Deep Cuts: Five Successful Rock Bands From The 1970s You've Probably Forgotten

Post by: Rick Ellis 30 October, 2021

This week, we highlight five bands that were wildly successful in the 1970s. But you've probably never heard of them if you're under the age of 50.


If you're judging success solely by the number of hit singles, the trio of Cory Wells, Chuck Negron and Danny Hutton were arguably one of the most successful rock bands of the early 1970s. They had a string of 21 consecutive Top 40 hits between 1969 and 1975. Even more impressive, many of those hits were songs from little-known songwriters ranging from Laura Nyro and Hoyt Axton to Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. But for all their success then, their musical legacy now is spotty at best. Some of their songs get played on Oldies stations, but few people under 50 can even identify the band.

Part of the problem is that even at the height of the band, it was a fairly anonymous group. And since they didn't write most of their hits and swapped off lead vocals from song to song, no real "star" emerged from the group. And to be blunt, even at their creative peak, the band's live performances were half-ass at best. It also doesn't help that the band dissolved the first time in 1976, due in large part to Negron's then $2,000-a-day drug habit. The band has reunited several times in the interim and continues to tour today with two of the three original band members. But they never have managed to break through to the pop culture zeitgeist.

There's probably no better example of a hard-charging 1970s American rock band than Grand Funk. Mark Farner, Don Brewer and Mel Schacher were loathed by critics and dismissed by serious music fans. But thanks to savvy marketing by manager Terry Knight and a relentless touring schedule, the band was a huge concert draw and staple of early 1970s album rock radio stations. They formed in late 1969 and by their second album, they were cranking out rock radio classics like "I'm Your Captain (Closer To Home)." But the band was plagued by friction with their label, manager and often each other. A dispute with manager Terry Knight led him to repossess the band's instruments before a 1972 performance at Madison Square Garden.

The band regrouped and attempted to hire Peter Frampton to join the band, but he had already signed a solo recording deal. They added Craig Frost on keyboards and convinced Todd Rundgren to produce their next two albums. The result was a string of slicker rock hits, including the #1 singles "We're An American Band" and  "Locomotion." The next couple of years brought new producers (including Frank Zappa) and some more hits ("Some Kind Of Wonderful," "Bad Time"). But by 1976 the stress of non-stop touring and disputes with their label ended the band. Mark Farner later released two solo albums and later toured as a Christian rock artist. Don Brewer toured for a number of years as part of Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band.

The band has reunited a number of times in the years since and have released several albums of original material, but like a lot of bands of that era, the creative spark had just dissipated. They left behind some great tracks but I suspect their music hasn't connected with later generations because much of it has a very specific 1970s feel to it that seems dated in 2021.

Although Jethro Tull was founded in the late 1960s and released several of its biggest U.S. tracks in 1969, the band hit its biggest commercial peak in the early 1970s. More artsy progressive rock band than traditional classic rock group, Jethro Tull had a series of hit singles and albums in the middle of the decade. The band was popular enough that its first #1 album in the U.S. - "Thick As A Brick" - consisted of one long 43-minute track split onto both sides of an album. By the end of the 1970s, the band had gone through a dizzying series of personnel changes and released three increasingly folk-inspired albums. By 1980, the band had released "A," a more electronic-sounding album that had been originally planned as a solo album by the band's singer and lead songwriter Ian Anderson.

Despite the fact that the song "Aqualung" has one of the most distinctive opening guitar riffs of the era. Jethro Tull is little appreciated by younger audiences. Part of the problem is the band's music has a wide range of sounds and styles, making it difficult to pigeonhole the band. Also, lead singer Ian Anderson never really became a well-known name to audiences, leading more than one person to ask band members "which one is Jethro?"

While 95% of Motown's acts in the 1960s and 1970s were African-American, the label did try and expand into other directions-albeit with mixed success. When the label signed Rare Earth in 1969, it put the band on the "Rare Earth" label because they hadn't yet come up with their "non-Motown white guy" record label name.

Rare Earth had released one unsuccessful album for Verve in 1968, but the band thrived at Motown. The band had a traditional 1970s rock sound, but Peter Hoorelbeke had a vocal style that hit the sweet spot between rock and R&B. Rare Earth had its first two hits in 1970 with songs that were originally released by The Temptations: "Get Ready" and "(I Know) I'm Losing You." But the band began losing members at the end of 1971 and the continuing procession of changes didn't help the band build a long-term image in the public eye.

"I Just Want To Celebrate" was a Top Ten hit in 1971 and there was some mid-level hits over the next couple of years. But while the band remained a popular live act going into the end of the decade, other than an odd barely Top 40 1978 hit penned by the Bee Gees, the golden days of the band were over.

In 2021, most people are familiar with "I Just Want To Celebrate," but they have no idea who originally made it a hit.

There was once a genre of music called "soft rock," which was really a nice way of saying "gentle pop music with the hint of guitars." The Atlanta Rhythm Section became a successful band in the late 1970s and early 1980s by cranking out a stream of catchy, if forgettable soft rock tunes. "So Into You," "I'm Not Going To Let It Bother Me Tonight," "Doraville," "Imaginary Lover," "Spooky," "Champagne Jam," and a few other minor hits made the band a staple of radio, even though they never quite broke into the ranks of fellow Southern bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Part of the problem was that while the band's sound was much edgier in concert, their radio hits always sounded like they were just ten seconds away from rocking, even though they never quite managed the stones to do it. The result was a band that cranked out a string of successful and ultimately forgettable tunes.

To be fair to ARS, I could have picked a half-dozen other bands of the era for this spot, including Australia's contribution to half-ass pop-rock, The Little River Band.

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Last modified on Saturday, 30 October 2021 13:32