At first glance, trends and sounds in popular music seem to come at us in random, fractalized bursts. Viewed up close on a day-to-day, week-to-week or even month-to-month basis, that’s how it appears. But if you stand back, patterns begin to emerge, patterns which have held surprisingly together over the last seven decades.
Since rock was born in the 1950s, rock and pop have been locked in a battle for cultural supremacy with each combatant a constant 180 degrees out of phase with the other. When rock is strong and ascendant in the public’s consciousness, pop is on a decline.
Eventually, though, rock tops out and begins a decline as the public’s attention moves towards pop. Then once pop peaks and rock bottoms out, the cycle begins again. This back-and-forth dance has played itself out every 12 or 13 years.
Let me tell you how it’s all gone down.
The First Cycle
While it’s impossible to pin down the birth of rock’n’roll — it was born through a gradual coming together of a dozen sounds and influences — many scholars point to March 3, 1951, with the release of a song called “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats. This band didn’t really exist. Jackie was the sax player for Ike Turner in his Kings of Rhythm and was thrust into the spotlight for this one recording with Ike and the boys providing backup. The sound, attitude and subject matter of “Rocket 88” make it a prime candidate for being the first true rock’n’roll record.
Even if you don’t subscribe to “Rocket 88” being the first rock record — and there are plenty of reasons not to — we can probably at least agree that something new was in the air by 1951, even if we weren’t calling it “rock’n’roll” yet.
Once loosed upon the earth, this new form of music gathered momentum with the mainstream, peaking with Elvis in 1956. But when he entered the army on March 2, 1958, rock went into a period of decline.
“See? It was all just a fad!” the haters said. “Time to get back to some good music!”
And lo, things were pretty dire for rock through the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The charts were filled with light pop such as Percy Faith’s “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” and those execrable Sing Along With Mitch albums.
Yet there was still some rebellion in the air, except that it was rather quiet. The folk music boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s — a boom that would eventually result in Bob Dylan — tried to keep things interesting for people who weren’t interested in mainstream music.
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