As a guitar instructor at Long & McQuade, I have taught countless students (beginners to advanced) how to play or improve their chops.
Classic rock radio stations are filled with familiar bands. Unless you have lived under a rock for the last 50 years, you have know doubt heard of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Pink Floyd, etc. The airwaves are inundated with these groups. What’s worse is that the radio stations always seem to play the same songs. How many times have you heard "Stairway To Heaven,"
"Freebird," or "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction?"
What I have attempted to do here is shed some light on lesser-known classic rock bands. Many of these bands played a big role in my life as a teenager. I remember thinking that I was so much cooler than everyone else, because I was a fan of many of these groups. I still own original vinyls of some of the albums mentioned here. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed putting it together. These classic rock bands never made it into the mainstream, but do yourself a favour and check them out. You won’t be disappointed.
Lesser Known Classic Rock Bands
- Bubble Puppy
- Country Joe And The Fish
- Kensington Market
- Big Star
- Spooky Tooth
- Humble Pie
- Moby Grape
- Flo & Eddie
- Wishbone Ash
1. Bubble Puppy
Here’s the story. I played a benefit concert one weekend in northern Ontario, Canada. I was sitting next to our bass player on the bus, telling him about this blog I am writing. He asked me “have you ever heard of Bubble Puppy?” Bubble Puppy? There was a band named Bubble Puppy? I thought he was joking. He said they had a hit song called "Hot Smoke and Sassafras." I told him I don’t remember the song. I googled the tune the next day. Oh man, I have heard this song many times. I had no idea the band’s name was Bubble Puppy. I am still chuckling over the name, but when I think about it, it’s no worse than The Electric Prunes or even The Monkees.
Bubble Puppy fit into the category of "one hit wonders." Hot Smoke and Sassafras made it to number 14 on Billboard’s top 100 and number 15 on the Canadian charts.
The band formed in Texas in 1966. Looking to put together a dual lead guitar powerhouse, Rod Prince and Todd Potter (both handling lead guitar and vocal duties) recruited drummer David Fore and bassist Roy Cox. The twin lead guitar concept was copied by many bands, including Wishbone Ash (see number ten).
In 1969, they released their first album, A Gathering of Promises, which included the aforementioned "Hot Smoke and Sassafras." Despite the enormous success of the song, the band parted ways in 1970. They tried to continue under a different name (to avoid contractual disputes and the fact that the name Bubble Puppy linked them with "bubblegum music") and record label, but split again in 1972.
They still perform today at reunion and tribute shows.
2. Country Joe and the Fish
Country Joe McDonald is best known for his unscheduled solo performance at Woodstock. The cheer that preceded his anti-war anthem, "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag," was a high (pardon the pun) point of the festival. The lyrics, "Give me an F, give me a U, give me a C, give me a K, whatta ya got, whatta ya got," caused 400,000 people to yell the F word at the same time. Hilarious! The cheer and the song made it to the movie’s final cut.
Most of the Fish’s material dealt with drug use, free love, and anti-war protests. They formed in 1965 in California and quickly became a mainstay on the San Francisco scene. With their popularity and innovative music in the acid rock genre, the band achieved some success, but it was nothing compared to the attention received by bands such as The Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, etc. Their debut album, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, spawned the minor hit single "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine."
Their quirky mix of country, folk, rock and blues earned them spots at the two major festivals of the day, Woodstock and The Monterey Pop Festival. They had a killer guitar (Barry Melton) and organ (David Bennett Cohen) combination driving the sound. Along with McDonald’s nasally, country-twang voice, the band pulled in a small cult following.
They called it quits in 1970, after many personnel changes.
3. Kensington Market
This is the only Canadian based band in this list. I saw this group play live a number of times. One show I will never forget was at the Rockpile in Toronto. I can still picture vocalist Luke Gibson snaking around the stage like Jim Morrison dressed in a white shirt and black leather pants. I was surprised to find out years later that the man is very introverted offstage. He did not appear to be when he was up there. Far from it. One of the things I love about performing, you can be anyone you want to be, an entirely different persona. It's like acting!
Kensington Market’s original members included guitarist/vocalist Keith McKie, drummer Jimmy Watson, bassist Alex Darou, and keyboardist Eugene (Gene) Martynec. Luke Gibson and John Mills-Cockell (on synthesizer) joined later on. Gene Martynec attended the same Toronto high school that I did (Runnymede Collegiate Institute).
The band released Avenue Road in 1968. The album spawned the Canadian hit "I Would Be the One," an over-produced, mariachi-flavored rock tune (reminiscent of "Love’s Alone Again"), complete with a horn section and a minor scale based guitar solo. The album was produced by Felix Pappalardi and was not well received in the U.S., due in part to the title. Warner Brothers did not like the ambiguity of the words "avenue" and "road" (not knowing that it is the actual name of a street in downtown Toronto).
In 1969, they released Aardvark. The record contained "Help Me," written by Gene Martynec and Pappalardi. It's a dynamite pop rock song with a prominent guitar riff that is next to impossible to find online.
