First, let us define the word 'epic': very imposing or impressive; surpassing the ordinary (especially in size or scale); "an epic voyage"; "of heroic proportions". So, an 'epic rock song' is one of imposing structure, one in which the proportions of the song are in size and scale greater than the average 2:30 minute rock tune. In particular, the compositions include movements with variations and coloration in the composition. An 'epic' rock song must have both a powerful and memorable hard rock chord structure and an equally stunning reflective and quiescent section -- it is not simply rattling off a blinding lead in the middle of an up-tempo rock tune.
I then went on to list several songs that illustrate those criteria, such as "Stairway to Heaven" (actually, several Zeppelin tunes), and described in detail those specific elements in Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" and Derek & The Dominos' "Layla". Other secondary considerations bantered about on the Internet would include song length (the arbitrary minimum time limit for an epic rock song seems to be 5 minutes, generally speaking, although I have found songs that are epic in nature with shorter recording times), "uniqueness" (although that is highly subjective - one listener's unique is another's garbage), and "emotionality" (but I could get teary-eyed at a 2 minute-long song).
Yet when one compiles all the relative terms synonymous with epic rock songs, grandness, legendary stature, monumental passages, etc., there is also a required narrative - a lyrical story or musical theme - that seems to be present in these songs that differentiates them from the run-of-the-mill rock tune. Loudness and length do not necessarily work as definors; on the contrary, often it is the varying time signatures and the chiaroscuro of dark and light in the compositions which separate them from the herd. But for all that, there is an indefinable quality (I guess 'uniqueness' does sort of scratch the surface) that is an exemplification of 'epic'.
With so many great epic songs to account for, I will offer a separate post-1980s 50 epic song article at a later date. Maybe sooner than later. I've already got a trove of tunes in mind.
- In the early 70s, this song was guaranteed to give your mother seizures, and have your father go off into a rant on "the decline of Western Civilization". I made to sure to play it extra loud. By the way, the band name is "Alice Cooper", and Vincent Furnier, the lead singer, had not yet legally changed his name to A.C. in 1972; hence, I use the first name of the band in alphabetizing this list, and not the surname as when listing a real person.
I Want You (She's so Heavy)
Abbey Road Medley
- "She's So Heavy" is indeed the heaviest song The Beatles ever attempted (besides "Helter Skelter", perhaps). The bottom is so deep in this composition, it's more like an abyss. The "Abbey Road Medley" is actually a series of short songs culled from The White Album and Let It Be recording sessions, and marks the brilliant ending to The Beatles' final album.
Hand of Doom
- Heroin addiction and insanity - what better topics for Sabbath to compose epics around? Megalomania was a particular favorite of mine in the 70s. The type of song one would put the speakers right up to one's ears as it was blaring. What was that again?
THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN
- At 2:54, the shortest song on the list, but "Fire" is a bit of musical mania from 1968 that is indeed epic. The guy is wearing a flaming helmet for Christ's sake! You can't get much more epic than that. Not to mention the frequent time signature changes, horn section, mesmerizing organ and a good deal of acid.
Child in Time
- I really prefer the Made in Japan version of this song, but couldn't find the proper one on YouTube (annoyingly, there are now more than one CD of the famous live album, featuring different dates of the same tour and different versions of songs than on the 1972 release). But whichever version, this is just a monstrous song. Love Ian Gillan's shrieks.
Sultans of Swing
- One of the greatest applications of fingerstyle picking in the rock genre. I also love Knopfler's "Industrial Disease", but I'll have to save that for a future article.
Riders on the Storm
- "There's a killer on the road/His brain is swirling like a toad"...how eerie and evocative (particularly if you've swirled a toad's brain with a pin prior to dissection in biology class). "Riders on the Storm" is dark and creepy, right down to the rain track that continues at intervals throughout the song.
- An epic story given ample musical coloration (Scarlet Rivera's mournful violin is perfect), Dylan chooses to fight for a specific cause (the acquittal of convicted murder Rubin "Hurricane" Carter), rather than his usual windmill tilting.
- An allegorical tale of excess in L.A., or as Don Henley put it, "It's a song about the dark underbelly of the American Dream". The dueling guitar outro between Don Felder and Joe Walsh is legendary.
ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA
Fire On High
- A primer on how to compose an epic rock instrumental. Backward masked message? Check. Acoustic interludes? Check. Strings? Check. Chorus of heavenly voices? Check. Snatches of Handel's Messiah? Check. Just add electric guitars and drums and you've passed Epic Balladeering 101.
