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The 32 Greatest Moments in Rock and Roll History

23/04/2024

Table of Contents

Featured image: Creative Commons License by Drew de F Fawkes

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, countless episodes have shaped modern music and culture. From outrageous antics and iconic performances all the way to utterly bizarre crowd interactions that shocked audiences, there are plenty of iconic events that music lovers need to know about.

Luckily for you, we’ve gathered together a list of the 32 greatest moments in rock and roll history, tying up a plethora of stories, advancements, and groundbreaking tracks that either marked a tremendous shift in the scene – or were just plain cool!

Now, we’re playing a bit fast and loose with the term “Rock and Roll” as we’re not sticking to the music genre strictly, but rather the attitude and spirit of the phrase. With that in mind, proceed onwards to see our top spots from the past seven decades!

Our top 5 rock and roll moments

  1. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder’s stage climbing obsession and near-death experience
  2. Queen’s Freddie Mercury and his ’86 audience call and return vocals (shoutout to the London Olympics closing ceremony)
  3. The Beatles’ rooftop performance stands as the end of an era, and an utterly iconic show that we’re lucky to have witnessed
  4. Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar at the Monterey festival – essentially the Wickerman, just way more rock ‘n’ roll
  5. The Who’s exploding drum kit is a shining example of why health & safety regulations exist

The greatest moments in rock and roll history

1. Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder’s climbing

Eddie developed a penchant for climbing stage rigging and hanging from ceilings, where he’d proceed to belt out the lyrics while his band members watched on nervously. That’s no joke either, as Eddie was moments away from plummeting to his doom at the Del Mar Pavilion in ’91.


2. Queen and Freddie Mercury’s mind-blowing vocals

Queen’s Live Aid set was 20 minutes of distilled excellence. A truncated blast through some of their hit songs left the crowd (and me every time I watch it on YouTube) simply captivated.

Following Live Aid, Queen returned to Wembley the following year for their own tour. A full set that covered their considerable catalogue of songs blew the audience away, but Mercury’s call and response section stood out.

His inspiring vocals were sent back to him by the enormous sea of fans, both then and during a touching video tribute during the London Olympic’s closing ceremony.


3. The Beatles’ rooftop performance

“F*** it, let’s do it,” said Lennon. A small crowd gathered on the Beatles’ Apple Corps rooftop and surrounding buildings, joined by onlookers in the streets below to witness the band work through new material from their Let It Be album – in what was to be one of their final public shows.

Such was the status of the Beatles that the behatted bobbies sent to stop the show simply watched on, half-heartedly telling them to keep it down. During “Get Back”, Paul improvised the lyrics, “You’ve been out too long, Loretta, you’ve been playing on the roofs again!”


4. Hendrix burns his guitar at Monterey

Jimi Hendrix had a trick up his sleeve to stand out in the ’67 Monterey Festival: A sacrificial, paganistic burning ritual to shock the audience. On his final song, he swapped out his main guitar for a Strat that was doused in lighter fluid and then set it ablaze.

Kneeling by the conflagration, Hendrix seemed to coax the flames out of the guitar in a mesmerising display. And then to top it all off, he violently smashed it to pieces and threw the chunks into the crowd!


5. The Who explode their drum kit (and some ears)

As the story goes, Keith Moon put too much gunpower in his bass drum (I hate it when that happens!) when The Who appeared on Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and so the finale of My Generation was a little louder, and er, kinetic than expected.


6. Dio popularises the metal horns gesture

After joining Black Sabbath, legendary rock icon Ronnie James Dio needed a way to connect with audiences as the band’s new frontman. He settled on an old Italian gesture he learned from his grandmother: The iconic metal horns sign! Hell yeah!


7. Ozzy Osbourne and the biting episodes

In 1981, Ozzy shocked gathered crowds by ripping the head off a dove (or two) with his teeth.

A year later, he’d repeat this horrific stunt when a fan threw a live bat at him on stage. Mistaking it for a fake plastic prop, he gnashed into it and left the world stunned… and more than a little disgusted.


