Turn it up to 11: tech's contributions to rock and roll

Many of rock's greatest moments hinge on shifts in music technology. Here is a chronology of some of the highlights.

  • The Beatles at Shea Stadium (1965)

    The Beatles' concert at Shea Stadium in New York City in 1965 marked the first time that a rock band used a sports stadium as a concert venue. This event had 55,000 attendees, 2000 security personnel, and a record-breaking $304,600 gross; but the most important number was 100 — that is, the custom 100-watt amplifiers that Vox made for the Moptops' tour.

    Overwhelmed by the huge stadium and the frantic screaming fans, the amps couldn't cut it: Even with the support of the in-house PA system, concertgoers simply couldn't hear the band. What's more, the Fab Four couldn't hear themselves, either, which led to shenanigans like [[xref:|John Lennon playing the keyboard with his elbows|The Beatles I'm Down - Live at the Shea Stadium]]. From here on, live rock shows got even bigger — and so did the speakers.
  • The Tech That Rocked the World

    Rock music undoubtedly owes its legacy to a number of factors (the relative affluence of the Baby Boom generation, the tumultuous political climate of the Cold War, and remarkable advances in the field of recreational psychotropic substances, to name a few), but one element was absolutely crucial: technology.

    Rock simply wouldn't have rocked without electric guitars, Marshall amp stacks, the Vox Box, amplifiers capable of projecting the music to the crowd, or stage effects that helped create a spectacle. Join us on a magical mystery tour through some of the greatest tech-milestone concerts, instruments, and music gadgets in the history of rock music.
  • The Music Video (1981)

    The Buggles' song "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first music video played on MTV — and the one millionth video played.

    MTV was the first television channel to offer 24 hours of music programming daily. (Yes, MTV used to be all music videos. Imagine that.)

    As music video fever swept the nation, rock-and-roll marketing moved beyond the traditional two-pronged attack of albums and concerts; if you had a hit single — or wanted one — you needed a video to go with it. Fans were just as likely to do their rocking with the TV on as with the radio on, so artists had to adapt to the new format.

    This music video did much to shape the legacy of performers like Michael Jackson, whose 14 minute-long "Thriller" music video cost a record-setting $500,000. It also hampered the careers of performers whose videos didn't catch the public's attention. One example: 1980s rocker Billy Squier, whose career went into eclipse after a nation of middle-school metal enthusiasts watched him writhe on the ground dressed in "Flashdance"-style ripped workout apparel in the video "[[xref:|Rock Me Tonite|Rock Me Tonite]]."
  • The Fender Telecaster

    Rock and roll couldn't rock without the electric guitar, and though the Fender Telecaster (originally known as the Broadcaster when it debuted in 1949) wasn't the first electric guitar ever, it was the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar.

    In addition to having a unique sound, the Telecaster was designed for assembly-line production, which made it much easier to build and maintain than most of the electric-acoustic guitars and the few solid-body electric guitars of the time. What's more, the Telecaster remains in production today, making it the grandpa of present-day electric guitars.

    Every self-respecting rocker has this guitar in his or her collection, if possible. Thank you, [[xref:|Leo Fender|Leo Fender]].

    Photo: Courtesy of [[xref:|CasinoKat|CasinoKat]]
  • Rolling Stones: A Bigger Bang Tour (2005 to 2007)

    No one rocks quite like the Rolling Stones, a fact they made abundantly clear during their A Bigger Bang tour, which ran from August 2005 to August 2007. The seven-story speaker setup and the gigantic central screen (with the Stones' famous lips and tongue logo) would have overshadowed any other band, but not Mick Jagger and the boys.

    Photo: Courtesy of [[xref:||]]
  • U2: PopMart Tour (1997)

    Rock fans wondered how U2 would top its 1992 Zoo TV tour, which featured dozens of TVs displaying a pastiche of media clips, a camera-equipped confession booth, and three different Bono alter-egos — in addition to stunts like bogus calls to the White House and an on-stage order by the band of 10,000 pizzas to go.

