In this post, we take a look at the late, great Ellen Willis and her thoughts on rock music.
For more than two decades, from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, Ellen Willis wrote perceptively and influentially about the new rock music as it evolved from polite folk singing and commercial pop into something rawer, more probing, more democratic, and more erotic. In these incisive pieces—collected here for the first time—Willis documented the charged sensuality of early Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones’ dangerous allure, Joni Mitchell’s artful subversion of traditional ideas about femininity, and Patti Smith’s furious poetic declaration of independence.
The Birth of Rock Music
The history of rock music is often told as a story of rebellion and liberation. In the 1950s, a new generation of young people rejected the bland, conformist culture of their parents and created their own music, which was raw, emotional, and full of energy. This music would come to be known as rock ‘n’ roll.
However, there is another way to tell the story of rock music, which is as a story of commercialization and co-optation. In the 1960s, the music industry began to see rock music as a lucrative market, and they began to produce and promote it on a mass scale. As a result, rock music became more polished and mainstream, losing much of its original edge.
Ellen Willis, one of the most important critics of her generation, tells this second story in her essay “The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Willis argues that rock music was not born out of rebellion or liberation, but out of a desire to make money. She writes:
The history of rock has been written by the promoters, producers, managers, agents, publicists, journalists, and record company executives who have cashed in on it. Rock is not about authenticity or spontaneity or inspiration; it’s about marketing…. What we now call “classic rock” was in large part an artifact of savvy exploitation by people who knew how to sell records.
Willis’s essay is important not only because it challenges the conventional story of rock music, but also because it provides a critical perspective on the commercialization of popular culture.
The Beatles and the British Invasion
When the Beatles came to the United States in 1964, they sparked a musical revolution that changed popular music forever. Known as the British Invasion, this wave of English bands changed the sound of American rock and roll, and introduced a new generation of Americans to the joys of listening to pop music.
For many young people, the Beatles were the gateway drug to a lifelong addiction to rock and roll. Ellen Willis, who would go on to become one of the most respected voices in rock criticism, was one of those young fans. In a piece for The Village Voice written shortly after John Lennon’s death in 1980, Willis looked back on what the Beatles meant to her and to her generation.
The Rolling Stones and American Blues
In the early 1960s, the Rolling Stones were strongly influenced by American blues music. The band’s debut album, “The Rolling Stones,” released in 1964, featured songs by Chicago blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around.” The Stones’ love of American blues continued on their next two albums, “12 x 5” (1964) and “The Rolling Stones No. 2” (1965), with covers of Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.”
The Rise of Folk Rock
Between 1962 and 1964, something happened in American music that changed everything forever. A new sound emerged, a sound that would come to be known as “folk rock.” This new sound combined the best of both worlds: the raw, honest emotion of folk music with the catchy hooks and polished production of rock and roll. It was a sound that spoke to the disillusioned youth of America, a generation that was tired of the empty promises of the American dream.
Folk rock was the brainchild of a few innovative musicians, most notably Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Dylan, who had been influenced by folk music since his days as a teenager in Greenwich Village, began incorporating elements of folk into his own unique brand of rock music. His 1963 album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” featured several folk-inspired songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” These songs would go on to become anthems for the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s.
The Beatles, meanwhile, were taking a different approach to fuse folk and rock. Their 1962 debut album “Please Please Me” contained several folky ballads, but it was their 1963 album “With The Beatles” where they truly began to experiment with the genre. The album featured two folk-rock classics: “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “All My Loving.” It was clear that The Beatles were on to something special.
The rise of folk rock in America coincided with two other important events: the emergence of youth culture and the beginning of The British Invasion. In the early 1960s, young people suddenly had their own culture for the first time in history. This youth culture was defined by its rejection of traditional values and its embrace of all things new and cool. Folk rock fit perfectly into this new cultural landscape.
At the same time, a wave of British bands were making their way over to America and taking the world by storm. These bands — including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks — were influenced by American blues music, but they put their own spin on it. They were louder, grittier, and more dangerous than anything America had ever seen before. And they loved folk rock! The Beatles famously covered Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” on their 1963 album “With The Beatles,” and The Rolling Stones recorded a version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” for their 1964 debut album “The Rolling Stones [English] Decca Albums 1964-1967 Sampler.”
The British Invasion helped to popularize folk rock in America and solidify its place in musical history. By 1965, folk rock was everywhere: on the radio, on TV, in movies… Even Coca-Cola was getting in on the action with their famous “I��d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” commercial featuring THE YOUNG FOLK ROCK BAND OF THE TIME – THE HIGHLANDERS!
Sadly, folk rock didn’t have a long shelf life; by 1967 it had already begun to fall out of favor with both fans and musicians alike as psychedelia took over as THE SOUND OF A GENERATION IN REVOLT against conservative values . But despite its brief time in the sun , folk rock left an indelible mark on American culture . It gave voice to a generation that was searching for something real , something authentic . It showed us that music could be more than just entertainment; it could be a force for change .
The Psychedelic Era
Ellen Willis on the psychedelic era of rock music and how it changed the course of popular music. The psychedelic era of rock music was a time of experimentation and change. Rock artists began to explore new sounds and influences, and the result was a period of creativity and innovation that changed the course of popular music. Willis discusses how this period influenced her own thinking about music and culture, and how it continues to shape the way we understand and experience rock music today.
The Birth of Heavy Metal
Heavy metal was born in the early 1970s, with bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin creating a new sound that was more aggressive and darker than anything that had come before. This new style of music was influenced by the hard rock of the 1960s, but it also had a more menacing edge that appealed to a new generation of listeners. Heavy metal quickly became its own genre, with bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden becoming leaders of the pack.
In the late seventies, a new kind of rock music emerged from the UK and quickly spread to the US. Punk rock was characterized by its DIY ethic, simple song structures, and raw, often politically charged lyrics. Punk bands rejected the glossy production values and corporate-mindedness of mainstream Seventies rock, choosing instead to strip down their sound and focus on energy and attitude.
The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ramones are considered some of the most influential punk bands. Their music inspired a generation of kids to pick up guitars and start their own bands. Punk rock continues to be an important force in underground music scenes around the world.
The terms “alternative rock” and “indie rock” are often used interchangeably, but there is a subtle distinction between the two genres. Alternative rock generally refers to rock music that is outside of the mainstream, while indie rock is a subgenre of alternative rock that is characterized by its DIY ethic and independent record label status.
That said, the lines between alternative and indie rock are often blurry, and many artists straddle the two genres. For example, Nirvana was an alternative rock band that achieved mainstream success, while Pavement was an indie rock band that maintained a cult following.
In recent years, the term “indie rock” has been used to describe a wide range of genres beyond just alternative rock, including folk-rock, synth-pop, and even hip-hop. So when you see the term “indie rock,” be sure to ask your local record store clerk for more information about what kind of music you can expect to find.
In the end, Willis is not entirely negative about rock. It “has destroyed much that was superfluous and self-indulgent in pop and brought the music back to basics: rhythm, emotion, the voice,” she writes. It has also, Willis concludes, given popular music a new lease on life by making it once again the property of young people.