By Wil Forbis
Click for Part 2!
The development of Rock music is probably the most important cultural event of the past 100 years*. It was Rock, first known as Rock and Roll, that shattered staid, 1950s Americana, empowered the Baby Boomers to challenge wars and attitudes, and imprinted on to the minds of young people the idea that they could define themselves with the type of music they listened to. Rock was the first music genre to truly come alive and to take over people's consciousness.
* I hate softening this sentence with a "probably" but I'll concede that legitimate arguments to this statement could be made.
Of course Rock was more than just music. It was a collection of (often conflicting) attitudes, styles (some would say "lifestyles"), ideas and predilections. Soon after its birth, Rock began to split into ever more granular sub-cultures and genres, giving rise to Mods, Rockers, Punks, Metalheads etc. All such groups managed to find a place in the the big tent of Rock as they shared the energy of youth and a suspicion of the "mainstream" (e.g. the populations of America (and other first world nations) that embraced less revolutionary, more traditional values.)
How did Rock come about? It was crafted by revolutionary innovators such as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Sex Pistols, Nirvana and more who deftly molded music and lyrics that spoke honestly to young generations.
That's the conventional view anyway. I would argue that the above narrative - one which is usually presented as the complete picture - only tells half the story. It is, of course, true that the musicians of Rock deserve much credit for their innovations. But so too do the scientists and researchers who developed the technology behind the instruments and in the means of distribution that made Rock music so prevalent across the world (e.g. radio, Records, Television).
Let's take a look (or listen) at the sounds of rock and roll. What made it so different from music that had come before? Music is usually defined in terms of several properties: harmony (chords), melody (single note lines of music), rhythm (groove, beats etc.) and timbre (the unique sound of a particular instrument or voice.) Rock did very little innovation when it came to those first two properties; if anything it went with the simplest available options, largely borrowed from folk and blues. Rock and Roll was driven by some new and exciting rhythms, though one must concede that they were largely of American blues and Latin derivation. But in matters of timbre, Rock music sounded quite unique and modern. It utilized sounds and sonic textures that were at the time unheard of (literally)! Consider this: a country blues song from 1930 and a Jimi Hendrix blues from 1968 might utilize the same chords, melodies and rhythms, but one would never confuse the two. Hendrix's mind bending guitar tones were alien and impossible to define, attributes that fit quite comfortably in the counter culture ethos that was questioning society's rules and definitions.
Without doubt, the guitar was the instrument which defined the Rock sound. And it was in the realm of guitar amplifiers and effects where a lot of the tonal and timbral innovation occurred. For hundreds of years, the sonic color of stringed instruments could only be altered by changing their shape and materials. Larger bodies could create more resonant, boomier sounds. Different types of wood could affect subtle (at least to modern ears) changes to an instrument's sound. The development of magnetic pickups in 1931 allowed the vibrating strings of the guitar to be converted to electrical signals which could then be amplified. At the time, this might have seemed like an innocuous and mildly amusing innovation, but within a few decades it would radically alter the sound of music (and the temperament of pop culture.)
Once the sound of a guitar string was captured as a signal, it became possible to alter this signal and thus affect the instrument's character. Increasing the volume was the most obvious trick. As the decades progressed, it became possible to affect many properties of the guitar's sound including its depth/reverb (creating that sense of an instrument being played in a cavernous hall), sustain (allowing notes to hang in the air indefinitely), and echo (self-explanatory.) These alterations became known as guitar effects, and were often built into amplifiers or small, foot activated stomp boxes. Of course, I haven't yet mentioned the most important of all guitar effects: distortion! Distortion added grime and dirt to the electric guitar's sound and the result defined heavy metal and punk rock---two of Rock music most successful and enduring genres.
The guitar was not the only instrument to have its sonic capabilities altered. Various keyboard instruments such as the electric piano and the synthesizer also used technological progress to embrace a dizzying array of tonal possibilities. Some of the famous early keyboards that came to prominence in rock were the Moog synthesizer, and the Fender Rhoades electric piano (which employed magnetic pickups in the same manner of an electric guitar.) In the 1980s, the advent of digital synthesizer keyboards such as the Yamaha DX7 defined the genres of new wave and electronic dance music (as well as reinvigorating the careers of guitar rockers ZZ Top!)
You might be saying that this is all well and good but what does it have to do with the impact of Rock music? How could the addition of a few effects pedals and amplifier knobs be relevant to the cultural juggernaut that was Rock and Roll? Well, let's consider Rock's cultural impact. Rock was about music, certainly, but music that represented... something... ideas. Particularly ideas about social freedom, the state of society and alternate ways of interpreting and experiencing reality. Rock argued that the experience of being human could expand beyond the limited options touted by the mainstream of the day. To some degree this expansion involved the use of drugs, in other cases an increase in social freedoms (particularly for minorities), and in other cases it involved asking pointed questions about the core concepts modern society was (and largely still is) based on. Questions like, "Do we need a 'state' or government?* "How should men and women relate to each other (especially sexually)?" "What is the nature of modern existence?" and "Who likes to party?"**
* "Imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do," one of Rock music's high priests once advised.
** I am, of course, fully aware that a lot of Rock music's concepts and philosophical mutterings were complete nonsense uttered by imbecilic boobs who had only the dimmest understanding of what they were advocating. Such is the nature of the kind of free-form, non-hierarchical movements to which the Rock revolution belonged.
Now, many famous Rock lyricists - Dylan, Lennon, Jagger, Rotten, Bono, Rose (Axl), Cobain - were able to ask or at least intimate these questions with words. But Rock also needed to capture the essence of these questions musically. And Rock musicians did so, brilliantly, with their use of effects and tonal alterations. It was one thing when Blacks off in the ghettos were playing the blues on distorting, reverbed drenched guitars; it was something else entirely when white teenagers began doing it. And nothing captured the twin notions of both a structureless, infinite reality and the disintegration of cherished and unchallenged ideas like an E chord strummed on a guitar that was connected to a chain of reverb, delay and echo pedals (e.g. the sound of Psychedelia). And only that king of guitar effects - distortion - perfectly encapsolated both the lion's roar of the oppressed (and wannabe oppressed) and the grinding gears of industrialized society.
In short, the music of Rock was able to perfectly represent the ideas that were percolating in the counter cultures. And there was something of a snowball effect to this process. Beat poets contemplated mind expanding concepts which Rock music represented in music and spat back out to hippie philosophers who added their own twists which Rock again digested and transformed and passed on to punks, thrashers, death metalers, electronic musicians and on and on. But none of this conversation would have been possible without the tools provided by the scientists of sound, the white coat lab nerds* working with transistors, magnetics and digital technology to tweak the tonal and timbral spectrum of Rock's instruments. Without such armaments, Rock's revolutionary message would have been impotent in its attempt to subvert the mainstream.
* There may be a certain irony here as we presume, and probably safely so, that many of the technologists of these sound labs were members of the more conservative, mainstream sections of society.
All right. We've talked about the instruments. Next month let's talk about the technological innovations in the realm of recording and distributing Rock music.