What exactly is Classic Rock? When did the history of Classic Rock begin? When does Classic Rock History end? These are the most frequent questions asked by fans of rock and roll music. For many, Classic Rock is a definition used to describe rock bands from the nineteen seventies. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath are often referred to as groups from the Classic Rock era. Yet, to describe Classic Rock History in terms of just as a representation of bands from the 1970s, would do a grave injustice to the decades leading up to and after the nineteen seventies. Furthermore, Classic Rock as well as all forms of art are explicitly tied into the social, economic and political cultures of the time periods being studied.
This article will attempt to not only define and present all there is to know about Classic Rock in an abbreviated survey, but also to investigate the historical conditions of the past that fueled the rise of Classic Rock and the artists that paved the way in the genre’s development.
Our argument and approach will always be that Classic Rock defines an art form, rather than just one time period. Even if one wants to argue that Classic Rock only incorporates 1970’s music, the history of Classic Rock could not be defined historically without looking at the thousands of artists who inspired the Led Zeppelins and Black Sabbaths of the 1970s. Without a Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry, there would be no Led Zeppelin or a Rolling Stones.
The term Classic Rock, for the most part developed out of the disappearance of the album oriented radio format. In the 1970’s, FM radio was flooded with stations playing deep album cuts that never came close to appearing on the Billboard Top 100. The album oriented format paid very little attention to managed setlists as disc jockeys were often given full reign over their own programming. Legendary disc jockeys like Dave Herman, Pat St John, and Scott Muni developed loyal audiences based on their song selections, interviews and well educated opinions and passionate talk. Stations like New York’s WNEW, WPLJ, and WBAB and Los Angeles’ KLOS served not only as outlets playing all rock music, but also promoted rock music within the community at concert halls, beaches, parks, shopping malls, and universities.
As the 1970’s faded into the 1980’s and 1990’s, radio stations began changing formats as large corporations brought out many smaller and independent stations. When radio became completely top 40 oriented, the album radio format just about disappeared. The remaining stations that played rock music began referencing the older 1970’s bands as “Classic Rock.” Out of that description came the Classic Rock format. Since stations that played 1970’s rock music labeled those bands as Classic Rock, the Classic Rock format name began to take hold and is now often utilized by many to define 1970’s rock.
Ask any rock fan who attended high school in the mid 1980’s to name their favorite bands and chances are you will hear groups like Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and even Poison. A rock fan that attended high school in the 1960’s will undoubtedly label The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and so on as their favorites. The 1990’s generation will point towards Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Nirvana as bands they are eternally in love with. Going back to the 1950’s with the pre-baby boomers, one will hear the names Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and so on. The point is as that every generation discovers their own music. Every generation believes their music was better than the generations before. Every generation is right! Maybe?
Classic Rock History goes back all the way to the United States Antebellum Period in the mid nineteenth century. Classic Rock History did not start in the 1950s as many historians have argued. Classic Rock History began in the Deep South in the cotton fields of the great plantations. Just listen to any Led Zeppelin tune from the band’s first three albums or any early Rolling Stones song. They are all rooted in early blues music.
The Story of Classic Rock: Part I – Origins
To define Classic Rock, one must explore its roots. The most common exploration of the roots of rock and roll music can be traced to the slavery population of the Southern United States in the nineteenth century. While slavery goes back much further than the nineteenth century and beyond the borders of the Americas, music historians have often referred to the birth of the blues as taken place in the cotton fields of the South. African slaves who suffered under the most inhumane conditions often took to singing songs to ease the pain of slavery.
The rhythms and rhymes that were born of blood sweat and tears in the blazing heat of the cotton fields would pass on through the families of the slaves. After the Civil War, many of the slaves who had survived the horrors of slavery and were freed at least on paper, would have no choice but to enter the world of sharecropping. Sharecropping lasted from the end of the Civil War into the 1930’s. Many of the children of the sharecroppers were raised on the blues chants that their fathers and mothers sang in the cotton fields. Born out of these sharecropping households were the musicians that many historians define as the creators of the traditional blues. Musicians like Robert Johnson, Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), and Blind Lemon Jefferson utilized the cotton fields blues’ chants into chord progressions and guitar riffs that would eventually formulate the foundations of Classic Rock.
Many historians point to Robert Johnson as the father of the blues. However, there were so many blues singers and guitar players roaming the deep South that will never be heard of because they were never recorded, or their recordings have been lost. Skip James was not discovered until the 1960s, even though most of his recordings were done in the 1920s and 1930s. From listening to Skip James songs, one can grasp that Skip James undoubtedly had a heavy influence on Robert Johnson. Skip James songs such as “22-20 Blues,” absolutely served as the inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues.” Another important Skip James song “Devil Got My Woman,” also seems likely that it was the inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail.” Classic Rock history is littered with thousands of undiscovered artists. The Skip James story is fascinating. It does not seem hard to imagine that there are many more unknown recordings of artists from the early twentieth century that could have had a major impact on rock and roll like the works of Skip James and Robert Johnson.
The Second Industrial Revolution that occurred in the United States between 1860 and the start of World War I also played a major role in the origins of Classic Rock. The invention of the Bessemer Process which changed the production of steel from iron into an extremely quick and cheap process sparked the rise of industry and the growth of factories in urban cities.[i] As factories opened, job opportunities fueled a mass migration of people looking for work from the rural areas of the county into the great new urban cities of the United States. As city populations exploded, culture flourished and musicians found places to perform in clubs for workers looking to escape the long working days that had become part of their everyday lives.
The migration to the Northern American cities did not only encompass people from the South, but also waves of immigrants coming from Europe. The European immigrants also brought along their culture. The mixing of blues music from the South with classical music and other ethnic music from Europe gave rise to the genre of jazz music. As World War I came to an end in 1918, a new form of music was giving birth due to the celebrations in urban cities as World War I came to a close. Swing music and other forms of jazz and blues would dominant culture for the next two decades. Artists such as Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Cab Calloway and so many more would deliver timeless music often referred to as standards. From Broadway to the Cotton Club, to the neighborhood pubs and street corners, music would flourish across genres in the most fascinating ways.
Even the Great Depression of the 1930s could not stop the music from playing. Musicians usually thrive in times of despair or tragedy. Swing music came out of a celebratory period after World War I, but continued through the dark depression days because people still needed a place to escape. Nonetheless, swing music was stopped dead in its tracks in 1941 when the United States entered World War II. Many of the jazz musicians left the United States to fight in the war. Fuel rationing prevented musicians from traveling to clubs. The entire United States economy focused on the World War II effort in defeating Germany and Japan. Night clubs closed, record contracts were put on hold, the evolution of music had come to an end for the time period.[ii]
At the end of World War II, as the United States celebrated victory, a new form of music began to evolve out of a mix of gospel, jazz and blues. That music began to be known as rhythm and blues which started to penetrate the urban markets. The development of rhythm and blues was due to another wave of mass migration to the nation’s urban cities. Between 1941 and 1950 almost half a million African Americans migrated from the Southern States of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina to the urban cities of Chicago, Detroit, New York and California.
The 1940s wave of migration developed strong African American communities in the nation’s cities much like had happened in the early part of the century when European immigrants established Italian, German and Irish neighborhoods. These new African American communities generated new musical trends such as rhythm and blues. Louis Jordan was a musician who had played in the swing bands of the 1930s. Jordan incorporated those swing rhythms with boogie woogie bass lines and many elements of the blues which resulted in a new form of music called jump blues.[iii]
Along with Louis Jordan came other influential musical artists developing news sounds out of swing, jazz and blues. Texas native T Bone Walker was one of the first to add electric guitars to the new jam boogie and blues sounds. He stands as one of the most important figures in the history of Classic Rock. For the first time, the electric guitar plays a dominant role in music as opposed to the swing era’s powerful horn sections.
One of the most influential songs of the time period that took jump blues to the edge was Amos Milburn’s “Chicken Shack Boogie.” Millburn’s’ recording of Don Raye’s “Down the Road a Piece” also played an influential role in the rock and roll explosion of the 1950s. In the Milburn recording, one can easily hear how Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were influenced by the work of Amos Milburn. As the 1940s ended, it’s easy to see how the merger of so many styles such as swing, jazz, blues and boogie were creating a new sound that would turn the world upside down in what would soon become the Fabulous Fifties.
The Story Of Classic Rock: Part II -1950s
In 1951, a country singer from Philadelphia named Bill Haley took note of the popularity of R&B in the city of brotherly love. Taking a gamble, Bill Haley fired his back up country band and hired a group of jazz musicians. The band focused on learning the jump blues sound. The group recorded the classic R&B song “Rocket 88,” in the studio.[iv] The song “Rocket 88,” had been originally recorded by a band called Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. In the group was a young teenage musician named Ike Turner. The song’s title was inspired by a new car called the Rocket 88 Oldsmobile. Ike Turner had taken piano lesson with the blues boogie piano player Pinetop Perkins. Turner began pumping out a riff on the piano inspired by his study with Perkins. The rest of the band jumped in. Jackie Brenston sang the vocals and what many considered to be the first rock and roll song of all time was recorded.[v]
Pinetop Perkins would probably disagree with the notion “Rocket 88,” was the first rock and roll song. As we have seen in the origin’s story of rock and roll, it all began with the blues. Pinetop Perkins had taken the blues and translated the genre into powerhouse rocking riffs on the piano that many people who came later on took too much credit for. Pinetop Perkins had played guitar with Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson in the 1940s. After being stabbed by a woman, Perkins focused more on his piano skills to make a living.[vi]
One of the reasons Perkins legacy has been lost in the story of rock and roll is that he did not record his first album until the year 1976 when he was in his 60s. Nonetheless, it’s easy to assume that Pinetop Perkins played a major role in inspiring many of the 1950’s artists who were aware of his performances.
Bill Haley’s recording of “Rocket 88,” was a turning point in his career. With his newly formed band he called the Comets, Bill Haley began playing jump blues songs during their shows. The crowds were going crazy and Bill Haley knew he was on to something big.[vii] The band released a single called “Crazy Man Crazy,” that reached the Billboard top 20. The popularity of Bill Haley and the Comets East Coast gigs along with the success of the single “Crazy Man Crazy,” landed Bill Haley a record contract with Decca Records. Jump blues had jumped out of its skin and into something new called rock and roll, or at least what we now call rock and roll. The world was about to get its first taste.
As popular as Bill Haley’s single “Crazy Man Crazy,” had become in the 1950s, the song had still not caused a major shift in music. In the early 1950s, movie theaters hosted one of the most popular forms of entertainment upon the silver screens around the world. Not many people had televisions sets yet, and movie theaters offered one of the cheapest and most exciting forms of entertainment. Noted historian Glenn C Altschuler has argued that the placement of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle was the breakthrough moment in popular culture.[viii]
Communication has always played a major role in the spread of culture. The placement of a song like “Rock around the Clock,” in a major motion picture helped spread a sound that was foreign to most people. At the same time, between the years 1954 and 1956, three other men named Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Alan Freed would become responsible for helping to catapult the sound of rock and roll on a grand scale of mass acceptance that would create pandemonium, fear, and good times like the world had never seen before.
More books have been written about Elvis Presley than any other performer in rock and roll history. For a man who died at the young age of 42, it’s a tribute to his extreme importance in the spread of rock and roll to a mass audience. No other single individual had as much of an impact on popular culture than Elvis Presley did. It’s important to understand Elvis Presley’s younger years as child and teenager to grasp the sound and persona that Elvis Presley created.
Elvis Presley was born in East Tupelo, Mississippi. The importance of religion and church resonates dearly during Presley’s childhood. The sounds of the church choir inspired a young Elvis to escape the confines of his mother’s lap and run up to the altar to try and sing with the choir.[ix] Gospel music of the South along with country and western remained a staple in the Presley sound. When the Elvis Presley family moved to Memphis in 1959, Elvis was introduced to the heavy sound of the blues on Beale Street and sound of R&B on the radio in Memphis. Gospel, country and western, blues, jazz, and even the vocal records of Bing Crosby all would play a role in shaping the music of Elvis Presley.
There are many stories that argue that the legend of Elvis Presley was born when he walked into Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee and made a hit record on his first visit. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is Elvis recorded a handful of times at Sun Records with very little notice and success. It wasn’t until a recording session was arranged one night by Sam Phillips when the magic happened. Phillips had brought in guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black to cut a few records with Elvis Presley. After a series of takes with various songs the trio started clowning around with Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama.” The sound turned Sam Phillips head as he directed the engineer to press record.[x] Sam Phillips had finally found the sound he was looking for from Elvis Presley. The legend and career of Elvis Presley began professionally with that Arthur Crudup song.
“That’s All Right Mama.” became a big hit on local radios. The song’s popularity helped Elvis Presley secure a slot on a bill with Slim Whitman. Elvis Presley’s popularity got the notice of Colonel Tom Parker. Sam Phillips grew nervous at the chance of losing Elvis To Parker. Elvis Presley continued to released singles at Sun Records but none of them had become big hits. Nonetheless, Elvis Presley’s popularity in the South began to grow from his radio and stage appearances. Parker knew he had a major star on is hands if he could just get him signed to a major label. On November 21, 1956, Colonel Tom Parker got Elvis Presley to sign a major label record contract with RCA Records.[xi] If there ever was a turning point in rock and roll history as well as all of pop culture, it was the signing of Elvis Presley to RCA Records in 1956.
The career of Elvis Presley would take off in the 1950s due to his multiple television performances. The history of television starts gradually after the end of World War II, but it’s not until the early to mid-1950’s that most American households begin to own televisions. This is a major change in American culture. The timing could not have been more perfect for such a good looking male performer as Elvis Presley. Colonel Tom Parker and RCA beautifully managed Elvis Presley’s career perfectly by securing performances on the Jackie Gleason Stage Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. During the 1950s and 1960s, Elvis Presley would make thirty one films.[xii]
Elvis Presley was a singles artist. He released one hundred and seventeen singles as opposed to just twenty three studio albums when he was alive. RCA never stopped releasing Elvis Presley music after the singer passed away in 1977 at the age of 42. There have been more Elvis Presley box sets released than original Elvis Presley studio albums. The amount of live albums, CDs, box sets, movie posters, clothing and anything else that could host the Elvis Presley name defines how difficult it must have been for Elvis Presley to live life as the most popular person alive. The end of his marriage in the early 1970s and his dependence on prescription drugs and who knows what else eventually led to his passing. It’s a story that has continued with other rock stars and celebrities who achieved mass fortune and fame at the highest level.
Elvis Presley had hits with all types of music. All types of people loved his songs. His movies for the most part always did well. He always sold out concerts and any sort of appearance was met with frenzied crowds. His stardom may have faded a bit in the mid-seventies, but he was still Elvis Presley! In the history of classic rock and pop culture, there has never been anyone more loved or famous.
Chuck Berry had been regarded by many as the father of rock and roll. In reality, as this article has argued, the birth of rock and roll developed over a long period of time and consisted of many parts. Nonetheless, Chuck Berry’s lyrical ideas and innovative guitar work played a significant role in the development of Classic Rock. Chuck Berry was also a showman. His trademark duck walk drove audiences crazy.[xiii]
After playing a gig with Muddy Waters, the legendary blues artist advised Chuck Berry to shop his original songs to Chess Records. Chuck Berry signed with Chess Records in 1955. The label released the Chuck Berry song “Maybelline,” which went straight to the top becoming a top 10 hit on the Billboard music charts.[xiv] Just like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry’s music was inspired by his love of gospel, blues and R&B. What Chuck Berry brought to the game besides his electrifying guitar work and licks was his ability to write songs that teenagers related to. It was remarkable because Chuck Berry was almost thirty years old when he first signed with Chess.
Chuck Berry’s most successful years occurred between 1956 and 1958. Many of Chuck Berry’s singles were top 10 hits on the U.S. Billboard R&B charts. The highest charting song of his career during his 1950s and 60s period was “Sweet Little Sixteen,” which reached number one on the Billboard R&B charts and number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Eventually Chuck Berry did celebrate a number one single. It happened in 1972 when Chuck Berry’s novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling,” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Chuck Berry’s songs inspired all future rock and roll stars. The early catalogs and live shows of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were littered with Chuck Berry songs. His trademark guitar style in which he utilized a new technique of bending two guitar strings at once was a major influence on thousands of guitar players.[xv]
Buddy Holly / Jerry Lee Lewis / Little Richard
While Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley both played a significant role in developing that rock and roll sound, there were many other important musicians and songwriters to come out of the 1950s that helped shape the sound of rock and roll forever. Buddy Holly was one of those artists that played a significant role in shaping Classic Rock History. What separated Buddy Holly from a marketing standpoint was his looks. Buddy Holly did not look like a rock star like Elvis or Chuck Berry. Buddy Holly looked like your neighbor. According to historian Greil Marcus, “Buddy Holly had an ordinariness that made him approachable.” [xvi]
In Greil Marcus’ book entitled The History of Rock and Roll In Ten Songs, the author dedicates an entire chapter arguing about Buddy Holly’s ordinariness. However what Greil is really touching on is how Buddy Holly was able to compose simple melodies and light arrangements into legendary rock and roll songs The old blues saying, “less is more,” defined much of Buddy Holly’s work. The space in between the notes is just as important as the notes played. Buddy Holly’s style and sound proved to be very influential in countering the heavy handed guitar playing of a Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley.
Buddy Holly’s most significant contributions to rock and roll would nestle in the songs “Peggy Sue,” “That’s Be The Day,” “Not Fade Away,” “Rave On,” and so many more. It’s a shame his life was cut so short at the young age of twenty three due to the plane crash that also took the lives of Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and the plane’s pilot Roger Peterson.
While Elvis Presley’s hip wiggling and sex appeal scared some, no one was prepared for the antics of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Even Chuck Berry’s duck walk and loud sounding guitars seemed pretty tame when it came to the stage personas of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.
Once again, the sound of the church inspired another future rock and roll star. The influence of the church and country and western music fueled Jerry Lee Lewis to develop his pumping piano style that separated him from all other musicians at the time. After signing with Sun records Jerry Lee Lewis had a breakout year in 1957 with his songs “Whole lotta Shakin Goin On,” “Great Balls Of Fire,” and “Breathless.” Jerry Lee Lewis was a rock and roll showman like none other. He would stand on the piano, kick over the piano stool and dance around with a menacing look in his eyes while his blonde hair fell over his face.[xvii]
While Jerry Lee Lewis excited audiences with his high-energy performances, Little Richard took that energy to an even higher level. In the history of Classic Rock, Little Richard should be labeled as one of the most outrageous performers of all time. Little Richard was a wild man on stage. he often pretended to be hit by lightning and pass out only to be resurrected while tearing his clothes off. He played the piano with his feet, he screamed, he danced on top of the piano all the while singing with one of the most powerful voices in rock and roll.
