The 50 best rock bands of all time

40. Status Quo

Rick Parfitt, Alan Lancaster and Francis Rossi of recording in London in 1974

Rick Parfitt, Alan Lancaster and Francis Rossi of recording in London in 1974 (Image credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

So who’s up for a bit of heads-down, legs-apart, no-nonsense, mindless boogie, then? As any fool knows, Status Quo aren’t just one of the most enduring and successful rock bands of all time – having notched up a gobsmacking 62 hit singles, more than 100 appearances on Top Of The Pops, and spent 418 weeks (seven and a half years) in the British singles chart – they also have one of the most expansive catalogues. 

Leaving aside the multitude of compilations and live records that flood the market, Status Quo have some 33 official studio albums to their name, the most recent being 2019's Backbone

Status Quo have so much to answer for. And, okay – we know what you’re thinking and you’re right, to a point. But we're not here to tell you about the end-of-the-pier, Grandma’s-favourite cuddly-rogues Quo. We're talking about the Frantic Four. The original, 1970’s Status Quo. Rossi. Parfitt. Lancaster. Coghlan. What a fucking heavy band.

Now, sure – after bassist Alan Lancaster and drummer John Coghlan jumped ship in the mid-80s, guitarist/vocalist Francis Rossi had little opposition within the band when it came to dabbling with more middle-of-the-road-flavoured material. 

While the band hit an enviable run of form with the succession of near-flawless albums they released between 1970 (Ma Kelly’s Greasy Spoon) and, for the sake of argument, 1981 (purists consider Never Too Late to be the last ‘real’ Quo album), some of the material they churned out post-Live Aid reunion is woeful. But Quo at their best? Utterly untouchable in simplistic brilliance. 

And anyway, Quo were re-energised by their Live Aid opening slot, and their creative drive never really waned. Sadly, Rick Parfitt passed away in 2016, but the band were back with a new line-up, a new album and a Lynyrd Skynyrd support tour this year. 

Fifty years after their first hit, they remain one of the best bands in the business.

39. Uriah Heep

Uriah Heep in Tokyo

Uriah Heep group in a Japanese hotel garden, Tokyo, 1973 (Image credit: Shinko Music / Getty Music)

Since their formation back in 1969, Uriah Heep have never been hip. Though for all but a few of those years they have been incredibly popular – with the individuals who matter, at least.

Consistently reviled by the so-called tastemakers, Heep forged a reputation as a band of the people, daubing a double-disc concert release Live January 73 with the barbs of their critics (one of whom once chided with the utmost sarcasm: “Ken Hensley’s lyrics give some glimpse into why he’s highly regarded in foreign parts”) on the way to selling 30 million albums.

It wasn’t just the press, either. A run of successful releases that included Demons And Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday – both released in 1972 – generated the trappings of superstardom, but Heep’s fellow artists could be equally cruel. It speaks volumes of the band’s stature that in attempting to appoint a successor to David Byron, the vocalist they had sacked following the disastrous High And Mighty album, David Coverdale, Paul Rodgers and Ian Hunter all auditioned to join the band.

Unfortunately, the fact that each potential replacement declined when offered the position – Hunter claiming to have passed on a deal worth £5,000 a week; footballers’ wages back in 1976 – is equally revealing of Heep’s lack of street cred.

And yet, Uriah Heep have always had their niche. Performing hard rock with a progressive edge, they exerted a strong influence upon the genre we now know as heavy metal, but had the misfortune to follow in the footsteps of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.

“By the time that Heep came out, those bands were all established acts,” reflects guitarist Mick Box, the band’s last remaining original member. “The reaction was: ‘Oh, not another one’. I honestly don’t think that we ever recovered from that.”

However, at the time of writing, Uriah Heep are in something of a purple patch, enjoying a belated taste of acclaim from their peers, with a new generation of musicians, including Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth and Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch – who formed a side project called Demons And Wizards – and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt, all nailing their colours to the mast.

38. Chicago

Chicago photo session at hotel in Tokyo, June 1972

Chicago photo session at hotel in Tokyo, June 1972 (Image credit: Shinko Music / Getty Images)

When they formed in their late 60s, Chicago's goal was to create a bold new fusion of classical, pop, good, old-fashioned R&B and jazz. The result was a daredevil mix they ended up dubbing "rock'n'roll with horns". 

