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The Top 70s Rock Songs

The 70s was a phenomenal decade for music. With an endless array of sexy, “groovy” tunes overshadowed by the disco scene – which, in itself, was way artistically underrated, household names from Elton John to Fleetwood Mac defined 10 years of youthful and heartfelt music available on LPs and 8-track tapes. So break out those bell bottom jeans and the disco ball as we deep-dive into one of the most – if not the most -- memorable era(s) of music ever: the 1970s.

The Best of the Musical Best

The 70s was a richly colorful decade defined by head-to-toe denim, lots (and lots) of hair, a wonderfully unique movie slate, and of course, great music! Throughout the era, rock and roll would give birth to several iconic sub-genres where music junkies the world over could pick a personal musical path to call their very own.

There was soft rock, southern rock, disco, country, bluegrass, punk, jazz, and others – each with its own energetic foothold and ample imagination. Selecting the top 70s rock songs from this voluminous bin of fan-friendly tracks is not an easy task – but for all the lucky listeners who got to experience this brilliant parade of peaceful melodies and bad-ass funk, here are some common gems to consider:

  1. “Stairway To Heaven” – Led Zeppelin

When ranking which rock song of the 70s is the most emotional, you probably wouldn’t choose “Stairway to Heaven.” But it is, without pause, a highly spiritual offering. With its wispy intro of acoustic guitar, electric piano, and mellotron flutes, the song builds to a searing frenzy jampacked with metaphysical references to religion and mortality. Overall, it’s an unforgettable expedition into the poetic unknown.

Oddly enough, Led Zeppelin did not want to release the song as a single. They felt excluding the 8-minute epic about “… a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold” would encourage album sales. The song, featured on their eponymously titled 4th album (one of their best-selling), went platinum 23 times over – and has the worthy distinction of making every top 70s rock songs list from now ‘til the end of time.

  1. “Free Bird” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

Few songs command our undivided attention from first note to last more than “Free Bird.” Often considered one or two on the official greatest of the top 70s rock songs -- interchangeable with “Stairway to Heaven” -- Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 9-minute phenomenon features wildly infectious guitar licks that are both blistering and mellow.

Other familiar Skynyrd songs include the gun-inspired “Gimme Three Steps” and the drug-inspired “That Smell,” in addition to “Sweet Home Alabama,” a home-spun retort challenging Neil Young’s notorious swipe at the “Southern Man.” Gone long before their time -- with a plane crash that claimed the lives of three band members including front man Ronnie Van Zant -- Skynyrd bent the scales of roots-rock with rural toughness and human integrity. A recent documentary on the rise and fall - and rise - of the band is a visceral must-watch.

  1. “Hotel California” – The Eagles

Although the Eagles were an AR radio superpower, this multi-genre band – to many purists - was on the outside looking in with regards to rock, folk, and country. In addition to relentlessly played tracks such as “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Desperado,” and “Take it Easy,” the Eagles unleashed “Hotel California,” a mysterious title track from their 1977 album of the same name.

The song about “corruption, greed and hedonism” (as they’d later confess) was globally adored despite the fact it’s so depressing. Who wants to be trapped in a fabricated hell when you could boogie to Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” or Cheryl Lynn’s dancefloor treasure “Got to Be Real?” Regardless of its painfully dark themes, “Hotel California” would go on to sell 32 million copies leaving the world to decipher, for themselves, what “You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave” actually means.

  1. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Simon and Garfunkel

At Turntable Live, we believe this is by leaps and bounds the best S&G track ever. Featured on the duo’s fifth and final studio album, it’s rife with themes of unequivocal bravery, working equally divine as a stadium showstopper or a sleeping baby’s lullaby.

Earning a Grammy for Album of the Year, it held on to #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for six weeks. The all-too-brief anthology of Simon and Garfunkel (originally known as Tom and Jerry) included timeless harmonies such as “The Boxer,” “The Sound of Silence, and “Mrs. Robinson, but “Bridge Over Troubled Water” will always hold a special, weepy niche in their poignant partnership.

