“In the ’70s … that’s the era when that was kind of perfected, the whole idea of Arena Rock. In the arena back then you were a little, tiny thing on stage making a great big noise. What really mattered was that sound you were making.”
– Lawrence Gowan of Styx
- “Too Much Time on My Hands” by Styx
“Too Much Time” was written and sung by Tommy Shaw. The song, from the Paradise Theatre LP, was a Top 10 hit for Styx in 1981. Shaw based the lyrics on a local bar he frequented in Niles, Michigan. “I think officially it was called Mark’s Tavern, but everybody called it Mark’s Bar,” Shaw told Styxworld. “It was the local watering hole. The drinks were good, and the drinks were cheap. You could go in there with 20 bucks and be a hero, you know — buying rounds of drinks. And you’d always run into somebody you knew in there. That was the basis of the song. It’s one of my favorite kind of songs. It had written itself before I got to it.”
The rest of the song came to Shaw while driving to a rehearsal. “As I got closer to where the exit was, I started to hear this ‘dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun-dun-dun.’ I heard that in my head. I heard the whole first verse. It was like the whole song was playing in my head. I didn’t have anything to record it on and I was driving, but I was getting near the parking lot as it was all coming to me.
“And it just unfolded. It was like it came in a package. We took it out and assembled it, and there it is.”
- “Feel Like Makin’ Love” by Bad Company
Paul Rodgers began to write “Feel Like Makin’ Love” in 1969 as a member of Free while the band camped out at a hippie commune outside San Francisco. “I think that opening line is interesting in its simplicity,” he says. “‘Baby, when I think about you, I think about love’ says a lot in a few words, and that’s what I always aim for,” Rodgers told Classic Rock. “It’s easy to write a song, but it’s hard to write something that’s poignant; that makes the point quickly and means a lot to a lot of people. I’ve always written tender lyrics as well as tough rock songs.”
Free never recorded “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” It wasn’t until the recording of Bad Company’s second album, Straight Shooter, that Rodgers introduced the song to guitarist Mick Ralphs. “I played it to Mick,” said Rodgers, “and I knew it still needed something. So he threw in that big chord in the chorus and I said: ‘Yeah! That’s it.’ It’s an example of how you can have an idea floating around that you haven’t finished, then you’re with the right musician at the right time and it just takes off.”
- “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister
Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider wrote 1980’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the band’s biggest hit. “I wanted to write an anthem,” Snider told NPR. “I’m from the Alice Cooper school of ‘School’s Out,’ ‘I’m Eighteen,’ you know? And Alice was very big on these anthemic songs. So I wanted to write an anthem for the audience to raise their fists in the air in righteous anger.”
Snider made the song’s message clear in an interview with antiMusic. “Stand the fuck up. Make your voice heard. Let people know what you feel. Don’t accept what they tell you. Don’t accept what they want you to do. If you don’t agree, let them know you don’t agree. I am one of those people, as forthright and as out front as I seem to be, I have to push myself to be that way. I have to make myself to be that way because I don’t think we want to be constantly fighting. The average person says, ‘Can’t we just work this out?’ We’re just kind of laid back a little bit, but we shouldn’t be. We must be vigilant.”
- “Roundabout” by Yes
The seeds of “Roundabout” were planted in 1971 when Yes was travelling from Aberdeen to Glasgow in Scotland and encountered dozens of roundabouts, or traffic circles. The lakes and mountains they passed were incorporated into the lyrics. Singer Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe wrote the song that would become reach No. 13 on the Billboard chart in 1972.
“Jon and I were in a hotel room up in Scotland when we started writing that song,” Howe told Guitar World. “Jon and I were in this hotel room, kind of going, ‘Well, what have you got that’s a bit like this?’
“With ‘Roundabout,’ we had all these bits of music, tentative moments. I was big on intros back then, and the classical guitar intro I came up with for ‘Roundabout’ was really one of the most signature things . . . Basically the song just kept developing. Jon and I presented as much as we had to the band, and the band did a fair amount of input and arrangement.”
- “Lights” by Journey
“Lights,” released in 1978, was never a big chart hit but the ode to San Francisco remains one of Journey‘s most popular tunes. Steve Perry explained on Off the Record that originally “Lights” was about Los Angeles. Perry began to write the song before he joined Journey.
“It was ‘When the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on LA.’ I didn’t like the way it sounded at the time. And so I just had it sitting back in the corner. Then life changed my plans once again, and I was now facing joining Journey. I love San Francisco, the bay, and the whole thing. ‘The bay’ fit so nice, ‘When the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on the bay.’ It was one of those early-morning-going-across-the-bridge things, when the sun was coming up and the lights were going down. It was perfect.”
Co-writer Neal Schon contributed to the track. “Perry was over, and we were sittin’ down in the beanbags in the music room, and he started singin’ me these melodies that he had, for ‘Lights,'” Schon told GQ. “And I just started putting the stumble to it, felt like it was gonna be a stumble, and tried to give it some Hendrix-y type chords, to make it sound cool, and then I added a bridge to that, for a guitar solo, and that one was done, in about ten minutes.”