Whatever you call it, their sound made them one of the most successful rock bands in American history. They've made 24 albums, had 20 top 10 singles in the US – including three number ones – while 17 of their first 20 albums were certified Platinum by the RIAA. 

But while their success is indisputable, with a band like Chicago, there's always a risk that it might be their darkest days which end up defining them. For Chicago, the very darkest day of all was January 23, 1978: the day that guitarist Terry Kath shot himself dead after a game of Russian roulette went horribly wrong.

Kath was just a week shy of his 32nd birthday when he accidentally killed himself. A singer, songwriter and wildly adventurous guitar player, Kath was the bedrock of Chicago, and he's still the greatest guitarist most people have never heard of. 

Before Chicago’s sugar-coated 80s ballads – for which the band are arguably better known – there was the freewheeling Chicago of the late 60s and 70s, best sampled on A Hit By VareseDialogue (Parts 1 & 2) and the massive hit 25 Or 6 To 4. Back then, Chicago albums featured wailing horns, grooving Hammond organ and head-spinning time signatures, all harnessed by Kath’s howling lead guitar. 

It took years for Chicago to properly get back on their feet after Kath passed away. Replacement guitarists came and went, line-ups shuffled around; plagued by their own addictions and troubles, members flittered in and out. 

Ultimately, there are two Chicagos: the one with Terry Kath and the one without. The one without scored some huge hits in the 80s, including the Peter Cetera ballads Hard To Say I’m Sorry and You’re The Inspiration

Even so, having suffered adversity and come out of it stronger, Chicago are still touring and making music. Their last album proper, Chicago XXXVI: Now, appeared in 2014, while 2019 has seen the timely release of new festive album Chicago Christmas

37. Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival at London Airport (now Heathrow), 7th April 1970

Creedence Clearwater Revival at London Airport (now Heathrow), 7th April 1970 (Image credit: Michael Putland / Getty Images)

John Fogerty is a true American icon. As leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late 60s and early 70s, he wrote and sang some of the all-time classic rock‘n’roll songs: Proud Mary, Bad Moon Rising, Travelin’ Band and Have You Ever Seen The Rain to name but a few, songs that Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic played in a Creedence covers band before they formed Nirvana

But if there was one moment in time when the power of Fogerty’s songwriting was felt all around the world, it was on July 13, 1985, at precisely 12.02pm, when the mighty Status Quo kicked off Live Aid with a song Fogerty had written ten years earlier, one perfectly suited to this global music event: Rockin’ All Over The World

In truth, Fogerty’s career didn’t get off to the best of starts. In the mid 60s, the band he’d formed with elder brother Tom in El Cerrito, California was working under a name that today beggars belief: The Golliwogs. At a time when new social values were emerging, not least the civil rights movement, The Golliwogs were doomed to failure. But when, in 1967, the band was renamed Creedence Clearwater Revival, everything changed. 

As important as the new name was a shift in the group’s hierarchy that saw original frontman Tom cede power to John. 

“I could sing,” Tom would later state, “but John had a sound.” 

That sound would become one of the most powerful in American music. Backed by Tom on rhythm guitar, bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford, John Fogerty blossomed as a singer, guitarist and songwriter of rare distinction. His sound was timeless, relevant to the new rock audience yet steeped in age-old Americana. Blending blues, folk, soul, country, rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelia, the music had a rootsy, backwoods aura that led rock critics of the day to brand it ‘swamp rock’. 

Between 1968 and 1972, Creedence released seven albums and scored 12 top ten hits in the US and UK. But they split in ’72, and after Tom Fogerty’s death in 1990 there would be no reunion. 

36. The Doors

The Doors

The Doors performing in the street (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Some bands are defined by their eyebrow-raising characters as much as they are their music. The Doors are one such band.

Genius or not, Jim Morrison had never been what passed in the mid-20th century for a normal person. The eldest son of Rear Admiral George Morrison of the United States Navy, he grew up a well-educated but self-absorbed child who became a major disappointment to his father when, instead of following in the family footsteps and going to naval college, he plumped instead for a degree course in film studies in Los Angeles. 

