Bored with Top 100 Classic Rock Songs lists that are dominated by the same handful of artists? We put a twist on that: You’ll still find all of the expected legends on the below list, from Aerosmith to ZZ Top, but each artist gets only one song each.
Think of it as a high-stakes game, as everybody puts his best hand on the table.
We’ve already anticipated the questions: “Was the right song chosen to represent each artist or band?” “Was that song slotted in its proper place?”
Of course, this means that all but one song from even the most legendary artists won’t be represented here. Even after allowing 100 different artists onto the list, there were still dozens of “How can so-and-so not be included?” arguments that surfaced as we pulled this all together.
So, yeah, this wasn’t easy.
The below list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs may start a lot of fights (it did around here at the UCR office), but it’s also the start of one hell of a playlist.
100: Sammy Hagar, “I Can’t Drive 55”
Who better to get our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list off to a fast start than Sammy Hagar and his anti-speed limit anthem, “I Can’t Drive 55?”
Nearly a decade of constant touring and increasing record sales – remember “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy?” – had already established Hagar as a rock star prior to the release of his 1984 VOA album.
But the Red Rocker really hit a nerve with the message of the record’s first single, which – aided by a truly entertaining video – quickly made him a household name and bona-fide arena headliner.
We’re not saying Hagar was directly responsible for the late-’80s national law changes that allowed states to once again set speed limits higher than 55, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt. This new level of fame also paved the way for him to join Van Halen in 1985.
“I Can’t Drive 55,” as Hagar has explained many times, was inspired by a real-life incident that found him pulled over for doing 62 late at night on an empty highway in upstate New York. We’re guessing record sales from this song have paid for that ticket many times over by now.
99: Kansas, “Carry On Wayward Son”
The now-familiar a capella intro for “Carry On Wayward Son” was the sonic hook that would help Kansas score their first major hit, a feat that was a long time coming for the band.
Like many groups in the time period, Kansas toured and recorded relentlessly, supporting three albums that sold modestly despite their growing live following. Taking a short breather to record what would become their fourth album, 1976’s Leftoverture, frontman Steve Walsh ran into writer’s block.
Luckily, guitarist Kerry Livgren was overflowing creatively with ideas and he still had one song that he hadn’t shared with the band. Once the members heard the initial idea for “Carry On Wayward Son,” they knew the songwriting gold that they had on hand and went straight into the recording studio without even pausing to rehearse the track.
Next to some of the proggier moments on Leftoverture, “Carry On Wayward Son” feels comparatively restrained and compact, even though it stretches out across nearly five and a half minutes.
Livgren’s engaging storyline of a man embattled with the voices and visions in his head is driven forward by guitar riffing, organ swells and solos from nearly every member in the band. The story might be slightly turbulent, but the music certainly jams.
98: Scorpions, “Rock You Like a Hurricane”
“Rock You Like a Hurricane” propelled the German metal band’s Love at First Sting album into the Billboard Top 10, although the song itself only hit No. 25 on the singles chart.
In terms of ’80s metal classics, however, the tune is the Platonic ideal: a headbanging-worthy repeating riff, gigantic drums, a ripping solo and an indelible refrain — sing it now — “Here I am, rock you like a hurricane.”
Although the official video is full of ’80s clichés (women dressed as animals, actual zoo animals, absurd sci-fi flourishes), the campy edge of the music never overshadows the ferocious nature of the song. Heck, “Rock You Like a Hurricane” even sounds badass when interpreted by an orchestra: Just try to stop yourself from fist-pumping while watching this video of the band performing with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
97: Electric Light Orchestra, “Don’t Bring Me Down”
You can hear a Jeff Lynne song from a couple miles down the road: It’s all in the bass drum. That magnificent, booming sound that’s graced records by Tom Petty (“Running Down a Dream”), Roy Orbison (“You Got It”), even the Beatles (“Free as a Bird”).
“Don’t Bring Me Down” has got those drums, and oddly enough, that’s about all it has. The song represents the first time the band released a track without strings, and by the Electric Light Orchestra’s ornate arrangement standards, it’s positively rudimentary.
Recorded in Munich during sessions for ELO’s 1979 Discovery LP, “Don’t Bring Me Down” emerged almost whole cloth from Lynne, who wrote the tune on piano and immediately moved to complete the backing track on his own, using a slowed-down drum tape from a previous song to create the tune’s trademark beat. It’s unknown if any other members of ELO even played on the track.
That makes it pure, vintage Lynne in a way that maybe no other ELO hit can claim. And while the Electric Light Orchestra counted plenty among its membership over the years, from its second album onward, the band acted largely as a musical-auteur vehicle for Lynne’s gifted songwriting and arranging skills.
“Don’t Bring Me Down” was by far the band’s biggest smash, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 3 in the UK; it also charted highly in Canada and Australia. As of November 2007, the track had logged a whopping two million radio airplays according to BMI. After “Evil Woman,” “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Livin’ Thing” have faded into history, “Don’t Bring Me Down” may stand as Lynne’s greatest recorded legacy.
96: Molly Hatchet, “Flirtin’ With Disaster”
The triple-guitar attack of Jacksonville’s Molly Hatchet takes our list on the ultimate search and destroy mission, challenging the eardrum health of rock music fans everywhere via “Flirtin’ With Disaster.”
Like a flash flood of boulders tumbling down a mountain, “Flirtin’” storms the castle with big, burly badass Danny Joe Brown at the helm, manipulating the musical landscape with his distinctively boisterous lead vocals, which to this day are instantly identifiable.
“Flirtin’ With Disaster” is a road song in the tradition of similar great songs of its ilk, telling the tale of living fast, living hard and flying way too close to the edge. Out of money? Check. Corruption? Check. Feeling like perhaps a change of course might be a good idea? Check.
Brown and Molly Hatchet cover it all at a blistering pace and sadly, the story seems to foreshadow Brown’s own health problems, which would force him to depart the group in 1980.
Although he would return to the Molly Hatchet lineup, further health issues caused him to leave again prior to his sad passing in 2005. A revised version of Molly Hatchet continues to make music today proving that they’re still a force to be reckoned with.
95. Styx, “Renegade”
The jig is up, the news is out, you’ve finally found Styx on our big countdown. If you guessed “Renegade,” you’ve got it made, you’ve earned a big bounty!
The third single from the band’s 1978 smash album Pieces of Eight tells the tale of a captured law-breaker who realizes that his crimes and karma are about to catch up with him.
It was written by guitarist Tommy Shaw, who told us in 2011 that he’s delighted with the long life the song has enjoyed thanks to constant radio play, as well as placement on movie and TV soundtracks including Billy Madison and Freaks and Geeks.
If this list was strictly about those classic rock songs performed at football games, it would undoubtedly rank much higher. As Shaw explained back then, the Pittsburgh Steelers “have been using ‘Renegade’ as their defensive rally song for 12 years now.”
Although he’s quick to admit he’s not the biggest sports fan, Shaw marvels at the impact the song has on the massive crowds: “I have stood there in one of the boxes and looked out and seen 80,000 people waving the Terrible Towels while ‘Renegade’ is playing on the big screen. … It’s a very welcoming environment for me.”
94: Blind Faith, “Can’t Find My Way Home”
An unprecedented and arguably unmatched collection of talent and rock stardom, Blind Faith land at the No. 94 spot on our list with the haunting “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
With both Traffic and Cream disbanded, Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton joined forces, bringing along another ex-Cream member Ginger Baker as well as Ric Grech from the incredible, though relatively obscure group Family.
Their legacy amounted to only one studio album, but the strength of its songs and performances have made it a lasting favorite for rock fans. Recorded during the first half of 1969, Clapton, Winwood and Baker all contributed songs to the project, but this classic from the Traffic frontman stands out as the definitive statement.
The beautiful and plaintive ballad finds Winwood’s sweet vocal floating atop the intricate acoustic guitar work, while bassist Grech and drummer Baker provide subtle but effective rhythms to drive it along. Jimmy Miller’s warm and inviting production helps make the song all the more essential.
The album topped both the U.K. and U.S. charts upon its release in August 1969. The controversial cover art, featuring a very young topless girl holding the hood ornament from a 1956 Chevrolet didn’t hurt sales either, as sad as that might sound.
Clapton went on to his successful solo career, Traffic eventually reformed, and both Baker and Grech continued on, but this one-off collaboration still shines brightly.
93: George Thorogood, “Bad to the Bone”
George Thorogood and the Destroyers have a penchant for rockin’ covers of all kinds of blues songs, but the band is probably best known for a song George wrote himself: “Bad to the Bone.”
It didn’t get much attention when it was released on the 1982 album of the same name, but MTV liked it and put the video for the track into heavy rotation.
The clip features a live performance by the Destroyers along with scenes of a cigar-chomping Thorogood shooting pool with Bo Diddley, and that may not have been happenstance: George is known for covering Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?,” and music lovers have pointed out the guitar riff and vocal rhythms in “Bad to the Bone” sound like they were inspired by the iconic bluesman’s classic song, “I’m a Man.”
MTV helped “Bad to the Bone” catch fire, and it’s since been licensed out to scores of movies, TV shows and commercials. It’s also played at sporting events all over the country, and several professional wrestlers have adopted it as their theme song. While this isn’t exactly as bad-ass, the song was also introduced to a much younger generation when Alvin and the Chipmunks covered it for an episode of their television series.
But even though ‘Bad to the Bone’ was his greatest commercial success, the Thorogood isn’t terribly interested in writing another song about hard-drinking tough guys. “I’ve covered that subject,” he once said in a 2008 interview. “It was never a dominating idea in my repertoire to begin with. It just happened that way. People will say, ‘I got this great song about a real bad guy in a bar,’ and I go, ‘I think the world has enough songs like that.'”
92. Grand Funk Railroad, “We’re an American Band”
Easy to forget nowadays but, in their heyday, Grand Funk Railroad ruled the roost, selling tons of albums and concert tickets. “We’re an American Band” remains their most iconic song in a long list of classics, and our clear choice for inclusion in this list.
Written by drummer/vocalist Don Brewer, this tale of the life of a rock group on the road connected with fans and gave them their first huge hit single. Prior to “American Band,” Grand Funk were primarily an album-oriented band. This single would change that.
Some credit must go to producer Todd Rundgren, who gave Grand Funk a push in the right direction, with just the proper amount of gloss to make the power trio (now actually a foursome with the addition of keyboardist Craig Frost) a bit more radio-friendly. It worked, earning the band their first No. 1 single and helping the album of the same name sail to No. 2 on the Billboard chart.
This would be the first of a string of hit singles for Brewer, Mark Farner, Mel Schacher and Frost, and to this day is the song most associated with the mighty Grand Funk Railroad.
91: .38 Special, “Hold On Loosely”
With “Hold On Loosely,” .38 Special and Survivor‘s Jim Peterik, who co-wrote the song, captured an emotional tug of war that was instantly identifiable to every single walking, raging pack of hormones who was alive in the ‘80s, both male and female. They also earned a spot on our list.
The situation: You meet that amazing person and fall hard, really hard, for them. So of course from that point forward, you have to make sure that they are aware of your undying love for them, each and every day. The next steps that follow: They either advise you that they’ve taken out a restraining order, or if they’re mellower about things, they just let you know that it would probably be a good idea to back off for a while.
So, rather than get too serious right off the bat, vocalist Don Barnes shares the sage advice given to him by a “girl I left some years ago,” who told him, “Just hold on loosely / But don’t let her go / If you cling too tightly / You’re gonna lose control.”
Don’t get nuts. Just give her that “space to breathe in” and everything will work out just fine.
“Hold On Loosely,” the lead track on the band’s fourth album, 1981’s Wild Eyed Southern Boys, helped create the mold for a string of easy-going hits that the .38 members and Peterik would craft together with similar chart success. Peterik continued to write with the band, working closely on their 2004 studio album Drivetrain.
90: Ram Jam, “Black Betty”
Their lead singer and guitarist played with the Lemon Pipers, of “Green Tambourine” fame. The rest of the band members never even played on this highly offbeat entry on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list. Welcome to the wild and crazy story that is “Black Betty” by Ram Jam.
Once the Lemon Pipers dissolved, guitarist Bill Bartlett formed a new band called Starstruck with two fellow Pipers. A later incarnation of that band (Bartlett was the lone remaining Lemon Piper by this time) recorded a rock version of Leadbelly’s interpretation of the traditional work song “Black Betty,” and released it on their own label.
The song was a regional hit, and caught the attention of a couple of New York producers, who re-packaged Bartlett with a new group of musicians and christened them Ram Jam. The song was a huge hit out of the box, reaching No. 18 in the U.S. while climbing into the Top 10 in Australia and Bartlett’s native England.
Listening to the song today, it’s hard not to look back fondly at what was a much simpler time in the music industry, because this kind of song will never, ever happen again. It begins with a thunderous kick drum, some rafter-shaking riffs by Bartlett, and that unforgettable “Whoa, black Betty, bam-ba-lam” vocal. At this point, the song sounds like a slightly glammier “Mississippi Queen” (check those synth washes), the kind of track that would rock a concert hall and pack a dancefloor.
No one could have suspected, then, that the band would veer hard right at the 1:30 mark and launch into an Allman Brothers-fueled freakout. A two-minute freakout, in a song a little less than four minutes long, no less. There are also no less than three moments where an audible splice of the master tape can be heard. As we said, simpler times.
At the same time, one cannot overlook Ram Jam’s raw enthusiasm, which rose above the seemingly disparate influences to create the kind of song that challenges at least one artist every decade or so to improve upon it, though to date, no one has come close.
89: John Cougar, “Jack & Diane”
When summertime hits, or when you’d like to pretend it’s here, there’s no better song to revisit (and blast in the car at top volume) than ‘Jack & Diane.”
Released when John Mellencamp was still recording under the name John Cougar, it remains his biggest hit single after spending four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, the song was a major reason why 1982’s American Fool finally made Cougar a household name.
“Jack & Diane” endures because of its longing for a simpler time. The titular lovestruck teenagers live in a small town where “sucking on chili dogs / outside the Tastee Freeze” is an ideal date – and enough to make the big city seem unappealing. These lyrics are tempered by the perspective of an outside observer — ostensibly someone looking back many years later – who gently notes: “Hold on to 16 as long as you can / Changes come around real soon / Make us women and men.”
The song’s instrumentation and arrangement perpetuate this nostalgic vibe. Mellencamp’s long-time backing band — guitarists Mike Wanchic and Larry Crane, drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Robert Frank and keyboardist Eric Rosser — exhibit deft restraint. Handclaps, splattering percussion, sparse acoustic strumming and faded piano dominate, save for a bridge with soul-infused gang vocals. (According to Mellencamp, guitarist/backing vocalist Mick Ronson gets credit for helping this interlude gel.)
American Fool also helped cement another fruitful collaboration: It was the second album Cougar worked on with producer Don Gehman, and its success lead to a musical relationship which spanned from 1983’s Uh-Huh and 1985’s Scarecrow to 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. Because of his work with Mellencamp, Gehman earned a reputation for having a masterful touch with folk-tinged pop music, which led to collaborations with such stars as R.E.M.
Above all, the universal themes of “Jack & Diane” – the exuberance of puppy love and the sense that being young lasts forever — still resonate today.
88: Yes, “Roundabout”
From the dramatic fade in, classical-style guitar riff and thundering bass on through that earth-shaking climax, Yes‘ “Roundabout” is a masterpiece, and one of the prime slabs of progressive rock ever recorded.
The lead track from Yes’s fourth album, 1971’s Fragile, its power and glory haven’t diminished since its release. Though the band had made great strides in reaching a wider audience with their third release, The Yes Album, Fragile took them to the upper regions of the rock world.
The album was the first to feature new keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who joined the already-incredible musical ensemble of Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Bill Bruford and Jon Anderson. Released at the height of the progressive-rock movement, Fragile as a whole, and “Roundabout” specifically, helped define the genre.
The intricate playing, full-on dynamic rock and roll, strong melodies and great harmonies made it irresistible to underground FM radio as well as the Top 40, where a three-minute edit of the eight-minute song made it to No. 13 in the U.S. Top 100 singles chart.
Yes would travel through even more adventurous terrain, sometimes traveling too far into no man’s land (Relayer, anyone?), but this was their high water mark of the era. It still sends chills up the spine of our very prog beings.
87: War, “Low Rider”
From the opening percussion and boss bass riff all the way to that wailing saxophone outro, War unleashed an irresistible funky groove with their hit “Low Rider.” The song hit the airwaves in the summer of 1975 and all the way to No. 7.
War were a unique band, mixing funk with Latin, jazz, rock, soul and pop to make a sound that was truly their own. “Low Rider” delivered a groove that was somehow both slinky and chunky, even funkier vocals, and a catchy-as-hell harmonica riff, courtesy of Lee Oskar – one of the true masters of the instrument.
This song was ubiquitous that summer and has taken on a life of its own in the years that followed. It has been used in countless movies, commercials and television shows and still gets airplay on oldies and classic rock radio.
For a band that basically started off as Eric Burdon‘s backing group, War certainly made a large mark on music history all by themselves with tracks like “Low Rider.”
86: Steppenwolf, “Born to Be Wild”
With “Born to Be Wild,” Steppenwolf delivered not only a timeless rock anthem and open-road biker soundtrack, but also one of the most iconic tracks of an era.
The song was written by Mars Bonfire who, though not a member of Steppenwolf, had previously been in the Sparrows with Steppenwolf leader John Kay.
“Born to Be Wild” appeared on the band’s debut album and was released as a single, making it just shy of the No. 1 spot in the summer of 1968. Its greatest success, however, would come a year later when it was featured prominently in the classic film Easy Rider. From then on, it was forever attached to the idea of the open road, rebellion, freedom and rock and roll. The song has been covered countless times and used in dozens of movies and tv shows.
The other thing “Born to Be Wild” is known for are the words “heavy metal,” as featured in the lyrics: “I like smoke and lightning / Heavy metal thunder.” There is debate as whether or not this is the first time that term was used, well before it became a musical genre unto itself, but even if it’s not, it’s certainly the most identifiable. Now go on, get your motor runnin’!
85: Marshall Tucker Band, “Can’t You See”
No doubt they drew inspiration from their Capricorn Records label mates the Allman Brothers, but the Marshall Tucker Band were more than simply a band in the right place at the right time.
