best performances on an electric guitar, he knelt down and set the guitar ablaze.
It was most likely done purely for the effect it would have on the audience. And it’s also safe to say that the flaming guitar may also have been a consequence of too many drugs or some ‘in-the-moment’ ceremonial madness. But whatever the reason, it is still remembered as one of the most iconic moments in rock music and music festival history.
The Beatles expanded their song palette and their psychedelic appetite with this album, which was familiar, but truly wild in concept and design. With this album, the group went from endearing entertainers to revolutionary artists. Three days after the album’s release, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr went to London and caught Jimi Hendrix playing at a small theater. They were beyond astonished when Hendrix opened his set with his own version of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’
Paul McCartney recalled the event, saying “To think that that album had meant so much to him as to actually do it by the Sunday night, three days after the release. He must have been so into it because normally it might take a day for rehearsal, and then you might wonder whether you’d put it in, but he just opened with it.”
Johnny Cash wasn’t one to play by the rules, and the public loved the ‘Man in Black’ for it being outside of the law. Cash was truly an outlaw spirit who had his share of brushes with the law. He sympathized with prison inmates and advocated for prison reform. He would even visit and perform in prisons in the 50s.
But it was a magical moment on February 24, 1969, when Cash performed live at California’s San Quentin Prison. Partly due to this annoyance with the fact that a British film crew was filming the concert, Cash led the unruly crowd of prisoners with an energetic and rebellious and essentially career-defining set.
The Beatles’ infamous final public performance on January 30, 1969, wasn’t actually spontaneous as many people believe. The band had planned a live show as the conclusion to their ‘Let It Be’ sessions and decided that the Apple rooftop would be perfect, which was actually chosen four days before the performance.
This legendary act was their first performance in close to three years, and while Londoners were on their lunch break, they had the privilege of being pleasantly surprised by seeing the last ever performance as an ensemble. It didn’t take long for a crowd to form on the streets.
Woodstock is the reason why you see millennials wearing flower crowns are obsessed with a sense of Zen and free love. So while you might want to curse this music festival, let’s be reminded of how iconic it was in the history of music as we know it. The festival four-day festival that occurred on April 15 to 18, 1969, saw 400,000 people who all came for the purpose of one thing: the music. And believe it or not, the event was free!
Artists like The Who, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane, all performed legendary acts. Amazingly, organizers were expecting only 50,000 people to attend Woodstock, and thus infrastructure and roads weren’t ready. Highways and local roads were at a complete standstill. Many drivers literally abandoned their cars and ended up walking to the festival. A possible reason for everything ran smoothly, despite the lack of food and resources, was the extreme amount of psychedelic drugs that were being passed around.
Yet another major event that also occurred in the year 1969 was performed at none other than Woodstock. The most powerful performance of the entire music festival and one that would still be revered until this day was Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’
Hendrix took the stage early Monday morning, with a measly 30,000 of the 400,000-sized audience still remaining in the crowd. But those who stayed got the experience of a lifetime when they watched as Hendrix broke out a passionate version of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ with all of his signature powerful electric chords. It was a performance that really channeled the counterculture rebellion of the time and anger towards the Vietnam War. But it also represented Hendrix’s unrestrained love for America. So yeah, it was iconic, to say the least.
Alright, folks, we’re moving into the golden era of the 1970s…
Jesus Christ Superstar was a 1970 rock opera in which Andrew Lloyd Webber produced the music, and Tim Rice wrote the lyrics. It’s the greatest story ever told, but performed to rock music. This rock opera caused a frenzy as religious zealots protested while religious moderates saw the benefit. And that benefit was for young people who could now get a realistic description of Jesus’s last seven days by means of popular mediums (like theater and rock music).
It started out as a rock opera concept album before it debuted on Broadway in 1971. The musical was mostly sung, with little spoken dialogue. It ended up winning three Tony Wards in 1972 and then in 2000 and 2012 as revivals.
With the album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars’ came David Bowie’s androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, which launched a whole new era of glam rock. It may also be the most influential album of the 70s.
“What I did with my Ziggy Stardust was package a totally credible, plastic rock & roll singer,” the late David Bowie said of his definitive alter ego. Bowie created more than just a fresh and clever new concept. The album also laid out a new direction for pop music, setting a new standard for the theatricality of rock & roll.
1973 marked the beginning of an annual concert hosted by country music singer Willie Nelson. The success of the event was so great that it led to other concerts and eventually becoming an annual event. The first show was held in Texas Hill Country but has since moved to various Texas locations over the years.
This was the birth of the iconic country music festival. Willie brought together over 40,000 hippies and rednecks. While the first Picnic actually lost money, it launched a new Texas tradition and became something that Americans all over loved to travel to.