    The answer: U2's 1997 PopMart tour, an ironic invocation of the themes of consumer excess and the commoditization of culture, which incidentally grossed almost $80 million over the course of 93 performances.

    In search of symbols of vapid consumerism that even vapid consumers would recognise as such, the band's set designers came up with a 170-foot-by-56-foot LED screen, a giant McDonalds-esque golden arch with a spherical PA system mounted at the top, and a giant lemon (mentioned in the previous slide) situated stage right.

    Photo: Courtesy of [[xref:|Mark Fisher Studio|Mark Fisher Studio]]
  • The Roland TR-808 Drum Machine

    Drum machines became especially popular in rock music during the 1980s, but they never fully replaced the live session drummer.

    Prince and one-hit wonders [[xref:|Men Without Hats|Men Without Hats]] used the Linn LM-1; the first drum machine to incorporate digital samples, it cost about $5000.

    Roland also produced the analog TR-808, which cost $1000. Though the TR-808 didn't see much action during its initial 1980-1984 run, its price plummeted as newer drum machines came out, making it perfect for budding but budget-minded hip-hop artists like the [[xref:|Beastie Boys|Beastie Boys]] in their 1986 debut album "Licensed To Ill". The TR-808's sound lives on today in albums such as [[xref:|Kanye West's|Kanye West's]] 808s and Heartbreak.

    Photo: Courtesy of [[xref:|Eriq|Eriq]]
  • Pink Floyd, The Wall (1980)

    Eleven years after Woodstock came Pink Floyd's The Wall Tour. By the end of the 1970s, people expected rock concerts to be audiovisual extravaganzas rife with flashing lights, smoke machines, and elaborate props — but The Wall was one of the first touring shows to do it well. So well, in fact, that the March 2, 1980, New York Times commented, "The 'Wall' show remains a milestone in rock history though and there's no point in denying it. Never again will one be able to accept the technical clumsiness, distorted sound and meagre visuals of most arena rock concerts as inevitable."

    Of particular note was the giant wall constructed onstage between the band and the audience (and ultimately broken down). Fittingly, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd played "The Wall" in Berlin in 1990, eight months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    Photo: Courtesy of [[xref:|Mark Fisher Studio|Mark Fisher Studio]]
  • The Moog Modular Synthesizer

    Some of rock and roll's most memorable (and regrettable) moments have come from a synthesizer.

    Designed by Robert Arthur Moog, the Moog Modular Synthesizer first appeared in 1965, but it didn't make much of a splash until 1967, when the Doors and the Monkees released albums featuring the Moog by the end of the year.

    Moog synthesizers come in several styles, ranging from the relatively portable Minimoog (pictured above) from 1970 to the Old School, which debuted in 2008.

    Photo: Courtesy of [[xref:|Krash|Krash]]
  • The Talk Box

    Even the human voice couldn't escape the electric edge of rock.

    Readers who remember Peter Frampton's meteoric rise to stardom in 1976 (and subsequent descent into obscurity following his role in the movie [[xref:| Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band|Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band]] in 1978) will likely have fond (or not-so-fond) memories of his use of the Talk Box.

    The Talk Box uses the shape and position of the user's mouth and tongue to change the sound of an instrument (usually an electric guitar) in the same way that the human voice changes, ultimately making it sound like a talking guitar.

    The Talk Box isn't seen so much in rock these days, but voice manipulation remains very much in vogue — just listen to a T-Pain album or watch [[xref:|Auto-Tune the News|Auto-Tune the News]].
  • Woodstock Music & Art Festival (1969)

    The Baby Boomers' defining moment occurred 40 years ago, when 500,000 people congregated on a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York, to rock out for three whole days. Only four years had elapsed since the Beatles' woefully underpowered show at Shea Stadium, but technology responded with ever-larger amplifiers for performers like Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane.

    The success of Woodstock's sound system is due to audio engineer Bill Hanley, whose specially designed setup consisted of custom-built microphones, Shure mixers, and a unique two-tiered speaker system that ensured that people at the far edge of the vast crowd could still hear the music — which probably did more than anything else to prevent the crowded concertgoers from running amok.

