25 Brilliant Epic Rock / Pop Hit Masterpieces That Reached A Mass Audience

Epic classic rock songs

Photo: S_Werner [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Back when I was a ten in 1971, I remember getting up early Sunday mornings and retrieving the Sunday Newsday paper that silently lay on the front stoop all covered in dew. This was before the rest of my family woke up. I would immediately open to the section of the paper titled “Part II” and check out the top 40 songs in the US for that week. For the most part there were a variety of 2:30-3:40 minute pop songs, r&b songs, novelty songs, ballads, occasional instrumental and rock songs scattered up and down the chart. And I knew all of them.

Occasionally there would be a popular number that went on for more than 4:00 minutes that was clearly a song housing other songs; almost rhapsodic in some regards. Of course, at this young age my mind didn’t think too much about the actual construction of a song. I just dug listening to it and singing along. It wasn’t until I started composing my own pieces did I then re-examine these epic numbers and admire their musical constructions.

To this day I am amazed at how these pieces were seemingly accepted into mainstream listening. Maybe people had more of an attention span back then and things weren’t as fast paced and commercialized as they are now. Honestly, I don’t recall hearing any recent popular songs that take a chance painting an audio picture that involves multiple musical scenes. I could be wrong. I’ve tried to listen to what is happening on the radio nowadays and have perused the recent Billboard charts. Alas, it seems most popular songs have one beat in mind, one tempo, no real solo to speak of, very little harmonic changes going on and slight variations on a limited melodic theme. In other words, nothing that I would define as having distinctly different sections. Its essence is a combo of rap, and electronic r&b – pop occasionally interjected with a percussive break down for eight measures. Of course, all other extended forms of music are still being created these days but, on a mass, commercial scale I don’t hear anything that comes close to the song forms that were “hits’ from my childhood which is mostly from the mid 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Below is a list of what I regard as some of the Best Epic Classic Rock Songs That Were Commercial Hits.

Good Vibrations

by the Beach Boys. Reached number 1 in Billboard, 1966.

Inspired to out do the finely crafted songs found on The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, Brian Wilson (music) and Mike Love (lyrics) created this multicolored homage to the groovy California life that was leading to the 1967 “Summer of Love” vibe. The song starts off with a strong melody that swells in and out like the tide supported by organ stabs and a catchy, picked bass line played by studio ace Carol Kaye. By 1:17 the title of the tune is sung, and this is under a more deliberate “triplet feel” propelled by a cello and a counter melody played by the space age slide whistle sound of the electric instrument called the theremin.

These two elements are employed through out the song giving continuity to the different sections. By 1:44 an edit occurs, and the boys are singing some intricate harmony and background vocals. This leads to a drastic dynamic change at 2:16 with the vocals singing softly the mantra “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happen with her”. This slowly builds up to a magnificent Eb/F chord. Everything comes to a halt as the chord echoes out and we are suddenly thrown into the bubbly “Good – good – good vibrations” melody we heard near the beginning of the tune. The song then ends with the triplets in the cello and the intervallic melody played on the Theremin. It’s hard to believe this song is only 3:34. It’s a mini symphony that would certainly inspire among others, The Beatles on their next outing.”


Strawberry Fields Forever

The Beatles – Reached number 8 in Billboard, 1967.

A beautifully kaleidoscopic number written by John Lennon featuring the newly designed mellotron (a keyboard utilizing tape loops of instruments (pre-sampler), an Indian instrument called the swarmandal and an orchestra of horns, strings and percussion. Tempo changes highlight this work as a result of different takes with different orchestration recorded at different speeds spliced together expertly by George Martin and Geoff Emerick.

John Lennon could not make up his mind which take he liked the best, so he asked Mr. Martin to do some audio surgery. The patient survived. The sections occur at 1:01, 1:21, 1:44, 2:07 and 2:58. Another aspect that is unique in this recording is the way the song fades out into chaos and then sneakingly re-fades back in at 3:37. And no, John Lennon does not say, “I buried Paul.” He says, “Cranberry sauce.”


MacArthur Park

by Richard Harris. Reached number 2 in Billboard, 1968.

