The 70s. A decade which, in America at least, saw the pop-culture dial turn from the end of the flower power era, with veterans of the summer of love burned out, to the pastel-suited Reaganomics of the '80s. In the middle, though, there was rock. And lots of it. A decade-long arms race toward the biggest amps, the biggest hair and, crucially, the smallest pants, in a quest to define a sound that reverberates through the decades like a power chord played on a pterodactyl's ribcage.
Here at LedgerNote, we encourage discussion, so please feel free to get in touch if you think that Journey has been hard done by. But like our rundown of the best singers of all time or the world's richest rock stars, we like to back our lists up with some facts.
With that in mind, let’s review some of the criteria that played a part in our decisions. For starters, not a single band on this list operated exclusively in the 70s, and yet we've defined each of them as 70s bands because they reached their peak, either critically or commercially, in the 70s. The other decider, as it so often is, is sales. Make no mistake, the following groups are the biggest of the big time and, for their timeless contributions to rock, we salute them. Without further ado, here are the biggest and best rock bands of the 70s.
Albums sold (US) - 31 Million
We begin with a tale as old as time. Take an air guitar-friendly riff, a vocal performance for the ages, and a hooky, insistent drum beat and you've got a hit. Sounds simplistic of course, but it's a recipe that works, and is perhaps best demonstrated by the introductory song on Boston's 1976 self-titled debut, the absolutely unmistakable, 'More Than a Feeling'. The song's influence can't be understated. Born for stadiums and radio play alike, it is an astonishingly assured cut. Mainly played by the band's multi-instrumentalist leader, Tom Scholz, as with the rest of the album, it has resonated ever since it first hit the airwaves. As a measure of its impact, the catchy riff that drives the verse found its way, almost fully intact, onto Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' fifteen years later.
Perhaps the best indicator of the band's meteoric rise to being one of the biggest 70s rock bands is that they played their first-ever gig in New York City at the legendary Madison Square Garden. Some bands grind their way to the top, paying dues and entertaining sound men in deserted bars, others swing for the fences right out of the gate, but only a few square their shoulders and knock it straight out the park.
Trivia: Tom Scholz didn't pick up a guitar until the age of 21 when he was a student at MIT, having spent his formative years immersed in his parents' classical collection. By the time Boston hit the big time, Scholz was 29, married, and in a settled job as a lab technician for Polaroid.
Albums sold (US) - 42.05 Million
Named for their founder, leader and only constant member, Carlos Humberto Santana Barragán, it should be noted that Santana's high-water mark as a band actually came with the release of the album ‘Supernatural’ in the late 90s, powered by mega-hits, ‘Smooth’ and ‘Maria Maria’. But with an eyebrow-raising eleven albums released in the 70s, five of which went platinum, we're confident in claiming Santana as a 70s band, who set up their success through the decade with a performance at the legendary Woodstock festival.
Santana is that rarest of things; a band with an immediately identifiable sound. Melding traditional Latin rhythms and instrumentation with psychedelic sensibilities and mystique, not to mention boundary-pushing recording techniques shot through with Santana's trademark bluesy guitar licks, it's a winning combination. Possibly their calling card through the '70s, a track that announced them as a band not afraid to push the envelope, was a genius reworking of Fleetwood Mac's 'Black Magic Woman', mixed with Gábor Szabó's 1966 instrumental 'Gypsy Woman'. The song was the lead single of their 70's album ‘Abraxas’ and, until 'Smooth', their biggest selling single.
Trivia: Speaking of that Woodstock performance, Santana actually found themselves on the Festival lineup before they'd even released an album. Thanks to their manager, Bill Graham, who, as the owner of the legendary Filmore venue in San Francisco, requested the band get a slot in return for his helping the festival organizers.
#8 Fleetwood Mac
Albums sold (US) - 55.6 Million
The beginning of the decade 1970 found Fleetwood Mac in distinctly choppy waters. The band's founder and guitarist, Peter Green, had begun experimenting with LSD on tours through the States, and relationships were beginning to strain with his bandmates. He left the band under a cloud after an incident where the band was effectively spiked during a party in a commune in Munich. With the band's two other founding guitarists also leaving by '72, with Jeremy Spencer joining the Children of God cult and David Kirwan being fired before a US tour, the band was unmistakably in transition.
