Classic rock is a radio format rather than a genre, a convenient label for FM stations that rely upon a stable of well-known rock bands and singles from the genre’s heyday — beginning in the ’60s and generally ending in the early-to-mid ’80s. Even as these stations gradually broaden to include ’90s grunge acts, classic rock remains a restrictive label that favors a select few rock bands from each era while playing only a select few singles or even less, from other great bands of yesteryear who simply don’t enjoy the name recognition of, say, Led Zeppelin.
So most listeners who rely on FM radio for their fix of rock and roll come away with a narrow view of the past that ignores many of the most exciting rock bands. These artists might not be the first names you think of when you hear the term “classic rock,” but maybe they should be.
1. Warren Zevon
The bouncy piano rocker “Werewolves of London” is Warren Zevon’s chief claim to mainstream fame, but devotees know there’s much more to his catalog than one memorable single. Zevon was beloved by many critics and even contemporaries like Bruce Springsteen, for his jaunty melodies and off-kilter songwriting style, which combined pitch-black humor and socio-political topics.
Despite a lack of recognition and record label troubles, Zevon stayed true to his style for more than three decades before his death in 2003, leaving behind a discography with hardly a dud in it.
2. The Kinks
Perhaps The Kinks’s most important contribution to rock music came early on with “You Really Got Me.” It was one of the first rock songs to use guitar distortion, but their best work came later, when few people were paying attention.
Singer and chief songwriter, Ray Davies abandoned the hard rock that found them success in the early days of the British invasion in favor of a more emotionally mature style of pop-rock heavily tied to the disappearing British countryside — far removed from the psychedelia that was popular at the time. The band languished in the mid-’70s with a lot of lackluster show tunes, but their run of great, under appreciated albums from 1965 to 1973 is almost unparalleled in classic rock.
3. The Moody Blues
The Moody Blues pioneered progressive rock by combining psychedelic rock with classic rock on their ambitious masterpiece album, Days of Future Passed. This spawned their only rock radio staple song “Nights in White Satin.” The use of a full orchestra only elevates the song’s stirring vocal melody, and even though subsequent releases dispensed with the orchestra, The Moody Blues always managed to make their songs sound just as soaring through strong songwriting and creative use of a Mellotron organ.
4. Little Feat
Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone Magazine that Little Feat was his favorite American band in 1975, but unfortunately his glowing endorsement wasn’t enough to make the band prominent. It isn’t difficult to see what Page saw in Little Feat — this is rock music that’s well-aware of its fore-bearers in American music, incorporating folk, funk, blues, country, and boogie into songs that make such a diverse hybrid of influences sound easy. Much of that success is due to the songwriting and thrilling guitar work of late frontman, Lowell George, previously of Frank Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention.
5. T. Rex
There would be no David Bowie without T. Rex and in particular, the band’s garishly-dressed, gender-bending frontman Marc Bolan. After a string of strong folk albums, T. Rex found mainstream success in Britain by incorporating an enormous and heavily-distorted guitar sound — the glam guitar we all know so well. Their run of both singles and albums from 1970 to 1973 is damn near unassailable, even if they’re usually only remembered as a one-hit wonder in the U.S. for their single “Bang a Gong (Get It On).”
6. Big Star
Big Star began in 1971 with a winning formula — the lush vocal harmonies of The Beatles, the jangly power pop of The Byrds, and just a touch of Rolling Stones swagger — but broke up after their first three albums failed to find commercial success. This was largely due to failed promotions from the band’s two different record labels.
The legacy of Big Star has only grown bigger and bigger over the years, as major alternative acts like R.E.M. and The Replacements (who penned the song “Alex Chilton” about the band’s guitarist) cited Big Star as an important influence. Big Star’s talent for melodically rich ballads and rockers has been lauded again and again, but because classic rock stations still avoid their discography like the plague, they remain a cult act.
10cc featured two songwriting teams — one pop-oriented, and one experimental. The unusual setup let the band enjoy moderate success with singles like “I’m Not in Love” while their albums explored more unusual territory on artsy, operatic odysseys like the song “Une Nuit in Paris.”
At their best, they combined the cinematic excesses of Queen with the tongue-in-cheek humor of Frank Zappa and wrote strong melodies that sound great even when they tackled other genres, as in the reggae-tinged “Dreadlock Holiday.”
The best rock bands of the ’70s found new ways to experiment within the genre, whether that meant adding unconventional instruments or experimenting with more ambitious songwriting. Beginning in 1967, Traffic did both and managed to create one of the best hybrids between jazz and rock on albums like John Barleycorn Must Die and The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. The band hewed closer to rock than the fusion sound pioneered by Miles Davis. Traffic’s best songs were truly unique, combining brass and guitar to create both catchy hooks and dreamy, exciting jams.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!