This Jimmy Webb composed piece is a sprawling pop tune that runs for 7 minutes. It’s most famous for its lyric “Someone left the cake out in the rain.” While not a favorite of mine it does boggle the mind that actor Richard Harris found an audience for the overly theatrical and shaky performance he gives. The form of the song starts off pretty simple: verse (a) a measure of orchestral chords and then verse (b), then extended orchestral chords leading into an instrumental variation on the verse melody. This is followed at 2:52 with a long slow section based on variations of the previous melodies.

At 4:33 the main melody is played with a full orchestra building to a section at 4:55. At this point a vamp with a heavy rock beat is introduced for about a minute developing its chord progression to a climax and at 6:29 we are back to the beginning of the tune. As this ending verse swells the orchestration introduces a full choir (icing on the melting cake as it were) to bring the work to its cinematic ending chord.


Age of Aquarius/ Let The Sunshine In

by the 5th Dimension. Reached number 1 in Billboard, 1969.

The song’s iconic floating intro is sort of like a door opening up taking us into the ethereal world with the samba beat slowly sneaking in establishing a firm, danceable groove. This sets the pace for the first song; a bit of new-age psychedelia expertly harmonized by the Fifth Dimension. There is a verse, a pre-chorus and then the “Aquarius” proclamation. These sections are then repeated a second time and at 2:19 we abruptly switch to a straight rock beat which introduces the semi gospel flavoring of the uplifting “Let the Sunshine In” section. In “Hey Jude” fashion the chorus repeats many times with lots of vocal interjection thrown in until it fades.

This music was part of the 1967 Broadway show Hair. It also features a number of musicians from the famed Wrecking Crew. Hal Blaine on drums, Joe Osborn on bass, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, and Tommy Tedesco on guitar.


Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?

by Chicago. Reached number 7 in Billboard, 1970.

Chicago always had a penchant for writing catchy songs that did not fit the regular A-B-A-C-B format. Since they started off as a group of jazz musicians, they always left a section for improvisation in their songs. This jazz/fusion type of composition is no exception. The song starts off with a free form piano section by lead sing Robert Lamm. It then shifts gear with a fanfare trumpet solo and changes time signatures 8/8 7/8 9/8 8/8 7/8 /8/8 then transitions to a section in 5/8 for 6 bars then goes into 6/8 for one bar and then stays in 4/4 until the end. Clearly not a typical pop song but it certainly established the “Chicago” sound with its trademark trombones and trumpets melodies.


Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey

by Paul McCartney – Reached number 1 in Billboard, 1971.

Being the most successful songwriter of all time along with being a key member of the biggest band in the world does have its benefits. In essence it has allowed Paul McCartney to follow his musical whims and construct whatever forms he wanted in his given specialty; that being a composer of super catchy pop tunes. In this work McCartney starts us off with a very melodic, somber song regarding his Uncle Albert and not being able to see him.

Complete with thunder FX, rain and telephone dialing (Paul’s mouth) it sets quite a dreamy mood. Toward the 2:15 mark the beat picks up considerably and soon we’re in another key and treated to barrelhouse piano thumping that supports a trumpet melody which is short and memorable. This leads to a sailor’s catchy, exuberant mantra “Hand Across the Water – Heads above the sky”. Then an exposition occurs talking about Admiral Halsey switching back to the memorable trumpet bit and a recap of “Hands Across the Water.”

The whole enchilada ends with a happy go lucky fade out. All under 5:00. On the album the ending of this song segues into the rocker “Smile Away.” You can even hear it on the single. It always bugged me when radio stations cut it off. The same holds true for another McCartney hit “Listen to What the Man Says.” Listen to that song on the album “Venus and Mars” and you’ll hear what I mean..

American Pie

by Don McLean – Reached number 1 in Billboard, 1971.

To this day I still remember all the lyrics to this epic song about the day the music died. I have a few close friends who violently hate this piece because they say it goes on too long. I have no problem with it. Don McLean’s biggest hit first hints at Buddy Holly’s death and what follows through the fifties and sixties, ultimately pointing to the disillusionment of the American dream. Fortunately, this excessive lyrical spew works because it’s mated to a very memorable tune.

