Classic Rock in the Classic Era

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(Pictured: young Bruce, 1978.)

The excellent Radio Rewinder Twitter feed recently tweeted, in pieces, a list of the Top 43 album cuts of all time, compiled in 1978 by Radio & Records, the now-defunct trade magazine. (Why 43? Just being quirky, as I recall.) As I was digging into my archives to find my copy of the list, I found another interesting one. In late 1979, R&R polled album-rock stations asking them to name their top tracks of the 1970s and created a Top-50 list out of it.

A spreadsheet with the lists is here. The top songs on both lists are exactly the same: “Stairway to Heaven,” “Free Bird,” and “Layla,” and I suspect if you asked classic-rock stations to rank their top songs today, 40 years later, the same three would lead the lists. Also atop both charts are “Roundabout” (#4 Top 43, #6 Top 50) and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (#6 Top 43, #5 Top 50). Twelve songs on the Top 43 wouldn’t qualify for the Top 50 because they were released before 1970. From the Top 10 that includes “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “A Day in the Life,” “Light My Fire,” and “Hey Jude.” One of the Top 43’s Top 10 (this nomenclature is gonna get confusing, isn’t it) doesn’t make the Top 50 at all: “Nights in White Satin.” (Technically, it was made in the 60s but didn’t become a hit until 1972, so I’m leaving it in the 70s.)

Eight songs released after 1970 appear on the Top 43 list but not on the Top 50. Apart from “Nights in White Satin,” none of these exclusions look all that weird to me. In fact, the inclusion of “She’s Gone” (#31 on the Top 43) and “Your Song” (#35 on the Top 43) strike me weirder than anything from the 70s that got left off of the Top 50 list two years later, except maybe “Nights in White Satin.”

Eleven of the Top 50 didn’t qualify for the Top 43 list because they were released in 1978 or 1979. Several pre-1977 songs on the Top 50 didn’t make the Top 43, among them “Brown Sugar,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Band on the Run,” “China Grove,” “Magic Man,” and “Slow Ride.” The highest-ranking song on the Top 50 that was available to the Top 43 but not on it is “Dreams” at #17. “Dreams” would have been a relatively recent hit at the end of 1977, but “Hotel California” went to #1 at nearly the same time, and it’s on the Top 43. (The highest-ranking song on the Top 50 not found on the Top 43 is “Miss You,” released in 1978.)

In the archive where I found these lists, I found another list I made myself, sometime back in the early 80s, which is titled “Top Ten Artists From Both Lists Compiled by Me One Afternoon in May.” (Oh for chrissakes, Jim.) They’re as follows: Zeppelin, Springsteen, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, the Doobie Brothers, the Who, Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Bob Seger, and Steely Dan. I noted that the Stones have twice as many songs as any other band on the lists, so why they weren’t #1, I don’t know, because I can’t recall the criteria I used.

Other observations about the two charts:

—“Born to Run” grew in stature as Bruce Springsteen did between 1977 and 1979, from #21 on the Top 43 list to #4 on the Top 50. So did “Hotel California,” going from #40 on the Top 43 to #8 on the Top 50, but it’s the only Eagles tune on either list. “More Than a Feeling” squeaked into the Top 43 at #42, but was #11 two years later.

—“Miracles,” which ranks high on both lists, was considered a lot more “classic” at the end of the 70s than it would be today. Ditto “School,” “Year of the Cat,” “Stranglehold,” and possibly even “Roundabout.” I bet “Just the Way You Are” and “It’s Too Late” aren’t on many classic-rock stations today, either.

—The inclusion of Aerosmith’s “Train Kept A-Rollin'” on the Top 43 list seems really weird now, especially at the expense of “Sweet Emotion” or “Dream On.” Also weird: the complete omission of Aerosmith from the Top 50.

—Other omissions: no “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or anything else by Queen, on either list? No love for Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” or “Whole Lotta Love”? No Allman Brothers?

One thing is for sure: the right crowd would party all night with either one of these lists, and in college, we did. I created a segued tape counting down one list or the other, and when we played it, over five hours pausing only for a single tape-flip, absolutely nobody went home until it was over, because the music kept getting better.

4 responses

  1. The Aerosmith track, Train Kept A Rollin’, gets quite a bit of play on the local classic rock stations. I never hear School from Supertramp but do hear Give A Little Bit, The Logical Song and Goodbye Stranger.

  2. Do you think classic rock will eventually disappear from the radio in the way Big Band and oldies from the 50s and 60s have gone? I have not gotten tired of classic rock. What I’m tired of is classic rock stations playing the same short list of classic songs over and over again. I like “Born To Run,” “Roundabout,” and “The Logical Song” but not 5 times a week, every week.

    1. Classic rock has a longer “tail” than other formats because it appeals to large numbers of younger people who can’t remember when it was new. Music from the 90s is a big part of the format now, and it sounds mostly OK. I do suspect that eventually, all but the most iconic stuff from the 60s will disappear. As for whether Imagine Dragons and Vampire Weekend and the like will fit in the format a few years from now, I don’t know. Opinions welcome from the rest of the readership.

  3. There are those bands like the aforementioned Aerosmith who’s hits continued into the 1990s and beyond. The earlier tracks, I suspect, will eventually disappear. Dream On and Walk This Way will still have staying power

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