Talkin ‘Bout My Generations: The defining artists of pop’s five decades

As voting closes on the UK Music Hall of Fame, Gavin Martin chooses his top artists from each of the past five decades.

FOR THE PAST five weeks, the public has had the chance to vote for their favourite music artists of the decade from the ’50s to the ’90s on the Channel 4 show The UK Music Hall Of Fame.

Each week, 10 legendary names have been put forward, decade by decade, with phone and interactive voting deciding which act from each period will go forward to join the Hall Of Fame. The five winners will be revealed on Sunday night at 9pm on C4 when they receive their inaugurations at a star-studded gala at London’s Hackney Empire.

They will then join the five artists who have already been given founding membership of the Hall Of Fame – Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Marley, Madonna and U2.


Elvis has become such a cliché that it is easy to forget the sheer thrilling momentum that his greatest work attained. For a world locked in Cold War repression and divided by racism, he was the teenage tearaway, the Memphis Flash who dared cross the cultural divide.

He came out of the traps on those early Sun rockabilly sides like a panther, full of sexy knowingness and broad humour. The others who were there before him, such as Bill Haley, are just footnotes in musical history because, compared to Elvis the Sun King, they were mere spear-carriers.

After that initial spurt, he eased up slightly. Elvis was still making great records – ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘All Shook Up’ – but there was a casual almost nonchalant grace to the way he performed. In one respect, his work had already been done. Across the ocean, potential post-war wage slaves such as John Lennon, Pete Townshend and Keith Richards rallied to Elvis’s war cry and were set free.

Sure there was the sad ’70s demise – the obesity, despair and drug addiction. But it is a mark of Presley’s greatness that he could always summon himself from the depths and unleash a magisterial performance. He would do it when playing a casino in Las Vegas, in a recording studio in Memphis or Nashville, or before the luckiest audience ever gathered in a TV studio for his 1968 comeback special.

At the start, when he had everything to live for, and at the end when there was nothing to live for, Elvis was still able to muster the talent that made him the first and lasting ruler of rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis may be long dead, but the King lives on.

My runners-up: Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly.

1960s: BOB DYLAN

This was undoubtedly rock’s most fertile decade. It produced so many figures that could never to be matched and really deserves a museum of its own. How can you choose between the guitarist from another dimension that was Jimi Hendrix and the melodic beauty of Brian Wilson? The Byrds sun-kissed jangle or the Who’s insight and fury? Then there’s the small matter of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

But, ultimately, the choice comes down to two pint-sized but towering influences – James Brown and Bob Dylan. Rhythmically, JB changed everything with his incredible ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ hit in 1965. He then continued to grow and advance each year with the hottest band, the most feet-defying grooves and defiant voice. Thanks to sampling, he remained a potent presence long into the ’90s.

But it has to be Dylan, rock’s most gifted writer and mercurial presence, who ultimately takes the vote. “Elvis freed the body but Dylan freed the mind,” said Bruce Springsteen, and for five decades now the man from Minnesota has constantly refreshed the power and mystery of the popular song.

The fact that – unlike his peers – he is still producing work that ranks with his finest, means it would be unthinkable to start the party without him.

My runners-up: Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix,

James Brown, The Beatles.


Between the ’60s and the advent of punk in 1976, rock seemed to have become a routine business. It was either a platform for over-egged prog rock puddings such as ELP and Yes, well-meaning but bland roots rockers and overly sincere singer songwriters.

Something was needed to liven things up, so enter the former David Jones who some thought was a one-hit wonder after his 1969 ‘Space Oddity’ chartbuster. Bowie’s theatricality, his fascination with rock and street culture, and his exploration of themes such as madness, totalitarianism and gender bending made him the most electrifying presence of the age.

Musically, he spelt out his future in the Hunky Dory song ‘Changes’ – and from the startling hard rock of The Man Who Sold The World (1971) to the screaming synths and machine gun metal of ‘Heroes’ in 1977, Bowie’s ability to stay one step ahead of the pack and remain a potent influence on those that followed was unequalled.

After appearing as the Leper Messiah aka Ziggy Stardust (1972) – the cross-dressing rock star from another planet – he examined the highs and lows of rock stardom for real on Aladdin Sane (1973). An even bigger change, and greater music, came when he reinvented himself as a plastic soul star on Young Americans (1975) and then the cocaine-cracked crooner on the brilliant Station To Station (1976). All that and he made it acceptable for chaps to wear slap and dresses. Without doubt the decade’s prettiest star.

My runners-up: Roxy Music, Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, The Clash.

1980s: PRINCE

Further proof that great things come in little packages, Prince Rodgers Nelson was the super-funky, hard rock, sweet soul tornado that whipped through the decade. Taking his lead from Bowie’s image manipulation, James Brown’s bandleading and the Beatles’ musical invention, Prince was the superstar all the others watched and envied.

Springsteen, Wacko Jacko and Madonna trailed behind as the man later known as squiggle went from one outlandish incarnation to the next. As a live performer and envelope-pushing pop artist, Prince put all his contemporaries in the shade. The lavish energetic stage shows for the Parade and Sign O’ The Times albums showcased a whirlwind talent – guitar hero, sex machine, heartbroken balladeer, and fire-and-brimstone rocking preacher.

So talented that he could afford to give away some of his greatest songs to the Bangles, Sinead O’Connor and even Sheena Easton, Prince always had something in reserve. He could do spirituality (‘The Cross’), apocalyptic party music (‘1999’), pure pop genius (‘Raspberry Beret’) and heavyweight social commentary (‘Sign O’ The Times’).

While others dithered, Prince crossed musical boundaries with joyful abandon. By the mid ’90s his power may have waned, but he’d already been prolific enough to shame most careers that last a lifetime. No musical royal family would be complete without him.

My runners-up: REM, The Smiths, Public Enemy, Madonna.

1990’s: NIRVANA

Kurt Cobain’s Seattle-based grunge masters left a relatively meagre recorded legacy, but the impact Nirvana had is still being felt.

By the late ’80s, big corporations had a stranglehold on rock culture, the advent of MTV seemed to have taken away any sting or anger in the music, and big-hair metal bands ruled the roost. The idea of American rock ‘n’ roll rebellion was as likely as a great new Rolling Stones album.

Then along came Cobain – a mixed-up, gun-toting kid from a broken home with a headful of venom aimed at his background and country’s status quo. Inspired by an old tape of the Sex Pistols, Cobain’s songs on the groundbreaking 1991 major label debut Nevermind planted punk rage and blank humour deep in the heart of the American mainstream.

The tragedy of his suicide, aged 27 in April 1994, merely added to the potency of songs such as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Come As You Are’. The loss was even greater when the wounded acoustic blues he revealed on his Nirvana Unplugged swansong were taken into account.

Kurt Cobain was a deeply troubled man, wracked by physical pain and mental torment but, paired with Kris Novoselic and Dave Grohl, he had made some of the most inspirational and nakedly honest rock ‘n’ roll of all-time. Every other rock band from this decade pales in comparison.

My runners-up: Doctor Dre, Pulp, Beck, Eminem.

© Gavin MartinDaily Mirror, 12 November 2004

Leave a Comment