Nothing says rock ’n’ roll like a well-loved pair of blue jeans. And the stars who made some of the best rock music from the 20th century clearly agree. From the Beach Boys to the Rolling Stones to indie bands like Pavement, we take a look at the ways denim has dominated five pivotal rock ’n’ roll music movements.
Of course, there are way too many denim-influenced rock music movements to count — from country alt-rock (who could forget the denim-drenched video to Achy Breaky Heart?) to heavy metal (hello, Warrant). So for brevity’s sake, we narrowed our spotlight to five of the most iconic denim-clad music movements of the last century:
1. Surf Rock: Everybody’s gone surfin’ … and they’re wearing white Levi’s®.
The Beach Boys made surf rock a part of history thanks to their sun-tinged hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.” in 1963 and the astronomical success of albums such as Summer Days and Pet Sounds. And who could forget the iconic “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, which blasted across the airwaves and solidified surf rock in music history. With the music craze came droves of surf rock worshippers dressed in denim. Specifically, white Levi’s®. The clothing item even gave birth to the influential surf song “White Levi’s” by the Majorettes. One of their lyrics? “My boyfriend always wears white Levi’s. Everywhere he goes he’s wearing white Levi’s.”
2. British Invasion: From bell-bottoms to easy riders.
It started with Beatlemania emanating from Liverpool and was unstoppable from there. British rock sent a shock wave around the world. And while bell-bottoms defined the denim get-up of bands like The Beatles, the British Invasion also gave birth to one of the most iconic arbiters of rock ’n’ roll denim: The Rolling Stones. The Stones’ emphatic love of denim is probably best epitomized by the band’s logo-emblazed jean jacket. And who could forget the cover of Sticky Fingers, which showcased a controversial close-up of a well-worn pair of jeans.
3. Punk Rock: The reign of skinny jeans and patched denim vests.
Oi! The Ramones. The Sex Pistols. The Clash. The Damned. Punk rock took over the U.K., the U.S. and the world as one of the most unforgettable denim-studded movements in music history. In fact, it’s been argued that we have the Ramones to thank for giving us the skinny jean, which — no matter if it was ripped, safety-pinned, patched or stained — required only one thing: being unconventionally tight (and oftentimes, black). Denim vests and patched jean jackets populated mosh pits from Orange County, California, to bars and nightclubs in the U.K. and Australia (and, according to BuzzFeed, it appears that cats have also embraced the trend).
4. Grunge: Denim, flannel and SubPop.
Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sound Garden. Place yourself in Seattle circa 1992 and you’ll find plenty of long-haired denim- and flannel-clad musicians who worship at the altar of grunge. Defined by moody guitar riffs and bands signed to SubPop (the unofficial record label of grunge), this music movement would hardly be recognizable without a bevy of scruffy musicians in denim at the helm. Just recall the jean get-up Kurt Cobain wore in the infamous “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video — or the hilarious denim-loving character Matt Dillon plays in the grunge rom-com movie Singles.
5. Indie Rock: Designer jeans and irony.
While independent music has been around for eons, the term has suffered a bit of an identity crisis as indie went mainstream at the turn of the 21st century. (Prior to this, the term “indie” referred almost exclusively to bands that opted to stay out of the zeitgeist.) But regardless of ideology, indie bands from Pavement to Bikini Kill to The Pixies had at least one thing in common with their mainstream-friendly offspring: a love of denim. And while the former might have opted for more punk- and grunge-inspired outfits, the new crop of indie musicians go for designer denim and tailored skinny jeans. In fact, when NPR asked cultural icons to weigh in on what “indie” meant to them, a popular response was “skinny jeans.”
Rolling Stones Records (Billboard page 75) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons