Music, like most forms of entertainment and/or art are in the eye of the beholder (or in this case, the ear). Because music, at least good music, can appeal to one’s emotions beyond their hearing, different songs and bands touch different people different ways. So, while that does make it hard to explicitly say what the biggest moments in music history are, it doesn’t make it impossible as there are tangible and objective things that have happened over the course of the past century or so that have changed the future of music or influenced nearly every musician that came after that. So, we wanted to look at the Top 10 most important moments in music history from that perspective, the perspective of moments that were substantial enough to change the rest of music history that took place after those events. So, grab your favorite headphones, kick back and get ready to learn a ton about the music industry!
10. Sugarhill Gang Hits the Top 40
While most people think that rap/hip-hop started in the early 1980’s, the reality is that the first rap song to actually make the Top 40 chart was actually released in 1979 by a group named the Sugar Hill Gang. Like Rock ‘N Roll before it, Rap was an entirely new form of music that had never really been heard before and in what perhaps should’ve been a sign for things to come (we’re looking at you, Drake), the song wasn’t actually written by the ‘Gang themselves. Produced by Sylvia Robinson ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is often credited with introducing hip hop music to a wider/whiter audience and a lot of the components of that song are still major parts of rap music today. From the braggadocio incorporated by the members of the Gang, to the candid nature of their rhymes, their talk of sex and also of dancing while using a lot of charisma, those are all major tenets of what rap/hip-hop is and has been about really since its inception. The song also utilized the beat from another song, which while not direct sampling was something that is still utilized heavily in rap songs of today. The song interpolates the song “Good Times” from the group Chic and ended up with the first rap lawsuit there was (that ended up going in Chic’s favor). 251 on Rolling Stones’ The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the song itself is catchy but not earth shattering, outside of the fact that it helped popularize a new form of music that is the dominant form of music today. A lot of people thought that it was a passing fad and they couldn’t have been more incorrect, as it seems that rap/hip-hop are getting more and more popular as the years go on and without ‘Rappers Delight’ that may not have happened, which explains why it was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2011 (for being particularly significant in terms of it’s contributions to culture, history or aesthetics).
9. Michael Jackson’s Thriller
Michael Jackson is by far the most popular solo artist of all-time, selling more records than any other solo artist and breaking nearly every record for sales with his gigantic album Thriller. Before Thriller and Michael Jackson became the force that consumed the decade that was the mid-to-late 80’s up until his scandal laden mid-to-late 1990’s, Michael Jackson was still mostly known for his work as the lead singer of The Jackson Five (despite the success that came from his first solo album, Off the Wall, which was released in 1979).Thriller was released three years later in 1982, a time in which Jackson had asserted more of his independence musically in a time that was reportedly filled with depression for the young singer. He stated in interviews at the time that “even at home” he would sit in his room and “cry” because of his inability to make friends and that he would often walk around his neighborhood at night looking for people to talk to but more often than not ends up going home alone. He channelled that emotion into his most famous recording. one that completely changed the musical landscape forever, and it was one that Jackson felt was really important as he was irked by the then idea that Off the Wall had “Underperformed” (it has sold 20 million albums since 1979 and was nearly universally hailed by critics as a masterpiece, but Jackson had extremely high expectations and thus wanted Thriller to be his coming out party of sorts). Together with legendary musician and producer Quincy Jones, Jackson and Jones worked together on 30 songs with nine making the final album and a lot of those being released as singles and that’s why this album makes the list as sure, it’s probably the most famous album of all-time but for it to have a lasting impact on the music industry there has to be something more than that and it was not only the amount of singles released from Thriller but just how many hit songs were on the record as a whole that changed music for the better. Thriller changed how people perceived singles and what could be released from an album (considering almost the entire album was released as a single at one point) and beyond that it really raised the bar in terms of releasing a complete album and not focusing solely on a hit single or two like most singers/bands/groups did before that. While you could also give the Beatles and Beach Boys credit for the same thing, the proper way to explain it would be to say that those groups began the change and Jackson finished it (up until the advent of streaming and single sales in the age of the internet).
