21 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Classic Pop Rock Bands

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Over the years, there have been so many pop rock bands that it’s hard to keep track of all of them. The music we hear from each of them was influenced at some point or another by those that spearheaded the genre.

But who were these great pop rock bands that inspired the music groups of our current time? That’s where we come in with this list. Read on to learn about 21 of the greatest and most famous classic pop rock bands you need to know.

1. The Beatles 

A band that arguably had a more profound effect on pop music than any other single person or entity would be the Beatles. Coming out of Liverpool via Hamburg, Germany, the quartet was the tip of the British Invasion spear and pushed every boundary they could find.

They gave us a historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They made Nehru jackets cool, and many teenage girls faint with songs like “Twist and Shout” and “Let It Be.”

Their iconic works earned a spot on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

2. The Police 

The story of English rock band the Police is an odd one: Two musicians who liked punk but had much more developed musical chops than most of that genre’s players draft a jazz-leaning guitarist to complete the group.

Throw in some reggae sound to their rock beats, and they then evolved through five charting studio albums, sold more than 75 million albums, and released 1983’s “Every Breath You Take,” which earned the group Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals and Song of the Year Grammy Awards.

Sting, Stewart Copeland, and Andy Summers split after the worldwide success that was their fifth album, Synchronicity. The Police had a reunion tour in 2007, which became the third-highest-grossing tour of all time.

3. Queen

Legendary rock band Queen started as a prog-rock band in 1970, but with frontman Freddie Mercury’s stupendous voice and stage presence, they moved into more traditional rock realms. With Brian May’s signature guitar sound thrown in, Queen sounded like no other.

They formed in 1970 in London and released their own album without label support. A second album, Queen II, generated buzz, and by 1975, Queen was a certified hit band.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” became an international hit, among many others, and Queen cemented itself as a pop culture touchstone. They rocked Live Aid, suffered through Mercury’s 1991 death, and continue to play with Adam Lambert fronting the group to this day.

4. The Rolling Stones

Perhaps the most rock and roll band ever, the Rolling Stones, have been part of everyday life for so long that lead singer Mick Jagger is literally a great-grandfather.

From “Satisfaction” to “Paint It Black,” their iconic songs have impacted many lives since the band formed in 1962. Moreover, many of their songs continuously find themselves on soundtracks of popular movies and TV series, proving that their music is timeless.

In addition, Keith Richards’s guitar work has influenced countless other artists, and Jagger’s work on the stage and in the studio remains the stuff of legend.

The Rolling Stones’ long list of accolades includes three Grammy Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. They’ve also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2004.

5. U2

A Dublin quartet called U2 formed in 1976 when some high-school kids who weren’t very good at music decided to make a band. Four years later, they had a record deal and were on the slow but steady path to global superstardom.

It took Bono and the boys a few albums to begin making a real dent in the world, but after their album Boy spawned the band’s first top-20 single, “I Will Follow,” things inexorably picked up. By the band’s fifth album, 1987’s The Joshua Tree, they were an international phenomenon and the biggest band in the world.

Since then, U2 has never slowed down. They’ve recorded 14 albums so far and still tour often, with the latest being in pre-pandemic times in 2019.

6. Duran Duran

Three things were happening: the dawn of the New Romantic era, the New Wave, and a Second British Invasion, and Duran Duran was at the forefront of all three. Furthermore, just to pour it on, they constituted the vanguard of the dawning age of the music video.

Frontman Simon LeBon brought surreal lyrics to a quintet raised on equal parts punk and glam. Nick Rhodes’s synthesizer drove the sound, while Andy Taylor’s straight-up rock-and-roll guitar kept the band from becoming just another synth-pop outfit.

“Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” brought the narrative drive to the group’s music videos, and the band never really went away, scoring two Grammys, an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2022.

7. Fleetwood Mac

British-American rock band Fleetwood Mac formed in 1967, but by 1970, drummer Mick Fleetwood was the only one left from that bunch and John and Christine McVie had joined (though back then, she was still Christine Perfect).

The band had a UK #1 with the blues instrumental “Albatross,” but when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the outfit in 1974, they began creating the classic sounds we all know.