A few days before a free festival organized by the Jamaican government was to take place, Bob Marley was shot inside his home as part of a political conspiracy. But that didn’t stop the legendary reggae musician from his commitments. Amazingly, Marley took to the stage two days later and gave the performance of a lifetime.
An event like that only signifies the reason why the Jamaican people and the world over had so much love and respect for this man. When he was later asked why he did what he did, he had this to say: “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”
The first rap song to make the Top 40 chart was released in 1979 by a group called the Sugar Hill Gang. At that point, rap was a whole new ball game – a new form of music that was never really heard before. Produced by Sylvia Robinson, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is credited as introducing hip hop music to a wider (and whiter) audience. A lot of the song’s components are still major parts of rap music today, including the bragging, the nature of their rhymes, and the subjects they rap about.
The song also used the beat from another song – something that is still heavily done in rap songs today. That beat was from the song “Good Times” by Chic, and it ended up being the first rap lawsuit ever (which ended up in Chic’s favor). While many people thought it was a passing fad, this song was the beginning of what was to become a revolution of rap and hip hop.
And now onto the 80s…
Before the vibrant and wild decade of the 1980s, music was meant for record stores and radio stations only. But everything changed when MTV was born. At that point, just the concept of a music channel on television would make people laugh. But MTV truly was a game changer.
Even television broadcast stations thought, “Who would want to watch music?” But apparently, it was exactly what Americans wanted. MTV launched at midnight on August 1, 1981. The first ever MTV music video? “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. I would say that’s a fitting choice, wouldn’t you?
Michael Jackson is the most popular solo artist of all-time, having sold more records than any other solo artist and broke pretty much every record for sales with his album ‘Thriller.’ Before ‘Thriller,’ Michael Jackson was still mostly known as the lead singer of The Jackson Five. But when this album was released in 1982, it changed how people perceived singles and what could be released from an album.
This album was the result of his focus on musical independence in a time that was reportedly filled with depression and loneliness. He managed to channel that emotion into his most famous and renowned recording, one that changed the musical landscape forever. Together with producer Quincy Jones, the two worked together on 30 songs, but only nine made the final album. Included in those nine are “Beat It,” “Thriller,” and “Billie Jean.”
The CD, a digital optical disc used to store data, was co-developed by Philips and Sony. It was, in essence, a significant moment, as the CD was able to store a lot more data compared to a personal computer hard drive, which only held a maximum of 10 MB. Yeah, I laughed, too.
As of 2007, 200 billion CDs were sold worldwide. But at the start of the early 2010s and the emergence of digital storage, CDs started to drop in sales. But amazingly, despite all the apps and streaming audio, CDs are still in distribution in the music industry. Funnily enough, we’ve been expecting the death of CDs for close to two decades now, but it hasn’t happened yet.
You can’t have a dance without music, and you can’t have the moonwalk without Michel Jackson. Believe it or not, he didn’t actually create the move, but he sure as hell became synonymous with the popular dance move. The moonwalk has made an appearance in pop culture since the 1930s, such as James Brown in ‘The Blues Brothers.’ But it was Jackson that kept people in awe during his live performance on “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever” in March 1983.
It was the first time he rocked the moonwalk on stage, making for an unforgettable moment dancing in his sequins black jacket and white gloves. Everybody at home on their couches watching the show couldn’t pick up their jaws from the floor. If it were to happen in recent years, it would have, without a doubt, broken the internet.
While the first CD was made and released in 1982, which offered people a better-quality sound than audio cassettes, Sony revolutionized the way in which people listened and enjoyed music. They introduced the world to a portable CD player – the D-5, which was also known as the Discman.
It may sound crazy to us now, but the first Discman came at a price of $300. Portable CD players actually weren’t popular until the 90s, when anti-skip technology was introduced. Once Sony’s product gained popularity, it was later re-named to CD Walkman.
Madonna made herself the Queen of Pop and the girl everyone wanted to emulate. She was the full package: she had the looks, the confidence, the voice, and the style. What high school didn’t want to wear black lace gloves?
Madonna was the face of the 80s, and her career took a rather provocative spin with the release of her single “Like a Virgin.” As if the lyrics of the song weren’t enough to make parents worry, her performance at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards made jaws drop. Posed as a life-size bride figurine on a 17-foot cake, she sang “Like a Virgin,” while playfully spinning and rolling around. It was something people just didn’t see on the live music awards show. But that was just the beginning of what future MTV Video Music awards shows would feature.
On July 13th, 1985 the biggest rock bands in the world came together for ‘Live Aid’ in support of the relief efforts for the Ethiopian Famine. On a day where Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and U2 performed, it was Queen that stole the show.
In a short 21-minute set, they managed to cram in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Radio Ga Ga, ”Hammer to Fall,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and a finale of “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions.” The performance was absolutely earth-shattering, as Freddie Mercury ruled the stage and the 72,000 people in the crowd were privy to seeing one of his best and unfortunately last major performances.
Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella brought a major shift in hip-hop when they formed N.W.A in 1986. Their image was hard-core, and their sound was bombastic. And lyrics to their rap songs were downright in-your-face and meant to spark controversy. The song of specific importance was their remorseless single “F*&% the Police.”
N.W.A spoke the truth about the gritty life on the streets of Compton. The group created the first major disruption of hip-hop during its infancy. Ice Cube said, “Everything in the world came after this group.” Arrogance aside, he might just be right.
Let’s now go back to the 90s, shall we?
In 1991, the top 10 artists on the Billboard chart were Paula Abdul, Color Me Badd, Boys II Men, Amy Grant, and other pop stars. But rock wasn’t making much of dent. Then, without any warning at all, the youth of modern culture were given a voice. It was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that waves in American culture.
The song was Nirvana’s biggest hit in most countries. The success of the single and the album ‘Nevermind’ was unexpected and it propelled the album to reach the top of the charts in 1992. As a result, Nirvana carried grunge as it entered the mainstream.
MTV had an insurmountable effect on the music industry, and the channel should be recognized for broadcasting some of the more incredible music moments. One of the most powerful performances ever aired on MTV was Nirvana’s 1993 appearance on the program ‘MTV Unplugged.’
It was recorded in November of 1993 and aired in December, making it one of the last televised performances by Kurt Cobain before his death in April of 1994. As hindsight is always 20/20, it was in the wake of his death that the performance was understood and given a new perspective. The set with its funeral-like decorations and melancholic songs brought Cobain’s declining mental state to the front and center.
Another death that shook the world of music was that of both Tupac Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious BIG” Wallace. Both were killed in drive-by-shootings just six months apart from one another. The saga is narrated through countless documentaries and films, which isn’t surprising considering that the story of Biggie and Tupac is something straight out of Shakespeare.
Neither murder has officially been solved, but it’s safe to say that if both rappers lived, the music industry would be completely different. Before his death, Tupac was set to launch “Death Row East,” and he could have signed a lot of the East Coast rappers that we know of today. Biggie is credited with popularizing Mafioso rap, and his ‘Life After Death’ album was something of a blueprint for many rappers that came after him.
The video was introduced on MTV in October 1998 and makes it powerful is that it marked the beginning of the teen-pop craze of the late 90s and early 00s. Rolling Stone magazine wrote of the song: “Britney Spears carries on the classic archetype of the rock & roll teen queen, the dungaree doll, the angel baby who just has to make a scene.”
‘…Baby One More Time’ propelled Britney Spears into the international pop culture scene, and she instantly became an icon and “One of the most controversial and successful female vocalists of the 21st century,” according to Rolling Stone.
We’re moving on to the 00s, next…
If there’s one word that still manages to strike fear in the hearts of music business big heads, it’s “Napster.” Napster was launched by 19-year-old Shawn Fanning from his uncle’s garage, creating a download service that supplied free music to an estimated 100 million users in the year 2000 alone. Downloading music marked the end of traditional music formats. The rise of the file-sharing website made a shattering impact on both the music and digital industry.
Napster eventually found itself tangled up in copyright infringement lawsuits, but we have to admit that the rise of Napster and the Internet as a whole formed a platform that suddenly gave easy access to formerly expensive methods of attaining music. The music industry wasn’t able to conquer the giant of music downloading, so they had to adapt. And as a result, live performances ended up taking the place of record sales as the main source of revenue.
In 2001, Apple released its first portable MP3 player, the iPod, which went mainstream. The iPod of that year utilized a scroll wheel to access what was at that point considered to be a huge collection of music files (5-gigabytes and 10-gigabytes).
The device went on to make digital music a heck of a lot more popular than CDs. And it was a major reason for the subsequent decline of CD sales. People wanted the smallest possible gadgets. Steve Jobs and Apple Inc. essentially put the world in everyone’s pockets.
The American reality TV series featuring aspiring singers competing for a recording contract and a chance at superstardom had all the right ingredients to become a major hit. Fox’s ‘American Idol’ became one of the most-watched shows in the United States, period.
The show ran until 2016, when it took a temporary break, and then returned to ABC. The three original judges were Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell. The show made stardom possible for regular Joes and Janes who had the guts and determination but didn’t have the connections.
If there’s anything other than making super catchy and controversial music, Kanye West is determined to keep us entertained and never bored. West seems to thrive off his spontaneous speeches, which pull the spotlight directly on him. The best example was the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards when he stole Taylor Swift’s lightning.
When Taylor Swift won the Best Female Video award for the song ‘You Belong With Me,’ she didn’t really get the chance to say her “thank you” speech. Why? Because the microphone was swiftly taken from Swift’s hands and let his thoughts be known, which were: “I’m sorry, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” All in all, it was a memorable and iconic moment in music and award show history.