Music History

When Did “Rock’n’Roll” Become Just “Rock?” And Why?

For the first decade of its existence, this music was called “rock’n’roll.” But by the time we got to the 1970s, it was being referred to simply as “rock?” Why the truncation? And is there a difference between “rock’n’roll’ and “rock?” That’s the subject of this article from NPR.

In 2009, musician and historian Elijah Wald published an overview of American pop from the 1890s to the 1960s he called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. The title was a bomb-throwing feint — as Wald told me in an interview, he knew that title would get much more attention than a drier one such as “American Pop From Sousa to Soul” — and as if on cue, one reviewer after another lined up to wave away its thesis. “[I]s rock dead because of [the Beatles]?” harrumphed the Los Angeles Times. “You don’t need to be a critic to know the answer to that question.”

Only Wald didn’t say that rock was destroyed, but that rock and roll was — and the difference is not merely academic. Rock, in the words of critic Robert Christgau, is “rock and roll made conscious of itself as an art form.” Prior to the June 1967 release of The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “rock and roll” meant any and everything formally tied to the mid-fifties explosion led commercially by Elvis Presley— doo-wop, surf music, Motown, the British Invasion, James Brown. “We were influenced by early rock and roll … which was not black,” Daryl Hall of Hall & Oatestold Musician magazine in 1982 (cited in a Stephen Thomas Erlewine piece for Cuepoint). “It was integrated music. There was no difference between black and white.” As Jack Hamilton points out in his forthcoming Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imaginary, the term “rock,” by itself, was almost nonexistent before Sgt. Pepper; afterward, it almost exclusively denoted white men with guitars.

This is good stuff. Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38341 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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