After that, we’ll be looking at the development of rock music as a spectacle. Again, there are any number of examples you could choose, but Bruce Springsteen’s Rosalita ties back to the themes that have been emerging in these pieces in a way that, say, Pink Floyd doesn’t. Again, if I decide to look at the Floyd there are other avenues down which that pursuit can proceed.

From there we’ll go on to consider the performer as an artist whose instincts regarding his work aren’t always in tune with those around him. He’s still coming out of the same sort of background, playing the clubs and dance halls of a major city, as the artists in the previous couple of articles but as things moved into the world of the self-contained entity with either its own resident genius or some poor journeyman who’s been handed the responsibility of coming up with the original material things moved into a corresponding area of artistic and creative expression that wasn’t always in line with commercial viability or the personal relationships between members of the group.

Those considerations will lead to a discussion of something resembling a rock music songbook, a repertoire of great songs that stand out from the crowd. That doesn’t always mean they’re seen as standards in the way that the works of Cole Porter and others are perceived, a vein of material that can be churned through over and over when the Rod Stewarts of this world need a new album, aren’t inclined to dig too far when it comes to new material and want something where people already know the tune. 

With my rock music songbook it’s more a matter of hearing something that makes you stop, listen and exclaim Wow! That’s a great song!

From there we’ll go on to look at performers whose work is a fusion of diverse elements, which will lead into looking at some of the elements that go into the mix that characterized rock music from the late sixties onwards.

First we need to consider the notion of popular music. 

While not necessarily heading down the same path as Richard Thompson’s excellent 1000 Years of Popular Music which takes things back to the twelfth century and includes elements of what might be classified as baroque- and classical-lite, it’s fairly clear that the rise of mass society that followed the Industrial Revolution brought with it the development of a popular mass culture, and that music was a considerable part of that mass culture.

We tend to forget that, prior to the middle of the eighteenth century, most of the world’s population lived in small, mostly self-contained communities, and the rise of the cities we know today could only occur once developments in industry, agriculture and transport had reached the point where large numbers of people could live and work in densely settled areas that were far larger than the cities we see when we look back to Renaissance or Roman times.

In those communities, the need to provide for their needs took up most of the family’s waking hours for almost the whole year. While there would have been musical and spoken traditions kept alive within those small communities, higher forms of cultural expression were the realm of a leisured aristocracy who did not have to concern themselves with mundane considerations of day-to-day survival.

From the middle of the eighteenth century, the Agrarian Revolution started to consolidate landholdings into larger farms where machinery rather than human labour provided the muscle that tilled, sowed and harvested. That allowed things to happen as the Industrial Revolution produced factory cities where the displaced rural population could find work, and the development of the steam engine provided the means to move large quantities of agricultural produce into the cities to feed the growing urban work force. Those two processes sowed the seeds that resulted in the rise of a mass culture that is still with us today.

That mass culture took a number of forms, and included the development of public education, the rise of the popular press which in turn led to the mass media we know today, and the emergence of sport and entertainment as important leisure-time activities for the people who were now crowded into the tenements of cities like London, Manchester, New York and Chicago.

Whether public education emerged from humanitarian concerns about child labour in the mines and mills of Industrial Britain, or as a means to supply a workforce with the knowledge and skills to work in the factories and offices of these new conurbations is a matter for historians and educationalists to debate, but it led to the emergence of a population where illiteracy was the exception rather than the rule, and once people had the skill of reading, books and literature could become a form of entertainment as well as, or instead of, a form of art or culture.

Once there was a public able to read for entertainment, the rise of the popular press was inevitable, and the use of reading as a form of relaxation meant that the presses produced books and magazines that were as much concerned with entertainment as they were with providing news and information.

At the same time as people were starting to read for entertainment, the urban masses found other ways to fill in their spare time. Most major sporting codes in the Western world emerged as in the second half of the nineteenth century, and games, rather than being a part of rural village life became a form of entertainment. 

At the same time, in the cities theatres developed forms of mass entertainment that hadn’t existed before. While theatrical performances went back to the age of Shakespeare and beyond, the new forms of entertainment in the vaudeville houses and music halls incorporated elements of song, dance and speech into a new form of performance.

Listening to Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music there is a change in the music around this time, with stage presentation of the songs becoming as important as the lyrics and tune. You can hear the theatrical possibilities in Waiting At The Church - the jilted bride playing up to the audience, the warped humour of the chorus (I can’t get away to marry you today, my wife won’t let me) and the chorus with its singalong possibilities. The same elements are there in Trafalgar Square. In a more theatrical mode there were the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan represented on Thompson’s disk by There Is Beauty...

Of course, none of these came from ordinary people. They were written for the stage performers by professional writers or developed specially for their stage acts by the performers themselves. As the ways of distributing music diversified into song books, sheet music, player piano rolls and, eventually, recordings we see the rise of something that is recognizable as the prototype of the music industry we know today.

Until records became the most common way to distribute music, most of a songwriter’s income came from mechanical royalties associated with sheet music. That explains why people providing the raw materials singers and musicians needed tended to congregate in places like the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley


B© Ian Hughes 2012