Little Richard inspired countless performers such as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Mick Jagger and Prince. What many people don’t realize is that a young guitar player named Jimi Hendrix played in Little Richard’s band. Little Richard also had some major rock and roll hits during his career. Songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” have become legendary rock and roll songs.
How many great musical artists do you know personally that compose great songs, but no one will ever know anything about them simply because they have never had the opportunity to get their music played on the radio? The story of classic rock may have been completely different if it were not for one man named Alan Freed. In 1950, Alan Freed had been a radio show DJ spinning classical records. Alan Freed discovered that white teenagers in the suburbs were scooping up hundreds of R&B records by black artists.[xviii] While working at a radio station in Cleveland, Ohio with the call letters WJW, Alan Freed convinced station management to allow him to play some of those R&B records after midnight. Alan Freed called it “The Moondog Show.” The stations powerful signal covered hundreds of miles.
Alan Freed’s show proved so popular in Cleveland, a New York radio station with the call letters WINS signed him to a contract to move to New York. Alan Freed titled his new show the Alan Freed Rock and Roll Party.[xix] (Alan Freed would later move to WCBS Radio in New York). With a big time New York radio station and an over the top radio personality like Alan Freed promoting R&B and other styles of music, the genre that he named rock and roll spread like fire. There was no stopping it, although many tried.
Sadly, as Alan Freed did so much to promote the genre of rock and roll, he also participated in the darker side of the music business. It was discovered that Alan Freed was accepting money from record companies to play certain songs on the radio. It’s a practice called payola that has longed plagued the music business since the days of Alan Freed. However, Alan Freed went further than just accepting money from record companies. Alan Freed took partial songwriting credit on many of the records he was playing including Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.”
With songwriting credit, Alan Freed would collect royalties on the music he spun on the radio. This enticed Alan Freed to play the songs he would receive royalties for more than songs he had nothing to do with. The practice of getting co-songwriting credit on a song by agents, record executives and other business types was a relentless practice in the early to mid-twentieth century. Hundreds of songwriters had to agree to it, or their music would have never been released.
As we end the 1950s part of this article, It’s important to recognize so many of the other great artists who played a vital role in rock and roll’s development in the 1950s. These would include in no particular order Big Mama Thornton, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, Sam Phillips, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stroller, Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, The Drifters, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, The Five Satins, The Platters, Ritchie Valens, Ricky Nelson, The Big Bopper, The Dell Vikings, The Diamonds, Eddie Cochran, Bobby Darin, and of course Dick Clark.
The Story Of Classic Rock: Part III – 1960s
The Beatles were the most influential group in the history of Classic Rock. It’s also one of the most common statements made by writers of Classic Rock music simply because there is no way around it. If there had never been a Beatles, who knows what music would sound like in the twenty first century. Would there have been another band or artist that would have created a new sound out of basic 50s rock and roll?
It’s important to remember that the sound of The Beatles in the early days was not that different from other bands during the same time period. John Lennon’s first band The Quarrymen that he formed in high school sounded like a typical high school 50s band. When Paul McCartney joined the band along with George Harrison, it just defined a group of talented players all still very young. The Quarrymen were a great cover band making a living playing the clubs of Liverpool, England.
No one including The Beatles themselves ever imagined just how big the band would become. That’s putting it mildly. It would be hard to argue that any one of the four members of The Beatles realized that one day they would become the most influential group in Classic Rock History. In the early days, according to Paul McCartney, The Beatles were writing songs for their audience which was at the time young teenage girls. Songs like “From Me to You,” and “She Loves You,” purposely utilized the use of pronouns so that their audiences could relate to the songs.
Lyrically, you could not get much simpler than that. However, the melodies, the harmonies and the arrangements were so brilliant even The Beatles did not realize how much of an impact their songs would have. Could they have envisioned that the music that they were releasing would reach beyond the young screaming teenage girls and carry them on a musical journey that would change the landscape of rock music forever.
With every album The Beatles released, John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songwriting improved. It was a songwriting team that complimented each other perfectly. There have been thousands of articles and books written about the songwriting skills and creativity that blossomed on a continuous magical basis with every album. Since this is an article that is an overall survey of Classic Rock history, we will not go much further into the songwriting process of McCartney and Lennon. However, no matter how many arguments we deliver as to why The Beatles were the most important band of all time the number one reason will always be …. the songs!
The Beatles were not only groundbreaking in the music world, they had a major impact on the film industry. The Beatles and director Richard Lester released a film entitled A Hard Day’s Night that utilized techniques that had never been done in motion pictures before. The Beatles brought their personalities to the silver screen in basically an unscripted performance. Elvis Presley had proven that rock musicians could star in motion pictures successfully. However, Elvis Presley’s films stayed true to traditional Hollywood film making techniques with few exceptions.
The Beatles took their appearance in a motion picture to an entire new place. Dialogue was mostly ad libbed, camera shots quickly changed, there was a sense of movement that was nonstop in similar ways to modern videos. In fact, noted film critic Roger Ebert was quoted as saying that “when we watch television in the modern days, all the quick cutting, unique camera angles, intercut snatches of dialogue and use of music in documentaries, we are watching the children of A Hard Day’s Night.”[xx]
Just as the Beatles had overturned the film industry with their unique and original techniques utilized in the film A Hard Day’s Night, their recording of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would introduce a new way of recording that would turn the music industry upside down. The band’s use of multi-track recording techniques on the album were revolutionary for the time period. Overdubbing new musical parts on top of already recorded parts on magnetic tape gave birth to a creativity that was limitless. And of course, there was the music, the genre of the concept album was made more popular than it had even been before. Concept albums had already been done before, but nothing like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album will always stand as the Beatles greatest musical achievement. Many will argue it was Abbey Road, Revolver, or Rubber Soul. Everyone has their favorite. However, in terms of impact, nothing came close to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The cover design, the packaging, the recording techniques and of course the music. When other artists release what they think may be their own most significant albums of their careers, they usually refer to their master work as their own Sgt. Pepper. The album’s name has become a symbol of greatness stretching beyond the boundaries of the norm influencing all future generations.
One of the most important concepts in the history of Classic Rock is the impact that marketing plays in defining the success of musical artists. The Beatles would have never had the impact they did if Capitol Records did not promote the band. It takes a large amount of money to break a band. Money must be allocated to recording studio time, paying engineers, renting equipment, pressing records, creating artwork etc.… Transportation, food, hotels, roadies, stage equipment and above all the cost of advertising in promoting the band takes huge sums of money. Most artists never get the chance to get that type of powerful machine behind them.
History of Classic Rock: The British Invasion
While the influence of The Beatles has lasted for a period of over 50 years, the impact the band had on music began instantly that February night in 1964 when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Beatlemania hit hard and fast. As with all American consumption, there is always a desire for more. The British Invasion had begun. The history of Classic Rock in the United Kingdom and the United States will always be connected. Nonetheless, there are hundreds of bands that gained great popularity in only one or the other of these countries.
The British Invasion rode the wave of Beatlemania introducing hundreds of bands to the United States in the mid-1960s. Groups like Gerry and The Pacemakers, The Dave Clark Five, The Hollies, The Spencer Davis Group, The Animals, The Kinks, The Moody Blues, The Troggs and so many more. Some of these bands lasted for just a short period of time, while others like The Moody Blues and The Kinks had long careers. Of course, many of the bands served as the breeding ground for artists who would celebrate long successful solo careers.
The Story of Classic Rock continues with a host of British Invasion Bands from the 1960’s who played a vital role in developing the landscape of rock and roll. The story will then be countered with the American response to the arrival of the British. It will define how bands from both the United Kingdom and the United States intertwined together simultaneously stretching the art form of Classic Rock into a celebration of rebellion, empowerment and creativity beyond the scope of most other art forms.
There has never been a more exciting band to see in concert than The Who circa 1965-1979. Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon performed every night like it was their last day on Earth. Moon played like no one else before. The rhythm section of Moon and Entwistle could give you a heart attack if you were over the age of 40. There have never been a bass player and drummer that played with such ferocious abandon while laying down a groove that stayed as steady as a catholic school nun’s classroom rules.
The band released a series of albums between 1965 and 1978 that stand as one of the strongest collections of Classic Rock ever released. These albums included such classics as My Generation, Tommy, Quadrophenia, Live at Leeds, Who’s Next, The Who by Numbers and Who Are You. Pete Townshend took the concept album approach to an entire new level with his rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia. The band continued after Keith Moon’s passing in 1979. However, their studio recordings since the passing of Keith Moon could not compare to those that they released in the 1960’s and 70s. In the end, the band’s legendary shows in the 60s and 70s along with those classic albums have proven The Who to be one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time.
There may be bands that have been together longer than The Rolling Stones, but none as famous or more important than the Stones themselves. The history of The Rolling Stones began in 1962 when Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Billy Wyman, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones and Ian Stewart came together to form one of the most important bands in Classic Rock History. In 2019, The Rolling Stones are still touring and releasing new albums. Although, long periods of time have passed between albums and tours. The band’s latest record release was issued in 2016 entitled Blues and Lonesome. It was an album of blues covers in honor of the band’s blues based origins. The group has not released an album of new material since 2005’s A Bigger Bang.
Only Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards remain in the band from the original lineup. It’s safe to say that any one of the three are irreplaceable. Ronnie Wood is the next longest running member of the band next to the big three. Ronnie Wood joined the band in 1975. Ian Stewart did not last long as a permanent member, Brian Jones passed away in 1969. Mick Taylor who had replaced Brian Jones was replaced himself by Ronnie Wood in 1975 and Bill Wyman quit the band in 1993.
The only other band bigger than The Rolling Stones in the 1960s were The Beatles. The groups were often compared to each other with the Stones being labeled as the bad boys compared to the Beatles early on. Regardless of label, there’s no denying the impact The Rolling Stones had on rock and roll. The band is a living legacy to the history of rock and roll in the way they incorporated blues styles of the early twentieth century and rock and roll rhythms of the 1950s into their brilliant original compositions. Their sound can be easily heard inspiring bands like The Black Crowes, The Strokes and countless others. Attitude, originality, musicianship and showmanship; The Rolling Stones had it all and remarkably almost 60 years later…… they still do.
If we were to agree with all those radio stations that claimed the Classic Rock period is defined by the music of the 1970s, then no other band laid out the red carpet to the 1970s Classic Rock Era than that of The Yardbirds. Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page all graduated from the band to embark on magical legendary musical careers. For all three, it started with The Yardbirds.
The Yardbirds were first formed n London in 1963. Eric Clapton was not an original member, but he was the first out of the big three to join. The Yardbirds continued the evolution of the blues into rock and roll. The sound of the band soon began to move away from strict blues changes. Eric Clapton left the band and was replaced by Jeff Beck. Jimmy Page joined soon after. With Jeff Beck in the band playing lead guitar, Jimmy Page played bass before eventually taking over lead guitar duties. The band’s evolution from just being a basic blues band to crossing the lines between pop and psychedelic music had a profound effect on all other bands of the 1960s. It was an effect that would last into the 1970s as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page would move on to become three of the biggest rock stars in Classic Rock History.
Eric Clapton and Cream
As we travel through the history of rock and roll, the one individual whose name appears constantly from the 1960s on is Eric Clapton. If there ever was a guitarist that understood the power of the blues and utilized it in rock and roll it was Eric Clapton. There has always been somewhat of a sloppiness in the blues, it’s inherent in the music. The early blues musicians weren’t trained; they learned on their own. Eric Clapton changed that. Eric Clapton played the blues tighter than any blues musician before, and pretty much anyone who has ever come after him. Eric Clapton tightened up the blues so perfectly, yet still maintained the heart, the soul, and the spirit of the music. Eric Clapton was and still is a student and innovator the blues.
Many classic rock fans first came to know of Eric Clapton from his work in The Yardbirds. After a brief stint in The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton joined on with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Soon after, Clapton would leave the Bluesbreakers to form what many rock fans believe was the first rock and roll super group called Cream. The group Cream consisted of Eric Clapton on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Baker on the drums.
The band synthesized all elements of rock and roll from psychedelic to progressive to the blues to form a sound that mesmerized the rock and roll world. No other trio had ever sounded like Cream. The band only stayed together for four years and released only four albums. Nonetheless, the music that they did release created an incredible legacy both powerful and inspirational.
The story of Eric Clapton does not end with the breakup of Cream. In fact, it was really just beginning. Not many musicians quit one supergroup and so quickly form another. Nonetheless, that’s what Eric Clapton did when he formed Blind Faith right after the breakup of Cream. The group consisted of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood of Traffic and Ric Grech. The band only recorded one album entitled Blind Faith and broke up after being together for only a little over six months. During the same time period, Eric Clapton worked with John Lennon in the Plastic Ono Band and played guitar with Delaney and Bonnie.
In 1970, Eric Clapton would bring together another group of fabulous musicians to form the group Derek and The Dominos. For Clapton, it would be another one album project. However, it was a project that would include Duane Allman on guitar. The result was the legendary record Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. After the release of the album, Eric Clapton would walk out on the recording sessions for the follow up album. Duane Allman would lose his life in a motorcycle accident in 1971. During the early 1970s Eric Clapton’s life would be consumed by personal issues and drug abuse.
Eric Clapton would return in 1974 and begin releasing a string of solo albums that continued to define a legendary rock and roll career. From 1970 to 2018, Eric Clapton has released twenty three studio albums as a solo artist. Along with a large body of live albums, compilations and guest appearances on other artist’s albums, Clapton stands as possibly the most prolific rock and roll guitarist in Classic Rock History.
The Kinks were a very successful British Invasion band formed by brothers Ray and Dave Davies. The band was very successful in the United States from the mid-1960s until the mid-1990’s. They were even more successful in the United Kingdom. Their first album was released in 1964 entitled The Kinks. The Kink’s final studio album entitled Phobia was issued in 1993. The band’s sound hovered somewhere between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They composed and recorded some of the most successful rock songs of all time including “You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, Sunny Afternoon, Lola,” and “Come Dancing.”
The British Invasion and The American Response
The English bands were dominating the new sounds of rock and roll in the 1960s. However, the power of England has always been challenged by those living on the Eastern side of The Atlantic. The United States had its own share of bands that took what had been done in the 1950s and reshaped it to keep the teens dancing and the girls screaming. Although, not all the new American bands focused on the dancing aspect. In fact, many of them headed in another direction.
The American response to the British Invasion began in the mid-1960s. The response was not just tied into the British invasion, but a reaction to economics, social injustice, politics and above all the Vietnam War. Bob Dylan was not the only voice who responded to those times. Not all responses were based in politics. A major part of the reaction leaned towards the concepts of escape. It was a road that led to the use of hallucinogenic drugs and the wide open colorful landscape of psychedelic music.
The utilization of hallucinogens and other drugs such as marijuana, and hash is hard to separate from the music and times of the mid to late 1960s. How much a role it played in the musical compositions by bands like the Grateful Dead, The Byrds, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane can only be answered by the songwriters themselves. Many of them have admitted that some of their songs were written under the influence of drugs. What is clear is that a large portion of their audiences were using drugs while listening to those band’s music from the concert floor, their rooftops, their street corners, the safety of their bedrooms or the horrors of the Vietnam jungles. Psychedelic music and protest music co-existed as one. Both had clear intentions on protesting and escaping the madness of the 1960’s.
If there was one individual that altered the course of rock music forever, it was Jimi Hendrix. In a very brief period that took less than two years to complete, Jimi Hendrix released three groundbreaking albums. Those records entitled Are You Experienced? Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland would become the only three studio albums that Jimi Hendrix released during his short musical career. Nonetheless, in that brief time period, Jimi Hendrix turned the rock music world upside down with his innovative guitar techniques. Hendrix’s mind blowing stage performances and songs juxtaposed elements of sexuality and spirituality into a mix of brilliant recorded compositions that have become legendary.
One could not separate the instrument from the man. There have only been a handful of musicians in recorded history whose soul and spirit intertwined on such an extreme level with their instruments until death and beyond. Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix all stand alone in terms of sheer musical brilliance as musicians. To define dedication to one’s instrument would be to define the life of Jimi Hendrix. The inspirational role he played on guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince and millions of others is undeniable. It’s a shame he passed away at the young age of twenty seven years.
One cannot write the history of Classic Rock without mentioning the name Bob Dylan. One cannot write the history of the nineteen sixties without mentioning the importance of Bob Dylan. Music history is full of folk music songwriters who embraced the politics and social issues of the times they lived. Artists like Stephen Foster wrote about the American landscape in the nineteenth century in tales that would become folk music standards. However, it was the work of Woody Guthrie in the early to mid twentieth century that inspired the artistry of Bob Dylan.
Woody Guthrie lived during a time of suffering. It was a suffering brought on by the Dust Bowls of the 1930s. Severe drought and mismanagement of land by government agencies and farmers cost millions of farmers to go out of business and lose their land during the depression years of the 1930’s. The loss of their homes and farms fueled the Okie Migration when two and half million people migrated across the country towards California in hope of a better life. Woody Guthrie was part of that migration. He described the world he witnessed in songs of protest; the most famous becoming the misunderstood anthem “This Land Is Your Land.” [xxi]
Bob Dylan channeled the observational protest spirit of Woody Guthrie into his own original voice during the tumultuous 1960s. Bob Dylan became the voice of a nation writing protest songs about the Vietnam War and Civil Rights issues. Dylan’s musical song structures took elements of blues changes and added extra beats to measures breaking away from long established musical song construction. Dylan did not get enough credit for what he did to blues changes because his lyrics dominated his music. In the end, his legacy will always be defined by his words. In terms of sheer observation and poetic commentary of social and political injustice, there will never be a voice heard louder in Classic Rock history than that of Bob Dylan’s.
The Grateful Dead
A friend of mine once said,” you don’t really get The Grateful Dead, until you see the Grateful Dead live,” That always seemed to be a very poignant point, because The Grateful Dead have one of the largest fans bases in Classic Rock History without having many commercial hits. Of course, they have released a legion of classic albums and songs, but their body of work with the exception of a couple of songs was never top 40 material. The impact of The Grateful Dead on rock and roll was based not just on their music but the entire “Dead Head,” experience which is what my friend was trying to get at.
