Top Classic Rock Songs
Rock and roll can be dangerous and fun at the same time, so thanks a lot.
— Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day)
Rock and Roll is the most brutal, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.
Criteria for the Classics
As we dive headfirst into our list of “top classic rock songs,” there are several factors to behold. As with any “top of lists,” what are we actually referring to? The Best? The Most Popular? The Most Played? The Top Selling? Or – could it be as simple as what we truly feel are the definitive songs to capture the genre? At the end of the day, isn’t music supposed to be an expression of our independence? Amen. So then, the playing field is wide open to interpret the natural order of the top classic rock songs.
What is Classic Rock?
The dictionary defines “classic” regarding someone, or something, “… judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.” Well said – because that equation plays nicely with art, regardless if it’s a painting, a play, a movie – or, of course, a song.
As for where the actual expression “classic rock” comes from, according to liveabout.com, the term classic rock “… was coined to define a radio format that featured rock music primarily from the 1970s. Later, the format was expanded to include some '60s and even '50s rock. Today, you’ll even hear grunge, punk, and '80s hair bands on classic rock radio stations.”
Based on such an all-encompassing, multi-category definition, any number of great rock songs that propelled us to dance or think or dream-- or brought us to tears -- could easily be considered classic.
In our particular list, you might see some surprises, but fear not: there’s nothing egregious or way off the beaten path with these picks. We selected 13 of them. What is the single greatest rock song of all time? You be the judge.
- Whole Lotta Love – by Led Zeppelin
You need cooling / Baby I'm not fooling / I'm gonna send ya / Back to schooling
When answering the question; what are the best power rock songs? -- “Whole Lotta Love” must be in that discussion. Led Zeppelin’s mighty rock masterpiece featured one of the most familiar guitar licks ever. The song, with its heavy mix of blues and rock, was based on a 1962 Muddy Waters song – maybe too much so. Waters would eventually sue (and win) an infringement case.
“Whole Lotta Love,” from the band’s second album, cemented Zeppelin as one of the primo rock bands worldwide. All the elements were in place: Jimmy Page’s raucous guitar play, Robert Plant’s other-worldly vocals, and John Bonham’s furious drum smashing. The trippy part of “Whole Lotta Love,” where the song slows down then speeds up in echo, is one of the most memorable music moments in history.
- Sympathy for the Devil - by The Rolling Stones
Please allow me to introduce myself / I'm a man of wealth and taste / I've been around for a long, long years / Stole million man's soul an’ faith
The mysterious lyrics for “Sympathy for the Devil” were inspired by The Master and Margarita, a book by Mikhail Bulgakov. One day, Mick Jagger’s then girlfriend, Marianne Faithful, gave him the book. Needless to say, Jagger was inspired. He took a shine to the power of the devil described as a “man of wealth and taste.”
However, let it be known that Jagger never defended the diablo. That’s not what the song is about. It’s more about the “dark side of man.” Musically speaking, the song is sound with slick hand drums from departed Charlie Watts along with Keith Richards’ unique guitar solo. With its “woo-woo, woo-woo” backing vocals, it’s next to impossible not to hum along.
- Under Pressure - by Queen & David Bowie
Pressure pushing down on me / Pressing down on you, no man ask for / Under pressure that burns a building down / Splits a family in two
This classic duet from 1981 featured two of earth’s most prominent rock acts in addition to an unforgettable baseline. Many will remember that the base riff was “borrowed” by Vanilla Ice for his un-groundbreaking “Ice Ice Baby,” a (very) surprising rap hit that somehow captivated the charts. The fact that Freddie Mercury and David Bowie are both no longer with us makes the song even more timely and powerful. It’s said that the song was born in a laid-back jam session with Bowie, Mercury, and the other boys from Queen. After some stabs at a striking baseline, they came up with what would be the calling card signature of “Under Pressure” – and the rest is MTV history.
- Comfortably Numb - by Pink Floyd
There is no pain you are receding / A distant ship smoke on the horizon / You are only coming through in waves / Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying
This track was featured on the band’s ubiquitous “The Wall,” a globally popular double album from 1979. “Comfortably Numb” was a calm, slow rocking, psychedelic feast for the senses leaving us in a drug induced state of confusing bliss. Did we say drugs? Not so fast.