They joined Southern rock bands like the Allmans and Lynyrd Skynyrd who were riding an undisputed high in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but the Marshall Tucker Band shied away from the rebel image they embraced, choosing instead to forge a path that was more about making unforgettable music than anything else.
With “Can’t You See,” they capably brought together Southern rock and country-rock in a very laid-back kind of way, but the lyrics paint a much darker picture: “I’m gonna find me a hole in the wall / I’m gonna crawl inside and die / ‘Cause my lady now … never told me goodbye.”
This isn’t a love song in the traditional sense of the word. This is the story of a man running as far away as he can to begin the process of healing himself. Listening to the track, the heartache of the lyrics is reflected as optimistically as possible by guitarist Toy Caldwell, yet there is an overarching feeling of heartbreak and sadness understandably permeating the song.
The Marshall Tucker Band saw “Can’t You See” stall at No. 75 on the Billboard chart in September 1977, but its curious failure there did not deter artists including Kid Rock, Poison, Black Stone Cherry, and, appropriately enough, the Allman Brothers from covering this song.
84: The James Gang, “Funk #49”
The James Gang were huge in their hometown of Cleveland, but in some circles still might be best known as being the first major band of future Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. (Other notable James Gang members at various points included Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin and Mark Avsec of Donnie Iris & the Cruisers, and Wild Cherry.)
But “Funk #49” — the opening track on 1970’s James Gang Rides Again, the band’s second album – cements their place in classic rock circles. The song’s enduring popularity has everything to do with Walsh’s snaky riffs, which weld country-influenced boogie and bluesy slide guitar to more traditional rock signifiers — and, yes, an effortlessly funky groove.
The tone of “Funk #49” not only presaged Walsh’s work with (and impact on) the Eagles; it helped form the musical template for the decade ahead. The song’s success also helped cement the relationship Walsh had with producer Bill Szymczyk. The pair went on to work together for decades.
But while “Funk #49” is a guitarist’s dream, it’s also much more inventive than it gets credit for. The bridge of the song — with wild-animal noises and percussion reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ loose-hipped shimmies — especially bolsters the slinky, celebratory vibe.
“Funk #49” has become a staple tune for musicians and cultures of all stripes; the song’s popped up everywhere from skateboarding documentaries (2001’s Dogtown and Z-Boys) to indie rock concerts (Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus covered “Funk #49” with his band the Jicks).
83: The Pretenders, “Brass in Pocket”
By the time Chrissie Hynde and her Pretenders released their seminal hit “Brass in Pocket,” the band was already on its third lineup – and that’s before they had any chart success. Their third single, “Brass in Pocket” was their first U.K. No. 1 and reached No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The brass in the song’s titular pocket is meant to mean “money,” picked up from a bit of Yorkshire slang Hynde heard from a member of another band. Hynde’s vocal imbues that brass with a far greater meaning: It’s an emblem of confidence, a symbol of the certainty the singer feels when she considers what she wants and how she will achieve it.
Think about the role of women as band leaders and songwriters in rock up to the arrival of the Pretenders. There were many great female singers, and many great female songwriters, but precious few women who could lead a band. Chrissie Hynde almost single-handedly changed all of that.
While her contemporary Debbie Harry was putting her own spin on the idea of a female lead singer with Blondie, Hynde instead proved that a central role in rock’s power and impact – the bandleader, the frontperson, the boss – could just as easily be filled by a woman as a man.
“Brass in Pocket” also stands as one of many great singles to emerge from a musical era awkwardly known as “new wave.” It’s awkward because the term inevitably conjures images of synth-drenched pop and Flock of Seagulls haircuts. More than anything else, this new wave was about a level of artistic integrity that vanished in the rock indulgences of the ’70s and was made possible by the deck-clearing ferocity of punk. New wave wasn’t about a sound. It was about a philosophy, and for the Pretenders – just as for XTC, Elvis Costello, Blondie and countless others – that philosophy meant strong songwriting anchored by pure musicianship.
At the end of the day, that’s what “Brass in Pocket” is really about: It’s a damn great song.
82: The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”
Though it dates back to at least the early ’30s, the Animals first heard the song which lands them on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list on the debut album by Bob Dylan.
This folk song was passed down through the years, ultimately making its way into the hands of Greenwich Village folk mainstay Dave Van Ronk, who put his own twist on “House of the Rising Sun.” His version is the one that Dylan took from for his 1962 debut and in turn, the one the Animals would use as a blueprint for their own rendition.
In the heat of the British Invasion in the summer of 1964, the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” hit the top of both the U.K. and U.S. charts. Alan Price’s haunting Hammond organ and Eric Burdon’s impassioned vocals were a perfect fit for the track.
It would become not only the Animals’ signature song, but also planted the first seeds of what would eventually become folk-rock. Out of step with most of the rest of the British invasion sounds, this record stood alone and utterly unique.
81: T. Rex, “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”
T. Rex has probably the only song on our list with two different titles.
“Get It On” was the single’s original U.K. title and Marc Bolan and his group took the track, originating from Electric Warrior, to No. 1 in 1971.
Later, when the single was released in the U.S. it was re-titled “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” to distinguish it from another song with the same name by a band called Chase. The single went to No. 10 on the Billboard chart and turned out to be T. Rex’s shining moment and their biggest selling hit.
The hypnotic groove of this Tony Visconti-produced song begs you to play it repeatedly. The boogie-like piano, backup vocals from Flo and Eddie of the Turtles, and Bolan’s sassy guitar give way to the simple but suggestive lyrics that radiate like the “hub-cap-diamond-star-halo” that the author sings about.
Bolan found rhythm in his language and will long be remembered as a poet turned superstar. “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” still plays a crucial part in pop culture. Rewind through the decades and you’ll recall that the Power Station had a smash hit with it, Blondie have covered and recorded it live and last but not least, Joan Jett told Sirius radio that this single was one of the songs she used to learned to play guitar.
80: Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody to Love”
“Somebody to Love” was first recorded by an obscure Bay Area band called the Great Society, which featured Grace Slick on vocals and her brother Darby on guitar. (The latter also wrote the song, which was then titled “Someone to Love.”)
But “Somebody to Love” didn’t resonate with a wider audience until Slick recorded it with her next group, Jefferson Airplane. The second version of the song boasts a faster tempo, beefed-up guitars and drums and, most important, a forceful performance from the frontwoman.
The hesitance Slick exhibited in the Great Society version vanishes. Instead, she belts out the indelible chorus – “Don’t you want somebody to love? / Don’t you need somebody to love? / Wouldn’t you love somebody to love? / You better find somebody to love” – with sharp, sassy confidence. A mixture of scorn and longing drips from her smoky voice; the delivery announces her arrival as one of the great female rock vocalists of all time.
Although Jefferson Airplane were already leaders of the nascent San Francisco psych-rock scene, “Somebody to Love” signaled the band’s arrival in the mainstream: The song reached No. 5 on the Billboard chart and its accompanying album, 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow, hit No. 3.
More important, the song had a seismic impact on music’s traditionally male-centric culture. “Somebody to Love” finally normalized women taking center stage in their musical projects — a ground-breaking moment which paved the way for female vocalists ranging from Janis Joplin all the way through to Adele.
79: Pete Townshend, “Let My Love Open the Door”
Released in 1980, “Let My Love Open the Door” was the single pulled from what’s often called Pete Townshend’s first “official” solo album – though it followed Who Came First and Rough Mix.
The mesmerizing keyboard that pulls you in may be considered the blueprint for many ‘80s hits that would follow; it’s simple but extremely catchy. During a 1985 radio special called My Generation, it was said that Townshend’s manager hated this song and felt it should have been left off the album. He later called Townshend and apologized when “Let My Love Open the Door” became a big hit, eventually cracking the Top 10.
A few different renditions of this song exist, like the far slower 1997 E. Cola Mix included on the Grosse Pointe Blank film soundtrack. If you were a fan of the television show Burn Notice, you probably also recognized a remake of the song used as its ending theme.
Taking on a spirit of its own, “Let My Love Open the Door” is occasionally interpreted as a religious song, with lines like “There’s only one thing that’s going to set you free and that’s my love.” Townshend has commenting obliquely on the matter by saying “Jesus sings,” but the song’s intended meaning, if it has just one, has yet to be fully explained.
78: America, “A Horse With No Name”
Considering their band name is America and was comprised of Americans, it’s a bit odd to learn that the group in the No. 78 slot on our list was actually formed in England.
“A Horse With No Name” became America’s most popular single, helping their 1972 debut effort achieve platinum sales status in the United States. Funny enough though, the song was not included on the album when it was initially released. Given a lukewarm response by audiences in the U.K., America’s label asked the group to head back into the studio and demo four additional songs. One of those additional songs was called “Desert Song,” a track that was eventually re-christened with its now-famous moniker.
America co-founder Dewey Bunnell was never shy about admitting the influence that Neil Young had upon his music, and you definitely sense that here. His lead vocals bear a striking resemblance to Young, and the vocal harmonies owed plenty to Young’s occasional band mates in Crosby, Stills & Nash. “A Horse With No Name”eventually climbed to the No. 1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, ironically overtaking Young’s “Heart of Gold” for that spot.
America later scored a respectable number of hits after this, but they will be forever remembered as the band who observed “plants and birds and rocks and things” on their trip through the desert.
77: Mountain, “Mississippi Queen”
Mountain stomps onto our list with one of the mightiest riffs of all time, as featured on “Mississippi Queen.”
This 1970 classic packs a whole lot of jolt into just two and a half minutes.The cowbell counts things off like an alarm, and then guitarist Leslie West delivers that famous and fantastic introduction. Fresh from a legendary appearance at Woodstock the year before, Mountain were on the rise in 1970 and the very catchy, yet very heavy, “Mississippi Queen” pushed the band up the ranks of rock royalty.
The song was the lead track from their first album, Climbing, and the single reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 early in that year. West’s savage guitar, along with the rhythm section of Corky Laing on drums and bassist Felix Pappalardi added up to one mighty fine power trio.
“Mississippi Queen” became an iconic slice of hard rock, influencing many an aspiring guitar hero over the following years and decades.
76: Nazareth, “Hair of the Dog”
If the band had their way, the title of Nazareth‘s entry on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list might not be quite as subtle as it is now.
If you’ve ever wondered why the group just didn’t name their smash hit 1975 album and its cowbell-and-talk box happy title track “Son of a Bitch,” after that famously threatening “Now you’re messing with a …” chorus, well, so is lead singer Dan McCafferty: “We wanted to call the album Son of a Bitch but the record company went ape s—.” he once told Classic Rock Revisited. “They said, ‘You can’t say that.’ We said, ‘F— off, John Wayne says that in his movies and he is the neatest thing that you’ve got going.'” (By “you’ve” we assume the Scottish singer was referring to America.)
But the label won, and an effort by the band to be more clear with the title “Heir of the Dog” was also rejected, leaving us with the vague innuendo we have today. Guns N’ Roses loved the song enough to record it for their 1993 covers album The Spaghetti Incident?, and Britney Fox and Warrant also turned in their own versions. Still, with the rare (and highly contested) exception of Motley Crue perfecting “Helter Skelter, as always the original remains the king.
75: Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”
Despite the fact that they were only originally active for an approximate two-year span (1966 to 1968), the impact of Buffalo Springfield‘s song “For What It’s Worth” continues to resonate today, decades later.
Released approximately 12 years into the Vietnam War, the song has often been interpreted to be an anti-war anthem, when in fact “For What It’s Worth” was originally written by Stephen Stills as a reaction to escalating unrest between Los Angeles law enforcement and club-goers on the Sunset Strip.
The unrest started when officers, bowing to pressure from both business and home owners in the area, chose to begin enforcing a strict 10 PM curfew that dated back to 1939 in an effort to curb the number of people hanging out there. The Los Angeles County board of supervisors decided that getting tough was the best tactic, and rescinded the “youth permits” of 12 of the clubs frequented by youth on the Sunset Strip, deeming them off-limits to anybody under 21 years of age.
The Sunset Strip riots were born when arrests for curfew violations began escalating. There were six consecutive weekends where young people protested the enforcement of the bylaw. Most of the damage was done, however, on Nov. 12, 1966, the first night demonstrations were held. Before the evening was through, store windows had been smashed, a city bus disabled and more than 200 arrests were made.
“For What It’s Worth” peaked at the No. 7 position on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1967, and has since been covered by the likes of Keb Mo, Rush and Ozzy Osbourne. It has also been sampled by hip-hop group Public Enemy for their track “He Got Game.”
74: Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “Blinded By the Light”
What does a British jazz-blues band know about life on the Jersey shore? Probably not much, but that didn’t stop Manfred Mann’s Earth Band from taking Bruce Springsteen‘s “Blinded By the Light” to No. 1 in 1976 and onto our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.
The Earth Band was formed in 1971 out of the ashes of the original Manfred Mann band, replacing the original’s garage rock with a more progressive sound that incorporated classical themes. But, like their first band, they weren’t very prolific songwriters, and often had to rely on other composers.
Mann frequently covered Bob Dylan, and had a Top 10 hit with “The Mighty Quinn” in 1968. Meanwhile, Springsteen was one of the many “New Dylans” around, and had just broken through with Born To Run. So, it made sense that they record one of his songs. By coincidence, Springsteen had played Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” and “Sha La La” in concert previously.
On VH-1’s Storytellers in 2005, Springsteen broke down the mystery of the lyrics. The song was a “young musician’s tale, kind of a litany of adventures. It was rather on the autobiographical side,” shot through a rhyming dictionary. The “madman drummer” and the “teenage diplomat” in the opening line, for example, were him and original E Street Band member Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez. Along the way, we hit church dances, meet campus radicals, FBI agents and several loose women, including “little Early-Pearly” who “came by in her curly wurly and asked me if I needed a ride.” “Don’t overthink the whole thing,” Springsteen warns.
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band took the loose, folksy vibe of the original and gave it a harder edge, adding a lengthy guitar solo, Moog synthesizer and, for some reason, a snippet of the children’s piano lesson, “Chopsticks.” Singer Chris Thompson skipped some verses entirely and, in the chorus, slurred the word “deuce” so that it sounded like “douche.” Springsteen claims this minor difference was the reason for the song’s success after his own recording stiffed as a single in 1973.
Mann’s version of “Blinded By the Light” marked the only time a Springsteen song hit No. 1. “Dancing in the Dark” reached No. 2 in the summer of 1984, but was kept out by Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”
73: Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side”
Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” may have been the first transvestite rock song that middle America heard.
It was late 1972 when Reed, who never ceased to offend somebody, managed to land a No. 29 hit with a single that strung themes of oral sex, Valium and “colored girls” into a four-minute masterpiece.
“Walk on the Wild Side” has immortalized some of artist Andy Warhol’s friends, with Reed the narrator brilliantly delivering his cool rap-like observations about an explicit group of drag queens and hustlers that surrounded Warhol. Reed, having been plugged into that scene, can easily take credit for helping America find their wild side.
The single comes from the album Transformer which was co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, who were creatively peaking in their own right. The union of these three artists was nothing short of monumental. Bowie was ecstatic to work next to one of his heroes, while Reed benefited from the skills that Bowie and Ronson brought to the studio.
72: Foreigner, “Juke Box Hero”
Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero,” from their blockbuster 1981 4 album, draws you immediately into an unfolding rock and roll fantasy and lets one relive the experience of being a music fan in the ‘80s.
The song pays a well-deserved tribute to the rock and roll dreamer, inspired by a real life fan who Jones encountered outside of a sold out Foreigner concert: “Standing in the rain / With his head hung low / couldn’t get a ticket / It was a sold out show.”
The legendary tale behind the inspiration for “Juke Box Hero” reveals that Jones did indeed invite a fan to come in out of the rain to watch the band’s performance from the side of the stage, providing the lucky ticket holder with the ultimate golden ticket.
The song’s pulsing bass line ebbs underneath a shadowy vocal from Lou Gramm, who lays out the story of how the sounds of that sold-out show and that “one guitar” in particular, blew the young future “juke box hero” away.
Gramm’s vocals soar to stratospheric heights as he recounts the adventures of the newly inspired future superstar as he scales the star-studded path to fame with his own guitar in hand. By the time the song ends, you can almost feel the sweat streaming down as the lights and sounds of the crowd begin to fade away.
For years, “Juke Box Hero” has been a concert staple, often coming late in the set. In fact, Foreigner concerts in the ‘80s and early ‘90s featured a giant inflatable jukebox that arose in epic fashion as the band performed the song.
71: Janis Joplin, “Piece of My Heart”
Janis Joplin is one of only a few female artists featured on our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs. As Jim Morrison can tell you, however, she wasn’t intimidated by any man, woman or child.
“Piece of My Heart” was originally written and recorded in 1967, but it wasn’t a mainstream hit until Big Brother And The Holding Company (featuring Joplin) covered it in 1968. Taken from the band’s album Cheap Thrills, their version peaked at No. 12 on the U.S. pop chart.
Aretha Franklin’s older sister Erma recorded it first, but reportedly didn’t recognize Joplin’s rendition of the song when she originally heard it on the radio. Joplin’s vocal arrangement was very different than the original, with Joplin leaning on blues conventions to belt out her sorrows.
This little 20-something white girl from Texas was daring her listeners to “take it, break it and have another piece” of her heart while her San Francisco band electrified a sound that would later be called “acid rock.” Joplin proved she meant serious business when she followed up the “you know you got it” lyric with one of the most historic “waaaaaahhhh” howls ever recorded.
70: Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”
The next artist on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs had the first show of their career opening for the Ramones at famed NYC club CBGB’s in 1975. Not a shabby way to kick-start your career.
“Burning Down the House” from the Talking Heads‘ 1983 album Speaking In Tongues was the group’s biggest hit, no doubt thanks to the endless rotation of the song’s innovative video on MTV. The single peaked at the No. 8 position on the Billboard Hot 100 singles.
Characterized by the very new-wave sound with which the band was associated, the song is perhaps most notable for the nonsensical phrases sung by vocalist David Byrne. If there was a hidden meaning or agenda behind lines such as “Cool babies, strange but not a stranger,” he wasn’t letting the audience in on the gag.
When discussing the song’s lyrics in an NPR interview conducted in 1984, Byrne said he had been simply trying to sing phrases that fit with the rhythm of the song, a technique that was influenced by their producer friend Brian Eno. Stating that he had “loads of phrases” that he thought “thematically had something to do with one another,” Byrne merely cherry-picked from those phrases to compile the lyrics heard in the song.
