Classic rock isn’t an easy genre to define. While some music fans loosely consider classic rock to be pretty much any rock band active and popular during the late 60s to the early 80s, others define it as a specific style of music. The period in question saw the rise and fall of genres like rock ‘n’ roll, glam rock, pop rock and heavy metal, so it’s not always accurate to just pick and choose artists from these very different decades of music. Also, many bands during this time completely changed their sound and style and drifted away from guitar-driven, rock music toward completely different genres. Most importantly, classic rock bands are those which truly deserve ‘classic status’: bands which completely defined a generation and influenced countless artists in the years since. Some of the following classic rock bands are as popular now as they have ever been, and they have always stayed true to their musical roots.
10. Creedence Clearwater Revival
When Creedence Clearwater Revival (often referred to as CCR) started making waves in the San Francisco scene during the late 1960s, they sounded like no other rock band out there. Their sound was clearly influenced by blues and country music and their songs were infused with Southern iconography with lyrics which referenced river boats, bayous and murky swamps. However, CCR had a sudden, immediate sound which instantly kicked in with little fuss or flourish. Even when they were covering rockabilly classics like Susie Q or traditional folk songs like Midnight Special, it often felt like CCR just wanted to get straight to the point. Many of the band’s songs didn’t bother with the long intros or drawn out guitar solos typically associated with the rock genre and it often felt like lead singer John Fogerty simply couldn’t wait to belt out his mighty vocal talents. Although very few lead vocalists can match the instantly recognisable voice of Fogerty, he was also one of the best songwriters of his generation. Described by Bruce Springsteen as a “shaggy-haired prophet”, Fogerty penned deep, thoughtful lyrics which dealt with serious issues like social inequality, the Vietnam War and gun culture. Sadly, the legend of CCR was over almost as quickly as it had begun. The original line-up was only active for five years between 1967 and 1972 before they split. A rift developed between the bandmates and to this day it seems unlikely that they will ever amicably reunite. Fogerty is a successful solo artist while other members of the band still tour as Creedence Clearwater Revisited.
9. Grateful Dead
The 1960s and early 1970s saw the creation of the counterculture movement in the USA. This subculture rejected typical social norms and its popularity exploded during this period alongside the growth of the hippy culture, the denouncement of nuclear power, public opposition to the Vietnam War and huge support for civil rights. No other band perfectly encapsulates the drastic change of this time than the Grateful Dead. Blending almost every type of musical genre imaginable (including seemingly conflicting styles like blues, reggae, psychedelic rock and bluegrass), the Grateful Dead was a truly unique and pioneering rock band. Their music appealed to many different generations and the band enjoyed a hardcore, dedicated fan base which travelled across the country to watch them play in different venues. The band was also almost completely responsible for creating the genre of ‘Jam band’ as Grateful Dead were renowned for their loose, laid-back approach to live shows. Improvisation and experimentation was a huge part of the band’s persona and no two Grateful Dead concerts were ever the same. The death of the band’s frontman Jerry Garcia in 1995 brought an end to their 30 year long run, but members of the Grateful Dead still tour together in different musical outfits.
8. Lynyrd Skynyrd
No band encapsulated Southern rock as perfectly as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Southern rock was all about the power of guitars (Lynyrd Skynyrd boasted three guitarists in its lineup) and lyrics which played tribute to the good ol’ fashioned values of the American South. It’s easy to see this influence in the band’s biggest hits ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Freebird’, but songwriter and lead vocalist Ronnie Van Sant also proved to have much more to say. Songs like ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ and ‘Simple Man’ are thoughtful odes to a simpler, better time and even their signature hit ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ was intended to take a swipe at the South’s casual tolerance of racism (many people misinterpreted the song as supporting, rather than condemning, the pro-segregation Governor of Alabama George Wallace). While their lyrics may go unappreciated, there’s no denying the sheer pomp and power of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s guitar riffs and the excessive duration of their songs. Unfortunately, Lynyrd Skynyrd suffered a tragic loss in 1977 when the band was at the height of its popularity. Three members, including Van Sant, were killed in a plane crash and the band went on immediate hiatus. Surviving members of the band reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987 and the new line-up continues to tour to this day with Ronnie Van Sant’s younger brother Johnny as the lead singer.
photo: Llann Wé / Wikicommons
Few bands in music are as instantly recognisable as Kiss. The band has been performing for more than 40 years and still manage to demonstrate the same intensity and enthusiasm they showed when they first rose to fame in the early 70s. Although only two members from the original line-up remain (lead vocalists Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons), Kiss seem like they are immortal rock gods with the help of their elaborate, black and white make-up designs for their comic-book inspired alter egos The Starchild, The Demon, The Space Ace, The Catman, The Fox and The Ankh Warrior. Known for their anthem-like songs and bombastic live shows, Kiss are an insane mix of the theatricality of glam rock, the thunderous sound of heavy metal and the guitar-shredding of rock. Kiss are also one of the few classic rock bands who have managed to maintain a fairly aggressive merchandising and marketing campaign throughout their career without being labelled as ‘sell-outs’. Kiss have lent their recognisable faces and brand to everything from coffins to video games and they show no signs of slowing down.
