History of Art Rock

Art Rock

art rock bowie

Art-Rock: A Musical Style

Art-rock is a genre of music that is known for its avant-garde experimentation, intricate production, and sophisticated musical and lyrical elements. Unlike other genres that put an emphasis on pop radio success, art-rock prioritizes artistic craftsmanship. It is related to other genres such as progressive rock, punk rock, post-punk, psychedelic rock, new wave, indie rock, glam rock, experimental rock, and neo-classical music. Some of the most famous art-rock artists include The Velvet Underground & Nico, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

A Brief History of Art-Rock

Art-rock can be traced back to the early 1960s when music producers like Phil Spector and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys began to make album production a central focus of their work. Rock groups started to view albums as a cohesive narrative rather than just a compilation of singles. This was exemplified in albums such as Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, and Freak Out! by Frank Zappa's first band The Mothers of Invention. The genre took off in 1967 with the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico's self-titled album, which was produced by visual artist Andy Warhol. In the 1970s, art-rock groups like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer became famous for their virtuosity and rejection of commercial conventions. In the 2000s, art-rock continued to thrive in the indie, post-hardcore, and post-rock scenes, with artists such as Radiohead, Wilco, Joanna Newsom, The Roots, and Talib Kweli incorporating art-rock's hallmarks into their work.

Four Characteristics of Art-Rock

  1. Concept Albums: Art-rock groups often embrace concept albums with a unified theme or message, such as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars by David Bowie, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, Quadrophenia by The Who, The Wall by Pink Floyd, and the Ambient series by Brian Eno.

  2. Embrace of New Technology: Art-rock musicians frequently incorporate new technology into their music, such as synthesizers. Keith Emerson, a virtuoso keyboardist, was known for his experimentation with synthesizers, while the German band Kraftwerk was dedicated solely to synthesizers and became synonymous with the Krautrock subgenre.

  3. Literary References: Art-rock lyricists, such as Lou Reed, Kate Bush, and Neil Peart, often incorporate references to literature, poetry, mythology, and science in their songs.

  4. Incorporation of Visual Stagecraft: For many art-rock groups, the live show was an important aspect of their overall artistic presentation. Performers like Roxy Music, David Bowie, and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis made costumes an integral part of their stage show. Talking Heads, under the direction of singer/guitarist David Byrne, made a concert video, Stop Making Sense, which was a postmodern take on a rock concert. Byrne's integration of visuals and music

David Bowie

One of the key actors in the development of art rock was the British musician and composer David Bowie. Bowie first rose to fame in the late 1960s with his space-themed alter ego Ziggy Stardust and went on to release a string of critically acclaimed albums that incorporated elements of rock, pop, and electronic music. Bowie's 1973 album "Aladdin Sane" is often cited as a pioneering work of art rock and featured the hit single "Jean Genie."

Pink Floyd

Another important figure in the art rock scene was the British band Pink Floyd. Formed in 1965, Pink Floyd initially gained fame for their psychedelic sound, but by the early 1970s, they had begun to incorporate more complex musical structures and experimental elements into their music. Their 1973 album "Dark Side of the Moon" is considered a classic of the art rock genre and was a commercial and critical success. The album's use of synthesizers, sound effects, and unconventional song structures helped to establish Pink Floyd as one of the leading art rock bands of the era.

Late 1970s

In the late 1970s, a number of other bands began to emerge that were influenced by art rock and progressive rock. In the UK, bands like Genesis and Yes were experimenting with complex musical structures and extended instrumental passages, while in the US, groups like Rush and Styx were incorporating elements of classical music and progressive rock into their music.

Art-Rock vs. Progressive Rock

Art-rock and progressive rock are often confused with one another, as both genres share similar traits such as concept-driven lyrics, experimentation, and musical virtuosity. However, art-rock is considered to be more avant-garde and experimental, while progressive rock (prog rock) leans more towards classic musical composition and conventions.