Interestingly, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, “Burning Down the House” was put onto the list of media-giant Clear Channel’s list of possibly inappropriate songs for airplay.
69: Rod Stewart, “Maggie May”
It’s one of the relatively few songs he had a hand in writing during his solo career, but neither Rod Stewart nor his label thought all that much of “Maggie May” at first, relegating it to B-side status on the “Reason to Believe” single.
Fortunately for Rod, the general public had bigger plans for “Maggie,” sending it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts for a whopping five weeks in October 1971, and making it an easy choice to represent Stewart on our countdown.
Stewart wrote the song with Steamhammer guitarist Martin Quittenton, reaching back to a particularly saucy episode in his past for inspiration. He fessed up during a 2007 interview with Q, saying it “was more or less a true story about the first woman I had sex with, at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival.”
It almost didn’t make the cut on Every Picture Tells a Story, he added, “because the label said it didn’t have a melody. I said, ‘Well, we’ve run out of time now; these are all the tracks we’ve recorded.’ They said, ‘Alright, then, bring it on.'”
“Maggie May” cemented Stewart’s marketability as a solo performer, which complicated relations with his bandmates in the Faces. He remained in the group until its split in 1975, but they were occasionally marketed as the “Faces with Rod Stewart,” driving a wedge into what was already a volatile mix. For Stewart, however, it kicked off a torrid string of hit singles and albums. He wouldn’t place a solo LP outside the Billboard Top 40 for another 27 years, with 1998’s When We Were the New Boys.
As for Maggie herself, her identity remains a mystery. The song title was taken not from the woman in the story, but from a traditional British folk song about a prostitute who robs a sailor. Something to think about the next time you’re singing along.
68: Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer”
Apparently undaunted by the legacy of the Eagles hanging over him, Don Henley found respectable success with his post-Eagles solo debut, 1982’s I Can’t Stand Still. His sophomore effort, 1984’s Building the Perfect Beast, helped Henley prove once and for all that he could in fact fly without the Eagles. It also gave us the No. 68 track on our list.
“The Boys of Summer,” a track whose theme centered on coming of age, could arguably be considered one of the finest moments of Henley’s musical career. Co-written with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, the song vaulted up to the No. 5 position on the Billboard Top 100 in 1984 and also brought home the Grammy award for best male rock vocal performance.
In stark contrast to his often critically dismissed work with the Eagles, “The Boys of Summer” finally provided Henley with commercial and critical acclaim.
67: Motley Crue, “Home Sweet Home”
Motley Crue‘s logo and imagery were already etched onto the notebooks of every hard rock- and metal-loving teenage fan prior to the 1985 release of their third album Theatre of Pain. However, the massive success of the album’s soaring ballad “Home Sweet Home” catapulted the band to a whole new level of stardom and, years later, onto our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.
The track quickly became a cultural touchstone, kick-starting (for better or worse) the power ballad trend and reportedly forcing MTV to change their rules in order to keep the song’s similarly imitated video from dominating their call-in shows for the rest of time.
“Home Sweet Home” has been covered by artists as diverse as Carrie Underwood and Limp Bizkit, and was featured in the 2010 movie Hot Tub Time Machine. More importantly, by our unscientific estimates, a quarter of a million gallons of cigarette-lighter fuel and 13 gigawatts of cell phone power have been consumed during Motley Crue’s live performances of the song over the years.
Although “Home Sweet Home” is most notable on first listen for the inclusion of a tender piano intro and outro from drummer Tommy Lee, Motley Crue wasn’t abandoning their hard-rocking roots: Check out the majestic and anthemic soloing from guitarist Mick Mars which dominates the song’s climactic second half.
66: Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight”
When you think of Phil Collins, the climactic, dam-bursting drum beat of his 1981 hit “In the Air Tonight” is very likely one of the first things that comes to mind. As famous and familiar as this Top 100 Classic Rock Song is today, it came out of one of the darkest periods of Collins’ life.
A divorce from his first wife Andrea provided the framework for his solo debut Face Value, a dark portrait of the emotional despair and anger that the Genesis frontman was feeling over the loss. “In the Air Tonight” brings Collins’ anger fully to the surface, in a menacing tone delivered over the backing of a simplistically programmed drum machine.
His vocal seethes with a new-found confidence, knowing that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel. The feeling which Collins sings is “coming in the air tonight,” is one of redemption, having gained a greater understanding and clarity. Later, he calls out the elephant in the room directly, saying: “So you can wipe off that grin / I know where you’ve been / it’s all been a pack of lies.”
Still, the centerpiece of the song, without a doubt, is the unforgettable mid-song drum breakdown from Collins which brings the energy levels of “Air” to full throttle. The sight of Collins thrashing around his drum kit is a now-famous visual which was later replicated in one of the “Grand Theft Auto” games where the bad guys were out to kill Collins while he’s on stage performing “In the Air Tonight.” Collins, an avid gamer in the ‘80s and ‘90s, was happy to participate in the GTA series, working with the video game makers directly on the “Kill Phil” portions of the game, playing himself.
A much less dramatic version with no bad guys can be found on the Live at Montreux DVD, recorded in 2004. He was later forced to temporarily retire from drumming due to back problems that made it too painful for him to play the drums.
In 2015, Collins returned to recording and touring. If he needed an extra hand on stage, Mike Tyson seems prepared to take over. Either way, “In the Air Tonight” will survive in recorded form as one of his greatest accomplishments.
65: Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”
Record-label folk usually take a lot of flack for interfering in the creative process, but Bachman-Turner Overdrive‘s entry on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list may not have been heard by anyone outside the band’s inner circle if it weren’t for their A&R guy.
Randy Bachman later told Billboard Book of Number One Hits that he never intended for “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” to be included on 1974’s Not Fragile. Instead, he recorded it on a lark, complete with stammering “Bu-bu-bu-baby” vocals, as a joke and loving tribute to his brother Gary, who actually did have a stutter: “It was basically just an instrumental and I was fooling around,” he said. “I wrote the lyrics, out of the blue, and stuttered them through.”
When Mercury Records A&R executive Charlie Fach listened to the supposedly finished eight-song version of the album, however, he declared that he “didn’t hear that magic thing.” (We can’t understand why the storming brontosaurus of a title track didn’t ring his bell, though.)
Bachman dug out the previously private demo for “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” Fach flipped for it, and after an aborted attempt to re-record it without the stutter, agreed to let this track appear on Not Fragile as originally created. When it started getting more attention from radio than the officially released single “Roll on Down the Highway,” Fach was forced to give up all resistance.
BTO officially released “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” as a single, it soared to No. 1 on the pop chart and became one of their most beloved tunes ever. Since, the track has hovered around the top of recurrent FM playlists, and appeared in a never-ending series of movies and TV shows to this day.
64: Stevie Nicks, “Edge of Seventeen”
“Edge of Seventeen (Just Like the White Winged Dove)” was the third single from Stevie Nicks‘ debut solo album, 1981’s Bella Donna. The story behind this entry in our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs is one of musical lore.
Its name came from a conversation Stevie had with her good friend Tom Petty‘s first wife Jane about the couple’s first meeting. Jane said they met at the “age of seventeen,” but her thick Southern accent made it sound like she said “edge of seventeen” — and Nicks was so taken with the phrase that she asked Jane if she could use it as a song title.
Stevie intended “Edge of Seventeen” to be about the Pettys, but when her beloved uncle Jonathan and music legend John Lennon both died during the same week in December of 1980, she shifted focus. She’s since said that the “white-winged dove” in the lyrics represented the spirit leaving the body upon death, and some of the verses recount Stevie’s experiences in the days leading up to her uncle’s passing.
“Edge of Seventeen” peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1982, and to this day it remains one of Nicks’ most recognizable tracks. In fact, the guitar riff — played by Stevie’s longtime guitarist, session musician Waddy Wachtel — is so distinctive that it was sampled in the Destiny’s Child song “Bootylicious,” and Stevie herself even made an appearance in the accompanying video.
63: Billy Joel, “Piano Man”
Somewhere right now, Billy Joel‘s “Piano Man” is playing.
It’s on a jukebox, and it’s on in the produce section at your local grocery store. It’s on your radio; it’s in your head. It’s a key component in the aural wallpaper that surrounds us every day, and it’s on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.
And it’s part of that wallpaper because it’s easy, and it’s kinda soft, and pleasant enough in its own way, at least if you don’t think too hard about the sad-sack loser characters that inhabit its lyrics. But it’s also part of the soundtrack to our lives because it’s a damn great song.
Drawing inspiration from his time spent as a piano player in an L.A. bar between recording contracts, Joel creates an indelible mental portrait of the characters who inhabit a watering hole on a Saturday night, looking to “forget about life for a while.” You can almost see the haze of cigarette smoke and hear the clinking of glasses.
Oddly enough, the song was both butchered, then somewhat ignored when first released as a single in 1973. Deemed too long for Top 40 radio, it was edited down into shorter versions and then promptly disappeared into oblivion, topping out at No. 25 on the Billboard charts. After Joel’s breakout album The Stranger found success in 1977, the song gained far more traction until the point where it ultimately became synonymous with Joel himself.
After a couple of decades riding the charts with radio-friendly, expertly-crafted piano pop, and a couple decades after that as the punchline to every other bloated drunkard joke on late-night talk shows, it might be easy to dismiss Billy Joel. It’s been decades since his last studio record, 1993’s River of Dreams, dominated the airwaves, and that was by no means his greatest work.
Next time “Piano Man” pops up in the aural wallpaper of your life, however, give it a real listen. Let it paint a picture for you, and understand the real brilliance of Billy Joel. Great songs tell a story, and whether you’ve spent time in a piano lounge or never set foot in one, “Piano Man” paints a vivid portrait of a specific place and time, every time you hear it. That’s true whether you’re waiting in the dentist’s office or wrapped in the sonic embrace of your headphones.
62: Golden Earring, “Radar Love”
With 1973’s “Radar Love,” Golden Earring drove into full view of the U.S. record-buying public and parked themselves in our list.
Formed in 1965 in the Netherlands, Golden Earring had been releasing a string of fantastic records for nearly a decade, but nothing that took hold in the U.S. market. Their (highly recommended) 1973 album Moontan changed that, as FM radio began spinning cuts like “Vanilla Queen” and “Candy’s Going Bad,” while at the same time the driving rocker “Radar Love” made its way to top 40 radio, reaching No. 13 on the Billboard charts.
Built around an insistent rhythm and riff, the song rides alongside its protagonist, who has been “driving all night, hands wet on the wheel” while listening to Brenda Lee’s “Comin’ On Strong” — a pretty driving little number itself, we might add!
“Radar Love” opened the door for Golden Earring in the states, but would remain their only big hit here until the ’80s, when they hit with “Twilight Zone.”
Like so many of the artists featured on this list, Golden Earring are so much more than the one or two songs they are best known for. Check out albums like Switch, Seven Tears, Winter Harvest and Wall of Dolls. You will not be sorry.
61: Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Pride and Joy”
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” took a long and legend-assisted path to our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs countdown.
After a blistering performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982, the then-unknown guitarist left the gig discouraged, thinking the audience reception was less than favorable. Little did he know that David Bowie and Jackson Browne were in the audience.
Shortly thereafter, two generous offers from those stars followed that help launch Vaughan’s career. Bowie asked Vaughan to play on his 1983 album Let’s Dance, and Browne offered Vaughan studio space to record his own debut Texas Flood, which ultimately led to a recording contract.
By the time that year was over, Vaughan could be heard on six different hit singles, four from Bowie’s album and two from his own, including “Pride and Joy.” Once this “sweet little thing” was heard across the airwaves, everyone took notice. Vaughan and his band Double Trouble were delivering the blues and better still; pop-rock radio put it in rotation, which was very uncommon at the time.
Some believe that Vaughan single-handedly revitalized the blues genre, introducing it to an eager new audience. “Pride And Joy” became a Top 20 hit in the U.S. and helped kick off an amazingly successful career that was tragically cut short by his 1990 death in a helicopter crash.
60: Foghat, “Slow Ride”
Well, of course Foghat’s “Slow Ride” nabbed a spot on our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs?
An eight-minute-plus slab from the 1975 Foghat album Fool For the City, this song works its way into your subconscious slowly but quite deliberately. When that steady drum beat starts, you’ll no doubt find your hand starting to smack your kneecap in time as the initial guitar riff kicks in.
Barely past the 10-second mark, shape-shifting cymbals surround a woozy slide guitar riff from Rod Price. This provides the appropriate backing for vocalist “Lonesome” Dave Peverett to deliver the soul-shaking chorus: “Slow ride / take it easy / Slow ride / take it easy.”
Simple enough, right? After a couple more rounds of that, Peverett shifts into the verse: “I’m in the mood / the rhythm is right / We can roll all night / Move to the music.” The soundtrack to more than a few “lost weekends” had been found, even as “Slow Ride” gave Foghat a Top 20 hit on the Billboard charts.
A whole new generation of music fans discovered “Slow Ride” for the first time in the early ‘90s, thanks to its high-profile placement in the closing credits of the stoner comedy Dazed and Confused. But movies and the eventual video game licensing possibilities were probably the furthest thing from the mind of Foghat members during their heyday. The band was focused on building an audience at a time when they couldn’t get arrested, chasing their dreams as they perfected their own special blend of “boogie rock,” the ingredients of which called for lots and lots of generously applied slide guitar.
That recipe was eventually good enough for five gold-selling albums and several charting hits in the ’70s. The decade that followed brought about a quiet period for the band, and members drifted apart for a few years, before Foghat finally returned. Drummer Roger Earl is the only remaining original member, following the deaths of both Peverett and Price. Former Ted Nugent vocalist Charlie Huhn helped lead the group through their well-received 2010 release Last Train Home.
59: The Kinks, “You Really Got Me”
If you are searching for the definitive riff in all of rock and roll, we may have just the thing for you: The Kinks‘ 1964 gate crasher “You Really Got Me,” the next entry in our list of Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
This amazingly primal track, released in the summer of 1964 during the height of the British Invasion, inspired countless bands over many genres. It has been said that the roots of punk, heavy metal and garage rock can be traced to this two-and-a-half-minute blast of energy.
Ray Davies’ simple, almost neanderthal riff — played by brother Dave Davies, and aided by perfectly a raw production from Shel Talmy — was unique to the beat groups invading our shores that year. The Beatles were more refined, the Animals more bluesy and Gerry & The Pacemakers more pop, but the Kinks were savagely loud rock and roll.
This riff really did launch a thousand songs in its wake, just ask the Who, AC/DC, the Clash, Van Halen (who had their own hit with a cover of the song), Blur and Jack White, to name a few. That surge of teen urgency channeled through that distorted guitar was a match made in heaven. Crank it up and you will see that decades later, it still knocks down walls.
One of the greatest songwriters of the rock and roll era, Ray Davies went on to compose a string of amazing singles and albums. The Kinks’ catalog from 1964 through 1970 stands up to that of any of their more popular peers.
58: Steve Miller Band, “The Joker”
After a string of blues-influenced albums, 1973’s “The Joker” took the Steve Miller Band music and songwriting in a more pop and rock direction, resulting in the biggest hits of his career. That rise to superstardom began here and it’s not hard to see why. With a guitar riff that’s as catchy as it is simple and the kind of lyrics that are instantly quotable, “The Joker” is almost so stupid it’s brilliant, or maybe so brilliant it’s dumb.
That said, no in-depth discussion of the “The Joker” can avoid the tune’s central question: What, exactly, is “the pompatus of love”? Well, nothing, at first – though it has grown into something of a neologism, or “a newly coined term, word, or phrase, that may be in the process of entering common use, but has not yet been accepted into mainstream language.”
Whether pompatus will ever gain that acceptance remains to be seen, but it does exist in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it’s defined as “to act with pomp and splendor.” Miller might have invented the word — one story has him misinterpreting the lyrics from a 1954 song by the Medallions — or popatus could’ve simply derived from some long-lost snippet of conversation by someone with the world’s weirdest vocabulary.
If this seems like a lot of research trying to understand a song that’s really about weed and chicks, hey, that’s rock ‘n’ roll. Plus, “the splendor of love” sounds downright boring.
Today, “The Joker” stands as a cornerstone of classic rock radio and part of the pop culture landscape. Topping Billboard’s Hot 100 in early 1974, the song hit the top of the U.K. singles chart 16 years later after being featured in an ad campaign for Levi’s. It even partially inspired a 1996 feature film starring Jon Cryer – titled The Pompatus of Love, of course.
Maybe what’s most compelling about “The Joker” is the fact that even though the lyrics seem to make absolutely no sense, there is always this feeling that if you just listen a few more times, you’ll somehow unlock the secrets of Maurice, the space cowboy, and the pompatus of love.
57: Joe Walsh, “Rocky Mountain Way”
We’ve already seen Joe Walsh on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list as a member of the James Gang, and it’s a pretty safe bet we’ll be checking in on him later as part of the Eagles, but right now, how about we take a trip down “Rocky Mountain Way?”
Technically, we could have snuck Walsh onto our countdown four times. Even though only his name is on the cover, this song actually comes from the second album by his post-James Gang project, Barnstorm.
Reportedly inspired by the longtime Ohio native’s move to Colorado, the chunky slide guitar, lurching rhythm and rolling piano line on “Rocky Mountain Way” does indeed capture the rugged natural beauty of that state. Although they’re not exactly clear or literal, the lyrics seem to indicate Walsh moved in order to get away from some personal troubles, which apparently worked just as he imagined it: “And we don’t need the ladies crying ‘cuz the story’s sad / Cause the Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had.”
“Rocky Mountain Way” is perhaps most famous for that incredible talk box guitar solo, but he didn’t pioneer this sound. Simpler forms of the technology had been used on records before. In fact, Walsh got his device from friend Bill West (Dottie West’s husband), and it had previously been used on Pete Drake’s 1955 song “Forever.” Still, Walsh took things to a whole new level of popularity among his peers and the public.
Peter Frampton was obviously inspired: He called Walsh to find out what this magic box was and how to use it. The results can be heard on Frampton’s later entry on this Top 100 list.
56: George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord”
When George Harrison wrote “My Sweet Lord” in late 1969, the Beatles were still officially together, so Harrison gave this future Top 100 Classic Rock Songs entry to their friend and Apple Records label mate Billy Preston.