- A traditional folk ballad from the 17th century (compiled in the 19th century by Francis Child, Ballad #81), made into a legendary epic by Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention. The fiery fiddling of David Swarbick and Richard Thompson's guitar picking during the instrumental grand finale is rousing and reeling.
Oh Well (studio uncut version)
- I have been waiting for someone to post the original version of "Oh Well" to YouTube. It is a brilliant composition by Peter Green that starts with a blistering acoustic/electric blues tune that segues into a beautifully rendered bit of Spaghetti-Western classicism. "The Chain", featuring John McVie's memorable bass line, is the height of Mac during the Stevie Nicks/Christine McVie period...era, I mean.
The Musical Box
Dancing with the Moonlit Knight
- So many epic Genesis tunes, so little space. "The Musical Box" is about a Victorian-era girl who beheads a boy with a mallet during a croquette game. The boy's ghost returns to his nursery via a musical box (which plays "Old King Cole"), and tries to seduce the girl, much to the nurse's dismay. And a good time was had by all. "Dancing with the Moonlit Night" has nothing to do with murderous croquette games, but it's a great song in any case.
In a Glass House
- A song that meanders from modern to medieval and from jazz to rock, with enough time signature changes to confuse even the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. I also love the ten-second medley of the whole album after the song ends (it's there, be patient).
- A head-bobber if ever there was one. The bass line, the strident drumbeat, the guitar, the horns - all epic for 1973. Weird thing about Golden Earring, they wouldn't have another hit until nearly ten years later, with the song "Twilight Zone" in 1982.
I'm Your Captain/Closer to Home
- Whether this Grand Funk tune is about the effects of drug addiction or merely a ballad of a sea captain losing his ship to a mutiny, it certainly is moving and in spots downright captivating.
Crazy on You
- "Crazy on You" is epic enough with Ann Wilson's titanic vocals, but her sister Nancy's superb classic guitar intro drives this song into the stratosphere. As Barry Fitzgerald would say, "Sure, 'tis Homeric."
All Along the Watchtower
- The sustained guitar note at the end of the song after a magnificent Hendrixian crescendo has always enthralled me. It goes on forever. Like I wish this song would. Hendrix's epic take on Dylan is by far the greatest cover ever done in rock music.
All American Alien Boy
- Backed by a stellar band including Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn and Aynsley Dunbar, Hunter delivered an immigration epic that managed to refer to every famous Indian in American history. He must've been reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Thick as a Brick
Baker St. Muse
- With Tull, of course, one could merely offer the entire Thick as a Brick album as an example of an 'epic' song. And it is, which is why I offer it in its entirety here. "Baker St. Muse" is another example of Ian Anderson's compositional skills, with sly lyrics, breakneck time changes, beautiful interludes and a rousing finish.
Lark's Tongue in Aspic, Part I
21st Century Schizoid Man
- The word "crimson' is an epic synonym for the mundane "red"; therefore, "King Crimson" is synonymous for epic in terms of rock. Yeah, well, I don't much care for metaphor either, but these two Crimson songs are mammoth and exemplary of the progressive movement away from simple three or four-chord rock songs standard at the time.
Babe I'm Gonna Leave You
In the Light
- "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" is a blueprint for all the Zeppelin epics to follow (all the ingredients are there if you listen closely), and "In the Light" from Physical Graffiti is a tour-de-force performance by unheralded and under appreciated John Paul Jones on synths and clavinet.
- Of course it's epic, the title is "God" for Christ's sake! But this is the song that officially ended The Beatles and Beatle worship, and sent Lennon on a long strange trip where he battled inner demons (and deportation), exiled himself from music, and then made a triumphal return, only to be murdered by a nutcase on the steps of The Dakota in NYC.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
- It's not about the Titanic on the Atlantic, but stories about sinking ships always have a sad and epic nature about them. This ship, the Edmund Fitzgerald, sank in a wicked gale in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. And fortunately, Gordon Lightfoot was moved enough by the story to write a tremendous ballad in honor of the good ship and crew.
Look at You, Look at Me
- Former Traffic member Dave Mason composed this solo magnum opus in 1970, and it still gives me goosebumps. It may sound like an old curmudgeon grumbling about a golden age of rock lost forever, but I merely point to a song like this and ask the question: Where in the last few decades has a performer recorded such a song?