8. Dylan Goes Electric
Whether or not you’re a fan of Bob Dylan you have to admit that he’s one of the most influential acts in the history of music. The Minnesota Native fled his home state and embedded himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scene in May of 1960. That meant that he was typically a one-man band, one that included his trusty harmonica, acoustic guitar and one-of-a-kind voice. A self-proclaimed disciple of Woody Guthrie, Dylan was perhaps the best known protest singer of his era and it was his extremely intelligent and borderline esoteric lyrics that personified the 1960’s counter-culture, hippy movements and the opposition to the Vietnam War. Despite the universal praise for Dylan now, in July of 1965 his fans were actually really torn when he decided to pick up an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival and add a backing band (at the time of the Folk Festival he was backed by the Butterfield Blues Band) and rock out for nearly 20 minutes. That performance was met by as many boos and jeers as it was with cheers and awed silence and it is actually considered one of the most important moments in Rock and Rock history, period. It was important because in one 17 minute set, Dylan basically ended the Folk revival that he had been at the forefront of for most of the decade. That was followed by his new single, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ which was six-minutes long. changing how people perceived singles and commercial radio, as songs tended to be no more than three minutes long before Dylan made the switch. So, beyond what it meant for Dylan and even folk music it had a gigantic effect on bands in general as other singers and bands decided to go electric to keep up with the times, as they were a changin’. The band The Bryds, for example, while having gone electric in their ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ a month before Newport decided to make the change permanent and other groups like The Turtles, Link Wray, Johnny Rivers, Sonny and Cher, Leroy Van Dyke and Duane Eddy all made the switch after that (or even covered Dylan’s new electric work). The change also allowed Dylan to basically continue to grow with his audience and continue to be one of the voices of his generation, so while it was definitely controversial at the time and very well could’ve meant the end of his career, Dylan proved that he is beholden to no man, sound or expectation and changed the future of Rock music forever.
7. Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound
Speaking of changing sound, if there’s any single producer from that era that was almost as famous as most bands it would’ve been Phil Spector. While Spector is famous now for being an eccentric murderer, the list of groups that he worked with is a basic who’s who of influential groups from that time period. Spector was known for revolutionizing the sound of music itself, or how at least how it sounded when played at home in what was then known as the “Spector Sound” and eventually the “Wall of Sound”. Spector mostly recorded during this time at Gold Star Studios in the 1960s, which is located in Los Angeles, California. He often worked with the same studio musicians regardless of what singer/band he was working with and that group was known as “The Wrecking Crew”, a group of musicians that played on nearly countless amounts of albums during that time as well. The goal of The Wall of Sound was to “exploit the possibilities of studio recording” by creating an orchestral aesthetic that was unusually dense, which allowed the music to come across a lot better than songs/albums recorded before it regardless of the output (from cheap jukeboxes to high-end hifi/stereo systems). When asked about the sound in 1964, Spector said “I was looking for a sound, a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record. It was a case of augmenting, augmenting. It all fitted together like a jigsaw”. His choice of words notwithstanding, what Spector did was change the quality of albums in the most important way possible which was how they sound(ed, as he would say). A ton of producers initially attempted to copy the sound by essentially just recording everything at the loudest possible level (turn it up to 11!), but because of the distortion that came from recording that way it as opposed to using Spector’s method, which involved large ensembles (including non-traditional ensemble instruments like electric and acoustic guitars) as opposed to smaller groups that were, again, just turned up to the top level allowed in the studio. This emphasis on sound forever changed the recording industry even as people moved away from Mono and to Stereo, as it showed people how good music could and thus should sound, often making albums sound better than their live counterparts which was just unheard of before Spector and his sound. Beyond that, the fact that he included a ton of non-traditional instruments for ensembles but also for Rock music (like strings, woodwind or brass) helped the genre continue to evolve through the 60’s and into the 70’s. Talk about an influential person!
