(Pictured: Cream, 1967.)
My recent series of posts on “Stairway to Heaven,” “Free Bird,” and “Layla,” started me thinking: those songs are widely considered the foundation stones of classic rock as a radio format, and album-oriented rock radio before it. But what’s #4?
As it happens, we already have a list of semifinalists available at this website. Last year, I wrote about a couple of lists I found in the archives from the now-defunct Radio and Records that were compiled in 1978 and 1979. The first was the Top 43 album cuts of all time, which could include 60s music; the second was the top tracks of the 70s.
On the 1978 list, here’s the rest of the Top 10: “Roundabout,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Nights in White Satin,” “A Day in the Life,” “Light My Fire,” and “Hey Jude.” From 1979, the rest of the Top 10 were “Born to Run,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Roundabout,” “Money,” “Hotel California,” “Rhiannon,” and “Aqualung.” So consensus of those lists would make “Roundabout” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” into prime contenders.
When I started thinking about which song could be #4, “Roundabout” was the first song that came to mind, although I don’t think it’s as popular now as it used to be. Dan Kelley of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, a guy with many years in and around classic-rock radio (including his own online station) suggested “Smoke on the Water,” although he also observed that we don’t hear it as much as we used to. “I guess when classic-rock stations added Def Leppard and Guns ‘n’ Roses, something had to go.” Sean Ross of Edison Research concurs. Neither “Smoke on the Water” nor “Roundabout” gets much airplay anymore because of their age, and their length. You might say the same about “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Randy Raley, a longtime album-rock jock who also has an online classic-rock station, says that based on research he’s done and/or seen, the most-played songs on classic-rock radio right now are “Dream On,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” All of those have grown in stature since the end of the 70s, since none of them were on either of the Radio and Records lists—which seems weird until you consider the fate of “Roundabout” and “Smoke on the Water,” and you get your brain around the idea that even though these lists seem very static, they’re fluid too. So you’d have to consider those three songs as well.
(I don’t have a problem excluding music from the 80s or later from this discussion, although your mileage may vary. Sean mentioned “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” saying, “Feels like something new should have entered the canon but doesn’t feel exactly like a match.”)
I asked people on Facebook to weigh in and got a lot of suggestions, some of which were better than others. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” got some votes, as did “Money,” “More Than a Feeling,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” Two of the strongest contenders for #4 that I hadn’t thought of before were “Come Sail Away” and “White Room.” I think we forget how ubiquitous “White Room” used to be, even though it didn’t make either Radio and Records list. That song got daily airplay, at least on the classic-rock stations I heard most often.
Whatever #4 is, it would need the kind of epic, larger-than-life quality that the big three have. That’s an elusive thing to define, and I’m not sure any one of us would see it the same way. To me, it represents an obvious striving for a Big Statement, but not so obvious that it seems contrived or overblown. A lot of records on this list were and are hugely popular but don’t seem like Big Statements. “Overblown” takes “Bohemian Rhapsody” off the table—great as it is, it’s hilariously over the top at the same time. Song #4 needs the proven ability to stand the test of time without feeling dated. This is where “Smoke on the Water,” “Roundabout,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” fall off the table—and “Light My Fire,” “Hey Jude,” and “A Day in the Life” too.
The way I see it, the legitimate contenders for #4 are (in no particular order) “Money,” “Dream On,” “Born to Run,” and “Hotel California.” And in the end, I settled on the latter. Dan thought of it, Sean concurred, and several Facebookers voted for it. “Hotel California” is the right combination of Big Statement, timelessness, and enduring popularity, and it’s still getting a lot of airplay today.
Let a thousand arguments bloom.