The best rock songs of all time

September 9, 2011
Don McLean's "American Pie" is a rock-and-roll icon.

Over the Labor Day weekend, I listened to the top 500 rock hits of all time on radio station Cool 101.3 in Milford. Although I didn’t hear all the songs on the list, I heard enough to bring back some great memories – and I missed the top three.

Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" were in the top five on the Cool 101.3 list. Other lists have "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin's "Respect," Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" among the top five.

I was fortunate to have been a teenager during the best years of rock and roll in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Super groups and singers like Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Elton John, Chicago, Rolling Stones, Beatles, The Who, Moody Blues, Credence Clearwater Revival,  Bob Dylan, Eagles, America, Jimi Hendrix, Supremes, The Guess Who, Yes, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Cream, Stevie Wonder, Simon and Garfunkel, Temptations, Carole King and James Taylor were popular during that time period. Remember that the greatest event in rock-and-roll history took place right in the middle of this era – Woodstock was in 1969.

At the top of my list are Chicago, Elton John and the Doors, but I couldn’t begin to compile a list of my favorite top 10 songs. On the list would be  “Beginnings” by Chicago, “Your Song” by Elton John and “Touch Me” by the Doors. I’ve always been partial to “American Woman” by The Guess Who and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" as well.

Rock and roll started going downhill in the late 1970s, and no matter what my younger colleagues and friends say, rock has never been the same. I think that’s why so many of the older bands have been able to hang on for so long.

Of the rock songs on my top 10 list, there is one that intrigues me the most. When “American Pie” came out in 1971-72, it was a super hit for Don McLean, who up to that point was an obscure singer/songwriter.

As a high school student I wrote a paper on the meaning of the lyrics without the help of the internet of course.

What makes the song so interesting is that every line of the 8:33 song is filled with symbolism relating to rock and roll, the 1960s, religion and McLean’s life.  To the best of my knowledge, McLean has refused to interpret the lyrics saying he would rather the listener draw his or her own conclusions. The only comment he has made is that the song is a tribute to his childhood hero, Buddy Holly, who died Feb. 3, 1959, along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Booper in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. That's "the day the music died."

There are references to Bob Dylan (the Jester), the Beatles (lots of them), Janis Joplin, Woodstock (“We were all gathered in one place…”), Charles Manson (Helter Skelter), James Dean, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Pete Seger and Joan Baez.

One of the biggest mysteries is what the song’s title means. According to several websites I read, American Pie is a symbol of the American dream. Also, McLean was reportedly dating a Miss America contestant when he wrote the song.

Although all of the symbolism is open to interpretation, most agree on one thing: the name of the plane involved in the crash killing Buddy Holly was not American Pie. But then again, maybe it was.


Go to to find out more than you would ever want to know about American Pie.

  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

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