The Guitar is the Star

As we continue on with our choices for the top 70s rock songs, there is one constant sound, if you will, with regards to a plethora of these unforgettable, distinguished melodies. In addition to nostalgic lyrics and profound productions, there was a bounty of guitar-work.

Whether it was electric, acoustic, steel, classic, 12-string, banjo -- you name it -- if you wanted guitars, the 70s provided it. From Jimi Hendrix to Eddie Van Halen (who started in the 70s), here are some cool singles blasting some masterful six-string riffs:

  1. “Smoke On The Water” – Deep Purple

This song is so overwhelmingly recognizable, most guitar stores have banned its play by shoppers. Initially released in 1972, featured on the album, Machine Head, the song, contrary to heavy hypotheses, is about a casino that burned down during a Frank Zappa show in Switzerland. The following lyrics prove it: “… Frank Zappa and the Mothers were at the best place around, but some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground…”

With other gritty songs such as “Highway Star” and “Woman From Tokyo,” Deep Purple had legions of diehard fans over the years -- but the quintessential calling-card song from this London-based band will always be “Smoke on the Water,” the sad tale of a tragedy turned rock and roll folklore.

  1. “Sultans Of Swing” – Dire Straits

Born on Dire Straits’ self-titled, 1977 debut album, the crisp and bouncy “Sultans of Swing” exploded on the London stage with a guitar sound that was fiercely fast and marvelously original. According to Wikipedia, “Lead guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler thought the song was "dull" until he bought his first Stratocaster in 1977 (and) it just came alive.”

Knopfler’s lightning-quick finger-tapping and catchy lyrics of folks “… coming in out of the rain (to) hear the jazz go down” would forever create the band’s signature sound --- until the visual 80s– when “Money For Nothing” and MTV consummated a picture-perfect marriage.

  1. “Free Bird” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

Few songs command our undivided attention from first note to last more than “Free Bird.” Often considered one or two on the official greatest of the top 70s rock songs -- interchangeable with “Stairway to Heaven” -- Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 9-minute phenomenon features wildly infectious guitar licks that are both blistering and mellow.

Other familiar Skynyrd songs include the gun-inspired “Gimme Three Steps” and the drug-inspired “That Smell,” in addition to “Sweet Home Alabama,” a home-spun retort challenging Neil Young’s notorious swipe at the “Southern Man.” Gone long before their time -- with a plane crash that claimed the lives of three band members including front man Ronnie Van Zant -- Skynyrd bent the scales of roots-rock with rural toughness and human integrity. A recent documentary on the rise and fall - and rise - of the band is a visceral must-watch.

  1. “Dream On” – Aerosmith

When listening to “Dream On,” one word comes to mind: anthem. This mega-powerful ballad, written by lead singer Steven Tyler, and featured on their first album titled Aerosmith, would, to no one’s shock, quickly find its audience. Aside from charting as a hard and soft rock hybrid, “Dream On” is the epitome of a concert Bic lighter moment – from inspirational lyrics to gut-punch lead guitars to the dramatic gong at its close.

After a wildly explosive 70s presence, Aerosmith would temporarily crumble – then thankfully reinvent themselves in the mid-80s with, all off things, a rap version of “Walk This Way” with Run-DMC. But it’s the motivating message of “Dream On” that keeps fans, new and old, chasing their goals and passions in the darkest of times. Succinctly summed up by Tyler, "It's about the hunger to be somebody: Dream until your dreams come true."

Another Set of Classics

When the top 70s rock songs are debated, there’s no shortage of glitz and talent and icons who defined a generation. Young bands and musicians such as ZZ Top, AC/DC, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and The Who, would become synonymous with the look and feel of the 1970s. Here, then, are more memorable singles which became common fixtures on America’s Top 40:

  1. “Your Song” – Elton John

In creating a precise chronology of top 70s rock songs, you’d be hard pressed to find a popular track which came before “Your Song.” This instant hit set the professional tone between (musician) Elton John and (lyricist) Bernie Taupin – setting the table for their life-long bond.

