10 1970s Classic Rock Songs You Won’t Forget

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Earworm_characterLet’s get this clear at the outset: I’m not saying these are songs you wouldn’t ever want to play again or shouldn’t want to hear yet another time, though there are those of you who would strenuously insist exactly that, please, no, never wanna hear that one again! But I would bet that by the time you get to the top of the list, you’ll agree that these 1970s album rock songs are so embedded in your consciousness that anytime you want to hear them, all you really need to do is hit a button in your mind and they start playing.

This list explores the persistence of memory for just about every American rock fan who was alive and rocking during the 1970s, the power of the FM Album Oriented Radio format and its tight album rock playlists, and the phenomenon known as the earworm – you know, when a song gets stuck in your head and it won’t stop playing in your mind. These are tunes that millions of ’70s rock fans can sing karaoke style without having to read the words.

FM radioWe could call this list “most memorable” – though memorable can and often does imply something more – and it certainly identifies prime contenders for “most popular.” But there’s something else at work here….

Be forewarned before proceeding any further: After reading this you may well this find these songs bubbling up in your brain in the days to come. Which is part of what “classic” is all about – songs so timeless they remain embedded in your brain. These are hardly the only songs that did so, but few persist so firmly in one’s memory from four decades ago as this 10.

10) “More Than a Feeling” by Boston

Did a song from a ’70s classic rock band ever become so ubiquitous and, at the time, yes, over-played on radio that its success helped usher in the new group’s rapid descent from the heights with their next album? By the end of the decade on into the ’80s, without fail, in whatever stores, second-hand shops or rummage/yard sales where used albums were sold, at least one of the 17 million copies sold of the group’s self-titled 1976 album could be found. Why? If you wanted to hear its biggest hit – #5 on the Hot 100 – just tune into your local album rock station. Or flick that switch in your head.

9) “Ramblin’ Man” by The Allman Brothers Band

The calls for “Whipping Post” were incessant at just about every concert by any act back in the 1970s. But this loping country-flavored declaration of freedom and a love for the road that was a #2 hit is the Allmans’ number one earworm candidate. Is it just coincidence that its tempo of 120 beats-per-minutes is the same as the accelerated heartbeat one feels after doing just a bit too much cocaine?

8) “Barracuda” by Heart

It’s really a toss-up between this song and “Magic Man,” but we’ll go with the former – a #11 pop hit – because of its more linear structure that plays in an unforgettably straight-ahead way. Credit Ann Wilson’s flamethrower voice for deeply etching both numbers into the consciousness of ’70s rock fans.

7) “Jet Airliner” by Steve Miller Band

Same as above, it’s really a flip of the coin whether Miller’s “Jet Airliner” or “The Joker” should be on this list. “Joker” charted higher as a #1 hit in 1973 while “Airliner” hit #8 in ’77 – a year when AOR radio was ruling the airwaves to carve “Jet Airliner” into the depths of memory. So we’ll go with the later song. Little know fact: Miller did not write this one, composed by Paul Pena.

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6) “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac

The big Mac’s only #1 single. Some due recognition must be given to the millions of men (and surely many women) whose crush on Stevie Nicks evoked such deep swoons that this number – written by her in a mere 10 minutes – slipped into countless hearts where it only takes the mention of Stevie’s name for the song to start playing by memory.

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5) “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger

Both its subject matter and near-irresistible hip-shaking beat helped this number imprint itself into rock fan consciousness. Even if it only reached #28 as a single, the song came in at #2 on the Top 40 Jukebox Singles of All Time in 1996. No doubt its persistent popularity was stoked by the scene in the 1983 movie Risky Business in which the young Tom Cruise, clad only in a button-down Oxford shirt, athletic socks and tidy-whities, lip syncs, dances and mimes guitar to the tune. (Given all that’s transpired since, that imagery might just creep some of us out.)

4) “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple

From soon after it was a #4 hit single in 1973, it was nigh on impossible to visit a musical instrument store and not hear some fledgling guitarist play (or attempt to play) Ritchie Blackmore’s four-bar 12-note guitar figure that opens the song and repeats throughout its verses – an instrumental hook if there ever was one. As one of the first popular heavy metal hits, it occupies a special place in the heart of many rock fans as well as on the mental playlists of millions.

3) “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Interesting component to this list: As we get to the top the songs grow longer and more complex. The virtual theme song for ’70s southern rock, it clocked in 6:08 on the band’s 1973 self-titled debut album, subtitled (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), and has two distinct sections: a stirring ballad and then a balls-out guitar boogie. The radio edit only made it to #21 on the singles chart. But after the band’s plane went down in 1977, it became a memorial for Ronnie Van Zandt. Its title also soon replaced “Whipping Post!” as the concert shout out. ‘Nuff said.

2) “Hotel California” by The Eagles

#1 hit in 1977, winner of the Song of the Year Grammy, and a little over 30 years later its mp3 went platinum for sales of more than a million. But did all those people really need to buy it? Come on, people, admit it! The mere mention starts the song playing in your head, including every note of the Joe Walsh/Don Felder guitar duel in the middle. Clocks in at 6:30, about double the length of most every Top 40 single in the previous decade. And who said smoking pot can ruin your memory?

1) “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin

This is the song that inspired this list when, while carping about commercial rock radio, and how it played some songs to death, I noted: Come on! Does anyone within a certain age range ever need to hear “Stairway to Heaven” again? All I have to do is mentally press “play” and there it is. Yep, all eight-minutes and two-seconds of it with its three distinct sections. I would not be at all surprised if generations from now scientists find that “Stairway” has drilled itself into the DNA and then the subconscious of the offspring of every ’70s classic rock fan.

Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson began writing about music in 1976. Since his first published record review in Crawdaddy he has contributed to numerous national popular music magazines such as Creem, Musician, Circus, Spin, Request, Tower Pulse!, CD Review, Acoustic Guitar, Harp and many others along with major country music, consumer audio, musical instrument and studio recording magazines plus international publications New Musical Express and Country Music People in the U.K. From 1977 to '84 he wrote a nationally syndicated music column as well as stories for Newspaper Enterprises Association/United Feature Syndicate that ran in more than 400 daily newspapers across the nation. His work has also appeared in many weekly newspapers, onlinepublications like Salon.com and The Huffington Post, such books as the Rolling Stone Record Guide & Revised Record Guide, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Rock History and The Year In Rock, 1980-81, plus liner notes for 20 album releases.
Rob Patterson
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  1. Mike
    #1 Mike 12 November, 2015, 22:20

    If anything, this list is testimony to how great the AOR format could be yet horrible at the same time. The music here isn’t intrinsically evil in and of itself. What was evil was record companies and radio stations shoving like minded but less accomplished music (including many by these same bands) down our throats while there was better music out there to be consumed that didn’t fit inside the box. Boo hoo. Those of us that wanted to hear it found it. I know I did. It doesn’t change my opinion one iota about any of the music you listed. With all that being said, the Steve Miller song you should have included is Fly Like An Eagle. Also, how could you pass over Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall (Pt. 2)? It is the embodiment of this list you put together.

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  2. PeterM
    #2 PeterM 29 October, 2016, 23:48

    Good list…i would’ve replaced Dreams with something from Foreigner…oh I miss those days!

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  3. Guy Smiley
    #3 Guy Smiley 31 October, 2016, 10:28

    No “Layla” or “Born to Run”? “Black Magic Woman” perhaps?

    Not sure what the point if this list/article was. “Here’s 10 random overplayed songs on classic rock radio”?

    Even if that was the point, I can think of much better songs than the Heart or Steve Miller choices (including the two I previously mentioned).

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