Here’s an odd little conversation starter from the office this week: Who is/was the greatest American Rock ‘n Roll band?
Before you answer, understand the masturbatory parameters of this debate:
Rule 1: Only U.S. groups
Thus, we eliminate the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the rest of the Brits who followed: Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Dire Straits, amongst others. You can argue about the order of this list, but it don’t matter — none can apply for the job.
Rule 2: Only bands, not solo artists
That eliminated Bruce Springsteen and a host of other rock stars. (I argued that the E Street Band counts as a band, but I eventually had to acknowledge that they are essentially a backing group).
The three qualifications for our list were: 1) Body of Work; 2) Influence; and 3) Live performance.
My colleague had narrowed his list down to 3 bands: The Eagles, Van Halen and the Beach Boys. I mostly disagreed. My choices were: Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doors, Steely Dan, Talking Heads and R.E.M. (And though they are not a choice of mine, I can also see how some people would put the Grateful Dead into the mix; The same thought applies to Nirvana, but even less so).
Here are my choices, and then my colleagues (which I mostly challenged):
My nominations for the Greatest American Rock and Roll Band are:
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Consistently one of the most underated bands in U.S. musical history. Hugely influential, tremendous body of work. Where as most Beach Boy songs sound somewhat dated, CCR still sounds fresh and relevant today. Listen to the songs Fortunate Son, Green River or Run through the Jungle. Any of these could be credibly performed by many popular bands today (at least the ones that have chops).
The biggest issue with choosing CCR is that John Fogarty, their singer/songwriter/guitarist has such a substantial body of solo work, its sometimes hard to separate the two. Its also true that CCR was essentially Fogarty, so perhaps they only quasi-qualify as a Band. Upon reflection, I will admit that CCR is specific to a certain era, and while some may find they are somewhat dated — I think they still rock the house.
Their body of work was abbreviated due to Jim Morrison’s untimely death. Had they gone the distance, or even just another 5 years, they would have been a lock for the top slot. Despite their relatively short run, they still made the short list. But as matter of choice, I base my list on actual performance, not unrealized potential. So put The Doors into the top 5, and move on.
Steely Dan: Precise musicianship and song writing, effortlessly crossing boundaries into pop and jazz. An enormous body of work, known for its depth as well as breadth. One of the great things about Dan is that you can grab any CD of theirs, and play it straight thru. There ain’t much in the way of filler here.
Criticisms: Not the most raucous live bands you’ve ever seen. Too cerebral for some, while others find their work cold or distant. I think they’re great, but then again I like Dread Zeppelin, which some find unlistenable . . .
Talking Heads: Here’s where we start to get religious. You either ‘got’ and loved the T. Heads in the ’80s, or you didn’t, in which case you were probably a disco loving jerk — but lets not start with the name calling so soon, ok?
The Heads were enormously influential on so many bands that followed them. Their layered soundscapes of rythm and percussion still resonate today. Although their earlier work sounds very much tied to the early era of punk (when listened to today), and their latter stylizings are, well, very stylized. “Little Creatures,” which was a fun album when released, comes across a bit corny today. But their middle work reveals a powerful and innovative band: “Fear of Music” and “Remain in Light” are masterpieces; “Speaking In Tongues” still sounds great. The marvelously stripped down “Stop Making Sense” foreshadowed MTV unplugged by nearly a decade.
I understand that the Heads were somewhat inaccessible; its rock and roll, but not what some people think of as pure rock (like CCR); if you think Steely Dan is cerebral, Eno and Byrne drove the Heads intellectually light years ahead of their time. Still, if you’re looking for collaborative American genius, this is it.
R.E.M.: I guess we saved the best for last. An incredibly rich and varied body of work. Groundbreaking; Revitalizing. Just as rock n roll was becoming irrelevant, R.E.M. snatched it back with avengeance. Beautifully constructed melodies and lyrics, driving guitars, a thoughtful presence throughout.
I can’t find much to dislike about this choice, except some of their lesser, later work; Also, not everyone appreciates the occasional mandolin. Some of the much later albums lack some of the original creative spark.
My colleague’s choices:
The Eagles: A fairly inspired choice which I might have overlooked. Over the course of more than 20 years, they have produced a widely appreciated catalogue of music covering a broad swath of styles, from country to rock. They have also adapted well to a few key line up changes.
Two strikes against them: First, I think of them as more influenced by other bands, rather than influencing others. One would hope that the greatest American Rock n Roll band was ‘inspirational.’
The other strike? I saw the Eagles live, and it was a yawner. Very boring to watch 5 motionless guys spread out across a stage. Hell, Tenacious D puts on a better show. If you can’t light it up live, than you simply cannot be named the “Greatest American Rock and Roll Band.” Period.
Van Halen: Now, here’s a band that certainly knows how to kick it live (“kick it with a tasty groove” as JB would say). They have an extensive catalogue, with many great songs.
Very little in the way of criticism of this choice, but here goes: Perhaps they are too well known for their covers, rather than their own work. Non hard core Van Halen fans know their versions of the Kinks “You Really Got Me” and Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” That cuts both ways, and while it kinda takes some of the blush off the rose for some, I don’t have a problem with it; but I do understand the argument that we would prefer the greatest band in the land to be best known for their own body of work. I would certainly choose VH over, say Aerosmith, because of the body of work. But they don’t strike me as THE seminal USA rock n roll band.
Random VH note: I saw them open for Black Sabbath in 1979, and they simply blew Ozzie and friends off the stage. Kick ass performance.
However, they are so narrowly genre specific — “Surf Music” — that its hard to call them fully representative of American Rock ‘n Roll. You can try making the same argument about Van Halen, but “Hard Rock” is so much broader of a genre than the narrow field the Beach Boys tilled. An interesting choice, but does not make the final cut. Let’s just call them top five, and leave it at that.
Got an opinion on music? Agree or disagreee with these choices? Let me know by submitting a comment below — I’ll waive my usual requirement and even allow anonymous postings . . .
Final thoughts: There are plenty of other bands one could include on this list, but most fail to make the final cut for a variety of reasons. CSNY were too narrow, Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have a large of body of work are also in the running.
All of the original comments are still up at the post at Essays & Effluvia
While we are talking about Music, be sure to check out the industry commentary: Music Sales Rise on Aggressive Discounting, Price Competition and an Improving Economy
The Guardian’s approach doesn’t use our framework –they allow solo acts, which of course changes the entire dynamic. Regardless, its a good read.
UPDATE II: December 24, 2005 11:07am
John Fogerty is back at Fantasy records, his old label. The new owners and Fogerty buried the hatchet, and he released “The Long Road Home: The Ultimate John Fogerty-Creedence Collection.”
Now, you can see the full catalogue of both CCR and Fogerty. Only problem is, it makes CCR look like a Fogerty backing band!
UPDATE III: January 6, 2013 11:07 am
The original post had 100s of comments — I have no idea how long I am going to keep the essays & effluvia blog, so if I can find a way to port those comments to this discussion I will. (It can be done manually but would take forever)