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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Not. Even. Close.

The Greatest Ever: The Ramones

Runner up: Iggy & The Stooges.

Posted by: Charles | Dec 22, 2003 12:13:34 AM

How can you not even mention the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd? Shame on you...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Dec 22, 2003 4:41:55 AM

Oh yeah, and The Doors? Hello? Is anybody home? Sheesh.

Charles, both Iggy and the Ramones are punk... can they still be nominated for the Greatest Rock and Roll band?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Dec 22, 2003 4:54:51 AM

The Doors are clearly in contention. The only problem is their catalogue is a bit thin -- they lack a long body of work due to Morrison's early death. Still, one of the best bands ever to come out of the U.S., and another of the 10 bands who are in the top 5. (lol).

Are the Ramones a better band than the Talking Heads? (I say no). I saw both live, and the Ramones sounded like they were whacked - sloppy, off key, out of it. I thought maybe they were drunk, but that turned out to be their reputation -- fair to middling musicians. While the T Heads were a tight ensemble.

The Allman Brothers are great, but they are too specifically Southern Rock band -- they lack a broader appeal; Lynard Skynard is a good -- but not great -- band. "Freebird" alone does not get you into the top 10.

People, pay attention: there are only 2 rules: From the U.S., and a Band. Yes is from the U.K., and violate Rule 1 (ineligible). Jerry Lee Lewis is not a band, and violates Rule 2 (ineligible).

Stick with the program.

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Dec 22, 2003 6:22:12 AM


I don't quite see how the E Street band is just "backup" while the "Doors" aren't: take out Morrison and what's left?

Incidentally, why no consideration of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes? If quality, not popularity, is the criteria, I'd put them up against any group as commercial as Van Halen or Creedence; SJ is true "white blues" music, often as good as Springsteen imvho.

Posted by: clarence | Dec 22, 2003 1:45:40 PM

CCR was an inspired choice. As was REM and the Talking Heads.

I have a personal fondness for The Replacements but I can't say that they are "better" than any of the bands you listed. (I know you can't
rate bands solely on their influence on others because if you did you would end up with Alex Chilton, the Dolls and Iggy Pop.)

The Talking Heads are a bit too much of a particular time and place kind of band to rate as an all-time great.

Steely Dan, although I love them to death, simply aren't a rock and roll band. At least not in any sense that matters.

I also must take issue with the Springsteen decision. They are a band. They just happen to have a lead singer/songwriter. So what? The same
can be said of almost every band on your list.

How about the Allman Brothers?

Your most egregious omission is THE RAMONES! If you don't like them, you don't like Rock N Roll. Plain and simple.

Posted by: Alex A | Dec 22, 2003 3:59:30 PM


I agree with everything you wrote except:

Allman Bros. -- too genre specific -- ie, Southern Rock. Great band, but not a great RnR band.

As to the Ramones, they were kinda on the sloppy side.

I used 4 factors: Body of work, live performance, musicianship and influence on other bands.

The Ramones are fun, but their body of work is slight, and their live performances, while full of energy, somewhat lacked in musicianship.

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Dec 22, 2003 4:01:09 PM

The Ramones would be offended that you only thought they were kinda on the sloppy side. Apparently, you saw them on a night when they weren't completely wasted.

As for the Allman Brothers, I agree. I was just throwing them out as candidates.

Posted by: Alex A | Dec 22, 2003 4:01:20 PM


Each of the Doors made a major contribution:

Ray Manzarek was a legitimately successful keyboardist, and is well regarded by musicians in general.

Robby Krieger was also thougt of as a talented and innovative guitarist. Both of them are still touring presently. Both contributed to the Doors overall sound, recordings, and writing.

I overlooked Southside Johnny, (who I have seen live several times), simply because they lacked the depth of recorded catalogue, and influence over other bands. I relied on 4 factors: Body of work, live performance, musicianship and influence on other bands.

BTW, if you like Southside Johnny, you should check out the Worms ( -- a great bar band from NYC in the late 80s early 90s.

Send me a blank disc and I will send you a CD of theirs.

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Dec 22, 2003 4:05:29 PM

Thanks for your comments & offer (I've never heard the Worms) what address to I send the disk??

Posted by: clarence | Dec 22, 2003 4:10:54 PM


Posted by: eddie | Dec 23, 2003 8:16:17 AM

The Byrds in a landslide. They invented whole genres of rock. Caused George Harrison to pick up a Rickenbacker. Spawned Folk Rock, Country Rock and some acid Rock. Signature sound stills sounds great today. Copied by everyone (e.g. Tom Petty)...

Posted by: dleins | Dec 23, 2003 8:37:16 AM

Several people have suggested the Byrds -- They don't make the top 5, and I'm not sure where they fit into the top 10.

Here's why: They have an extensive catalogue of music, but I was never blown away by a lot of it (the word "Shmaltzy" comes to mind). "Tambourine Man" always struck me a s corny.

There's no doubt they were hugely influential. Some have called them America's 1st supergroup. But I can't really get to jazzed about them -- I found their writing pretty thin when compared with many of the other names we've discussed.

I'm not so sure they "spawned" country rock, southern rock, acid rock, and everything else that's been attributed to them.

Maybe its just a matter of personal taste -- they don't rock my world.

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Dec 23, 2003 9:48:58 AM

The "greatest" rock 'n roll band is a broad topic, and it all depends on how you define "great." By sales of records? Live performance? Originality and influence? I would argue primiarly for originality and influence, breaking any ties with live performance. Sales mean almost nothing, since many awful groups that didn't have an original bone in their body had huge sales.

Among the original choices offered, the Beach Boys and the Doors are probably the main contenders. Why? A number of reasons. First, originality and influence. Although everybody owes a debt to those who came before, the creativity of these two bands is second to none. Barry notes Pet Sounds. That album alone, given the time it was released, speaks for itself. If you don't understand why Pet Sounds is important, you shouldn't be debating this topic. Then again, aren't the Beach Boys just a jazzed up Jan & Dean?

The Doors, meanwhile, were the biggest American act in the late-1960s. No one was bigger when they were on the scene. The original nihilistic rock 'n rollband, the Doors were very post-modern and actually didn't belong in the love and peace era of the late-1960s. In fact, the genre created virtually out of thin air by the Doors is still influential today. One can't say that of the Beach Boys, other than in technique. Musically, the Beach Boys is a one-act pony, and they're it. The dark visions of the Doors, on the other hand, remain widely influential. The fact that the Doors had a fairly short run isn't really relevant, in my humble opinion. It was the first two albums anyway that set the pace and tone that continues to live on. In fact, the Doors wouldn't have survived as they did even if Morrison lived. They were too intense as a group, and in fact were breaking up towards the end anyway.

Iggy & the Stooges is a great choice, but ultimately there could be no Iggy without the Doors. And while I very much admire the music of the Allman Brothers, ultimately they were musicians first and a rock n' roll band in the true sense of the word second. The Doors, remember, fomented revolution in a way that few other bands could. Rock is ultimately about creative rebellion, and no American band that can lay claim to that triumph does so without a debt to the Doors.

Posted by: James Picerno | Dec 23, 2003 11:06:00 AM

Don't forget Aerosmith and ZZ Top. Many years together and pretty extensive catalogs.


Posted by: andyp | Dec 23, 2003 11:07:25 AM

REM? get out of town.

this sounds liek a stupid list that VH1 would try to get together and have NSync near the top.

not to mention you forgot to define rock n' roll.
that eliminates REM right there, talkign heads too. RnR is actually very exclusive

Posted by: doug | Dec 23, 2003 12:02:46 PM

Elvis, but he was not a band...

Metallica, Aerosmith, The Grateful Dead, all had a great impact on the music we call Rock and Roll.

Posted by: McGentrix | Dec 23, 2003 1:29:51 PM

Gotta disagree with placing Van Halen on the list at all. Aerosmith was kicking ass longer and harder than anyone while Eddie Van Halen was still on the teat.

Posted by: Adam Van Alstyne | Dec 23, 2003 1:41:44 PM


A few points: I didn't to forget to define Rock N Roll. I don't think it needs defining. Its simply a visceral thing. (Test me on it)

2nd -- Are you, um, actually comparing REM to N'Sync? Seriously, are you? Are you familair with any of the 4 albums I mentioned? Are you aware of their impact on musically generally?

Its one thing to have a difference of opinion -- The Byrds are not my cup of tea, and I like (but don't love) the Dead -- but I certainly can understand and respect why some people are so into them. That's called having an open mind.

But to suggets that a manufactured, insipid boy band is in any way related to one of the most interesting and intelligent progressive muscial influences over the past 15 or so years. . . well, thats just foolish.

Hey, that's the beauty of the internet -- everyone is free to demonstrate their ignorance and/or prejudices in full public view.

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Dec 23, 2003 1:50:20 PM

Pearl Jam is better than any of the bands mentioned. Live, on album, whatever, they always rock.