Talking Heads

One of the most prominent art rock bands of the 1980s was the British group Talking Heads. Formed in 1975, Talking Heads initially gained fame for their unique blend of punk, funk, and new wave sounds. However, their later albums, including "Remain in Light" (1980) and "Speaking in Tongues" (1983), featured more complex arrangements and experimental elements and are considered classics of the art rock genre.


1990s and Beyond

In the 1990s, the art rock genre continued to evolve and influence other forms of popular music. Bands like Radiohead, who emerged in the mid-1990s, incorporated elements of art rock into their music, combining complex musical structures and experimental sounds with more accessible pop melodies. Today, the influence of art rock can be heard in a wide swath of niche genres and indie bands.

Art-Rock Bands Through the Eras:


  • The Velvet Underground & Nico: The first "art-rock" band, known for avant-garde experimentation and influence from producer Andy Warhol.
  • The Beach Boys: Known for pioneering the "concept album" format and establishing Brian Wilson as a detail-oriented musical creative director.
  • The Mothers of Invention: Pioneers of avant-garde music, known for their album "Freak Out!" and frontman Frank Zappa's unorthodox approach to rock music.


  • King Crimson: Known for their eclectic sound, blending rock, classical, jazz and folk music.
  • Pink Floyd: Known for their elaborate live performances, grandiose concept albums and exploration of philosophical and existential themes.
  • Jethro Tull: Known for their distinctive mix of hard rock, folk, blues and classical music.
  • The Moody Blues: Known for their unique blend of rock and classical music and incorporation of symphonic elements.
  • Emerson Lake & Palmer: Known for their virtuoso musicianship and ambitious compositions, blending elements of classical, jazz and progressive rock.


  • Talking Heads: A New York-based band that formed in the mid-70s and blended elements of punk, funk, and world music with art-rock elements such as visually stunning stage performances, conceptual lyrics, and musical experimentation.
  • R.E.M.: An Athens, Georgia-based band that formed in the early 80s and was known for their jangly guitar sound, enigmatic lyrics, and focus on musical exploration and experimentation.
  • Echo & the Bunnymen: An English band that formed in the late 70s and was known for their blend of post-punk, psychedelic rock, and new wave with poetic, atmospheric lyrics.
  • XTC: An English band that formed in the late 70s and was known for their eclectic sound, incorporating elements of punk, new wave, and power pop, as well as their conceptual lyrics and musical experimentation.


  • Radiohead - an English band that started as a more straightforward alternative rock act, but evolved into a critically acclaimed art rock band, known for incorporating elements of electronic, avant-garde, and experimental music into their sound.
  • Soul Coughing - an American band that combined elements of funk, jazz, spoken word, and rock into their unique sound, incorporating found sound and beat-driven textures.
  • Mercury Rev - an American band that incorporated elements of psychedelic rock, krautrock, and space rock into their sound, often incorporating atmospheric soundscapes and dreamy textures.
  • Bark Psychosis - a British band that explored post-rock and shoegaze sounds, incorporating elements of jazz, ambient, and experimental music into their sound.
  • Stereolab - a British-French band that drew inspiration from Krautrock, lounge, and easy listening music, incorporating a wide range of instruments, including vintage synths and electronic sounds.
  • Flaming Lips - an American band that blended elements of psychedelic rock, avant-garde, and experimental rock into their sound, incorporating multimedia and elaborate stage shows.
  • Pavement - an American band that blended elements of indie rock, lo-fi, and alternative rock into their sound, often incorporating elements of humor and irony into their lyrics.


  • Joanna Newsom: Known for her intricate harp playing, whimsical lyrics and eclectic musical style that incorporates elements of art-rock and folk music.
  • The Roots: Known for their incorporation of live instrumentation, jazz and soul influences into their hip-hop sound.
  • Talib Kweli: Known for his socially conscious and introspective lyrics, blending elements of hip-hop, soul and alternative music.

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