When writing about music, especially music that was recorded before you were born, you only have the luxury of listening as an outsider. So, personal tastes may vary from the predominant notion of the time. Modern day influences may sway your gravitation to one band over the other, without the media of the days influence. Take Led Zeppelin as an example. Considered to be one of the greatest bands of all time, and by far the best of the 1970s, were they truly, or was it a case of ‘right place, right time’? Led Zeppelin was a great rock and roll band. No one is taking that away from them. But were they the best band of the 1970s? Arguable. Very arguable. There are nine other bands on this list that many music fans may prefer over over the Mighty Zep, and there are also a million others who would cry heresy at the notion Plant, Page, Bonham and Jones were not the absolute best of their era. Let’s face it, Led Zeppelin were extremely prolific in the studio and their live shows, well, potentially second to none. But that can be said of many bands on this list, depending on where your allegiances lay. Keeping in mind that when writing about music it is largely subjective, and could also be mildly tongue in cheek, the following 9 bands are all reasons why Led Zep shouldn’t run away with the title of “greatest band of the 70s.”
10. Derek and the Dominos
It’s a testament to how powerful a band is when they can release one album, with a title track based solely on Eric Clapton’s unrequited love (at the time), for his best friend’s wife, and still be commercially successful. Derek and the Dominos released their one and only album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in 1970, but the album didn’t truly pick up steam until early 1972 when the aforementioned title track, “Layla”, broke into the mainstream.
Arguably one of the most recognizable opening riffs ever put to tape, the fact that “Layla”, along with a few other tracks on the album featured both Eric Clapton and the late, great, Duane Allman on guitar, at the same time guaranteed this particular song’s iconic status, and cemented the album as a masterpiece. In fact, Allman’s doubling of Clapton’s lead lines and his slide guitar solos on “Layla” remains as visceral now to listeners as they did some 40 odd years ago. And make no mistake; this wasn’t a one hit wonder. Tracks like the groovy “Keep On Growing” and melancholy “Bell Bottom Blues” feature equally as prominent parts of the album. It is “Layla”, however, and in particular the Clapton/Allman guitar interplay that make Derek and the Dominos very arguably one of the best bands of the decade. Many other guitarists of the era could only weep when they heard that riff for the first time.
Did any band utilize dual guitar harmonies better than Boston did in the 1970s? By playing one riff in one key, and the other in thirds, Boston created a wholly unique and startlingly successful sound in the mid 70s, starting with their self-titled debut album in 1976. The layers of production on the guitars, and the phenomenal harmonized vocals of Brad Delp created a wall of sound that had rock fans clamoring for more. The fact that the band sold over 31 million albums, 17 million copies of their debut album alone, is testament to the enduring quality of the music Boston created. When the classic rock station comes on, who can resist the impulse to crank “Piece of Mind” (one of the greatest guitar songs of all time) or “More Than a Feeling” and air pull out the air guitar? Boston’s ingenuity with guitar harmonies, Delp’s powerful vocals, and a strong sense of pop/rock songwriting make them another band that could compete for the best rock band of the 1970s.
Easily one of the most underrated rock bands ever, UFO are a still active English band, but their only real notable output came in the mid to late 1970s when a young German virtuoso named Michael Schenker played guitar for them. Starting with Schenker’s arrival in 1974, UFO solidified its classic lineup and began a run of five albums that masterfully mixed blues, rock and roll, and early heavy metal. Vocalist Phil Moog had as much range as Robert Plant, but he also had a dirtier, less wailing sound to his voice, which lent itself well to the darker guitar riffs and harmonies that Schenker was creating. While each album remains a classic, Force It and Lights Out remain the best ‘go to’ albums for a UFO lesson. “Mother Mary”, “Doctor, Doctor”, “Lights Out”… there are too many classics to list from this band’s heyday. In particular, the epic power ballad “Love to Love” is every bit as good as Stairway to Heaven, if not more so. Sadly, after Schenker’s departure in 1978 the band never recaptured the magic that made them so special.
7. Fleetwood Mac
It’s easy to be ridiculed for this one. But the fact remains, Fleetwood Mac started the 70s as a blues rock band, and a VERY good one at that. Their early output with Peter Green is the reason why contemporary bands like the Black Keys exist, and by the mid point of the decade they had transformed themselves into to one of the greatest pop/rock bands of all time. Starting in 1975, when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were asked to join a revamped lineup, the group began crafting songs that were ripe with lush vocal harmonies, phenomenal guitar work by Buckingham, and massive hooks. Oh, those hooks. While the self-titled album the ‘new’ Fleetwood Mac released in 1975 yielded hits like “Rhiannon” and “Landslide” and sold over 5 million copies, it wasn’t until the 1977 Rumors album where the true genius of the band’s songwriting shone.
There’s nary a person on earth that hasn’t sung along to “Go Your Own Way”, and with over 40 million albums sold, making it one of the biggest sellers in history, the formula was proven a success. Following up a 40 million seller is truly an impossible task, and doing so with a double album is practically anathema, but what 1979’s Tusk lacked in commercial appeal, selling only 4 million copies, it more than made up for in creativity and at times, utter bizarreness. Regardless, for the pop hooks, the massive sales, and the sing along songs that endure almost 40 years later, Fleetwood Mac stand on their own on this list. And as a side note to guitarists, if you have any doubt who one of, if not the, best guitar player to come out of the 70s was, check out live videos of Lindsey Buckingham. Astounding.