Roger Waters, who wrote the lyrics, said, while many people thought the song was about drugs, he claims it is not. According to Waters, the lyrics are about what he felt like as a child when he was sick with a fever. Years later, he got that feeling, again, when he felt detached from reality.
But then again, the mass-group of doobie-inhaling loyalists who think it is about drugs are well within their entitled right. In fact, to accuse them of being wrong would be a disservice to their love for Floyd and their smoky passion for a “heightened” sense of reality.
- I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll - by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
I love rock n' roll / So put another dime in the jukebox, baby / I love rock n' roll / So come and take your time and dance with me
After her days ended from the breakthrough fem-fatale band, the Runaways, Joan Jett was a sight for sore eyes in a heavily male-dominated world. Jett took her black leather tight jumpsuits, filthy guitar work, and sneering lead vocals all the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” considered by many rock fans to be her most prestigious tune, was actually based on a relatively unknown ’70s song by the Arrows, a British band she was fond of. The song blasted onto the Billboard Hot 100 for seven straight weeks in 1982, and with it, she found her way into the rock spotlight amidst a boundless ocean of testosterone.
- Funk #49 - by the James Gang
Out all night, sleep all day/ I know what you're doin' / If you're gonna act that way / I think there's trouble brewin'
Long before he flew with the Eagles, Joe Walsh was a prominent figure in the James Gang, a cool, funky rock band hailing from Cleveland. It wasn’t until 1971 when Walsh officially joined Don Henley and company for their long journey into history.
But his days in the James Gang were quite fruitful. Formed as a trio, on the heels of the highly successful Eric Clapton-lead Cream, Walsh and company put out some awesome music. And although some felt the band came up short prior to Walsh’s ejection, songs such as “Walk Away” and “Must Be Love” are among the songs that made the James Gang, if only briefly, a great musical force.
An Eclectic Collection
Any time you mention Joan Jett, David Bowie, and Jim Morrison in the same conversation you can expect musical sparks to fly. Songs mentioned thus far, and those to come, are inarguably connected to the historical spirit of classic rock. Here, then, are some other sure-fire classics to consider:
- Iron Man - by Black Sabbath
Has he lost his mind? / Can he see or is he blind? / Can he walk at all / Or if he moves, will he fall?
When plowing through the indelible anthology of Ozzy Osbourne, there are several songs that have to make the list. Osbourne, who’s been in and out of Black Sabbath since 1968 (imagine that) amassed an impressive collection of songs either solo or with the band. “Crazy Train,” “Paranoid,” and “No More Tears” – all classic rock “weekend” songs --come to mind.
With its metal-clanking robotic voice intro :“I am Iron Man,” this track from 1970 firmly plants its foothold in the official decree of classic rock. Long before the superhero films, “Iron Man” was one of many bad-ass Sabbath songs still getting radio play in the 2000s! It’s a testament to the enticing staying power of rock and roll and the undying legacy of smart and talented rock and roll clowns like Ozzy Osbourne.
- Light My Fire - by The Doors
You know that it would be untrue / You know that I would be a liar / If I was to say to you / Girl, we couldn't get much higher
Sadly, the list of musicians who O.D.’d is way too long – from Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, and of course the enigmatic Jim Morrison. The aforementioned “Comfortably Numb,” per Pink Floyd’s writer, never quite owned its connection to “alternative substances.” But with Morrison and the Doors at the wheel, with “Light My Fire,” there isn’t much subtext. The opening lyrics, alone, tell us we’re in for a sex-filled, drug-crazed romp.
In 1967, when the Doors were on the Ed Sullivan Show, they soon found themselves embroiled in controversy. According to www.theq.fm,
“The infamous banning occurred after a producer from the show asked the band to change a lyric in “Light My Fire” -- ‘Girl’ we couldn’t get much higher to “something else.” But Morrison had other ideas, and “sang it as originally intended.” The result was a slap in the face to conservative America. So much for a family show.
