18 Of The Greatest And Most Famous British Rock Bands

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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Many popular rock bands came out of the British Invasion, a musical movement that began in the 1960s. During this time, many British singers and groups began to gain massive popularity worldwide, particularly in the United States.

These British rock bands gained such popularity that terms like “Beatlemania,” the never-before-seen explosion of fans and media coverage of a musical act, were invented.

These bands did more than enthuse fans, as new artists still cite many of these early rock bands as influential to their sound. 

In this post, we’re going to take a deeper look at 18 of the most famous British rock bands of all time. Let’s get started.

1. The Beatles

There really is only one place to start with this list, which is The Beatles, who are one of the most popular bands in history that when it comes to British bands they top the charts every time.

The band consists of four members: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. These men were often referred to as the Fab Four.

The Beatles, known for their traditional pop fused with a bit of classical sounds, released 12 UK studio albums and 17 US studio albums. Majority of these would top charts. Notable songs from the Fab Four are “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

2. Queen

Alongside The Beatles, Queen is likely one of the most influential and well-known British rock bands worldwide. The group began in 1970 and consisted of Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon.

With the help of Mercury’s unique vocals and songwriting talents, the group rose to fame, particularly during the ’70s and ’80s. Throughout their career, they released charting albums and had sold-out concerts, most notable being the 1985 Live Aid concert, considered the greatest in rock music history.

Their songs “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” and “We Are the Champions” have endured time, becoming anthems to fans all over the world. All three songs were added to the Grammy Hall of Fame. 

3.  Led Zeppelin

Beginning in 1968, Led Zeppelin was an early hard rock band with influences from what would come to be known as heavy metal. The group consisted of Robert Plant on vocals, Jimmy Page on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass and keyboard, and John Bonham on drums.

Plant and Page were a music-making machine, as Plant created lyrics to match Page’s music creations. This produced charting songs like “Rock and Roll,” “Black Dog,” and “Stairway to Heaven.”

The latter song is considered one of their greatest works. It exhibits Page’s well-known guitar skills and Plant’s captivating vocals.

4. Pink Floyd

Formed in 1965 by Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright, Pink Floyd is a British psychedelia band that’s often seen as the first successful and widely-known band in the progressive rock movement.

Other bands on this list, such as ELO and Yes, have cited Pink Floyd’s prog rock style as an early influence on their work.

Two of the Pink Floyd’s most popular albums, The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, have received many awards. These contained some of their best singles, “Money” and “Another Brick in the Wall,” and both albums were added to the Grammy Hall of Fame.

5. The Rolling Stones

English rock band the Rolling Stones is one of the most popular and long-lasting rock bands in music history, giving fans six decades of hard rock sounds.

While other groups have taken breaks or seen breakups that halted work, the Stones, consisting initially of Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, have been consistently active as a band since 1962.

Their chart-topping songs like “Paint It Black,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and “Sympathy for the Devil” have earned Rolling Stones spots in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and UK Music Hall of Fame.

6. The Who

Famous for bashing their guitars during concerts, The Who, still active today, is a hard rock band that formed in 1964. The most well-known lineup of the band consisted of Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon.

Though their music was wildly popular and helped create the hard rock genre, one of the most revolutionary things about The Who was their use of technology in music.

The band was one of the first bands to utilize synthesizers, amps, and PA systems. This is evidenced in their greatest charting songs “My Generation,” “I’m a Boy,” and “Happy Jack.”

7. Oasis

Britpop band Oasis was formed in 1991 in Manchester, England. The members of Oasis varied over the years, though the Gallagher brothers (Noel and Liam) were the mainstays of the group.

The two brothers were quite famous for their feuds and wild lifestyle over the years. However, this did not stop them from becoming one of the greatest British bands of all time.

Their second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, is considered a best-seller, with over 22 million copies sold worldwide. Having stayed over 500 weeks in the UK Album Chart, it also holds the record for second-longest charting album.

Morning Glory features some of Oasis’s greatest hits, “Roll with It,” “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” and “Wonderwall.” The latter has been voted by radio listeners twice as the greatest British song of all time, in 2005 and 2016.

8. Black Sabbath

One of the most well-known heavy rock bands, Black Sabbath, was started in 1968 and consisted of guitarist Tony Iommi, drummer Bill Ward, bassist Geezer Butler, and the unforgettable vocalist Ozzy Osbourne.

Along with Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath stood out as one of the first bands to cultivate the genre of heavy metal, thus their nickname the Unholy Trinity, especially since Black Sabbath was well-known to use occult themes and horror aesthetics.

Two of the band’s albums—Paranoid and, the latest, 13—topped the UK Albums Chart. Though only their single “Paranoid” has earned the #1 spot, Black Sabbath’s works has earned them a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.

9. The Clash

Along with the Sex Pistols, The Clash, formed in 1976, was one of the most influential bands in the punk rock scene in the UK. They were known for musical experimentation, meshing classic, punk sound with other influences.

Initially consisting of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Nicky “Topper” Headon, the band saw early success with their self-titled debut album in 1977.

Though they had great success with their other albums, it was Combat Rock, their fifth studio album, that became their greatest. Released in 1982, it had top-10 single “Rock the Casbah,” which helped push the album to be certified double-Platinum.

10. Yes

Created in 1968, Yes is an English band that has been on and off through the decades. They had their highest peak during the 1970s with several top-10 albums.

Among these are 1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans and 1977’s Going for the One, both of which topped the UK Albums Chart. However, 90125, their 11th album, is their most commercially successful, certified three-times Platinum.