As part of that transition, one of the best bands of the 70s eventually hired guitarist Lindsey Buckingham on the strength of the song 'Frozen Love' from Buckingham's solo record. Buckingham in turn told the band that he came as part of a package deal with his songwriting partner and girlfriend, Stevie Nicks. What sounds a little like a fluke coming from a band who by this point had chaos on speed dial, quickly transformed into a definitive moment in music history. Just over a year after Nicks and Buckingham's arrival, the band finally achieved their first multi-platinum success, with their self-titled album released in 1975, driven by the classic, 'Landslide'. They soon blew that, and most everything else, out of the water with 1977's ‘Rumours’, quite simply one of the best, and best-selling, albums ever. They weren't done with the decade either, with another multi-platinum disc following in 1979's Tusk.
Trivia: Speaking of Tusk, the band's sprawling, scattershot follow-up to ‘Rumours’, the band considered it their attempt to invert their brand altogether. Tired of the pressures of being ‘Fleetwood Mac’, the album and Buckingham, at this point the de facto band leader, was actually highly influenced by the punk and new wave records of the era.
#7 Van Halen
Albums sold (US) - 55.9 Million
Exploding out of southern California or, just possibly, outer space at the tail end of the decade, Van Halen had the benefit of all that had gone before them in terms of 70s rock. When you listen, it's possible to hear the influence of many of the other bands on this very list in their sound. Despite only releasing two albums in the 70s, those two albums amassed almost eighteen million sales between them or, put another way, close to a third of their all-time sales. What they also had, and what cannot be attributed to anyone else, is one of the all-time guitar greats as band leader and namesake.
For an introduction to everything that makes Van Halen one of the titans when it comes to rock bands in the 70s, look no further than tracks two and three on their self-titled debut. First up, 'Eruption' is a song that does exactly what it says on the cover, an explosion of virtuosic guitar that signals Eddie's intention to blow up what you thought was possible, or acceptable, to do with a guitar in mainstream music. Following up is a reworking of the Kinks' 'You Really Got Me', which updates a classic and at the same time distills both the band's sound and sense of humor.
Trivia: The first iteration of Van Halen, formed by brothers Alex and Eddie amongst piano lessons in Pasadena, was named Genesis, with the brothers being aware of a certain English prog-rock act that was trading under the same name.
#6 The Rolling Stones
Albums sold (US) - 59 Million
How can you confine one of the longest rolling (hah!) bands of all time to one era?
Well, with an astonishing nine platinum discs in this decade alone, it's fair to say that Jagger and Co. are simply one of the standout bands of the 70s. Beginning the decade in something of a hurry with the unfortunately titled 'Get Your Ya Ya's Out’, the classic 'Sticky Fingers' and their biggest selling individual album, 'Hot Rocks 1964-1971' compilation all released and selling well before the end of 1971. Not a bad start.
While 'Hot Rocks', the band's biggest-selling album is, for the most part, a collection of pared-back and dead-eyed blues filtered through a distinctly Cockney lens, the 70s saw the band expand their sound on classic discs such as 'Exile on Main Street' (1972) and 'Goat's Head Soup' (1973). From the quasi-gospel of ‘Shine a Light’, Jagger's own favorite track on 'Exile', to the unabashed, David Bowie-backed, glam-rock on display on 'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)’ from 1974, the 70s saw the group in all their majestic pomp.
Trivia: Among the Stones' many collaborators and contemporaries through the 70s, one of the most notable was a certain Andy Warhol. The pop-art maestro was responsible for the covers of 'Sticky Fingers' and accompanying EP 'Brown Sugar/Bitch/Let It Rock', and 1977's live collection 'Love You Live'.
Albums sold (US) - 66.9 Million
'Good evening people welcome to the show/
Got something here I want you all to know/
When life and people bring on primal screams/
You got to think of what it's gonna take to make your dreams/
Don't Break It!'