8. Limp Bizkit get a Woodstock crowd exceptionally boisterous

Break Stuff. There’s an effective call to action if I’ve ever seen one. It was to the Woodstock ’99 crowd too, where Limp Bizkit’s (exceptional, it must be said) performance of the song inspired vandalism and moshing on a huge scale.


9. The Doors give a profane performance

In ’67 on the Ed Sullivan Show the Doors got a little rebellious, singing their girl, we couldn’t get much higher line after promising not to. A couple of years later, a gig in Miami goes awry as Morrison gets charged for indecent exposure and dropping the F-bomb multiple times. My, how times change.


10. John and Yoko horrify Chuck Berry

Whilst performing Chuck’s classic “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Johnny B. Goode” Yoko decided to join in with an awful screeching wail, famously causing Chuck to grimace in pained confusion. Yoko’s mic was cut in short order.


11. Smoke on the water… quite literally

An event that gave us the guitar riff that haunts music teachers everywhere, Deep Purple were inspired by the dramatic burning of a casino in Montreux, Switzerland. The band saw the flames from their hotel across Lake Geneva and were entranced by the smoke spreading over the water.


12.  Rage Against The Machine rage against the machine

In a public rebellion against the dominance of dreary X-Factor Christmas singles, RATM’s “Killing In The Name” was propelled to no.1 in the UK singles chart in 2009. This delighted the band, who happily performed it live on the BBC.

When they were asked to censor the barrage of explicit language in the song, you can imagine what their response was.


13. Nirvana smells like teen spirit

Nirvana couldn’t have anticipated the level of chaos their fans would cause on the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. Instructed to mosh and riot a little bit, they proceeded to trash the set as an unruly mob, ultimately capturing the perfect take for the band’s angsty video – cementing it as one the most iconic music movies of the 20th century.


14. Prince rocks the Super Bowl with Purple Rain

The halftime show of Super Bowl XLI stands above the rest, when Prince gave an inspiring rendition of “Purple Rain” during a well-timed torrential downpour. Stood alone in the middle of the stadium, shredding a soulful and awesome solo on his purple, rain-soaked guitar, he cut a spectacular figure.


15. The Kinks help create distortion

While we can’t really point to one singular person for creating guitar distortion, it can be argued The Kinks played a massive part in these uproarious tones. For their hit “You Really Got Me” they captured a seriously gritty guitar sound by distressing and damaging their amps.


16. Taylor Swift does a stage dive

In a moment of utterly impressive stagecraft, pop titan-God Taylor Swift dived into a hole in the middle of her stage before a lightshow followed her progress “swimming” underneath. While this may be rather less spontaneous than our other rock ‘n’ roll moments, it’s no-less jaw-dropping!


17. Elvis Presley can only be captured from above the waist

The “King” has a habit of provocative dancing styles, gyrating his hips in a manner that inflamed the sexual ardour of conservative ‘50s America. Such was the corrupting nature of his moves that producers on Ed Sullivan’s show decided to only film him from above the waist.


18. Bill Haley and the Comets rock you around the clock

Very tame by today’s standards, but Bill Haley’s ubiquitous song is credited for bringing rock ‘n’ roll to the masses. Thanks Bill!


19. SPINAL TAP

Ok, this isn’t a music artist, but still. Spinal Tap is a vital part of rock ‘n’ roll culture, because how else would we know to turn it up to 11? Also, the magnificent idea of having three (or more) lead bass guitars.


20. The Darkness revive the rock ‘n’ roll spirit

Go to any Darkness show and you’ll see plenty of showmanship, from throwing guitars to piggyback solos through the crowd. And sometimes there are flying fake tigers involved.


21.  Fleetwood Mac bust up on stage

A band fuelled by drama and roiling personal relationships, Fleetwood Mac’s dynamic fractured when Buckingham and Nicks’ personal lives spilled onto the stage in 1980, bringing their complicated nature to the fore.