First and foremost, The Grateful Dead‘s legacy will always be defined by their music, but one cannot ignore the culture that surrounded the band. That culture was fueled by a band that utilized every style of music into their own. Blues, country, rock, psychedelia, jazz and any other form of music that existed on the earth was celebrated by the band. Those various styles were transformed by a group of musicians that often celebrated long jam sessions on stage that seemed to transcend reality for both the band and their fans.
The Grateful Dead first formed in 1965 on the West Coast of the United States in the San Francisco area. Original members included Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Ron McKernan. Two years later, Mickey Hart and lyricist Robert Hunter joined the band. From 1967 to 1989, The Grateful Dead released thirteen studio albums. The band also released many live albums that have attempted to define The Grateful Dead live experience on record.
In 1995, founding member Jerry Garcia passed away. The Grateful Dead would come to an end that year. However, there have been various offshoots of the band that included many of the group’s original members and musical guests. They have attempted to keep the music of The Grateful Dead alive while respecting the importance of their past achievements. Those include leading the way for new generation of jam bands that have celebrated success in the 90s and beyond.
Within the protest spirit of the 1960s evolved a band called The Doors. The band was led by its lead singer and poet Jim Morrison. The Doors were another one of those bands that stand alone within their own category. While social and political issues did play a role in their music, Jim Morrison seemed to be aiming to revolt just for the sake of revolting. In one of the most heralded books on rock and roll history entitled Rockin in Time: A Social History of Rock and Roll written by David P Scatz. Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek characterized Morrison’s plight to rebellion as a search for internal freedom.[xxii] Manzarek described Morrison as creating chaos and disorder as a way to external revolt. That idea brings one to enjoy the comfort of internal freedom.
The Doors were a popular band during their short time period. Fueled originally by their massive hit “Light My Fire,” and Jim Morrison’s stage antics and arrests, the band released a string of albums of great substance. Jim Morrison’s passing in 1971 at the age of 27 stopped the band dead in its tracks. Rumors that Morrison was still alive and hiding in Paris ran rampant for years. Interestingly, the remaining members of the band saw the band become even bigger ten years later when their song “The End,” was included in the motion picture Apocalypse Now that was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Doors mania spread around the United States for a brief period in the early 1980s.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
During the 1980s, there were many films released about the Vietnam War. There was also an onslaught of films that depicted the era of the 1960s. In almost every one of those films at one point, audiences would hear the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The band’s sound was so representative of the 1960s. John Fogerty’s iconic voice and his lyrical ideas protesting the Vietnam War and other aspects of society will be forever ingrained in the history of the 1960s. The band Creedence Clearwater Revival was formed on the West Coast of the United States. Often classified as southern rock or swamp rock, John Fogerty’s voice had such a unique tone. Fogerty’s vocals penetrated the heart of the listener in an unforgettable way.
Creedence Clearwater Revival released a string of seven albums over a period of just four years. The band released three albums in 1969 alone. During the course of their time signed to Fantasy Records, there was much internal fighting within the band. In 1972, Creedence Clearwater Revival broke up. The fighting continued for years. In the mid-1980s, John Fogerty was actually sued by Fantasy Records over one of his new songs entitled “The Old Man Down The Road,” Fantasy Records argued the song sounded too much like one of his old Creedence Clearwater songs entitled “Run Through The Jungle.” To be sued for sounding too much like himself had to be one of the most ironic and ridiculous episodes ever in Classic Rock History. In the end John Fogerty won the lawsuit.
The body of work Creedence Clearwater Revival left to its fans remains one of the most cherished catalogs of albums ever in Classic Rock History. Songs Like “Proud May, Bad Moon Rising, Traveling Band, Fortunate Son (the ultimate Vietnam protest song) Run Through The Jungle, Who’ll Stop The Rain, Suzie Q, Looking out My Back Door,” will be forever embraced by the Story of Classic Rock.
The American response to the British Invasion also resulted in an apparent spoof on the Beatles to be aired as a television show. Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith were hired to play the fictional band The Monkees. However, they did not stay a fictional band for too long. No one ever expected the show to be as successful as it was. In fact, the show was so successful it tuned the stars of the show into one of the biggest selling bands of the 1960s.
The Monkees would wind up selling over seventy five million records. The Monkees celebrated four straight number one albums in the United States in 1966 and 1967. During that time they also enjoyed three number one singles including “Last Train To Clarksville, I’m A Believer and Daytime Believer.” There are not many bands that have achieved that kind of commercial success. Even when the show was canceled the band continued on as a group until 1971. Over the years the band reformed to do live concerts and appearances. That’s pretty much over now. Davy Jones passed away in 2012. Peter Tork died in 2019. Mike Nesmith passed away in 2021.
The Beach Boys
For those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 70s listening to Beach Boys records, our memories of the group will always revolve around the band’s music produced by original members Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love. The Beach Boys came out of the California area in 1961. Their early records focused on simple topics such as cars, beaches and of course girls. Simple surf music and melodies orchestrated by incredible vocal harmonies and clever lyrics made them instantly into of the most loved bands in the world. From 1962 to 1965, The Beach Boys released ten albums filled with fun summertime hits that would become legendary singles defining a somewhat narrow Hollywoodish view of the early 1960s. Still, their success was undeniable.
In 1966, The Beach Boys released the album Pet Sounds. Many fans and critics were initially shocked at the transformation The Beach Boys had made. It was a brilliant album that would eventually stand as one of the most inspirational records ever made. It defined the genius of Brian Wilson on an entire new level. The Beach Boys would attempt to follow up that album with a record entitled Smile that they struggled to get released for various reasons. The group would continue to release albums that would not sell as well as their previous efforts.
Over time, The Beach Boys would become an oldies act. There was much fighting within the band and like many famous groups, the band would spit camps and fight over possession of the Beach Boy’s name. Brian Wilson would go through many personal issues that affected the legacy of The Beach Boys music in their post 1960 and 70s period. Nonetheless, the legacy of the Beach Boys and their place in Classic Rock History will always be defined by their 1960s recordings.
The History of Rock And Roll And The Sound Of Soul
The emergence of soul music in the 1960s will always be explicitly tied to the development of rock and roll. Both forms of music came from the natural progression of blues to swing to rhythm and blues. As The Beatles and the British Invasion caught fire in the 1960s, soul music ignited its own flame around the world. Artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Diana Ross and The Supremes, had taken what Sam Cook had begun in the 1950s to a mass audience.[xxiii] Berry Gordy’s Motown Records would provide the promotion and power starting with the Motown label’s first big single Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around.” Motown Records became a monster label in the industry releasing many big hits that challenged the British Invasion bands for charts placement and radio airplay.
Motown’s biggest rival was Stax Records. Superstar acts like Otis Redding, William Bell, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, The Markays, Rufus Thomas, Johnny Taylor, Sam & Dave, Albert King and many more all recorded for the Stax / Volt record labels that eventually merged with Atlantic Records.
One particular artist stands out among all the R&B and soul artists that celebrated success in the 1960s. It was an artist who after celebrating multi hit singles in the 1960’s, turned towards the 1970’s with even greater success merging soul and rock while becoming one of the biggest selling artists of all time. His name was Stevie Wonder.
Stevie Wonder had just turned 13 years old in 1963 when he celebrated his first hit entitled “Fingertips.” What was even more incredibly special about the song and his age was that the single “Fingertips,” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Not a bad start, and a clear omen that one of pop culture’s greatest musical success stories had begun. For the rest of the decade of the 1960s, Stevie Wonder would release over thirty singles and eleven studio albums. Still, he had yet to produce the series of albums that would cement his legacy in Classic Rock History.
After releasing two albums in the early 1970s, Stevie Wonder released the album Music Of My Mind in 1972. It was the record that would set the stage for one of the most incredible runs in music history. The follow up album to Music Of My Mind was titled Talking Book. The album contained the hit singles “You Are The Sunshine of My Life,” and “Superstition.” The latter stands as the song in which Stevie Wonder began to develop a new sound that incorporated rock elements fused within Stevie Wonder’s soulful spirit. It was a song in which he had written while jamming with Jeff Beck who would eventually release his own version. A little over ten years later, Stevie Ray Vaughan channeled that rock energy into his own blistering version. It was further proof of how Stevie Wonder had created a sound that had not been done before.
Stevie Wonder’s next three albums would continue to expand upon his new sound culminating with his masterpieces Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. Preceding that legendary work in 1976 was the album Inversions in 1973 and Fulfillingness’ First Finale in 1974. All three albums won Grammys for Album of the Year. That three year period presented music fans with some of the most renowned songs of all time. Songs such as “Boogie on Reggae Woman, Living In The City, Higher Ground, You Haven’t Done Nothing, Sir Duke and I Wish.” Over the course of his stunning musical career Stevie Wonder has come close to winning more musical awards than any other musical artist, including twenty five Grammy Awards.
Known as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin’s vocal style played a heavy roll in inspiring so many Classic Rock singers. With a pitch perfect voice filled with a deep resonance that was fuelled by her years singing gospel as a child, Aretha Franklin’s legacy labels her as one of the greatest vocalists of all time. It was a legacy that began with her signing with Atlantic Records in 1966 after spending five years with Columbia Records. During her time with Atlantic Records from 1967 to 1979, she celebrated having fourteen top 10 singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Her highest charting song was the classic track “Respect,” which hit number one in 1967.
Known as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown’s electrifying skills as a performer set the bar for all classic rock performances. James Brown fused the spirit of soulful gospel like performances with the rock and roll energy of entertainers like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. One did not stay seated long at a James Brown concert. James Brown has left behind a vast catalog of music. During his career, James Brown released sixty three studio albums. one hundred and forty four singles, and fifteen live albums.
James Brown’s highest charting single was his classic song “I Got You (I Feel Good),” The song hit number three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. Twenty years later in 1985 James Brown scored his second highest charting single with “Living In America.” The song hit number four on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. Throughout the course of his career James Brown also celebrated many number one singles on the Billboard R&B Charts. James Brown passed away on December 25, 2006.
One of the most significant impacts that James Brown had on Classic Rock History was how much he inspired the genre of Funk. Like Progressive rock, Funk was a genre with many sub categories. One of the most popular categories of funk was the P-Funk genre. This included legendary groups such as Parliament and Funkadelic. Both bands were led by George Clinton. Their histories are complex beyond the scope of this survey. However, they were both incredibly inspirational in the genre of funk in the 1960s and 1970s.
Funk music is a very bass driven genre. Bootsy Collins was the musician who led the way in laying down that funk bass groove. After getting his start with James Brown, Bootsy Collins worked with Parliament and Funkadelic playing bass on most of their records. Bootsy Collins would celebrate a long career by releasing records under both the Bootsy Collins name and Bootsy’s Rubber Band name.
In the 1970s, bands like Earth Wind & Fire, The Ohio Players, Rufus and Wild Cherry proved very popular on the radio. These groups celebrated big time hits. Earth Wind & Fire sold millions of records combing pop, soul, funk and rock on hits like “Shining Star, Fantasy, That’s The Way Of The World,” and “Let’s Groove.” The Ohio Players known for their sexy album covers delivered addicting groove oriented music with hits such as “Fire, Honey and Love Rollercoaster.” Rufus along with Chaka Khan celebrated hits like “Once You Get Started,” and “Tell Me Something Good.” Who could ever forget Wild Cherry’s monster hit “Play That Funky Music.”
No survey of funk would ever be complete without mentioning Sly & The Family Stone and Billy Preston. Sly & The Family Stone are noted for pioneering the Psychedelic soul sound. The group’s mesmerizing Woodstock appearance along with a series of big time hits such as “Dance To The Music.” and three number one singles entitled “Everyday People,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again),” and “Family Affair,” left behind a legacy that should never be forgotten.
Billy Preston has been often referred to as the fifth Beatle for his work on some of the Beatles all time classic recordings. Outside of his work with The Beatles, Billy Preston recorded a series of fabulous solo albums. In the early 1970s, Billy Preston’s scored some big time hits such as “Will It Go Round In Circles,” and “Nothing From Nothing.” Billy Preston defined the art of funk keyboard playing and singing.
Other notable funk bands and artists that need to be mentioned would include the Average White Band, Brass Construction, The Brothers Johnson, Crown Heights Affair, Chocolate Milk, The Commodores, The Dazz Band, The Gap Band, Graham Central Station, Larry Graham, Isaac Hayes, The Isley Brothers, Rick James, Kool and the Gang, KC and the Sunshine Band, Nile Rogers and Chic, A Taste Of Honey, T-Connection, The Temptations, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Tower of Power, War and Bernie Worrell.
We could not close out our 1960s section of Classic Rock History without mentioning Woodstock. A three day music festival that occurred during the summer of 1969 that drew hundreds of thousands of more people than had been expected. From August 15 to the 18th in a little town called Bethel in upstate New York, the world witnessed the culmination of 1960s counterculture celebrating a love for music, peace, love and drugs. The celebration took place ignited by a brotherhood and sisterhood of teenagers and young adults who had been through a decade of turmoil. The assassinations of President John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. along with the Civil Rights Movement and the horrors of Vietnam resulted in a festival filled with four hundred thousand voices looking to escape and protest both at the same time.
Much has been made about the performances, but Woodstock was really about the audience. Of course, there were spectacular performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Richie Havens, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and many others. It was a career defining moment for many artists. However, the magnitude of the concert was defined by the festival itself. It marked the end of an era, not the beginning. Culture changed dramatically in the 1970s. The ideology of Woodstock was often referred to, but it could never be repeated. Many more festivals were planned in the 1970s and beyond including Woodstock anniversary shows, but none were ever able to capture that special moment in time.
The Story of Classic Rock: Part IV – 1970s
At the turn of the decade in 1970, the United States was still deep in the horrors of the Vietnam War. The reign of The Beatles would come to a sudden halt as Paul McCartney’s first solo album and John Lennon’s romance with Yoko Ono seemed to signify the end of the group. Jimi Hendrix died in September of 1970. Janis Joplin who had been the first real rocking female rock star died in October of 1970 a month after Hendrix had passed. The Rolling Stones and The Who would continue into the 1970s releasing some of the best material of their careers.
The singer-songwriter genre would explode in what was considered the soft rock category. Jim Morrison and The Doors would continue to cause trouble for just a bit longer until Morrison passed away in 1971. Heavy Metal would ignite the world, psychedelic music would transform into progressive rock, the singer-songwriter and southern rock genres would explode, disco would make our heads spin, punk would attack everyone without a care, and a band called Led Zeppelin that had been born out of The Yardbirds would become the greatest and most loved rock band of all time.
Classic Rock History: Heavy Metal
We open up our 1970’s section with one of the most popular genres of Classic Rock. Heavy Metal music was the one form of Classic Rock that always seemed to disregard all cultural movements and stand on its own across multiple decades. There have been arguments over the birth of Metal. Some have argued that The Beatles “Helter Skelter,” was the first true Metal song. Other have pointed to Led Zeppelin II or the first Black Sabbath album and the second Deep Purple lineup often referred to as Deep Purple MKII. Metal music is also defined by many of Metal’s sub-genres such as thrash metal, industrial metal, progressive metal and so one. Metal seemed to grow even more popular in the 1980s. Bands such as Judas Priest, Queensryche, Motorhead, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Slayer, Anthrax and host of others all represented various forms of metal. Those bands were extremely popular all around the globe.
There were also certain bands that sometimes were classified in the metal category but really defined more of a hard rock pop sound. Groups like Van Halen, Kiss, Alice Cooper and Def Leppard displayed more elements of pop and rock and even Glam than Metal in their recordings. These were bands that had huge mainstream hits. Led Zeppelin will always remain in their own unique category.
Classic Rock History: Led Zeppelin
It’s fitting that the first band we talk about in our 1970’s section is Led Zeppelin. For many who would argue that Classic Rock should be only defined by the 1970s period, Led Zeppelin would then stand as the rock band’s definition of Classic Rock. Semantics aside, Led Zeppelin stands easily alone in their own category. No other band could be defined by the term Rock Gods than Led Zeppelin. The group had a mystique about them that was both manufactured and real. Publicity shots, album artwork, and promotions all lead to the Rock God mystique.
When Led Zeppelin first arrived on the scene in 1969, through their glory days of the early to mid-1970’s, the United States had not yet been wired for cable television. With limited television channels, there were very few chances for fans to see pictures or footage of the band outside of print articles and occasional news footage. There were rock shows on television like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in the States, but the show only aired once a week. Of course, this was an issue with all bands.
In reality, it’s what people knew at the time. No one ever expected a world in which there would be an MTV and a concept called the internet. If you wanted to see a band you brought tickets and went to a concert. Nonetheless, you almost had a better chance of hitting the lottery than scoring tickets for a Led Zeppelin concert in the 1970’s.
We could stay on the topic of Led Zeppelin for another 500 pages and never stop having enough to write about the band. Nonetheless this is an overall survey article and space is limited. What’s most important to understand about Led Zeppelin is the way they interpreted the blues. It’s one of the things Led Zeppelin did best and what they have also been criticized for.. To argue in the band’s favor, the blues have always been about interpretation and revitalization.
When the Paul Butterfield Blues Band electrified the blues in the 1960s, it was groundbreaking. Yet the band still followed the same blues songs structures. Led Zeppelin followed along the same path of what Bob Dylan did to blues chord changes. Jimmy Page came up with extraordinary inventive guitar riffs that challenged his bands mates to rise to the occasions creating music parts that complimented his genius. Robert Plant was born with a blues heart. You could hear it in every phrase. Plant was a student of the blues. His soul bled blues and his spirit connected with Jimmy Page magically in both composition and performance. John Bonham’s grooves were astonishingly unique in their simplicity that roared in the most thunderous fashion. Bonham created a sound no one has ever come close to repeating. John Paul Jones held it all together with his low bass notes that never got in the way but would have been dearly missed if they were not there in the mix.
Led Zeppelin was a one in a billion band that could not survive without any one member. When John Bonham died in 1980, the machine came to a screeching halt. There was no way in continuing. Robert Plant understood that more than anyone else. It’s why the band has never tarnished its legacy. The impact that Led Zeppelin had on the 1970s decade and classic rock history from that point on has been extraordinary. No other band has had such an impact apart from the Beatles on culture. Led Zeppelin’s influence is based on their songs and musicianship. Who didn’t want to sing like Robert Plant, play guitar like Jimmy Page, or pound the drums like Bonham? They influenced the musicianship of every kid who picked up an instrument in the 1970s and 80s who wanted to be a rock star. In the end, one can never get tired of Led Zeppelin. Their music is timeless. They set the standard for the classic rock song and the classic rock band forever.