6. Chuck Berry releases “Maybellene”
The first entry on this list was the first hit rap record to hit the Top 40 in “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hillgang. If there is a Rock and Roll version of that song, that was one of the first hits for the new genre of music, then the song Maybellene by Chuck Berry would be that song. Written and recorded in 1955 by Berry, it was also similar to ‘Rapper’s Delight’ in that it encorporated aspects from songs that already existed. In the case of Maybellene, Berry adapted the Western Swing fiddle song “Ida Red” (which was recorded in 1938 by Bobb Wills and his Texas Playboys). The song, also like ‘Rapper’s Delight’ included a lot of the early Rock ‘N Roll cliches like hot rod racing and a broken romance and it was Berry’s first hit single (or hit of any kind) and thus is considered to be one of the pioneering rock songs ever especially in terms of the music, namely in Berry’s guitar. Rolling Stone magazine claimed that ‘Maybellene’ was the first song to establish and utilize Rock & Roll guitar and it’s influence can be heard in countless songs that came out after it’s release. Beyond it’s unquestioned influence as one of the songs that established Rock & Roll it also helped bridge the divide that existed between Black and White audiences in terms of the music that they listened to. There are a lot of examples of musicians like Frank Sinatra forcing hotels or venues to allow black people to not only attend his shows but stay at the hotel as well and so it can’t be overstated how important music was for helping with the Civil Rights movement as well. Granted, white parents were terrified by the “black music” that was Rock & Roll, but as the teenagers who wen’t crazy to songs like ‘Maybellene’ got older they clearly didn’t believe in things like segregation anymore and while it took about a decade for the Civil Rights bill to be passed, it’s safe to say that without songs like ‘Maybellene’ it may have taken a lot longer than that, otherwise.
5. The Death of Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana get a lot of the credit for ushering in the Grunge movement that exploded on the scene in the early ’90’s and essentially put both hair and glam metal out of their collective misery. It was a burden that Cobain struggled with as he clearly loved to make music and art but didn’t necessarily want to be known as the voice of his generation or the poster boy for disaffected youth. It was something that he struggled with up until his death by suicide in 1994 after multiple failed attempts by his then-wife and band-mates to get him into treatment for his heroin addiction. While there are a lot of tangible and interesting facts surrounding his death that have come out in the past few years that point to the fact that perhaps he didn’t kill himself but rather was killed by someone his soon-to-be ex-wife Courtney Love hired, the fact remains that he did die and that changed the future of music forever. Like the next entry on this list, it’s impossible to say what would’ve happened with rock music had Cobain not died in 1994, especially considering the growth that you could hear between Nirvana’s second and third albums (‘Nevermind’ and ‘In Utero’). Despite the fact that he struggled with the titles and love from his fans, Cobain was a genius that perhaps would’ve just stopped making music altogether especially since his doctors told him that he had to stop singing the way that he was (as it was apparently exacerbating his stomach issues and was really rough on his vocal chords). It’s hard to say that Cobain would’ve stayed away from music completely, though, as one of the final things that he did was make plans with the singer of R.E.M. in Michael Stipe to get together and record some music together. Cobain was good friends with Stipe and had told him on numerous occasions that he envied his ability to make whatever music strikes him, as he longed for that type of freedom from expectation and the corner he had painted himself into as the world’s most famous rockstar of an entirely new sub-genre of rock & roll. Another great example of where Nirvana and thus rock music could’ve ended up came courtesy of the now legendary performance that Cobain and Nirvana (and others) had done a few months before his death for MTV’s Unplugged. Nirvana rustled a lot of feathers from the powers that be at MTV as well as from the audience itself by mostly ignoring their own catalogue and instead sang a lot of covers of obscure songs that were as old as 125 years. The best example of this was the song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” which was made into an instant classic by Cobain and Nirvana. The song was first noticed in the 1970’s and went by a few different titles, but became one of Nirvana’s most well-known songs because of the epic performance by the band and the meaning a lot of it ended taking on after his death only a matter of weeks later. Considering the fact that most of the lead singers of Grunge bands are now dead, perhaps the movement was always doomed to implode but at least we have the few albums that bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots or Soundgarden recorded back in happier, or at least less depressing times.
