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The 50 best rock bands of all time

10. Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden on tour in September 1983

Iron Maiden on tour in September 1983 (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Take a stroll down the pedestrianised shopping centre of any English town and, among the proliferation of Burberry, faceless shops and dog eggs, you’ll find a number of youngsters sporting Iron Maiden togs.

In fact, the face of Eddie – the band’s illustrated mascot – seems to become more widespread with every passing year. Maiden’s renaissance from NWOBHM mainstays to modern metal heroes is complete.

Spooling back the best part of three decades, the concept of what would become one of the biggest bands ever was born from the ashes of just one of many also-rans that litter rock’s highway. The band was Gypsy’s Kiss and their bassist had just left in order to write his own songs. His name was Steve Harris and, as current drummer Nicko McBrain succinctly states on the 2004 Early Days DVD release: “It’s his dream and we’re all living it with him”.

Maiden achieved success in the traditional manner as far as the late 70s goes: through sheer hard work, great live shows, better songs and dollops of that elusive X factor. Even after several significant line-up changes, Harris has never wavered in his steely determination.

From the kinetic 1980 debut onwards, Maiden’s inexorable climb to the very top was, from a outsider’s view at least, totally predictable. Fans who’d see the band maybe three times every year wouldn’t really perceive that they were ever off the road – and when they were, they were recording. For any artist, regardless of medium, to produce a genuine classic each year for a decade, as Maiden did during the 80s, beggars belief. And it was no coincidence that, once guitarist Adrian Smith and, even worse, vocalist Bruce Dickinson had jumped ship, things were going to change.

With new guitarist Janick Gers and the likeable but ultimately hapless Blaze Bayley
at the mic, Maiden were reduced from a great band to merely a good one, yet they still didn’t stop. Of course, with Dickinson and Smith back in the fold and Brave New World selling like cold beer on a hot day, it was business as usual: the magic had been reinstated.

In any list of rock’s greatest hits, Iron Maiden will appear on a regular basis and, unlike the majority of their contemporaries, they are still operating at a huge level, selling out enormo-gigs in a matter of hours and nabbing headline spots at the world's biggest rock festivals. 

As the aforementioned abundance of Maiden hoodies illustrates, they’re bigger than ever. If a band continues to build on a base of solid gold, not even the sky is the limit.

Watch: Iron Maiden - The Wicker Man

9. Metallica

Metallica

Metallica at a Ride The Lightning photoshoot in 1985 (Image credit: Fin Costello / Getty Images)

It was just over 35 years ago that British writer Xavier Russell boldly stated: “The world is ready for Metallica. This is where the real future of heavy metal lies.” But in truth, few believed him. Incredible as it now seems, Metallica were initially dismissed as a bit of a joke. 

Based in San Francisco – they’d moved there from LA because the latter was full of big-haired poseurs – Metallica were four spotty, bum-fluffed heavy metal herberts whose stated mission was “to bang the head that does not bang”. They were nicknamed ‘Alcoholica’ and the mooted title for their first album was Metal Up Your Ass. Yet this gonzo mentality masked a revolutionary agenda.

As progenitors of thrash metal, the most extreme and influential underground rock phenomenon of the 1980s, Metallica changed the entire fabric of heavy music for generations to come. Moreover, like all true innovators, they were the first to transcend the scene they had created. Developing a more traditional rock sensibility on 1991’s Metallica, aka The Black Album, they became one of the biggest bands in the world.

There have been bad times as well as good. On September 27, 1986, bassist Cliff Burton was killed when the band’s tourbus crashed in Sweden. And in 2001, Metallica were demonised after suing online file-sharing service Napster for copyright infringement. 

The ensuing controversy jeopardised the credibility of a band that had prided itself on its anti-corporate ethos. But the biggest battle of Metallica’s career was fought from within: a power struggle between the group’s surviving founder members, drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield, who clashed in 2002 when Hetfield broke from recording St. Anger to enter rehab.

Employing ‘performance enhancing coach’ Phil Towle as mediator, Metallica engaged in a lengthy counselling period, much of it filmed for the documentary Some Kind Of Monster. The movie was at times painfully embarrassing, but the therapy worked. Ulrich and Hetfield resolved their differences. And while St. Anger was weak, the following Death Magnetic put them back on track. With their latest, 2016's Hardwired... To Self-Destruct, they credibly created one of the best rock albums of the last decade.