Five months later, the Beatles had disbanded, while Preston’s version failed to score much attention. So, Harrison reclaimed the number and recorded it for his debut solo album All Things Must Pass.
Though he wasn’t keen on a single getting issued, preferring the undiluted impact of a triple album, “My Sweet Lord” was released in late 1970 and soon thereafter, became an international No. 1 hit. It was the first song by a former Beatle to reach the top, and it was the biggest seller of all the singles to be released by any of the four solo Beatles in the ‘70s.
The million-selling single featured some famous Harrison friends — including Preston, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. Still, its success was quickly followed by legal controversy. Turns out Harrison’s song sounded a lot like Ronnie Mack’s “He’s So Fine,” which the Chiffons hit with in 1963. A prolonged copyright infringement suit followed, resulting in the court finding Harrison guilty of “subconsciously” copying the tune.
Regardless, Harrison believed that because “My Sweet Lord” sounded like a pop song, it had the power to sneak up on the listener, and he was right. The song’s numerous “Hallelujahs” and “Hare Krishna” chants became part of the mainstream, thanks to an ex-Beatle with a gentle spirit and a slide guitar.
55: Def Leppard, “Photograph”
It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and the same is true about Def Leppard’s entry into our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.”Photograph” was a smash hit for the Sheffield, U.K.-based group in 1983, helping launch Def Leppard and their Pyromania album into the rock stratosphere.
Frontman Joe Elliott didn’t need a thousand words to get his point across: The lyrics reveal right from the start that the singer is “Outta luck and outta love” and it doesn’t take long to figure out that his photograph collection isn’t getting the job done romantically. He longs to touch the real thing, whoever she is. Alas, this mystery girl remains only a fantasy and much to his despair, he can only love her from afar.
Def Leppard knows the formula for creating a good single, and this was just one of many for this talented group. Elliott and guitarist Phil Collen are both huge fans of rock ‘n’ roll, and with inspirations ranging from the Beatles and David Bowie to Mott the Hoople, this band of believers were destined for their own stardom.
“Photograph” absolutely ruled the airwaves during its time, and the former No. 1 hit can still be heard frequently on classic rock radio. Decades later it’s also still a fan favorite at their live shows. With its strong, passionate vocal from Elliott and great guitar riffs from Collen, the song’s unforgettable melody is as indelible as a photographic image.
54: Free, “All Right Now”
Their signature number “All Right Now,” which deservedly grabs a slot on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs countdown, was created by a group who were just in their teens when they first got together. In fact, bassist Andy Fraser just 15 years old at time.
Success wasn’t immediate for Free – or for “All Right Now.” The song was laid down live in the studio for the most part (Rodgers adding his vocals after the fact), but then found itself buried as the last song on the second side of their third album, 1970’s Fire and Water. Listening to “All Right Now” now, however, you wonder how anyone missed it.
In truth, even Free themselves “weren’t that keen on it,” according to Fraser. But Island Records president Chris Blackwell stepped in and released it anyway. As “All Right Now” became a big hit, some critics claimed that the main riff had been lifted directly from the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” Fraser pointed to a different influence, telling Classic Rock magazine that he was trying to imitate Pete Townshend, who he calls “the best chord player.”
“All Right Now” was well received amongst Free’s musical peers: Steve Miller later admitted that the intro to “Rock N’ Me” was a nod to Free guitarist Paul Kossoff, and the soon-to-be-famous intro from “All Right Now.” The inspiration was karmic, because both tunes had been born out of a desire to inject a heavy dosage of rock into an otherwise mid-tempo set. They needed a number to get the audiences on their feet, and “All Right Now” (which was made complete with a healthy helping of cowbell) proved to be just what the doctor ordered.
At the height of Free’s popularity, they performed a rough and tumble version of “All Right Now” for over 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight festival, all of whom were unaware that the same song would someday be used to try to pick up a delicious blonde on a bus (via a classic Wrigley’s commercial).
Inner-band turmoil and wildly fluctuating record sales eventually caused Free to break apart, and that was followed tragically by the drug-related death of Kossoff in 1976. Still, the blistering “All Right Now” remains a feather in their cap.
53: Blue Oyster Cult, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”
Released in 1976, Blue Oyster Cult‘s classic “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” could be considered the summation of all they had done up to that point in their career, condensed into a five-minute song.
The first single, and centerpiece of their fourth studio album Agents Of Fortune, was an instant hit on FM radio, and to this day remains a daily radio favorite. It is also the song most identified with Blue Oyster Cult, solidifying its inclusion here on our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
Formed in 1968 as Soft White Underbelly, the group soon changed their name to the Stalk Forest Group and signed with Elektra records. An album was recorded, but never released. They soon adopted the moniker of Blue Oyster Cult and signed with Columbia. The band’s first three albums are all stone-cold classics of hard, yet at times very ethereal, rock and roll.
With Agents Of Fortune, the band fine tuned their sound and as a result connected with radio and record buyers, sending “Reaper” to No. 12, and the album into the Top 30. The mood is set with a sinister yet inviting, Byrds-inspired guitar riff. A driving rhythm and haunting vocals overtake the proceedings and then at the halfway point, the whole thing bursts wide open into guitar frenzy before the overall calm reclaims the terrain. A brilliant piece of rock and roll from start to end.
The song was later parodied on Saturday Night Live, with Christopher Walken playing a character who actually had nothing to do with the original recordings. Bruce Dickinson was the reissue producer and did not produce the original album; Sandy Pearlman did.
52: The Guess Who, “American Woman”
These five guys from Manitoba, Canada, can’t seem to grasp the allure of an American woman during this entry on our list of Top 100 Classic Rock Songs. But it still made for great rock and roll. Hailing from the record of the same name, the Guess Who’s “American Woman” vaulted to the top of the Billboard charts shortly after the single was released in March 1970.
The song actually came together in a rather unexpected way. It reportedly started as a live jam during one of the Guess Who’s concerts in Ontario, Canada. As the group found their way, Burton Cummings began improvising the lyrics, singing what he felt worked best with the rhythm.
Although some perceived the song’s lyrics to be chauvinistic, bassist Jim Kale insisted that the words were merely meant to reflect some of the social differences between Canada and the United States at the time, most namely around the draft for the Vietnam War. In an ironic twist, the Guess Who were invited to play at the White House shortly after the song was a certified hit but were reportedly asked by First Lady Pat Nixon to refrain from playing “American Woman” due to its perceived anti-American lyrics.
51: The Police, “Roxanne”
“Roxanne” almost wasn’t a hit for the Police. In fact, the song wasn’t even a blip on the U.K. charts after its April 1978 release. And when “Roxanne” did finally resonate with listeners after its 1979 re-release, it barely cracked the Top 40 in the U.S. (going to No. 32) and only hit No. 12 in the U.K.
Still, “Roxanne” is now known as the Police’s signature song, and an obvious choice for our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list, even more recognizable than their monster 1983 hit, “Every Breath You Take.”
A departure from their first single, the punk-inspired “Fall Out” – but aligned with the reggae-tinged sound of their 1978 debut LP, Outlandos d’Amour — “Roxanne” is an early and instructive example of new wave’s genre melding. (“People always tell me that ‘Roxanne’ is a reggae song,” Sting told Q magazine in 1993. “It’s actually a tango; it’s not a f—ing reggae song.”) His unorthodox voice – a ragged, yelping instrument with the phrasing and timing of a soul singer – drives the song, whose hiccupping bass line trips seamlessly through drummer Stewart Copeland’s jazz-crisp beats. Guitarist Andy Summers’ repetitive chords, influenced by punk’s raw sound, provide the meticulous texture of the song.
Sting’s lyrical inspiration for “Roxanne” was the red-light district in Paris. “It was the first time I’d seen prostitution on the streets and those birds were actually beautiful,” he told L’Historia Bandido in 1981. “I had a tune going around in my head and I imagined being in love with one of those girls. I mean, they do have fellas. How would I feel?”
The song’s protagonist is ostensibly saving her from her profession: “You don’t have to put on the red light / Those days are over.” However, it’s unclear if his intentions are pure, as jealousy (“I have you to tell just how I feel / I won’t share you with another boy”) and not-so-tacit disapproval (“Walk the streets for money / You don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right”) crop up in the lyrics.
Despite the risque subject matter, “Roxanne” reportedly helped the Police secure a record deal. As the story goes, future manager Miles Copeland (Stewart’s brother) heard them play the song, saw some potential and took it to A&M Records. The label agreed, beginning a relationship that would span the Police’s entire career.
As if to underscore its genre fluidity, “Roxanne” has metamorphosed through the years. Emo-pop act Fall Out Boy emphasized the punk roots of the song on a 2005-released cover, while pop star George Michael approached the song like a standards crooner. Sting himself has actually reinvented the song more than anyone else: He recorded a version of the song with rapper Puff Daddy in 1997, and during solo concerts has performed both an extended, reggae-driven interpretation of the song and a gentle orchestral rendition.
50: Peter Frampton, “Show Me the Way”
Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way” was originally featured on the guitarist’s 1975 Frampton album, but the version that has entered our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs – and our hearts – is the live take from Frampton Comes Alive!, released the following year.
Frampton is deservedly celebrated for his guitar playing and songwriting, but should also be recognized as a survivor in an industry that chews up and spits out even the best of them. The longevity of his career is nothing short of remarkable. Remember, he started out as the vocalist and guitarist in the British teen band the Herd, and then followed that up by co-founding the mighty Humble Pie before going solo.
Frampton released four mildly successful solo albums before millions and millions of copies of Frampton Comes Alive! surprisingly flew off the record store shelves in 1976, and “Show Me the Way” is a big part of why his music suddenly clicked with audiences. It was also one of the first singles to introduce us to Frampton’s talk-box skills, which to this day fascinates and entertains his followers.
The victory of “Show Me the Way” is that the masses were more than willing to participate in Frampton’s quest. He was calling out for guidance and the audience made the connection. So, while the boys tried to figure out how he achieved that unique talk-box sound (could it be he got some inspiration from Joe Walsh?), girls across the globe were gazing upon the bronzed, shirtless blonde that was pinned up on their bedroom walls. Decades years later, Frampton has proven that he knew the way all along.
49: The Doobie Brothers, “Black Water”
You can almost feel the warm breeze blowing in as the summery sounds of wind chimes lead into the acoustic guitar and fiddle during the opening of the next track on our Top 100 Classic Rock Song countdown, the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.”
The tune was originally relegated to the b-side of the single “Another Park, Another Sunday,” from the 1974 album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits. However, in an oft-repeated tale in rock history, an intrepid DJ flipping the record over and playing the other side led to the song hitting the No. 1 spot early that same year.
Written and sung by guitarist Patrick Simmons, “Black Water” was a change up from the more rootsy rock and roll that had established the band up to this point with hits like “Long Train Runnin'” and “China Grove.” “Black Water” also featured a subtle-but-clear country influence, and a lovely breakdown a cappella section that connected strongly and immediately with fans.
The Doobie Brothers would go on to score more hits and explore more creative ground throughout their long and successful career, but “Black Water” was their first monster hit and remains among their most popular songs ever.
48: Rush, “Tom Sawyer”
Rush grab their much deserved slot on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list with a track that found the band once again breaking new ground artistically.
The unmistakeable sonic boom synthesizer intro of “Tom Sawyer” launches side one of 1981’s landmark Moving Pictures. Thanks largely to this song, the LP reached the top five of the Billboard album charts and would eventually become Rush’s best-selling record.
From the band’s perspective, every single second of “Tom Sawyer” would be hard fought for in the studio as they worked to get things exactly right. What began (as it often does) as simple noodling at soundcheck evolved into a much more complex undertaking. Fortunately their efforts paid off and “Tom Sawyer” was quite well received, to put it mildly.
The positive reception however, came as a complete shock to the band. Rush bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee once recalled that “when we wrote it, we had no idea that it would touch such a nerve with people.” Today, he calls it a “quintessential” part of the Rush catalog. Of course, South Park’s Eric Cartman had some trouble with the lyrics, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone else who can’t recite the classic opening lines verbatim: “A modern-day warrior/ Mean mean stride/ Today’s Tom Sawyer/ Mean mean pride.”
“Tom Sawyer” also features a particularly epic solo from Alex Lifeson. (For every frustrated guitar player who spent countless hours in the bedroom trying to get every note exactly right, just know that you weren’t alone.) Lifeson has joked in the past about nailing the solo in a short period of time, but he later admitted that in reality quite a bit of tinkering was necessary to finally get a satisfactory take.
The finished results speak for themselves: It’s clear that Rush got exactly it right with “Tom Sawyer.”
47: Thin Lizzy, “The Boys Are Back in Town”
Regardless of exactly what format the best local rock station from your teenage years favored – the popular classics, the hard stuff, or true oldies – odds are pretty good that Thin Lizzy‘s 1976 hit ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ was regularly pulled out of the record stacks to accompany your evening’s adventures.
Learning how to drive, then spending weekend nights goofing off with your friends in the car, you’d kill to hear a song like this on the radio. It would soundtrack your night, but you’d hope for more – that it would somehow bend the evening toward some chaotic climax of insanity, like a bar fight or the chance to sweep some new girl off her feet. Even if, in reality there were no bars you really had a prayer of getting into and few girls willing to give any of us guys the time of day.
Thin Lizzy’s classic sound was defined by the twin guitars of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, and the central riff on hard-to-dispute Top 100 Classic Rock Songs club member “The Boys Are Back in Town” is maybe their most recognizable and brilliant moment. But let’s not discount the late Phil Lynott’s lyric or vocals; breathless from the start, he paints with a broad brush and brings you into the middle of an ongoing story. These characters aren’t from anywhere you know, and they may not wander through your night again, but while they’re around, they will tear things up.
We must admit, we can’t recall any evenings spent cruising around in our green Ford Tempo that rivaled the action depicted in “The Boys Are Back in Town.” But we do remember, very vividly, hearing this song on the radio, turning the dial all the way up, and wishing desperately that something unexpected and insane would happen in our dorky 17-year-old lives.
46: Judas Priest, “Living After Midnight”
By 1980, more than a decade into their career, Judas Priest were ready to take on the world. With the release of their sixth album, the classic British Steel and the single “Living After Midnight” they were really delivering the goods.
The song packed a real one-two punch that woke up U.S. fans to the power of Priest. With its simple, almost Kinks-like riff, “Living After Midnight” was a perfect melding of metal and pop, in the best sense of both worlds. In just over three minutes, Judas Priest packed all the power of their metallic sound into a simple, direct pop track.
Leaving behind earlier, more complicated songwriting, the band turned in a riff, melody and driving beat that was irresistible to rock radio. Record buyers also got hooked, giving Judas Priest their first major hit. The album cracked the Top 40 in America and the Top 5 in their native England.
Judas Priest could be a lot heavier, no doubt, and at times even poppier (remember “Turbo Lover”?), but “Living After Midnight” was that perfect union of the two sides of the coin, giving us, perhaps, the definitive Judas Priest record and an obvious choice for inclusion on our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
45: Alice Cooper, “School’s Out”
Four years after Frank Zappa realized there was something special about Alice Cooper, signing them to his record label, the title track from the band’s 1972 album School’s Out sent the group to the head of the class. Decades later, it still easily aces our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs entrance exam.
“School’s Out” itself is a masterpiece of full on rock and roll. Three and a half minutes of pure loud guitar bliss, with Alice (the man) in full power of his gritty, made-for-rock and roll voice. From the opening call to arms guitar riff through to the cheering school kids at the end, it’s a celebration put to wax.
Wisely released just as school was letting out across America, the single hit the Top 10 in June of 1972 and would carry the album all the way to No. 2. The song proved to be an even bigger hit in England, where it shot to No. 1 and made Alice Cooper an sensation.
The ever-present controversy surrounding Alice Cooper didn’t hurt. The group’s on-stage use of snakes, hangings, guillotines and a pervading dark, perverse sense of humor made their show a must-see attraction early on. The release of the School’s Out album itself was not without its share of headlines as the initial run was packaged with paper panties in lieu of a sleeve.
Turns out, the panties were flammable and had to be recalled. Naysayers howled: Who was this sick Alice Cooper and why were young kids buying a record with panties in it? Of course, this was back when parents would genuinely get upset by such things. Ahh, those were the days!
44: Cheap Trick, “I Want You to Want Me”
In the spring of 1979, you couldn’t escape the sounds of “I Want You To Want Me,” the first big hit from Cheap Trick. Then again, why would you want to?
The original studio version of the song had appeared on the band’s 1977 sophomore LP In Color, and failed to make any waves in this country. In Japan, a different story was unfolding: The band became an overnight sensation in the land of the rising sun.
Just as their third album, the classic Heaven Tonight, hit the streets, Cheap Trick found themselves being welcomed to Japan, Beatlemania-style. This led to a headlining tour, and the recording of a series of shows at the legendary Budokan arena.
The resulting live project, Cheap Trick at Budokan, was released in the fall of 1978 and was originally intended for a Japanese-only release. Then something happened. Imports started showing up in this country and – what d’ya know? – it started selling. In fact, Cheap Trick at Budokan reportedly became the biggest selling import album of the ’70s.
So, in a classic case of supply and demand, Epic Records released the album here in early 1979 and it just took off. “I Want You to Want Me,” an almost quaint little song from In Color, was transformed into a rocked-up guitar raver in concert, and that also helped catch the ear of listeners in the states.
The success of At Budokan caught everyone by surprise – the label and radio programmers, not to mention the band itself. As it kept selling, the album shot to No. 4, and “I Want You to Want Me” to No. 7. It made the Budokan and Cheap Trick household names, and turned the masses on to what the band’s die hard fans already knew: This was a great band that needed to be heard.
Along with “Surrender,” this remains the song most identified with the eternally great Cheap Trick, so it finds a rightful home on our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
43: Eric Clapton, “Cocaine”
Approximately one year following the release of JJ Cale’s 1976 record Troubadour, Eric Clapton introduced Cale’s song “Cocaine” to a much wider audience when he included it on his album Slowhand, released in November 1977.
Slowhand marked a resurgence of sorts for Clapton, arriving after a string of releases failed to live up to the promise heard on 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard. Driven by a relatively laid-back blues beat, “Cocaine” wasn’t so much a lyrically based song as it was a somewhat understated showcase of Clapton’s superior skill with the guitar.