The band Deep Purple was first formed in the late 1960s. The group started out as a psychedelic band reflecting the culture of the times. Nonetheless, they played louder and harder than most other psychedelic bands. They were in essence, developing the Heavy Metal genre. The band’s initial run ran from 1968 until 1975. That particular time period was marked by three different lineups. At its core, Deep Purple was Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, Jon Lord on organ, Nick Simper on bass, Ian Paice on drums and Rod Evans on lead vocals. On the band’s fourth album in 1970, Ian Gillan replaced Rod Evans on lead vocals.
With Ian on vocals, Deep Purple produced some of the most iconic material of their career including the smash album Machine Head. The album featured two of the band’s biggest hits entitled “Smoke On The Water,” and “Highway Star.” That lineup produced four albums from 1970 to 1973. A new Deep Purple lineup would appear on their eighth album entitled Burn in 1974. David Coverdale replaced Ian Gillan on vocals, while Glenn Hughes replaced Roger Glover on bass.
Deep Purple‘s tenth album released in 1975 entitled Come Taste The Band would become the first Deep Purple record without founding member Ritchie Blackmore on guitar. The band would break up after that record. Deep Purple was reformed in 1984 with their original second lineup. The band released the Perfect Strangers album which was very successful. The follow up album entitled House Of Blues Light was released in 1987. From that point on, Deep Purple would continue to release records with various lineup changes. Their contributions to the Heavy Metal genre will always be dictated by the incredible run of records the band released in the early 1970s.
Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio
Along with Deep Purple, Black Sabbath is considered one of the pioneering Heavy Metal bands. Metal musicians utilize a heavy dose of minor chords in their music. Loud shrieking guitars, spooky images and dark lyrics fuels the Metal Sound. One can define many heavy metal bands with that description including Black Sabbath. What was unique about Black Sabbath, is that they were the first ones to do it while being accepted by a mass audience. Black Sabbath has released nineteen studio albums between the years 1970 and 2013. The band’s catalogue has been separated by the band’s two different lead vocalists Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio.
Ozzy Osbourne was the original lead singer in the band. He was also a founding member along with Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler. In between Ozzy and Dio, the band utilized various singers including members of the band. None of them were in the same league as Ozzy and Dio.
In 1979, Ozzy Osbourne was fired from the band for his issues with drugs. Ozzy Osbourne was replaced as lead vocalist by Ronnie James Dio. The band’s new lead singer recorded three albums with Black Sabbath. Both Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio had extreme success outside of Black Sabbath within their own solo careers. Ozzy Osbourne released a series of albums under his name while Ronnie James Dio formed the bands Dio and Heaven and Hell. Ronnie James Dio passed away in 2009. Ozzy Osbourne reunited with Black Sabbath in 2013. Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio will always be regarded as the forebears of Heavy Metal in style sound and performance. Classic Rock History and metal fans around the world owe them great gratitude for what they accomplished.
This Australian band stands as one of the most recognized groups in the world. Their career has been divided between the Bon Scott years and the Brian Johnson years. Although the majority of AC/ DC’s career has been spent with Brian Johnston on lead vocals. The band was formed in 1973 by brothers Malcolm and Angus Young. Over the past 45 years, AC/DC has released some of the most iconic rock songs of all time. Their Back In Black album stands as one of the biggest selling albums of all time. Their hard rocking sound fueled by the guitar work of Angus and Malcolm Young and screaming lead vocals of Brian Johnson has become a mainstay of classic rock radio.
Metallica took what Heavy Metal had become in the 1970s and took it to an entire new level in the 1980s. Metallica was formed in the early 1980s on the West Coast of the United States in the city of Los Angeles. Metallica did to Metal what the Ramones did to Punk. Their music was played at breakneck speed with an intensity that felt like you were going to have a heart attack while listening to it. They came right at you with a sound that felt extremely threatening. The band’s first album was released in 1983 entitled Kill Them All which pretty much proves our point. The bands next series of albums including Ride the Lightning (1984), Master of Puppets (1986),…And Justice for All (1988) and Metallica (1991) would become Heavy Metal treasures.
In the mid 1990s, a company called Napster threatened the livelihood of all musicians and songwriters by developing computer software that allowed consumers to download music for free. Metallica led the way in the fight against Napster. The court battles that ensued eventually put Napster out of business. Metallica’s victory only proved to be short lived as other peer to peer networks such as Limewire evolved. At the time, no one could have ever imagined that in less than twenty years, a new generation of music fans would grow up in a time period in which buying music on on Cd, cassette or vinyl seemed to be a ridiculous idea for the younger generation.
The History Of Classic Rock: Progressive Rock
One of the most challenging genres of classic rock music that we write about here is the genre of Progressive Rock. The specific genre has one of the most fanatical and opinionated fan bases of all musical genres. The art form of Progressive Rock was originally an extension of Psychedelic music of the 1960s. Progressive Rock took the freedom and expressive forms of Psychedelic music towards a more complex style that utilized musicians who for the most part were virtuosos on their instruments. The genres of classical music and rock and roll were blended together to create epic musical pieces with long instrumental sections intertwined with vocals parts.
As synthesizer technology developed rapidly in the late 1960s, keyboards would become the dominant instrument in many Progressive Rock bands. Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson would become the two most popular keyboardists of the Progressive Rock period. Their keyboard talents along with their band mates helped propel the bands Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer to be two of the most important rock bands of the Progressive Rock era. Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Genesis would round out the top five Progressive rock bands of all time. Of course, that is a debatable point, but there is no denying the combination of cult following and mass appeal that all five of those bands possessed.
Like many other genres of rock and roll, Progressive Rock had many sub genres. Bands from Canterbury, England such as Soft Machine, Caravan and Camel were often placed in their own category. In the 1980s and beyond there was the neo-progressive rock movement that defined bands like Marillion, Pendragon, Pallas and Twelfth Night. Progressive Metal also developed in the mid to late 1980s and has remained popular featuring bands like Dream Theater and Fates Warning. In the 1990s and into the twenty first century, groups such as Coheed and Cambria and Spock’s Beard continue moving forward with the sound of new classic progressive rock.
If one had to choose one band to define the sound of Progressive Rock, nine out of ten Classic Rock fans would choose Yes. The band broke onto the scene in 1969 with their debut album entitled Yes. The 1970s defined their golden period with the classic albums Yes, Time and a Word, The Yes Album, Fragile, Close To The Edge, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Yessongs, Relayer and Going for the One. The band’s classic lineup will always be defined as Bill Bruford on drums followed by Alan White on Drums, Chris Squire on bass, Steve Howe on guitar, Rick Wakeman on keyboards and Jon Anderson on vocals. Over the years, the band went through many personnel changes. Like The Beach Boys of the twenty first century, Yes presented fans with various incarnations of the band all touring and recording at the same time. Nonetheless, their 1970s period will always define them as the cornerstone band of the genre of Progressive Rock.
The band Emerson Lake & Palmer took the term power trio to a whole other level. Emerson Lake & Palmer were one of the most exciting bands in the Classic Rock Era. The band consisted of Keith Emerson on piano and keyboards, Carl Palmer on drums and Greg Lake on vocals guitar and bass. All three musicians were virtuosos on their instruments. The trio created amazing original pieces such as the “Karn Evil 9 Suite,” Take A Pebble, Tarkus, Lucky Man. many legendary classical music pieces into high energy progressive rock performances. Their career highlights all occurred in the 1970s with albums such as Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery and Works Volume 1.
The band only released two more studio albums in their post 1970s period. There was also an album released in 1986 entitled Emerson Lake & Powell with Cozy Powell on the drums instead of Carl Palmer who was performing in the band Asia at the time. Greg Lake and Keith Emerson both passed away in 2016. The legacy of Emerson Lake & Palmer will remain one of the most cherished in Classic Rock History.
Formed around the same time as Yes in the late 1960s, King Crimson stands as one of the most original and exciting Progressive Rock bands of all time. Unlike many of the other Progressive Rock bands who had their shining moments in the 1970’s, King Crimson released fabulous Progressive Rock albums over the course of six decades starting in the 1960s to the 2000’s. The band has reinvented itself time and time again from a personnel standpoint with Robert Fripp being the only one constant member. Some of rock and roll’s most talented and respected musicians have been members of the band at one time or another including, Greg Lake, Bill Bruford, John Wetton, Tony Levin, Ian McDonald, Adrian Belew and many others. Their groundbreaking works include the albums In The Court Of The Crimson King, In The Land Of Poseidon and Red.
The story of Genesis is divided into three periods based on their personnel changes. Their Progressive rock side will always be defined by the Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett years. Genesis released some of their most important musical works between 1971 and 1975 with Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins in the band. Their album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is viewed as one of Classic Rock’s all-time greats. Peter Gabriel left the band in 1975 to pursue a solo career in which he found great success. Steve Hackett left the band after the release of Wind and Wuthering in 1976. Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins would continue on. The sound of the band would change dramatically towards a more pop commercial sound in which Genesis found great commercial success in the 1980’s.
Phil Collins would pursue a solo career while also keeping Genesis together in the 1980s. During the mid -1980s, Phil Collins became one of the most recognized faces in pop culture. Simultaneously, Peter Gabriel was enjoying incredible success with his solo records. Gabriel’s album So hit number one in the U.K. and number two in the U.S in 1986. Steve Hackett was releasing brilliant solo Progressive Rock records. These founding members of Genesis played a major role in Classic Rock history throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
This Story of Classic Rock article has at times mentioned bands that define their own category. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin for example. Pink Floyd was also one of those bands that were so creative and groundbreaking, it becomes hard to place them in any one specific rock category. Most historians place Pink Floyd in the Progressive Rock category. The band originated out of England in 1965. Most of the band’s original members including Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason would continue on through the band’s most exciting and successful period in the 1970s. The one major change that occurred early on was the replacement of founding member Syd Barrett with David Gilmour in 1968.
Pink Floyd’s early years with Syd Barrett were bathed in psychedelia. The band’s early singles along with the albums The Piper At The Gates of Dawn and Saucerful of Secrets sounded very different from their 1970s period. In 1973, Pink Floyd would release one of Classic Rock’s greatest albums. The album Dark Side of the Moon hit the Billboard album charts in 1973 and stayed there for fifteen years until 1988. Like The Beatles Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band album, Dark Side Of The Moon was groundbreaking in the way studio techniques were applied to the recording. It stands as an album that inspired generations of rock bands and musical artists.
Pink Floyd followed up Dark Side Of The Moon with three more albums in the 1970’s that would also become legendary records. Those albums included Wish You Were Here in 1975, Animals in 1977 and the two record set The Wall in 1979. Pink Floyd would only record four more studio albums after the release of The Wall. None of those records included the lineup that released the legendary Pink Floyd 1970s albums. Roger Waters had left the band in the early 1980s while the other three continued on occasionally.
There have been thousands of bands since the 1970s that could be categorized within the Progressive Rock genre of Classic Rock. While we would like to name them all, space confines us be somewhat selective. In no particular order other Progressive Rock bands that contributed in many ways to the genre would include, Renaissance, Nektar, Steven Wilson & Porcupine Tree, Anathema, Anekdoten, Anglagard, Area, Bloodrock, Galahad, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Barclay James Harvest, Camel, Colosseum, Caravan, Can, Curved Air, The Enid, Faust, Galahad, Gentle Giant, Gong, Hatfield and the North, Hawkwind, Steve Hackett, Kraftwerk, Kansas, Magma, Magellan, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Magna Carter, The Nice, Opeth, Pendragon, Pallas, Tangerine Dream, U.K. and so many more.
There were also a few bands such as The Moody Blues, Rush, Jethro Tull and Frank Zappa that were at times classified as Progressive Rock and at times also stood alone in their own categories because their body of work varied greatly or their sound could not be categorized.
The History of Classic Rock: Defying Classification
For instance, the great Rush album 2112 is absolutely a Progressive Rock record with its grand 2112 suite. Albums like A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres could also be classified as Progressive. Nonetheless, the band’s first three albums Rush, Fly By Night and Caress of Steel were just straight ahead rock and roll records. The quality of the musicianship and Geddy Lee’s high pitched vocals just seemed to push the band into being labelled as Progressive. Rush has delivered one of the largest catalogs in Classic Rock History while being one of the longest running rock and roll bands that never broke up.
Over the course of their long career, Rush has released nineteen studio albums and eleven smoking live albums. They have one of the most loyal fans bases in rock and roll. Like the band Yes, Rush was long ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When they were finally admitted, guitarist Alex Lifeson’s acceptance speech consisted of a ten minute rant in which he only spoke the words “blah blah blah.” It has been hailed as one of rock and roll greatest acceptance speeches as it defined the rock and roll spirit of corporate resistance on the grand stage.
Jethro Tull is another legendary band that defies classification. The group has blended the styles of folk, rock, jazz, classical and traditional ethnic music all into a Progressive sound that uniquely featured the flute as one of the central instruments in the band. Ian Anderson’s performance on vocals and flute trademarked the bands’ sound along with the guitar work of Martin Barre. The band originated out of England in the late 1960s. Jethro Tull has released twenty one studio albums and eleven live albums during their long career.
The groups most celebrated works were released in the 1970s. It would include albums such as the very Progressive Rock based album Thick as a Brick along with classic albums such as Benefit, War Child, Aqualung, A Passion Play, Too Old To Rock N’ Roll: To Young To Die! and Songs From the Wood. Some of the band’s biggest hits included the songs “Locomotive Breath, Aqualung, Bungle In The Jungle and The Whistler.”
The Moody Blues
Many people have argued as to whether or not The Moody Blues should be considered as Progressive Rock. In terms of their use of the mellotron synthesizer and the beautiful orchestrations presented on their records, there is no doubt they were progressive. The Moody Blues were formed in England in the mid-1960s. The band released a series of albums in the late 60s and early 1970s, that fans of all musical genres have cherished.
Albums such as Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, On the Threshold of a Dream, To Our Children’s Children, A Question of Balance, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Seventh Sojourn displayed an incredible warmth and spirit of beauty juxtaposed against a rock and roll backdrop that captivated fans of all music. The Moody Blues were a very special band.
Defying Classification and Everything Else – Frank Zappa
Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Gershwin, Ellington, Coltrane, Zappa. We could just leave it there because that pretty much sums up the brilliance of Frank Zappa. Writers don’t like to throw around the term genius too often, but it fits easily into any sentence including the name Frank Zappa. In 1966, an album entitled Freak Out was released credited to the band the Mothers of Invention. Frank Zappa’s first recorded work was unleashed onto the world. It was a groundbreaking record. From that point on Frank Zappa would release over 60 albums of original material that knew no musical boundaries while creating a musical style that was uniquely his own.
Frank Zappa was a pioneer in the way he utilized wit, sarcasm, humor on an intellectual basis that very few could ever compete with. Frank Zappa would tour and record with the best musicians in the business. Frank Zappa was a brilliant guitarist in his own right. In the 1980s, he led the fight against Tipper Gore’s censorship crusade. Frank Zappa was a man always ahead of his time. It would have been very interesting to see where he would have gone in the internet age had he not passed away from prostate cancer in 1993. Zappa’s catalog is too deep to mention here. Check out John Tabacco’s fascinating work on discovering the music of Frank Zappa in the article A Method In Exploring The Frank Zappa Album Catalogue.
More Bands That Defied Categorization
Chicago / Blood Sweat & Tears / Steely Dan
Starting in the late 1960s and continuing into the 1970s and beyond, elements of jazz and rock were fused together by bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears in a formula that brought these bands both critical and commercial success. Both groups were very similar in the way they balanced their albums between progressive instrumental pieces and shiny happy sweet commercials sounding hits with much substance. At the same time, fusion groups such as Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Headhunters, Return To Forever and even Miles Davis were releasing heavy jazz fusion albums that attracted rock and roll fans. In the mid 1970’s a band called Steely Dan would embrace many of the elements of jazz, rock and fusion and become one of the most successful and respected groups in rock and roll history.
One of the longest running and most successful rock bands in the history of Rock and Roll is the band Chicago. The group’s trademark sound was exemplified by the use of a fabulous horn section intertwined with the brilliant guitar work of Terry Kath and the sensational vocals of Robert Lamm and Peter Cetera. The group released their first album in 1969 under the name The Chicago Transit Authority. Legal issues with the name caused the group to shorten it to Chicago. The band celebrated a long string of hits in the 1970s that crossed many musical genres and captivated a diverse audience. In the end, a great song is a great song no matter what the style.
Chicago’s biggest hits in the 1970s included songs such as “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Colour My World,” “Just You n’ Me,” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.” The band has released thirty seven studio albums over a fifty year period. There have been numerous lineup changes over the years. Robert Lamm, Lee Loughanne and James Pankow have been the band’s most consistent members appearing on every Chicago album ever released. Terry Kath passed away in 1978. Peter Cetera left the band in 1985.
The group’s most successful period was the decade of the 1970s. However, they did enjoy extreme commercial success in the early to mid-1980s with a more refined commercial sound minus the horns and focused around the vocals of Peter Cetera on songs like “Hard Habit To Break,” and “Hard To Say I’m Sorry.” However, it was a period that most loyal Chicago fans disliked. The band has since returned to their earlier big band sound.
Blood Sweat & Tears
Like the band Chicago, the group Blood Sweat & Tears utilized brass instruments in a rock setting. The group was founded in 1967 by Al Kooper. Blood Sweat & Tears went through an incredible run of lineup changes through their short history. There were many changes in the band just between their first two albums including the departure of founding member Al Kooper. Blood Sweat & Tears enjoyed a series of hits in the late 60s and early 70s. Songs such as “Spinning Wheel,” “You Made Me So Very Happy,” and the Laura Nyro penned classic “And When I die,” became ingrained in pop culture. Unlike the band Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears disbanded in the late 70s. The group was however very influential in their mix of jazz, rock and classical music presented with spirit and success.
If there ever was a musician’s band, it was Steely Dan. The group defined the art of perfection in the studio. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker crafted perfect pops songs that fused elements of jazz pop, rock and blues. They utilized the best studio musicians in the business on their recordings. Legendary players such as Larry Carlton, Steve Gadd, Lee Ritenour and so many more laid down perfect solos and grooves underneath meticulous arrangements and slick studio production. None of it would have mattered if the songs weren’t great in the first place. They were!
Steely Dan released a steady stream of albums in the 1970s. Their landmark album Aja and the follow up record Gaucho are considered musical masterpieces by many. The band continues to tour in 2019. However, founding member Walter Becker passed away in 2017.
