When one hears the label “classic rock,” bands such as The Beatles, The Who, and Led Zeppelin instantly spring to mind, but the term applies to a broad range of musicians and bands from the early ’60s to the early-to-mid ’80s. Bands such as the ones I just mentioned have become synonymous with the era’s popular music, but there were many classic rock acts that were just as good (if not better) who, for one reason or another, simply weren’t able to make the same impact. Whether due to a lack of radio play, limited singles, being overshadowed by bigger bands, or simply not getting the respect and recognition they deserve, the following 20 bands represent some of the most underrated acts of the classic rock era.
20. The Rolling Stones
Whoa, wait a minute. How can one of the biggest classic rock bands of all time be considered underrated? It’s true that The Rolling Stones are one of the most popular and longest-running acts in music history, but I’ve always felt that Mick and the boys don’t get the recognition they deserve. Alongside The Beatles, the Rolling Stones were among the biggest rock acts of the ’60s British Invasion, but whereas The Beatles were heralded as innovators and pop icons, the Stones were often written off as a dirty-sounding blues outfit that, while catchy, couldn’t hope to match the Fab Four’s artistic endeavors.
Everyone talks about how incredible a writing duo John Lennon and Paul McCartney were, but Mick Jagger and Keith Richards also penned some of the most enduring rock songs of all time. Even though the Stones have had way more misses in their career than The Beatles ever did – which is liable to happen when your career spans more than five decades – they were making incredible music at the same time The Beatles were and while they weren’t as revolutionary, the Rolling Stones have proven just as enduring (if not more so). I don’t know, maybe I’m just full of it here, but the Stones deserve more respect than they get, if that’s even possible.
An English rock band formed in 1969 right around the same time as other pioneering hard rock acts such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, UFO arguably played just as significant a role in kick-starting the heavy metal genre as those more popular bands, but only managed to achieve moderate success through the 1970s and early 1980s. In particular, their creative period between 1974-78 produced some of the most consistently excellent heavy music of the era, thanks to the addition of 18-year-old guitar prodigy Michael Schenker, who left the Scorpions to join the group.
Schenker’s guitar heroics were the band’s main draw, but UFO featured virtuoso-level talent across the board, from Phil Mogg’s spectacular vocals, Pete Way’s chugging bass lines, and Andy Parker’s hard hitting drum work. Unfortunately, right as they were on the verge of making it big in the US, Schenker left the band and UFO began to fade from view, though they still tour to this day.
Though one could argue that the inclusion of the Raspberries’ 1972 hit “Go All The Way” on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack – as well as being briefly featured in an episode of HBO’s short-lived series Vinyl – represents a bit of a cultural rediscovery of the Cleveland, Ohio pop rock band, the truth is that the group remains mostly forgotten. One of the biggest issues that worked against the Raspberries is that their record company – and by extension, the record-buying public at large – couldn’t figure out where the band fit in to the larger pop landscape and were summarily ignored.
That’s a crying shame because, while it’s true that the Raspberries sounded quite different from many of their contemporaries, this is what made them a cut above many of those same acts, as Raspberries songs were built around ear-pleasing melodies and strong vocal harmonies. Following brief mainstream success with the aforementioned single “Go All The Way,” the band inadvertently shot themselves in the foot by experimenting with their sound over their next few records; a decision that produced plenty of great music that no one listened to. After trying and failing to make it big, the Raspberries called it quits in 1974, leaving fans to wait until 30 years later for a reunion tour in 2004.
17. Uriah Heep
Sometimes referred to as the “Beach Boys of heavy metal,” Uriah Heep are yet another English rock band formed out of London in the late 60s that have enjoyed a long, successful career as a cult band but are ignored by classic rock radio and the general rock music fan. That’s a shame because Uriah Heap are a true music fan’s band, with melodic songs, multi-part harmonies, and music that draws on a range of diverse influences from progressive rock and jazz to even a bit of country.
Some hallmarks of the band’s sound include David Byron’s strong vocal performances and a heavy use of keyboards. Once can definitely hear Uriah Heap’s influence in later prog-metal acts such as Queensryche and Dream Theater, but the band as a whole is right up there with bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and the aforementioned UFO in helping to create what would become heavy metal.