6. Deep Purple
Any young, budding rock and roll guitarist first learning his craft will tell you that the main riff to “Smoke on the Water” is one of the first he ever learned to play. He will also tell you, depending on his age, that he has no idea what song it is he’s learning. So deceptively simple, as though the guitar were playing the riff for you, Richie Blackmore had a knack for writing both the simplistic and the utterly complex. Considered one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, Blackmore was joined by virtuoso keyboardist Jon Lord and vocalist Ian Gillian to create such powerful rock music that the band has been cited as forefathers of the heavy metal genre.
Starting with the In Rock album between 1970 and 1972, Deep Purple began penning classics like “Speed King”, “Child in Time”, “Fireball”, “Smoke on the Water”, and “Space Truckin’”. Even after a massive lineup shift, which saw the band lose vocalist Ian Gillian, they rebounded with another classic album. Adding another icon to their lineup, vocalist David Coverdale, Deep Purple released Stormbringer in 1974. The album not only saw them continue to play their trademark hard rock style, but also includes, in this writer’s opinion, not only the greatest ballad of all time, but one of the greatest songs ever written, “Soldier of Fortune”. It alone could be the envy of every songwriter who’s ever picked up a guitar, but Deep Purple has a multitude of songs that inspire an equal amount of envy. The list of contemporary bands that cite Deep Purple as a direct influence lends credence to their important output in the 1970s, and their inclusion on this list.
5. Lynyrd Skynyrd
Apart from Boston and Guns N’ Roses, has there ever been a band to release as strong a debut album as Lynyrd Skynyrd? (Pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd) still ranks near the top of many pundits lists for best debut albums over 40 years on, and for good reason. Many of the southern fried, bluesy rock and rock band’s biggest hits were culled from this nearly perfect aural adventure. “Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”, and “Free Bird” are all canonical songs in the echelons of rock and roll history. All three classics still feature prominently on the radio, in films, and have been covered by thousands of bands.
Sure, Skynyrd’s style wasn’t an entirely new genre of music by the time of the album’s release in 1973, but it gave the genre a name for the press; ‘Southern Rock’ and proclaimed Skynyrd the kings. And rightfully so; as immensely important as the debut album was, Lynyrd Skynyrd never rested on their laurels during their tragically short career, writing songs that swayed from rock, to blues, to country and back again, sometimes within the same song. But it worked, each song held together by Ronnie Van Zant’s passionate, gravely voice, and the twin guitars of Gary Rossington and Allen Collins. And though a devastating plane crash killed Ronnie Van Zant among others to effectively end the true Lynyrd Skynyrd, the classic lineup of the band left the rock and roll world with five near perfect ‘Southern Rock’ albums, one of the greatest live albums of all time, and perhaps the most well known radio rock song ever, “Sweet Home Alabama”.
4. The Allman Brothers Band
If Lynyrd Skynyrd gave southern rock a name and were considered the kings of the genre, than The Allman Brothers Band were the progenitors of the entire scene. Formed by the brothers Allman, guitarist Duane and vocalists/keyboardist Gregg, and accentuated by phenomenally talented second guitarist Dickey Betts, The Allman Brothers Band were also blessed with the inclusion of dual drummers Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks who, along with bassist Berry Oakley formed the strongest rhythm section in rock and roll music.
While the classic line-up of the band was short lived due to tragic the motorcycle deaths of first Duane Allman in 1971 and then Berry Oakley almost exactly a year later, they left no shortage of recorded output that is as vibrant today as it was over 40 years ago. The self-titled debut contains the gut wrenching “Whipping Post” while second album Idlewild South boasts the classic “Midnight Rider”, and one of the great instrumentals of all time “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”. It was live where the original incarnation of The Allman Brothers Band truly flourished, however, and their 1971 live album, At Fillmore East is widely considered to be the greatest live album ever recorded. The album oozes with passion, and many of the band’s staples take on entirely new forms on stage, which extended jams showcasing both Duane and Betts’ guitar prowess, as well as Gregg’s keyboard playing.
The Allman Brothers live also showcases what the band was always best at; melding different styles, while still sounding like the same band. The extended psychedelic styled jams, the bluesy guitar solos and the southern country riffs were all unmistakably Allman Brothers songs. Even after the terrible tragedies that befell the band, they went on to record further classic songs. Eat a Peach in 1972 boasted “Melissa”, “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More”, and “Mountain Jam”. The 1973 album Brothers and Sisters yielded the band their biggest hit with “Ramblin’ Man” as well “Jessica” and “Southbound”. Though still active today, drug abuse, internal strife and revolving lineups have left the band a remnant of a by gone era, but The Allman Brothers Band’s output in the 1970s was nothing short of astounding.