The song starts off with McLean singing to a minimal piano accompaniment, ending with “This’ll be the day that I die.” At 1:02 the “Bye, bye Miss American pie” hook is introduced again but this time with acoustic guitar and piano. A slight retarding of tempo happens again on the phrase “this’ll be the day that I die” and at 1:29 the bulk of this simple folk-rock song begins with an up-tempo rock beat. Several long verses ensue.

By the 6:40 mark the tempo drops off and we’re back to the opening section “Long, long time ago,” but this time with new lyrics “I knew a girl who sang the blues”. After the mentioning of the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” the songs tempo picks up and a rousing recap of the hook “Bye bye Miss American Pie” is repeated several times. This easy to remember sing along chorus is played out like you’re toasting in a bar. It might have even inspired Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” for all I know. I’ve always heard the entire song played on the radio though the 45(single release) broke up the song into side A and Side B.



by Yes – Reached number 13 in Billboard, 1972.

This is an oddity in the world of epic recordings that made the top 40. Here we have a progressive British rock song featuring some very obscure lyrics and virtuoso bass and drum playing by Chris Squire and Bill Buford respectively. The song opens with the iconic backwards piano morphing into an E guitar chord riff and then we are propelled with a groove that is almost mechanical like. At the 3:22 mark a break down section occurs with some arpeggiated organ riffs played by Rick Wakeman and then back into the groove supporting a catchy low guitar riff surrounded by three-part harmony.

At the 5:00 mark we get a re-cap of the intro and an augmentation of the verse melody. At 5:56 we are back at the main groove with organ and guitar interplay taking us eventually to a totally new section at 8:00 with lead vocalist Jon Anderson and the boys sounding like Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s “Suite Judy Blue Eyes. ”It closes with the acoustic guitar heard at the very beginning of the piece. It’s a very original work indeed.


Band on The Run

by Paul McCartney and Wings – Reached number 1 in Billboard, 1974.

Again, Paul McCartney strings along three songs here that somehow seem like one big tune. It starts off slow and somber and recounts a tale of being in prison. Then it segues into a slow rocker pondering escape (and no that is not Lennon singing the last harmony on “If we ever get out of here” – it’s Denny Laine.) Then like the clouds opening up after a storm and we are thrust into the meat of the song “Band on The Run.” It’s a typical catchy McCartney song of full of memorable obscure lyrics and an optimistic melody. And like a lot of Macca’s songs it sounds like something we’ve known from birth. How does he do that?

Just you And Me

by Chicago – Reached number 4 in Billboard, 1974.

This Chicago masterpiece deftly straddles the fine line between jazz and pop. It starts off with a trademark catchy horn part by trombonist James Pankow and quickly goes into a verse of some sort where “just you and me” is stated. This is repeated again then at 1:05 we’re given a new melodic idea that leads to a composed brass section at 1:34. At 2:02 we are treated to mysterious jazzy sax improvisation section. This leads to a vocal section supported by horn swells where the title of the tune comes back into place. At 3:00 we are back to a repeat of the intro verse and ending on a beautiful jazz chord with cymbal flurries. A real sophisticated song so well done it passed as a mainstream hit.

Who Loves You

by The Four Seasons – Reached number 3 in Billboard, 1975.

The Four Seasons were always known for their relatively upbeat, accessible pop hits through out the 60’s featuring the ultra high falsetto of their lead singer Frankie Valli. After failing to chart from 1968 to 1974 this tune became the group’s first post-Motown single, and it brought them back in a big way. Interestingly enough the trademark falsetto is not stressed in the arrangement. Instead, the song rides the fine line between pop and disco. The title was quite possibly grabbed from a phrase the actor Telly Savalas (who played detective Kojak on a weekly series) would say in each episode but writer Bob Gaudio neither confirms nor denies this.

The construction of the song is not simple verse chorus, verse, middle, out chorus. Instead we start off with the chorus under a disco beat for about 40 seconds. This goes into a verse then a chorus modulating to a higher key halfway though. This is followed by another verse going into a chorus then into a new minor key section that is instrumental with vocal hopping, building up to the intro chorus again. All of this happens so smoothly you never lose the continuity of the song.

Bohemian Rhapsody

by Queen. – Reached number 9 in Billboard / in the UK #1, 1976.

