Styles & Forms | Fifties | Rock

The 1950s was the decade when the straitjacket imposed by the recent world war was loosened a little – and rock took full advantage. The Sun studios in Memphis and Chess Records in Chicago were the places to be as the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry turned the existing generation gap into a chasm.

Though he did not always appear in vision, Bill Haley reaped the rewards as rock helped Hollywood bring in the younger generation – even if a few seats were slashed in the process. Television, which by the end of the decade would be well established, offered another medium by which to reach willing youth and scandalize their parents. Elvis was initially cut off at the waist by over-zealous cameramen, but the power to shock remained.

While the music publishers of Tin Pan Alley had controlled the writing and recording of music, teenage subjects were addressed in lyrics for the first time by rock’s new songwriters. Chuck Berry’s songs of romance, frustration and homework appealed to white and black, male and female alike, while the Brill Building turned out similar quality pop from the pens of Neil Sedaka, Carole King and others.

Britain began its rock’n’roll odyssey via skiffle, using acoustic and/or home-made instruments. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were among the followers of skiffle king Lonnie Donegan. The electric guitar was still a rarity, but when Brian Rankin got hold of a real Fender Stratocaster from the States he was on his way to becoming Britain’s first guitar hero, fronting The Shadows as Hank B. Marvin.

Sources & Sounds

The 1950s was the decade when rock’n’roll crossed the globe like a tidal wave. The music first hit Britain, where it inspired an enthusiastic reaction, then the rest of the world. And if the language in which it was sung was universally English, the combination of minimal lyrics and driving beat swiftly made rock’n’roll universally acceptable.

Shock Around The Clock

To the world’s youth, that is. The powers that be immediately smelt trouble: Indonesia and Argentina were quick to ban the new music in 1957, while South Africa’s regime employed troops with tear gas to stop rock fans rioting. The fact the music had emerged from black roots was, doubtless, coincidental.

Germany proved a fertile breeding ground for rock. The nation that lost the Second World War was now occupied by American forces, and their tastes would help make the former Fatherland an early convert to the rock cause. Though Elvis Presley’s arrival in the country on national service was in a strictly non-singing capacity, the less inhibited Little Richard was one of many regular Stateside visitors. And it would not be long before The Beatles would use the clubs of Hamburg to work up their world-beating stage act.


But it was the Sun Records’ studio in Memphis, Tennessee, that had been the real launch-pad for rock. Even though label founder Sam Phillips sold Elvis...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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