Legend has it, the song hinted at Elton John’s sexuality by keeping it gender neutral. That aside, it was a brilliant introduction of great things to come between Elton and Bernie. Said Elton, “The lyrics express the romantic feelings of an innocent person. “It’s a little bit funny this feeling inside / I’m not one of those who can easily hide.”

“Your Song” made it to No. 8 on the US Billboards and No. 7 on the UK Singles Chart. These days, Elton -- at 75 years young -- has launched his final stint of stadium shows (ever) in his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour.

  1. “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen

Who wants to hear a song over 6 minutes with super obscure lyrics and avant-garde opera vocals? Not Queen’s record label, that’s for sure. This was the predicament in 1975 when Freddie Mercury enthusiastically introduced “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the front runner for the first single off 1975’s (fittingly named) “A Night at the Opera.”

In fairness to the business side of things, do you know what these lyrics mean? “I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango!” Well, neither did they. However -- after deflecting some dramatic resistance from the money-folk (well documented in the 2019 Oscar-winning film) Mercury, and bandmates, were able to convince the label to release it – which they did - and the rest is radio history.

As for the artistic pedigree of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, according to guitarist Brian May, “Freddie was a very complex person; flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities with his childhood,” said May. “He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song.”

  1. “Dust In The Wind” – Kansas

Drifting in a completely different musical direction from their fast, hard rock songs like “Carry on My Wayward Son” and “Point of Know Return,” Kansas created a genius ballad with “Dust in the Wind,” a once-in-a-generation masterpiece backed simply by an acoustic guitar, violin, and hand drums.

Guitarist/songwriter Kerry Livgren was inspired by a passage in a book of Native American poetry which read: "For all we are is dust in the win.” From there, a life-and-death affirming composition was born. Though Kansas was considered a hard rock band, “Dust in the Wind,” about detaching from material things and living while you’re here, would become their biggest hit. Nothing lives forever – except for this song.

  1. “Layla” – Derek And The Dominos

Derek is Eric, Clapton that is. In the spring of 1970, singer/guitarist Clapton formed Derek and the Dominos, a blues-rock band who, right out of the gate, released “Layla,” based on an Arabian princess whose father marries her off, leaving her loveless and mad (not angry, crazy).

Years later, “Layla” would resuscitate itself on “Unplugged” -- an MTV performance show -- as a re-worked ballad with a new melody and fresh cadence. The acoustic version went onto sell 19 million copies winning 6 Grammys including Record the Year.

  1. “American Pie” – Don McLean

This classic from 1972 continues to grow in Salinger-esque mystery seeing as though it wasn’t until 2015 when singer/songwriter Don McLean finally explained the song’s complex poetry. We know, in bits and pieces, that it was based on “the day the music died,” referring to the plane crash in 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. According to McLean, shaken up by the event, the incident ended the era of early rock and roll. So he put pen to paper and churned out this everlasting masterclass of paradox.

McLean put many rumors to rest when he claimed, "It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don't know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.” One interesting fact about the song is that McLean earns somewhere between $300,000 to $500,000 per year in royalties.

What is the Funkiest Rock Song from the 1970s?

Where there’s rock, there’s funk, and where’s there’s funk there’s a dancefloor. The 70s was loaded with soulful R&B acts who made an effortless move to rock and roll. The tunes were loud, lyrically fun and, for the most part, impossible to listen to without shaking your booty. What is the funkiest of them all? Take your pick. Any of these more than qualify:

  1. “Brick House” – Commodores

Any song that starts off “Ow, she’s a brick house / she’s mighty mighty, just letting it all hang out” – you know you’re in for one heck of a sexually unambiguous musical ride. The Commodores, featuring pop virtuoso, Lionel Richie, put out a flurry of funky fare in the 70s but, truth be told, it was the softer, Richie-written “Three Times a Lady” and “Easy” (like a Sunday morning), that made their fans swoon.