16. Grand Funk Railroad
“You kids don’t know Grand Funk? The wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? The bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher? The competent drumwork of Don Brewer? Oh, man!” For a younger generation of music fans, Homer Simpson’s incredulous reaction to his children’s ignorance of classic rock trio Grand Funk Railroad in the classic Simpsons episode “Homerpalooza” is probably the only cultural touchstone to the boys from Flint, Michigan, but the group regularly sold out stadiums in their 1970s heyday. So why would we call a band as popular as Grand Funk were underrated? Well, even though they were a mainstream favorite, they were absolutely roasted by most music critics who wrote them off as just another generic rock act.
While it’s true that bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath also weren’t popular with critics – and no one is likely to call either of those groups underrated – the difference is that there hasn’t really been a cultural reevaluation of Grand Funk’s music like there was for Zeppelin or Sabbath. Sure, you’ll still hear “We’re an American Band” and “Some Kind Of Wonderful” in heavy rotation on classic rock radio, but these reliable classic tunes only scratch the surface of Grank Funk Railroad’s accomplishments.
“Mississippi Queen” is a stone cold classic, but can you even name another song by early 70s American hard rock band Mountain? Powered by guitar Leslie West’s scorching, melodic guitar work, Mountain built a reputation as an incredible live act during their all too brief “classic” three year run from 1969-72, including a memorable performance at Woodstock that just may be one of the legendary festival’s most underrated moments.
Due to a combination of drug abuse and bassist Felix Pappalardi’s declining hearing, Mountain disbanded in 1972 and though they’d reform the very next year, the band was never able to recapture the brief success of “Mississippi Queen” and their certified Gold debut album Climbing! That being said, Mountain shone brightly during its brief early period and produced some truly underrated classic rock songs. If you’ve never heard a Mountain song other than the one single track that gets played on the radio, be sure to check out the albums Climbing!, Nantucket Sleighride, and Flowers of Evil.
14. Thin Lizzy
With their dueling lead guitars and the grizzled vocals of lead singer Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy have an Americanized sound but actually formed in Dublin, Ireland in 1969. The band is best known for the singles “Jailbreak” and “The Boys Are Back in Town” but their back catalog is filled with a number of fantastic jams.
Part of the issue is that unlike fellow Irish rockers U2 (the latter of which were heavily influenced by the band), Thin Lizzy never really made it big in the United States outside of those aforementioned hits. This can likely be attributed to the fact that they never completed a full U.S. tour, which didn’t do the band any favors given their lack of radio airplay and their reputation as a phenomenal live band. Essentially, Thin Lizzy are an underrated band in North America but they were huge in Europe thanks to their combination of great rock songs and live presence.
13. April Wine
Even in their native Canada, April Wine are overshadowed by acts like Rush and The Tragically Hip but back in their 1970s heyday, the lads from Halifax, Nova Scotia were churning out rock tunes that could go toe-to-toe with bigger American acts such as Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band had a number of infectious singles back in the day, including “Sign of the Gypsy Queen,” “Roller,” and “Say Hello,” and continues to tour across Canada to this day.
With more than 20 albums under their belt, as well as gold and platinum success, April Wine are more successful than their lack of name recognition would suggest and are arguably one of the best Canadian rock bands to emerge out of the ’70s.
12. The Moody Blues
One of the pioneering bands of the progressive rock genre, The Moody Blues had enormous success with their 1967 single “Nights in White Satin,” which is perhaps still their most grandiose song thanks to its stirring vocal melody and orchestral arrangement, but the band produced many other soaring tunes that went largely unnoticed by mainstream audiences. In 1970, the band played the famous Isle of Wight pop festival alongside titans such as Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, but it was the Moody Blues who arguably stole the show.
Much like Fleetwood Mac a decade later, the band reinvented themselves as a psychedelic pop outfit, eschewing their R&B roots on their second album, Days of Future Passed, and would continue to refine their sound with subsequent albums such as In Search of the Lost Chord (1968) and On the Threshold of a Dream (1969). The Moodies were one of the first bands to fully employ the Mellotron in their music, which helped them build multilayered soundscapes. Compared to many of their progressive and psychedelic contemporaries, the Moody Blues today sound like a band that was truly making experimental music.