His version of “Cocaine” runs approximately 53 seconds longer than Cale’s, but Clapton’s treatment of the track is otherwise faithful, maintaining the same relaxed vibe as the original. Given his ability on the guitar, it should not be terribly surprising to anyone that Clapton chose to showcase his chops and in turn extend the song.
“Cocaine” would not be Clapton’s biggest hit by any means, only reaching the No. 30 position on the Billboard singles charts. Regardless, the song stands proud on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list as arguably one of his finest moments, and a staple of his set list decades after its release.
42: Bad Company, “Feel Like Makin’ Love”
Following the massive success of their self-titled debut record, England’s Bad Company certainly had their work cut out for them when the time came around to crafting the dreaded sophomore follow-up. Fortunately for the band, 1975 Straight Shooter featured “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” the song that has landed on our list of Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
The song starts with an acoustic guitar, sounding somewhat similar to Led Zeppelin, who signed the band to their Swan Song label. Vocalist Paul Rodgers sounds almost wistful and rather restrained, considering what we know of his full potential power. Gentle vocal harmonies keep “Feel Like Makin’ Love” on track before guitarist Mick Ralphs kicks the distortion pedal on in time for the anthemic, yet simplistic chorus. Rocket science this was not, yet the track resonated well with their fans. “Feel Like Makin’ Love” climbed to No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
Kid Rock is one of the more recent artists to have covered “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” including the song on his self-titled release of 2003. But he didn’t have quite as much luck on the charts as the originators of the song did, peaking at No. 33.
41: Heart, “Barracuda”
The May 1977 release of Heart‘s second album, Little Queen, should’ve been an unqualified triumph. The Pacific Northwest band had become superstars in Canada and the U.S. during the previous year on the strength of their Mushroom Records-released debut, Dreamboat Annie and its hit singles, “Crazy On You” and “Magic Man.”
But Little Queen arrived around the same time as the odds ‘n’ ends collection Magazine, an LP in retaliation after the band left Mushroom. Relations between the two camps had soured in recent times, partly because of the publication of an ad which insinuated the band’s principals, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, had an incestuous relationship.
The incident was just one in a long line of sexist experiences the siblings faced as Heart’s fame increased. “Barracuda” sprang from the anger Ann Wilson felt about this misogyny – and specifically, one backstage encounter with a “real slimeball guy.”
“He just felt the need to say really denigrating things to us, because we were women, right?” she said in a 2007 A&E interview. “We were new into the business at that time, and it hit us right between the eyes, that we were going to meet a lot more people like this. It was really a feeling of rage I felt; I felt sort of trapped and really insulted.”
“Barracuda” certainly reflects that rage: Stacked, Zeppelin-esque riffs rumble with the power of a buffalo stampede in tandem with the galloping drumming and her powerhouse voice – an instrument that’s simultaneously operatic, twang-touched and blues-based. When she spits out “barracuda”—or “And if the real thing don’t do the trick / You better make up something quick / You gonna burn, burn, burn, burn, burn to the wick” — her contempt is evident.
But “Barracuda” is also effective because it’s subtle. Underneath the barreling top layer, sustained guitar flourishes add flickers of unease. And the song’s lyrics are metaphorical rather than direct: The Wilson sisters are referred to obliquely as the porpoise and me, and by the end of the song swim far away from the jerk which insulted them.
Heart’s entry onto our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list has lost none of its power over the years. In fact, as a long-time staple of Heart’s live shows, it became a showcase for still-underrated guitarist Nancy Wilson, who traditionally takes the spotlight as she strikes the strident opening chords.
40: Fleetwood Mac, “Go Your Own Way”
Fleetwood Mac‘s legendary 1977 record Rumours has sold more than 19 million copies in the U.S. alone, and that’s partially driven by the song featured at No. 40 on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.
A warts-and-all tale of real-life relationship break-downs within the band – yes, more than one, at the same time – Rumours has stood the test of time largely based around the honesty of tracks like “Go Your Own Way.” The lyrics find author and guitarist Lindsay Buckingham ruminating on where things might have went wrong with his bandmate and ex-love Stevie Nicks. Ultimately, he concludes if she doesn’t like what he has to offer, well, the door’s right over there.
Ironically, for a song that classic rock radio has almost played to death, it seems to be more revered nowadays than it was at the time of its original release. Looking at the Billboard chart for the week of March 12, 1977 when “Go Your Own Way” peaked at the No. 10 position, both Mary McGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers” and Kenny Nolan’s “I Like Dreamin'” somehow charted ahead of Fleetwood Mac.
Chances are that if you were to approach any random stranger on the street, they would be more likely to have heard “Go Your Own Way” that either of those other two tracks.
39: Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing”
Its appeal was evident long before “Sultans of Swing” hit No. 4 on the Billboard singles chart in 1979, or our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list. After all, a 1977 demo version of the song reportedly earned the band a record deal.
Knopfler’s speak-sing delivery, a laissez-faire drawl reminiscent of Tom Petty and Lou Reed, contributes little in the way of emotion. Instead, snaky guitars – including a twang-dusted bridge that underscores Knopfler’s fluid, effortless playing – tell the tune’s story: a love letter to a bar band called the Sultans of Swing, who live and die for the weekend gigs where they can forget day jobs and immerse themselves in their tunes.
More specifically, the literal approach to the lyrics is subtle and clever. After Knopfler sings, “Check out Guitar George, he knows all the chords,” he strikes a few deliberate changes; after the next line, “Mind he’s strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing,” he plays a bluesy riff that’s, well, very rhythmic.
It’s brilliant: Dire Straits may not be the Sultans, but they understand the mindset of journeymen who play strictly for the love of music – and so they can be the mouthpiece for all of those who are “saving it up for Friday night.”
38: Paul McCartney, “Live and Let Die”
The year 1973 was busy for former Beatles star Paul McCartney. April saw the release of his album Red Rose Speedway Then the stand-alone single song “Live and Let Die” – written for the James Bond movie of the same name – garnered McCartney one of his biggest hits ever. The No. 38 finisher in our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs countdown was then followed by Band on the Run.
Unlike much that McCartney had released to date, “Live and Let Die” starts with a hushed introduction featuring piano and McCartney’s doubled-up vocals, but an entirely different dynamic comes into play after the first verse. At this point, a bombastic run of strings and orchestral instruments brings 007-approved action movie drama to the proceedings, before making another surprising move, into a pseudo-reggae bridge. It was, to say the very least, an interesting mash-up of musical styles, and one that only a talented and studied artist like McCartney could pull off with such flying colors.
In what could have been the ultimate tribute, Weird Al Yankovic had approached McCartney with the idea of writing a parody of the song that he was going to call “Chicken Pot Pie.” McCartney, a staunch vegetarian, reportedly declined Yankovic permission based on his beliefs. Otherwise, many bands have covered the track since its release. Arguably most successful of these was the version by fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Guns N’ Roses, whose cover appeared on 1991’s Use Your Illusion I.
37: Elton John, “Rocket Man”
Elton John‘s “Rocket Man” is not the first classic rock song about a lonely dude drifting through space. Hell, it may not even be the best, although a debate on the merits of this track versus David Bowie‘s “Space Oddity” (found later on this Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list) is a conversation for another day.
What sets “Rocket Man” apart also happens to be what makes the music of John and his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin, stand the test of time, fads, and fading fame. Elton and Bernie practice a unique division of labor: Taupin writes lyrics almost as stand-alone poetry, with an eye toward the rhythms of pop music. Then Elton sits at a piano with a pile of these lyrics and writes the music. Some of their biggest hits have emerged after just a half-hour or less at the piano, and if he can’t find the hook quickly, Elton will simply walk away.
Taupin’s lyrics for “Rocket Man” emphasize the personal over the sci-fi. The astronaut’s wife packs his bags; Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. John’s melody underscores the words with a melancholy, wistful tone, while the production brings in a light element of futuristic sheen, never abandoning that fragile, perfect melody.
Would the song be as successful if Elton John had the skill to write lyrics and melody? Perhaps. But it might not accomplish its emotional goals with quite as much grace.
36: The Allman Brothers Band, “Ramblin’ Man”
Until the time of their 1973 smash “Ramblin’ Man,” the Allman Brothers Band had largely been centered on siblings Duane and Gregg Allman. The years since the breakthrough success of the group’s 1971 live album At Filmore East, however, were anything but kind.
They lost both guitarist Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley in separate motorcycle accidents barely a year apart, and many probably wondered if the Allmans would ever recover. The answer, in the form of 1973’s Brothers and Sisters, was a clear “yes.” “Ramblin’ Man” becoming one of the Allman Brothers Band’s most beloved tunes, earning a spot on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
In response to the tragedies that had unfolded, Allmans guitarist Dickey Betts stepped up to the plate on Brothers and Sisters and delivered several strong songs, including the beautiful, wistful instrumental “Jessica” and, of course, this anthem. Perhaps one of the most concise examples of Southern rock, the song’s guitar lick and chorus are firmly entrenched in the minds of millions of fans, and will remain there for generations to come.
35: The Cars, “Just What I Needed”
The Cars set the bar rather high for themselves with their 1978 self-titled debut: Out of the album’s nine songs, seven of them remain AOR staples to this day. Perhaps the most indelible of those tunes, however, is “Just What I Needed.”
This clear choice for our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list crams together hooks in simple, yet inventive ways. First, there’s the staggered, stuttering intro – splattered quarter notes and then clipped eighth notes punctuating concise, tick-tock guitar. Then, the song’s tension increases as minimalist chords containing no more than several changes kick in and gradually pile up underneath the first verse. Things build even more before the second verse, thanks to the emergence of an unexpected curveball: a fuzzy keyboard line which languishes like a siren. That crucial element anchors “Just What I Needed” for the duration, as it unfolds into a rather biting tune.
The lust the narrator has for the mysterious object of his affection is obvious: “I don’t mind you coming here / Wasting all my time / Cause when you’re standing oh-so-near / I kind of lose my mind.” However, the chorus reveals more than a little arrogance, if not disdain, for this beauty on the protagonist’s part. He asserts, “I guess you’re just what I needed / I needed someone to” alternately “feed,” “bleed” and “plead.”
Heartthrob bassist Ben Orr assumes lead vocal duties, which softens the tone of the song somewhat. Orr sounds like more a teenybopper singer than he does a muscular rocker, presaging new-wave’s embrace of unconventional masculinity. In fact, “Just What I Needed” is a bridge between the past and future: Classic rock-friendly riffs and unabashed expressions of lust cohabitate with power-pop’s brevity and new wave’s keyboard-pop.
After The Cars, mingling rock elements with electronic sounds became de rigeur. Even ragged rockers the Strokes, who eventually felt more like a Cars tribute band than one indebted to NYC hipsters, covered the song with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker in 2011.
34: Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World”
Do politics belong in rock ‘n’ roll? You might say no. But when the result is a barnburner like Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” it’s hard to deny the value of self-righteous rage when it comes to penning a classic tune.
Whatever your political leanings, there’s plenty to love about this track, not least of which is the simple gut-punch riff that churns throughout the tune. Young shreds away at his guitar with the ferocity of a pissed-off teenager in his garage, spitting out words that were a scathing indictment of America under George H.W. Bush, but seem timeless decades years later, especially when his attention turns to a baby in the arms of a poor drug addict living on the streets:
“There’s one more kid / That will never go to school / Never get to fall in love / Never get to be cool.”
Artists like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan have woven politics seamlessly into the fabric of their music, chronicling the American condition over decades. And anger has always been part of the backbone of rock music, whether the singer’s angry at the government, another man, or a girl who’s done him wrong.
Young captured that anger perfectly with “Ohio” in the wake of the Kent State shootings in 1970, and he did it again in 1989 with this Top 100 Classic Rock Songs entry. In fact, short of Springsteen’s own “Born in the USA” or Dylan’s “Masters of War,” there may be no better explosion of rage on record than “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
It feels like decades of rage over every betrayal of the American promise, spitting out line by line and lick by lick over three and a half minutes.
33: Cream, “Sunshine of Your Love”
Although they were only together for two years, the impact that British power trio Cream had upon the world is truly remarkable. No song illustrates this better than “Sunshine of Your Love,” which mixed hard rock with aspects of psychedelia to wonderful effect.
The song centers around what is perhaps one of the most simplistic guitar riffs of all time, courtesy of “Slowhand” himself, Eric Clapton. In many ways though, restraint is what propels “Sunshine of Your Love” forward, although Clapton’s remarkable skill with the guitar are on prominent display throughout the solo section.
Vocal duties are shared between Clapton and Jack Bruce, as the latter’s menacing bass gives the song it’s hefty low end. Drummer Ginger Baker cuts slightly loose during the song’s chorus, but otherwise keeps time as if he were in a military band.
“Sunshine of Your Love” was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, rising to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles in 1968, and it’s pretty clear the band’s peers were impressed. We’d venture a guess that Jimi Hendrix would have given this song a spot on his own personal Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list, as the guitar legend began adding the song to his concert setlists – much as he had done with the Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
32: Deep Purple, “Smoke on the Water”
While some of rock and roll’s greatest storytelling songs require you to listen at least a bit of suspended reality, Deep Purple’s entry on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list operates nearly completely on truth. Unusually, it’s possible to visit some (though, not all) of the storied locations discussed here.
In the book Life Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock ‘N’ Roll America, authors Chris Price and Joe Harland lament that on the surface, music fans are more often at a competitive disadvantage. Sports nuts can visit their favorite teams and ballparks. Movie buffs can visit landmark scenery from their favorite films. But how exactly do you get to Hotel California?
For Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” all you have to do is journey to a little town called Montreux. For decades, it’s played host to the annual Montreux Jazz Festival. When Deep Purple first visited however, the festival was in its early stages, lasting only a couple of days. They had come to town in 1971 to record the album which would become Machine Head.
Recording in a mobile studio owned by the Rolling Stones within the Montreux Casino complex, the band was in the midst of laying down basic tracks when lead singer Ian Gillan was sidelined with hepatitis. Their progress was further delayed when a concert-goer shot off a flare at a Frank Zappa show at the Casino that set the roof on fire and destroyed the building.
Watching the fiery events inspired the immortal opening riff from guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. (It would be painstakingly imitated by budding guitar players of many future generations, and also patiently taught to the younger set by Jack Black in the movie School of Rock.) Bassist Roger Glover came up with the title “Smoke on the Water,” and that provided the linchpin for Gillan to write lyrics which provided a scene-by-scene account of the debacle.
It was a scary vision, as Gillan remembers. He memorably told syndicated radio host Redbeard that “it was an inferno. … The wind was coming down off the mountains and blowing the flames and the smoke over the lake. And the smoke was just like a stage show and it was hanging on the water.”
Hence the title, and also unfortunately, the need for a new recording location. Deep Purple relocated to a hotel to complete the album, which Glover says was recorded under “dire circumstances.” The harried set of events – both the fire and Gillan’s illness – left Deep Purple strapped for time, and Glover says as a result, a good amount of Machine Head was written “on the spot.” “Smoke on the Water” is evidence that perhaps spontaneity was a very good thing.
Blackmore’s cataclysmic riffing and Gillan’s stormy vocals seem to push back against an unseen wind, as the song puts you in the flame-licking midst of a developing tragedy that would leave its imprint on all who were in the vicinity. Grace under pressure and good use of clock management helped Purple deliver both a classic album and what would become one of classic rock’s most memorable and enduring songs.
Decades later, Deep Purple gave the familiar classic a turbo-charged update, performing it during a 2011 orchestral tour. A live DVD release from these dates was recorded at Montreux, bringing them full circle.
31: Metallica, “Enter Sandman”
In the years leading up to the release of their classic self-titled record in 1991, Metallica achieved massive success on their own terms. “Enter Sandman” opened the door to something even bigger.
Joining forces with producer Bob Rock for the first time, Metallica’s so-called “Black Album” introduced them to an international audience. “Enter Sandman,” the opening track and first single from the record, claims No. 31 on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list. Arguably unlike any other the band had written to date, the record’s streamlined – and some might argue overly accessible – sound undoubtedly played a big part in Metallica’s massive success.
Indeed, Rock was responsible for pushing James Hetfield and company in directions they had not previously traveled. Listening to the ferocity of the band’s playing in the song, it is tough to believe that they had any doubt about the path they had chosen. Largely abandoning the thrash-metal roots that had built them such a loyal following, they dared fans to follow along after a pretty big left turn. Everyone had to decide quickly if they were in or out, and fortunately the masses gave a big collective thumbs-up.
“Enter Sandman” was one of five singles released from Metallica. Decades later, each of the singles released were among the best received in concert. “Enter Sandman” would only make it to No. 16 on the Billboard singles chart. However, with more than 15 million copies of the “Black Album” sold in America alone, there is little arguing that Metallica became the bona-fide superstars that they deserved to become.
30: Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”
The “supergroup” label has been wrung dry of most of its original value nowadays, after decades of being attached with overblown record label fanfare to ad-hoc assemblies of B-list talent. Luckily, we’ll always have songs like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” from Crosby, Stills & Nash to remind us of a time when word of legendary rock musicians teaming up in new combinations prompted excited speculation. More importantly, they sometimes surpassed even the dreamiest of those expectations.
Heck, it still sounds like a wonderful new idea: Buffalo Springfield‘s Stephen Stills, David Crosby from the Byrds and Graham Nash from the Hollies bringing together their prodigious songwriting skills and amazingly complimentary voices.
Here’s another candidate for rock history moments we’d most like to visit once time travel is sorted out: The 1968 party where the trio spontaneously sang together for the first time. They immediately decided to join forces and record an album, and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” written by Stills about his gradual breakup with singer Judy Collins, was one of the first songs they tackled.
The epic track (or more accurately, the four mini-songs that make up the suite – and yes, Judy really does have blue eyes) came together very quickly, with Stills recording the basic guitar track not long after arriving at the studio. “It still gives me goose bumps when I listen to that recording, aware that he blew through seven-and-a-half minutes with all the time changes, all the pauses, all the everything in just one take,” engineer Bill Halverson told Sound on Sound in 2010. “No edits, no nothing.”
In fact, the engineer thought he had ruined Stills’ magic by over-brightening the guitar sound, leaving no low end. “I had totally overdone the sound, but Stephen was totally into what he was playing,” Halverson said, “and just when it looked like he was going to stop, he started another section and played some more. By now, my whole life was flashing in front of me, and certain that my career was over, I began to sweat.”
