The rock genre is one of the most interesting ones in music history because it stretches over so many decades and involves so many different characters, bands, and different takes on the genre. When a single genre of music forms an umbrella under which you can rightly put Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix at the same time, you’re working with a lot of material. And sadly, rock has been around long enough that some of its most prominent contributors have long since passed - most of them well before their time. In this piece I want to take a look at a few of those rock stars, and specifically at the ones who’ve proven to have lasting influence over the genre even after death.
John Lennon is undoubtedly one of the most famous musicians of the modern era, and famously met a premature end when he was assassinated in New York City. But his work as the de facto frontman of The Beatles (even if it was really a fairly democratic band) makes him undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in rock history. Lennon wrote and/or sang a majority of The Beatles’ hits, and we can actually measure the effect this band has had on others, not just in rock but across the musical landscape. Quartz did a fascinating study of just this topic, essentially scanning thousands of sites looking for mentions of musicians listing their influences, and The Beatles came out on top. In fact, with 1,230 artists influenced, The Beatles nearly doubled the second most frequently cited artist, Bob Dylan. Lennon doesn’t get sole credit for this, but on this basis it’s certainly fair to call him one of the most impactful deceased rock stars.
Jimi Hendrix died tragically young - before his 30th birthday, in fact - but still managed to establish himself as quite possibly the best and most innovative guitarist in history. It just about goes without saying that just about every serious guitarist since has studied and attempted to emulate Hendrix (Hendrix was ninth on the Quartz list mentioned above). But Hendrix’s influence also shows in the new ways he seems to resurface in the public eye from time to time. In 2016, a Jimi Hendrix-themed online game that “encapsulates all that was the Flower Power generation” was released. It was part of a series of rock ’n’ roll slot arcades, and one that became quite popular even among generations that didn’t grow up listening to Hendrix. And last year, Seattle opened a long-awaited public park designed to inspire young people to take up music in Hendrix’s name. Developments like these demonstrate an unusual amount of lingering influence.
Chuck Berry had about as much to do with defining the entire rock genre as anyone did. As a matter of fact the music critic-turned-pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman did a fascinating in-depth examination of this topic in his book “But What If We’re Wrong.” Specifically Klosterman wondered who would be the face of rock in hundreds of years, when the genre would inevitably be boiled down to one or two figures. Klosterman toyed with numerous figures including Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and more, but ultimately lands on Berry as perhaps the likeliest icon. This very idea indicates just how influential genre scholars see a figure like Berry as having been.