Monday, 15 June 2009

Rock and Roll in the 1950s

Rock and Roll is probably the single biggest influence on modern popular music. All modern pop music has been influenced by it, either directly or by another genre that took influence from it. Artists like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and his Comets and Buddy Holly changed the image of music forever with songs that inspired a generation and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Below is a list of useful websites, influential artists and key singles.

Genre Information

Essential Listening

Bill Haley and his Comets - Rock Around The Clock

Bo Diddley - Bo Diddley

Little Richard - Good Golly Miss Molly
Elvis Presley - Hound Dog
Bill Haley and his Comets - Rip It Up

Buddy Holly and the Crickets - Peggy Sue
Elvis Presley - Jailhouse Rock
Jerry Lee Lewis - Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On
Little Richard - Lucile
Buddy Knox - Party Doll

Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode
Eddie Cochran - Summertime Blues
Ritchie Valens - La Bamba

Chan Romero Hippy Hippy Shake

Artist Information

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Funk and Soul

Funk is a genre of music that began in the late 1960s. It was one of the most influential music genres of the 20th century, both musically and in terms of its impact on society.

Funk evolved from soul, with James Brown leading the way. Already a celebrated and popular R&B and soul musician, Brown’s style evolved towards the mid 1960s, shifting the emphasis away from the melody and towards the rhythm. Using electric bass guitars and drum kits he created music that was easy to dance to, making use of repeated riffs. Brown also emphasised the downbeat of each bar (beat 1), something that was previously unheard of in African American music (which had previously been based on the backbeat - beats two and four). Brown’s brand of rhythmic soul soon became popular, and other acts soon started to use the sound. Dyke & the Blazers released Funky Broadway in 1967 (later covered by Wilson Picket), Sly and the Family Stone released Dance to the Music in 1968, The Isley Brothers released “It’s Your Thing” in 1969, Charles Wright released Express Yourself in 1970. All of these were heavily influenced by James Brown.

The Isley Brothers - It's Your Thing

The sound of funk is made up of several key features. The emphasis of the downbeat and shift of focus towards rhythm is the most important, as this is the biggest difference between funk and soul, which puts the emphasis on the melody and harmony. Another important element is the use of the brass or horns section, often used to add short stabs to the music, once again emphasising the rhythm. Electric guitar was often used, playing repeated riffs without using distortion. Bass guitar was played in a new way, “slapping” the lower strings with the side of the thumb and “popping” the higher strings by pulling them away from the fret board with the fingers and letting them spring back and hit the fret board or pickups. The inventor of this technique is widely considered to be Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. Often, the vocals were made up of a mixture of sustained, gospel style singing and short stabs, reinforcing the sense of rhythm in the song. James Brown was fond of this technique, and it was used by other artists later on, such as Edwin Starr on “War” and The Temptations on “Ball of Confusion”. Other instruments used include Hammond organ (which had been used extensively in soul and gospel music previously), clavinets, electric pianos and the string section. In the 1970s many funk acts began experimenting with electronic instrumentation. A key example of this is Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”, which used the mighty TONTO synthesizer to great effect. The Isley Brothers also used synthesizers on some of their albums. This is one of the reasons I feel that the genre remained to be successful, the music changed as technology developed, so there was something new musically every time, not just lyrically.

Funk and Soul takes influence from many areas. Several acts had previously been associated with R&B, and continued to use elements in their later funk work, such as the horns section and the Hammond organ. Elements of Jazz were used in Funk too, with Miles Davis being a big influence on many. James Brown’s song “Cold Sweat” reworked part of Davis’ “So What” (from Kind of Blue, released in 1959). San Francisco-based band Sly and the Family Stone also incorporated elements of Psychedelic rock, a genre that developed in their home city.

Many genres and artists have taken influence from Funk and Soul. Disco became popular in the 1970s, taking heavy influence from Funk in almost all areas. The instrumentation used (the horns, the clean guitar, the pop and slap bass) is nearly identical. Hip Hop was also heavily influenced by Funk, especially lyrically. Funk tracks were often used as backing for early rap, and as sampling became more common this increased. One notable example is N.W.A’s track “Express Yourself”. Modern acts still take influence from Funk and Soul. Amy Winehouse’s track “Rehab” uses many of the funk hallmarks, such as horns and emphasis on the downbeat. Joss Stone has also used elements of Funk in some of her music, especially “Tell Me ‘Bout It”.

