Where do you start with this one? What are the criteria for choosing the best 70s Rock bands? The 70s saw major changes in music and the bands that produced it.
But, the essence of rock still drove it all along. And whilst we had Punk, New Wave, and other new styles in the late 70s, Rock music was still at the center of it all. It was, after all, Punk Rock.
Setting The Criteria
In my view, it is not about the number of albums sold. Nor is it about how many awards have been given at those self-serving presentation evenings. It is about bands that have contributed. So, what should be the criteria for choosing the best Rock bands from the 1970s?
- Stage performance.
- Quality of the recorded work and compositions the band created.
- The creative individuality of what they did.
- How good were the vocals?
So, that is how I am going to judge it. There will be many bands left out, of course. However, I am going to stick to the Top 20 70s Rock bands that I believe made the biggest contribution to the rock music scene of that era. So let’s begin.
Top 20 Best 70s Rock bands
Number 20 – The Rolling Stones
I am a little bit biased where The Stones are concerned. That’s because I saw them at The Crawdaddy in Richmond, and Eel Pie Island in Twickenham in London. This was before they became well-known.
My problem is that other bands were better. The Yardbirds are just one. I have included them here for a couple of reasons.
Number 19 – Thin Lizzy
There was a period when Thin Lizzy flattered to deceive a little bit. They had seen “Whiskey In The Jar” do well in the charts, but they felt they were more than a pop band.
It wasn’t for the lack of musicianship or style…
Phil Lynott up front on bass led the line well, and Brian Downey on drums was a lot better than most. They had felt the impact of another Irishman, Gary Moore, on lead guitar, but something just didn’t click. That is until 1976 and Jailbreak.
They hit a purple patch, and by the release in 1978 of the Live And Dangerous album, they were possibly the best live act in the world.
I was at the Wembley, London, recording of that live album. My ears are still ringing. But more than that, they were sensational. The combination of Scott Gorham and Brian Roberston on dual lead guitars worked brilliantly. One standout track from that night is “Emerald.”
Number 18 – Rush
Canadian band, Rush, had an interesting period during the 70s. They commenced the decade as what could be described as a Hard Rock band.
But, by the mid-70s, they had started to move towards a more progressive style. The latter half of the 70s saw them develop into the Rush that deserves its place on this list.
A developing style…
Their first album, simply entitled Rush, was not a major success. Not even breaking the Top 100 in America. However, by 1976, and the release of the more successful 2112, which reached #61 in America, their style was developing.
A Farewell to Kings, released in 1977, saw their first UK release, which reached #22 and #33 in America. A high level of musicianship made them one of the most influential bands of the 70s.
Number 17 – King Crimson
Certainly one of the pioneers among the new movement towards Progressive Rock, King Crimson, were unique for their time.
Formed in London in the late 60s, the standard of musicianship was high. Robert Fripp’s guitar work was always creative, and Greg Lake’s great vocals and inspired bass lines were dramatic.
Their early work…
Layered with Mellotrons, and later, flute and saxophone from Ian McDonald. Their first album was In The Court Of The Crimson King. That was released in 1969, but as they moved into the 70s, they released In The Wake Of Poseidon. This was also a great album that built on the style of the first.
The creativity and drama continued to just get better until they released what many consider their greatest work, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, in 1973.
The creativity and new ideas in that album forged a path through progressive music that many followed. The mix of jazz, along with classical themes, created a fusion not heard before. Add on an undercurrent of psychedelia, and you had a unique album and band.
Number 16 – Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, aka ELP
The 70s was the time when the “supergroups” began to raise their, at times, ugly heads. ELP was not in that category. But, they were three very talented musicians who left other bands to play together in 1970.
Keyboard player, Keith Emerson, led them to become one of the best Progressive Rock bands of the 70s. And, despite their numbers being limited, they were able to produce a powerful sound. That sound was laced with jazz and classical influences.
They were recognized for their lengthy instrumental solos and, at times, wild behavior. The sound was complex, and it was once said, “They were not a band for the people but a band for musicians.” So, unless you were a musician, you couldn’t really understand what they were doing.
But people still loved the music…
They released possibly their best album, Trilogy Set, in 1972. The album went to #2 in the UK and #5 in America. A single, “From the Beginning,” was released from the album. It wasn’t released in the UK but was their highest charting song in America, reaching #39.
