Once upon a time, mourners thought no great rock’n’roll songs were written after Buddy Holly died in 1959. Over the years, punk and grunge tried to subvert it from within. These days, commentators can’t decide if rock is dead, dying, in need of saving, or primed to rise again. Wherever you stand, the spirit of rock music should feel very much alive when you crank the volume on these 12 songs that glorify rock’n’roll.
12: Bill Haley And His Comets: “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” (1954)
The first No. 1 single in Billboard Hot 100 history didn’t just glorify rock’n’roll; it introduced it to the world. The term was coined in 1947, but no rock song had connected with the public close to the scale of “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock”. Prior to recording the Max Freedman- and Jimmy DeKnight-penned song, Bill Haley and his bandmates had played hundreds of high-school dances, getting hip to the vernacular and dancefloor preferences of American teens. Turns out the youth wanted black America’s rhythm’n’blues, and they enjoyed copulating – around the clock, even! But if they couldn’t get away with singing that in New Jersey gymnasiums, their new genre of choice would suffice. “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” sputtered commercially at first, but once it was picked to soundtrack the opening of the hit MGM film Blackboard Jungle (about teenage delinquents, no less), the song was on its way to immortality.
11: The Killers: “Glamorous Indie Rock And Roll” (2004)
This song was released after rock’n’roll’s commercial peak – and was a B-side at that. The Killers were one of the biggest rock bands to emerge in the rap-dominated 00s, but that didn’t mean Brandon Flowers and company were above getting a little cheeky. On this Hot Fuss bonus track (it was formally released on their 2007 loose ends compilation, Sawdust), Flowers mocks critics who assumed cool-kid indie rock cred was what his band was after, rather than the festival headline gigs and international stardom they soon attracted. The riffs rumble and the hooks are anthemic, but lines such as “Two of us flipping through a thrift store magazine” are indeed sardonic. Thank goodness.
10: Billy Joel: “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” (1980)
The piano man had grown nostalgic around the early 80s, taking in the “hot funk” and “cool punk” of the new wave era, only to shrug his shoulders and spit out the title of this classic rock radio staple. Billy Joel’s been a lot of things – storied songwriter, commercial powerhouse – but he’s never quite been cool. On this ode to the doo-wop and R&B he was raised on, however, Joel owns his squareness like the rock’n’roll legend he is.
9: Chuck Berry: “Johnny B Goode” (1958)
Chuck Berry’s signature song glorified rock’n’roll, sure, but also saluted what rock can do when you play it really well: get you paid. Chuck could riff better than anyone, and with all the duckwalkin’ stage show flair to match, he’d be the first to tell you how rock’n’roll would make him rich. Johnny is a poor, near-illiterate country boy playing guitar by the railroad tracks, but his chops are so uncanny he doesn’t need a rhythm section, just the din of the trains to keep in time. His mother’s words capture Berry’s American dream perfectly: “Someday you will be a man and you will be the leader of a big old band.”
8: Don McLean: “American Pie” (1971)
There’s a reason this arcane, eight-minute folk-rock song has been scrutinized like a Rosetta Stone of baby boomer lore for nearly 50 years: Don McLean had a bard’s take on what’d happened to rock’n’roll between Woodstock and the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly. But it’s not exactly a love letter to the 60s. After McLean takes in assassinations, the Vietnam War, the death of Janis Joplin, and the break-up of The Beatles, he can’t shake his lingering dread that nothing has been the same since February 3, 1959.
7: Elton John: “Crocodile Rock” (1972)
“Crocodile Rock” jolted listeners back to their pre-Beatles jukebox dancin’ days, with Elton’s live-wire Farfisa organ riff and whimsical falsetto guiding the way. He never took this rock’n’roll song too seriously, but it did do something previous singles “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer” didn’t – reach the peak of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, marking Elton’s first No. 1 in the US or UK. And the way it frames the 1959 plane crash and British Invasion (“The years went by and the rock just died/Suzie went and left us for some foreign guy”) teaches history just as well as “American Pie,” but with an even better hook and in about half the time.
6: Grand Funk Railroad: “We’re An American Band” (1973)
Prior to recording their signature song, Grand Funk Railroad was embroiled in a legal battle with their recently-fired manager, six albums into a career that’d never see them break the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20. But after thundering to No. 1 with “We’re An American Band”, the reputation (and homeland) of the rabble-rousers from Flint, Michigan, were swiftly immortalized. Drummer Don Brewer’s verses reach Almost Famous-level of rock’n’roll lore: partying with Omaha groupies, playing poker with a Texas blues legend, and guitarist Mark Farmer wailing coast-to-coast on a legendary chorus.
5: KISS: “Detroit Rock City” (1976)
“Flint Rock City”? “Detroit” just has a better ring to it. It was a live album, 1975’s Alive! that made KISS stars, and the iconic group followed it with a rock’n’roll song that captured all the fire and fury of their concerts. Its unrelenting, death-wish dual guitar attack would inspire heavy metal giants of the next decade, and a generation later, “Detroit Rock City” was further immortalized in the nostalgic comedy of the same name.
4: Queen: “We Will Rock You” (1977)
Boom-boom, clap. Boom-boom, clap. Guitarist Brian May wrote “We Will Rock You” to inspire incendiary crowd chants, and the result was a two-minute torpedo that’s gone on to rev up Queen crowds, football crowds, basketball crowds, cheerleading competition crowds, academic decathlon crowds… you get the idea. The whole thing is a sonic serotonin rush: the stomp, the chant, the guitar solo outro, and the fact it’s often heard right after its A-side, a little song with similar appeal called “We Are the Champions.”
3: Bob Seger: “Old Time Rock And Roll” (1979)
By the end of the 70s, disco was huge and here to stay, but this grizzled heartland rocker had some complaints; unlike the boorish bulk of the “Disco Sucks” contingent, he could still get your toe-tappin’. “You’ll never even get me out on the floor,” Seger snarls on this love letter to the 60s jukebox heyday, accompanied by a bluesy, piano-rock jaunt from the Silver Bullet Band that’s nonetheless… groovy.
2: Oasis: “Rock’n’Roll Star” (1994)
The first song on the first Oasis album, “Rock’n’Roll Star” was the perfect introduction to a band dying to be the next Beatles. For five minutes, Oasis never take their foot off the gas, barrelling ahead with infectious Britpop riffs and magnetic mythology: ditch your boring life, drive to the city, play rock music, indulge in everything. What followed for the Gallagher brothers should surprise no one: the stardom, the squabbles, the excess, the “Anyway, Here’s ‘Wonderwall’” meme.
1: Joan Jett And The Blackhearts: “I Love Rock’n’Roll” (1982)
A 70s band called The Arrows wrote it, but couldn’t make it a hit. A couple years later, Joan Jett loved it, but couldn’t convince her band, The Runaways, to cover it. It all proved worth the wait. Along with The Blackhearts, Jett laid down a swaggering cover song that brought “I Love Rock’n’Roll” to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, grit intact. Here’s to bringing the classic rock crowd on the dancefloor without having to shed your punk cred.
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