The band split up that same year. Alex Darou, a troubled soul who found little to do after the break up, took his own life. Their drummer, Jimmy Watson, suffered a breakdown (the beginnings of which were noticeable at the Rockpile show).
Keith McKie, Luke Gibson, and Gene Martynec still perform today as Kensington Market and various other musical projects, most notably, the collaboration of Mike McKenna (an original member of Luke And The Apostles) and Luke Gibson.
4. Big Star
Thanks to the well-made documentary that chronicles their career, these guys are more famous now than they were in their day. Even I, a music trivia hound, had no idea who they were until I saw the movie. I had never even heard the name before. They're kind of like the Searching for Sugar Man of rock bands. They had the looks and talent to be huge, but it never happened.
Founding member, the late Alex Chilton, had achieved enormous success as front man for the band The Box Tops. Their hit song, "The Letter," was a monster hit that was later covered by Joe Cocker. Chilton formed the band with guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell. Bell was killed in a car accident at the age of 27.
The band released their first album, #1 Record, in 1972. The record contained the acoustic guitar driven song "Thirteen," a tune that ranked fairly high on the Rolling Stone’s top 500 charts. The album was doomed from the start, due to lousy marketing and small distribution by their label Stax Records. The members became even more disillusioned after the second and third records received the same treatment from Columbia Records (who had bought out Stax). Even though the albums received critical success, the labels refused to believe in Big Star. The band broke up in 1974.
It wasn’t until more famous musicians, most notably REM, started to site Big Star as an influence, that new interest in the band grew. Hence, the documentary.
The only living member from the original lineup is drummer Jody Stephens. Alex Chilton died of heart problems and bassist Andy Hummel died of cancer (both in 2010).
5. Spooky Tooth
This band is a bit of a mystery to many. Even though they achieved success among their critics and their peers, the band never broke into the mainstream market. They toured the London club circuit, signed a record deal with Island records, but continued to bubble under throughout their career.
The band was unusual because they had a twin keyboard attack, as opposed to the normal two or three guitar assault that was so popular at the time. One of the founding members, keyboardist Gary Wright, hit it big as a solo artist with the tune "Dream Weaver," a monster song that catapulted him into the spotlight.
In 1969, they released the album Spooky Two. This would prove to be the last record by the original lineup. It included their best-known tune, "Better By You, Better Than Me," a blues based rock song with an infectious guitar riff that was covered by Judas Priest in 1978.
Despite having very talented members, and an unusual configuration, they split up in 1970. Members of the band, aside from Gary Wright, moved on to bigger, better known acts. Bassist Greg Ridley joined Humble Pie (see below). Guitarist/vocalist Luke Grosvenor moved on to record "Stuck in the Middle With You" with Stealers Wheel and "All the Young Dudes" with Mott The Hoople.
6. Humble Pie
These guys were a powerhouse. Arguably, the most popular of all of these bands. When I played in the band Sun, we covered many of their tunes, including the showstopper "I Don’t Need No Doctor." I remember our singer used to slowly walk back to the drum riser during the breakdown section (the part in the song when the music stops). He would climb onto the riser, and when the drummer wacked his snare and I slid down the guitar neck into the riff to restart the song, he would leap off the platform and grab the mic. The crowd would go into a frenzy, much the way you can hear them on the Pie’s live recording Rockin’ The Fillmore. I still get goosebumps when I think of this. Very cool!
There was major talent in this band. The late Steve Marriott was a standout. Small in stature with a huge sound, his voice was incredibly strong and soulful. His grit could be felt in the Small Faces offering "Itchycoo Park" (1967). Drawing much of his inspiration from artists like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, he was a singer’s singer. Many of his peers from the day still site him as the best to come along.
The original lineup included Peter Frampton on guitar (pictured above). Frampton achieved recognition in a little-known band called The Herd. He became known more for his looks than his talent, a stigma he tried desperately to downplay. He wanted to be known as a guitar player more than anything else. His lead guitar lines in Humble Pie didn’t quite match the driving rock-metal they were producing. He weaved in and out of more complex scales, much to the chagrin of Marriott. After a few albums, Frampton left the band to pursue a solo career. His studio recordings achieved little success. All of that changed when his record company released Frampton Comes Alive. All of a sudden, many of the previously released studio versions became huge hits. The album sold millions and was the bestselling album of 1976, surpassing Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled masterpiece.
Marriott and Humble Pie went on to produce other huge songs (including "30 Days in the Hole" and "Hot ‘n’ Nasty") with their new guitarist, Dave "Clem" Clempson. Adhering to more of a blues-rock style than his predecessor, Marriot said that Clempson’s guitar playing was the kick in the ass that the band needed. The Pie was rounded out by drummer Jerry Shirley and Spooky Tooth's bassist Greg Ridley.
7. Moby Grape
Plagued by bad luck and poor decisions, Moby Grape started life as a group with a very promising future, only to end up losing everything.
Rife with talent, the band featured three guitarists, all of them playing lead and rhythm. They even have a form of call and response (a musical term associated with one instrument playing a line that's answered by another player) called "crosstalk." Every member sang lead and harmony, as well as contributing original compositions.