Luckily, Stephen liked what he heard. Millions of fans agreed, and our choice to represent the band on this Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list became a huge hit, as the Crosby, Stills & Nash album.
29: David Bowie, “Space Oddity”
David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” has landed firmly in our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs partly because its lead character, Major Tom, has aged exceptionally well considering everything he’s been through.
Now in his 40s, he’s gone from the dude floating around in a tin can to an iconic space-suited-survivor, and even the start of his very own children’s book. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece film 2001: A Space Odyssey the song’s storyline captures an alluring and ultimately alarming conversation that takes place between Ground Control and astronaut Major Tom, who’s been blasted into outer space.
“Space Oddity” has a rich history; musically and culturally, partially thanks to its release coinciding with the actual moon landing in 1969. In fact, it was this event that motivated album producer Tony Visconti to decline getting involved with its recording. He apparently considered the timing somewhat of a gimmick, and though he went on to produce the rest of Bowie’s self-titled album, Gus Dudgeon gets the producer credit here.
The song starts the sounds of a spaceship lifting off, a dramatic effect pulled off successfully thanks to guitarist Mick Wayne’s use of a chrome-plated, cigarette lighter. Soon enough, Tom finds himself a hero in orbit, with the papers demanding to know whose shirts he wears. Of course, as well all know by now, the mission doesn’t go according to plan, and our brave explorer finds himself lost – intentionally? – in the stars forever.
Bowie has written a number of songs that could give “Space Oddity” a run for its money (including its sequel, “Ashes to Ashes”) but when it comes to picking just one, we’re sticking by the character who took his protein pills and sacrificed his own life to satisfy our innate curiosity about the worlds beyond our own.
28: Boston, “More Than a Feeling”
In the fall of America’s bicentennial celebration of 1976, Boston burst on to the airwaves with their debut LP. Its leadoff track, “More Than A Feeling,” fits right at home on our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
With a sound that was unique and yet somehow familiar, Boston were tailor-made for mid ’70s FM radio. Guitarist / band leader Tom Sholtz wasn’t your average poor struggling rocker; he was an M.I.T. graduate who invented his own effects pedal called “The Rockman.” The distinctive tone of Sholtz’s guitar coupled with the soaring vocals of Brad Delp became the trademark Boston sound, and fans ate it up.
In a typical tale of the times, the band was loved by fans and hated by the press. Often labeling the group “corporate rock,” critics hated Boston with a passion. And while its true that they were miles away from the burgeoning punk rock movement, Boston actually had a lot more to offer than the day-old bread that was so prominent in the 1976 rock musical landscape.
“More Than a Feeling” was a rush of sunshine-laced guitars and vocals. An almost sickly sweet ear worm that to this day can still be heard daily on any given classic rock radio station. There are moments where Delp’s voice blends so seamlessly with Sholtz’s guitar, that they seems to become one.
Boston issued an allegedly rushed follow-up two years later and a third album (presumably on a schedule more to their liking) some 10 years after their debut, but things would never again gel as they did on album number one. Sholtz has continued forward with Boston despite member defections and Delp’s 2007 death, however, ensuring that new generations of fans can enjoy the soaring wonders of “More Than a Feeling.”
27: Derek and the Dominos, “Layla”
Would TMZ have caught “slowhand” kissing the former Beatles‘ wife before he had a chance to confess this forbidden love to his friend? Would the two have gotten into a Twitter flame war instead of (unbelievably) remaining friends, with Harrison years later attending Clapton and Boyd’s 1979 wedding?
Meanwhile, Boyd later claimed that these years actually featured more of a love hexagon, with she and Harrison engaging in dueling affairs with Ron Wood and his wife, while Harrison was also allegedly cavorting with Ringo Starr‘s wife Maureen behind his former bandmate’s back. How has this not become a TV movie yet, or at least a board game?
It’s probably very selfish to say, since we didn’t go through any of these romantic betrayals ourselves, but the twin-movement genius of “Layla” is totally worth it. The pain in Clapton’s vocals cut even deeper than the famous stinging guitar riff that propels the first part of the song. Hearing Clapton exorcise his demons on guitar – in tandem with unofficial and all-too-temporary bandmate Duane Allman – would probably be enough to get this song onto any responsibly run Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.
Amazingly, that’s only half the musical story of this song, as Clapton was also able to convince Dominos drummer Jim Gordon to graft a lovely piano piece he had been developing separately onto the end of the song. The contrasting yet somehow complimentary moods of the two pieces elevated “Layla” into a work of art, albeit one that Clapton later said was very difficult to present live. “You have to have a good complement of musicians to get all of the ingredients going,” he admitted. “It’s difficult to do as a quartet, for instance, because there are some parts you have to play and sing completely opposing lines, which is almost impossible to do.”
Years later, it’s all taken on a dream-like quality for Clapton. “I’m very proud of it. I love to hear it. It’s almost like it’s not me,” he told interviewer Mark Hrano. “It’s like I’m listening to someone that I really like. Derek and the Dominos was a band I really liked – and it’s almost like I wasn’t in that band.”
26: Kiss, “Rock and Roll All Nite”
Hard-core Kiss fans may scoff a little bit at the decision to represent their face-painted heroes on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list with the relatively populist track “Rock and Roll All Nite.” After all, this undeniably catchy number isn’t as substantial, heavy or complex as songs like “Black Diamond,” “100,000 Years” or “Watchin’ You.”
Those classic tracks helped established the band’s sonic template, which blended the Rolling Stones‘ ballsy grit with a surprising dose of Beatles-type tunefulness, then cranked up the volume. Three albums following this formula – released in a dizzying 13-month blitz – combined with a grueling tour schedule that helped perfect a flashy and literally explosive stage show had earned the band a devoted following among hard rock fans, and reputation as a band you did not want opening for you.
What it did not do, however, was sell very many records. Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart figured out what was missing as the band assembled their third album, 1975’s Dressed to Kill. “At that time, rock bands didn’t have anthems,” Paul Stanley explains in the band’s official biography Behind the Mask, “but Neil was real smart and really ahead of his time, and he said, ‘Sly and the Family Stone had “Stand” and “I Want to Take You Higher.”‘ So he said, ‘You guys really should have an anthem.'”
Stanley and bassist Gene Simmons put together parts of two songs each had been working on, the latter providing the verses and the former delivering one of rock’s most universally appealing and memorable choruses. “We knew it was gonna be an anthem,” Ace Frehley reveals in the book. “I knew it was gonna be something special. The song says it all.”
Despite the band’s immediate pleasure, the studio version of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’ also failed to make a dent on the charts. With both band and label at the end of their financial ropes, they decided to throw a last-ditch Hail Mary six short months later by releasing the double-live album Alive! Freed from the constrictions of their underfed studio versions and supercharged by the band’s live delivery, Kiss’s songs connected with a massive new audience, and a newly released concert version of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’ led the charge.
The rest, you probably know. The tune’s “I wanna rock and roll all nite / And party every day” chorus became not just an anthem but an enduring cultural touchstone, and the song remains the soundtrack for the confetti-and-explosion-filled climaxes of the band’s concerts.
25: Tom Petty, “Free Fallin'”
Full Moon Fever was the first time Tom Petty had released a record without his longtime backing band, the Heartbreakers.
Still, even though Petty’s name alone adorned the record sleeve, the remainder of the Heartbreakers – with the exception of drummer Stan Lynch – supported him by performing on the record. In addition, Petty got help from Traveling Wilbury compatriots Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Roy Orbison, meaning this so-called 1989 solo record hardly lacked star power.
“Free Fallin'” was the most popular single from the album and, after one of the lengthiest debates in our young history (and with all due respect to “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “Breakdown” and other classics), lands on the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.
This was the highest charting song released from Full Moon Fever, ascending to the No. 7 position on the Billboard Hot 100. Yet Petty disclosed during a 1999 episode of VH1 Storytellers that the song’s lyrics were thrown together rather haphazardly. Primary consideration was given to how well they fit the melody of the song, as opposed to how well they delivered any story or message.
Well, if that’s the case, then the meaning found its own way to the surface and into his audience’s hearts. “Free Fallin'” was a coming-of-age song of sorts for the rocker. Here, he showed a new level of vulnerability, casting himself as the villain in a break-up and bitterly mocking his own so-called freedom. At least that’s how some pessimists choose to see it, while others focus instead on the positive celebration of freedom from the first half of the chorus.
Glass half-full, glass half-empty; either way it’s a great song.
24: Ted Nugent, “Stranglehold”
It would be a shame if Ted Nugent was remembered by future generations more for his outlandish personality and controversial political and hunting views than for his music. Thanks to songs like “Stranglehold,” however, that’s not very likely to happen.
In recent years, despite fronting one of the most dependably inspiring live shows you can witness – year after year after year – “Uncle Ted” gets far more attention for criticizing liberals or violating wildlife laws then he does for having merged Motown funk and soul with primal Chuck Berry rock and roll so effortlessly.
Granted, some of that is due to the fact that his more recent studio work hasn’t reached the same heights as his undeniably brilliant ’70s albums, including the 1975 self-titled solo debut that features the epic musical explorations of opening track “Stranglehold.”
Kicking off with one of rock’s most famous, stuttering and funky guitar riffs (“real f—ing simple, as long as you got the f—ing attitude,” as he declares on 2001’s live Full Bluntal Nugity album), “Stranglehold” quickly locks into place with a deep, hypnotic and vaguely psychedelic bass-and-drums groove that allows Nugent to roam far and wide with his guitar. Which is exactly what he did, reportedly in an incredibly spontaneous single take while demonstrating the song to his bandmates in the recording studio.
“‘Stranglehold’ is a masterpice of jammology,” Nugent tells Guitar World. “I was showing my rhythm section the right groove for the song. … We were going to leave a hole there so that I could overdub a solo later. Then I started playing lead work, just kind of filling in and though I had never played those licks before in my life, they all just came to me.”
Despite the objections of his engineers, Nugent decided to leave the results untouched for the final record. The song has gone onto become one of his twin calling cards – shout out to “Cat Scratch Fever” – a classic rock radio staple, and our choice for a high spot on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.
More importantly, we’re confident that long after the fuss has died down regarding what he did with his off-stage life, the mastery and magic of this fortuitously captured moment will stand the test of time as an important part of both Nugent’s and rock and roll’s history.
23: John Lennon, “Imagine”
Perhaps that’s sacrilege. But consider: While Paul McCartney‘s songwriting gifts seemed to emerge almost whole cloth at the band’s outset, Lennon’s style evolved over the band’s career – from the boys-love-girls-love-boys crunch of the Hard Day’s Night album to the serenity of “Across the Universe.”
Lennon’s music always chronicled a searching spirit, struggling to come to terms with the central contradictions of human nature, and constantly attempting to put humanity into some kind of larger spiritual context. With 1971’s “Imagine,” Lennon achieved his most clear, complete, and complex statement, slotting in the Top 25 of our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
The central message of “Imagine” is one of peace; there’s no question. That message is why the song has found a comfortable home as part of anti-war movements around the world. What is not as apparent is what exactly Lennon suggests we must surrender to achieve that peace – not just the material trappings of wealth and success, but the religious artifice built up over millennia, and even the fundamental structures of government. Only by abandoning everything can we come to terms with everything; only in letting go can we realize what’s important. “Imagine all the people / Living for today,” he sings.
With unexpectedly discrete production from Phil Spector, “Imagine” achieves a gentle touch that Lennon rarely reached throughout his career, preferring instead to explore the brittle edges of his voice and his guitar. Though it only hit No. 3 on America’s Billboard Hot 100, it’s become a standard of pop radio and a defining song for Lennon’s career. Although his dream that “the world will live as one” has yet to occur, his song lives on.
22: Bob Seger, “Turn the Page”
By the time Bob Seger had written the song that lands at No. 22 in our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list, he was all too familiar with the trials and tribulations of being a musician on tour. To Seger’s credit, few other “life on the road” songs can rival the intensity and passion heard in his 1973 single “Turn the Page,” featured on 1973’s Back in ’72 full-length.
The song starts with a saxophone which set a somewhat ominous tone for the remainder of the proceedings. Seger’s vocals come across as rather hushed: You can almost picture the rock and roll legend quietly singing to himself as to not disturb the other members of his band as they try to get some sleep on the bus.
Despite how glamorous “life on the road” might appear to some, “Turn the Page” does a remarkable job summing up the grueling and lonely realities of the day-to-day life of a musician on the road in the early ’70s. In perhaps the most striking line of the lyrics, summing up an era when long hair on guys might not have been seen as acceptable in the truck stops of America, Seger sings: “Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can. All the same old cliches, is that a woman or a man. And you always seem outnumbered; you don’t dare make a stand.“
Compared to the 1998 cover performed by Metallica, Seger’s version is considerably more minimalist yet somehow carries at least as much power. A number of other artists have attempted their own versions of this classic: Country outlaw Waylon Jennings, Staind and Kid Rock have been known to perform “Turn the Page” live. The track was also reportedly inspirational to both Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora when they were writing Bon Jovi‘s 1986 hit “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
It should be little surprise that Seger’s words would resonate so well with his peers, those who were most able to identify with where the singer was coming from when he wrote this classic song.
21: Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”
Released in July of 1965, Bob Dylan‘s “Like A Rolling Stone” was, in many ways, the dividing line between the past and the future of rock and roll. The lyrics, the mood, the ramshackle rock and roll sound – it was the way forward.
Issued as a single and the lead track on the Highway 61 Revisited LP, it ran for a then-unprecedented six minutes. Dylan and his entourage don’t waste a second of that time, plowing through a field of sound and words to concoct one of the most magical records of all time. Even with its odd shape and size, the record shot to No. 2 in the U.S. charts that summer.
Pre-Dylan, song lyrics were pretty much your standard love and longing, perhaps a bit of life and death, but usually with ground-floor wording. After Dylan’s early efforts sunk into the consciousness of his contemporaries, the field was blown wide open. The Byrds hit big with their take on Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and launched the folk-rock parade. The Turtles, Sonny & Cher, and countless others would follow the path. Dylan himself took things yet another step forward by bringing electric instrumentation into his music in early 1965 with side one of Highway 61‘s predecessor, Bringing It All Back Home.
But with “Like a Rolling Stone,” he made the ultimate folk-rock statement, closing one door and opening another at the same time. Poetry was now as much a part of the arsenal for young musicians as the electric guitar. This would inspire more literate writers such as Paul Simon, the Beatles, Neil Young and so on to up their ante and push the ball forward. And it would also, unavoidably, lead to many pale imitators (Mouse & the Traps aside), spewing out twisted phrases of pseudo-imagery in hopes of earning their poetry badges.
Musically, that crack of the snare drum that sets “Like a Rolling Stone” in motion is the shot heard ’round the world. Mike Bloomfield’s sharp-as-nails guitar and Al Kooper’s hammond organ give the song mighty wings. This is rock and roll as it was meant to be: Raw, literate, exciting, challenging and above all, memorable as hell. It can be said that “Like A Rolling Stone” was not only the pinnacle of Dylan’s career, but it may also have been the crowning achievement of the genre.
Never before or since has one single record delivered so much. It embraced the future as fondly as it cherished the past. It was perfectly of its time and yet transcends history by creating its own universe. Entire books – good ones! – have been written about this song. In a perfect world, some of us might say this should sit at the very top of out list of Top 100 Classic Rock Songs. News flash, it ain’t a perfect world, but with records like this around, it’s really not such a bad place to hang out, ya know.
20: Eagles, “Hotel California”
“Hotel California” might very well be the Eagles‘ best-known song. Yet if you ask a dozen people what the lyrics mean, you’ll quickly find out this entry in our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs countdown has at least that many explanations.
The band itself has described the six-minute song as its “interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles,” with Don Felder, who wrote the music, explaining: “If you drive into L.A. at night … you can just see this glow on the horizon of lights, and the images [are] of Hollywood and all the dreams that you have.” Don Henley, the song’s primary lyricist, added: “It’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.”
All of that aside, listener imaginations ran wild. One group of Christian evangelists insisted “Hotel California” referred to a San Francisco hotel converted into a Church of Satan, while other people thought the song’s title was about a state mental hospital. Henley’s always been resistant to explaining exactly what the metaphors in the song mean, but here’s what we do know: the word “colitas” in the first stanza is Mexican slang for the buds of the Cannabis plant (oh, stop looking so surprised), and the phrase “steely knives” was a playful nod to Steely Dan, who referenced the Eagles in their song “Everything You Did.”
Do with all that what you will, but there’s no mystery about the electric guitar interplay between Felder and Joe Walsh at the end of the song. Walsh once told us he remembered his recording session with Felder fondly, saying, “We decided we would each have a personality to each of our guitar parts, and we would work together in the body of the song – and then we would have a go at each other at the end. We brought out the best in each other. We were real competitive. … If he played something great, it was like ‘Oh yeah? Watch this!'”
The magical combination of metaphors, allegory and some bad-ass guitar work took “Hotel California” to the top of the charts in May of 1977, and the song earned the Eagles a Grammy award for record of the year, as well. Pretty lofty stuff for a song most people still don’t even understand.
19: ZZ Top, “La Grange”
We can’t say for sure the last time we heard “La Grange,” ZZ Top‘s ubiquitous musical calling card. But if it wasn’t today, it was probably yesterday – and it could have reached us from a hundred different sources. It may be hard to believe, listening to the radio today, but there was a time when ZZ Top had trouble even getting noticed.
Certainly, this wasn’t due to a lack of talent: The trio had the attention of their peers right from the start, with Jimi Hendrix naming frontman Billy Gibbons “America’s best young guitarist” early in their career.
However, despite releasing two extremely solid albums (including 1972’s Rio Grande Mud) and developing a reputation as a powerful live band, large-scale success eluded the group until “La Grange” knocked down the door in 1973. The song nearly hit the Top 40, and propelled their third album, Tres Hombres, to the top reaches of the album charts.
A loving lyrical tribute to Texas’s favorite little whorehouse, the track found ZZ Top enhancing a souped-up but otherwise highly traditional blues boogie with their own distinctive twists and turns. Part of what’s made the gruop so special over the years has been their ability to expand, mutate and transcend the blues genre on songs such as “Cheap Sunglasses” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” But “La Grange” shows them connecting to their original inspirations in extremely pure and undeniably appealing form.