Steven Tyler, there, with the opening lyrics to 'Make It', the first song on the band's self-titled 1973 debut, doing a pretty damn good job of introducing the world to one of the great 70s rock bands. Dreams? Check. Screams? Check. Sexual innuendo? Oh don't worry, it's in there. Aerosmith, named in a roundabout way for Harry Nilsson's 'Aerial Ballet' album, trades on big-hearted, raw as good denim, painfully honest and very, very amorous blues rock. This is not a band you have to demystify, this is a band that wants you, with respect, to shake your hiney while they tell you exactly what's up.
And wow, did people want to listen. With seven platinum albums from the 70s alone, including their debut, this is a band that people couldn't help but fall in love with, right from the start. The undisputed highlight of the decade from one of the best bands of the 70s was their third album, 1975's 'Toys in the Attic.' Driven by lead single and Aerosmith staple 'Sweet Emotion', featured memorably in Richard Linklater's 1993 slacker classic 'Dazed and Confused’, and backed up by classics like a Run DMC-less 'Walk This Way’, 'Toys…' is a bonafide multi-platinum classic, and Aerosmith's second highest-selling studio album.
Trivia: According to guitarist Joe Perry, Aerosmith had a near-miss with tragedy in 1977. They backed out of hiring a tour plane over safety concerns, only a matter of days before it crashed, resulting in the death of three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
#4 Pink Floyd
Albums sold (US) - 72 Million
The story of the 70s, from the perspective of one of rock musics' most distinctive and obtuse acts, is framed by the release of two albums, five years apart, both of which appear in the list of the top twenty best-selling albums of all time; 'Dark Side of the Moon’ from 1973 and 'The Wall' from 1979. There is absolutely nothing that can be said about 'Dark Side of the Moon' that hasn't already been covered elsewhere and better. From its uncanny synchronicity with Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, '2001: A Space Odyssey’, to the famous, wordless vocal solo on 'The Great Gig in the Sky', the album has transcended to become a genuine cultural touchstone.
The fact that the band also found the time to conceive several other platinum-selling albums through the decade, and ended it with probably the definitive concept album with the release of 'The Wall' in 1979, is testament to a level of consistent genius that has rarely, if ever, been matched. Sometimes you find a classic that has gone stale over time, or has been viewed through rose-tinted nostalgia in the intervening years; these certainly ain't them.
Trivia: The unsettling cackle on 'Brain Damage' from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ was captured by the band's road manager, Peter Watts, father of famous actress Naomi Watts.
Albums sold (US) - 74 Million
Considering the Aussie rock and roll monoliths didn't release their debut until 1976, and their biggest-selling album came just after the end of the decade, ‘AC/DC’ is undoubtedly one of the classic 70's rock bands. Another band that stalked out of the undergrowth fully formed, imagine having the audacity to put 'It's A Long Way to the Top' as the opening gambit on your first album. These guys were in absolutely no doubt that they were the biggest band in the world, right from the start. It was only a case of waiting for everyone else to find out.
With at least one platinum disc to show for each year of the second half of the decade, AC/DC didn't just talk the talk when singing about rock n' roll dreams coming true, they well and truly lived it. They even had the self-possession to turn the tragic and untimely loss of their lead singer into one of the best-selling albums of all time, although it’s one that falls just outside of our 70s rock remit.
Trivia: Canning Highway, the real-life inspiration for 1979's title track 'Highway to Hell', was turned into a 10km long convoy of music stages to mark forty years since the passing of a local legend and AC/DC's first singer, Bon Scott.
#2 Led Zeppelin
Albums Sold (US) - 94 Million
A personal anecdote, if you'll permit me: as a child, I once saw my brother spend his last £20 on a Led Zeppelin greatest hits compilation, rather than buy food for the week leading up to payday. Irresponsible? Sure. Understandable? Absolutely.