This was where he met the professorial Ray Manzarek, another parental disappointment who’d already tried his hand at forming a rock group with his brothers. In 1965, Morrison sang Manzarek the opening verse to the song that became Moonlight Drive, while tripping on the beach at Venice. Manzarek famously “saw dollar signs” as Morrison crooned him his as-yet musically unaccompanied verse. Morrison, famously, saw only stars. The rest, as they say, is history.

The band that they formed, The Doors, arrived just as rock was at its most fearsomely individualistic, before the rules of the road had been written. What followed was some of the most open-minded, virulently innovative music the era saw. 

Fuelled by LSD and self-belief, their debut self-titled Doors album is now acclaimed as a cornerstone moment in the history of rock. If Sgt Pepper was the symbol of pop’s raising from gutter-level singsong to symphonic high art, eventually The Doors gave the lie to such positivism, drawing on the growing feeling of ‘us against them’ that pervaded a generation of young Americans in fear of the draft to Vietnam, or in protest against what they saw as the overarching dead hand of a society where long hair was now a symbol of angry defiance.

But it was also around this time that Jim Morrison, college dropout and hippy Hollywood maverick, began his transformation into the Lizard King – the alternate, take-no-prisoners, no-one-here-gets-out-alive rock-consciousness that would ultimately both build his legend and deprive him of his senses. His ultimate downfall wasn't far behind. 

Fifty years on, there's still never been anyone else quite like The Doors.

35. Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd approach the stage at the Oakland Coliseum in 1976 in Oakland, California.

Lynyrd Skynyrd approach the stage at the Oakland Coliseum in 1976 in Oakland, California. (Image credit: Richard McCaffrey / Getty Images)

No band has been cut down in their prime so suddenly, and so horrifically, as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Having risen from humble origins in Jacksonville, Florida, Skynyrd had become major stars by the mid-70s. Their name a joke on their despised former schoolteacher Leonard Skinner, the band popularised the soulful sound of southern rock with anthems such as Sweet Home Alabama and Free Bird. Then, on October 20, 1977, during a US tour, the band’s chartered plane crashed near Gillsburg, Mississippi. 

Six people were killed, including singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines. 

In the aftermath of this tragedy, four of the survivors – guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboard player Billy Powell – regrouped in the Rossington Collins Band. 

Then in 1987, the previously unthinkable happened. Ten years after the plane crash, a new version of Skynyrd was formed, with Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny as the singer alongside Rossington, Wilkeson and Powell, with returning guitarist Ed King replacing Collins, who had been paralysed in a car crash in 1986. 

Now, three decades since that unlikely comeback, Lynyrd Skynyrd are still rocking. Collins, Wilkeson and Powell have all since died, but Rossington and Johnny Van Zant continue to lead the band, along with guitarist Rickey Medlocke, who was Skynyrd’s drummer in the early 70s. Skynyrd were not the originators of southern rock – before them, the Allman Brothers Band blazed the trail – but it was Skynyrd’s blend of southern soul and hard rock that defined the genre. 

And their influence has been far-reaching: Metallica have covered their ballad Tuesday’s Gone, and Guns N’ Roses referenced Skynyrd when they recorded Sweet Child O’ Mine. Axl Rose stated: “I got some old Skynyrd tapes to make sure that we’d got that heartfelt feeling.” 

That depth of feeling – in the music, and in the words of Ronnie Van Zant – is what made Lynyrd Skynyrd one of the great American rock’n’roll bands. And it’s still true today. Skynyrd’s 2012 album was pointedly titled Last Of A Dyin’ Breed, and as Gary Rossington proudly proclaimed: “While I’m still alive, I just want to keep the band going, keep the Skynyrd name going, and to let people hear this music.”

34. Slade

Slade backstage in 1972

Slade backstage in 1972 (Image credit: Express / Getty Images)

An impressive run of hits conspired to turn Slade into a national treasure, but their heritage as a rock band remains sorely under-explored. Noddy Holder and company notched up no less than 23 UK Top 20 singles during the 70s and 80s, six of which reached No.1. But many of the Midland-based band’s most rewarding moments are tucked away on an extensive album catalogue.