Posted by: roboninja | Dec 23, 2003 3:24:15 PM

Pearl Jam. They are the best live band ever, sell out almost every show and do it without MTV or much radio airplay.

Posted by: Greg | Dec 23, 2003 3:36:13 PM

Good God people... Why not ask who the best looking Playboy Playmate is? You'll almost never get everyone to agree.

However let's review the criteria shall we?

Originality. Ok that kicks Aerosmith (America's Rolling Stones), Metallica (mash the New Wave of British Heavy Metal together - just because you don't know the bands they copied doesn't mean they were original), Steely Dan (Why not say the Doobie Brothers or Kansas and get it over with).

Wide Appeal: If you're gonna kick the Allman Brothers or Lynard Skynard for not having wide appeal, you have to throw Van Halen at the same time. Not everyone was a pimply faced teen trying to score and get drunk. Same as the Byrds (hippies), although I cannot attest to their popularity as I was not alive then. Pearl Jam falls here too as I don't see many Brittney fans humming PJ's greatest hits. Their earlier stuff was wide spread, but other than die-hards, can you name some of the later hits they had?

Live Performance: I saw someone mention ZZ Top earlier and wasn't immediately stoned for the choice. Let me back this person up. Any band that can (while not missing a note) be picked up by a claw, be dropped into a mock crusher, be crushed, taken off stage, then come on a minute later out of the back of a working Tractor-Trailer in new outfits and no one in the audience (including professional musicians) not be able to pick out where (if at all) the sound was switched to CD and back is just damned impressive (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Recycler tour '91). Good grief.

Musicianship - Sure this is important, but hey - don't forget the golden rule of R'nR - If it feels good, do it. The Romanes are in. End of story.

Whew!!! That certainly was long winded.... and in the end pointless. The point of the matter is that it all comes down to taste. And the fact that the popular bands (Nirvana) were influenced by bands before (Kirk Cobain once said in an interview that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a Pixies rip-off) that were not as well known. It’s a circular argument. The popular bands were influenced not influential, and the influential bands did not have wide appeal (Al-la the Beatles and the Velvet Underground.)

Bands that I felt should be discussed: Soundgarden, Kiss, Alice Cooper, Phish, Divo, The Animals, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (If you’re including the Doors, there were other qualified members of the Experience, not just Jimi. It’d be like saying Cream wasn’t a band because of Eric Clapton.), Nine Inch Nails…. Damn it’s hard to think of purely American bands…… Well anyway you get the point. I’m not saying that my opinion is more important than any of yours; I’m just stirring the pot a little. Not in the bad, troll-ish way either.

Oh yea, I cannot find fault with the selection of REM….. Go figure…..

Posted by: Eric Polley | Dec 23, 2003 11:41:48 PM

Most of the above comments and answers only seem to highlight how superior british rock groups have beeen and still are when compared to american ones....a list of Beatles,Rolling Stones,The Who,Led Zeppelin,Black Sabbath,Kinks,Pink Floyd,Yardbirds,Yes,Cream etc..easily outdoes any above.

Posted by: lora aspen | Jan 12, 2004 7:25:51 AM

I read through all of the quite informative opinions while listening to REM's "New Adventures in Hi Fi." I thought what wonderful people we have out there who listen to our music. Without entering the debate about the greatest American band, I wish to say that you've all mentioned bands that have delighted all of our ears for years. This question, "Which is the best American band?," remains one that only the ears of the listener can answer. And over the years one's sensibility changes. Quintessential American bands? Yes. Which? Man, where do we start? Dixieland? Delta Blues? Nashville? Los Angeles in the sixties and early seventies? Whew! How about Blondie? Dave Mathews? Let's celebrate the artistry of American rock.

Posted by: TEA | Jan 20, 2004 12:00:42 AM

It's funny that I found this page, but I was having this EXACT conversation tonight. While America might not have the cream of the crop in ROCK BANDS (as far as the brits go) We have much more musical influence overall. Barring Country, Rap and Jazz, (just to stay in the more rock format) We have Bob Dylan, ELVIS, Simon and Garfunkel, John Melloncamp, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, All hard hitting - chart topping - aged rockn' career spanning artists. Hell we even got Neil Diamond. So wave your American Flag proudly, we got great A R T I S T S as well, and I think that's the real over-all view.(except for Steely Dan, they suck! : )

Posted by: Gregory Borden | Jan 28, 2004 1:44:28 AM

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