Lockdown Lesson 13

Rock Music: Prog, Punk and Metal

Last week we looked at popular song, largely focusing on its roots: folk music. Towards the end of the lesson, we charted the history of modern pop music, beginning with African American spirituals and ragtime, through blues and early jazz, to 50s rock’n’roll.

Many new genres began to emerge alongside rock’n’roll, including soul music, which ultimately led to disco and its various dance music descendants. We will look at the evolution of dance music in a future lesson. Today, we are going to focus on how rock music evolved over the decades and how it branched out to sub-genres like prog, punk and metal. Today is mostly about listening – we won’t have time for questions, so just sit back and enjoy the music, and take notes about the features of each style.

Let’s remind ourselves of the early rock’n’roll sound by some music from the 1950s by the ‘king of rock’ Elvis Presley.

The 60s – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones & Jimi Hendrix
In 1960, a band formed in Liverpool, UK, that changed the face of music forever – The Beatles. When they started out their sound was very clearly based on blues and rock’n’roll.

Over the next few years pop music became a lot more experimental, with bands looking for influences beyond rock’n’roll. The Beatles famously took inspiration from Indian music, for example.

By the end of the decade, their music had moved on a long way from its rock’n’roll origins. This song, Here Comes the Son, uses some complicated rhythms and patterns that would have been unheard of in blues or rock’n’roll, blurring the distinction between popular music and art music.

In previous centuries Britain had earned itself a nickname from other countries: “the land without music”. Between the 17 and 19th centuries, western music had been largely dominated by European countries, and by Germany and Austria in particularly (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert etc). At the turn of the century, American popular music came to the forefront with blues, jazz, and rock’n’roll. Finally, in the 1960s, Britain found its musical voice. The Rolling Stones were another band that gained success in the 60s, during the so called ‘British Invasion’ of British bands onto the worldwide stage.

While some bands like The Beatles kept a more laidback pop sound, other musicians like Jimi Hendrix were pushing rock to its extremes, using distortion and feedback effects to get powerful, edgy sounds from the electric guitar.

The 70s – Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath & Sex Pistols
In the 1970s, the Beatles broke up, and Jimi Hendrix joined the ‘27 Club’, passing away at the young age of 27. Despite their short-lived contribution to the world of music, their impact was enormous. That decade gave rise to prog-rock bands (short for progressive), such as Pink Floyd, who would continue pushing rock as an art form. New recording technology allowed for longer recordings, which Pink Floyd would take advantage of with their extended improvisations. New inventions such as synths also allowed for even greater experimentation with sound.

Prog rock music often revolved around ‘concept albums’, albums in which each track is somehow connected (either musically or with a story). One of the most famous examples of a concept album is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which looks at what “make[s] people mad”. Tracks are based on issues such as greed (“Money”), the non-stop march of “Time”, warfare (“Us and Them”) and politics “Brain Damage”), among others. These dramatic concept albums eventually led to bands such a Muse, who always base each album on a narrative idea and musical theme.

Pink Floyd also experimented a lot with electronics in their work, with tracks such as On The Run which features a synth and a drum machine.

Let’s jump forward a few decades to see where the concept albums and electronic experiments led with a track by Muse from their 2006 album Black Holes and Revelations, that is based around sci-fi themes like space and time travel, as well as politics.

And a more recent Muse track from a few years ago, Simulation Theory, which is the idea that we are all inside a computer program and nothing is real. This is a typical sort of theme for a Muse concept album.

Back to the 70s, While Pink Floyd and others were going down the ‘art-rock’ path, creating dramatic and complex long form music, an alternative form of rock started to emerge – punk. True to popular tradition, punks such as the Sex Pistols preferred a less-fussy approach, fusing upfront political lyrics with straight forward music that was easy to play and follow.

With this next song from The Clash, we start to hear a more refined punk sound that gave rise to more recent bands like Blink 182.

Again, let’s skip forward a few decades to hear some 2000s pop-punk from Blink 182, that blends punk instrumentation and structure with poppy lyrics that are less political and edgy.

And now a Blink track from 2019.

Alongside punk and prog, another big genre more aggressive genre was emerging – metal, that had the same high drama and production as prog, but with a heavier, more angry sound. Ozzy Osborne from the band Black Sabbath, was famous for his crazy on stage antics, most famously biting the head off of a bat during a live show! Guess he must have been hungry!

To finish off today’s lesson, let’s jump forward one more time to see some 2000s metal, followed by some more recent music by the same band, Slipknot. Slipknot continued the same aggressive, dramatic style as Black Sabbath, with even heavier screamed vocals. They also added masks and on-stage personas to add a new level of theatricality to metal.

And some Slipknot from 2014:

After hearing those quite extreme tracks, let’s finish up with one last track, to remind us where this journey started!

It’s incredible how music evolves, isn’t it? We didn’t have time to cover every decade and sub-genre of rock today, but we can look more closely at the 80s and 90s in the future, looking at Britpop like Oasis and Coldplay as well as the grunge and emo movements. Next week – soul, funk, and disco!