Mentored by former Animals bassist and Jimi Hendrix manager/producer Chas Chandler, singer/guitarist Noddy Holder, ‘superyob’ guitarist Dave Hill, bassist Jim Lea and drummer Don Powell burst out of the glam-rock era and ended up giving plenty of work to the compilers of the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles. 

Later, after the Top Of The Pops appearances dried up, Slade stubbornly refused to follow suit, and took root in the university circuit. Then came their miraculous, near-legendary comeback at the Reading festival in 1980.

“Honestly, it felt as though we had no competition,” Lea told Classic Rock. “On our day, like at Reading, we knew that we were unbeatable.”

Granted an unlikely reprieve – the band were approaching bankruptcy – Slade’s second wind lasted six further albums and the additional, better-spelled hits My Oh My, Run Runaway and All Join Hands.

In the mid-80s Holder walked away from Slade in order to pursue a career in broadcasting and acting, though the band didn’t dissolve formally until 1992. A version of the band, not including Holder, reformed later the same year, under the name Slade II and continue to play live – though have since reverted back to simply using the name Slade. 

Holder, awarded an MBE in 2000 for his services to music, and voted No.47 in Classic Rock's list of 100 all-time great rock frontmen five years later, continues to resist all reunion proposals. 

33. Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the halftime show during Super Bowl XLIII

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the halftime show during Super Bowl XLIII (Image credit: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Raised in the blue-collar town of Freehold, New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen was the eldest of three children born to father Douglas, a World War Two veteran and sometime bus driver and prison guard, and mother Adele, a legal secretary. 

Their only son, he grew up something of a loner, often at odds with his buttoned-up father and almost everyone else he came into contact with. Music lit him up like nothing else. His first band was a bunch of high-school Beatles wannabes called The Castilles, whose drummer went off to fight in Vietnam and didn’t come back. 

Springsteen skipped the draft, dropped out of college and passed through a bunch of other short-lived bands before striking out on his own. He was signed to Columbia Records in 1972 by John Hammond, and became the latest in a string of earnest young singer-songwriters to be touted as the ‘new Bob Dylan’. His first two albums for the label were overly intricate, verbose affairs and both flopped, but then he hit pay dirt with his third, in 1975.

On Born To Run, Springsteen was able to imagine what Roy Orbison might have sounded like fronting Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound. Propelled by its title track, it achieved platinum sales in the US. Springsteen had arrived; the irreversible imprint he would have on modern American rock well underway.

Part of Springsteen's enduring appeal is that he isn’t an overtly political songwriter, but almost every song the he has written is, to some extent, political. 

That’s because the New Jersey native has spent most of his musical career documenting the daily struggle of characters who exist in an America where the status quo is enforced by a corpocratic government that allows only the rich to get richer. That’s something Springsteen certainly ramped up during, and in the wake of, Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the still-lingering effects of Reaganomics – brought up in a working class family, he has always empathised with blue collar workers, even if some of them, somewhat ironically, don’t actually share his liberal political views.

What makes him – as evidenced by his inclusion here – so universally relatable as a songwriter is that if the settings and landscapes of his songs are inherently political, Springsteen’s message isn’t always. Rather, his lyrics are more subtle commentaries that allow the listener – if they want – to discern their own meaning and message. 

Bobby Jean, for example, is a beautiful ode to friendship, but in the context of the album it’s on – Born In The USA – it exists in a world ravaged by the long-term effects of war and economic instability. Same with The RiverPoint BlankRacing In The Street, No Surrender, even Born To Run – all can be listened to (and sung along with) on their own terms, devoid of their socio-political context, but to do so is to strip them of a critical part of their essence. 

There are some songs, however, where Springsteen confronts those forces head on, tackling the powers that be with an unflinching eye and a heart hungry for social justice, equality and a desire to redress a balance that’s been tilted in favour of the privileged for far too long. That's what makes him a voice that resonates with so many.