Yes has had a storied history of member changes. The band has had 19 members throughout its history. As of 2022, the current lineup includes Steve Howe on guitar, Jon Davidson on vocals, Geoff Downes on the keyboard, and Billy Sherwood on bass.

Notably, none of the founding members of the band are in the active lineup today. Though the band has moved through different music genres, they’re most often associated with progressive rock.

11. Electric Light Orchestra

Formed in 1970, Electric Light Orchestra, typically shortened to ELO, was influential in the pop rock and art rock movements.

The group consisted of Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood, and Bev Bevan. Lynne and Wood played various instruments, though Bevan was primarily a drummer. 

ELO was one of the early bands in the progressive rock or pop music genres. Their approach to music was quite creative, as Lynne and Wood often combined electronic, futuristic rock influence with classical and pop elements.

This produced a number of charting albums during the ’70s, including Discovery and their best-selling album Out of the Blue. In 1980, ELO collaborated with Olivia Newton-John and created hit song “Xanadu.”

12. Sex Pistols

Initially comprised of John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock, the Sex Pistols was formed in 1975 and was the leader of the punk music and cultural movement in the United Kingdom.

Their music and attitudes focused on going against the grain and breaking societal norms. As their name suggests, they liked using sex and other “scandalous” topics to make provocative and uncomfortable messages against society.

Notable among this is “God Save the Queen,” and despite being banned by most radio stations at the time, the song managed to reach #2 on the UK Singles Chart.

Their only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, topped the UK Albums Chart. Perhaps the Sex Pistols’ notoriety and sales bans pushed the album to be a best-seller, we don’t know for sure; however, it has become a standard in punk rock.

13. The Smiths

Starting in Manchester, the Smiths began in 1982 with four members: Morrisey (vocals), Johnny Marr (guitar), Andy Rourke (bass), and Mike Joyce (drums). The group was one of the pioneers of indie rock.

Indie rock was initially a term that simply described music made by independent record labels, with a focus more on releasing music than gaining commercial success.

Among the pop and electronic music that dominated the 1980s music scene, The Smiths were often seen as “rough” and “real” in comparison. All their studio albums became #1 on the UK Indie Singles chart as well as almost all their singles during the 1980s.

The Smiths, unfortunately, went through a messy breakup due to business issues, with members branching out into solo careers in 1987.

14. Radiohead

As of 2022, Radiohead is one of the few bands on this list that are still active. The band was started in 1985 by a group of school friends: Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Philip Selway.

The group’s sound falls into alternative rock, with grungier tones and some light electronica mixed in. Notably, the group’s debut single, “Creep,” was an immediate hit after its release in 1992.

Radiohead has received praise for incorporating heavy emotion and deep topics into their music, especially the feelings of loneliness, as explored in their 1997 album, OK Computer.

15. The Police

Formed in 1977, The Police were a huge influence on the new wave rock scene. New wave music pulls in elements from punk and pop rock to create an entirely new genre.

The group’s main lineup was Sting as lead singer and bass player, Andy Summers on lead guitar, and Stewart Copeland on drums.

During the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Police released hit after hit, with many songs still popular today, like “Roxanne,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” and “Every Breath You Take.” The latter is considered their signature song.

With five Grammy Awards, two Brit Awards, and more, the Police was added to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and listed in Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

16. Coldplay

When college buddies Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman, and Will Champion got together to make Coldplay in 1997, they probably didn’t think they would become one of the greatest British bands in history.

After releasing their debut album, Parachutes, in 2000, they were shot to fame as the album landed at #1 on the UK Albums Chart and received a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. At this point, there was no going back for them.

And they did not disappoint! Following the success of Parachutes, Coldplay released eight more studio albums, and each one topped the Albums chart.

Many of their singles, like “Hymn for the Weekend” and “Paradise,” also peaked in the top 10 and won awards. If these do not make Coldplay a great British band, we don’t know what will.

17. Genesis

Formed in 1967, Genesis played a pivotal role in influencing the British music scene. Their progressive rock sound, coupled with their innovative approach to songwriting and performance, inspired a generation of musicians.

In their early years, Genesis explored a progressive rock sound, blending elements of rock, folk, and classical music. They found mainstream success with the release of Selling England by the Pound in 1973.

In the 1980s, Genesis transitioned to a more commercially accessible sound, incorporating pop and radio-friendly elements. This change helped them reach a wider audience and achieve massive success on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 2022, sadly, in light of singer/drummer Phil Collins’ health issues, Genesis said goodbye to the fans they garnered in a career that has lasted 55 years. Nevertheless, we all know their legacy will last forever.

18. Muse

College friends Matthew Bellamy (lead vocals, guitar, piano), Christopher Wolstenholme (bass, backing vocals), and Dominic Howard (drums) came together in the mid-1990s to form the rock band Muse.

In their early days, Muse performed in various local venues, honing their musical skills and developing their unique sound. They drew influences from different genres such as alternative rock, progressive rock, and electronic music.

Their breakthrough hit came with the release of their second studio album, Origin of Symmetry, in 2001. The album showcased one standout track: “Plug in Baby,” which garnered significant attention and helped propel the band into the mainstream.

Over the years, Muse has achieved great success, with all seven of their albums after Origin of Symmetry topping the UK Albums chart. They have won multiple Brit Awards as well, including two Grammy wins—Best Rock Album for Drones and The Resistance.

Summing Up Our List Of Rock Bands From Britain

British music has been incredibly influential worldwide, especially the earlier acts that cultivated classic rock as a primary genre.

It’s difficult to narrow down the entire world of British rock bands to just 18, but these are certainly some of the most famous acts.

Are there any other bands you think could rival these mega-hit bands? Let us know who we should add.

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.