Of course, Metallica are no longer “the future of heavy metal”. But their influence is still powerful, their legacy a mighty one. Metal up your ass? Nobody does it better.

Watch: Metallica - One

8. The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones in 1968

The Rolling Stones in 1968 (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

In the late 60s The Rolling Stones claimed a title that has stayed with them for over 50 years: The Greatest Rock ’N’ Roll Band In The World.

The Beatles were more innovative, more popular, more of a cultural phenomenon. Led Zeppelin sold more records. But there has never been a better rock’n’roll band than the Stones.

Foremost, there are the classic songs: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar, Sympathy For The Devil, Gimme Shelter, Tumbling Dice, Miss You, Start Me Up. Then there are the classic albums: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St, Some Girls, Tattoo You. But the legend of The Rolling Stones was built on more than music.

There’s the lifestyle: no rock star before or since has enjoyed such a legendary reputation for drug-fuelled rock’n’roll excess than Keith Richards; no other rock star has played the part of international playboy as expertly as Mick Jagger.

There’s darkness: the death of original guitarist Brian Jones in his Sussex swimming pool in July 1969, which is still the subject of conjecture; the murder of 18-year-old fan Meredith Hunter, in December 1969, at the hands of Hell’s Angels at the Stones’ free concert at Altamont Speedway in California.

And there’s controversy: the infamous drug busts; Jagger’s alleged dalliances with Princess Margaret and Margaret Trudeau; the seduction by bassist Bill Wyman of 13-year-old Mandy Smith; the saga of guitarist Ronnie Wood and his young girlfriend Ekaterina Ivanova.

It is now over 50 years since Jagger, Richards and Jones formed a band in London, styled it on American R&B and named it after the Muddy Waters song Rollin’ Stone. They’re old guys now: Mick and Keith are 76, Charlie 78, Ronnie 72. And in recent years, it has become almost obligatory to knock the Stones. Author Will Self, attending a Stones concert in 1999, branded it “a grotesque parody of youthful abandon” – and that was 20 years ago (but everyone knows he's a contrarian – for the record, we quite enjoyed their No Filter tour in 2018). But at their peak – from the mid-60s to the late 70s – The Rolling Stones created some of the most important and influential rock music of all time.

As Mick famously proclaimed, it’s only rock’n’roll. Maybe. But nobody does it better than the Stones.

Watch: The Rolling Stones - Miss You

7. Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath

(Image credit: Chris Walter / Getty Images)

Before Black Sabbath, there were plenty of rock groups that played heavy: the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin. But the music that Sabbath created in the early 70s was heavier and darker than anything that had come before, and it would prove seminal.

“Black Sabbath are the forefathers of heavy metal,” Rick Rubin said in 2013. “They may well be the heaviest band of all time. And I don’t know of a more influential band other than The Beatles.”

It was in 1969, in Birmingham, that Black Sabbath were formed. The four band members – guitarist Tony Iommi, singer Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward – had been playing together for a year previously, first as Polka Tulk, later as Earth. “When we started out,” Iommi says, “we were a blues-rock band.”

But one day in 1969 they wrote a song that changed everything. Titled Black Sabbath, after a horror movie starring Boris Karloff, the song was based on an Iommi riff that incorporated the tri-tone known as ‘the devil’s interval’. The lyrics warned that ‘Satan’s coming round the bend’. And with this as their calling card, the band – now renamed Black Sabbath – would open up a new frontier for rock music.

Much of Sabbath’s legendary reputation rests on the first six albums recorded by the original and classic line-up. “It was a completely original sound,” Rick Rubin said. “Riffs as powerful as they come, Ozzy’s one-of-a-kind vocal delivery, cool words, great rhythmic interplay.”

In a recording career that clocked in at 50 years – the band put an end to their life as a band in 2017 – a total of 19 Black Sabbath albums have been released. Some of them great, some of them average, and some downright embarrassing. The best Sabbath albums made during Ozzy Osbourne’s long absence featured the singer who replaced him after he was fired in 1979 – Ronnie James Dio. And every Sabbath album, from 1970 to 2013, has been shaped by Tony Iommi, the band’s sole ever- present guitarist, and the undisputed master of the heavy metal riff.