Their debut album Moby Grape ranked high on Rolling Stone's list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. "Omaha" and "Hey Grandma" stand out as two of the best guitar driven tunes to come out of the sixties.
So, what happened? In a desperate attempt to capitalize on the San Francisco sound (made popular by bands like Buffalo Springfield and Jefferson Airplane), Columbia Records decided to release five songs as singles off the album Moby Grape. A disastrous move on their part, that confused the record buying public and labeled the band as overhyped in an era when that was considered not cool. The band performed at the infamous Monterey Pop Festival, but never made it to the film version due to legal disputes with their former manager, Matthew Katz. The battle with Katz went on for years. He had a provision written up in the original contract whereby he retained ownership of the group’s name.
Then, in 1968, just one year after the release of Moby Grape, founding member Skip Spence was forced out of the band due to drug abuse and increasingly strange behavior. The band continued on without Spence, only to have the other key member, Bob Mosley, leave the band in 1969.
The band tried to soldier on with new members, but the soul of the group was gone. In 2006, after decades of court battles, the band finally won back their name.
What can I say about Love? In my late teens, their music was extremely important to me. It ripped me apart and helped me heal. It got me through a lot of the angst that teenagers face. They made me feel cool to be a fan, like I had one up on most people.
The band was led by singer/songwriter Arthur Lee, who along with guitarist/vocalist Bryan Maclean (both deceased) composed a body of work that was quirky (to say the least). They had a way of creating unusual scenarios with their words. Sometimes funny, often serious, their songs dealt with politics, drug use, class divisions, and, occasionally, just nonsense.
Their third album, Forever Changes (released in 1967), is considered by many to be the pinnacle of their work. With titles like "The Good Humor Man, He Sees Everything Like This," "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale," or the esoteric lyrics in "Live and Let Live" ("Oh the snot has caked against my pants. It has turned into crystal"), the songs touched on many subjects relevant to the times. The acoustic masterpiece "Alone Again or," penned by Bryan MacLean, was covered by a number of artists, including the punk rock band The Damned in 1987. The song had a mariachi flavor to it, complete with strings and a horn section.
9. Flo & Eddie
Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman made the decision after the breakup of their top forty group The Turtles (of which they are the founding members), to make a mockery of the success they achieved. They joined Frank Zappa’s notorious Mothers of Invention as Phlorescent Flo (Volman) & Eddie (Kaylan). Zappa allowed them to break into the song "Happy Together" at various points in his elaborate compositions. The effect was hilarious.
The whole Flo & Eddie concept was based on comedy, complete with outrageous costumes and silly lyrics, as evidenced in the live recording of "Cheap" in 1978.
Returning to their roots, Kaylan and Volman are still touring as The Turtles Featuring Flo & Eddie. Having spent years making fun of their pop, bubblegum fame, they are now capitalizing on the nostalgia circuit, doing shows with Mark Lindsay (Paul Revere and The Raiders), The Association, The Grass Roots, etc.
10. Wishbone Ash
Years ago, I was playing in an arena rock band called Sun. We lived on a farm together and toured Ontario, Canada in a purple school bus (think Partridge family). The band consisted of a lead singer, drummer, two guitarists, and a bassist. We were rock stars on a small scale. It was one of the best experiences of my musical career.
In those days, there was really only two brands of decently made guitars: Fender and Gibson. I owned a Fender Telecaster and the other member played a Gibson SG. Our twin guitar attack was much like that of Wishbone Ash, two entirely different tones and playing styles.
When we found out that they were playing in Toronto, we ordered tickets and went as a band to check them out. The venue was Massey Hall. Flo & Eddie (see number nine) opened the show.
It was a great concert, but what I remember the most is looking at the decibel counter located on the wall near our seats and thinking we are all going to suffer here.
Wishbone Ash relied heavily on the guitar work of Andy Powell and Ted Turner. Both were very melodic in their approach, with Powell taking on the more up-tempo parts (most of the solo work) while Turner handled the slower, softer passages, often in the same song. The majority of the compositions had a medieval tone. Titles like "Warrior" and "The King Will Come" were merely vehicles to showcase the talents of these two powerhouses. Many of the lyrics seem pretentious and laughable now, bearing a strong resemblance to Spinal Tap.
Having gone through many lineup changes (Andy Powell is the only original member), the band is still touring today.
John on March 26, 2020:
Mike on March 21, 2020:
Lesser known rock bands(even "classic rock")should not be relegated only to the late sixties and early seventies like this list. All the decades from the 60's on have had underrated bands and albums.
Lorne Hemmerling (author) from Oshawa on July 02, 2016:
Thanks so much for the kind words Kaili. You can never get enough Love, one of my all time favourite bands.
Kaili Bisson from Canada on July 01, 2016:
Fabulous hub! I too had to listen to the song to recall Bubble Puppy, but Big Star is a name I have never tripped across.
Thank you for the trip down memory lane...Massey Hall! Now I have to go dig out my Love albums.
Happy Canada Day!