22. Mick Jagger’s bitten tongue

History changed forever when Mick Jagger accidentally bit the end of his tongue off while playing basketball. The injury contributed to his unique vocal style that catapulted the Stones to stardom.


23.  Amy Winehouse stuns an audience with vocal perfection

In 2007 Amy gave a hauntingly beautiful rendition of ‘Love is a Losing Game’ at the Mercury Prize Awards. Watch it and weep.


24. Another Rolling Stone incident

Ever the rock ‘n’ roller, Keith Richards showed his mettle when confronted by a fan during a 1981 show, whacking him with his Fender Telecaster and then continuing with the performance.


25. The Ramones burst onto the scene

The ‘70s saw the birth of punk, and The Ramones were among the genre’s chief architects. Blitzkrieg bop rocked audiences back then, just as it does today. Play it loud.


26. Michael Jackson’s moonwalk

Outrageously smooth, the pop extraordinaire stunned audiences and inspired countless awful copycats with his super-fluid dance move.


27. Johnny Cash goes to prison

Empathising with the plight of prisoners and coincidentally finding the perfect venue for his hit “Folsom Prison Blues”, Cash created history with a concert that was a theme for redemption.


28. Iggy Pop goes insane

A controversial figure in the music biz, Iggy once pushed the boundaries of live bombast a bit too far. During a 1970 show, he asked the audience to bring him a knife. They did. He then carved an ‘X’ shape into his own chest. Mad.


29. Green Day regret encouraging a mudfight

Woodstock ’94 was muddy. Really muddy. Green Day found out to what extent when they were pelted with handfuls of claggy earth. Bassist Mike Dirnt managed to maintain a riff for a solid eight minutes while under fire.


30. Dave Grohl takes classic advice to heart

In 2015, Grohl slipped and fell into the security pit, breaking his leg. Ever the (foo) fighter, he got back up on stage and finished the show!


31. Bob Dylan goes electric

When the folk legend ditched the weedy acoustic for the mighty electric, his fans were outraged – screaming obscenities and accusations like “Judas!”. Dylan’s response? Play louder. And in so doing, paved the way for rock songs that were about more than love or cars.


32. Led Zeppelin’s hotel excess

There are many stories of ‘70s rockers taking things too far, but Zeppelin leads the pack with their obsession with destroying hotel TVs. They would drop them out of windows, smash them up, and sometimes, just watch them.

When asked by a hotel receptionist why they engaged in this bizarre ritual, they slipped the clerk $500 with the comment “There are some things you need to experience for yourself”.

Who invented rock and roll?

Rock emerged as a distinct genre in the early 1950s, drawing from a mix of blues, jazz and country music that preceded it. Artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley helped popularise this new genre and spread it across the globe.

FAQs

What is the most important moment in music history?

The Beatles’ 1969 rooftop concert is a hugely memorable and important moment in music history. As their last public performance as a group, it was an iconic event.


What is considered the greatest rock song of all time?

“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin is often considered the greatest rock song of all time, celebrated for its intricate composition and profound influence on rock music.


Who had the greatest impact on rock and roll?

It can be argued that Elvis Presley had the greatest impact on rock and roll, transforming it into a global phenomenon with his charismatic performances and unique vocal style.

Final thoughts

There will always be musicians doing crazy and whacky things, so it’s important we look back on the greatest moments in rock and roll history to inspire the next set of passionate artists to strike out and do their own thing. One hopes that some of these examples can serve as a cautionary warning of what not to do, but you never know!

Leave us a comment below telling us your favourite moment, or if you’ve any questions about the gear each artist used. Rock on!

 

Content Writer (Guitars)

Mark has been a guitar aficionado for around twenty years. A lover of all things 6-string, he spends his days putting pen-to-paper about all manner of interesting instruments. From entry level Squiers to the most coveted Custom Shop desires, Mark's written about them.

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