32. Tool


 Tool onstage in 1992 (Image credit: Lindsay Brice / Getty Images)

Put simply, Tool have made some of the greatest music of any genre ever created in the long history of popular music. It might seem like a bold claim, but when it comes to the worlds they operate in, they are truly singular. 

In the quarter of a century that they’ve been a band, it’s also arguable that no other group have attracted quite as much obsessive attention from fans. The alt.metal band that came from the vibrant LA scene of the early 90s have transcended to one of music’s most intriguing cults.

Loosely formed in the late 80s, it wasn’t long before Tool had a handful of solid songs, which they eventually split between 1992’s Opiate and 1993’s Undertow. While Tool became more psychedelic and lyrically profound in the late 90s, they were initially motivated by being broke, living in a smoggy, overcrowded city, hating their neighbours and other pet peeves. 

If there is anything outside of their music that makes Tool an absolute law unto themselves then it has to be the visuals that accompany the band. In the live environment they become as much a part of the show as the band. But it’s the videos from the mind of Adam Jones, videos that don’t even feature the band, that even the most casual music fan can be sucked into Tool’s world by. The promo films of Stinkfist and Schism are now almost synonymous with the music they compliment.

For a band as unique and unclassifiable as Tool, their commercial success is quite an incredible achievement. Aenima debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200 upon its release, and the band went one better with both Lateralus in 2001 and 10,000 Days in 2006. In fact 10,000 Days managed to shift over half a million copies, twice as much as second placed Pearl Jam, in its first week alone. Latest album Fear Inoculum hit the summit of six charts across the globe.

Ah, yes – Fear Inoculum. Has any album in the history of rock music ever been as mystifying and mythical? Thirteen years the world waited for the fifth Tool album, and, rather than fatigue setting in, the anticipation levels seemed to grow and grow every year. This fevered dedication from fans, plus their sky-high levels of creativity, have ensured their place as one of the world's greatest rock bands.

31. Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac in 1974

Fleetwood Mac in 1974 (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Few rock’n’roll stories are as downright weird as the strange tale of Fleetwood Mac: a 50-plus-year saga involving drug-induced madness, bitter in-fighting, a ‘fake’ band that stole their name, a bizarre on-tour disappearance, two broken marriages, at least one ruinous coke habit and the kind of bed-hopping normally seen in an old-fashioned West End farce. Oh, and also involving some of the best rock music of the 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. 

Fleetwood Mac formed in London in 1967 at the height of the British blues-rock explosion. The band was named after drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie – partly as a ploy to persuade the latter to join – but the real star of the original band was guitarist/vocalist Peter Green. Green was so good that he’d been picked to replace Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (where he was later joined, albeit briefly, by Fleetwood and McVie), and his innovative style would inspire future generations of rock guitarists, from Tony Iommi and Gary Moore to Noel Gallagher. 

Green quit the band in May 1970, his mental health damaged by drug use. A second guitarist, Jeremy Spencer, also afflicted by drug-related trauma, vanished 10 months later in the middle of a US tour, after saying he was popping out to get a magazine. He later resurfaced as a member of American religious cult The Children Of God. And a third guitarist, Danny Kirwan, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after being fired in 1972. A fourth, Bob Weston, was also fired after he had an affair with Fleetwood’s wife. 

In the early 70s, Fleetwood Mac were in disarray. But in 1975 everything changed. Having relocated to Los Angeles, Fleetwood, McVie and his wife Christine (née Perfect, a singer and keyboard player who’d joined the band in 1970) brought in a new Californian guitarist, Lindsey Buckingham, plus his girlfriend, singer Stevie Nicks. Within two years, Fleetwood Mac were one of the biggest groups in the world, their new sound (far removed from the blues rock of old) defined by 1977’s blockbuster Rumours, the archetypal Californian soft-rock album. 

Over 50 years and more than 100 million album sales later, Fleetwood Mac are still going strong – sort of. While Buckingham departed the band for the second time in 2018, under a suitably dramatic cloud of cross-words and lawsuits, the remaining members just wrapped up a lengthy tour. After 17 studio albums and 15 different line-ups – in which, aptly enough, Fleetwood and McVie have been the only constants – it’s likely that the strange tale of Fleetwood Mac is still to be continued.

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