Since its creation by groundbreaking artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard in the 1950s, rock 'n' roll has thrived on a particular set of basic tenements: Be loud, be fierce, and be unapologetic.
From the ragtime-influenced rock hits of the mid-20th century to subsequent genres including punk, metal, grunge, and alternative, rock has a long-held reputation for being more bold and brash than sensitive and thoughtful. However, this generalization unfairly squeezes an unfathomably vast musical expanse into a cramped corner —and rock 'n' roll is nothing if not uncontainable.
Despite the facade of “toughness” reinforced by the amplified guitars, driving bass, booming drums, and powerhouse vocals, there are often surprisingly touching lyrics hidden amid the noise.
From deeply personal subjects such as grief, addiction, and heartbreak to all-encompassing topics such as religion, war, government, and society, rock 'n' roll doesn’t just trudge its way through the human experience. Rather, it stands confidently on the front lines, using its trademark power and aggression as a means to dismantle the status quo, embolden its listeners, and provide emotional catharsis.
Don’t let the ripping guitar solos fool you — there are fathoms of emotional depth to plunge within classic rock, including these surprisingly moving lyrics from rock songs of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
And if you listen very hard / The tune will come to you at last / When all are one, and one is all / To be a rock and not to roll.“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin, 1971
You run, and you run / To catch up with the sun / But it’s sinking / Racing around to come up behind you again / The sun is the same in a relative way / But you’re older / Shorter of breath.“Time,” Pink Floyd, 1973
Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals / I get my back into my living / I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right / I don’t need to be forgiven.“Baba O’Riley,” The Who, 1971
It’s a high time to fight when the walls are closing in / A-call it what you like, it’s time you got to win / Lonely, lonely, lonely, your spirit’s sinking down / You find you’re not the only stranger in this town.“Lonely is the Night,” Billy Squier, 1981
Yeah, darlin’, go and make it happen / Take the world in a love embrace / Fire all of your guns at once / And explode into space.“Born to Be Wild,” Steppenwolf, 1968
Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven? / Would you be the same if I saw you in heaven? / I must be strong and carry on / ‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.“Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton, 1992
Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’ / Our very streets today / Burns like a red-coal carpet / Mad bull lost your way / War, children / It’s just a shot away.“Gimme Shelter,” The Rolling Stones, 1969
Time will tell on their power minds / Making war just for fun / Treating people just like pawns in chess.“War Pigs,” Black Sabbath, 1970
I know that you can love me / When there’s no one left to blame / So, never mind the darkness / We still can find a way / ‘Cause nothin’ lasts forever / Even cold November rain.“November Rain,” Guns N' Roses, 1991
Masquerading as a man with a reason / My charade is the event of the season / And if I claim to be a wise man, well / It surely means that I don’t know.“Carry On Wayward Son,” Kansas, 1976
Someday, love will find you / Break those chains that bind you / One night will remind you / How we touched and went our separate ways.“Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” Journey, 1983
Oh, mirror in the sky / What is love? / Can the child within my heart rise above? / Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? / Can I handle the seasons of my life?“Landslide,” Fleetwood Mac, 1975
I never give you my pillow / I only send you my invitations / And in the middle of the celebrations / I break down / Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight / Carry that weight a long time.“Carry That Weight,” The Beatles, 1969
Every time that I look in the mirror / All these lines on my face getting clearer/ The past is gone / It went by like dusk to dawn / Isn’t that the way? / Everybody’s got their dues in life to pay.“Dream On,” Aerosmith, 1973
We are young / Heartache to heartache / We stand / No promises, no demands / Love is a battlefield.“Love Is a Battlefield,” Pat Benatar, 1983
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