There was no particular fashion linked with funk or soul, though in the early days it was common for the musicians all to wear suits, as was the nature of Big Band acts, with the singer or band leader wearing something that contrasted. However, towards the 1970s things changed dramatically. Afro hair styles became extremely common, and acts began to wear unusual and/or extrovert clothing, such as shiny suits and platform shoes. Some acts that had previously put out the image of being quite clean cut changed their image to being more carefree. Marvin Gaye is one notable example. He grew a beard and more or less shunned his perfect image. It was somewhat common to wear vast amounts of jewellery. The term Bling did not emerge until the 1990s, but the concept existed in the 1970s. Parliament-Funkadelic were known for their unusual style, especially Bootsy Collins and George Clinton, who to this day maintain the unusual look.

Image taken from

Lyrically, funk and soul are very diverse. Earlier on the focus tended to be on love, dancing and having a good time. However, later on a lot of songs dealt with political issues that were relevant at the time. Funk and Soul came about at a time when black people in America were considered to be second class citizens by many white Americans. Civil rights activist Martin Luther King was a big inspiration to many black people in America, and his assassination in April 1968 caused widespread riots in the USA. The day after the assassination, James Brown played a concert in Boston which was broadcast for free across the city, where he (and Boston’s mayor, Kevin White) urged the public to remain calm, and not riot. This was the first time a musician had made such an impact on a social and political issue; quite an achievement for the time. Brown’s message to the viewers (and to the black community in general) was to be proud of their race in a peaceful way. His song “Say it Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud”, released later that year emphasised this point, and instantly became an anthem for black people. Brown’s intervention not only helped to calm the population and prevented riots, it helped to boost his public image, gaining him a whole new audience, which I believe is one of the main reasons he remained to be so successful for so long.

Other artists became politically motivated, including Edwin Starr, with his single “War” (expressing his distaste at the Vietnam war which was happening at the time) and Sly and the Family Stone released “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”. The American public were feeling especially anti-war at this point in time, and many feel (including me) that this boosted record sales and changed attitudes towards music. Acts previously associated with love songs, such as Motown artists The Temptations and Marvin Gay, began to change their style to incorporate political lyrics. Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” raised issues such as the war in Vietnam and drug use. The Temptations’ single, “Ball of Confusion” dealt with similar issues. Both of these releases were considered to be key soul records, with the latter being a key example of the emerging psychedelic soul genre.

The Night James Brown Saved Boston – TV Documentary

Friday, 6 March 2009

Progressive Rock

Progressive Rock is a genre of rock music that first appeared in Britain at the end of the 1960s.
Throughout the 1960s, popular music had consisted of short songs that followed certain structures.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

New Romanticism

The Era of New Romanticism was a short period of time spanning from the very late 1970s to the early 1980s. The era of guitar-driven punk was drawing to a close, giving way to music that took advantage of the various developments within music technology. Drum machines and synthesizers became as common as guitar and bass.

The earliest examples of New Romanticism emerged in London’s club scene, especially “Billy’s”. The club’s manager was called Steve Strange, also known as “Steve-O”, and he organised nights dedicated to David Bowie. Bowie’s flair, especially his use of make-up was a big influence on the movement. New music found its way onto the playlist, and the club became very popular, so popular that it moved to a new location in Covent Garden, called “The Blitz”. One of the club’s employees was Boy George, then a cloakroom attendant. He became a member of the crowd that became known as “The Blitz Kids”, an exclusive group that developed an image based on gender ambiguity and sexual experimentation. David Bowie, often cited as the “Godfather” of the movement, became a regular, and even came down scouting for extras for the music video for “Ashes to Ashes”.

Visage - Fade to Grey
1980 hit from their album "Visage"

A classic New Romantic song with a video showing the image of the movement.

The sound of New Romanticism is a very synthetic sound. The music is dominated by synthesizers, often utilising them for both the backing and the riff. Drum machines were also common. Artists often experimented with new sounds on their records, creating strange and previously unheard effects. Older synths, previously used by progressive rock acts were used in new ways, in a similar way to how electronic artists in the 90s did. The music was often driven by powerful rhythmic bass lines. These were often a mix of traditional electric bass and synth bass. Lyrics were often obscure and ambiguous. Some lyrics were very commercial, with subjects like love and sex.

The New Romantic era can be considered either a continuation of Punk or a reaction to it. The music certainly has the energy of punk, and while the image of safety pins, leather and unusual hair was similar, the gender-bending was certainly something new. Musically the era was a big influence on pop music in general. Acts like Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds and Duran Duran started as New Romantic acts and moved their way into the mainstream. The heavy use of synths also moved into mainstream pop, especially when the equipment became more reliable and easier to use.

The New Romantic sound has found its way into modern electropop music by bands such as The Postal Service and Lily Allen. It has also appeared in modern pop-rock bands such as the Kaiser Chiefs.

The New Romantic movement took place during a deep economic recession, a possible catalyst in the development of the fashion and lifestyle of the movement’s followers. Many chose to squat in west end apartments. Boy George famously shared a squat with many of the Blitz kids, including Marilyn. The Blitz kids may even have been spurred on by the economic doom, trying to drown out the harsh reality wioth their music and lifestyle.

Certain albums and songs helped to bring the New Romantic era into the commercial spotlight. Duran Duran’s album Rio and its title track became huge hits, as did Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon. The Human League with their single “Don’t You Want Me Baby?” also became popular (though they claimed they had nothing to do with the movement, despite sharing an image and musical style with the other acts).

Monday, 24 November 2008

Electronic Music is a broad term that is used to cover many forms of music. I’m going to talk about two contrasting movements within Electronic music, Trip-Hop and Electronica.


Significant Electronica artists include Orbital, Underworld, Aphex twins and early Prodigy (Music for the Jilted Generation)

Electronica was extremely popular in the 1990s, with acts frequently entering the top 20. “Born Slippy NUXX” by Underworld and "No Good (Start The Dance)" by The Prodigy reached 2 and 4 respectively in the UK singles chart.

Lyrically, Electronica tends to be sparse, using sampled vocals from other songs, or adding lyrics that were sung in such a way so that they blend into the instrumentation. Tracks were also often instrumental.

Musically, Electronica is based around drum machines, synthesizers and samples. The tempo is generally moderate, somewhere between Dub and Drum n’ Bass. Synths usually provide the lead, and real instruments are often sampled. Reverb and delay are used extensively.

Electronica has been influenced by many different genres including techno, house, disco, Avant Garde music, electro and even hiphop. Orbital even drew influence from second wave punk rock. Kraftwerk were also a big influence on bands such as Underworld. Techno also played a big part in the formation of the sound of electronic.

The image of Electronica is one of obscurity. Music videos were often abstract, and acts often had unusual stage costumes. Orbital for example was made up of two brothers, one wearing a strange hat and the other wearing glasses with torches built into the legs.

The Prodigy - Voodoo People

Trip Hop

Trip Hop (known as Bristol Sound due to its place of origin) is a very slow form of electronic music, drawing influences from hip-hop, house and alternative/psychedelic rock. The three main acts of the genre were Tricky, Portishead and Massive Attack, all from Bristol. Portishead are considered to be the band that made Trip-Hop popular in the USA, with their album “Dummy” selling over 150,000 copies in the USA before the band had toured there.

The music makes heavy use of keyboards, with the Rhodes piano being prominent, alongside strings or pads. Sampling is once again used a lot in the music, with one group, Portishead, actually sampling their own instruments. Sound effects are used a lot, and the sound is generally quite lo-fi.

Trip Hop is very lyrical, more so than most other electronic genres. There is a definite hip-hop influence in the vocals, especially with Tricky. The lyrics themselves tend to be rather melancholy, covering anger and frustration. This fits well with the nature of the music.

The fashion and image of Trip-Hop is influenced by hip-hop, mainly due to the multi-racial nature of Bristol.

Trip-hop made way for Trip-rock bands, notable acts being Gorillaz, Beast and Archive.

Promotional photo of Massive Attack (Note the
Hip-Hop pose)

Portishead - Over (A typical Portishead song, representing the
Trip-Hop genre well)

Social Impact

Electronic music had a big social impact. Clubs became dominated by electronic music in one form or another, and dance drugs became more popular. At one point in the 90s it was estimated that one million ecstasy pills were being taken a week, mostly in clubs. Users claimed that the music became “clearer”, and “more fluid” when they were under the influence of the drug. This increase in MDMA use caused severe problems though. Bad batches of pills caused numerous deaths and casualties.

Even today, most nightclubs still play mainly electronic music, and the 90s is considered to be an especially important time in electronic music.