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 classic 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 songs that millions of 1970s classic 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 decades ago as these 10.

10) “More Than a Feeling” – Boston

We begin with one of the songs from a 1970s classic rock band that became 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” – 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” – 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” – 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.

6) “Dreams” – Fleetwood Mac

The big Mac’s only #1 single in the U.S. 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” – 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” – 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” – 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 Zant. Its title also soon replaced “Whipping Post!” as the concert shout out. ‘Nuff said.

2) “Hotel California” – 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” – 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” is one of the songs that has drilled itself into the DNA and then the subconscious of the offspring of every 1970s classic rock fan.

Rob Patterson

18 Comments so far

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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.

    Reply this comment
  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!

    Reply this comment
  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).

    Reply this comment
  4. Bill Needle
    #4 Bill Needle 26 June, 2018, 16:22

    What no Meatloaf? Stop right there!!!

    Reply this comment
  5. Mike P.
    #5 Mike P. 15 August, 2018, 10:06

    If I have to hear “Barracuda” one more time… But #10 is in my Top 100.

    Reply this comment
  6. Deadguy
    #6 Deadguy 9 November, 2018, 07:11

    WHAT!!! No BTO — Taking care of business

    Reply this comment
  7. Mitch
    #7 Mitch 12 September, 2019, 21:35

    Carry on My Wayward Son by Kansas. I’ve read several times that it was second most played song behind Stairway to Heaven on FM album rock stations during the 70’s. As I said, I’ve read that a few times but I don’t have the data to confirm. But I lived during that time and would argue that it should be on any top 10 list of rock songs for that era.
    Layla by Eric Clapton should be on the list.

    Reply this comment
  8. Carmen
    #8 Carmen 7 July, 2020, 18:06

    Thank goodness, no Springsteen. Born to Run is one of the most overrated songs of all time, and I would also question Barracuda on this list, it is ok, but not amazing,

    Reply this comment
  9. Steve
    #9 Steve 10 August, 2020, 02:00

    Every time I look in the mirror…hmmm no Areosmith?..Ha Drean on!

    Reply this comment
  10. Ripple
    #10 Ripple 10 August, 2020, 19:36

    American Pie
    Joy To The World
    Close to You

    Reply this comment
  11. v2787
    #11 v2787 17 January, 2021, 12:30

    My God, sixties and seventies music was sooooo much better than the garbage that’s being put out now. The songs are memorable, the hooks are great, and people will still be playing this stuff in another fifty years. Do you really believe anybody’s going to be playing Taylor Swift in fifty years? Somehow I don’t think so.

    Reply this comment
  12. Baybluesman
    #12 Baybluesman 3 July, 2022, 22:02

    Great list Rob – thanks for your efforts and time in writing, and assembling.

    You can’t please everyone (Thanks Ricky Nelson), as no one list can be definitive.

    But rest assured, I believe all BCB readers would agree on one thing – we lived through, and experienced (and continue to enjoy), one of the most creative, fertile, and diverse 30+ years of music.

    All-in-all some of the most memorable music ever .

    As one example only, does anyone really think Chumbawampa’s “Tubthumping” will be on regular rotation in five years, let alone fifty years, from now?

    Support Live Music

    Reply this comment
  13. BeatleStone
    #13 BeatleStone 5 July, 2022, 16:03

    Even though it’s timeless & defines 70’s rock. More Than A Feeling is played way too much. Party on DLB is their underrated gem.

    Reply this comment
  14. 122intheshade
    #14 122intheshade 4 November, 2023, 01:02

    Everything on that list is an immediate punch-out, except for “Ramblin’ Man” and “Smoke on the Water”.

    Like everyone else, I was turned on by the Buckingham-Nicks version of FM. As time goes by, I find myself drifting back to the Bob Welch group of the mid-70s.

    It doesn’t get more cool than:
    “She was a sailboat of sweet perfume”
    “Well, I couldn’t think of conversation
    I was busy looking at her fur . . .”

    RIP Bob.

    Reply this comment
  15. JennyB
    #15 JennyB 4 November, 2023, 17:45

    I’ve loved every song on this list over the years and never tire of hearing them…the lyrics come back as though it were yesterday and I defy anyone to deny it. Of course, many songs are missing and it’s a matter or taste and favorites…I could detract or add to the list myself but I won’t. There is such an embarrassment of rock riches to choose from that even a list of 1,000 wouldn’t cut it. Just as all art forms are subjective and in the eye and ear of the beholder, real rock fans of the age that I grew up in realize that we experienced the Best of the Best that can’t be beat by anyone and that includes the “next big thing” or “biggest star of the decade” that currently piffle about our over-priced stages. Their music will die with them but ours? Ours will live on through time and tide, through eyes and ears of those of the future visiting the past, and through the DNA of those we leave behind. Future generations will know “Stairway” because it’s not just a good song, but that it’s a great song and the incredible talent for writing poetry posing as lyrics. Actual musicians appreciated for their talent and craft, people who can actually sing…these are the missing elements of so-called music of today. I miss this “Old-Time Rock’n’Roll” because it was soothing to the soul and still is. From this 69-year-old girl of the ’60;s to all of my friends who loved our time, ROCK ON!!!!! Peace and love to all…and love each other because it’s all we got in this life and we only get the one to live. Peace.

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