- No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature - by the Guess Who
‘Cause it's the new Mother Nature taking over / It's the new splendid lady come to call / It's the new/ Mother Nature taking over / She's gettin' us all
The most wonderful element of this “duel” track is its seamless hand-off between “No Sugar Tonight” and “New Mother Nature.” Journey did something similar in 1978 by splicing “Feeling That Way ”and” Anytime”– but there was something intensely more melodic in the Guess Who’s double track.
For many, the Guess Who re-rose to prominence when hippy rocker Lenny Kravitz covered their hit “American Woman.” But those who already knew about the Canadian supergroup, featuring Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, were only too happy to share these rock icons with a much younger generation.
- Crazy on You - by Heart
I was a willow last night in a dream / I bent down over a clear running stream / Sang you the song that I heard up above / And you kept me alive with your sweet flowing love
Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson are timeless, beautiful creatures of longevity. With a partnership that began in the 70s and still rocking and relevant today, they have their own niche in the annals of rock and roll.
“Crazy on You” was written for and about Heart’s original guitarist Mike Fisher. (Note: He eventually stopped playing and become the band’s sound man). The passionate feelings Ann had for him ripple hard through the track. Along with the rough-driving instrumentals, this song – and sound –helped pave the way for Heart’s fantastic brand of ladies’ rock for years to come
What Are Some of the Best Slow Old Rock Songs ?
In the same breath with all those hard driving songs featuring lightning-fast guitar work and gut-punch drum licks, we can also find ourselves immersed in a much softer side of rock. This section represents a handful of the bevy of ballads to choose from over the years. Just as courageous. Just as musical. Only, not as loud.
- Let it Be - by The Beatles
When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Mary comes to me / Speaking words of wisdom / Let it be
Similar to the near-impossible assignment of picking just one Rolling Stones tune, the same dilemma can be said about the Beatles. If we’re talking top pop and classic rock, we’d be remiss not to include this one.
The song came at a bittersweet time – as time was counting down to the end of the Beatles. This tenuous road’s end featured some rough in-fighting. In fact, it’s documented that John Lennon “hated” Paul McCartney’s “Let it Be.” However, despite his reservations, the song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on April 11, 1970. It their final single released as a unified group.
- Beth – by Kiss
Just a few more hours / And I'll be right home to you / I think I hear them calling / Oh Beth, what can I do?
The inclusion of a song sung by a grown man dressed up like a cat may sound like a weird perhaps even questionable choice – but “Beth,” KISS’s bust-out ballad, was way more than a cute song about a girl named (we assume) Beth.
From their album Destroyer in 1976, the Peter Criss-penned love song, was nestled in with knockout fare such as “Detroit Rock City” and “Flaming Youth.” What’s most impressive with the “concept” of including a ballad on a heavy album, was how it influenced the hairband brigade in the late 80s.
There are literally too many examples to mention, but here are a handful: Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn,” Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” and Cinderella’s “Nobody’s Fool.” They were all wonderful tracks with heartfelt messages made possible, in large part, by a sweet-singing, drumming feline.
- Only The Lonely – by Roy Orbison
There goes my baby / There goes my heart / They're gone forever / So far apart
Roy Orbison is another all-time legend who, like Bob Dylan, transcends time and music. Starting out as a rockabilly master in the 1950s, his career would stretch through rock, country, and at the final bell, a seat at the table with Tom Petty and George Harrison’s Traveling Wilburys – a super group for the ages.
The pedal hit the metal for Orbison back in 1960 when “Only the Lonely” from Lonely and Blue landed him on the rock and country scene. Without Orbison and his cool contemporaries such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, classic rock would have a much different look and feel than it has today.
Any way you slice it, public opinion – on a list -- will leave some song you love on the cutting room floor. Excluding tracks such as “Dream On” or “Free Bird,” to many, borders on sacrilege. But then again, it would be quite a task to sift through the potpourri of great tunes on this list -- and pick any that aren’t fully deserving of their place in classic rock history.
The Top Classic Rock Songs | turntablelive.com
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