The mild chart success in the USA with the previous record “Sheer Heart Attack” yielded the hit “Killer Queen.” This primed everyone for what would be Queen’s magnum opus. It’s a sprawling over the top mini opera penned by Freddie Mercury. It starts off with the philosophical question “Is this the real life?” in close four part barbershop harmony. Then it expands into a rubato, slow confessional about a murder (verse A) and then proceeds to the consequences of the murder (verse B) this time with heavy drums and guitar. Then at 2:37 the expressive Brian May guitar solo plays for 8 measures climaxing to a sudden shift in dynamics.

It is here that a Gilbert and Sullivan section takes place with call and response between Freddy and the rest of the group. This section builds to a climax and leads into an aggressive shuffle rock section with a bass part reminiscent of the one found on George Harrison’s song “Old Brown Shoe”. This section eventually modulates in an almost classical way ending with a ritardando where upon Freddie sadly reflects what he stated at the beginning of the song: “Anyway the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me”. Cue Roger Taylor’s “gong” and it’s over. Queen has taken the listener on a journey through melancholy to anger to despair to resign all within 6:00. Imagine your mother doing the dishes to this one? It probably happened.

Paradise By The Dashboard Light

by Meat Loaf – Reached number 39 in Billboard, 1978.

I was never a big fan of Meat Loaf, but I did admire the enthusiasm and skill that went into this Todd Rundgren production. It’s basically a theatrical rock and roll / Broadway number composed by Jim Steinman. It moves along at breakneck speed without dropping a beat. It starts off with an upbeat rock and roll shuffle reminiscing about high school dating. Meat Loaf and vocalist Ellen Foley perform as a duet throughout.

The tempo shifts to half time at 59 seconds for the hook “Paradise by the dashboard”. This happens twice and then there is an abrupt edit and a new musical idea is presented with “We’re going to go all the way tonight”. This idea becomes a vamp where New York Yankees announcer, Phil Rizzuto does a play by play of the imagined foreplay going on in the car. It builds to a frenzy and at 4:28 Ellen bursts in singing “Stop right now!” The tempo stops followed by some stop and go which always reminded me of the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” The tune rocks out a bit until Meat Loaf comes in at 5:10 singing “let me sleep on it.” This is a new melody supported by a 50’s type background.

At 5:48 Ellen is back belting out “I gotta know right now” under the rock vamp we heard at 4:28. An emotional spoken word section starts at 6:09 and then returns to the “let me sleep on it” idea at 6:23. Both Ellen’s rock section and the 50’s section sort of blend together until it reaches it’s peak at the 7:00 mark. The final section emerges with a new straight ahead rock idea called “Praying for the end of time.” Both Meat Loaf and Ellen duet through this upbeat section and then it fades into oblivion.

Sowing the Seeds Of Love

by Tears For Fears. – Reached number 2 in Billboard, 1989.

It’s hard to follow up an album that spawns three significant top ten hits i.e. Everybody Wants to Rule The World”, “Shout”, and “Head Over Heels”. But Tears For Fears made a valiant effort by producing this 6:00 bit of Beatles inspired psychedelia. The song’s message of love or lack there of is clear and cautionary and the sections are distinct and jarring. It fades in with a bit of chaos and then right into an idea that sounds like an outtake of the beginning of the Beatles’ song “I Am The Walrus”. At 36 seconds we get to the hook of the song. Then a return to the “Walrus” type verse, the hook again and then an instrumental interlude of sorts with grunting baritone sax. This leads to what could be consider an extended middle section at 2:37. It’s filled with crisscrossing melodies, some sung operatically and scattered with a few dissonant poly chords. Out of the chaos comes a trumpet solo reminiscent of the one heard in “Penny Lane” played over the hook melody.

At 3:30 there is a key change and we vamp for 11 measures with organ and “Sgt. Pepper” type guitar riffs, ending with the “falling down the stairs” Ringo Starr type drum fills and McCartney-esque descending bass line. Then a new idea surprises us at 3:55. It’s a catchy repetitive section where Curt Smith’s double tracked vocal is heard sounding like a re-born John Lennon (chilling). It’s such a relief after the cacophony that preceded it. Two melodies continue to play out overlapping each other making way to the “Sowing the seeds of love” hook once again. A dense fade follows. Tears For Fears really captured that “Beatles anything is possible vibe” with this production. A feeling that is missed to this day; at least by me.

