Sunday, December 21, 2003

Greatest American Rock and Roll Band?

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).

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.

The Doors:   You have to include The Doors in this list. They were a quintessential late 60's/early 70's band. Their first album makes all kinds of lists: Best albums of the '60s, best debut album.


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 religous. 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 (wen 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.

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.


Murmur, Life's Rich Pageant, Document and Reckoning are a murder's row of releases.

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 fo 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.


Beach Boys:  There's no doubt that the Beach Boys were very influential. "Pet Sounds" is widely credited with influencing the Beatles to do a concept album of their own: Sgt. Peppers.


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.


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

UPDATE:  March 14, 2004  9:07am
Just came across this September 2003 UK Guardian Unlimited article, "The 40 greatest US bands today" (part I and part II)

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 Fogertybacking band!

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What, only one mention of the Velvets?And a parenthetical one at that?

I fear for my nation.

Posted by: Plugh | May 1, 2004 3:19:09 AM

Leaving the Allman Brothers off this list is like not mentioning Napoleon in a discussion about great generals.

Posted by: Matt Maholchic | May 8, 2004 10:16:24 AM

There is no doubt that the greatest American rock band is the Grateful Dead.

The Allman Brothers are also way up there as are CCR, the Doors, the Band, Little Feat, and ZZ Top.

Posted by: The Fool | May 10, 2004 1:03:18 PM

I 3rd The Band (saw'em live, about '82-wooohooo!) - but it's kinda curious more Motown, like the Temps, weren't mentioned.
And nobody thought enough of The Mothers of Invention? Meatloaf? :-P
Most mentioned seem good to me(except I don't know much about anything done in the last 10-15 yrs or so...sue me).

Posted by: Jeff Lawson | May 14, 2004 4:54:41 AM

First things first: While the greatest bands mights be British (The Beatles, The Stones) the most influential artists are, and have always been, American. Rock n Roll is impossible without Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Bob Dylan. They're the holy trinity of rock and the creators of the sound (Berry), the lyrics (Dylan), and the performance (Elvis).
Secondly: I'm not going to attempt a list but would like to comment about a few of the posts.
The Doors: I love the Doors, but they are rather thin, and one-sided. One can only delve in the apocalypse so many times without finally succumbing.
Sublime: Nobody's even mentioned them and I'm suprised. They too are thin because of premature death, but they also (musically) are extremely broad. They were ten years ahead of thier time with thier incorpration of hip-hop, reggae, and punk. Also, the epitome of a live performance band.
Chicago/The Eagles/Fleetwood Mac: They are all garbage. Watered -down, 70s, pop-rock makes me sick to my stomach.
Skynard/Allmond Brothers: Southern rock is rock. So, to say that a southern rock band is a niche band is just completely erroneous. If I had to pick one I'd take Skynard b/c of popular appeal.
The Band: I just recently got into the Band heavily, and they are terrific. Aren't they Canadian though?
Van Halen vs. Aerosmith: How this is even a matter of debate is beyond me. Eddie can play, no doubt, but Perry, while not the technician, has written some great riffs and songs. "Dream On", "Walk this Way", etc. are all original compositions and classic songs. Van Halen is merely a bar band compared to Areosmith.
Guns N Roses: They get overlooked but they are the band of the 80s that matters- not Bon Jovi, and whoever nominated Bon Jovi ought to be anally penetrated with a billy club.
The Greatful Dead: Personally, not my cup of tea, but I think they may have the strongest claim to best American band, because of influence, longevity, and obviously, live-appeal.
CCR: Great band, great songs. But why do people want to write Skynard and Allmond Bros. off as southern bands, and ignore CCR's obvious Southern roots.
Nirvana: Again, not my preference, but who has had such an impact on music as them? No rock band in the last ten years has been free of their influence.

Posted by: Tim | May 14, 2004 11:20:02 AM

I've been following this thread for a while with some interest. I can't really add anything under the criteria given, but if you take away mass appeal, Sonic Youth, Minutemen and Fugazi are all great American rock bands that haven't been mentioned yet--just throwing those out for fun! Oh yeah, Big Star! OK, only three albums, but what a great three they were.

Also, yes, Beastie Boys is a rock band!

Posted by: Chibi | May 14, 2004 8:35:41 PM

Well, Levon Helm, the Band's drummer, was American (in fact, his mom used to live right behind me) - hey, other people suggested Neil Young, and he's Canadian.
Besides, isn't Canada just another state, with reeeaally big counties? 8^]

Posted by: Jeff Lawson | May 15, 2004 6:55:16 AM

Dude, stop arguing the point, you're wrong, wrong. wrong! The E Street Band is the greatest American r&r band of all time. Period. With all due respect the the other nominess, many who I also love. All the suggestions made by others here are valid, but if you ever get a chance to listen to live bootlegs from the late 70s and 80s you will hear what a band is supposed to sound like live.

