Key Events in Rock and Roll History

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If you’re seriously into rock and roll, wanting to discover its colorful history most likely comes naturally to you. You even wish there’s a rock and roll subject in your class! Anyway, here are some of the major events that, in our opinion, forever shaped the landscape of rock and roll and the music industry in general.

1. The first rock and roll record (April 1951)

Chronicling the history of rock and roll without tracing its origins would be meaningless. Before we could say what the first true rock and roll record is, first we have to determine what makes a record rock and roll song: dominant guitars with blues elements, raw emotions, rhythm, overtones of rebellion and distorted guitars. And we found that “Rocket 88,” a 1951 record by Ike Turner (featuring Jackie Brenston on vocals), has all the ingredients of a rock and roll sound. Thus, “Rocket 88” is considered the first rock and roll record to have been released. While this song is considered the first rock and roll record to have been released, it also had contenders. Learn more about these in our article about The First Rock ‘n Roll Song.

2. The World is Introduced to the Future Rock n Roll Superstar, Elvis Presley (July 19, 1954)

No moment in rock n roll history can be deemed as significant as the day Elvis Presley’s first record was released. Many consider that this day marked the start of rock n roll both as a genre of music and a cultural phenomenon. 

Sixty years ago, on July 19, 1954, Sun Records released Elvis’s debut single “That’s All Right” – a song he recorded as a birthday gift for his mother. It became an instant hit, introducing people to a new side of Presley. He was an unknown 17-year-old truck driver/ballad singer struggling to make a name for himself until this moment. But with the release of this off-hand rendition of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right, he reinvented himself, and the King of Rock n Roll was born. 

3. Chuck Berry releases “Maybellene,” blending rhythm and blues with country (1955)

Chuck Berry’s release of “Maybellene” in 1955 was a pivotal moment in the history of rock and roll, significantly influencing the genre’s development. This song is often credited with blending elements of rhythm and blues with country music, a fusion that became a foundational aspect of rock and roll.

4. “The day the music died” – Buddy Holly dies in a plane crash (February 3, 1959)

Buddy Holly publicity picture for Brunswick Records

Buddy Holly publicity picture for Brunswick Records

It is amazing how Buddy Holly enjoyed mainstream success and popularity in less than a couple of years before his tragic death from a plane crash in the morning of February 3, 1959. He was only 22 years old. The accident also took the life of Ritchie Valens, J. P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, and pilot Roger Peterson. Along with the absence of Elvis Presley (who was in the US Army then), Jerry Lee Lewis (whose career took a downturn following his marriage scandal in 1958), Chuck Berry and others, rock and roll experienced a somber lull during this period.

5. The Beatles makes its first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (February 9, 1964)

One of the most phenomenal moments in rock history happened on February 9, 1964. Over 73 million viewers (or about a third of the nation) tuned in to see the Beatles for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. Several days after the episode was aired, American kids had begun to grow their hair long and pleaded with their parents to buy them guitars. Following that episode, an influx of other English acts arrived in the US and dominated the American music scene, instigating the British Invasion. Rock and roll would never be the same again after that.

6. Bob Dylan goes electric at Newport Folk Festival (July 25, 1965)

After the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, it seemed that folkies wanted to “plug in” so to speak. And these folkies include Bob Dylan, one of the biggest forces in the 1960s folk and protest movement. His decision to play an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival was roundly met with outrage by many folk purists who felt he corrupted the essence of his artistry. However, Dylan’s move was also welcomed by a lot more people, who felt that he simply brought folk music to a whole new level.

7. Pete Townshend destroys his first guitar at the Railway Hotel (June 1964)

The world discovered the birth of Pete Townshend – the ultimate rock icon – when he smashed his guitar at The Who concert at Railway Hotel in Harrow. The move became so iconic that he would keep a cheaper guitar by his side at every show just to destroy it at the end. Years later, Townshend revealed that it was an accident and the guitar broke because the ceiling was too low while he jumped. What had started as an accident became a staple of their shows. Even other guitarists like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready adopted the art of instrument destruction, and soon it seemed that no show would be complete without a guitar getting smashed into pieces.

8.  The Summer of Love (1967)

The Summer of Love, occurring in 1967, was a pivotal moment in rock history, marking a peak in the counterculture movement and exerting a profound influence on the music of the time. Thousands of people converged in San Francisco, epitomizing the counterculture movement.  It was a defining moment in rock history that went beyond music to influence culture, fashion, politics, and societal norms. It encapsulated a unique moment of musical innovation and social change, leaving a lasting legacy on the rock genre.

9. The Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (June 1, 1967)

Often cited as the first concept album and first art rock album, The Beatles’ eighth studio LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) broke new musical grounds and elevated pop and rock into an art form. One critic even referred the album as “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization” — if you had been thrown back to the 1960s era where the album was released, you will realize how mind-blowing and monumental the impact Sgt. Pepper has made. Sgt. Pepper garnered an immediate critical and commercial success across the globe — many music insiders believe that Sgt. Pepper‘s success, despite never having a single, ushered in the album-oriented rock (AOR) era. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is definitely a shining moment not only in the Beatles’ career, but also in the whole rock spectrum as well.

10.Woodstock Rock Festival (Aug 15, 1969 – Aug 18, 1969)

About half a million people attended the Woodstock festival in the summer of 1969. This three-day event of peace and music brought many artists of different backgrounds and genres under one roof, proving that rock can be both a major communal and a cultural force. About 32 acts such as The Allman Brothers Band, Grand Funk Railroad, Santana, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and The Who performed in what would become one of the major driving forces of the counterculture movement.

