Pivotal Moments in Music History

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What defines an icon? What intangible spark must one have to create a cultural nucleus by which to alter the collective frequency and create true artistic change? If we knew, we certainly wouldn’t be here – but that elusive rarity is what makes those x-factor elements so very special. 

Below, we’ve compiled stories from some of the most pivotal moments in music history – events that shifted the course of pop culture, and with it our collective consciousness. 

 

Michael Jackson’s first moonwalk

 

When world first saw Michael Jackson moonwalk, time all but stopped. A dance move became the single cultural focus around the world. The year was 1984, and Jackson appeared at the Motown 25th Anniversary event at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in support of the ultimate-legend record Thriller. He performed “Billie Jean” – which was then the number one song in the country at the time. But it wasn’t the song people were raving about when the special aired on television. 

It was arguably the most notable high point in his career, but Michael was initially reluctant to perform at the concert. His label was CBS Records, and producers on the Motown special wanted him to play the old Jackson 5 hits with his brothers – the songs on the Motown label. Agreeing to the medley on the condition of “Billie Jean”’s inclusion, Jackson did his family duty, despite his rapid ascent to icon status as a solo artist. And when it was time for his solo performance, the only song of the night not released by Motown, there was a new electricity to him. 

The moonwalk came quickly towards the end of “Billie Jean”. Jackson may not have originated the concept (James Brown and others have performed variations in previous years), but he made it his signature move that night with a streak of dancing perfection. The entire world took notice, as the man walked backwards, while gliding across the floor smoothly, as if walking forward. In the pre-internet age, jaws hit floors without a flicker of cynicism or doubt, and the performance-artist ante was upped forever more. 

 

The arrival of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’

 

In 1991, the top 10 artists on the Billboard chart included Paula Abdul, Color Me Badd, Boys II Men, Amy Grant and more polished pop atrocity. Of what little “rock” one could find on the charts, the bands responsible for the music looked as if they’d spent more time on applying makeup and hairspray than learning their craft. The songs were either whiny heartbreak power ballads or spandex-bro party anthems. It was a dismal scene. 

Then, without any warning at all, the dam broke. And the youth of modern culture were given not just a voice, but a megaphone. A template for visceral expression.

The reason? One song: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

School had just started, and radio was pumping out the same tired nonsense we’d been trying to escape all Summer – music that sounded as if it were made for the people who lived in sitcoms. Then that one kid came into class, eyes wide, asking if we’d heard that new song on the radio. That something spirit thing. Teen Spirit? What? None of us could understand the rumors at first, but news about this song rippled through the halls like a revolutionary fire we had no way to understand. 

Then we heard it for ourselves. The sky ripped open. The veil was pulled. That opening riff was the incision, the razor’s edge going under the skin before we knew what was happening. Then Dave Grohl’s pulverizing drum arrival truly began Smells Like Teen Spirit, the single most pivotal song in the history of rock n’ roll, and we were impaled with Nirvana.  

The lyrics made no goddamned sense. But the sounds were ominous, raw, dangerous in a way that had nothing to do with that putrid ecosystem of pretty faces and voices packing cellophane in our ears. And that voice… there was an honesty, a dryly cynical and pained but real voice coming through. There was no precedent on the FM dial for this.

The numbers are staggering, the charts speak for themselves, but it was those first moments of the song’s arrival that will forever stick in our heads. The blaze of discovery that would lead to that vital connection between a generation and its music. One song changed the entire course of our culture, and it was ours. 

 

The Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 

 

For one beautiful moment in an era of upheaval, all of Western culture watched rock n’ roll emerge as a legitimate art form. The beloved Beatles, expanding their sonic palette in tandem with their psychedelic appetite, presented an album that was warm and familiar, yet utterly wild in concept and design. Weaving a thread through the dilemmas of 60s suburbia serving as the launchpad for higher states of consciousness, the Fab Four moved from endearing entertainers to the realm of revolutionary artists.

Of course, the most sincere form of flattery came from the most legendary guitarist of all time. Three days after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr traveled to London and caught The Jimi Hendrix Experience performing at a small theater. To their astonishment, Hendrix opened his set with his own cover version of Sgt Pepper’s – a song less than 72 hours old in the world’s ears.

Paul McCartney remembers the experience: “It would be one of his first gigs in London. Jimi was a sweetie, a very nice guy. I remember him opening at the Saville on a Sunday night, 4 June 1967. Brian Epstein used to rent it when it was usually dark on the Sunday. Jimi opened, the curtains flew back and he came walking forward, playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’, and it had only been released on the Thursday so that was like the ultimate compliment.”

“It’s still obviously a shining memory for me, because I admired him so much anyway, he was so accomplished,” Paul continued. “To think that that album had meant so much to him as to actually do it by the Sunday night, three days after the release. He must have been so into it, because normally it might take a day for rehearsal and then you might wonder whether you’d put it in, but he just opened with it. It’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book. I put that down as one of the great honors of my career. I mean, I’m sure he wouldn’t have thought of it as an honor, I’m sure he thought it was the other way ’round, but to me that was like a great boost.”

 

Bob Dyan plugs in, all hell breaks loose

 

In 1965, Bob Dylan was a folk artist, a tremendous success with six albums to his credit and a finely-crafted voice of activism and poignant social observation. But he was an acoustic artist, with an acoustic sound, and rock music was very much a caged animal back then. As Dylan would discover upon plugging in for the first time, electric rock n’ roll would endure a grueling labor to take over the world. 

Dylan played the Newport Folk Festival that year, following two tremendously well-received performances in previous years. But Dylan was entering a new zone, with the vastly different “Like A Rolling Stone” going to radio only four days prior to the festival. And when he attempted to translate these new sounds to the stage, all hell broke loose. 

From the 1986 Shelton book No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan:

At the festival, Al Kooper, whose session work had already impressed Dylan, was strolling about when Albert said Bob was looking for him. Dylan told Kooper he wanted to bring the “Rolling Stone” sound on-stage. Three members of the Butterfield Band were recruited: guitarist Mike Bloomfield, drummer Sam Lay, and bassist Jerome Arnold. At a party in Newport, Dylan completed his band with pianist Barry Goldberg. In a Newport mansion, Dylan rehearsed this instant group until dawn. They kept their plan secret until they walked onstage, Dylan, in a matador-outlaw orange shirt and black leather, carrying an electric guitar.

From the moment the group swung into a rocking electric version of “Maggie’s Farm,” the Newport audience registered hostility. As the group finished “Farm,” there was some reserved applause and a flurry of boos. Someone shouted: “Bring back Cousin Emmy!” The microphones and speakers were all out of balance, and the sound was poor and lopsided. For even the most ardent fan of the new music, the performance was unpersuasive. 

As Dylan led his band into “Rolling Stone,” the audience grew shriller: “Play folk music! … Sell out! … This is a folk festival! … Get rid of that band!” Dylan began “It Takes a Train to Cry,” and the applause diminished as the heckling increased. Dylan and the group disappeared offstage, and there was a long, clumsy silence. Peter Yarrow urged Bob to return and gave him his acoustic guitar. As Bob returned on the stage alone, he discovered he didn’t have the right harmonica. “What are you doing to me?” Dylan demanded of Yarrow. To shouts for “Tambourine Man,” Dylan said: “OK, I’ll do that one for you.” The older song had a palliative effect and won strong applause. Then Dylan did “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” singing adieu to Newport, good-bye to the folk-purist audience.