The song was written by Greg Lake and was supposed to be included in In The Court Of The Crimson King when Lake was with King Crimson. Bob Fripp turned it down at the last moment, and Greg Lake rehashed it with ELP.
ELP might not be a particularly familiar name, but they sold over 48 million albums while they were together. That alone made them a big player in the 70s Progressive Rock scene. And as a result, one of the best 70s Rock bands.
Number 15 – Santana
In some ways, Santana was a Progressive Pock band with a difference. That difference was they were not experimenting with or using either jazz or classical influences. They preferred other themes.
Their influences had some jazz, but it was mostly Latin-flavored. Not something that was a popular genre in the 70s. And they had Carlos Santana, one of the great guitarists of the 70s.
Their first album, just called Santana, featured some serious percussion and great songs. The success of that encouraged them, and their second album, Abraxas, was even better. The links between their early Rock style and then the Latin influences became even closer.
But, things rarely stay the same…
In 1972, they released their next album, Caravanserai. It was probably a bridge too far in their vision of Jazz and Latin fusion. It was considered an artistic success. But, it was also the start of a downturn in popularity that didn’t recover for some years.
That said, they earned their place among the best 70s Rock bands. Not only because of the material on the first two albums but for their efforts in trying something new.
Number 14 – Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac was originally a Blues band from the UK featuring Peter Green, one of the finest players we have ever seen. After many incarnations and personnel changes, the addition of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks helped transform them into one of the most successful Rock bands of the 70s.
Contrary to what some say, Fleetwood Mac was not all about Stevie Nicks. Far from it. They all contributed; she was just a part of a unit. The mid-70s was a time when they desperately tried to find a musical niche.
So, did they find one?
Both albums were produced amongst growing personal tensions in the band. After which, they went downhill somewhat before it all fell apart… again. However, they made their mark in the 70s and sold an enormous amount of albums.
Number 13 – The Doobie Brothers
For me, one of the best Rock n Roll bands of the 70s. They were another band that had just about everything. If they lacked one thing, it was a dynamic stage performance. But, this was a band of musicians, not actors.
Their early albums…
…especially, The Captain and Me were just brilliant. Great Rock music, varying moods, and some great songs. Some of their big favorites, “Long Train Running” and “China Grove,” were included. They demonstrated on that album just what they were capable of.
One of the tracks, “Without You,” they called a tribute to The Who. They used two drummers because one was never going to be enough.
Looking back on the 70s, I think they were one of my favorite bands. They combined great vocals with some hard-rocking material. Something not many bands were doing, but there were plenty who copied their style.
Number 12 – Queen
Queen was a bit of an enigma to me. They were capable of absolute brilliance but then able to be awful. Their albums were a mixture of that. Some great songs, which we all remember, formed the basis of the stage act. And some terrible efforts that, thankfully, we’ve all forgotten.
Their range of style was impressive when they got it right. They could produce “in-your-face Rock” music like “Tie Your Mother Down.” But then produce a piece of socially relevant genius in “Is This The World We Created?”
Their best album?
…released in the 70s was Sheer Heart Attack, which demonstrated how good they were becoming. Worth their place in this list because they brought a refreshing swagger and style to 70s rock. A little bit “Glam,” but with plenty of punch. And, what a voice Freddie had.
Number 11 – ZZ Top
I’m sure that someone once said, “Let’s make a great band, using three-chord tricks, and make it as simple as it gets.” Well, the result would have been ZZ Top. What they played could not have been any easier. The trick was making it sound the way they could, and not many could do that.
Founded in 1969, they made their name in the 70s with their pure brand of boogie and blues with some good old Southern Rock thrown in. They had the same three members since their beginnings, which in the 70s, with all the egos around, was a rare thing.
By the mid-70s, they were flying and packing concert halls. It was no frills, good old-fashioned Rock and boogie.
Hard To Choose
It is very hard to choose just an album or a track that typifies them. But, if I had to choose, then I would pick the album that was the first I heard, Tres Hombres, from 1973.
From that album came a ZZ Top masterpiece, “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Sometimes, simple is best, and these three showed that was true.
Number 10 – Focus
Did you like your Progressive Rock fast and furious and mixed with plenty of Jazz and some Classical influences? If so, then you would have loved Focus in the 70s. They had a basic framework for some of the material, but enough room was left to allow the individual musicians to experiment.