However, Jimi Hendrix stole the show as he played “The Star-Spangled Banner” on August 18, 1969. The crowd was taken back by the reinvention of the national anthem into something exotic and thrilling by the greatest guitarist of all time. While Jimi Hendrix is indeed very popular, he also worked with great people in the Jimi Hendrix experience, including Mitch Mitchell. Find out more about him in our article, How Did Mitch Mitchell Revolutionize Rock Drumming Yet Remain Underrated?

11. Free Altamont Speedway Concert (December 6, 1969)

The Rolling Stones threw a free concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. While the band played “Under My Thumb”, a clash ensued between the concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels – a motorcycle club hired to provide security at the event. By the end of the song, multiple people were injured, and Meredith Hunter, a young African-American man, was stabbed to death. 

12. Led Zeppelin release “Stairway to Heaven” (November 8, 1971)

Every release from this archetypal heavy metal band altered the pace of rock music. They played the music loud and fast, merging the blues and rock and roll into one. 

But ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was the record that gave birth to what we today call hard-rock music and established Led Zeppelin as the most influential band of its time. The acoustic ballad woven with surreal lyrics and elevated by electric hard-rock influenced musicians and guitarists around the world.

13.  John Lennon is Assassinated  (1980)

The assassination of John Lennon was a profound and tragic event that left an indelible mark on rock and roll history. Lennon, a former member of The Beatles and a successful solo artist, was a monumental figure in music and popular culture. It was a cultural shock that reverberated through the music world and beyond. His legacy as an artist and advocate for peace continues to influence and inspire, making him an enduring figure in the history of rock and roll.

14. The launch of MTV (August 1, 1981)

MTV logo

MTV logo

On August 1, 1981, MTV (Music Television) made its maiden broadcast with the Buggles’ music video “Video Killed the Radio Star” which appeared to be quite portentous. With the launch of MTV, image is a big thing, although the network seems to favor visual appeal over true musical talent. However, it’s doubtless that MTV changed the landscape of music forever.

15.  Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” becomes the best-selling album of all time (1983)

Michael Jackson with President Reagan

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” released on November 30, 1982, had a profound impact on rock music and popular culture. While Jackson was primarily known as a pop and R&B artist, the influence of “Thriller” extended well into the realm of rock and beyond. In essence, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was more than just a pop album; it was a cultural phenomenon that had a significant influence on rock music, the music industry, and popular culture as a whole. Its legacy continues to be felt across the musical spectrum.

16. Rap collides with Rock n Roll as Run-D.M.C. release the remake of Walk This Way (Summer 1986)

The famous hip-hop group Run-D.M.C. scored a huge hit with the remake of the Aerosmith classic “Walk This Way” in the summer of 1986. The song broke the wall between rap and rock n roll, quite literally. The music video showed Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler using his mic stand to break the wall separating his rock concert from Run-D.M.C’s rap concert. The music video might have been a little cheesy for some, but it did its job of introducing rap as a modern musical force to the world of rock n roll. The song became the first rap to enter the Top 5 hits in The States and the first rap video to play on MTV. Run DMC’s rendition of the classic also helped resurrect Aerosmith’s waning fame.

17. Nirvana Displaces Michael Jackson on the Charts (January 11, 1992)

Who would have thought that the humble grunge rock would suddenly become a big phenomenon — not to mention dislodge the throne of the King of Pop? Seattle’s grunge rock trio Nirvana released their second album Nevermind in 1991 and as usual, had low expectations about it. However, late in the year it became a surprise commercial success. By January 1992, it toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the number one spot of the Billboard 200 chart. The success of Nevermind ushered in the grunge era and catapulted alternative music to the mainstream. Most importantly, though, Nirvana’s success inspired budding rock musicians to start their own bands.

18. The launch of Napster and the digital revolution ( June 1, 1999)

The rise of the file-sharing website Napster made a rattling impact to both the music and digital industry in a way that nothing else could. We know that Napster had been embroiled in copyright infringement lawsuits here and there, however putting aside those things, we should not fail to acknowledge that the rise of Napster and the Internet as a whole that suddenly gave freedom to many rock and pop artists to record their own music from the comfort of their own spaces. It also provides a way to promote and distribute their music at virtually no cost and without the help of major labels. As a result, live performances take the place of record sales as the main source of the artists’ revenues.

19.  The iPod launched (2001)

The iPod changes how people listen to and purchase music.  Its now easily portable and could hold thousands of songs and importantly music could be purchased and delivered digitally.

20.  The inaugural year of the Coachella Music Festival (2004)

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, commonly known as Coachella, has become one of the most significant and iconic music festivals in the world since its inception. While not exclusively a rock festival, its impact on the music industry, including the rock genre, has been substantial.

21.  Spotify was launched (2008)

Spotify was launched on October 7, 2008. The music streaming service, founded by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, originated in Sweden and quickly grew to become one of the most popular platforms for streaming music globally. It revolutionized the way people access and listen to music, offering a vast library of tracks and albums through both free and paid subscription models.

Final Words

The above-mentioned events might not be the most memorable in rock and roll history, but they are the ones that shaped the genre of music and turned it into a cultural phenomenon. You may have in mind other events that you consider the most important, which is fine. We hope this list brought back fond memories or helped you learn more about the iconic history of rock and roll.

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