Gibbons didn’t need any trickery to work his magic on this track. “That is straight guitar into amp: a 1955 Strat with a stop tailpiece through a 1969 Marshall Super Lead 100,” he told Guitar World. “That fuzz sound in the lead and in the front and back end of the composition is just pure tube distortion.”
If you need another reason to justify placing “La Grange” on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list, simply go to the movies, turn on your radio or watch television for a few hours. Odds are you’ll hear the track setting the mood for at least one film, TV show, commercial or video game before too long. It’s a testament to both the song’s immediate appeal and enduring quality that despite all this airplay and multi-media placement, it’s still a thrill every time Gibbons launches into his deep growl for that famous intro: “Rumour spreadin’ a-’round in that Texas town / ‘Bout that shack outside La Grange …”
18: The Doors, “L.A. Woman”
Released in April of 1971, L.A. Woman was the final album the Doors made with Jim Morrison. Within three months of its release, the singer would be dead. Sad as his loss is, talk about going out on a high note. The title track holds up as one of the finest recorded statements from one of rock’s greatest bands and lands itself at No. 18 on our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
So many things about this album are truly iconic, one of which is certainly this song. In nearly eight minutes of glory, the Doors take the listener on a wild ride down a road that winds, bends, twists, and turns as the vehicle accelerates, then let’s its foot off the gas slightly before driving us off into the sunset.
It is certainly one of the Doors’ brightest shining recorded moments. With the opening sound of auto acceleration leading straight into the driving beat of John Densmore, Ray Manzerek’s pulsating organ and Robbie Krieger’s slithering guitar line, the ground work is laid for Morrison’s gruff and demanding vocal.
He certainly rises to the occasion. More than ever, Morrison conjures up the old bluesman within that contradicts the 27-year-old man at the mic, with his world-wise, take-no-prisoners attitude. The band, and Morrison, play like the ship is going down, which of course, it was.
Written by all four members, “L.A. Woman” captures all the best elements of the Doors’ music. The haunting sense of mystery and road-weary poetry lock up with primal instinct, below the waist rock and roll, to create the group’s definitive song.
17: Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”
It’s terrifyingly easy to think of a rock music landscape without Ozzy Osbourne‘s towering presence. Instead, and seemingly against his own efforts, we have the mighty “Crazy Train” blasting out of every football stadium in the nation.
The substance abuse problems which got Osbourne fired as lead singer of Black Sabbath in 1979 also left him adrift and searching for a lifeline as he sought to form his own solo band. When that savior arrived in the form of guitarist Randy Rhoads, Ozzy was reportedly almost too messed up to see the light.
Luckily, the determination of a friend and the sheer talent of Rhoads were able to cut through the haze and launch one of hard rock’s brightest (and sadly, briefest) collaborations. Bassist Dana Strum, originally intended to be a member of Osbourne’s solo band, described the struggles he had getting Rhoads and Ozzy together in the book Randy Rhoads, and without those efforts we’d never have heard this future Top 100 Classic Rock Song.
After convincing a reluctant Rhoads – apparently he was somehow not a Sabbath fan, and also content with his role in a pre-fame Quiet Riot – to come to the audition by promising him $10 for gas, Strum had to literally wake the passed-out singer up and force him to listen. “He said, ‘Take me home.’ I said, ‘No, we made a deal.’ Finally, he agreed to come in and listen,” Strum said. “Ozzy was so drunk that he fell on the controls and nodded off. I was so frustrated that I cranked the volume of Randy’s amp really loud. He started playing power chords to warm up, and suddenly Ozzy’s face looked up.”
Even though he couldn’t even see the guitarist through the reflection of the studio glass, Ozzy declared, “Tell the kid he’s got the job,” and then, “Now take me home.” Strum wound up out of the picture, but Rhoads and Osbourne soon headed to the studio with bassist and songwriter Bob Daisley and drummer Lee Kerslake to write and record the masterful Blizzard of Ozz record.
No song on that fantastic album shines brighter than “Crazy Train,” which features Rhoads’ anthemic main guitar riff and soloing that merged his heavy metal and classical music influences to wonderful effect. Suddenly, Eddie Van Halen had a serious rival for the title of world’s favorite guitar hero.
Osbourne, seemingly re-invigorated by his new songwriting partner, delivered an impassioned plea for peace that once again proves how silly all that talk of him worshipping at the temple of evil really is: “Crazy, but that’s how it goes / Millions of people living as foes / Maybe it’s not too late / To learn how to love / And forget how to hate.”
The record soon helped establish Osbourne as a solo star perhaps even more popular than Black Sabbath itself, and though Rhoads’ life was cut short in 1982, “Crazy Train” and other songs from the two albums he recorded with Ozzy remained the foundation of Osbourne’s concert setlists.
16: Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”
By early 1974, Bruce Springsteen‘s career was stuck. Although his first two albums were critically acclaimed, he had trouble finding an audience outside the Northeast corridor where his live shows were knocking crowds dead every night.
Knowing that Columbia Records would drop him if his next release stiffed, Springsteen knew he had, as he would say in “Thunder Road,” one last chance to make it real. Enter “Born to Run.”
Recorded later in the summer of that same year, “Born to Run” is Springsteen’s masterpiece. Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Phil Spector are the most-often cited influences on its sound. Throw in some Duane Eddy guitar and a King Curtis-like sax solo from Clarence Clemons, and you have a song that encapsulates pretty much everything great about the previous 20 years of rock n’ roll history.
What sets “Born to Run” (and “Thunder Road,” from the same album) apart from virtually every other great anthem on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list is that it’s not a song of outright rebellion, but of escape to a better life than the one you’re destined to live. This provided an interesting irony in the mid-’80s, when there was talk of making it the official state song of New Jersey.
Even though the rest of the album had not yet been recorded, Springsteen’s then-manager Mike Appel leaked the song to some Bruce-friendly FM radio stations. It quickly became popular and forced Columbia to release it as a single a few months later, when it reached No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Interestingly, “Born to Run” is the only Springsteen song to feature Ernest “Boom” Carter on drums. Carter replaced original E Street Band drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez in February 1974, but left six months later with pianist David Sancious to form a jazz fusion band called Tone. Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan replaced the duo, and remain for decades.
“Born to Run” would be featured prominently at every Springsteen show in the encores with the house lights up, allowing everybody in the crowd to connect with each other, sing along, and reflect on the journey they have taken together, with this song as their guide.
15: Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son”
In 1969, America was waist-high in a muck of chaos, politically and emotionally. In just two and a half minutes, Creedence Clearwater Revival spit out enough venom via “Fortunate Son” to disarm, or at least disorient the enemy.
This song was written with middle finger in full flight to the Nixon administration, the legacy of the “silver spoon in hand” kids, and the contradictions and struggles of a wartime America. People like to remember the “peace and love” aspect of the ’60s, but it was a violent, brutal time as well. Putting flowers in their hair may have been a novel pastime for bored kids with nothing to do a couple years prior, but by 1969, the voice of frustration spoke louder – and CCR captured that in full ragged glory here.
That being said, even if you take the politics out of it, “Fortunate Son” remains one hell of a record. Released in the fall of 1969 as a double A-side (with “Down On the Corner” as the flip), it made the Top 10 and helped the band’s Willy and the Poor Boys album hit the gold standard. The emotion and energy in the playing shines through and lets the listener know that something important is going on. One of John Fogerty‘s best vocals sends the song through the roof.
An obvious choice for our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs, the simplicity, urgency and direct message of “Fortunate Son” speaks volumes. In its own way, it’s as punk rock as punk rock ever got. The only downside is, it brings to mind the fact that a song like this has become a period piece. Where is the modern day equivalent?
14: Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”
Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Sweet Home Alabama” is still flying the Southern rock flag high, decades on. Released in the summer of 1974 as the lead track on Second Helping, the band’s Al Kooper-produced sophomore effort, it cemented the band’s status as American rock royalty.
Skynyrd were perfect for the times they lived in. They combined down-home attitude with a certain flair of street-smart rebellion that fans and critics just ate up. This song’s calling card is a simple-as-can-be guitar riff that’s as undeniable now as it was back when it elicited that first “Turn it up!” Depending which side of the fence you’re on, it’s either a call to party or a call to run and hide. The solid groove and barrelhouse piano make it irresistible either way.
The various worlds of early ’70s rock and roll couldn’t have been more disparate. With David Bowie and the glam-rockers in one corner, Yes and their progressive friends on another, and Led Zeppelin and others from previous waves holding their own, the down-home sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd might have seemed without a natural home. Well, record buyers certainly welcomed them into their collections, as the single hit the U.S. Top 10 and Second Helping achieved platinum status.
And what of all the brouhaha over the lyrics? Addressing the state of the country post-Watergate, singer Ronnie Van Zandt also took a jab at none other than Neil Young. On his After the Gold Rush and Harvest albums respectively, Young recorded the songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” Both songs dealt with attitudes of racism he found still in bloom “down south” in the early ’70s. Van Zandt and the boys didn’t take too kindly to it, and decided a rebuttal of sorts was in order – even though ironically, none of them were from Alabama, with most of the band calling Florida home. “Well I heard mister Young sing about her / Well, I heard ole Neil put her down,” Van Zandt sang. “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don’t need him around.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd found a way to continue past a devastating plane crash, and the lasting love and constant airplay have given “Sweet Home Alabama” a similar longevity.
13: Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin'”
The secret to the enduring popularity of Journey‘s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” co-writing keyboardist Jonathan Cain tells us, is that “we did some things right when we wrote the song.”
The track, which also include contributions from guitarist Neal Schon and vocalist Steve Perry, comes from their highly successful 1981 album ‘Escape,’ and also hit the Top 10 on the Billboard charts before finding a home on this list.
Cain credits “Don’t Stop Believin'” as a musical stimulant, one that “gives the listener permission to dream.” As he puts it, “I think everyone wants to believe the grass is greener somewhere else. … The song begins with the midnight train goin’ anywhere and I think people are liking that concept that there is some place to go and hope that life is better. I remember those days being darn good, you know, you could go see Journey for $17.50. People that grew up in those times like the song because it reminds them of better days, so maybe we jog them back?”
Explaining the writing process, Cain recalls “when we cut the song in the studio in Berkeley at Fantasy. Really, it was another song. I brought the chorus in [and] it was one of the later songs we wrote. We wrote fairly quickly. I had the chords, we worked backwards in rehearsal and it was a group effort, really a sort of an improv thing. If you listen to the piano part, it is the chorus without the melody, stripped down. Same chords, but the bass line makes it sound like it’s different.”
Was it all really that easy? Apparently so. “We just took those chords from the chorus and created a verse out of them and added a bass line,” Cain adds. “Neal came up with all of that. The little break that Neal came up with sounded like a train. I said to Perry, ‘My God, I love that song “Midnight Train to Georgia.” What about the midnight train going anywhere,’ and he was like ‘Oh, I love that.'”
Cain also has a personal connection to the song’s title, courtesy of his dad: “My father was the one, when I was starving in L.A., back in the ’70s before I got in the Babys, he’d call me from Chicago saying ‘Don’t stop believin.’ You remember the vision we had; this is your destiny to stay out there and make it happen. No matter how bad it seems, you can’t give it up.’ That’s where the title came from in my head.”
After being featured in the series-ending episode of The Sopranos and being adopted as a baseball anthem (to use only a couple of examples), “Don’t Stop Believin'” continues to demonstrate a seemingly everlasting, and possibly growing popularity more than 30 years after it was originally released.
And yet, after all that, Cain still modestly describes “Don’t Stop Believin'” simply as a song where “we did some things right.” Listening to this classic Journey song, it’s immediately apparent that in fact, they did everything right. In the universe of great story-based songs, “Don’t Stop Believin'” stands tall as one of the very best.
12: Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
It’s hard to believe there was a time when Guns N’ Roses weren’t absolutely huge. But in reality, if it weren’t for the second chance “Sweet Child O’ Mine” granted them, the world at large could have missed out on a lot of great music. And yes, some drama.
Although it’s considered a masterpiece now, the band’s major-label debut, Appetite for Destruction, hardly set the world on fire with it was first released in 1987. Even the mighty “Welcome to the Jungle” didn’t connect fully upon its first run at radio. Little by little though, Guns N Roses’ popularity grew via word of mouth and fiery live performances, and by the time second single and future Top 100 Classic Rock Songs inductee “Sweet Child O’ Mine” dropped a year later, the band would be thrust into the spotlight once and for all.
Whether they intended it or not, the video for this track helped soften Guns N’ Roses’ rough n’ tough image for many listeners. For all of the bravado and rage heard in other tracks on ‘Appetite…,’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ showed the band did indeed have a heart capable of revealing a sentimental side once in a while.
Ironically, the popularity of this track would help give a second life to the group’s initial Appetite for Destruction single, “Welcome to the Jungle,” sending it back up the charts and into the Top 10. Together with the epic “Paradise City,” Guns N’ Roses’ chance at a place in rock history was assured.
They remained intensely popular from 1987 through 1994, but “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is surprisingly the band’s only No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts. That being said, Appetite For Destruction remains one of the best-selling records in American history, having moved more than 18 million copies to date.
11: The Who, “Baba O’Riley”
Townshend originally planned to top the band’s previous project, 1969’s Tommy, with an even more ambitious rock opera concept called Lifehouse. Alas, like Icarus, Townshend’s ambitions were too much for his grasp, and the project ground to a halt amid band dissension and a near-nervous breakdown for its chief architect.
The band reclaimed the best of the tracks for a more conventional album, and although history speaks strongly to the contrary, initially Townshend didn’t like Who’s Next, proclaiming it a compromise: “I felt it was making the best of what we had at the time – the whole theater project, the film idea – all those new numbers were part of a bigger scheme,” he told Sounds in 1972. “And all you got in the end was the excitement and newness of the scheme reflected in the numbers.”
Regardless of Townshend’s displeasure, the rock world was thrilled to hear 1971’s Who’s Next and its groundbreaking lead track “Baba O’Riley,” which often mistakenly referred to as “Teenage Wasteland” based on the song’s famous chorus. The opening synthesizer loop works as an immediately ear-catching hook, but it was no mere gimmick, also serving as the fundamental foundation of the song. Townshend’s cyclic synthesizer rhythm track was considered unprecedented at the time, with his work on this future Top 100 Classic Rock Songs track pre-dating Stevie Wonder’s similar experiments by nearly a year.
How many other songs have led four generations to shout “They’re all wasted!” in unison before the band climaxes with … a smashing violin solo? Roger Daltrey’s powerful lead vocals juxtaposed beautifully with Townshend’s softer voice on the famous “Don’t cry; don’t raise your eye” segment. Together with Keith Moon’s explosive drum work and John Entwistle’s rumbling low end, it all adds up to one mammoth rock anthem.
10: Black Sabbath, “Paranoid”
Black Sabbath’s second album Paranoid was deeply influential. The 1970 LP basically created the template for heavy metal, what with the trifecta of “War Pigs,” “Iron Man” and the superlative title track.
By modern standards, the song “Paranoid” is slow. However, its riffs rev like an idling car engine— an effect created because guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler play similar rhythms on the verses. The in-tandem playing creates a dense, methodical groove which is only enhanced because the pair also mirrors the beat-keeping of drummer Bill Ward. In fact, the lack of complication on “Paranoid” makes it that much more effective. Iommi’s detours from the main rhythmic pattern – and his brief, fuzzy, chugging solo — are economical, concentrated bursts of rock fury.
Butler’s lyrics are also relatively straightforward. The song’s protagonist, who’s recently become single, bemoans being unable to find joy or experience happiness. Whether that’s due to his own shortcomings or a side effect of the fizzled romance seems a moot point, judging by the concise lyrics: “And so as you hear these words / Telling you now of my state / I tell you to enjoy life / I wish I could but it’s too late.”
Of course, Ozzy Osbourne’s singing is the song’s dominant trait. Even today, his proto-punk yelp sounds like it’s from Mars, the copper-coated vocals somehow exhibiting melodic grace and slightly deranged undertones. The first entry into the top bracket of our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs remains beloved by genre heavyweights – so much so that luminaries such as Queens Of The Stone Age, Metallica, Green Day and Megadeth have covered it.
9: Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb”
Pink Floyd‘s David Gilmour and Roger Waters are almost as famous for their feuding as they are for their music. They were bandmates for nearly two decades, but their personality conflicts precluded true collaboration for many of those years. One notable exception: the No. 9 song on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list, “Comfortably Numb.”
Originally released on 1979’s The Wall, “Comfortably Numb” is one of only three songs on the album credited jointly to Gilmour and Waters – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the song had a difficult birth, marked by a long-running, heated argument over how to record the verses.
Gilmour, who composed the song as an instrumental demo while working on his 1978 solo album, wanted the verses to have a harder sound. He was eventually overruled by Waters, who drew his lyrical inspiration for the track from an experience he had after being shot up with painkillers prior to a Pink Floyd gig.
After Waters quit the band in the mid ’80s, Pink Floyd went on to play “Comfortably Numb” the way Gilmour had always envisioned it, while Waters subjected the song to his own tinkering, employing an array of special guests (including Van Morrison, Bruce Hornsby, and Don Henley) at various live performances. But it could be said Gilmour had the last laugh, as his solo is generally considered one of the best of the rock era.
In 2005, when Waters, Gilmour, and their former Pink Floyd bandmates Richard Wright and Nick Mason reunited for Live 8, they concluded their set with “Comfortably Numb.” Wright’s untimely death in 2008 meant that it became the final song ever to be performed by the quartet – adding a fitting, albeit terribly poignant, coda to its story.
8: Van Halen, “Everybody Wants Some!!”
The higher we climb on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list, the harder it gets to pick just one song to represent bands such as Van Halen. But if you’ve attended any one of the group’s concerts in recent years, it might be pretty easy to understand why “Everybody Wants Some!!” gets the nod over dozens of other extremely worthy candidates.
First off, for all the love we have for the Sammy Hagar years – see our list of the Top 10 “Van Hagar” songs – our pick’s obviously got to be a David Lee Roth-fronted tune. Their blistering version of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” was their introduction to most of the world, but that song’s already on our list via the original band.