Rumours, Fleetwood Mac’s 11th studio album, dropped in 1977. It sold more than 40 million copies and has been a top-ten Billboard album in the ‘70s, the 2010s, and the 2020s—the last time due mostly to a TikTok video of a guy skateboarding to “Dreams.”

8. Journey

San Francisco gave the world Journey in 1973 when guys from Santana and the Steve Miller Band joined forces to form a backing band. They quickly dropped that idea and started making jazz fusion. The group was immediately well-received, and like any good band, they began evolving.

Journey added Steve Perry on vocals in 1977, and by 1983, the band had charted with “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Open Arms,” and “Faithfully.” They toured hard and racked up album sales, occasionally taking breaks to pursue solo work.

In 1998, Perry retired and was replaced twice, with the second replacement, Arnel Pineda, sticking around. With a voice on par with Perry’s, he was able to help Journey continue touring and recording to this day.

9. The Beach Boys

Brian Wilson, his two brothers, and a cousin formed the Beach Boys in 1961. What started in a garage grew to become a worldwide act that sold more than 100 million records and created the pop masterpiece Pet Sounds, the album said to have influenced the Beatles in their later studio efforts.

But before all that came to pass, the band was a surf-rock group with tight harmonies and lyrics about girls, cars, and, well, surfing. This encompassed what is called the California sound.

Success, drug use, mental illness, and band infighting plagued the group from the late-1960s on, and while the Beach Boys’ legacy is a complicated one, no one disputes the group’s influence.

10. The Eagles

When Linda Ronstadt needed a band, she formed the Eagles in 1971. While on tour with her, Glen Frey and Don Henley decided to split, so the group added a few other players, and the band took form.

They recorded their self-titled debut album in 1972, creating a unique country-rock sound punctuated by those vocal harmonies for which the Eagles are known. They notched five #1 hits to go along with their six Grammys and world-conquering fame.

Members have come and gone, and Glen Frey died in 2016, but “Hotel California” remains a concert staple as the legendary act continues touring today, more than 50 years after they first got together.

11. Bon Jovi

It was 1984 when New Jersey’s Bon Jovi had a hit with “Runaway,” and it honestly sounded a lot like a one-hit-wonder. It most assuredly was not.

For the rest of their career, Bon Jovi would score great hits with multi-Platinum singles like “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and “Always,” and “It’s My Life.” Their albums were not something to laugh at either—except for the first two, all the rest were within the top 20 of Billboard‘s Hot 200 chart.

Frontman Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora followed in the 1990s with solo efforts, and Sambora eventually left the group, but the band never flagged. They’ve continued to perform, with their latest album released in 2020.

12. Chicago

If you could have a rock band that had a horn section, you would have Chicago. Started in 1967 as Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago sold a million albums before 1970. The ‘70s saw them chart with “Colour My World,” “25 or 6 to 4,” and “Saturday in the Park.”

That would be enough success for many, but in the mid-1980s, the band hooked up with producer David Foster and created a new slew of hits like “You’re the Inspiration” and others, winning a new generation of fans.

Though founding member and saxman Walt Parazaider retired and Peter Cetera took his bass playing and voice to pursue a solo career, the band endures, touring as recently as 2022.

13. Green Day

Sweet Children became a California band in 1987, but by 1990, Tré Cool had replaced the original drummer, and the band became Green Day. Dookie, the band’s 1994 major-label debut album, was a smash hit and generated their first #1 song, “Longview.”

Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s adenoidal vocals and frenetic guitar playing lent the band a post-punk feel, but with subsequent releases, the group started experimenting with other styles, including the acoustic ballad.

They began getting serious critical praise with 2005’s Grammy-winning album American Idiot, which became the basis of the hit Broadway musical of the same name.

14. Talking Heads

Formed in New York City in 1971, Talking Heads turned music on its head with its quirky, socially conscious music and David Byrne’s weird frontman act, which included those oversized suits.

Their first top-10 single, the 1983 “Burning Down the House,” gave Talking Heads their commercial break. Their music has even been featured on TV and movie soundtracks, like True Stories.