One of the most interesting bands to form in the 1970s was the group 10cc. The band consisted of two camps defined by songwriting teams. They were Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart plus Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme. While the four sometimes wrote songs in different variations, most of the time they composed material with their partners. The band’s music was representative of so many musical genres from pop to psychedelic to progressive to theatrical. It was group of musicians who had previous success in the 1960’s with other bands. Graham Gouldman was responsible for penning many big time 1960’s hits including the Yardbirds “For Your Love.” Eric Stewart was a member of the band The Mindbenders.
The four original members released four albums together between 1973 and 1976. In 1976, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart left the band, but Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme continued on as 10cc for seven more albums. The band’s biggest hit was released in 1975 entitled “I’m Not In Love.” The song was released on their popular album The Original Soundtrack. It easily stands as one of the greatest singles released during the 1970s. It was incredibly original, addicting and unforgettable. The Godley and Cream 10cc had another big hit in 1977 entitled “The Things we Do For Love.”
The History of Classic Rock: The Solo Beatles
A people lamented the end of The Beatles in 1970, the four brilliant musicians wasted no time feeling sorry for themselves. It would become quite the opposite. All four members would embark on solo careers that would leave fans with an abundance of new material from the Fab Four as solo artists. Not surprising, Paul McCartney would be the most affluent out of the four during the 1970s and beyond. Nonetheless, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr all held their own ground, each releasing a string of great records filled with hit singles that would infiltrate 1970’s culture.
Paul McCartney led way for the rest of The Beatles and their solo careers with his debut album entitled McCartney in 1970. The album contained one of his most loved songs called “Maybe I’m Amazed.” The song would become an even bigger hit about seven years later when it was released on the live album Wings Over America. If there was any doubt, (which there probably wasn’t,) as to whether Paul McCartney could sustain a solo career without The Beatles, that would be erased with Paul McCartney’s next big hit “My Love.”
After one more solo album entitled Ram, Paul McCartney’s solo career would become augmented with his new band labeled Paul McCartney & Wings. With musician Denny Laine formerly of The Moody Blues by his side, Paul McCartney & Wings would employee a revolving door of musicians. Paul’s wife Linda McCartney would be by his side and in the band at all times. During this period, Paul McCartney released a great collection of albums including Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Sound, London Town and Back To The Egg.
Paul McCartney dissolved the Wings in 1980 with his third solo album entitled McCartney II. From that point on, Paul McCartney has continued to release albums throughout the 80’s, 90’s 2000’s and 2010’s. From his illustrious songwriting days as a Beatle throughout a long prolific solo career, Paul McCartney should be regarded as the greatest and most successful modern day songwriter of all time.
By the time John Lennon had released his final studio album Double Fantasy in 1980, it had seemed like it had been fifty years since The Beatles had broken up only ten years earlier. So much had happened musically in the 1970s. Time seemed to move much slower back then. John Lennon’s legacy and life was tragically cut short when he was gunned down in front of his home in New York City. It was a time when John Lennon was re-launching his musical career after taking time off from the music business for a few years.
John Lennon’s catalog may be small compared to the other ex-Beatles, but while Lennon was alive, he released some of the most wonderful songs in Classic Rock history. John Lennon’s masterpiece “Imagine,” has transcended pop culture in becoming a universal prayer for peace that is timeless. Most of John Lennon’s solo work was released between 1970 and 1975 not counting the 1980 Double Fantasy album or the posthumous Milk And Honey record.
George Harrison stepped out of his one or two original songs per Beatles album routine after the group broke up to embark on a wonderful solo career. George Harrison wasted no time as an ex-Beatle releasing a three record set in 1970 entitled All Thing Must Pass. The album included three of George Harrison’s most famous songs called “My Sweet Lord,” “Isn’t It A Pity.” and “What Is Life?” George Harrison released a steady stream of albums throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He enjoyed the success of three number one singles in the U.S. including “My Sweet Lord,” in 1970, “Give Me Love,” in 1973 and “Got My Mind Set On You,” in 1987.
If we had to choose one famous rock star in Classic Rock History who collaborated as a songwriter and guitarist with more artists than any other, it would be George Harrison. Most people recognize that he was a member of The Traveling Wilburys with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. However, the amount of recording sessions that George Harrison played on is off the charts. George Harrison passed away in November of 2001.
While Ringo Starr may not have recorded many vocals on Beatles records, his solo career proved fruitful and filled with some major hits. Ringo Starr has released twenty studio albums and forty one singles so far in his solo career as of this writing in 2019. In 1973, Ringo Starr enjoyed the success of two number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 music charts in the U.S. The first one entitled “Photograph,” was written by Ringo Starr and George Harrison. His second number one entitled “Your Sixteen,” was written by the Sherman Brothers.
From 1971 to 1975, Ringo Starr released eight songs that were top 10 hits in the United States. Since 1989, Ringo Starr has toured consistently with his All Star Band. The group has consisted of major rock stars taking turns singing usually two of their own hits in between Ringo’s lead vocal performances of Beatles songs that he sang lead on and his own solo album classics.
The History of Classic Rock: The Solo Artist
The dawn of the 1970s saw an explosion of songs and hits fueled by what is often referred to as the singer songwriter time period. Artists identified from this period included singer songwriters such as Elton John, Billy Joel, Jim Croce, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Harry Chapin, Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King, Tom Waits, Van Morrison and Paul Simon. The genres crossed lines with what was often referred to as soft rock that included bands such as The Eagles, America, Poco, Loggins & Messina and many others. All these artists had tremendous chart success and received considerable airplay on both FM and AM radio.
As we continue to make our way through the Classic Rock era of the 1970’s, we will find it hard to categorize many artists as so many of the great rock stars of the 1970s crossed many genres and often jumped in and out of bands. Furthermore, multiple legends of Classic Rock had success across many decades making it challenging to place them in any one particular time period.
With the end of The Beatles in 1970, there was a desperate need for a band to fill the void left by The Beatles demise. The Beatles were a hit making machine turning out big time singles on a consistent basis year round for a good seven year period. Fans never went more than a few months without hearing material from The Beatles. Fans found their savior in the form of a young songwriting team defined by the genius musical talents of Elton John and lyrical prowess of Bernie Taupin. The two artists were unmatched in their string of brilliant albums and huge hit singles between the years 1971 and 1976.
Elton John hit the music scene in 1970 with the release of his first album entitled Empty Sky. Nonetheless, it was not until his second album was released and the record’s huge hit single entitled “Your Song,” that Elton John’s career skyrocketed. From that point on, every six months Elton John would release an album filled with great songs and big hit singles. From 1970 to 1976, Elton John released the albums Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou, Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy, Rock of the Westies and Blue Moves. In between many of these albums, Elton John released huge hit singles such as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and the fabulous “Philadelphia Freedom.” It was an extraordinarily stunning string of hit singles and albums.
From his first album entitled Empty Sky in 1969, to his most recent release 2016’s Wonderful Crazy Night, Elton John has released thirty studio albums, four live albums, seven soundtrack albums and an astonishing 133 singles. He has remained one of the biggest Rock and Roll stars in the world.
Elton John’s good friend David Bowie was also having an incredible run of brilliant albums and hit singles. David Bowie had released his first album in 1967. However, it was not until the release of his fourth album and signing with RCA records in which David Bowie set sail on a remarkable music career that served as an inspiration for millions. Albums such as Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance dominated 1970s and 80s radio. With each album David Bowie transformed himself into a different character.
The turning point in David Bowie’s career arrived early when he took on the character Ziggy Stardust in 1972 for his brilliant concept album The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. David Bowie was a rock star playing a rock star from space. The album and tour inspired an entire generation of glam rock. David Bowie has admitted in interviews that Ziggy Stardust made his career.[xxiv] When the tour was over Bowie announced his retirement in a news conference. The only caveat was Bowie was simply retiring the Ziggy Stardust character although he did not make that clear confusing the press core that David Bowie was actually retiring. It was the genius of David Bowie at work. One was never able to separate Bowie from his characters and his music. Like Led Zeppelin, Bowie had become a rock god!
In the history of popular music, Paul Simon will always stand as one of the most important songwriters of all time. The world was first introduced to the work of Paul Simon when the genius songwriter broke into the big time with the release of Simon & Garfunkel’s album Wednesday Morning 3 AM in 1964. Over the next 6 years between 1964 and 1970, Simon and Garfunkel would release five big selling albums loaded with the Top 10 commercial hits. With the exception of the first album, most of the songs on every Simon and Garfunkel record were written by Paul Simon. In 1972, Paul Simon would release his second solo album entitled Paul Simon. The legendary singer had already released a solo album in 1965 entitled The Paul Simon Songbook. The album had only been released in the U.K, at the time. Nonetheless, from 1972 through 2018, Paul Simon released thirteen fabulous solo albums.
Paul Simon has won twelve Grammy Awards throughout his incredible musical career. Most of his albums were always nominated for record and album of the year. Critics have pointed towards his solo albums such as Still Crazy After All These Years and Graceland as being true masterpieces.
There is no denying Billy Joel’s contribution to classic rock history. Billy Joel’s first success as an artist came in 1973 with the release of the single “Piano Man.” For the next twenty years between 1973 and 1993, Billy Joel was one of the biggest stars in the music business. Not many artists in classic rock history could capture an audience as diverse in age and gender as Billy Joel did. Only Elvis Presley and The Beatles had a fan base as wide reaching as Billy Joel. The artist had many peaks throughout his career, in fact just about every album was an artistic peak. Albums such as Turnstiles, The Stranger, 52 Street and Storm Front were career highlights.
Suddenly in 1993, Billy Joel decided not to release any more albums. With the exception of a classical record and a few appearances on some compilations, Billy Joel has not released any new material in twenty five years as of this writing in 2019. Incredibly, without any new music in twenty five years, he has sold out seventy four concerts in a row at New York’s Madison Square Garden in the 2010s. Billy Joel has shown no signs of ending that run anytime soon in 2019.
If there ever was a single musical artist that could change the meaning of the word prolific, it would be Neil Young. The legendary artist began a career writing and recording songs as a member of the band Buffalo Springfield. He was a member of the supergroup Crosby Stills Nash and Young for a short time. Nonetheless, the magnitude of his contributions to Classic Rock stems from his work as a solo artist. Throughout his long musical career, Neil Young has released over forty five albums as a solo artist. Many of them were recorded with his band Crazy Horse. Neil Young has also been an activist in various arenas and played a role in many charitable causes including Farm Aid and the Bridge School Benefits concert series.
Carole King had been one of the most successful songwriters of the times writing music for others as part of the Brill Building songwriting team. The release of her album Tapestry in which she recorded her own versions of many of her biggest hits became the biggest selling album of all time for a short period back in the 1970s. It remains one of the most successful albums ever released by a single solo artist.
Not many artists in classic rock history have had the staying power to release forty one solo albums. With a pitch perfect voice fueled by the pen of a poet and the heart of a troubadour, Van Morrison has composed some of classic rocks most legendary songs. His early classics like “Brown Eye Girl, “Crazy Love,” and “Domino,” were joined by late 70s classic “Moondance, and Wavelength” to 80s gems like “Hungry For Your Love,” “Have I Told You Lately,” and “Someone Like You,” through the 90s songs such as “Days Like This,” and “The Healing Game.” Even into the 2000s and 2010’s Van Morrison continued to record albums releasing great tracks such as “Stranded,” from Magic Time and “Born To Sing,” from Born To Sing: No Plan B. One of classic rock’s most important artists of all time Van Morrison in 2019 continues to release new music that places him in a category all of his own.
One of Classic Rock’s most original artists debuted in 1973 with an album entitled Closing Time. Tom Waits first record was a folk style record played mostly on piano with heavy jazz overtones. The songs were more compelling in a darker almost more depressing way than most singer songwriters at the time. Despite the melancholy mood on the record, there were somewhat glimmers of hope nestled in sarcasm throughout. That lyrical style continued over the next seven years bathed in lounge singer meets troubadour jazz, folk and pop arrangements. Tom Waits was not a hit making machine, but rather a brilliant artist who developed a loyal following due to his dazzling and creative work.
In the early 1980s, Tom Waits changed his style dramatically towards an even more original sound that is inexplicably hard to define. Singing at times through an old school police horn and utilizing the banging of dresser drawer cabinets as percussive instruments, Tom Waits became one of the most unique artists in Classic rock. All his albums were brilliant. Standouts would have to include the albums Blue Valentine, Nighthawks at the Diner, Rain Dogs and Mule Variations.
Joni Mitchell will always be defined as the artist’s artist. Every musician in rock and roll history since the 1960s have looked towards Joni Mitchell as an inspiration. Joni Mitchell’s first album was released in 1968 entitled Song To A Seagull. Since her debut album Joni Mitchell has released eighteen more studio albums. Many of her records have become legendary recordings such as the albums Blue, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Laws, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus. The albums defined a very sophisticated but soulful sound that mixed the genres of jazz and rock. Some of the world’s finest musicians would perform on her records including the legendary basis Jaco Pastorius and many other famous jazz musicians like Wayne Shorter, Don Alias, Alex Acuna and Larry Carlton to name a few. Many of Joni Mitchell’s songs have become musical standards such as “Both Sides Now,” and “A Case of You.”
Joni Mitchell has released nineteen studio albums between her debut Song To A Seagull in 1968 and her most recent record entitled Shine in 2007. Throughout her career she also released thirty three singles and handful of live albums. Joni Mitchell has also won nine Grammy Awards during her well respected career.
If there is one voice in rock and roll that is instantly recognizable, it’s Rod Stewart’s. One of Classic Rock’s most familiar voices has celebrated much success in rock and roll in many different forms. Although he had been a member of various bands from 1963 to 1966, Rod Stewart’s career first came to light with his work as a member of the Jeff Beck Group in 1967. After a three year stint with the Jeff Beck Group, Rod Stewart and band mate Ronnie Wood joined the Small Faces. The band changed its name to the Faces and released some of the most kicking rock and roll of the late 1960s early 1970s. From just the work he did with the Jeff Beck Group and the Faces, Rod Stewart had already enjoyed a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career. Yet, he was just beginning.
From 1971 to 1976, Rod Stewart would release five solo albums in a row that would hit number one on the United Kingdom music charts. It was not just in the United Kingdom that Rod Stewart had amazing success. The singer was huge all around the world. Many of his 1970s albums went platinum. Albums such as Gasoline Alley, Smiler, Never a Dull Moment, Every Picture Tells a Story, Atlantic Crossing, Night on the Town, Footloose and Fancy Free, and Blondes Have More Fun have become rock and roll classic albums. Most of his early to mid-70s material is straight ahead rock and roll and fabulous pop hits. In 1978 he had a huge disco hit with the song “Do You Think I’m Sexy?”
In the 1980s and 1990s, his material veered more towards the pop side, but was still very successful. In the 2000s he began releasing jazz vocal standard albums. All of them were extremely successful landing in the Top 10 in both the UK and US album charts. In the 2010’s he returned to rock and roll. Rod Stewart is one of the biggest selling rock and roll artists of all time. Rod Stewart has sold over 100 million records.
While the new wave and punk eras delivered a wide variety of bands from both sides of the Atlantic in the mid to late 1970s, one particular artist significantly stood out among the loud rants of many of the punk bands. Elvis Costello arrived on the scene with a debut album entitled My Aim Is True. With a look reminiscent of Buddy Holly and an album full of well-crafted songs performed with a punk new wave attitude, Elvis Costello instantly became a favorite of rock critics and fans. Elvis Costello proved he was no one hit wonder with an amazing follow up album entitled This Year’s Girl.
Elvis Costello would embark on a career in which the brilliant artist would release thirty studio albums. He would utilize various back up bands on his records most notably The Attractions and The Imposters. Elvis Costello’s stature as a brilliant songwriter would be recognized by many of his peers. He would collaborate on record with some of the greatest songwriters of all time including Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach.
Todd Rundgren is one of the most fascinating artists in Classic Rock History. On one hand he has delivered countless solo albums filled with progressive rock, pure pop and basic rock roll songs. His music is unique, original and highly addicting. On the same hand, he has also led his groups Nazz and Utopia on an amazing progressive rock journey releasing a string of fabulous rock albums that also crossed many genres. Todd Rundgren also enjoyed success on the pop charts with classic hits such as “We Gotta Get You A Woman,” “I Saw The Light,” and “Hello It’s Me.”
Todd Rundgren’s other hand has defined the roll of legendary rock and roll producer and engineer. He has produced some of rock and roll’s greatest hits including Grand Funk’s
“We’re an American Band,” and Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell.” Todd Rundgren has also produced albums by The New York Dolls, The Tubes, Badfinger, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick, The Psychedelic Furs, and XTC. His trademark vocal and guitar sound is instantly recognizable on some of these albums, whiles others are all defined by his engineering and arranging skills. Between his amazing original material and his ability to produce some of Classic Rock’s most legendary songs and bands, Todd Rundgren defines the term Classic Rock genius.
Before we move onto our 1970s Classic Rock Bands section, we just wanted to provide a list of many of the other great solo artists that have contributed to the Classic Rock genre that are not covered in other sections of this article. There is just not enough room in this article to do separate sections on each of these fabulous artists. Additionally, while some of these artists may have had more success in the genres of country, adult contemporary or pop, they all at least contributed songs that were covered by rock artists and turned into big Classic Rock hits.
Clicking on any of the names with highlighted links will take you to separate articles on the artists elsewhere on this site. A sampling of some of these greats would include … Jimmy Barnes, Captain Beefheart, Elvin Bishop, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffet, Kate Bush, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Harry Chapin, George Clinton, Joe Cocker, Leonard Cohen, Mink Deville, Neil Diamond, Dave Edmunds, Billy Falcon, Dan Fogelberg, Rory Gallagher, Roy Harper, Ronnie Hawkins, Richie Havens, Joe Jackson, Rickie Lee Jones, Garland Jeffreys, Dr. John, Dave Mason, Meat Loaf, John Mellencamp, Eddie Money, Don Mclean, Lee Michaels, John Miles, Ronnie Montrose, Randy Newman, Nick Lowe, Ian Hunter, Harry Nilsson, Laura Nyro, Alan Parsons, Andy Pratt, Iggy Pop, Gerry Rafferty, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Cliff Richard, Linda Ronstadt, Boz Scaggs, Bob Seger, Cat Stevens, Sting, Carly Simon, Patti Smith, Southside Johnny, Al Stewart, James Taylor, Willie Nile, Gino Vannelli, Steven Van Zandt, John Waite, Joe Walsh, Leslie West, Bill Withers, Edgar Winter and Warren Zevon.