Black Sabbath’s influence has carried across generations, through era-defining bands such as Judas Priest, Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Pantera, Soundgarden and Queens Of The Stone Age. But, even after all these years, there’s still nothing quite like the real thing.

Watch: Black Sabbath - Killing Yourself To Live

6. The Beatles

The Beatles before performing All You Need Is Love on world satellite link up

The Beatles at Abbey Road before performing All You Need Is Love to a worldwide TV audience (Image credit: Ivan Keeman / Getty Images)

The legacy of The Beatles transcends generations and strides unfettered across cultural divides. The mere mention of the name, and the individual members, dead or alive, opens doors and builds bridges around the world (as Paul McCartney is fond of saying, “nobody is Beatle-proof”). 

Strange, then, that the Fab Four have sometimes hit a brick wall in Classic Rock, with the voice of the reader who argues that John Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr should be this magazine’s bread-and-butter often drowned out by the admonitory comments that follow the band’s fleeting appearances in these pages.

The issues taken with The Beatles are many, varied and not always of their own making. There’s the crushing ubiquity, of course, coupled with the patronising finality with which Beatles fans declare them the ‘best’ or, worse still, ‘most important’ group in history. 

There are the unbearably twee moments of the back catalogue (Yellow Submarine, say, or Rocky Racoon), the memories of McCartney mugging through Yesterday, and, indeed, the hangdog figure cut by the bassist in modern times. The tailored suits. The whimsical films. Yoko Ono.

But step back from the context. Clear your head of the fog of hyperbole. Allow yourself to listen to The Beatles as a band rather than as a cultural phenomenon, and you’ll remember just how much attitude, wit, sweat, eloquence, melody and – perhaps above all – sheer diversity they packed into their short career.

It’s reasonable to say you hate some Beatles songs; albums, even. But to claim there’s nothing in their staggeringly eclectic catalogue that moves you is tantamount to admitting you’re bored with music itself. Of course, the context always catches up with you in the end. 

At a time when most popular performers were still mouthing the words of the Brill Building writers, The Beatles (along with Bob Dylan) led the way for any band who ever seized the reins of their art, strived to address the physical, spiritual and political world around them, and forced themselves to evolve in the face of commercial pressure to stay the same.

The Beatles did all that, in just eight years, and left behind a pile of tunes that simply towers over other artists. 

Watch: The Beatles - Revolution

5. AC/DC

AC/DC in 1979

AC/DC in 1979 (Image credit: Fin Costello / Getty Images)

If there's any band that personifies the pursuit of rock'n'roll in its purest sense, it's Aussie larrikins AC/DC. Since their earliest days in Sydney to their current incarnation as one of the world's biggest selling artists, their course has been unwavering. 

For the best part of five decades they've ploughed a singularly individual furrow, ignoring whatever the mainstream had to offer, letting fads and fashions pass by untroubled. 

Instead, they've concentrated on riff and rhythm, allying one of rock's most rock-solid musicians to one of its most live-wire performers. At the back, the late Malcolm Young built a backbone that could make a metronome sound erratic. And everywhere else you'd find his younger brother Angus Young, as capable of incendiary soloing as he is at churning out epoch-defining riffs. 

And then there's the singers, both extraordinary: the lascivious, menacing, comical Bon Scott and his replacement, the jocular, razor-throated Brian Johnson.  

And throughout their careers? Songs. Proper songs. Classic songs. Anthemic songs. The kind of songs you can play at weddings, where people who profess to hate rock music will bellow along with enormous, joyous gusto. 

As with many bands on this list, there have been bad times as well as good. The biggest shock came first – the sudden death of vocalist Bon Scott in 1980. It was Angus and Malcolm who held AC/DC together after Scott's death – until, 34 years later, Malcolm succumbed to dementia and eventually passed away in 2017. 

Then came the exit of drummer Phil Rudd, after he was charged with threatening to kill and possession of illegal drugs. And finally, the most surreal turn, when singer Brian Johnson was forced to withdraw from the Rock Or Bust tour – or risk permanent deafness – and was replaced for the remaining shows by Axl Rose.

After all that, what happens next for AC/DC is really anyone’s guess. Even now, so many years later, even without Malcolm around, Angus doesn’t look like he’s about to give up on the band that the brothers formed in Sydney, Australia in 1973, when he was just 18.

Rumours are rife of an album and tour – with Johnson back in place – in 2020. But the bottom line is that AC/DC’s future will be decided by Angus Young alone – the band’s sole remaining founder member, their totemic lead guitarist and, in his big brother’s absence, the boss.