Canadian band Rush have always been one of the most intriguing voices in the rock genre. Regarded as having one of the most technically gifted line-ups in music, Rush is renowned for its stellar musicianship and diverse, genre-bending arrangements and compositions. A typical Rush live show will see each band member (guitarist Alex Lifeson, bassist and lead vocalist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart) switch between instruments and use digital samplers in some of the most remarkable and gifted displays of technical proficiency. In a surprising twist for a rock band, Neil Peart often manages to steal the show as he somehow manages to demonstrate complete masterful control over his 360 degree drum set. The band’s musical style has evolved considerably since its formation in 1968 and Rush has a reputation for embracing the idea of concept music. Perhaps the most ambitious example of this is their 1976 album 2112 which tells the story of a dystopian future where almost all life in the universe is controlled by a sect called the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx. Largely inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand, this sweeping sci-fi space opera devised by the band is unlike almost any other rock concept album.
5. Rolling Stones
Most rock bands usually have at least one member of the group who takes all the glory for being the wild, out of control one, but the Rolling Stones have the dubious honour of being a complete pack of hell raisers. The entire band (including former members) has a history of drug or alcohol abuse, sexual conquests and general rock star indulgences. Of the group’s four current members, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts have at least mellowed out in recent years, but Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood still maintain their wild image. Despite this reputation, the Rolling Stones has always been about the music and there’s no denying that the band has been responsible for some of the biggest hits in rock. Performing with undeniable charisma and raw, manic energy, the Rolling Stones owe tremendous debt to R & B and soul music. Jagger’s ‘swagger’ seemed like a direct imitation of the soulful stage performances of black R & B musicians and the guitar riffs and compositions of Richards pay clear homage to the likes of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. However, while it’s clear that this influence has always been there, the band has always had an undeniably unique voice and an image which just simply can’t be imitated or reproduced. Unapologetically provocative and always daring, the Rolling Stones seamlessly blended blues with rock ‘n’ roll and completely revolutionised the genre during the late 60s and 70s. Be sure to check out the top 10 best Rolling Stones songs.
4. Black Sabbath
If classic rock had a wicked side, it would be in the form of Black Sabbath. While other rock bands counted on their insane guitar solos or enigmatic front man, Black Sabbath was chaos through and through. Black Sabbath created music which had a relentless, foreboding sense of dread and doom. With the release of the band’s eponymous debut album ‘Black Sabbath’ in 1970, they courted controversy and almost instant dismissal by critics with their lyrics which were obsessed with Satan, the occult and the end of the world. Recorded entirely in one day, the album was a success in both the UK and the US and the band headed back to the recording studio just four months later to work on their follow-up album ‘Paranoid’. This proved to be a similarly shambolic affair and the single ‘Paranoid’ (which is widely considered to be Black Sabbath’s signature tune and is still to this day a bonafide rock classic) was actually written as last minute filler for the album. Nevertheless, the album was another huge success despite even more damaging reviews from critics and it topped the charts. Black Sabbath’s rise to fame was a lightning in a bottle success story and they were completely unlike any other band at the time. Operating in their own weird little rebellious rock niche, Black Sabbath lay the groundwork for the heavy metal genre. Their songs may not seem as openly flashy or technically crafted as the output of some of their contemporaries, but Tony Iommi’s dependable and economic riffs has made him one of the most respected guitarists in rock history and Ozzy Osbourne’s shrill, distinctive voice (not to mention his onstage and offstage antics) is unforgettable and instantly recognisable.
3. Pink Floyd
Unfairly considered by many to be a psychedelic band associated with stoner culture, there is so much more to Pink Floyd that it would be a crime not to have them up with the rock band greats. While it’s certainly true that the early Syd Barrett years of Pink Floyd during the late 60s relied on synthesizers and an ambient style to create a hazy, trippy experience, the band were constantly changing their sound and their entire approach to music. Pink Floyd proved they had moved away from avant-garde, experimental exercises and turned to a much more creative and cohesive approach with the release of Meddle in 1971. Of course, the eccentricities of the band were still there, but there was a marked confidence in their technical ability. In 1973, the band released The Dark Side of the Moon. This defining album (one of the best-selling rock albums of all time) was a conceptually ambitious project as each side was intended to serve as one piece of continuous music which flowed across five tracks. From the deep philosophical lyrics of songwriter Roger Waters to the sprawling guitar work of David Gilmour, the album is a showcase for the band’s raw talent. Following up with critically acclaimed albums like Wish You Were Here, The Wall and The Final Cut, Pink Floyd rightfully enjoyed years as one of the leading bands in rock.
2. The Who
The Who were always about volume. The band quickly made a name for themselves during the British Mod Movement of the 1960s as they had a penchant for destroying their equipment onstage. However, they were much more than just a band with a fierce, provocative image. The release of some of their earliest singles, like ‘My Generation’ in 1965, proved that The Who were more than willing to completely smash their way through the rock genre. With the powerful, masterful guitar control of Pete Townsend, the out of control energy of drummer Keith Moon and the growling, tough vocals of Roger Daltry, The Who was a genuine tour de force in rock music.
1. Led Zeppelin
It’s hard to imagine the face of rock music without the presence of Led Zeppelin. Described by Dave Grohl as “the perfect combination of the most intense elements”, Zeppelin broke new ground with almost everything they did. Guitarist Jimmy Page effortlessly power-riffed onstage with double-headed guitars, the band refused to perform live on television because they didn’t trust sound engineers to do their music justice, they thought that albums should only be listened to as a whole and they didn’t approve of many of their most popular songs being released as singles. That’s to say nothing of the band’s legendary tales of debauchery and drug-fuelled excesses. Their discography is packed with indisputable classics. Even people who don’t listen to rock music will have heard the opening riff on ‘Whole Lotta Love’, the instantly recognisable chord progression of ‘Kashmir’ or the maddening screams and hammering drums of ‘Immigrant Song’. Led Zeppelin weren’t just a leading force in rock; they were one of the best bands of all-time.