What about their biggest hit, “Jump?” Awesome, but we can’t have a keyboard-led song representing one of the greatest guitarists in rock history. Instead, we aim right into the heart of VH’s unassailable first six albums, with a song from 1980’s Women and Children First that shows all four members at their peak individually and collectively. We think Lane Meyer would agree with us on this one.
Van Halen’s first two albums were primarily drawn from a large collection of songs honed during their pre-contract club show days. (Some of those same tracks also turned up decades later on A Different Kind of Truth, incidentally.) Despite a breakneck touring and recording pace, the creation of Women and Children First seemingly gave Van Halen at least a second to collect their thoughts and then push the limits of their songwriting even further.
The result is a much more dramatically-paced, dynamic album with new sonic wrinkles like the overdriven organ on “And the Cradle Will Rock …,” and the first Van Halen song to break the five-minute mark, “Everybody Wants Some!!”
They use that time wisely, with Alex Van Halen’s tribal drumbeat and his brother’s alternately scratching, chugging and squealing guitar promising something epic is heading our way. They keep that vow when Eddie finally releases the song’s main riff, which sets Roth off on a bold romantic vocal safari. He whoops, he yelps, he engages in seductive pillow talk; it doesn’t always make sense but it sure does work. Of course, none of them could be so bold without Michael Anthony filling in both the low and high ends so wonderfully.
At nearly every show we’ve attended after Roth reunion with Van Halen – and that’s been a lot – “Everybody Wants Some!!” was one of the clear highlights on the night. The moment of release after that massive introductory build-up gets a gigantic cheer each night, and seems to signify the part of the evening where all the levels get balanced correctly and everything clicks into a higher gear.
7: Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Everything about it is miles from your average hit record. Written by lead singer Freddie Mercury, the song begins beautifully with those haunting layered harmonies, before baring its soul with a simple piano and Mercury vocal for the first verse. As the verse breaks free, the tension mounts then band kicks in.
The song has no chorus, by the way, and is written almost like a classical piece in sections. Oh yeah, and there’s also an opera segment. It was clear this was not going to be mistaken for an Eagles record.
With each album, Queen had been upping the ante and by the time they started work on 1975’s A Night at the Opera, they had a mountain of ideas in tow. The sheer over-the-top style of Roy Thomas Baker’s production made it clear that this was not some neanderthal boogie-rock band. This was flash, style and glamour at its finest. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was named in the 2002 Guinness Book of Records as the top British single of all time and cost a reported (and then-staggering) 35,000 pounds to record.
Recorded in six different studios, “Bohemian Rhapsody” builds and builds – then of course, bursts into the opera section before busting the dam wide open to the glorious full-on rock climax, before ultimately resolving itself as it began with piano and vocal. “Freddie had a lot of it in his mind,” Brian May told Absolute Radio, “and we all worked to make that vision grow into reality.”
As far as complicated productions go, it’s only rival would have to be the landmark 1966 Beach Boys single “Good Vibrations,” another massive song that too was recorded in different studios, in various sections, then assembled to make the final piece. May’s signature guitar work ties everything together perfectly.
“‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was basically like three songs I wanted to put out, and I just put the three together,” Mercury said in the documentary The Days of our Lives. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna do exactly as I please, add as many multi-layered harmonies as possible – go well over the top.'” Mission accomplished, Freddie.
This record truly defines the term “art rock,” and though routinely hailed as a classic nowadays, it was not always that way. At the time, “‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was seen as a ludicrously annoying overlong novelty single,” according to Is This The Real Life? The Untold Story Of Queen by Mark Blake.
Despite that complexity, or maybe because of it, “Bohemian Rhapsody” shot to No. 1 in their U.K. homeland and made the Top 10 in the states. It has been used in movies (most famously in Wayne’s World), TV shows, parodies, and played nearly to death over the years on classic rock radio.
Yet, “Bohemian Rhapsody” somehow manages to avoid that not-so-fresh feeling every time it seeps out of the speakers. It is a work of art through and through, and an obvious choice for a high spot on our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs.
6: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “All Along the Watchtower”
Anyone can cover another artist’s song, but few are able to take that song and truly make it their own. In the case of “All Along the Watchtower,” there is no doubt that Jimi Hendrix most certainly turned the Bob Dylan composition into not only a Hendrix song, but into a true classic.
Its high ranking here on our list of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs should be no surprise. Unlike a number of “guitar gods,” Jimi Hendrix was as much a songwriter as he was a guitarist, taking equal pride and joy in both facets of his artistic self. The song was always of utmost importance.
“All Along the Watchtower” first made its way to the public on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, released in late 1967. The album had a more subdued and less chaotic approach than his previous few LPs, and this track didn’t make any big waves in its original form. Hendrix, a huge Dylan fan, didn’t let the song slip away, turning the unassuming track into a masterpiece. His arrangement and feel suit the lyrics and melody perfectly.
“He had a magical ability, bar none, to take other people’s material and make it his own,” producer Eddie Kramer told Sound On Sound in 2005. “Jimi was driving the train. He always drove the train, whatever he was doing.”
Hendrix began to record his version in January of 1968 as part of the sessions for Electric Ladyland. Released in October of 1968, the album was a milestone for Hendrix, covering a massive amount of ground over two discs. Electric Ladyland was somewhat at odds with the back-to-basics approach and the U.K. blues revival, both of which were very in vogue at the time.
Hendrix made sure that it was more about the future than it was the past. “I’m playing all I know, just playing the way I feel,” Hendrix said in a Canadian TV interview just before the album’s release. “If it sounds like blues, well, call it anything you want – but it’s no revival, because why go back into the past?”
According to Kramer, the recording sessions were full of discovery. “Recording was always a learning process for Jimi, so each take would be different,” he said, “and for ‘All Along the Watchtower’ there was no real rehearsal. Jimi just played a six-string acoustic guitar while Traffic’s Dave Mason played 12-string and Mitch [Mitchell] was on drums. That’s how Jimi wanted to cut it, and as a result the track had a marvelous, light feel thanks to the acoustic guitars that were driving it.” And just how did he get that fantastic guitar sound? “I’d stick a bloody mic in front of it and hope for the best,” the producer joked.
Hendrix himself actually played bass on the recording, after Noel Redding grew weary during the sessions. Legend has it that a very wasted Brian Jones stopped by the studio to visit his friend Jimi and tried to take part in the sessions, but his altered state prevented him from contributing.
“All Along the Watchtower” hit the Top 20 in the U.S. and the Top 5 in England. “Jimi just wanted to record the song,” Kramer added. “He loved Bob Dylan and he always carried his songbook with him. In this case, he was fascinated by the color of the lyrics and the tone of the lyrics, and of course the chord sequences were wonderful, too. It was a very special song.”
And what did Dylan think of it? “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way,” Dylan said in the liner notes to the Biograph box set. “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
5: The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”
Of all the acts on our countdown of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs, none gave us a bigger challenge than the Beatles. Although the decision to only include one song per act allowed for a greater range of bands, it also meant that the entire catalog of the Beatles – the greatest and most diverse in all of rock–had to be boiled down to one (and only one) song.
Nearly every Beatles album contains at least one tune that, depending on how you feel that day, qualifies as the greatest rock song ever. That’s not even including the non-LP singles that comprised the Past Masters set, which had such hits as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Revolution” and “Hey Jude.” Any one of those could top this list, and it would be completely justified.
In addition, picking one song could also suggest that we were taking sides in the 40-year Lennon vs. McCartney debate, something we prefer not to engage in. We love John and Paul equally, and even though their solo careers had plenty of high points, they were never as good apart as when they worked together, giving their input – a bass line, a lyrical tweak, a smile of approval from a friend and fellow genius – to each other’s songs.
So, our selection of “A Day in the Life,” deserving as it is at No. 5, is also a symbol of all the brilliant music the Beatles made throughout their career. Of all the Beatles’ songs, it is the ultimate Lennon-McCartney composition, even more so than the early days where they actually did write together in McCartney’s front room. Back then, they were still learning the rules of songwriting. By the time they assembled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, however, the Beatles were breaking them.
On “A Day in the Life,” Lennon and McCartney combined their individual songs to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Throw in some acid, an orchestra (dressed in formal outfits accented with fake noses or gorilla paws), brilliant drumming by Ringo Starr and three grand pianos holding an E major chord for 40 seconds and you have one of the few rock songs genuinely worthy of the term “masterpiece.”
4: AC/DC, “Back in Black”
It’s a lesser statistic, but somehow it speaks most loudly: AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ received the RIAA’s master ringtone sales award (gold and platinum) in 2006 and reached two-times platinum status in 2007. So, this is a Top 100 Classic Rock Song that is so omnipresent, so beloved, so kick-ass that millions want it to play every time they get a phone call.
Certainly, that opening riff is one of the most recognized guitar bits of all time. If there’s a certain type of guitar player who has to pluck out the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” every time he picks up his axe, then there’s another type who’s just as likely to hit the signature BUM-ba-da-DUM-ba-da-DUM of “Back in Black.” It’s gained a level of pop culture awareness that makes it instantly identifiable with a certain attitude: It’s appeared in films from Iron Man to The Smurfs.
It screams “tough guy” or “bad ass” or “here comes trouble,” whichever you happen to need. “Back in Black” works as a form of shorthand for filmmakers, and for us too, hearing it on the radio or the iPod. Admit it, when this song comes up on shuffle, and you strut with your head held just a bit higher than normal. You aren’t looking for a fight, but you’ll take one if it comes: “Nine lives, cat’s eyes, abusin’ every one of them and running wild.”
The Back in Black album is one of the great titanic bestsellers of all time, memorably reaching at No. 3 on the list of best-selling albums worldwide, right behind Thriller and Dark Side of the Moon. Produced in 1980 as the band was coming to terms with the death of original frontman Bon Scott, then-new lead singer Brian Johnson was asked to write lyrics for Back in Black as a tribute to Scott.
It’s sold an estimated 49 million copies. That’s one hell of a tribute. And when a record gets that deep into the collective consciousness, sure, it’s easy to ignore it, or take it for granted. It’s easy to forget its greatness. But it’s impossible not to listen when those chords blare out – from a movie soundtrack, a stereo, or a fast car driving by with the windows cranked as low as they’ll go. Those unmistakable, unstoppable chords: BUM-ba-da-DUM-ba-da-DUM. The period seems unnecessary.
3: The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter”
With an ominous mood set from the first notes, we know for certain that “the storm is threatening” on the Rolling Stones‘ haunting and powerful “Gimme Shelter.” It’s Apocalypse Now, in just over four minutes.
The opening track from the band’s 1969 classic album Let It Bleed, “Gimme Shelter” snuffs out the candle on the ’60s and the “love generation” right along with it. The driving, mid-tempo groove never lets up from start to finish. Brittle guitars and the very effective use of percussion push the song forward: “Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’ our very street today / Burns like a red coal carpet, mad bull lost its way.”
The Rolling Stones clearly were hitting a creative peak. Let It Bleed was an even more powerful statement than their previous masterpiece, Beggars Banquet. The album ends with the realism-over-optimism stance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the perfect counterpoint to “Gimme Shelter.”
Released the day before the infamous Altamont concert (later documented with the film Gimme Shelter), Let It Bleed was also the band’s first album following the mysterious death of founder Brian Jones (who plays on only two tracks) and their final album of the ’60s. The album’s world-weary mood was reflective of the times in which it was born. The violence in the streets, the Vietnam War, and the general fatigue universally felt by decade’s end were all taking a mighty toll: “A storm is threatening my very life today / If I don’t get some shelter, oh, I’m gonna fade away.”
Altamont itself has often been called the flipside to Woodstock’s peace-and-love glory. The unorganized event was plagued with problems form the start. The seemingly obvious bad choice of having the Hell’s Angels stand in as security led to altercations with musicians (Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was beaten up) and the stabbing death of 18-year-old concert goer Meredith Hunter.
In his crucial book Up and Downs with the Rolling Stones, Tony Sanchez recalls watching the finished film with the band. “Mick [Jagger] turned to Keith [Richards] and said ‘Flower power was a load of crap wasn’t it? There was nothing about love, peace and flowers in ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’ was there?'” That attitude captures the general tone of the song and the album. The band were ready to move on and see what the ’70s had in store. They would follow up with two more classics in the form of Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street before their own creative fatigue would set in.
Written by Richards and Jagger, “Gimme Shelter” was the perfect album opener, and though never issued as a single, it has long been one of the Stones’ best-loved songs. Decades after its release, “Gimme Shelter” remains a high water mark in an incredible run of records from one of rock and roll’s most significant bands, clearly worthy of a very high spot on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list.
2: Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”
Led Zeppelin earn the penultimate spot on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list with “Kashmir,” a stately, epic masterpiece that refuses to acknowledge that rock music should have any uncrossable boundaries.
The mighty British group is, quite frankly, the initial reason we limited each band on our list to just one song each: It would otherwise be exceedingly easy to envision two or three dozen Zeppelin tracks dominating the proceedings, alongside similar tallies from fellow titans such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.
So, which fool deemed the Eastern music-influenced, string-enhanced “Kashmir” worthy of inclusion over the band’s equally genre-redefining (if far more primal) early statement of purpose “Whole Lotta Love,” or the common choice for these lists, “Stairway to Heaven?” Well, send your complaints to Robert Plant, who on more than one occasion has singled out “Kashmir” as “the definitive Led Zeppelin song.”
As he explains in the liner notes to the band’s 1993 The Complete Studio Recordings box set, “It’s one of my favorites – that, ‘All My Love’ and ‘In the Light’ and two or three others really were the finest moments. But ‘Kashmir’ in particular. It was so positive, lyrically.”
The singer once explained to Rolling Stone exactly what made “Kashmir” so special: “It’s the quest, the travels and explorations that [guitarist Jimmy] Page and I went on to far climes well off the beaten track,” Plant said. “That, really to me, is the Zeppelin feel.”
His bandmates are quick to agree with Plant’s opinion, with Page taking particular pride in way the song’s recurring descending riff blends with its central, driving “da-da-da, da-da-da” counterpart. “I wondered whether those two parts could go on top of each other, and it worked!” Page told Guitar Legends. “At the time I was very proud of that, I must say.”
1: Aerosmith, “Sweet Emotion”
“Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith earns the top spot on our Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list by embodying such an overwhelming portion of the intangible things that make the rest of the songs on our countdown so timeless. It also rocks to high heaven.
With that famously hypnotic yet somehow menacing opening bass riff, effortlessly interlocking and alternating “smooth” choruses and “crunchy” verses, Steven Tyler’s highly evocative but never fully revealing lyrics and that bashing, reportedly improvised uptempo coda, “Sweet Emotion” has defended its spot atop classic rock radio airplay lists for nearly four decades.
Attitude, style, wit, peer inspiration and the collaborative skills of a unified, creative group of hungry musicians all played a part in the creation of this eternal classic. Yet its origins remain something of a mystery, bassist and main “Sweet Emotion” songwriter Tom Hamilton tells us in an exclusive interview. For instance, Hamilton is not sure if he did indeed write that beautiful bass line and the beginnings of the song back in high school, as some reports have stated
“That little period tends to kind of run together. It’s very possible. But it was right around that period, and I sat down, you know, got myself in my favorite state of mind,” Hamilton said. “What usually happens is, I’ll sit down to practice, and do some physical-type calisthenics to get the joints and the muscles all warmed up. My mind starts to drift, it’s almost like a daydream, like a river flowing by, little things pop out of the river, that I start playing. If it’s something that I really like, I remember it. So I came up with the little piece that’s the intro of the song, on the bass, and I just kept going from there.”
He also credits guitar legend Jeff Beck for inspiring his songwriting: “One thing that was going on, which leads me to believe that I first came up with [the song] when we first moved in together. We all lived together on 1325 Commonwealth Avenue; we used to listen to this Jeff Beck record called Rough and Ready. It was a very cool, jazz-funk-rock type of album. Without learning any of the parts from that, I wanted to do something that evoked the feeling I got from it. I picked up a guitar and wrote some parts that went along with the bass parts, and just kept it in the back of my mind.”
It stayed right there for a little while. “I think at one point during the sessions for our second album, (1974’s) Get Your Wings, I showed Steven what I was working on. He was busy, so he didn’t pay all that much attention to it, but he did make a couple of suggestions,” Hamilton tells us. “Finally, on our third album (1975’s Toys in the Attic), we had gotten to the point where we finished all of our basic tracks. We had an extra day left over, and our producer Jack Douglas asked if anybody had any extra riffs lying around. I started to show it to everybody, and by the end of the afternoon, I kinda showed everybody the parts, we were jamming on it, and refined it into the arrangement that became ‘Sweet Emotion.'”
If you’re trying to figure out exactly how Hamilton got that exotic sound for his bass intro, you should know there’s some unique percussion involved. A bass marimba, similar but deeper in tone to the version of the instrument simulated on the ubiquitous default iPhone ring tone, also appears on the track. “Our engineer, Jay Messina, is a vibes player, so they had this crazy idea of doubling the bass part with a bass marimba, to give it sort of a more mysterious sound,” Hamilton says. “It’s funny, cause it really messes people up who are trying to learn the song off the record.”
Hamilton then exited the process: “We were on a super-tight budget, so we would get the basic tracks done, then there wasn’t a lot left to do for [drummer] Joey [Kramer] and [guitarist] Brad [Whitford]. So, we would split, and go home to Boston while Joe [Perry] and Jack and Steven stayed in New York. And that’s when Steven would write the vocals to the songs. We very rarely knew what was going to be sung over these arrangements.
In fact, Hamilton didn’t even know the song would be called “Sweet Emotion” at this stage. “We knew which section was going to be the verse, the chorus, and the bridge, but we didn’t have any lyrics, melody or anything. So, it was a really amazing phenomenon where Joe and Steven would come back to Boston, a month and a half, two months later, with all the songs written, with all the vocal parts. It was just unbelievable, when I first heard ‘Sweet Emotion’ with the lyrics on it. I thought ‘Wow, that is unbelievable.'”
The bassist modestly says the track “became one of our fan favorites,” when in reality it was Aerosmith’s breakthrough single, paving the way for the next massive hit, “Walk This Way,” and the successful re-release of the initially under-performing ballad “Dream On” from Aerosmith’s first album.
“It’s a style of putting a song together that I still love, which is keeping the basic structure very very simple, you know, maybe three parts,” Hamilton adds. “Once you get those recorded, then you can start hanging ornaments off it, like a Christmas tree, make it something more elaborate and sophisticated.”