1970’s Classic Rock Bands
It is difficult to cover the entire history of Classic Rock and not leave anyone out. Classic Rock History is filled with so many great bands and artists. Some groups released only one or two albums while others had long careers. Artists or bands that did not fit in some of the sub genres of classic rock (Progressive, Southern, Glam, Punk) that we define in this article have been placed in this section reserved for just straight ahead great rock and roll bands and artists. Some tilt towards blues while other may lean more towards a pop. The one commonality is they all released great rock and roll, and in many cases, developed loyal fans bases. We wish we could go further into each one, but that would turn this article into a book. If you want to explore any of these bands in more detail, just click on their names which will lead to other articles about them on the site.
In no particular order…….
Its fitting to start out our 1970s band section with Fleetwood Mac. The group has found success in almost every decade going back to the 1960’s. However, their most successful period came in the 1970s when Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined the band. Origins of the band Fleetwood Mac goes back to their hometown of London when they were first formed in 1967 by Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer. The band started out initially as a blues band and went through various lineup changes which also included the addition of Bob Welch in the early 70s. In 1974, the British side of Fleetwood Mac welcomed an American couple into the band turning the group into one of the biggest bands of all time. It should be noted that by the time Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined the band in 1974, Fleetwood Mac had already released ten albums. Fleetwood Mac was a very established band with a loyal fan base. Nonetheless, Mick Fleetwood John McVie and Christine McVie had no idea that their fame would soon multiply on a level far beyond their imagination.
With Lindsay and Stevie on board the band released an album entitled Fleetwood Mac in 1975 that featured three hit singles including a Stevie Nicks penned song called “Rhiannon.” The look and sound of the band captivated audiences as the album went on to become one of the biggest selling albums of the year. Two years later in 1977, Fleetwood Mac would release the album Rumors. No band was bigger than Fleetwood Mac in 1977. Rumors would become the biggest selling album of all time. It would eventually lose that title, but nonetheless, it still has sold over forty million copies.
The Fleetwood Mac Rumors lineup of Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Christine McVie would last for ten more years and 3 more albums. Internal fighting between all members of the band would be a constant that would at times drive creativity and other times destroy it. The classic lineup would return in 1997 to release a live album entitled The Dance. In 2003 they released their final album together entitled Say You Will. However, Christine McVie who had left the band, only appeared on a few tracks.
As of this writing in 2019, The Eagles have secured the biggest selling album of all time. Interestingly it’s a greatest hits album. What does that say about the band The Eagles? Well, it obvious that they have a lot of fans. The reason is simple. The music of The Eagles reached two major audiences, rock fans and country fans. There are not many bands that come close to reaching both sides. The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd came close, but the Eagles have a softer edge to them that allowed them to expand in to the pop markets and the adult contemporary markets along with the rock and country markets. That’s pretty much everyone who likes popular music.
The Eagles do not have a large catalog of music. The majority of the band’s albums were released in the 1970s. From 1972 to 1979, The Eagles released six studio albums. The Greatest hits package which we noted is the biggest selling album of all time, was comprised of songs from just their first four albums. For many, it was the first Eagles album they ever purchased. A year after The Eagles Greatest Hits album came out, the band released the album Hotel California. Many fans and critics view it as The Eagles shining moment. It was a brilliant album that also featured the guitar work and songs of the band’s newest member Joe Walsh. The Eagles followed up Hotel California with the album The Long Run in 1979. The band broke up and swore they would never play together again. They did.
In 1994, The Eagles reunited for a tour and released a live album that contained four new studio songs. Thirteen years later in 2007, The Eagles released their final studio album entitled Long Road Out of Eden. In 2016, founding member Glenn Frey passed away. The Eagles have since returned to touring with Glenn Frey’s son Deacon and Vince Gill joining the band. The band continues to tour into 2020. It seems that with nobody buying music anymore, old rock and roll stars will be forced to tour until they can no longer stand.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers first formed in 1976 in the city of Gainesville, Florida. The band defined a sound that has often been referred to as Heartland Rock. Tom Petty’s voice was always characterized as having a bit of a southern accent. However, The Heartbreakers did not sound like a southern rock band. They had a full bodied sound and played tightly together as a unit. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released thirteen studio albums between the years 1976 and 2014. The band released at least one album in each decade from the 1970s into the 2010s. At different points throughout the career of Tom Petty and Heartbreakers, band leader and lead singer Tom Petty released three solo albums. The band also released a series of fantastic live records.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers biggest hit was a song written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell entitled “Stop Draggin My Heart Around.” The song was recorded as a duet with Stevie Nicks and released on her album entitled Bella Donna. As a solo artist, Tom Petty scored a top 10 hit with the song “Free Fallin,” which was released on his first solo album Full Moon Fever. However, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers celebrated many number one hits on the U.S. Billboard Rock charts over their five decade career. They were easily one of the most loved the rock bands in Classic Rock History. Tom Petty sadly passed away in October of 2017.
If given the chance to name the most exciting debut album in classic rock history, it’s safe to say that many people would argue for Boston’s debut album. Rock and Roll fans were blown away by an album in which every song was spectacular. Tom Scholz’s innovative Rockman guitar pedal that he designed defined a very original sound that had not been done before. Fans went nuts over Boston thinking that they might become the greatest rock and roll band of all time. That hope faded quickly as it took the group two years to release their second album. It was an album that in no way came close as far as great material to their debut.
Over the next thirty eight years Boston would only release four more very average sounding albums. They have continued to tour to sold out shows based on their first record. Nonetheless, Boston stands as a band that shot out the gate on fire, but simmered rather quickly.
Cheap Trick arrived on the scene in 1977 with a sound that channeled The Beatles surrounded in louder guitars, heavier drums and singer that could wail. The band had a bit of gimmick in their look as two of the band members looked like they could be hanging out at the racetrack with the Bowery Boys while the other two looked like classic rock stars. It was a look that did not seem to be done on purpose but just a presentation of who they really were. In the end, none of that really mattered because the band delivered album after album of awesome songs that balanced the line between rock and pop perfectly. During a forty year career the band has released nineteen studio albums between 1977 and 2017.
Cheap Trick had three top 10 hits in the United States during their careers. “I Want You To Want Me,” hit number seven in 1979 and a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” hit number four in 1988. In that same year Cheap Trick celebrated the biggest hit of their career with the song “The Flame,” which hit number one in the United States on the Billboard Hot 100. Their sound heavily influenced many of the young rock bands in the 1990s and 2000s.
The one constant that so many Classic Rock bands from the 1970s shared in their success, was having a powerhouse head turning single released from their debut albums. Heart had it with “Magic Man,” Boston with “More Than A Feeling,” Cheap Trick with “No Surrender,” and Foreigner with “Feels Like The First Time.” The band Foreigner debuted their first album in the Spring of 1977. After breaking out with the lead single “Feels Like The First Time,” they followed up with another addicting soon to be iconic Classic Rock song entitled “Cold As Ice.”
Foreigner’s second album was even stronger than their first. Their sophomore album entitled Double Vision featured the mega hit single “Hot Blooded.” Foreigner’s success continued with a string of albums in the 1980s that featured huge selling songs like “Urgent,” “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” and their number one single, “I Want To Know What Love Is.” With the golden pipes of lead singer Lou Gramm and the brilliant songwriting and production of band leader Mick Jones, Foreigner became one of the all-time great Classic Rock bands born in the 1970’s.
Styx has secured their role in Classic Rock History with a catalog of mega selling albums and huge hits that were very successful on the pop charts. The band’s sound crossed the genres of rock and pop while adding a bit of progressive rock early on in their career. The band’s early days featured hits like “Lorelei,” and “Lady.” The band’s turning point came when Tommy Shaw joined the band in 1976. The band’ second album with Tommy Shaw entitled The Grand Illusion put Styx on the rock and roll map forever. With founding member Denis De Young, James Young, Chuck Panozzo and John Panozzo all fueling the Styx machine, the group scored hit after hit between 1976 and 1984. The big hits included “Come Sail Away,” “Fooling Yourself,” “Renegade,” “Too Much Time On My Hands,” and their number one single “Babe.”
The Pretenders arrived in both the United Kingdom and United States in 1980 with a debut album that crossed the genres of so many styles of popular music. The band utilized elements of pop, rock, new wave and punk in their songs. It was all presented with an in your face attitude by lead singer and bandleader Chrissie Hynde. The band was welcomed both on FM radio and music television. MTV put the video to the song “Brass In Your Pocket,” in heavy rotation helping The Pretenders find a mass audience. The Pretenders followed up their debut album with an EP that included the songs “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town.” The EP was soon followed up in 1981 by the album Pretenders II. The band was on a roll captivating rock and roll fans across the globe.
After the release of the band’s second album, tragedy struck the Pretenders when band members James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon passed away due to drug issues. Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers continued on, releasing their third album in 1984 entitled Learning To Crawl. It was a brilliant album that stands as one of their best. It featured the songs “Back On The Chain Gang, Middle of the Road and My City Was Gone.” Since the band’s third album, the group has gone through numerous changes. In the end it has always been Chrissie Hynde’s band. The group has released ten albums since 1980. As of this writing in 2019, the band most recent record was issued in 2016 entitled Alone.
Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra
The Classic Rock British band Electric Light Orchestra was formed in the early 1970s by founding members Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood and Bev Bevan. All three musicians had been members of the British band The Move. Electric Light Orchestra’s first album was released in 1971 entitled Electric Light Orchestra. The band was heavily inspired by The Beatles and many of the other British Invasion bands of the late 1960s. However, with each album, Jeff Lynne’s creative arrangements and studio wizadary created a fresh sound that yielded a large fan base.
Electric Light Orchestra enjoyed their greatest commercial success in the mid 1970s with a series of mega selling albums and singles. These included the records Face the Music in 1975, A New World Record in 1976, Out of the Blue in 1977 and Discovery in 1979. The band did extensive touring during the 1970’s putting on spectacular light shows and dazzling audiences with special effects, lavish stage productions and brilliant performances. Electric Light Orchestra was one of Classic Rock’s most successful commercial bands in the 1970s.
Jeff Lynne’s role in Classic Rock History should not be defined by just his success as one of the founding members and driving forces behind Electric Light Orchestra. It should be noted that Jeff Lynne s also served as a producer on some of rock and roll finest albums. Jeff Lynne has produced or at least co-produced albums with such legendary artists such as George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Duane Eddy, Brian Wilson and Del Shannon. As a huge fan of The Beatles, it’s easy to assume that one of his finest moments and probably the most self rewarding was when he worked with Paul, George and Ringo on the Anthology series two new Beatles singles “Real Love,” and “Free As A Bird,” in the mid 1990’s. During his career, Jeff Lynne has also released two solo albums under his own name. Jeff Lynne was also a member of the mid 1980s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.
This fantastic band went by the name early on as Grand Funk Railroad. At times they were progressive and at times dabbled in the blues. Led by the incredible vocals and songwriting skills of Mark Farner, the band enjoyed an incredible series of major hit singles in the 1970s. Explosive in concert, Grand Funk was at a time the biggest rock band in the world in the early to mid-1970s with songs such as “Were An American Band, Some Kind of Wonderful , Closer To Homes,” and a great version of Carole King’s “Locomotion.”
Savoy Blues Band / Foghat
Two of the great rocking blues boogie bands of the classic rock era are forever connected together. The Savoy Blues Band are a British Blues band from the 1960s that features the incredible guitar work of Kim Simmonds. They are one of the longest running bands in classic rock history. The group has released over forty albums from 1965 to 2019. It also might hold the record for the most lineup changes in rock and roll history.
One the earliest changes was when lead singer Dave Peverett, drummer Roger Earl and bassist Tony Stevens left the band to form a new group called Foghat. Joined by Rod Price on guitar Foghat became one of the most successful rock bands of the 1970s. From 1972 to 1978 the band released a series of albums that went both Gold and Platinum. Their biggest success was the song “Slow Ride,” and the albums Fool for the City (1975) and Foghat Live (1977)
Blue Oyster Cult
A great pure rock and roll band that was formed on the north shore of Long Island, New York. The band’s first album was released in 1972. The 1970s and 80s were the bands most prolific period as the group released elven great albums between 1972 and 1988. Their songs “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” and “Godzilla,” have become mainstays of classic rock music.
Like Led Zeppelin, Queen was one of the classic rock bands that stood alone in their own category. They utilized all styles of music in their sound, and as all legendary artists do, created their own unique sound. It was a sound shaped by the original sounding guitar work of Brian May, the flamboyant pitch perfect voice and charm of Freddie Mercury, and the great team of Roger Taylor and John Deacon on drums and bass. In a career that showcased a series of brilliant albums and concerts, the band’s two brightest moments were the release of their epic single “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the earth shattering, show stealing performance at Wembley Stadium during the Live Aid concert in 1985.Their first six albums are a must for any classic rock collection.
Some critics have hailed Aerosmith as the greatest American rock and roll band of all time. The group’s first two albums Aerosmith in 1973 and Get Your Wings in 1974 were great rock and roll albums that did not get much notice until the band hit it big with 1975’s Toys in the Attic. The success of the album’s single “Walk This Way,” drove Columbia Records to re-release the song “Dream On,” from the band’s first record which would become a huge hit. Most Aerosmith fans point to the time period between 1975 and 1978 as the band’s finest period when they released the albums Toys In The Attic, Rocks and Draw The Line
The band Aerosmith went through a rough period in the late 1970s and early 80s. Internal issues between the band and drug problems had the group playing nightclubs.[xxv] The band’s career was resurrected in the 1980s due to RUN DMC’s rap remake of “Walk This Way.” It was a version which also featured Aerosmith on the recording. The accompanying MTV video was a smash and helped propel the group back into the spotlight. A new record deal with Geffen Records proved to be a successful signing for both Geffen and Aerosmith as the band released three albums in the 80s and 90s that went platinum. Furthermore 1993’s Get A Grip and 1997’s Nine Lives both hit number one the U.S. Billboard album charts. The band resigned with Columbia and continued to release successful records into the 2000s.
The Doobie Brothers
This great band presented rock fans with a powerful multi guitar sound, great vocals and a style that bordered somewhere between straight ahead rock, a little southern and some New Orleans style sprinkled on top. The band’s career has been marked by very distinctive periods due to lineup changes. In 1975, lead singer Tom Johnston left the band and was replaced by blue eyed soul singer and keyboardist Michael McDonald. With the addition of McDonald the band’s sound changed dramatically towards more of a r&b pop sound. Nonetheless, the band had tremendous success with Michael McDonald scoring a number one hit with the song “What A Fool Believes.” Michael McDonald eventually left the band to pursue a solo career and Johnston returned. The band has released fourteen studio albums throughout their fabulous career. They have continued to tour into the 2010s.
The Runaways / Joan Jett, Lita Ford
Much has been written about the Runways becoming the first successful all female rock band. It’s all true. There had been many female groups in history, but the Runaways were the first all-female rock band to achieve mass popularity while playing their own instruments and writing their own songs. Fronted by lead singer Cherie Currie, the band burst on to the scene in 1976 and drove audience wild. While most of the girls in the band were only 16 at the time they started, two of the groups’ members named Joan Jett and Lita Ford eventually moved on to achieve very successful solo careers in the music business.
Joan Jett’s stardom took off with her smash hit “I Love Rock and Roll,” in 1981. Joan Jett had many more hits throughout her career and has continued to tour into the 2010s. She has become one of the most respected artists in rock and roll. Lita Ford has released a series of great solo albums and had a few major rock and roll hits in the late 1980s including a great duet with Ozzy Osbourne entitled “Close My Eyes Forever,” which was top 10 hit for the pair in 1989.
In between The Runaways and Pat Benatar was the band Heart. Led by Ann and Nancy Wilson, the group had more in common with Led Zeppelin than they did with any sort of idea of trying to break ground for female artists. It seems a shame rock historians and critics have defined female artists many times separately. Sadly, the fact that many female artists had to overcome challenges that male artists did not, makes it important to recognize their achievements on another level. So, if we are looking at rock history from a gender standpoint, then Heart deserves incredible recognition for their musical achievements and paving the way for placing female talent on an even playing field. If we are just looking at Classic Rock History from just an overall perspective, Heart remains one of the greatest rock bands to come out of the 1970s.
Heart was one of the most exciting new rock bands to arrive on the scene in 1976. They achieved mass success with the release of their debut single “Magic Man.” Heart’s follow up album contained the song “Barracuda,” which many feels defines the sound of Classic Rock. After fading a bit in the early 1980s, the band was reborn in the MTV era as their record company pushed the band to utilize outside songwriters to come up with big hits. The beauty of the Wilson sisters was also promoted heavily in their music videos. It all worked perfectly as the band sold millions of records during that period.
The marketing of Heart in the big hair 80s was just a reflection of society at the time. It was also another example of how women were treated differently in music, Nonetheless, the loss of the band’s original sound seemed to take its toll on the sisters as they were never comfortable with their new sound and look. The band eventually returned to the sound that originally brought them success. Heart has released sixteen studio albums throughout their career. They remain one of rock and roll’s greatest treasures.
If there was one band that could define the term Arena Rock, it would be Journey. The band’s origins go back to the early 1970s when the group was formed out of the San Francisco area. After releasing a series of great rock and roll albums, the band’s commercial breakthrough occurred when vocalist Steve Perry joined the band. The band had landed a singer who would become one of the greatest rock and roll vocalist of all time. Not many singers in Classic Rock could hit the high notes with as much resonance and spirit as Steve Perry.
Along with the astonishing talents of ex-Santana guitarist Neal Schon, the overwhelming skills of drummer Aynsley Dunbar followed by Steve Smith, the great bass playing of Ross Valory and the keyboard skills of Gregg Rolie followed by Jonathan Cain, Journey had their most successful period between the years 1978 and 1985. During that time period Journey was one of the biggest bands in the world selling out stadiums world wide. Catalogue highlights include the albums, Infinity (1978), Evolution (1979), Departure (1980), Escape (1981) and Frontiers (1983). Songs like “Open Arms, Who’s Crying Now, Faithfully, Separate Ways,” and of course “Don’t Stop Believing,” have become Classic Rock staples.
Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo
One cannot fail to mention the name Pat Benatar when in conversation about great female rock and roll artists. Pat Benatar overcame many obstacles standing in her way and became one off the first solo female rock artist to dominate the music charts and radio in the late 1970s and early 1980’s. Her career has unfolded with her husband Neil Giraldo who has played a major role in Pat Benatar’s career as her guitarist, producer band leader and songwriter. They have made it a point to promote themselves as Neil Giraldo and Pat Benatar over the past twenty years.
