Innovation and cross-breeding of musical styles are what rock and roll's always been about: it's a beast that survives, like a cultural virus, by being in a state of constant mutation. But just as with great inventors, great musicians occasionally find themselves assisted by luck or technology or both, coming up with a new style of music that catches on with not just listeners but their fellow musicians. Here are seven smash hits that arguably created their own genre.
They didn't call him the Genius for nothing. Gospel and R&B were both considered raw, uncommercialized, pure roots music in the 1950s, and to that end, discerning "race" music audiences loved them both equally. So it was probably only a matter of time before someone took a gospel hit and changed the subject to a very secular one indeed -- all it took was nerve. Ray Charles,
who never saw musical boundaries, had nerve and
talent, slightly reworking "It Must Be Jesus" by the Southern Tones to give it a harder feel, and taking the lyrics out of the church entirely. It was scandalous, but it was also a hit. Within a decade, it was the sound of Black America.
Instrumental rock was already a thing in 1958 when Dick Dale
and his Del-tones began playing the famed Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, CA, but Dick had one thing the other groups didn't: a unique double-picking sound that enabled him to play fast and furious. Add to that his Fender Stratocaster, one of the first, played through a brand-new 15" JBL D130F speaker that allowed him to adjust the echo to make a very "wet" sound, and Dale was at the forefront of a modest but very serious revolution. So far ahead of his time was Dick that the hit didn't get released for three years, and it was still
Ray Davies actually wrote this power-pop masterpiece on his mother's piano after a nice dinner of her famous shepherd's pie; he thought his triads were a tribute to the garage-rock
classic "Louie, Louie." But when it came time for brother Dave to switch the riff over to guitar, he played it without the middle note, rock's first-ever riff made up entirely of "power chords," and thus the birth of hard rock in general. Making matters grungier, Dave intentionally slit the cone of his speaker to give the whole thing more distortion, and a teenage session player named Jimmy Page was asked to double the riff (though not, as has been claimed, to play the solo). The result was an advance so raw Van Halen used it, over a decade later, to kick off their career.
It's not immediately apparent to listeners who've become used to really slow, hard, deep funk, but James Brown's
transitional smash was actually the first to put the emphasis on the one and three instead of the two and four, creating an endlessly flexible beat European-based music had no answer for. That's because the master take was sped up to appeal to radio; the original, eight-minute jam, which gets played almost as often now as the released version, makes it clear what the Godfather of Soul was Godfathering this time. He would immediately begin refining the beat with his next big jam, "Cold Sweat," and watch it get harder, jazzier, slower, and more complicated as audiences reacted. As he says in the demo: "This is a hit!"
Specifically engineered over a laborious couple of months at L.A.'s Gold Star Studios, this Dylan cover was specifically engineered
to take folk music into the rock mainstream -- that is, to combine Dylan with the band's other cultural touchstone, the Beatles, who'd already hinted at this sort of thing with Rickenbacker-laced tunes like "What You're Doing." This first folk-rock
smash made the connection seem obvious and thrilling, however: lead singer Gene Clark even consciously adapted a style of singing that mixed Dylan's sneer with Lennon's vulnerability. Not only did it work, the Byrds soon went on to lend a hand creating jazz-rock, country-rock, and psychedelia. Now that's flying high.
The Easybeats were the premier Australian garage rock band of their time, featuring the brother of one Angus Young, who would enjoy some success by donning schoolboy clothes. The other brother and his partner, George Vanda, also went on to become New Wave icons in the late '70s. Which makes sense, since this rather nervous psychedelic drone of theirs has often been cited as the first New Wave song. It's fast and fidgety with a ramped-up beat that resonates through the history of bands like the B-52's, who discovered this gem on the psych-garage "Nuggets" comp of the early 70s, a major blueprint for punk and You Know What. The Easybeats were arguably there first, however, and the big fat pop hook in the chorus probably wasn't lost on their descendants, either.
When famed wildman and eccentric producer Huey Meaux first heard the Beatles' "She's a Woman"
and its insistent, almost annoying skank, he knew it would stick in listeners' minds, so he called in protege Doug Sahm and his quintet and asked them to write a song using that beat. They did, not only upping the blues ante significantly but also adding the group's gloriously cheesy Farfisa organ. The result was "Tex-Mex," a style that embraced two cultures by appropriating the work of a third -- one which had nothing to do with either.