    Photo: Courtesy of [[xref:||]]
  • Gorillaz and Madonna at the Grammys (2006)

    Gorillaz may not be the world's first virtual band, but it was certainly the first one to perform "live" at the Grammy Awards — and with eternal pop legend Madonna, no less.

    People who tuned in to the 2006 Grammy Awards witnessed an onstage performance featuring Gorillaz (via holographic projection), De La Soul (in real life), and Madonna (projection and real life) in a Feel Good Inc./Hung mashup.

    Photo: Courtesy of [[xref:|Digital Illusions|Digital Illusions]]

    Now let's move on to specific pieces of tech that rocked the world.
  • Liquid and Laser Light Shows (1960s, 1970s, 1980s)

    Whether the focal point of attention was the gyrating hips of Elvis or the big suit of David Byrne (of Talking Heads), rock concertgoers appreciated a visual counterpoint to the aural stimulation. The eye-catchers of choice during the 1960s and 1970s, were liquid light shows. This example features Frank Zappa's band, the Mothers of Invention.

    The technology for these shows involved moving coloured oil-based and water-based dyes together on convex glass plates, and using overhead projectors to display the resulting images to mind-blowing effect.

    Eventually liquid light shows went the way of the lava lamp, as advances in laser technology permitted increasingly sophisticated laser light show. The first efforts to harness the laser for this purpose occurred in the 1970s, and laser light shows became a staple of 1980s rock concerts.
  • Marshall Amplifier Stacks

    Of course, electric guitars can't rock without amplified sound.

    Enter the Marshall amplifier, which started out as a copy of a Fender Bassman amp but ended up with a "roaring" sound of its own, attracting the attention of musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and The Who. But why stop at one? Marshall amplifiers travel in packs, like the three-by-six stack shown here, used by the heavy-metal band Slayer.

    The stack started with The Who, but it quickly became so popular with performers that a wall of Marshall amps is now synonymous with rock . In fact, many concert setups have several racks of Marshall amplifiers that aren't actually powered because the speaker overload would wreak havoc on the show's acoustics.
  • This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

    A great stage production can do a lot to amplify the effect of a rock concert, but a crucial slip-up can severely detract from the overall experience. The tongue-in-cheek rockumentary "[[xref:|This Is Spinal Tap|This Is Spinal Tap]]" lampoons this hazard to great effect with the band's Stonehenge debacle: Lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) decides to add a Stonehenge megalith prop to their concert to accompany their song "Stonehenge," but mislabels the measurements in his sketch and ends up with an 18-inch-high Stonehenge on stage instead of the 18-foot-tall version he had envisioned.

    This [[xref:|memorable scene|Spinal Tap Tiny Stonehenge]] alone must have scared an entire generation of fledgling rockers into learning the correct symbols for feet and inches prior to submitting prop requests (the action starts about 2 minutes in). Another technologically noteworthy scene in the movie occurs when most members of the band emerge from giant plastic pods to play onstage. Unfortunately, the pod containing the bassist (Derek Smalls, played by Harry Shearer) refuses to open until the end of the song, despite desperate attempts by roadies to pry it open.

    Life imitated art for Irish rockers U2 in 1997 when a giant on-stage lemon mirror ball holding the entire band failed to open at a concert in Oslo, Norway.
  • Mashups: The Grey Album (2004)

    Making music is one thing. Making music from other music is something else — especially when it the sources are as varied as the Beatles and rap king Jay-Z. Yet that's exactly what Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton did with "The Grey Album," his seamless mashup of The Beatles' White Album with a cappella tracks from Jay-Z's Black Album. (The image above is a promotional poster, not the actual album cover, which consisted of an understated gray square).

    The result was music to the ears of rock and rap fans alike, but one party was less enthusiastic: EMI, the Beatles' copyright holder, immediately ordered all retailers to stop selling the album. Music heads across the Internet rose up in response, and on Grey Tuesday a number of Web sites posted copies of "The Grey Album" for 24 hours, arguing that Danger Mouse's sampling was covered under fair use regulations.
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