- “Love Is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar
Pat Benatar‘s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is one of the great arena rockers. Another is her 1983 hit “Love Is a Battlefield,” written by Holly Knight and Mike Chapman as a touchy-feely ballad. “The first day I moved out to California, I went over to Chapman’s place to write and the phone rang,” Knight recalled in Rediscover the 80s. “Pat Benatar called Mike and asked, ‘Can you write me a hit? I’m doing a live record and I need a hit to promote and sell the record.’ The record ended up being Live From Earth. Mike had worked with her already on her first record, so he told her, ‘I have a writer I signed and we were planning to write today, so we’ll write for you.’ And that day we wrote most of ‘Love Is a Battlefield.’ Talk about catching lightning in a bottle!”
But Benatar’s husband, guitarist Neil Giraldo, had other plans. “When I’m creating anything, I usually try to completely mess it up and rebuild it again,” Giraldo told Smashing Interviews. “That song was a very slow, melancholy ballad. It almost put me to sleep. As soon as I heard it, I said, ‘Nah. It should be real fast. I want it to sound like Bo Diddley.'”
The track, which was a studio recording, was a No. 5 hit in 1983. “Well, everyone including Pat knows we initially hated their recording,” said Knight. “I loved her vocals, I just didn’t love the production of the track which was a lot more frantic than the demo. But I’ve had many years to adjust and I’ve learned to love it . . . since it’s probably my most iconic tune.”
- “The Logical Song” by Supertramp
Supertramp‘s 1979 LP Breakfast in America featured its memorable title track and “The Logical Song,” the band’s biggest hit. The song, an indictment of the UK’s education system, was primarily written by Roger Hodgson. “Early adulthood can be a very confusing time,” Hodgson explained in Classic Rock Revisited. “You learn all of these things in school and then you are thrown out into the world and you’re expected to have all of the answers. I didn’t have any of the answers. I certainly hadn’t found the answers to the deeper questions in school.
“The song was very autobiographical. I knew how to be sensible, logical and cynical but I didn’t have a clue who I was. To me, that is the life journey we are on: to find out who we are and what life is. They don’t teach you that in school.
“I wanted to know where true happiness lay. I wanted to know who or what God was because it didn’t make any sense. The God they taught me was not working. I knew there had to be an inward connection as that is where everything was pointing. It was a connection that was severely lacking in me and I was longing for it.”
- “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen
Despite years of popularity, Bruce Springsteen‘s first big chart hit was 1980’s “Hungry Heart” from The River. Backing vocals were performed by Marc Volman and Howard Kaylan of the Turtles, who later became Flo and Eddie.
Springsteen told Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show that he first wrote “Hungry Heart” for the Ramones. “I saw the Ramones in Asbury Park and we were talking for a while and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to write the Ramones a song.’ So I went home and I sat at my table and I wrote it in about the time it took me to sing it. I brought it in and we went to make a demo for it or I played it for [Johnny Ramone], and he said, ‘Nah, you better keep that one.’ He was right about that. It did pretty well.”
- “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger
“Sister Christian” was written and sung by Night Ranger drummer Kelly Keagy. The 1984 anthem would become Night Ranger’s biggest hit. Keagy wrote the song after visiting his kid sister Christy in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon. “Our audience still loves that song, and we’re very fortunate that people grabbed onto that,” Keagy told Eon Music. “It’s kind of interesting, because it was a song written about my sister just growing up. It just happened to be about her.
“It was a brother giving some advice to his sister. It was, ‘Be careful about the world,’ just keep your eye on things and you’ll be okay. It was like, take care and don’t do anything too quickly. Understand that the world can be rough.”
But how did the song become “Sister Christian”? Keagy told SFGate that guitarist Jack Blades misunderstood his original lyrics. “After we started playing it a lot, Jack turned to me and said, ‘What exactly are you saying?’ He thought the words were ‘Sister Christian,’ instead of ‘Sister Christy,’ so it just stuck.”
- “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
The handclaps featured on Queen‘s “We Will Rock You” make it a natural to rev up an arena crowd. Another is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the multi-section classic written by Freddie Mercury that was a Top 10 hit in 1976. “It was really Freddie’s baby from the beginning,” guitarist Brian May recalled in Performing Songwriter. “He came in and knew exactly what he wanted. The backing track was done with just piano, bass and drums, with a few spaces for other things to go in . . . Freddie sang a guide vocal at the time, but he had all his harmonies written out, and it was really just a question of doing it.”
The song, recorded on 24-track tape, required 160 tracks of vocal overdubs before it was complete. “We ran the tape through so many times it kept wearing out,” said May. “Once we held the tape up to the light and we could see straight through it, the music had practically vanished. Every time Fred decided to add a few more”Galileo’s” we lost something, too.”
- “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” by AC/DC
AC/DC‘s “Dirty Deeds” is the tale of a hit man who offers low-cost criminal acts using concrete shoes, cyanide, and TNT. The 1976 song by the Australian rockers was written by band mates Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Bon Scott. The song’s title was inspired by the popular ’60s cartoon show Beany and Cecil. The bad guy on the show was Dishonest John, whose business card read, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Holidays, Sundays and Special Rates.”
“We signed the record deal to go over to England and just as we’d completed the tour, they told us we had to do another album,” said Malcolm Young in Classic Rock. “All we did was go straight into the studio after doing the night’s gig and knock up some new ideas.
“It was Angus that came up with the song title “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” It was based on a cartoon character that had the phrase as his calling card. Then Bon stuck in the line ‘I’m dirty, mean, mighty unclean‘ from an advert for mosquito spray that was running on Aussie TV at the time.”
This list, of course, barely scratches the surface — if you have any glaring omissions to share, sound off in the comments below.