As the unofficial leaders of the post-punk movement, they laid the foundation for alternative rock, incorporating ska, funk, and art-rock elements into their original sound. Stop Making Sense, the band’s 1984 Jonathan Demme-directed concert film, remains a defining example of the genre.

15. ABBA

The original name of our 15th band is rather long—it consisted of the names of all the members—so it was squished to the acronym ABBA. With beginnings in 1972, they went on to become one of the leading disco and pop rock group.

For sure you’ve heard of their many hit songs and have most likely danced to it at least once. These include “Mamma Mia,” “Fernando,” and the Grammy Hall of Famer “Dancing Queen.”

After a decade of charting songs and #1 hit albums, ABBA separated. In 2020, however, the remaining members came together and started planning new releases.

16. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers came into being in 1976 in Florida, few could have imagined the music the group would create or for how many decades it would happen.

And when the southern rock genre that the band inhabited waned in the public eye, the Heartbreakers didn’t flag. Churning out classic hits like “Refugee,” “American Girl,” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” to name but a few, they played Americana rock that appealed across genres.

Petty’s solo work only extended the band’s brand, and by the time of his death in 2017, Petty and his band were regarded as giants in American music.

17. The Bee Gees

The brothers Gibbs started playing and singing together as the Bee Gees in their native Australia in 1958. De facto leader Barry Gibb brought a distinctive falsetto to the band’s sound, and the backing harmonies of Robin and Maurice rounded out the unmistakable sound of the group.

The Bee Gees had some hits before landing the gig to provide the soundtrack for the film Saturday Night Fever, but the exposure from that music dwarfed anything they’d experienced before.

They embraced disco and became one of the most prominent voices of the movement, as achieved in their hit songs “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive” and “Tragedy.”

18. Van Halen

Known for their blend of metal, rock, and pop music, we have next Van Halen. Their powerful and energetic performances were popular throughout the 1980s and brought them wide acclaim.

The keyboard-driven song “Jump” is their first and only #1 on Billboard‘s top 100 chart, though they have several chart-topping hits on the Mainstream Rock chart, like “Pretty Woman,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” and “When It’s Love.”

Van Halen’s contributions gained them an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. They remained active until 2020, following the death of founder and lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen.

19. Electric Light Orchestra

English musician Roy Wood wanted to take rock music in a classical direction, complete with violins and horns. He joined forces with Jeff Lynne to form Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) in that vein, and the band hit #1 in 1979 with “Shine a Little Love.” The formula was set.

Lynne wrote songs with lush harmonies and intricate instrumental arrangements, making ELO one of those bands that musicians cherish. Notable ones are “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Xanadu,” featuring Olivia Newton-John.

With some of the members wanting to pursue other personal interests, ELO split up in 1986. They played a few reunion gigs, but never officially came back together. Currently, it exists in the incarnation of Jeff Lynne’s ELO.

20. The Kinks

Another London rock band, the Kinks was created by Ray and Dave Davies in 1963. At the time, they were part of the British Invasion and became an international sensation with their single “You Really Got Me” in 1964.

Throughout the ’60s, the Kinks dropped a series of charting hits. None would be as successful as “You Really Got Me.” Still, they continued performing and releasing music until their separation in 1996.

The enduring works of the Kinks earned them a number of honors, including a Ivor Novello Award and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

21. Genesis

School friends Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Anthony Phillips, Mike Rutherford, and Chris Stewart came together in 1967 and created Genesis. Their sound—a blend of pop, psychedelia, and folk—has been the key to their success as a prog-pop band.

Their career has spanned several decades, with a few breaks in between, and has produced 15 studio albums, 10 of which ranked within the top 10 in the UK Albums Chart.

Though Genesis doesn’t have a #1 song on the UK charts, they have one in the US: “Invisible Touch,” the title track of their chart-topping, multi-Platinum 13th album, released in 1986.

Summing Up Our List Of Classic Pop Rock Bands

That concludes our list of the greatest classic pop rock bands. As you can tell, the influence of these iconic groups is long-reaching. With each of their unique blend of sounds, they helped evolve the pop rock genre to what we know and love today.

As mentioned, however, so many pop rock bands have emerged it is possible we may have missed a few. Who have we left out that should be on this list? Let us know, and we’ll add them for you!

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.