In all these years AC/DC’s music hasn’t changed much, and that single-minded vision has served them well, with more than 200 million records sold. The basic blueprint that AC/DC laid down on their early albums with Bon Scott – hard, no-nonsense, riff-driven rock’n’roll – has sustained them all the way through to now. Long may it continue.

Watch: AC/DC - Let There Be Rock

4. Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd in 1968

(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Pink Floyd as a defining force in rock culture. And it’s not just about the number of records they’ve sold. You can reel off pages of statistics concerned with the success of The Dark Side Of The Moon, but that doesn’t tell you why that album – both the music and the album sleeve itself – from 1973 became an icon for a generation. Or why Pink Floyd became a phenomenon that has affected every generation since. 

The answer is that they have made some of the most amazing, most singular music in rock. The punks may have hated the band and what they often (wrongly) perceived they stood for, but Pink Floyd’s bile against the system was often as venomous as anything the punks could spit out. 

And through the 80s and 90s, angst-ridden teenagers, including legions who later would also make an impact with their own music – from Axl Rose to Trent Reznor to Billy Corgan to Noel Gallagher – grew up listening to The Wall. Pink Floyd had an impact on them all.

There have been four distinct phases in Pink Floyd’s career. The first was the Syd-Barrett-led band, which came together in late 1965 and lasted for just three singles and one album before Barrett fell apart at the end of 1967 and was forced to leave the band. And for some people, Pink Floyd ended at this point.

Then there was the Pink Floyd that picked up the pieces and spent five years groping for a suitable direction, before Dark Side Of The Moon went supernova and transformed their fortunes and replotted their future. After five hugely successful albums increasingly dominated by Roger Waters, the whole thing disintegrated with sullen rancour at the start of the ’80s.

And then there was what became phase three, after Pink Floyd was retrieved by guitarist David Gilmour (who had replaced Syd Barrett) and restored to their pre- eminent position in the rock hierarchy. 

A belated fourth phase came in 2015, 20 years after many had assumed that Gilmour had wound up the band, with the release of The Endless River, a record that the guitarist has said definitively marks the end of the Pink Floyd journey.

Throughout it all, Pink Floyd have maintained a ‘corporate’ identity while remaining anonymous individually; it’s doubtful whether you would recognise a member of the band on the street – something which has simply added to their enigma.

Watch: Pink Floyd - Money

3. Rush

Rush on Primrose Hill, London, 1978

Rush on Primrose Hill, London, 1978 (Image credit: Fin Costello/ Getty Images)

It’s hard to believe that when Rush released their debut in 1974 everyone had them pegged as Led Zep copyists.

Forty-four years and a zillion albums later, it’s harder to judge which is more unlikely: (a) that they lasted so long or (b) that they’ve done so on the strength of hiring drummer/lyricist Neil Peart to replace the long-forgotten John Rutsey.

Rush’s four decade run is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside the enigma that is the famously fan/limelight-avoiding and well-read Peart. Yet Rush are a three-piece band of equal parts, and similar attention is long overdue for Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson.

Although frequently derided for his occasional choice of high-register singing, Lee has a fine, folky voice; he’s no slouch on a synth, either. Moreover, as his excellent solo album My Favorite Headache (2000) proves, much of Rush’s often overlooked mastery of melody is down to him. And all that before the best bass playing you’ll find this side of Jack Bruce. Lifeson, too, is an under-appreciated player, and deserves to be ranked alongside David Gilmour for his fluid soloing, and Jimmy Page for other-worldly riffs.

Lee and Lifeson’s qualities added to Peart’s prodigious talents for rhythms usually found outside the rock sphere have inspired a collective ambition to improve and expand their abilities, and to make music that is always evolving, never safe.

Rush’s first 25 years can be viewed in three (unplanned) cycles, each comprised of four studio albums then a double-live set which seemed to herald a change in direction. From 1974-76 they rocked like bastards while peddling sword, sorcery and sci-fi – often on side-long epics. From 1977-81 they entered a purple patch when they discovered synth bass pedals, keyboards, and songs lasting less than 10 minutes. Cycle three, 1982-89, began with more of the same, but is typified by an initially unsettling penchant for reggae-style rhythms. They also fully embraced the 80s vogue for electronica.