Crosby, Still, Nash and Young
These four brilliant musicians have contributed an incredible catalog of music into western culture in various combinations of personal lineups and solo work. They have recorded albums under the lineup of Crosby Stills, Nash and Young / Crosby Stills and Nash / Crosby and Nash / Stills and Young, as well as a large catalog of solo albums by David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young individually. As a group their artistic peak can be traced back to the band’s debut album Crosby Still and Nash in 1969. The follow up album that included Neil Young in 1970 was entitled Déjà vu. It is regarded as one of the greatest classic rock albums ever released.
One of the most popular bands of the 1970s rose out of the streets of New York City in the early 1970s to embark on a career which would cultivate their own so called Kiss Army and a legion of loyal rock fans. Capitalizing on a gimmick of wearing makeup while playing basic rock and roll, Kiss became one of the biggest bands in the world in the mid-1970s with their electrifying stage shows and big hit single “Rock and Roll All Night.” Their live album Kiss Alive was a huge seller and their follow up album Destroyer delivered the mega selling ballad “Beth.” Multiple lineup changes have occurred through the years, the makeup has come and gone and returned, but the one constant has always been Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.
Steve Miller Band
The career of Steve Miller began in the 1960s with a string of fabulous albums that rode the wave between rock and roll and blues. Steve Miller and his bandmates would become a household name in the 1970s when they released the album Fly Like An Eagle. The record along with the follow up album Book of Dreams contained hit after hit elevating Steve Miller and his band to superstar status. They had another very successful album in the early 1980s entitled Abracadabra. They have continued to tour and release albums throughout the 90s and 2010s.
There are very few bands that turn heads and make your drop everything the first time you her them. Van Halen was one of the bands. No one had ever played a guitar like Eddie Van Halen. The man created an entire new style of playing guitar much in the same way Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix had done with their own unique styles. During a time period in which punk, new wave and disco were all battling it out, Van Halen came out of nowhere to rescue fans of heavy rock and roll in the late 1970s. The band’s career has been defined by two distinct periods period in which the band was fronted originally by David Lee Roth and then Sammy Hagar.
Van Halen recorded six albums with David Lee Roth between 1978 and 1984. During the Sammy Hagar years Van Halen released four studio albums between 1986 and 1995. Sammy Hagar had the longer run with Van Halen lasting 9 years to Roth’s original 6 years. Nonetheless, both singers broke up and reunited with the band multiple times. David Lee Roth recorded one last album with the band in 2016 entitled A Different Kind Of Truth.
David Lee Roth
David Lee Roth ‘s originally left Van Halen in 1985, his recruitment of Steve Vai to play lead guitar in the David Lee Roth Band proved to be one of the smartest moves the singer had ever made. It was an incredibly bold move to quit Van Halen, but Roth had a tremendous ego and was out to prove that it was his talents that drove the Van Halen Machine. With Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan and Greg Bissonette, David Lee Roth made two spectacular albums to compete with the new Van Halen fronted by Sammy Hagar. Eat ‘Em and Smile and Skyscraper would be the only two albums Roth would record with Steve Vai. They stand as his best work outside of Van Halen. David Lee Roth released only four more solo albums over the next thirty years. None of them compared to his first two with Vai, Sheehan and Bissonette.
While the name Sammy Hagar will always be tied to the history of Van Halen, the singer’s time with the band was actually quite short in retrospect to Hagar’s other musical achievements. Sammy Hagar had released an abundance of material as a solo artist fronting his own solo bands such as The Waboritas, and The Circle as well as his early groups of backing musicians on his 70s and 80s solo records. Sammy Hagar was also a member of the band Montrose as well as the group HSAS also known as Hagar Schon Aaronson Shrieve.
Sammy Hagar’s attempt at forming a new super group of musicians was realized in the 2009 with the band Chickenfoot which featured Steve Vai’s former guitar teacher and legendary artist in his own right Joe Satriani. The group also featured ex Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and Red Hot Chile Peppers drummer Chad Smith. The band released two studio albums and a live record. Before joining Van Halen, Sammy Hagar had released eight solo albums. His post Van Halen days saw the release of fourteen more albums when combined with the various bands The Waboritas, Chickenfoot and The Circle. In the story of Classic Rock, Sammy Hagar has served as one of rock and roll’s most iconic voices.
Guitars, guitars and more guitars. In essence, there is no Classic Rock without the beautiful blistering sound of the guitar. While some of the following guitarists may have been covered in other sections of this article, these particular guitarists also deserve to shine in their own category. We start out with probably the most loved Classic Rock guitarist of them all, Jimmy Page.
Jimmy Page’s most significant contribution to Classic Rock History will always be defined by what he accomplished with Led Zeppelin. Just the sound of Jimmy Page’s guitar alone is legendary. Nonetheless, it was those classic riffs that drove fans wild. At times, especially early on, his solo playing was tight and original in the way it utilized his trademark style of riffs into his solos. As time went on, drugs affected his live playing. It’s one of the reasons there are not a great deal of live Led Zeppelin shows from the late 1970s officially released. Regardless of his drug issues, Jimmy Page’s guitar performances on every Led Zeppelin album put him first in line in this category.
Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page will always be connected together because of their work in the Yardbirds. Yet, their careers could not had been more different since they both left the Yardbirds in the late 1960’s. While Jimmy Page enjoyed a decade of success with the greatest rock band of all time, Jeff Beck has led more of a gypsy like rock and roll career. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just an entirely different path. Most of Jeff Beck’s recorded work has been released on his solo albums. The albums Blow by Blow and Wired that were released in the mid-1970s have been regarded as two of his best. Jeff Beck’s innovative guitar playing created a unique and original sound based on his use of pedals and playing techniques.
Ritchie Blackmore’s legendary career began in the early 1960s as member of a band called the Outlaws. After leaving the band, Blackmore worked as a studio musician. In 1968, he was invited to join the band Deep Purple. His guitar work with Deep Purple resulted in Ritchie Blackmore leading the way in inspiring scores of heavy metal guitar players. His extraordinary solos and riffs blended wonderfully with Jon Lord’s hard hitting organ work. After leaving Deep Purple , Ritchie Blackmore formed the band Rainbow and then Blackmore’s Night.
Guitarist Leslie West remains responsible for one of Classic Rock’s all-time great guitar songs entitled “Mississippi Queen.” His band Mountain released a series of great Classic Rock albums in the 1970s all led by Leslie West’s virtuoso guitar playing.
Most mainstream rock fans were first introduced to the acrobatic genius guitar playing of Steve Vai when he landed the gig in David Lee Roth’s band after the singer left Van Halen. However, a legion of die hard rock fans had already know about the talents of Steve Vai from his work he had done with Frank Zappa. Along with a catalog of his own ingenious solo albums, Steve Vai developed a reputation for being one of the outrageous and brilliant guitar players in rock and roll.
Brian May remains one of the most underrated guitarists in Classic Rock History. The major talents of Freddie Mercury and the incredible songs that the band Queen released always overshadowed Brian May’s playing. Brian May had developed the ability to make his guitar sound like a symphonic orchestra. He proudly promoted that his band did not use synthesizers, instead relying of the creativity of his guitar work. For that alone he stands as one of the best. Nonetheless, we can’t forget the most important reason, the songs. Queen released some of the most iconic music in Classic Rock History. It was Brian May’s talents that helped create so much of it.
One of classic rock’s favorite sons in the 1970s was the dynamic guitarist Robin Trower. His first flirtation with fame came during his stint in the legendary band Procol Harum. Nonetheless, it was a series of solo albums specifically Bridge Of Sighs, For Earth Below and Long Misty Days that cemented his legacy as one of Classic Rock’s all time great guitar players.
Duane Allman, Dicky Betts, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks
The great guitar players of the Allman Brothers left behind a catalog of some of the most enjoyable rock and roll ever played. See our special article on all of them. The Allman Brothers Guitar Players.
Style, groove, and virtuosity all balanced between the groove of Latin rhythms and rock and roll defined the brilliant talents of Carlos Santana. The legendary guitarist fronted his own band called Santana throughout the Classic Rock Era. Santana delivered album after album of music that crossed many genres while showcasing Carlos Santana’s superb guitar playing. His ability to merge ethnic music with rock and roll was groundbreaking.
Keith Richards and Pete Townshend
Great guitar playing is not just about who can lay the fastest licks or solos, it’s about grooves and rhythm. No one played better rhythm guitar than Keith Richards and Pete Townshend. The Rolling Stones legendary sound is defined by Keith Richards extraordinary rhythm guitar playing. As he crossed the lines between lick and rhythm, Richards interplay with Watts and Wood framed the perfect groove that allowed Jagger to dance all. Pete Townshend’s style was heavier and more direct than Richards. With Keith Moon and John Entwistle playing all over the place, Pete Townshend’s rhythmic playing funneled the chaos of his rhythm section into a ferocious powerful sound that The Who became famous for.
Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen will go down in Classic Rock History as being one of the most original guitarists of all time. Eddie Van Halen’s tapping skills were influenced by techniques utilized by Jimmy Page, Steve Hackett and Harvey Mandel. However, Eddie Van Halen’s use of his tapping technique combined with his immense creative talent in fusing tapping with an understanding of harmony from his years as a piano player unleashed a sound on the guitar that had never been heard before. His guitar work that was showcased as the heart of Van Halen would inspire an entire new generation of guitarists.
Frank Zappa – See Zappa section
Eric Clapton – See Clapton section
Stevie Ray Vaughan
In the early 1980s in the middle of new wave, dance music and big hair, one of the most talented guitarists of all time arrived on the scene and reminded everyone of where it all began. Stevie Ray Vaughan utilized the energy, the soul and techniques of greats like Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix to create a sound fueled by high octane emotion and skill. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first album entitled Texas Flood was released in 1983. The legendary guitarist would only release three more studio albums Count Stand The Weather, Soul To Soul and In Step before he was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990.
Before his passing, Stevie Ray Vaughan had also recorded an album with his brother Jimmie Vaughan entitled Family Style. One of his career highlights was the release of a two record set entitled Live Alive in 1986. The album showcased his considerable skills and passionate live performances. There have been many posthumous albums released filled with outtakes and live performances since his passing. In describing his trademark style in his own words, Stevie Ray Vaughan once said that he used heavy strings, tuned low and floored it. Nothing could have described his style more than his own words.
There are so many more we would like to write about, but space does not permit it. Here’s a list of some of the other greats. Les Paul, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Albert King, B.B. King, Duane Eddy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley Robert Johnson, Skip James, Otis Rush, Mick Ronson, Joe Satriani, Nils Lofgren, Dick Dale, John McLaughlin, Ron Asheton, Alex Lifeson, Peter Green, Slash, Yngwie Malmsteen, James Hetfield, John Frusciante, Andy Summers, Brian Setzer, Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, The Edge, Tony Iommi, Steve Morse, Gary Moore, David Gilmour, Al DiMeola, Link Wray, Robert Fripp, Wayne Kramer. Angus Young, Roy Buchanan, Vernon Reid, Jorma Kaukonen, Michael Schenker, Tom Morello, Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, Johnny Ramone, Billy Gibbons, Mike Bloomfield, Scotty Moore, Mark Knopfler, Joe Perry, Ronnie Wood, Mick Taylor, and of course Randy Rhodes.
The History Of Classic Rock: Glam
The genre of Glam began in the early 1970’s. David Bowie’s’ success with his Ziggy Stardust character served as introduction of Glam to a mass market. Glam rock was about showmanship and dressing extravagantly in glamorous costumes. It showcased male rock stars wearing makeup blurring the lines of gender and sexuality. There was a 1960s’ freedom intertwined with a 1970s urge to push the boundaries of entertainment in Glam. In some ways, Glam was a rock and roll version of German cabaret. It was fresh, new and exciting. It upset the norm which has always been the goal of rock and roll.
Artists such as Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls focused more on the sexual side of Glam Rock. Artist such as Kiss and Alice Cooper focused more on the entertaining side of Glam especially in concert and print media. In England, groups such as Sweet, Mott The Hoople, Gary Glitter,The Tubes, Roxy Music and even Queen all utilized elements of Glam in their stage shows and music.
The History of Classic Rock: Southern Rock
The Allman Brothers
One of the most loved genres of classic rock music in the 1970s and beyond was the sound of Southern Rock. No other band played a more prominent role in the development of Southern Rock than the Allman Brothers Band. Although some have argued that The Allman Brothers were not a southern rock band, there is no escaping the influence they had in the genre. After almost a decade of working together in various groups, Duane and Gregg Allman formed the Allman Brothers in 1969. The band combined so many styles of music into their sound. Rock, swing, country, jazz and above all blues fueled the sound of The Allman Brothers. The slide guitar work of Duane Allman was groundbreaking.
The golden voice of Gregg Allman was incredibly addicting to listen to. The song writing skills of Dickey Betts and Duane and Gregg Allman set the bar high for all those who tried to follow in their footsteps. It is fascinating to think about the direction the band would have gone had Duane Allman not tragically lost his life in a motorcycle accident in 1971. Nonetheless, the band did continue to record and tour on and off until the passing of Gregg Allman in 2017. Easily one of the most legendary bands not just in southern rock but in the entire history of rock and roll.
The most successful band to follow in the footsteps and alongside The Allman Brothers Band was Lynyrd Skynyrd. There was never any doubt that Lynyrd Skynyrd was a southern rock band. They proudly promoted their southern roots in songs like “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimme Back My Bullets,” and “I’m A Country Boy.” In 1977, the band seemed to be on the verge of creating a new sound when their private plane crashed killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and back up singer Cassie Gaines. The band reformed ten years later with Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny Van Zant on lead vocals. Nonetheless, the impact the band had on classic rock will always be defined by the catalog of albums they released in the 1970s up until the Street Survivors album in 1977.
Southern Rock flourished in the 1970s. Along with The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, bands such as The Marshall Tucker Band, The Charlie Daniels Band, ZZ Top, Black Oak Arkansas and The Outlaws found great success across the entire United States. Even in the northern cities of New York, Chicago and Detroit people fell in love with the sounds of southern rock. The music would continue into the 80s with bands like 38 Special and ZZ Top crossing the genres of southern music and pop with great commercial success.
The History of Classic Rock: The mega selling album.
In 2019, many issues have risen as to how to count music sales. Michael Jackson’s’ Thriller has long been regarded as the biggest selling album of all time. Recently it has been reported that The Eagles Greatest Hits has sold more units than Thriller and surpassed all other albums in terms of sales. All of this started with the incredible success of an album entitled Frampton Comes Alive. Peter Frampton had been a member of the band Humble Pie. The singer and guitarist quit the band in the early 1970’s and embarked on a solo career releasing four studio albums that had marginal success. No one ever expected Frampton to hit it as big as he did with Frampton Comes Alive.
What was even more extraordinary about the success of Frampton Comes Alive was that it was a two record live album. Traditionally, live albums never sold as well as studio albums. The Frampton Comes Alive album was fueled by radios acceptance of the lead single entitled “Show Me the Way.” The album cover depicted a large photo of Peter Frampton playing guitar with his rock star hair illuminated into a pinkish glow by the concert lights. It was a striking photo that the record company heavily promoted.
The album’s success was a defining product of the times. The album was released in the fall of 1976. At the time, mass market communication and promotion were booming with the spread of cable television through the nation. Record companies could reach into homes more easily. Rock magazines were selling off the shelves. At the end of a bicentennial year with Watergate and Vietnam fading away, the country was ready to party and celebrate life free from a decade and a half of troubles. The timing of the album’s release was perfect.
The two year period between 1976 and 1977 brought huge changes in the music industry. The band’s Boston, Heart and Foreigner all released debut albums between the fall of 1976 and the spring of 1977. Those band’s debut albums would become huge sellers fueling long lasting careers for each band. Fleetwood Mac would release Rumors in 1977 which also became one of the biggest selling albums of all time. Billy Joel would finally become a household name with the release of The Stranger album in 1977 which also would become one of the industries biggest selling albums. Meat Loaf would shock the world including himself when The Bat Out of Hell album which originally was a spoof on Springsteen (according to Todd Rundgren) would turn the journeyman singer into a huge star. The Bat Out of Hell record has become one of the biggest selling albums of all time.
While the end of The Vietnam era and Watergate drove the country towards a mass media consumption economy, it also left a gap for new musical art forms to flourish. Two dramatically different genres evolved around 1976. Disco and punk took aim at society and they could not have been more different. Disco had been evolving in the underground clubs since the late 1960’s. An article written in the New Yorker was read by music producer Robert Stigwood who would than come up with the idea for the motion picture Saturday Night Fever. The film’s success catapulted disco music and dance into the mainstream. The Bee Gees would become one of the most popular bands of the nineteen seventies As popular as the medium had become, there was a strong backlash against it by rock fans.
In New York, there was a movement by bands like Twisted Sister and Jimi LaLumia and The Psychotic Frogs to disparage the format with songs like LaLumia’s “Disco Sucks.” LaLumia’s madhouse recording was a spoof on L.A. Dee Jay Rick Dee’s nauseating single “Disco Duck.” The art of Disco will always be tied into the story of Classic Rock because it served as a severe threat to rock and roll. It competed for airtime on the radio and shelf space in record stores. The raging popularity of the genre convinced many rock club owners to shut down their clubs and reopen them as discos. In the end, the Disco period lasted only a couple of years and gradually was replaced by what was defined as Dance Music in the 1980s.
Punk evolved at the same time Disco arrived but on the Western side of the Atlantic. The United Kingdom’s Sex Pistols were a product of the economy and despair of 1970s England. The band took the concept of rebellion to an entire new level. Some critics described them as the least talented and overrated musical group of all time, while in the same breath calling them the most exciting and important group to come along in a decade. They were incredibly offending. obnoxious and didn’t care what you thought of them. It was not an act, it was genuine. And their timing was perfect?
In the States, a band called The Ramones was making noise in the borough of Queens New York. The punk movement had arrived, and it turned rock music and culture inside out. Punk was anti- establishment just like the bands that came of age in the late 1960s. The big difference between those bands from the 60s and the punk rockers was that the punk rockers didn’t take it that seriously.[xxvi]
A legion of great bands from both sides of the Atlantic soon followed in the footsteps of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. Groups such as The Clash, The Dammed, and the Buzzcocks as well as thousands of other bands were all inspired by the Sex Pistols and Ramones. Different genres of punk soon emerged such as hardcore punk and 0i featuring groups such as Bad Brains and The Cockney Rejects.
While Punk pursued its victims, another form of music referred to as New Wave began to blanket the world. While there were punk elements filtered through new wave, the sound gravitated more towards pop. Bands and artists such as The Talking Heads, The Police, Blondie and The Cars took hold in the late 1970s and led the music world into the next decade of the so called “Big 80s.”
