The 5 Most Iconic Classic Rock Music Videos 

Video might’ve killed the radio star, but it created some unforgettable rock ‘n’ roll moments along the way, as well. 

Videos by American Songwriter

Decades before viral TikTok clips and lyric-rolling YouTube uploads, the music video dominated MTV and VH1 airwaves. Fans flocked to these cable channels and others in hopes of small-screen DJs—aka “VJs”—spinning a visual take on the latest hair metal power ballad or out-of-the-box art rock single. 

Good music videos become etched in viewers’ memories, all right—the classic ones are like time-traveling callbacks to the dust-covered basements or teenage bedrooms where many experienced the song for the first time. But the really great music videos? Those tend to find their way into the pop culture history books, inspiring generations to come.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane with five time-tested classic rock videos that stand among the best of all time. 

1. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” 

Tom Petty and his faithful band, the Heartbreakers, leaped down the rabbit hole for this trippy take on the classic tale Alice in Wonderland. Petty—with his southern drawl slithering through the offbeat chants of “don’t come around here no more”—plays a tophat-wearing Mad Hatter. 

With drips of psychedelia and synthesized production, many at the time considered “Don’t Come Around Here No More” to be a sonic departure for Petty, who released the tune as his lead single off 1985 album Southern Accents. Directed by Jeff Stein, the video followed a boundary-pushing pace set by Petty and producer Dave Stewart (Eurythmics). 

“For him to be in basically a costume melodrama, after whatever his image was before, was very daring, I thought,” Stein told Yahoo in 2020. “And he got totally into it. It was very Quentin Crisp. I loved it. He really went for it.”

Now, fans embrace the song—and Petty’s plum-colored tea-drinking persona—as a landmark in his famed career. 

2. Guns N’ Roses, “November Rain”

It cost a reported $1.5 million to produce. It clocks in at nine-plus minutes. And three decades after its debut, it has surpassed 2 billion YouTube views. It’s the music video that may outlive all other videos: Guns N’ Roses’ 1991 rock epic “November Rain.” 

One of the most ambitious videos of its time, “November Rain” plays like a reminder to how far one band could push the scope and scale of a release in the height of music’s MTV era. It walked so videos like My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” could run. 

[RELATED: Behind the Surreal Music Video for “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses]

As for Slash’s sand-swirling guitar solo in the desert? He once thought he would die shooting that scene, which included capturing overhead shots with a low-flying helicopter. 

“It was the kind of thing where you’re just resigned to the fact that you’re probably gonna die,” he said in 2022. “And at that point in time, I … pretty much had that—I didn’t have very much fear of death in those days. Anyway, we shot it and I had no idea what it was going to look like afterwards. But it ended up looking pretty cool. But I didn’t know it was going to be as memorable as it turned out to be.”

3. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” 

Is Nirvana classic rock, or not? It doesn’t matter, because this list isn’t complete without “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” 

Weeks before “November Rain,” the grunge hurricane that upended the tried-and-true sounds of the 1980s arrived in earnest with “Teen Spirit.” A song oozing as much angst today as it did when Nirvana released it decades ago, the video—complete with earnest moshing (a curiosity to most in the early ’90s), anarchist cheerleaders, and Kurt Cobain’s liberating snarl—couldn’t be further from the arena rock epic Guns N’ Roses would deliver on the same airwaves. 

4. Metallica, “One” 

Another band that may push the definition of “classic rock” beyond comfort for some, Metallica nonetheless made a splash on MTV in 1989 by releasing the band’s first-ever music video, “One.” 

Telling the story of a World War I soldier who lost all limbs and bodily functions, the video features a Metallica performance mixed with clips from the 1971 film Johnny Got His Gun. The video initially debuted in late-night slots, but worked its way into daytime rotation alongside some of the biggest pop hitmakers of the time.

Director Michael Salomon told Metal Hammer in 2022, “… for a lot of people, ‘One’ is a very visceral and important part of their lives. To me, it was a difficult job, and a video that traumatized a generation of 10- to 13-year-old boys.” 

And despite being three albums into the band’s career, “One” propelled Metallica to newfound mainstream success—despite the video’s seven-minute-long run time. The epic song that builds from balladeering rock to outright thrash metal readied much of the world for the phenomenon that would come next from Metallica: the self-titled masterwork that came to be known as “The Black Album.” 

5. Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody

It isn’t real life, it isn’t fantasy…it’s the singular, irrepressible, indispensable “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Queen’s signature opus, the wildly original composition needed an equally original accompanying promotional film (what the MTV generation would call a “music video”). What the band and director Bruce Gowers came up with showcased how bands could use the video medium as an artistic extension of the song. 

And c’mon, admit it: that four-part harmony shot still looks pretty dang cool. 

Photo: YouTube

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