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The greatest moments in rock ’n’ roll history

As Rolling Stone magazine celebrates 50 years of rock, top stars talk about the seismic events that shaped music and society.
/ Source: TODAY

Who can forget Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire? Or the first time you heard “Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?” Those great rock events are part of Rolling Stone magazine’s ongoing celebration of the 50th anniversary of rock music, which continues as it names the 50 greatest moments in rock ‘n’ roll in its current issue. “Today” host Matt Lauer has some of the highlights.

Chess Records“Chess Records was probably the first big powerhouse of rock and roll in the early days. Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, among others — early twin towers of rock ‘n’ roll,” says Jann Wenner, editor for Rolling Stone magazine.

Chess laid the groundwork — it took only 10 years for rock to emerge as a cultural force: the voice of an entire generation.

The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and the Beatles’  “Sgt. Pepper”“When I think of the Beach Boys, I think of being in the family vehicle going from side A to side B then back to A, kept repeating it, but I love, love the Beach Boys,” says Canadian rocker Avril Lavigne.

Wenner says, “After 'Pet Sounds' the Beatles came back with 'Sgt Pepper,' which I still think is the greatest rock record ever made.

Woodstock, protests and moreMore than just classic albums, rock history is the collective groundswell of seismic events — war protests, love-ins and a poorly organized concert on a farm in upstate New York called Woodstock where 500,000 people celebrated "three days of peace and music."

“We didn't think war was great and glorious. We thought peace was better than war,” says David Crosby.  

A guitar god dies young
But by 1970, the rock ‘n’ roll world was rocked with loss — superb artists whose flames burned so bright, for too short a time.

“Jimi Hendrix broke rank and he smashed that boundary,” says recording artist John Mayer.

Hendrix is the guitarist every musician wants to be — even as most only exist in his shadow. Rolling Stone cites his greatest moment at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Mayer says, “Jimi Hendrix was around four years. That's like Jimi Hendrix coming out in 1999 and being gone already. That's tremendous.”

The death of John LennonAnd from loss, anarchy reigned as punk put an angry face on rock. But then the walls seemed to come crashing down.

“The assassination of an artist by a crazy person?” says Wenner.  “It had never happened.”

There would be 10 minutes of silence worldwide in honor of John Lennon. And yet, in the wake of profound sadness, a new vitality emerged. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” became the best selling album of all time.

The thrill of “Thriller”Mayer says, “To think I was six-year-old and the first music I heard was 'Thriller.' It's like your first football game being the Super Bowl.”

Hip-hop artist Eve shares Mayers' enthusiasm for the ground breaking album. “Everybody loved the song. Everybody loved the video and everybody tried to do the dances. There's nobody like Michael Jackson. I think he's a musical genius.”

The rise of Madonna and other women artistsFemale artists rank high on Rolling Stone's list. Madonna surprised everyone but herself, materializing as an unlikely feminist icon.

“I totally admire Madonna's work. She's always changed her style and been evolving and not following trends and doing her own thing,” says Lavigne.

Lilith Fair proved female rockers sell tickets — 61 artists, over three summers, grossed $65 million.

Rap rocks on inRock was powerfully influenced by the uncontainable energy of rap when artists like N.W.A. took on street-life and the police.

Eve says, “It was shocking. It was like, but I understood, you know, "F" the police, it's like, whoa.”