The Eruption of Rock

Or, Remember the Werewolves of London*

Everybody knows that rock music grew out of American rock'n'roll. Americans are still apt to call it that. A few know that it also grew from rhythm & blues and other musical influences. Not so many know that its great eruption first came to the surface in London, England. Yes, really.

Back at the beginning of 1964, American popular music had just gone electric, notably with the electrification of pop and folk ballads by bands such as the Beach Boys and the Byrds to create the Surf Sound. In parallel, the UK had electrified rock'n'roll to create a characteristic Beat pop music, notably the Merseybeat centred on Liverpool and led by the Beatles. R&B was developing as a more jazz/blues influenced electric pop. The British Invasion of touring bands was now changing American popular music too. None of these were rock music, whatever the historians and encyclopedias like to claim, and nobody ever called them that. These were just the predecessors, the warm-up acts, the lava tubes. Rock'n'roll might be blowing our parents' minds, but rock was about to blow ours. "Performance art" aside, you never saw a rock'n'roll Romeo smash his guitar like Pete Townsend. Or write an intro in 17/16 time like Mike Oldfield. But we would.

The UK's capital city, London, was not taking all this lying down. Here a darker, more solid and aggressive beat was taking shape, with lyrics going the same way and focused as much on social issues as love songs. It brought a new vibe to the pop charts, one which was not going to go away. Check out these hit singles, all cut in 1964:

Meanwhile, if you were lucky enough to be in Canterbury a short ride to the south, you might have heard The Wilde Flowers performing an altogether different and weirder kind of laid-back sound, a sound also beginning to be explored by London's Dave Clark Five in the odd single, and by Birmingham group the Moody Blues. They never cut a disc, but they recorded a few tracks and these compilations are worth digging out. Pop music this is not!

None of this was traditional rock'n'roll, nor was it R&B or anything else. It was rock'n'roll with the frivolous roll cut out of it, and became known as rock music. No longer just popular dance music, but serious stuff. The hard, heavy power-chord guitar riff in You Really Got Me got a lot of other people too; it has been hailed as the birth of heavy metal, itself an outgrowth of heavy rock or, as it was first known, hard rock. Add Blues to taste. By contrast, the sounds of The Wilde Flowers and the Moody Blues would develop into genres such as psychedelic rock and prog rock (The very similar American development of acid rock seems to have evolved independently from the garage punk lava tube around a year later, but I stand to be corrected there).

The release of I Can't Explain in the US before its native land demonstrates the power of the British Invasion - which was now about to explode with the power of rock. What would become Steppenwolf was then just a Canadian beat group called The Sparrows. Within two years, the lava flows had spread across both sides of the Atlantic, igniting a myriad seminal rock bands pushing the envelope of contemporary music harder and further than ever before. Folk rock, soft rock, punk rock, unplugged, stadium rock, death metal, there was no end to it.

Over the next twenty years or so, the vast outpouring of rock continued across the globe, until it was eventually overtaken by street genres and faded to a trickle, a trickle which burst briely back into flood alongside 90's Britpop and still produces the odd fountain of sparks to this day.

And it all began in the one place that historians of rock never seem to remember. London is the original volcano from which rock music erupted back in 1964, and don't you forget it!

*In acknowledgement of a certain Excitable Boy, who came along a few years later.

Updated 1 Feb 2024