FM radio during the mid 60’s – the 70’s was at one time a bastion for more experimental album tracks that did not fit the format of commercial AM radio. DJs had more of a say over what songs would be played in between commercials. The programs were alive and not pre-programmed as they are today. Thus, several epic pieces did hit the airwaves enough times that even a staunch top forty kid like me would eventually pick up on them. This may have been truer on East and West coast radio than say the Midwest radio but nonetheless these are all now considered classics of the late 20th century of popular music. Worth checking out:

A Day in A Life

by the Beatles – FM staple from 1967’s album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A 5:33 true joint effort by Lennon and McCartney. Melodic, moody Lennon beginning, big cacophony crescendo into an upbeat melodic McCartney idea in the middle, back to Lennon (supported by Ringo’s amazing drumming) and then crescendo number 2 leading up to the final piano E chord. Timeless and intense.

Brown Shoes Don’t Make It

by The Mothers Of Invention – FM staple from 1967’s album “Absolutely Free” A Zappa masterpiece. An attack on American society and politics running through many stylistic shifts, covering hard rock shuffle, classical, electronic avant-grade, psychedelic rock, Beach Boys, cocktail jazz and Broadway in 7 and 1/2 minutes. Zappa’s mastery of editing is in full force here, back when there was no digital splicing. It’s a marvel to listen to and unfortunately most of the lyrical content still rings true.

The Soft Parade

by The Doors – FM staple from 1969 album “Soft Parade”. Angry preaching, sad reflection, humor, psychedelic pop and wild blues-rock create this 60’s tempo-changing masterpiece.

The Court Of The Crimson King

by King Crimson – FM staple from the 1969 album “In the Court Of The Crimson King” A 9:20 progressive rock masterpiece with a melodic, memorable melody. The song shifts gears from troubadoring to pomp and circumstance to medieval improvisation to isolated circus organ back to pomp. A marvel.

Stairway To Heaven

by Led Zeppelin – FM staple from the 1971 album “Led Zeppelin IV” You all know the song but it’s made up of arcane lyrics and different sections that develop flawlessly in 8 minutes.

Turn That Heartbeat Over Again

by Steely Dan – FM staple from their 1972 debut “Can’t Buy A Thrill”. Typical downer surreal lyrics that somehow sound familiar sung over this rhapsodic tour de force of shifting tempos, clear melodic ideas and a Zappa-esque instrumental section. Donald Fagen’s snarky vocal and harmonies maintain the continuity.

Dr. Jimmy and Mr. Jim

by The Who – FM staple from 1973’s album “Quadrophenia”. This is an expansive mini rock opera inside an actual rock opera. Shifting sections move the piece along and it’s an emotionally satisfying masterwork written by Peter Townsend. And of course, Daltrey, Moon and Entwistle give it the proper energy and sound continuity.

Une Nuit A Paris (Parts 1,2,3)

by 10cc – FM staple the 1975 album “The Original Soundtrack”. This is 10cc’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. It’s a nine-minute, multi-part “mini-operetta” in three sections. The entire piece is developed through a variation of few melodic ideas introduced in the first section, with a few new ideas popping up in further sections. The lyrics (telling a tale of a British tourist in Paris, France) tie the entire piece together along with a lot of vocal harmony and minimal instrumentation (piano, bass, drums).

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

by Billy Joel – FM staple from 1977’s album “The Stranger”. Billy Joel and his strong melodic pop sense welds three different ideas centering around a slice of Long Island life when he was in high school and it all works. Bottle of red or white anyone?

Dance With Me George

by Ambrosia – FM staple from 1976’s album “Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled”. Based on some ideas inspired by Chopin, this expertly constructed blend of classical and rock is a tour de force of virtuoso playing and pristine recording production (Alan Parsons). A myriad of dance styles are executed here seamlessly. It’s a far cry from the topnotch hit pop songs Ambrosia is known for but well worth the listen. A masterpiece.



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