And experiment they did…
Wild Hammond organ playing, blistering guitar solos, great jazz drumming often at break-neck speed, flutes, and even yodeling. The Bert Ruiter bass lines were some of the most complex ever heard at the time. They were something else entirely.
They were formed in Amsterdam in the 60s, and by the 70s, were recognized as one of the most creative and talented bands on the planet. And organ player and flute player Thijs van Leer was the architect.
It’s hard to pick something to listen to. But, if you don’t know them, try “Hocus Pocus” by Focus (yes, they had a sense of humor) recorded live in London. And one of their album highlights is “Moving Waves.”
Number 9 – Jethro Tull
While we are on the subject of strange people playing flutes in Rock bands, say hello to Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. Formed in Blackpool, England, in 1967, by the 70s, they were an established Progressive Rock act.
And, their stage performances were stunning…
The sight of the medieval-clad Anderson balancing on one leg playing frantic flute solos gave would-be impersonators nightmares. They had a revolving door of musicians, and even the official list does not include at least two that I know of.
There must be something about playing the flute that creates a certain style. Jethro Tull had it in abundance. Aqualung was one of their early 70s albums, one which I think represents everything great about them.
From that album, a highlight that was always demanded at live shows is “Locomotive Breath.” A fantastic band and fully representative of the changing face of popular Rock bands in the 70s.
Number 8 – Rory Gallagher
This Irish genius is affectionately known as “The greatest guitarist you have never heard of.” What you might call a virtuoso on his instrument. Listed by Rolling Stone Magazine as the 57th best guitarist ever.
But then he is placed behind the “silly hat and 300 effects pedal brigade”. You can, therefore, take at least 30 off that number. Rory used a Strat and a Marshall stack, and that’s it.
And that was all he needed…
He went solo after his first band, Taste, split up. And, through the 70s, he enthralled his audiences with a mixture of hard blues and wild rock. He sold over 30 million albums which more than justifies his place among the best 70s Rock bands.
He lost momentum a bit in the 80s due to ill health and died at 47 in 1995 following a liver transplant. A mercurial guitarist and performer. “Bullfrog Blues” is a sample. Sit down and strap in.
Number 7 – Deep Purple
This is a band that, to me, blew a bit hot and cold at times. They had the capability of being brilliant. But, they also seemed to have a self-destruct button. However, the 70s was a period when it all seemed to work well.
They started the decade brilliantly with Deep Purple in Rock. An album that proved to be one of their best studio albums. They followed that up with Fireball. And then, in 1972, with what I always thought was their best album, Machine Head.
If you say the 70s and Deep Purple…
Then most will come back and just say Made in Japan. Some will argue, and they have a point, that this is the best live album made by anyone, anywhere, at any time. It would be hard to argue against it.
Deep Purple, at their best, was a force of nature and made a huge contribution to legendary 1970s Rock music.
Number 6 – The Who
There are conversations about who was the loudest Rock band. I have never heard anyone as loud as The Who. I saw a girl at the front at Streatham Locarno, South London, with her left ear bleeding, presumably from the volume.
They were a band born out of a culture in the UK. Townshend wrote his songs about it. As they went on, those observations of life became starker and the songs more definitive. A great example is “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a song that has become an anthem about corrupt governments.
The year 1970 arrived…
This live album kicked off a decade that would be memorable for the band in many ways. One of their best studio albums, Who’s Next, came in 1971.
A scaled-down version of something Pete Townshend had been working on called Lifehouse. But, a memorable album and one of their finest. One of the tracks was “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Townshend produced and released another one of his “operas,” Quadrophenia. Returning to their youth and the “Mod and Rocker” battles, it was a sad tale. But, it highlighted so many social issues of the time.
Those issues bred an angry generation. He wrote about that a bit earlier in 1965, as well as we know, with “My Generation.”
The Day The Music Died (Part One)
The decade in which The Who had established themselves as one of the biggest live acts on the planet began to draw to a close. The album, Who Are You, had only been out a month when powerhouse drummer, Keith Moon, died of a drug overdose.
It looked like an impossible call to replace him. It took nearly 30 years before Zak Starkey left working with Oasis and others to join them full-time. The second half of the 70s went noticeably and understandably quiet.
