7 Classic Rock Songs That Captured the Spirit of the ’70s

The 1970s were undeniably the heyday of the classic rock era. Holdovers from the ‘60s continued to release winning music, while a new generation of artists learned from the masters and released their own timeless tracks.

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In many cases, these songs didn’t really have much impact beyond being a catchy tune. But there were songs from the genre that seemed to speak about what was going on in society at large. Here are seven songs that not only came out in the decade, but also helped to explain and define it.

1. Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen

When Bruce Springsteen devised “Born to Run,” he was paying honor to, and using production techniques borrowed from, ‘60s Wall of Sound-type songs like those helmed by Phil Spector. Yet he ended up with something that felt very much of the era in which it was released, both in terms of the grandeur of the music and the longing of the lyrics. If nothing else, the song helped define the era because it introduced Springsteen to a much larger audience. It’s hard to argue that the ‘70s produced any artists more influential than him.

2. “Hotel California” by the Eagles

The West Coast was a major player on the ‘60s American music scene, and that only intensified as the ‘60s rolled into the ‘70s. The Eagles initially came on like a Southern rock band, but they eventually came to be astute chroniclers of what life was like in California and its surrounding areas. With “Hotel California,” the title track to their masterpiece 1976 album of the same name, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, working from a mesmerizing piece of music created by Don Felder, managed to sum up both the allure and the danger of the area. And, for that matter, of the era as well.

3. “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac

Ideas about how romantic relationships between men and women should unfold have been evolving since the dawn of time. But it seemed like the ‘70s was an extra-turbulent era for that topic. Fleetwood Mac managed to capture a lot of that angst on their 1977 album Rumours because they were living it, as the band members were trapped in a pattern of breakups and hookups while the album was being made. Lindsey Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way” acted as both a lament for the impermanence of love and a permission slip for those wishing to escape a dead-end relationship.

4. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who

As incendiary as his band’s performance at Woodstock was, Pete Townshend was less than enthusiastic about the people who were in charge of the festival. That experience crystallized into “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a song about the folly of believing blindly in any kind of leader just because they’re new on the scene. Some might see it as cynical. But the song is actually a canny (and eternally timely) message to listeners to be vigilant about whom you believe, especially when messages from powers that be are so often misleading.

5. “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne

Much of Browne’s most penetrating work in the ‘70s was based on the figurative hangover that occurs when lofty ideals are scuttled by harsh reality. On “Running on Empty,” the title track from his 1978 album of original material that was recorded on the road, this scenario manifests itself in a narrator who finds himself constantly on the move to avoid the truths constantly thrown in his face. The most touching line in the song comes when Browne realizes an entire generation is feeling the same malaise: Looking into their eyes, I see they’re running, too.

6. “Let It Be” by The Beatles

The Beatles actually recorded “Let It Be” in 1969, but the song was shelved by the band’s internal strife until 1970. That actually proved fitting, because Paul McCartney’s messages of comfort and resilience actually hit harder at that point than they might have earlier. After all, the song provided a balm of sorts for those mourning the band’s breakup. But it also helped those who were struggling at the start of a new decade to make sense of what had become of the hopes and dreams engendered by the previous one.

7. “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Mock if you will, but there’s a reason that “Free Bird” has become the perennial concert request, even to bands that have no clue how to play it. Part of it is the thrill of those wailing guitars. But there’s also something in the simplicity of the message, concocted by writers Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant, which struck a chord with audiences when it was released in 1974 (and has continued to do ever since). The innate yearning to be free set against the need for love and companionship is an eternal conflict, one that the boys in Skynyrd elucidated brilliantly in this ‘70s evergreen.

Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

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