After the third double live album, the cycles ended and studio output became sporadic. Over these they’ve steadily stripped away the trimmings and gone back to basics, finding a way to grow older gracefully, and in their last album – 2012's Clockwork Angels – they made one of the finest rock albums of the 2010s. 

Due to the health of the band some members, it looks like Rush really has come to an end these days. But what a legacy they leave behind.

Watch: Rush - Tom Sawyer

2. Queen

Queen perform on the Dutch TV show Top Pops in 1974

(Image credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot / Getty Images)

Queen were such a uniquely talented band that genre identification is virtually impossible. They could certainly rock as hard as anyone, but there are also elements of metal, jazz, funk, opera, vaudeville and ragtime in their music.

In the 20-odd years they were on the scene, from their inception in 1970 to the tragic death of frontman Freddie Mercury in 1992, Queen constantly reinvented themselves, pushing the envelope as their matchless musicality complemented the outrageous showmanship of Mercury.

Queen’s intelligence and acuity demanded that they constantly took risks. But almost all of them came off. And none more so than Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the most remarkable hit singles ever. 

These days the track is something of a cliché, thanks in no small measure to Wayne’s World and to the award-winning film of the same name, but when it first hit the chart it defied convention in terms of length, lyricism and musical influence. 

Subsequently, Queen became iconic – individual yet such a huge influence on much of what’s happened musically in the past quarter-century. They scarcely put a foot wrong as the music developed in surprising directions. Even 1982’s Hot Space excursion into the dance realm wasn’t a complete failure. 

And nearly three decades on from Mercury's death, Queen's stock is higher than ever.

Watch: Queen - Killer Queen

1. Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin's first photo session for WEA Records, London, December 1968 (Image credit: Dick Barnatt / Getty Images)

Was there really ever any other way this would end? Sure, there are worthy contenders all the way through this list; bands you could credibly argue should be in with a shot at the top spot. But when the chips are down, and push comes to shove, there's really only one way this could've gone: Led Zeppelin are the greatest rock band in history.

Let's take it back to the beginning. At the start of 1968, rock’s original prime movers were flagging, and another generation of bands were ready to step into their shoes and crank their amps way up. 

When they’d finished, a whole new genre had been born.

As far back as 1967, the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Who had turned rock upside down, redrawing the boundaries of what could be done within music. But by 1968 all three found their creative juices becoming increasingly sapped by the demands of endless touring, especially in America.

Waiting in the wings were two former Yardbirds guitarists with big plans. One was Jeff Beck, whose eponymous Group released their debut album, Truth, in August 1968, laying down the template for what was to come. The other was Beck’s old oppo, Jimmy Page, who was putting together his new band, initially dubbed The New Yardbirds.

By the time Page had joined forces with Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham and settled on a new name – Led Zeppelin, taken from a supposition from Keith Moon that their band was destined to go down like a ‘lead balloon’ – the Zep were already way ahead of the curve compared to other bands. 

The revolution really began on 12 January 1969, when Led Zeppelin released their first album. It reached its crescendo on 22 October that year, when they released the follow-up, Led Zeppelin II. Both heavier and more textured than their debut, it far outstripped the success of its predecessor. Their label, Atlantic, received advance orders of 400,000 copies – nearly 10 times as many as Led Zeppelin I. It peaked at No.1 in both the UK and the US. The musical revolution they had started had now officially gone worldwide.

It was a very British revolution, starting in pubs and clubs across the land before going on to conquer the stadiums of the world. By the time the dust had settled, nothing would be the same again. 

Zeppelin’s hugeness was preposterous, and as their fame ballooned, their artistic vision expanded to match. Ever more epic live shows were marked by extensive improvisations by four virtuosi whose inspired ensemble interplay seemed almost supernatural in origin. Audiences broke records, albums camped out at the top of charts and during their 12-year existence, Led Zeppelin casually conquered Earth.

Then, in 1980, it all came to an end. Following Bonham's sudden death in September that year, the group decided to disband, confident they "could not continue as we were". There have been reunions since – only four, though – including the ill-fated Phil Collins Live Aid debacle and their triumphant Celebration Day reunion, and a number of solo projects pursued. Still, none of it's come close to matching what those four people were capable of creating together in their prime.

It's only right that they're at the top of this list. Your favourite band most likely wouldn't exist without them.

Watch: Led Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love