But, The Who had done enough to prove themselves as one of the greatest Rock bands of the 70s.
Number 5 – Van Halen
If there was an era that was dominated by the way an instrument was played, then it was the 70s and Eddie Van Halen.
The Van Halen family left Amsterdam in Holland in 1962 for America. But, they could have had no idea what a seismic effect young Eddie would have on the world music scene. The band was put together in 1972 in California and, within a few short years, had put Hard Rock back on the menu.
Their album, 5150, was one of the musical moments that defined a sound, a career, and a decade for some. His screaming guitar over some rather good songs and useful vocals. It was a very good album.
And it only got better…
There were several member changes, reunions, and all the rest. But, we are left with some great music from a master technician. His death in 2020 from cancer effectively ended the life of a band that had pushed the boundaries of Rock music.
But more than that, they, and Eddie in particular, had inspired a whole new generation of guitar players. No greater legacy. Bedankt, Eddie.
Number 4 – The Eagles
Their inclusion here might raise a few eyebrows. Of course, they deserve their Top 20 place, but some will ask, “Number 4?”
There is a reason…
I had tickets for The Eagles’ “farewell” tour concert at Twickenham Stadium in London. The farewell tour that wasn’t. But that’s another story, isn’t it? Front row seats, can you believe?
We were due to meet some friends outside and waited. They started playing “Take It Easy” over the sound system. A nice touch to play their music while some were still getting into their seats, I thought.
It got to the end of a song I knew backward, and suddenly it changed. It was different. I suddenly realized they were playing live, and this was no recording.
Our friends would have to find their own way in…
We took our seats, and they were playing the song. I could not tell the difference from the record. How perfect is that? I sat the whole concert just listening to how good they were.
How precise the four and five-part harmonies were. How good the guitars with Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey, and Stu Smith were. That is why they are at number four. How many bands could be so good as to make you think you were listening to a record?
They wrote great songs and had classic albums all through the 70s. From the early start in London, where they recorded Eagles and Desperado in 1972 and 1973, to On The Border, which was recorded in London at Olympic Studios in 1974.
That album was the end of their relationship with producer Glyn Johns. Everyone knew Glyn had a “no drugs in my studio” policy. Glenn Frey argued the point. He lost.
Then, Frey insisted they wanted a harder Rock sound to the production, which caused Glyn to remind him, “You are not The Who. They are a Rock band; you aren’t.” The album was finished back in America.
They Just Got Better
The harder sound that Glenn Frey insisted on only reared its head occasionally as Don Henley led them down another path. A path that was to cement them as not only one of the great bands of the 70s but of all time.
One Of The Finest?
It was in 1976 that some say their finest moment came. Hotel California was superb from start to finish. It was one of those albums where every song just worked. One of their finest songs, too. But, some say that it was also one of the best guitar solos ever recorded. Difficult to argue with that.
The Long Run was the follow-up, and there were some excellent tracks on that as well. And as the decade closed, the internal problems surfaced, and they split.
But, they had dominated some areas of music in the 70s and proven themselves worth their place as one of the best 70s Rock bands.
Number 3 – Led Zeppelin
A name that some would have expected to see installed at number one on this list. In terms of musicianship and power in their live performances, they might be worth a number one position. But, in the other areas, they lose out. That being said, they do have in John Paul Jones possibly the finest musician of the period.
The New Yardbirds?
That is how some refer to them. Stretching descriptions a little since only Jimmy Page was a “Yardbird” at one time.
This is another band that I was fortunate to see in their formative years. Playing in the back of a West London pub on a Sunday night with a stage made from wooden beer crates. Unlike The Rolling Stones, these guys were excellent and had “big-time” written all over them. The first album, Led Zeppelin I, was very good, if not produced particularly well.
It didn’t quite seem to capture the essence of how they sounded. But, by the time they got to the second album, it was a different story. Led Zeppelin II is still my favorite of all their albums.
Reaching new heights…
From their humble beginnings, they became one of the biggest concert attractions in the world. The songs were mostly all hard-driving Rock in the early days. But, we caught a glimpse of some folk music-inspired tracks on later albums.
Robert Plant led the line, and whilst his vocal performances could be a bit wayward, he certainly knew how to put a song over. A bit like Jagger in some respects.