Posted by: Mentorr | May 17, 2004 3:59:08 PM

How can you not include America's greatest rock band, rocking together for over 30 years, overcoming substance abuse, making a comeback which outshined their early days and has put them on top of the music scene for nearly 20 years, accomplishing nearly every musical feat, and always influencing the culture in America, AEROSMITH. It's a shame you also forgot Guns N' Roses, Bon Jovi, and Van Halen. What the hell is wrong with you? These bands define American rock music. Not the friggin' Eagles.

Posted by: Andrew | May 26, 2004 1:54:31 AM

I cannot believe the Doobie Brothers are not on the list..............

Posted by: fedster | May 27, 2004 10:49:13 AM

Steely Dan was never a band beyond the first album. Most of their music reflects the talents of hired guns.

And who cares who the greatest American R&R band ever was? The best pop and rock groups have always been British - the Beatles, the Stones (lousy album band, though), the Kinks, the Who, then there's a pretty big dead zone until punk. And then you have the only band that matters, still, the Clash.

Posted by: Jeff Huffman | May 28, 2004 5:53:03 PM

Oh boy Jeff, where to begin:

1) Steely Dan's first CD is probably the weakest of the first 5 -- the next 4 discs each has a lot going for them. If you want to write off the Aja/Gaucho period, I have no real problem with that.

But considering the depth of their catalogue, and the quality of their muscianship and songwriting skills --yes, they belong amongst the top - we can argue if its top 5 or 10, but thats as far as I go.

2) Who cares who the greatest American R&R band ever was? This will be the 62nd comment, so obviously some fans cares . . .

3) The Stones as a lousy album band? Kid, get out see and the world, check out their back catalogue and then get back to me. (Thats a polite way of saying you have no idea what you are talking about as far as Mick and the Boys ).

4) Finally, as long as we are discussing UK bands, you left out Genesis (with Peter Gabriel, not the Phil Collins version), Yes, Pretenders (3 Brits + Chrissy Hyndes) and Pink Floyd. If you stretch, we could call "Elvis Costello and the Attractions" a band also . . .

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | May 28, 2004 6:07:38 PM

Greatest American R&R band? Would have to be influential, not derivative. My top five choices:

1. R.E.M. amazing creativity and durability; still sounds fresh twenty years later (not unlike the Stones' whose sound has aged really well, cf. Exile on Main Street, for example)

2. The Replacements the best punk-pop-rock sound ever and an inspiration for lots of 90s grunge and current post-punk bands. never broke into the mainstream but then, neither did the Velvet Underground. and still sounds fresher than most of the stuff getting play today

3. Creedence Clearwater Revival nuff said about them already

4. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers southern rock meets punk sensibility and they never stopped growing.

5. Neil Young & Crazy Horse the best garage band ever.

Posted by: Bob Ripple | Jun 2, 2004 4:24:28 AM

I love it! It's about time someone sees R.E.M. for who they are. Innovative, creative, and real! They can rock one minute and mellow you out the next! They made American music interesting again. They constantly reinvented themselves. How many of the bands brought up here can claim that? Most of them sound the same from album to album. R.E.M. changes musically as well as topically. They sing about so many things, not just sex (like aerosmith, zz top). Their music goes from rip your head off and S#*t down your neck to soothing and relaxing as well as anywhere in between. And yes they are a band, they all contribute to the musical landscape (not just a back up band) and they are all American. Period!

Posted by: Chris D. | Jun 13, 2004 3:13:27 PM

i think you need to think again bout bon jovi, they are one of the 32 artists who have ever sold more than 100 million albums, they have survived all the crap today for over 20 years, four out of five members have stuck together, they're the second most international toured band of all time, i dont care if u say they're the greatest, i just think you people should have some more respect for this band, i think americans should treasure this band that we can proudly say is an american band.

Posted by: Joel | Jun 20, 2004 6:27:03 AM

1. Bon Jovi
2. Aerosmith
3. Metallica
4. Van Halen
5. CCR
6. Stone Temple Pilots
7. Guns & Roses
8. Smashing Pumpkins
9. ZZ Top
10. Eagles

Posted by: jeff l. | Jun 21, 2004 1:01:28 PM

Joel has a good point there, I definetely agree with it.

