Although rock groups had been filling some of the largest venues in the world since The Beatles played at Shea Stadium in the 1960s, this subgenre of rock music began to develop in the mid-1970s. Also known as pomp rock, melodic rock, anthem rock, or stadium rock, the main exponents of the style were pop-rock bands that wrote songs specifically to appeal to large crowds, to be performed in big stadiums in front of big audiences.
Since bands of any genre can fill an arena if they're popular enough, arena rock had several additional characteristics to differentiate it from other rock subgenres. "Guitar pyrotechnics" and massed vocal harmonies performed by the whole band were very common, as were Audience Participation Songs with big, anthemic choruses. Most singers had cleaner-sounding vocals than a lot of the other Hard Rock or Heavy Metal groups of the time and often performed with an operatic flair. Lyrically, most arena rock songs were pretty simple, with many a straightforward Power Ballad for audiences to sing along with. And recordings were characterized by a slick, radio-friendly production sheen, which made the genre a perfect complement for the emergent AOR (album-oriented rock) format on the FM dial.
This was the dominant commercial style of rock music for about ten years, starting in 1976 when Boston released their first album and Peter Frampton released Frampton Comes Alive! (the best-selling record of the year), and more or less ending in 1986 when Journey released their last album for ten years and Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet put Hair Metal on top of the mainstream rock pile at the same time Alternative Rock acts like U2, R.E.M. and The Cure started to cross over onto the album rock stations that had been arena rock's bread and butter. Listen to any "Classic Rock" radio station nowadays, and chances are arena rock is the genre you'll hear the most of.
Although the spectacle and accessibility of arena rock has pretty much always been popular enough with the public, it isn't always treated as kindly by music critics, many of whom seem to regard it as either Hair Metal without any make-up on, Progressive Rock without the complexity or heartland rock without the heart. The epithet "corporate rock" was originally applied to this type of music, with "dad rock" also popping up sometime around the late '90s, due to the genre's popularity among aging Baby Boomers.
It's worth noting that the sort of stadium rock played by bands like U2, INXS, Simple Minds or The Police doesn't necessarily come under this heading; their sound was typically more influenced by Post-Punk and Alternative Rock (such as it was in the 1980s).
Artists commonly associated with the genre include:
- Bryan Adams
- Aerosmith (eighties output and everything following it)
- Bad Company (mid-eighties-to-early-nineties output)
- Pat Benatar
- Blue Öyster Cult (from Agents of Fortune onwards, combined with Heavy Metal)
- Bon Jovi (their glam period, mostly)
- Cheap Trick
- Chicago (mid- to late-eighties output)
- Def Leppard (also hair Metal)
- Dire Straits (eighties era)
- Brothers in Arms (1985)
- Eagles (post-On the Border)
- Fleetwood Mac (Buckingham/Nicks era)
- Peter Frampton
- Genesis (From Duke onward)
- Heart (mid- to late-eighties output)
- Jefferson Starship
- Journey (from Infinity onwards)
- Kansas (with more of a Progressive Rock bent than usual, but still...)
- KISS, hell, they were deliberately designed to be this by founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.
- Meat Loaf
- Night Ranger
- Queen (especially News of the World and onward)
- Rainbow (starting with Difficult to Cure)
- REO Speedwagon
- Roger Waters
- Rush (mostly on their synth-heavy records in The '80s)
- Clockwork Angels (2012)
- Kenji Sawada (his four—three studio, one live—albums with Co-CoLo)
- Bob Seger (Live Bullet and after)
- Bruce Springsteen (post-Nebraska)
- Billy Squier
- Styx (also Progressive Rock)
- Kilroy Was Here (1984)
- The Who (to a slight degree from Tommy onwards, but mostly their 80s work)
- Yes (post-90125)
- ZZ Top (post-Eliminator)