4. The Death of Biggie and Tupac
Like with the death of Kurt Cobain only two years before, music was rocked to it’s core when the two most beloved rappers of their generation, Tupac Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious BIG” Wallace were killed in drive-by-shootings a mere six months apart from one another. The entire saga is being covered by countless documentaries and Hollywood films these past few years and it’s not really hard to see why as the story of Biggie and Tupac reads like something straight out of Shakespeare. The two were formerly friends that had a following up with Shakur was shot five times in 1994 while entering the lobby of a recording studio where Wallace and basically “every New York Rapper” was recording at the time. While Shakur has been vindicated in recent years thanks to jailhouse confessions, it’s still unclear whether or not Wallace was aware that Shakur was going to be “punished” in a set-up that was meant to look like a robbery. Regardless, the fact that Wallace didn’t visit his friend in jail and refused to help him figure out who shot him (despite the fact that the shooters were from Wallace’s native Brooklyn) rubbed Shakur the wrong way, and when Wallace released the song “Who Shot Ya?” while Shakur was in prison for “Unlawful touching” in 1995, Tupac decided to renounce his proclamations that he was giving up the “thug life” and came out of prison on a mission after he joined Death Row Records and they posted his $1.4 million dollar bail. It just so happened that the head of Death Row, Suge Knight, also had a vendetta with the head of Wallace’s record label in Bad Boy, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, thanks to the death of Knight’s friend at a party in Atlanta the year prior. It was a recipe for disaster that occurred right at the peak of gangster raps “keeping it real” era and when the media caught wind that there may be a feud between the East and West Coasts, the recipe for disaster was all but set. Shakur was shot four times after watching his friend Mike Tyson best Bruce Seldon in the first round and died almost seven days later, where as Wallace was gunned down in Los Angeles of March, 1997 after the fire marshall shut down a party at the Peterson Automotive museum. Neither murder has been officially solved but it’s safe to say that had they both lived the music industry would look completely different. Shakur was set to launch “Death Row East” and basically would’ve or could’ve signed a lot of the East Coast rappers that we know of today (like 50 Cent, from Queens, who knew rappers like E-Money Bags who was loosely affiliated with Shakur) and who knows what would’ve happened with Eminem, who signed with Dr. Dre, who Shakur had also decided to verbally attack after Dre left Death Row in the middle of ’96. Wallace is credited with popularizing mafioso rap and his ‘Life After Death’ seems like the blueprint for a lot of the rappers that came after him, namely Jay-Z who like DMX filled the void left by the genres two-biggest stars. They’d both still be under the age of 50, which means that we would’ve had countless more albums from them or in the case of someone like Shakur, countless albums, films and perhaps even political aspirations. What a waste.
3. The Day the Music Died
1996/1997 was a time where hip-hop/rap almost died and it was remanescent to The Day the Music Died, a time in which three of Rock & Roll’s youngest and brightest stars died in a plane crash. It was 1959 and Rock & Roll was in full-swing, and three of the biggest stars happened to be touring the upper-midwest together doing shows for teenagers during the winter of 1959. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson had just performed at a small club in Clear Lake, Iowa, as part of the “Winter Dance Party” tour. Holly was the headliner and Valens and Richardson were rising stars that joined the tour more recently than Holly and by the time of their crash all three had about had it with the grueling schedule and travel that was taking them through the frozen tundra that envelopes the upper plains in February. Their tour buses were uncomfortable and freezing and that was negatively affecting their ability to perform as they had been getting colds, the flu and even frostbite. Holly became so fed up with this in fact that he chartered the plane from Clear Lake to their next location which was set to be Moorhead, Minnesota. At the last second Richardson nabbed a seat on the plane in lieu of Waylon Jennings, who was a part of Holly’s band at the time as Richardson was still getting over the flu and Jennings thought that he needed the spot more than he did. Valens also almost didn’t make it on the plane and only did after he won a coin-toss over another member of Holly’s band. Because it was late at night and visibility was low because of the wintry weather conditions the pilot ended up losing control of their small plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, which ended up crashing in a cornfield not long after takeover in Clear Lake, Iowa. Everyone aboard the plane died instantly and it’s safe to say that it changed the future of music forever. All three were either still entering their primes or just starting out and despite that they’ve left catalogues of music that have gone on to influence singers and bands for decades. Fans of the trio have held annual memorial concerts at the Surf Ballroom every year since the tragedy, with the 50th anniversary taking place in 2009, which goes to show you how important these fellas were and what could’ve been had they had a better bus, plane or pilot.
2. Elvis on Milton Berle’s Show
At the end of 1955 Elvis Presley was nearing a year-and-a-half on the road and while he had a couple of modest hits, those happened to be on Country and Western charts and not on the Rock & Roll charts that he became the “King” of not long after. The impetus for his change from a hardworking and promising but hard to categorize new-comer to the King of Rock & Roll, while like with most things isn’t because of one thing but if you had to pick the moment that Presley exploded onto the national scene it was his appearance on The Milton Berle show during the Spring of 1956. Presley was promoting his debut single on RCA/Victor records, a little song named “Heartbreak Hotel” and while it was already a hit before he joined Berle’s show it was that appearance that began the legend that eventually would become Elvis. The performance is legendary and was surprisingly not Presley’s first time on television or even on the Milton Berle show. He had been on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show six times between January and March of that year (we told you he was a hard-worker) and had also appeared with Berle on a show earlier that year in April. The main difference between those appearances and what would become his signature performance was the song he was singing, or more importantly the type of song (or the tempo of that song). He had previously focused on singing ballads, which “Heartbreak Hotel” was not and because of that he didn’t do much of his now (in)famous dancing. It was the dancing that accompanied his performance of “Heartbreak Hotel” that instantly made Elvis the voice of his generation and the King of Rock & Roll as it drove girls everywhere crazy and parents groups and politicians even crazier. The way he moved his hips around the stage terrified a lot of people and created such a fervor that when he returned to American television afterwards he was filmed from the waist up for years. While Presley most likely would’ve hit it big without that performance it was the turning point from a young and promising artist to the legend that dictated the future of Rock & Roll as well as gospel and some country music. There’s a reason why Elvis is considered the king and it’s because of his influence on basically everyone who’s ever picked up a guitar and it’s because of that that he very nearly almost tops this list.
1. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan
The only group that could really outdo Elvis Presley in general or in terms of what a single television performance meant for their band and the future of Rock & Roll is of course the Beatles, who were gigantic fans of The King and covered a lot of his songs throughout their careers as a band and as solo artists. If there’s one moment that is looked back upon as the moment that the Beatles became THE BEATLES (AHHHHHHHH!) it was their February, 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. The Beatles were already established in their native Britain but it was their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show that catapulted them from British band to international superstars and it’s also that performance that a lot of music historians look back upon as one of the most significant in terms of how it influenced music afterwards. By the time they got on Sullivan they had actually sold one-and-a-half million copies of their most recent single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the United States alone, and the performance was actually advertised on over five-million posters across the United States. Regardless, the appearance marked the beginning of what is known as the “British Invasion” and started the beginning of Beatlemania, which got to the point that the band stopped touring because they literally couldn’t hear their own instruments/voices and would often have to be taken in and out of venues in the back of a Brink’s armored truck to protect them from the screaming masses. It’s impossible to overstate how important the Beatles were in terms of what they did for music or how influential they were and continue to be. It’s amazing to think that this group was only together for about five-to-six years after that appearance on Ed Sullivan but somehow in that time managed to completely change popular music in almost every way possible and create music that is as relevant today as it was when it was released. There will never be another band like The Beatles and while it’s fun to think what would’ve happened had they not broken up, the individual members all released solo albums that were massively influential in their own right. It all goes back to that Ed Sullivan appearance, one which is often cited as the biggest moment in television history as well and it’s because of that that the Beatles top this list, something I’m sure they’re not used to by now.