Despite releasing their first two albums in 1969, Led Zeppelin belonged to the '70s and, in a lot of ways, the '70s belonged to Led Zeppelin. Just give yourself a moment to think about this– of the seven albums they released throughout the decade, the worst-selling record has three and a half million accredited US sales. That was their low point. If someone told you, with your eyes closed, to think of a rock band in the 70s, there's a safe bet that the image of Robert Plant's golden mane and bared chest would appear, or else, Jimi Page's double-necked Gibson SG.
It's almost hard to talk sensibly about Led Zeppelin. So outlandish and outsized is their sound and their reputation. From John Bonham and John Paul Jones' tectonic grooves to Page's wailing blues and psychedelic riffs, topped off with one of the all-time great vocalists in Plant, their sound was almost alchemy, a perfect formula. Who else could get away with singing about fantastical Hobbit-botherer Gollum, as they did on 'Ramble On’?
Trivia: February 28th, 1970 is not necessarily a date that rolls off the tongue. It was, however, the date of the one and only appearance of ‘The Nobs’ the moniker that Zep chose to perform under in Copenhagen after an irate relative of the Zeppelin family threatened to sue the band over their name should they use it in her home country.
#1 The Eagles
Albums sold (US) - 110 Million
An oddity is that the album that launched the alpha and omega of country rock into the stratosphere was actually a compilation. 'Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975' released in 1976 is the best-selling album of the decade and second on the all-time list. For those of you that treat compilations with a certain disdain, don't worry, we've all been there. Third on the all-time list, and released the same year? ‘Hotel California’. The only thing that surprises at this point is that the compilation sold so well without featuring their most famous song. All together now:
'On a dark desert highway/
Cool wind in my hair…'
When it comes to the Eagles, the numbers and the songs do all the talking. Not only the biggest rock band in the 70s, but one of the biggest of all time.
Trivia: Speaking of their signature tune, 'Hotel California' was originally, somewhat confusingly, called ‘Mexican Reggae’. With its rich imagery and expansive instrumentation, the song is ripe for interpretation, but the band themselves claim that it's their reflection on the hedonism of California.
The bands that didn't quite rock hard enough, or sell enough, or fall within the 70s to trouble our top ten, but nevertheless deserve a nod of recognition for their influence on the sound of the decade are as follows:
- Rush - The Canadian prog masters didn't really hit the big time, commercially, until the 80s.
- Black Sabbath - Always too heavy to really trouble the charts, the 70s saw the band in prolific mode as they defined the sound of heavy metal with several albums through the first half of the decade.
- Simon and Garfunkel - Undoubted superstars throughout the decade, but not rock enough for this list.
- The Beatles - The greatest of all time? Possibly. But they belong to the 60s.
- The Who - Despite putting up numbers that most bands could only dream of, Daltrey and Co. didn't quite shift enough to make the top ten.
There we have it, a run through the rockingest decade of them all, through the lens of the very biggest rock bands in the 70s. Whether you're drawn in by the face-melting guitar work, intrigued by the psychedelic imagery and lyrics, or morbidly fascinated by the tales of debauchery and excess, the 70s were arguably the zenith of good old-fashioned rock. Unafraid to push past the pop sensibilities of the 60s and yet to be morphed and challenged by the punk and metal records of the 80s, this list represents bands unafraid to carry the torch for true believers everywhere and, in return, receiving support from legions of global fans.
You may not agree with our choices or our order, and please do get in touch if you'd like to have your say, but as you can see, this lot have the cold hard numbers to back them up. So sit back, relax, put on your tightest jeans, unbutton your shirt, and worship at the altar of 70s rock. Go on, you'll like it, we promise. If you would like to change gear and jump a decade into the future, you can check our ranking of the best dance songs of the 80s.
Top 10 Best Rock Bands of the 70s
This is the table for the top 10 best rock bands of the 70s. It contains their names and number of albums sold.
|Position||Band||Number Albums Sold|
|1||The Eagles||110 Million|
|2||Led Zeppelin||94 Million|
|4||Pink Floyd||72 Million|
|6||The Rolling Stones||59 Million|
|7||Van Halen||56 Million|
|8||Fleetwood Mac||56 Million|