11. T. Rex
Beginning life as a psychedelic folk act in the late ’60s, T. Rex transitioned to an electric sound in 1969 on the insistence of singer-songwriter and guitarist Marc Bolan. The band scored their biggest hit with the seminal “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” which is now pretty much the only song T. Rex are remembered for. Though the band’s run was tragically cut short following Bolan’s death in a 1977 car crash, T. Rex racked up an impressive discography of unassailable rock tunes.
The band was not only musically influential, but visually too, as Bolan’s gender-bending on-stage glam persona helped lay the groundwork for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period in the early ’70s. From their early folk period to their glam days, T. Rex proved to be much more than a one hit wonder and influenced countless acts, including Kate Bush, Joy Division, The Smiths, and the Pixies.
The Beatles get a lot of credit for their willingness to experiment with different instrumentation beyond the traditional guitar, bass, and drums rock trifecta, but fellow English rockers Traffic made the Fab Four look positively pedestrian by comparison when it came to infusing different styles of music. Formed in 1967 in Birmingham, Traffic started out as a psychedelic outfit but soon expanded their sound with all sorts of instrumentation, including the Mellotron, harpischord, sitar, as well as brass sections.
The effect of this was the creation of one of the best jazz-rock fusions of the era and it wasn’t just a fad either, as Traffic found a way to bring the two genres together to write catchy hooks and inspired songs. The pinnacle of the band’s experimentation came in their 1970 record John Barleycorn Must Die and although they earned the respect of serious music fans, they’ve never been thought of in the same league as other psychedelic groups such as Cream, even though they arguably produced better music.
9. Warren Zevon
Everyone’s familiar with the classic piano rocker (and Halloween staple) “Werewolves of London” but unfortunately, this 1978 diddy was Warren Zevon’s only real mainstream hit. Dig a little deeper into his back catalog though and you’ll discover that Zevon was full of jaunty, fun songs, such as “Lawyers, Guns And Money” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” While Zevon went largely unnoticed by the public, he was a hit with critics and was beloved by his contemporaries, such as Bruce Springsteen, which should come as little surprise given the similarities between the two artists’ sounds. Zevon passed away in 2003 but despite having only one big hit, he still managed to build a three decades-plus discography brimming with great songs.
Squeeze rose to prominence during the new wave period in the late ’70s and had a number songs covering a wide range of different sounds, from the slower, bluesy feel of tunes like “Black Coffee in Bed” and “Tempted” to the uptempo fun of “Cool For Cats” and “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell).” Singers Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Dilford had a winning songwriting relationship, with Dilford writing lyrics that prominently focused on working-class life in Britain and Tilbrook supplying the music.
While Britpop rockers Blur would get a lot of attention in the 90s for writing songs that were distinctly British in tone and sound, Squeeze were doing it a decade earlier and their pop sensibilities helped them capture the attention of London youth of the era. One of the finest British bands of the late 70s and early 80s, Squeeze are practically forgotten these days, which is criminal considering their two most prominent members are often credited with having a writing partnership akin to Lennon and McCartney’s.
7. Roxy Music
While Roxy Music are generally thought of as being a new wave act, they actually got their start in the early ’70s as an experimental glam outfit that were one of the first rock bands to create a carefully crafted look and style across every aspect of their presentation, from their stage performances and music videos to their album art and promotional materials. Famed solo artist and record producer Brian Eno was part of the group in its early years but after his departure in 1973, singer-songwriter Bryan Ferry took creative control and shaped Roxy Music into one of the most quietly influential rock bands of all time.
Roxy’s influence is wide-ranging, with The Guardian’s Tim de Lisle having argued that they were second only to The Beatles in terms of shaping the direction of British music in the latter half of the twentieth century. However, outside of the musical acts who looked up to them, Roxy Music are generally forgotten about or at least overlooked in favor of more popular bands of the era.
6. Little Feat
While the British rock scene was littered with all sorts of underrated bands in the ’70s, the same was true across the pond in the United States. While bands such as Aerosmith and the Eagles were tearing up the charts, other acts were trying to scrape together a living by hitting the road and selling themselves on their live act. One such band was Little Feat, a group out of Los Angeles formed in 1969 that never made a hit single, but still managed to catch the attention of much bigger acts, to the point where Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone magazine in a 1975 interview that Little Feat was his favorite American band.