Zeppelin was the archetypal rock band in just about every way. Hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-working, they gave it their all, and everyone loved them for it.
The Day The Music Died (Part Two)
The sudden death of drummer John Bonham at the end of the decade in 1980 left a hole that could never be replaced. It was hard enough for The Who, and it took them many years and changes to replace Moon.
But, Bonham? Irreplaceable in Zeppelin. Greatest rock drummer ever? Probably. That day Led Zeppelin finished as an entity.
But as with all of the great bands, they will never be forgotten, and they are another band who have left a wonderful body of work.
Number 2 – Pink Floyd
Moving into our top two, we come to Floyd. Without a doubt, one of the top bands in the history of Progressive Rock, they revolutionized the meaning of the concept album.
They were initially formed in London as far back as 1965. They had some early success with a single “See Emily Play.”
Even in this track, you get a glimpse of the creativity and the synthesized creations that were to follow. Sid Barrett, suffering from mental illness, left the band leaving Dave Gilmour on lead guitar. With respect to Sid, you could say that became the turning point.
They became a phenomenon…
Adored by some, totally misunderstood by others, the sensitivities to their music knew no bounds.
New concepts, sounds, and ways of doing things were introduced, culminating in one of their masterpieces, The Dark Side of the Moon. This was followed in 1975 by Wish You Were Here and, of course, The Wall in 1979.
What You Don’t Get With Pink Floyd
You’re not going to find songs with catchy little hooks designed to sell records. You won’t get three-minute songs made for radio airplay. And, you certainly aren’t going to find them joining the “three-chord-trick” club or the “aren’t we wonderful” brigade.
Their music boundaries extend far beyond all that nonsense. Whereas some bands and their writers fit songs together for a commercial purpose, Floyd writes lyrics and then writes the music to fit.
And, if they do use extended solos and instrumental breaks, they are planned to enhance the songs and the music. Certainly not in an attempt to show off musical skills.
Richard Wright and his keyboards played an integral part in the Pink Floyd sound. Indeed, Roger Waters and Nick Mason also played their part. But, most will remember Dave Gilmour’s work on guitar.
Alan di Perna called Dave Gilmour “the most important guitarist of the 1970s”. Can’t argue with that.
Number 1 – Yes
And so we come to, in my opinion, the finest rock band of the 70s. There had been nothing like them before and probably nothing since. If you go back to my criteria list, they tick all the boxes more than once.
As a band, they had everything. Many of the bands of the 70s were rather one-dimensional. Plenty of volume, plenty of heavyweight riffs and guitars, and blistering drums. Yes had so much more.
They wrote great songs, which had some social comments to make. They sang them well, and Steve Howe and Chris Squire were two of the best musicians on their instruments at the time. And, add on to all that the genius that was Rick Wakeman.
Into the 70s
They evolved from the late 60s and their psychedelic style into something far more. In 1971 came The Yes Album. Still, one of the finest albums ever made. It reached #4 on the UK chart and #40 in America.
They followed that up with a series of stunning albums as Rick Wakeman’s influence, not in the band for The Yes Album, took hold. The end of 1971 saw the release of Fragile. This reached #7 in the UK chart and #4 in America.
The Wakeman Influence…
Fragile saw the introduction of Jazz and Classical themes, which projected them musically out of the reach of everyone else. Rick Wakeman, the Royal College Of Music student who had dreams of becoming a classical concert pianist, took Yes into the stratosphere.
That was followed by Close to the Edge in 1972. More chart success, reaching #4 in the UK and #3 in America. The move into deeper, more progressive musicianship and writing was leaving some behind. Including it should be said, some of their fan base.
Tales from Topographic Oceans, recorded at Morgan Studios in West London, and about which I have some first-hand knowledge, came next in 1973. It reached #1 in the UK and #6 in America. The writing and the playing were becoming more and more complex.
And, they showed no signs of slowing…
By the end of the decade, singer Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman had departed for other projects, and effectively their era of dominance was over. But, they left us with a body of work that could not have been accomplished by anyone else.
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Best 70s Rock Bands – Final Thoughts
Many will not agree with some of the bands I have included and the order I have put them in. But, they all contributed to the 70s. And, there is an awful lot not included that made their mark as well.
I could have made it a Top 50 and still not had room for them all. It was a great era in just about every way.
Until next time, happy listening.