3. Pink Floyd
Was any band more diverse or creative in the 70s than Pink Floyd? The band that could very well boast that it has the greatest guitar player of all time in its ranks in David Gilmour, Pink Floyd started off as a quirky, psychedelic pop band but by the time the band recorded Meddle in 1971 only the psychedelic remained. Driven by two massive egos, songwriters Roger Waters and Gilmour competed for space on each Floyd album, and for almost a decade it yielded fantastic results. From the track “Echoes”, the 23:00 minute epic that closes out Meddle, to the entire Dark Side of the Moon album, Pink Floyd dared to be different. Both Waters and Gilmour sang, as did keyboardist Richard Wright occasionally.
There were plenty of melodramatic sound effects and flourishes to their songs as well, but at their core Pink Floyd remained a four-piece rock band, which is never more evident than when Gilmour unleashes one of his many startlingly emotive, bluesy guitar solos. The band had a softer side too, as is evident by “Wish You Were Here”, the acoustic track from the 1975 album of the same name. Unfortunately for Pink Floyd, and music in general after 1977’s Animals, the wheels fell off, and the clashes between Waters and Gilmour reached an untenable peak. Although the music on 1979’s The Wall is often times as good as anything Pink Floyd ever recorded, and the album is considered a landmark in rock history, it was more of a Waters solo effort, than a band collaboration. Ironically enough, the best moments of the album are contained in the classic track “Comfortably Numb”; both when David Gilmour sings the chorus, and when he plays arguably one of the greatest guitar solos of all time to close the track.
2. Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath; the original heavy metal band, the band that terrified parents for fear of Satanic messages in their music and the band that boasts none other than larger than life Ozzy Osbourne as its singer. When Sabbath broke onto the scene with their debut album in 1970, no one knew what to make of it. With a photo of what looks a witch standing eerily in a garden, and songs like “N.I.B.” mentioning Lucifer in the lyrics, the band was downright shocking. But fear mongering aside, it was the riffs, those utterly heavy, dark riffs courtesy of Tony Iommi that made Black Sabbath stand out. They truly were a heavy metal band before anyone knew such a thing existed. Iommi’s riffs, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler’s pulsing rhythms section, and Ozzy’s maniacal, and unmistakable voice, created an entire genre of music in a year.
Between the debut of 1970, and the Paranoid album, also released that same year, Black Sabbath had already penned seven of their most enduring classic songs. “N.I.B.”, “Black Sabbath”, “The Wizard”, “Paranoid”, “War Pigs”, “Iron Man” and “Planet Caravan” are all canonical tracks in the Sabbath legacy, and al were released in 1970 alone. A mere year later the band released Master of Reality, and utterly solidified their place as the best hard rock band in the world. Among the most notable classic tracks on their 1971 release; “Sweat Leaf”, “After Forever” and “Children of the Grave”. In less than two years Black Sabbath had invented a new genre of music and recorded ten of its most recognizable, and classic songs, even now over 40 years later.
Though the hits came a lot less frequently after wards, as the band sunk into an abyss of drug abuse and personal animosity between members, Black Sabbath still found time to pen “Symptom of the Universe”, “A National Acrobat”, “Sabbra Cadabra” and, the song with the heaviest riff of all time, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”; all this before 1974. The band’s post Sabbath Bloody Sabbath albums were of lesser quality, and eventually Ozzy was replaced by Ronnie James Dio, but there is no arguing the importance of the early years of Black Sabbath, and their title as the true inventors of heavy metal.
1. Led Zeppelin
So, clearly we have arrived at number one. And lo and behold, Led Zeppelin takes the spot. Led Zeppelin was the best rock and roll band of the 1970s. Make no mistake, it’s close. Both Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd probably had as much of an impact on current music than Led Zeppelin (see: heavy metal, psychedelic rock), but neither band during their prime had the utter consistency that Led Zeppelin did. For all of their classic songs, Sabbath and Floyd had plenty of filler on all of their albums (yes, even Dark Side of the Moon). Neither band venture into as unknown territory and experimentation the way Zep did with hints of world music, A-typical arrangements and production techniques either. And Zeppelin were so consistent. Each album was an ALBUM, not a collection of songs, some of which you could skip past each time. A Zeppelin album was an experience.
Consider this; in a decade Zep went from being a hard rocking version of a blues band, going so far as to incorporate classic blues riffs or traditional folk songs into some of their most notable early works like, “Whole Lotta Love” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, to an epic, if not progressive band of a genre unto themselves. Led Zeppelin released eight proper studio albums, (one, Physical Graffiti, a double album) in ten years, and with each release, particularly from Led Zeppelin III onwards, the band continually reinvented themselves, and took the entire music world with them. Every drummer wanted to emulate the greatest rock drummer of all time, John Bonham; they still do today. Every singer was trying to hit the high notes like Robert Plant, and sure as they tried, no guitarist could keep up with the frenetic energy of Jimmy Page.
The band went on a tear starting in the early 70s, culminating in some critics eyes with IV, and the best power ballad of all time, “Stairway to Heaven”. As overplayed as that song may be 40 years later, there’s a reason; it’s just THAT good. And as overplayed as Led Zeppelin may be 40 years on, there’s a reason. They were the greatest rock and roll band of the 1970s, and one of the greatest of all time.