Cover Story

The Moments

From Elvis to Eminem, from "Louie, Louie" to Radiohead, these are the times that defined rock & roll

Posted Jun 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Fifty years ago, on the Fourth of July, three men got together to rehearse some songs they planned to record the next evening, a Monday. One of them was a nineteen-year-old Memphis truck driver named Elvis Presley. There is no one who doesn't know what happened next.

Moments like this -- the turning point in rock & roll -- are what we chose to celebrate in the second of our three special issues devoted to the fiftieth anniversary of rock & roll.

There are, of course, an untold number of crucial moments in rock's history - just as many as there are listeners who have had a song or a show change their lives. We chose to focus on the universal moments, those that changed the way all of us listen to music and see the world. Some of the moments we chose were accidents: five teenagers calling themselves the Kingsmen spending fifty dollars to cut the greatest party song of all time. Some were the result of painstaking work: Chuck Berry pushing through thirty-six takes of his first single, "Maybellene." There were ecstatic celebrations, as when 400,000 fans came together to turn a disaster area into Woodstock, and times of tragedy, as when a worldwide audience observed ten minutes of silence after John Lennon's death.

Together, these moments tell the story of rock & roll's invention and reinvention across half a century. What they have in common is that they draw on the same rhythms and freedoms that Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black tapped into on July 5th, 1954. Fifty years later, the sound they stumbled onto that night still resonates.

Elvis Presley at Sun Studio in 1954

James Brown at the Apollo in 1962

Dylan Goes Electric in 1965

The Doors at the Whisky in 1966

Making Sgt. Pepper in 1967

Woodstock in 1969

The Stones in Exile in 1972

Led Zep Rule the U.S. in 1973

Springsteen Breaks Out in 1975

The Death of John Lennon in 1980

Madonna at the VMAs in 1984

N. W.A. Outta Compton ion 1989

Nirvana's Punk Revolution in 1991

Eminem's Says His Name in 1998

Teen Pop Takes Off in 2000

Written and reported by: Damien Cave, Matt Diehl, Gavin Edwards, Jenny Eliscu, David Fricke, Lauren Gitlin, Matt Hendrickson, Kirk Miller, Austin Scaggs and Rob Sheffield.