The Commodores were all about the blend of adult contemporary, rock, and pure funk. “Brick House” checked all the boxes. As for why the woman is “36-24-26” -- founding member Thomas McClary explained, “We got those measurements out of Jet Magazine – a model that was modeling swimwear.” Oh, what a winning hand indeed.

  1. “Maggot Brain” – Funkadelic

American funk master George Clinton was the definition of 70s funk. Funkadelic’s music evolved from soul and doo wop to hard guitar to psychedelic rock. Clinton was heavily influenced both musically and politically by Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, The MC5, and Vanilla Fudge (not to be confused with funk-depleted Vanilla Ice).

During the recording of “Maggot Brain,” the band was – as legend has it -- “on something” when they laid down those tracks in 1971. Eddie Hazel’s guitar licks were so crazy during the session his iconic riffs would go on to define the band’s original soul-filled sound. With the colorful direction of Clinton, who bounced back and forth between Funkadelic to Parliament, “Maggot Brain” rose to the funk stratosphere.

  1. “Jungle Boogie” - Kool & The Gang

At the opening credits of “Pulp Fiction,” music begins with the tropical guitar sounds of Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, then, just as the music supervisor is credited, it crashes over to “Jungle Boogie.” A slick move loaded with coolness.

The lyrics of “Jungle Boogie” are an ideal match for the parquet squares of a dancefloor: Jungle boogie (Get down with the boogie) /Jungle boogie (Get it on) Jungle boogie. You get the idea. The most widely recognized track from Kool & the Gang’s 1973 album Wild and Peaceful, “Jungle Boogie” reached number 4 on the charts. Ever since, the song has become part of the club scene lexicon for scads of funky, music-loving youth.

What are the Most Underrated 70s Rock Bands?

Dozens upon dozens of bands in the 70s were uber recognizable the world over. Here are a few of them whose lavish musical gifts were historically outshined by their images:

  1. Thin Lizzy

With raw and pounding rock tracks featured on Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak, it’s no wonder they leaped to such popular heights. Officially born in the pubs of Dublin, Ireland, the band had a deeper reveal lyrically then just the “poppy” rock stuff like “The Boys Are Back in Town,” a song that officially cemented them as jukebox prodigies

That same album featured “Angel From the Coast” and “Emerald,” the final song on the album leaving the listener with a gritty, bad-boy flavor. Rolling Stone Magazine described the band as being "far apart from the braying mid-70s metal pack."

  1. KISS

Lost in all the pyrotechnics, 9-inch heels, and Gene Simmons’ enormous tongue was the well-deserved nod to their talent. This wasn’t just a boy band in make-up. In reality, all four original members were class-A musicians: Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss.

Their live shows were magic to behold, as they belted out “Detroit Rock City,” Rock and Roll All Nite,” and “Shout it Out Loud.” Whether they were in or out of their glammy make-up and giant wigs, their namesake sound was well crafted and incredibly unique. They were also ahead of their time. Their super-ballad, “Beth,” set the tone for every hairband to follow who put a love song on their album. When they did (Whitesnake and Skid Row come to mind) it was usually the best song of the bunch.

  1. Ramones

The folks who didn’t “get” the Ramones missed out. Known for simplistic, hard driving punk rock, the band which hailed from Queens, New York, always took on a take no prisoners attitude when they’d hit the stage.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the Ramones blazed their own trail of fist-pumping music with “Rock ‘n Roll High School,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and a tantalizing track with zero sub-text, “Teenage Lobotomy.” In the end, they paved the way for generations of leather-clad headbangers to chase their punk rock dreams.

Summary

Songs from the 70s are here to stay; archived on albums and most of all, in our memories. For those fortunate enough to grow up pre-cell phones and Twitter, the musical landscape shifted seamlessly from one decade to the next. Music from the 60s was nothing like music from the 70s –and music from the 70s was nothing like music from the 80s.

The top rock songs from the 70s are eternally engrained with the fashion and culture that defined the decade. From “Stairway to Heaven” to “Free Bird” to “Your Song” it was a gloriously bright artistic decade taking all of us on a magical, musical journey which can never be matched.

The Top 70s Rock Songs | turntablelive.com

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