As music genres go, rock is unquestionably the sloppiest. How else to describe the disparate sounds of Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Patti Smith, and Phish? It’s as dissonant a dog’s breakfast of audio as a music fan could imagine, yet the songs written by these artists have a few basic elements in common, including a love of the electric guitar, vocals that careen from indecipherable mumblings to full-fledged wails, and chord structures that are not intimidated by repetition.
That rock is a mutt should not be a surprise. Its parents include the blues and folk music, country-western and R&B, gospel, bluegrass, and even a bit of jazz. The result is a uniquely American sound, although it sometimes took British bands like The Beatles, Yardbirds, and Rolling Stones to show Americans how lucky they were to live in the cradle of rock ‘n’ roll.
As with other genres, rock records come in a number of vinyl variations, from 78s, 45s, EPs, and LPs to monaural recordings, picture discs, and promos. In all cases, the record’s jacket or sleeve is often as collectible as the disc itself, if not more so given the fragile nature of paperboard and paper. Sealed records are also bought and sold, although some collectors prefer to inspect the contents of a record’s jacket rather than take it on faith that the vinyl inside is as advertised.
Of rock’s pioneers, records to collect include the first 12-inch LP that Bill Haley & His Comets cut for Decca, “Rock Around the Clock,” from 1955. A record to look for from 1956 is “The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon,” which included the group’s hit "Why Do Fools Fall In Love." Chuck Berry and Chess Records gave the world “After School Session” in 1957, while Chess released Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” in 1958.
And then there was Elvis Presley, who is a genre all to himself. Beginning with his first single for Sun Records in 1954, "That’s All Right," released as both a 45 and 78, Presley was a colossus, snapped up by RCA from Sun’s Sam Phillips for what in retrospect seems a measly $35,000. At RCA, Presley would cut a string of number-one hits, including "Hound Dog" in 1956 and "Jailhouse Rock" the following year.
For rock bands of the 1960s, monaural vinyl is highly sought because that’s how most albums were originally recorded in the studio—in many cases, the stereo releases not only came later, they were mixed by engineers who often added effects not envisioned by the musicians themselves. For example, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles was recorded in 1966 and '67 in mono by the band’s longtime producer, George Martin. Of the subsequent release, guitarist George Harrison said, “You haven’t heard ‘Sgt. Pepper’ if you haven’t heard it in mono.” Monaural recordings were also pressed in fewer numbers, which is why collectors prefer early mono versions of albums by the Grateful Dead, The Doors, and Pink Floyd.
Other rock albums are almost works of art. In addition the psych-rock album covers produced by artists for groups like 13th Floor Elevators, Cream, and Steve Miller, some bands released albums that had actual physical dimension, much to the chagrin, no doubt, of their labels. The original cover of "Sticky Fingers," designed by Andy Warhol for the Rolling Stones, featured a working zipper, while artist Robert Rauschenberg conceived a clear plastic cover with moving parts for "Speaking in Tongues” by the Talking Heads...
In recent years, rock artists such as Jack White have helped spur a resurgence in new, custom vinyl produced in limited runs on audiophile-grade 180-gram vinyl (most albums back it the day were pressed on 140- or even 120-gram discs). Some of the albums White has produced via Third Man Records are pressed in bright colors, an evolution of the multicolored records pressed for bands like Nirvana. Another Seattle band, Pearl Jam, released only 2,000 copies of a four-disc recording of their 2003 benefit concert in Benaroya Hall. Like the album’s cover, the discs are deep red.