On the back of former Frank Zappa guitarist Lowell George, Little Feat produced a catchy catalog of rock blending elements of folk, funk, blues, and country up until the group disbanded in 1979 shortly before Lowell’s death. If you’ve somehow made it this long without discovering Little Feat, you owe it to yourself to give them a listen (their live album Waiting For Columbus is great place to start).
5. The Animals
One of the signature acts of the British Invasion, The Animals made an impact in the United States before Beatlemania took the country by storm. Heavily influenced by American rhythm and blues acts of the ’50s, The Animals had an even darker, grittier edge to them than early Rolling Stones thanks to their propulsive rhythm section and frontman Eric Burdon’s deep singing voice. The band’s sound was also defined by organ player Alan Price, who practically turned it into a lead instrument.
While The Animals’ talents were undeniable, the band only enjoyed a brief period of success due to in-fighting and poor business management, so that by the time The Beatles were revolutionizing pop music in the late ’60s, The Animals had already imploded.
4. Big Star
While a good many bands on this list enjoyed lengthy careers, Big Star burnt out quickly with only three albums to their name, but they shone brightly over their short lifespan. Big Star started out in 1971 and had a great sound that featured vocal harmonies a la The Beatles, as well as jangly guitar parts that recalled The Byrds’ distinctive sound.
While the band would influence a number of later acts – to the point where ’80s punk/alternative outfit The Replacements named one of their catchiest songs, “Alex Chilton,” after Big Star’s guitarist – Big Star never found commercial success thanks to two different record labels bungling their promotion. For whatever reason, it’s extremely rare to hear any Big Star tunes on classic rock radio, making them one of the finest cult acts of the early ’70s.
3. Blue Öyster Cult
Blue Öyster Cult are best known for their haunting, cowbell-boppin hit “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” a song that was hilariously lampooned in a classic Saturday Night Live sketch, but the boys from Stony Brook, New York had a lot more to offer than this one radio hit. They released a strong stable of LPs throughout the ’70s that showcased their strong musicianship and and cryptic lyrics, leading them to be labelled “the thinking man’s heavy metal band.”
Speaking of heavy metal, Blue Öyster Cult helped pioneer the genre alongside contemporary acts such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and their stoner rock aesthetic influenced countless bands including Metallica, Iron Maiden, The Cult, and Queens of the Stone Age. It’s unfortunate that the only thing that springs to mind for many when someone brings up Blue Öyster Cult is Christopher Walken yelling “More cowbell!” because the band were much more than a punchline.
2. Deep Purple
It may seem odd to label a band that gave rock music one of its most iconic guitar riffs as underrated but although Deep Purple made it big in Europe, in the U.S. they were known for Smoke on the Water” and little else. Anyone who’s taken a deep dive into Deep Purple’s discography can attest that the band from Hertford, England has a ton of other hard rockin’ tunes, many of which are far better than “Smoke on the Water,” which arguably isn’t even a very good song.
The band’s best-known album, 1972’s Machine Head, is a banger from front to back but it really only scratches the surface of Deep Purple’s massive catalog, which spans multiple decades and lineup changes. The most iconic lineup included Ian Gillan on vocals, Richie Blackmore on guitar, and Ian Paice on drums, all of whom are some of the best musicians at their given positions in rock history and the band’s mix of striking riffs and hard-hitting rhythm section have made them one of the most influential hard rock acts of the era. And yet, you’ll still only hear “Smoke on the Water” on classic rock radio; maybe “Highway Star” if you’re lucky.
1. The Kinks
The Kinks will always occupy an important place in rock music history thanks to their early hit “You Really Got Me,” which was one of the first rock songs to use guitar distortion. However, once the first wave of the British Invasion died down and The Beatles emerged as the biggest band in the world, the Kinks began to fade from the public eye, despite continuing to produce infectious pop-rock albums well into the mid-’70s. Singer/rhythm guitarist Ray Davies is widely regarded as one of the greatest songwriters in pop music history and though only a few Kinks songs get played in regular rotation on classic rock radio, the band has dozens of albums worth of great material.
Many of the best acts across multiple genres have cited the Kinks as being a major influence, from punk rock groups such as The Ramones and The Clash to Britpop groups like Oasis and Blur. As one of the early pioneers of hard rock and heavy metal, the Kinks deserve to be in the same conversation as bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin when it comes to the godfathers of riff-based music.