The Story of Classic Rock: Part V – 1980’s
Everything about the 1980s was delivered to consumers on a grand scale. Music, moves, politics, sports and every bit of news exploded furiously throughout the United States and across the globe. The internet had still not yet arrived, but cable television and newspapers served as a tremendous source of spreading information way beyond what they had done in the previous decades. Fittingly, in the big 1980s the United States had elected a former movie star as President.
Without taking any political sides, it is important to note that President Ronald Reagan in his reelection campaign attempted to win over the base of one of the biggest rock stars in the world at the time. In a calculated move, Reagan and his campaigns assistants drafted a speech in which the President said that the hopes and dreams of the nation lay in the spirit of New Jersey Native Brice Springsteen.”[xxvii] The speech meant to capitalize on Springsteen’s popularity due to the success of The Born In The U.S.A album. Like the President, millions of people had misunderstood the meaning behind the loud boisterous like roar of the song “Born in The U.S.A.” A song that Springsteen had written as a protest against the United States Government’s ignorance of the issues returning Vietnam Veterans faced in the 1970s. Many people had interpreted the song including the President as a Nationalistic tribute.
In 1984 and 1985, Bruce Springsteen became the biggest rock star in the world. The national newspaper USA Today ran a headline asking if Bruce Springsteen had become bigger than Elvis Presley. A ridiculous question, yet perfectly in line with the madness of Springsteen mania. Nonetheless, ten years earlier in 1974 music critique Jon Landau had famously written “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,”[xxviii] In 1975 Bruce Springsteen would find himself on the covers of Newsweek and Time magazine in the same week.
Bruce Springsteen had released a groundbreaking album entitled Born to Run. It was his third record release and it was spectacular. The record sounded like nothing before. The music inspired countless musicians and turned Springsteen into an artist that developed an extremely large following of loyal fans. His fan base grew too large to call him a cult artist, but the loyalty and love he received echoed the fan bases of cult artists. Talk about Backstreets magazine
Springsteen followed up the Born To Run album with 1978’s Darkness on The Edge Of Town. It was an album critics and many fans hailed as an even stronger work than Born To Run and whom many feel might stand as his greatest work. Legal problems with a change of management had delayed the record. Nonetheless, the 1978 Darkness tour defined a series of performances that have gone down as some of the greatest rock and roll concerts of all time.
Springsteen’s follow up to Born in the U.S.A. was a 3 CD or 5 LP set chronicling his live performances between the years 1975 and 1985. The three CD live set has been recognized as the major label release that catapulted the new CD format into the mainstream. Springsteen could have continued to capitalize on his soaring fame by continuing to release big sounding E Street Band albums. Instead, he waited until 1987 to release a much more scaled down personal recording entitled Tunnel of Love. A few years later he broke up the E Street Band in order to tour with a new group of musicians.
In 1999, he reunited the E Street Band for a reunion tour that lasted a few years before returning to the studio for new music with the band. In the wake of 9/11, Springsteen released an album entitled The Rising that focused on helping those who had lost so many loved ones. In 2019 and at 70 years old Springsteen continues to release new music proving to be one of the most heralded musical artists of all time.
The Police / Sting
In 1978, The Police broke onto the scene and turned heads quickly with a sound that blended aspects of reggae, punk, new wave and rock and roll. The band’s first big hit entitled “Roxanne,” broke quickly because there was nothing on the radio that sounded anything like it. The band consisted of Sting on bass, Andy Summers on guitar and Stewart Copeland on drums. Over the next six years the Police would become one of the biggest bands in the world. The Police only released five albums, but each record was momentous and included many hit singles. Their first album was released in 1978 entitled Outlandos d’Amour. That album was followed up by Reggatta de Blanc in 1979, Zenyatta Mondatta in 1980, Ghost in the Machine in 1981 and ther final studio album entitled Synchronicity in 1983.
The Synchronicity album was by far the band’s most successful. It spawned huge hits including the number one single “Every Breath You Take.” A world tour ensued in which the band played many stadiums including the legendary Shea Stadium in New York. The same site The Beatles had played their legendary show twenty years earlier. In the middle of all that incredible success, The Police broke up.
Sting composed the majority of the material in the band as well as handling almost all of the lead vocals. If there was one member in the group who was set to enjoy a successful solo career it was Sting. Interestingly, Sting’s solo career would travel a far more interesting musical journey than what he had just completed with the Police. While his use of counterpoint and reggae rhythms would remain in his music, his love of jazz would take center stage. In recording his debut solo album The Dream of The Blue Turtles, Sting recruited some of the finest young up and coming jazz musicians in the business to form his new band. These would include Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim and Daryl Jones.
Sting’s follow up to Dream of The Blue Turtles was released in 1987 entitled Nothing Like The Son. The record continued Sting’s exploration of merging musical genres while composing brilliant songs defined by virtuous musicianship. Sting would continue to release excellent albums. He was especially affluent in the 1990s releasing The Soul Cages in 1991, Ten Summoner’s Tales in 1993, Mercury Falling in 1996 and Brand New Day in 1999. Sting would continue to release records into the 2000s and 2010s. Sting would take part in many charitable causes including a major role in Amnesty International. Sting also pursed a cinematic career appearing in many films.
The History of Classic Rock: Lending A Helping Hand
The spirit of 1960’s protest that had been missing from the late 1970s returned in the mid-1980s in the form of charitable causes. The biggest rock and roll stars in the world came together for a series of recordings and concerts to help those in need around the globe. The first rock star charitable summit was driven by the work of musician Bob Geldof. The Boomtown Rats singer was horrified as he watched BBC news reports focusing on starvation in Ethiopia.
With the help of Midge Ure, Geldof got some of the biggest names in the music business including Paul McCartney, Sting, Bono, Phil Collins and many others to record a charitable single entitled “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” The song wound up becoming the biggest selling single in the history of the United Kingdom. Only Elton John’s reworked “Candle in The Wind,” Princes Diana tribute single would wind up selling more records years later.
One the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean, musicians in the United States would embark on a similar project to Bob Geldof’s. Led by Harry Belafonte, Ken Kragen, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones, the “We are The World,” single was recorded just a few months after “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Once again. the project aimed at providing funds to famine relief in Africa. An even larger cast of superstar musicians became involved in the We Are the World Project. Artists such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Journey, Huey Lewis and The News, Cindy Lauper, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Hall & Oates, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, The Pointer Sisters and many others all participated in the recording. These were the biggest names in the music business at the time.
A series of mega artist concerts were also produced in the mid-1980s for charitable causes. None was bigger that 1985’s Live Aid. The concert was directly connected to Bob Geldof’s humanitarian cause to provide famine relief. Once again Bob Geldof and Midge Ure recruited the biggest names in the music industry to perform. The Live Aid concerts were performed simultaneously on July 13th, 1985 at Wembley Stadium In London England and John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. The dual concert raised one hundred and fifty million dollars for famine relief.[xxix]
During Bob Dylan’s performance at Live Aid, the legendary singer mentioned that he thought some of the money raised at Live Aid should be allocated to American Framers and their families who were having trouble surviving. His comments led to another benefit concert a few months later entitled Farm Aid. The Farm Aid concert was organized by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp. Unlike most benefit concerts Farm Aid would blossom into an annual concert that has continued for over thirty four years.
The Live Aid concert in 1985 was not the first time rock stars came together in a massive rock and roll show to raise money for those in need. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar promoted two concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1971 labeled as The Concert For Bangladesh. What musicians learn about Harrison’s concert was that the show itself could raise money; it would be future record sales of the recorded concert that would continue to offer financial charitable benefits for those who the concert was created for. Unfortunately, in 2019 that model no longer works as the sale of records and CDs make up for less than 20 percent of revenue in the music business.
The History of Classic Rock: The MTV Era
The impact that the launch of MTV had in the early 1980s can almost not be measured. The rock and roll landscape of the 1980s would have been dramatically different had MTV never took off like it did. There are many artists who owe their entire careers to MTV. Revisionist history is always a rocky slope to navigate but we could argue that there are certain artists that benefited dramatically from heavy rotation on MTV. The Police had already become a big band before MTV, but they did enjoy the extra boost the network gave to them. The same went for Dire Straits who also enjoyed great success on the channel with “Money For Nothing.” Bands like The Rolling Stones, Journey, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen did not need MTV, but they didn’t ignore it either. Perhaps the one already established band that utilized MTV for ultimate super stardom more than anyone was ZZ Top. The Texas Trio had already been recording and touring with great success for ten years, but their heavily produced videos that featured the Eliminator car and a trio of hot models proved to be an incredible formula for success.
The biggest MTV star of the all was hands down, Madonna. She was beautiful, she was sexy, she was dangerous, and she knew how to use the camera. In many ways she had done what Elvis Presley had done in front of the camera thirty years earlier. She used every bit of her sex appeal to captivate her audiences. Madonna had great producers working with her on her first five albums. The combination of those Madonna songs with the great hooks and her sexy original style and looks a made her one of the biggest stars in the world. It would not have happened without MTV. Madonna needed MTV and MTV needed Madonna. While we cannot really classify Madonna as classic rock, her contribution to the success of MTV plays a vital role in the story of classic rock in all its forms.
The MTV formula behind the rise of Madonna was utilized with many unknown bands. Some with great success that lasted a long time and others shot to stardom but quickly faded. Bands like A Flock of Seagulls, Tommy Tutone, Red Rider, Missing Persons, Asia, Adam Ant, Duran Duran, Paul Young, The Stray Cats, The Cars and Culture Club all had their greatest commercial success during the early MTV years.
Asia was almost an outlier on MTV as they were a band made up of some of the most legendary progressive rock musicians in classic rock history who delivered a sound that crossed the genres of rock and pop in a very successful way. Their video for “Heat of The Moment,” was one of the most played videos on MTV in the early days. The original lineup of the band featured John Wetton of King Crimson, U.K. and Uriah Heep, Carl Palmer of Emerson Lake & Palmer, Steve Howe of Yes and Geoff Downes who had played in Yes and The Buggles. That superstar lineup only lasted two albums until their reunited in 2008 for the Phoenix album.
The one commonality among all the early 1980s MTV artists was they were all white. MTV received a great deal of criticism because of their refusal to play R&B artists. Nonetheless, that fire would be partly extinguished when the power of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album began crossing all musical genres. The fire of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar licks on “Beat It,” and Michael Jackson’s howls, dance moves and overall appeal crossed most racial divides and dominated the entire music industry much less MTV for much of the 1980’s. The heavy rotation of Michael Jackson videos on MTV also co-existed on the same level as the great artist known as Prince. Eventually black artists would begin to get airplay on MTV Tina Turner, Ray Parker Jr.
Prince was an artist that was way to affluent, talented and determined to have to rely on an MTV to influence his career. Nonetheless, he was also one of the only black artists to be featured early on MTV. His video for Little Red Corvette was placed in heavy rotation. Did MTV influence the Purple Rain film or was it the other way around. In the end, they both compliment each other as the videos for “Purple Rain,” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” were played nonstop on MTV.
In 1984, Prince, Michael Jackson Madonna, Huey Lewis and the News, The Police, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen were the biggest musical acts in the world. Springsteen has often tongue in cheek cursed out Prince because Purple Rain prevented Born In The U.S.A. from reaching number one on the album charts. Interestingly Prince and Springsteen had been around longer than most of the big acts in 1984 and wound up having long careers that delivered album after album of brilliant music.
Prince released a great deal of music from 1984 until his sudden passing in 2016. Prince was one of the most affluent writers in the history of classic rock. He released his first album in 1978 entitled For You. From that point on Prince released thirty eight more studio albums. His final studio recordings released before his passing were issued in 2015 entitled HITnRUN Phase One and HITnRUN Phase Two.
Known as the King Of Pop, that title has be tarnished by allegations of misconduct involving minors multiple times throughout his career. Nonetheless, one can not compose the Story Of Classic Rock without mentioning the commercial success and pop culture impact Michael Jackson celebrated for four decades. Michael Jackson’s musical career began as a child as a member of his family’s musical group The Jackson Five. The group enjoyed great success with a pre teen Michael Jackson singing lead vocals on classic tracks such as “I Want You Back,” and “ABC.” As successful as the group was, it would not compare to the massive stardom Michael Jackson would encounter with the release of his solo album Thriller in 1980.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller album would become the biggest selling album in music history. However, it has been recently surpassed in overall sales by The Eagles Greatest Hits. Nonetheless, Thriller was the first pop music album to spawn seven top 10 singles. The album dominated pop culture. Michael Jackson’s follow up album entitled Bad would also enjoy extreme success as the album delivered five straight number one singles. Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album followed Bad That album also delivered three top 10 singles including the number one hit “Black & White.”
After the release of Dangerous, Michael Jackson was never able to repeat the commercial success he had with those previous three albums. Immense fame can prove fatal to many people. Michael Jackson only knew immense fame from the time he was a child. It would eventually become his undoing. It is a far too complex case to explore here.
Guns N’ Roses
The sound of the big 80s was fueled by new developments in technology that yielded recording equipment that producers utilized in applying lush reverbs, gates, echo effects and other techniques to creates walls of sound on recordings. Advances in synthesizer production increased the use of keyboards on records almost tenfold. It got to a point in which record producers were replacing the craft of songwriting with over the top production techniques and sound effects. The over produced synthetic sound recording would be challenged in 1986 when a new band arrived n the scene that turned back the clock to the sound of the 1970s with a fire and attitude that fell somewhere between the Stones, Kiss and Led Zeppelin. The band was called Guns N’ Roses and they became the biggest rock band in music for a very short time. Too bad they screwed it all up.
Gun’s N’ Roses shot out of the gate with the release of the album Appetite for Destruction. The band had the look, the sound and most importantly the songs to capture an audience hungry for great basic rock and roll. Axl Rose and Slash had that Jimmy Page Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger Keith Richards electric persona on stage. Rock fans went crazy over Guns N’ Roses. The dual CD release of Use Your Illusion I and II were phenomenal rock and roll records. These guys were for real. The band was so good we all thought that we were witnessing the birth of a new Rolling Stones. A new group that would be around for years releasing album after albums of great material. The only problem was the real Rolling Stones have lasted over 50 years, Guns N’ Roses broke up after just three.
The last remaining band that needs to be addressed in the Classic Rock era before the start of the 1990s period is U2. Like Led Zeppelin, U2 had a unique sound that was defined by each individual musician in the band. The band’s debut album entitled Boy was released in 1980. The album’s opening cut “I Will Follow,” displayed one of the most dynamic original guitar licks in classic rock history. Hailing from Ireland, the band carried with them the political issues that plagued the country in the 20th century. Politics and social issues would form the backdrop of many of U2’s lyrical themes.
The band’s lead singer Bono would become an activist participating in many of rock and roll’s charitable cause through the years while also leading the way on many of his own. The band released album on a continuous basis become on of the most important rock groups in classic rock history. here sound changed every couple of albums but then often returned to its original sound. The band’s greatest musical achievement is widely acknowledged to be their 1986 album The Joshua Tree.
Story of Classic Rock: 90s and Beyond
Rock and Roll is defined by a history of turning points. Perhaps the final great turning point in classic rock history occurred in 1990 with the arrival of the band Nirvana. Kurt Cobain and his band were from the Seattle, Washington area. The music that Nirvana played was often referred to as grunge. It was style of music that was developing in the Seattle area in the mid to late 80s. When Nirvana hit it big in 1991 with their huge single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the doors opened for whole new wave of bands from that area to find success in the mainstream.
Bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Alice in Chains brought back the spirit of 1970s classic rock and roll while attracting an entire new generation of rock fans. It would be the last time that a new form of rock would dominate the mainstream. In the end, it really wasn’t grunge, it was just a new wave of great rock and roll bands that actually sounded very different from each other.
In the 1990’s Hip Hop and Rap would quickly take over the music world. Those forms of music have dominated pop culture ever since. Of course, there are still many great rock and roll bands performing, but rock no longer leads the way in the music business. A new generation of teens have grown up in an internet generation where for them, music is free. Legendary Classic Rock artists no longer have any incentive at least from an economic standpoint to release new music, because no one buys it.
In 2019, the music business has completely changed from the days of mega selling albums in the 1970s and 80s. Of course, there are pros and cons to every story. The internet of the twenty first century has allowed millions of artists to promote their music to anyone who happens to find them among the million of fans searching for music. Occasionally, an artist gets lucky and their video goes viral. But in a way, that’s the same old story as an artist hoping for a talent scout to walk into that dingey bar they were playing in the 1960’s and 70s.
As we all mourn the end of Classic Rock as we know it, we must remember that it’s actually the end “as we know it.” Today’s generation of teens are completely enthralled in their own scene. Hip hop, and rap is their Classic Rock. They don’t want to be listening to the same music their parents or grandparents listened to. We all remember our parent’s looks of disgust when they saw our Kiss Alive albums covers or heard us blasting “The Lemon Song,” by Led Zeppelin. How many times did you hear from your parents “that not real music, Andy Williams is real music.” I never thought when I was younger that I would become the parent saying “turn that down!” But when my son is blasting Kanye West, I turn into my father. Every generation has their own music. Sadly, the Classic Rock era is fading away faster and faster it seems. But for all of us still alive and breathing, we can still turn it up………to ?
Written by Brian Kachejian
Special advisors: Thomas Neokleous and John Tabacco
This work is copyrighted with the Library of Congress
© 2019 Brian Kachejian ClassicRockHistory.com All Rights Reserved
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Feature Photo Credits:
Led Zeppelin Photo: By Jim Summaria, http://www.jimsummariaphoto.com/ (Contact us/Photo submission) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mick Jagger Photo By Gorupdebesanez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Beatles Photo: By Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (https://www.flickr.com/photos/proni/18226096790/) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Aerosmith : Photo: Reverend Mick man34 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Buddy Holly Photo: Public Domain
Steve Howe Photo: By Rik Walton [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Chuck Berry Photo: By Universal Attractions (management) (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Eddie Van Halen Photo: By Anirudh Koul from Montreal, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Neil Young Photo: By Andrea Barsanti (Spirit Road) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Keith Emerson Photo: By Gorupdebesanez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
David Bowie Photo: By Elmar J. Lordemann (de:User:Jo Atmon) (Own work — photography by Jo Atmon) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Beatles Photo: Public Domain via Creative Commons
Elton John Photo: By https://www.flickr.com/photos/more19562003/ [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
UPDATED October 30, 2022
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