THE MOODY BLUES
Nights in White Satin
- The epic grand finale to an epic progressive rock album, "Nights in White Satin" is one of the most moving and lovely rock ballads ever written. Add in the superb orchestration and the great poem "Late Lament", and there you have it. Epic, that is.
- This Van Morrison song spans so many demographic lines and has touched the lives of so many varied and usually apposite listeners that it is almost an anomaly in rock history. Van Morrison at the top of his artistic skills.
Us and Them
- With Pink Floyd, epic songs are second nature. A list of those I haven't mentioned yet, "Pigs", "Interstellar Overdrive", "A Saucerful of Secrets", "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", etc., could take up an entire article by themselves. But here are two supplements that will fill your recommended digital allowances for the Vitamin P.
- "Liar" is the first of many Queen epics and can be found on their criminally under appreciated debut album. "Brighton Rock" ranks with another demented Queen epic "Ogre Battle" as one of the craziest rock songs ever recorded. Brian May is righteous!
- Yes, yes, I know, Gerry Rafferty. What shall we do with Gerry Rafferty? Well, I couldn't help it - "Baker Street" is one of those infectious tunes that get stuck in your head, and the sax and guitar riffs are indeed epic; ergo, my one (and probably only) mention of Gerry Rafferty on this blog.
A Trip to the Fair
- What a grand composition. Brilliant piano intro, ethereal vocals by Annie Haslem - and a carnivalesque atmosphere with jazz overtones. Not your usual rock exposition, but we aren't looking for the ordinary on this list.
La Villa Strangiato
- I like this epic Rush composition best of all. Because Geddy Lee doesn't sing.
Singing Winds, Crying Beasts/Black Magic Woman - Gypsy Queen
- Atmospheric, sinewy and sensuous, this is everything-Santana-and-the-kitchen-sink, complete with a great cover of Peter Green's blues tune "Black Magic Woman" and a full-blown latinized Hendrix outro.
Crime of the Century
- One of my favorite concert bands of the 70s and early 80s. Mind-blowing show. The piano-driven sequence starting at approximately 2:13 that keeps building and building, layer upon layer, is what, to me, defines an epic presentation.
Bridge of Sighs
- A truly transcendent bit of progressive blues from Trower. Everything from the majestic guitar riffs to the phased bells is awesome and definitely not of this world. The title "Bridge of Sighs" was inspired by the Ponte dei Sospiri bridge in Venice, were condemned prisoners would walk to their place of execution and glimpse one last vista of freedom. Hence, the sigh.
- Bludgeoned to death by an epic. Beaten black and blue by a ballad. Slapped silly by a song. Uriah Heep were never one for a nuanced, subtle performance. The title of the album is Very 'eavy...Very 'umble, which defines the band to a tee. Great turn on the Hammond organ by Ken Hensley. Hensley and Jon Lord of Deep Purple were the best on the Hammond.
Love Reign O'er Me
- The greatest song on one of the greatest concept albums ever, Quadrophenia. Pete Townshend's composition and arrangement is entirely majestic, and Roger Daltrey's powerful vocals set the stage for not merely a song but an overwhelming event everytime one hears it.
And You and I
Close to the Edge, Part I
Close to the Edge, Part II
- Two compositions that make up almost the entire Close to the Edge album, itself one of the most epic rock albums of all time, and one of the top five progressive albums in my book. Or blog, as it were.
Cowgirl in the Sand
- I could have easily added "Like a Hurricane" or "Down by the River" to this list of epic Neil Young compositions, but "Cowgirl in the Sand" is Neil's longest piece, and I really love the guitar distortion on Young's extended leads.
The Gumbo Variations, Part I
The Gumbo Variations, Part II
- Uncle Frank may have done himself a disservice by being so bitingly sarcastic and at times downright silly (not to mention hilarious), because he was one of the greatest musicians and composers of the 20th century. Underlying the nonsensical lyrics of "Montana" is a monumental song, and Zappa set the music world on its ear by releasing the album Hot Rats in 1969. Listen to "The Gumbo Variations" and hear the seminal beginnings of jazz fusion, progressive rock and even metal. The solos by violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris and saxophonist Ian Underwood are amazing and totally out of context for a 1969 release.
P.S. Even immersed as I've been with an innundation of epics, I had completely forgotten several songs worthy of making the list. For instance, there's the great jam by Blackfoot Highway Song, which follows the noble tradition of Southern rock epics like "Whipping Post", "Freebird" and "Green Grass and High Tides".