Posted by: jake | Jun 21, 2004 2:17:21 PM

thanks jake and jeff for supporting me, I might highlight the point that they are the second most international band of all time, yes, I think the beatles make better music (in my opionion the best band) but Bon Jovi was and still is more internationaly popular than the Beatles, and the most international band is Rolling Stones if you wanted to know. And no, this is not a opinion, it is a fact, check out the numbers of countries.

Posted by: Joel | Jun 21, 2004 10:25:44 PM

so since no one else has replied is that implying you people agree?

Posted by: Joel | Jun 28, 2004 4:22:42 AM

Guided By Voices...just ask Bob Pollard, he'll tell ya.

Posted by: Rob | Jul 13, 2004 8:22:46 AM

Velvet Underground!

Look, no 70s bands. If we're going up against the beatles, stones, kinks, who, you can't drag out aerosmith and van halen. and I love the eagles, but they hardly even rock. and I love the ramones, but you can't be that one-dimensional and still be the greatest american rock band. but for the velvets:

1) the most influential
2) the most innovative
3) hard rocking
4) from the 60s
5) super cool and edgy
6) could do noise freak outs and pretty songs
7) had a serious side, a playful side, and a libidinous side
8) and they're really, really american.

other bands, whatever their merits, don't have as much going.

and if you don't believe me, take it from Jonathan Richman:

They were wild like the USA
A mystery band in a New York way
Rock and roll, but not like the rest
And to me, America at it's best
How in the world were they making that sound?
Velvet Underground.

A spooky tone on a Fender bass
Played less notes and left more space
Stayed kind of still, looked kinda shy
Kinda far away, kinda dignified.
How in the world were they making that sound?
Velvet Underground.

Now you can look at that band and wonder where
All that sound was coming from
With just 4 people there.

Twangy sounds of the cheapest types,
Sounds as stark as black and white stripes,
Bold and brash, sharp and rude,
Like the heats turned off
And you're low on food.
How in the world were they making that sound?
Velvet Underground.
Like this...

Wild wild parties when they start to unwind
A close encounter of the thirdest kind
On the bandstand playing, everybody's saying
How in the world were they making that sound?
Velvet Underground.

Well you could look at that band
And at first sight
Say that certain rules about modern music
Wouldn't apply tonight.

Twangy sounds of the cheapest kind,
Like "Guitar sale $29.99,"
Bold and brash, stark and still,
Like the heats turned off
And you can't pay the bill.
How in the world were they making that sound?
Velvet Underground.

Both guitars got the fuzz tone on
The drummer's standing upright pounding along
A howl, a tone, a feedback whine
Biker boys meet the college kind
How in the world were they making that sound?
Velvet Underground.

Wild wild parties when they start to unwind
A close encounter of the thirdest kind
On the bandstand grooving, everybody moving
How in the world are they making that sound?
Velvet Underground.

Posted by: c. | Jul 14, 2004 3:15:35 AM

Great thread. My comments...

Aerosmith - No - two good albums, Toys and Rocks, that's it.

Van Halen - No - after David Lee left, they became another hair band.

Chicago - No - not what I consider R&R

Bon Jovi - No - you're joking, right?

Eagles - No - we're talking R&R here, right?

Fleetwood mac - No - see Eagles.

Kiss - No - Kiss Alive, that's it (and even that sucked), IMHO

Skynrd - No - inspired by the Allmans

Doors, CCR, REM, Allman Bros., Nirvana, Dead, Steely Dan, Talking Heads, Hot Tuna, Ramones. There's 10 - put 'em in any order you want. Oh and whoever brought up Little Feat, inspired choice, but they kinda dropped off after Lowell george died, did they not?

Posted by: fredd | Jul 21, 2004 5:31:10 PM

Any talk of great American rock bands that doesn't mention The Velvet Underground is suspect. They meet all the criteria and then some-influence, musicianship, depth.

I also agree with those who'd like to see The Ramones. The Byrds, and the Allman Brothers on the list.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 22, 2004 12:15:21 PM

"Bon Jovi - No - you're joking, right?"

No I'm not.

Posted by: Joel | Jul 29, 2004 3:01:45 AM

1. the boss and the e street band- They're a band, have been forever.
2. the Band- what a line up, very influential over many sub genres from Eagles to skynard to greatful dead
3. ok, the doors.
4. beach boys
5. the osmonds- just kidding
5. for the heavey metal genre- metalica
6. are talking USA or North america?- Rush/ BTO/ Guess who/ CSNY
7. ok, USA only- We need some females on this- The Holding company (and janice of course).
8. Buddy holly and the crickets- he wasn't a solo act either, they were a band
9. gotta have the chilli peppers on here
10. .....ramones, not my cup a tea, but hugely infuential.

Posted by: j.s. | Aug 11, 2004 3:10:53 AM

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