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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There have been a lot of great bands listed, but I don't think the list would be complete without including The Blasters. The songs, the knowledge and respect for the music, the musicianship, the power and emotion, the live shows that are legendary. To me, they are American Rock 'n Roll at its best.

Posted by: Keith | Jan 28, 2004 12:40:05 PM

I am dismayed that a strong case was not made for Aerosmith. They have survived many eras of American music. They have incorporated loads of new fans with their droves of classic fans. they have been around for near 30 years and have continued to release many hits. Plus without Walk this Way *granted Run DMC) had more to do with it) we may not have much of the music we have today.

Another couple of bands worth honorable mention are KISS they really helped glam explode (not real glam aka the NY Dolls, but the 80's hair band explosion wouldn't have happened w/o KISS)

Bon Jovi is another band only for their ability to maintain a successful career while other big hair bands of the 80's have struggled just to play small venues. Bon Jovi continues to sell out large stadiums and that is impressive.

If I had to rate the top American R&R bands of all time I would rank them in the following order from 10-1

10. The Coral Reefer Band 9Hey I'm a Parrothead and this is my way to stick Jimmy Buffett on the list)
9. Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers
8. REM
7. Metallica
6. The Grateful Dead
5. Pearl Jam
4. Van Halen
3. The Eagles
2. The Doors
1. Aerosmith

Posted by: Jeremy | Feb 4, 2004 12:07:56 AM

Jeremy makes some Interesting points:

I like the inclusion of Pearl Jam and Allman Bros. But his top 10 includes 11 bands!

We've had long discussions regarding Aerosmith -- I personally love "Toys in the Attic" -- The general consensus was that Van Halen had a much broader and deeper catalogue . . . Hence, Tyler and Friends, while a unique group of Rock Stars, really couldn't own the top slot.

Also, for the same reason that the E Street band isn't here -- We know the Coral Reefer band is really a front for Buffet -- so that really is kinda ineligible as a band (it should get knocked off the list ; )

Personally, I'd swap the Talking Heads for Metallica, and Steely Dan for Skynyrd, who's career was cut so tragically short. And I'd figure a way to get Creedence Cleearwater Revival (CCR) in there somehow -- But hey, that's simply a matter of personal opinion.

Choice is what makes a horse race! Thanks for the provocative post!

PS: Can you honestly say that Bon Jovi is one of the 10 best bands America has produced? (Me neither!)

They should get bonus points for surviving the Jon Bon Jovi poster!

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Feb 4, 2004 6:03:16 AM

My list is really only 10 bands (as both you and I know the Coral Reefers don't count but the Parrothead in me had to include them).

I can not believe I left off the Talking Heads you are SO RIGHT that they should be in there and I probably left them off more because personally I am not a huge fan but certainly their place within music history is as solid as most any other American band 

I would probably omit either The Allmans or Skynyrd [EDITOR: Allmans are the more infliuential band, so Skynard should go] to make room as 1 southern rock band should be enough. 

As to Bon Jovi..well I am just amazed that while all of the other bands of their genre (Motley Crue, G n R, Poison, Warrant, Slaughter, UKJ, Extreme, etc, etc.,etc.) have gone by the wayside Bon Jovi has not only maintained it's status as a top draw but also grown in popularity. I rank Aerosmith ahead of Van Halen because even Van Halen in today's game aren't really players while Aerosmith is still rocking to sold out stadiums and influencing popular music today. I think the guys in Van Halen are more talented individual musicians but there impact as a whole is not as great. I think a band being able to reinvent itself and continue to succeed throughout differing eras and differening genre's of music is worthy of a huge boost as to where they would rank. That's really why Aerosmith is so high and why Bon Jovi made my list.
As to CCR hmm, well they probably do deserve a spot and maybe I should put my love of Jon Bon and the boys aside and place CCR on the top 10 as I have long held to the believe that EVERYONE on the planet isa CCR fan they just may not realize it.I know for years I LOVED their music and had no idea who the band was. To this day I am never surprised when I am listening to CCR on the radio and hear somebody say "Man I love this song..who sings it?" It seems as if CCR's music achieved a much greater success then the band ever did. As a band they are always an afterthought but their music is featured on almost anybody's best of rock and roll albums from Down on the Corner to Proud Mary their music is legendary it is odd that they have never really recieved their just due.
Anyway I happened upon that website by accident last night while researching some political items and I have to say I have already bookmarked it as a favorite. Don't know if you run it or who does but it is a great forum for discussion and debate. I look forward to checking in from time to time. 

Posted by: Jeremy | Feb 6, 2004 7:14:37 AM

Loved most of the suggestions but I was thinking of a band that's more "American" in that it (still) blends R&R with some of its foundations (Blues for the beat and soul, Jazz for improvisational tendencies), Cajun etc:


Been around for over 30 years so yes, they're troopers that have been slogging it out in auditoriums, halls and recording studios with the best of 'em.

Effect on other musicians? Incredible with these folks. Admitted fans include Clint Black, Bonnie Bramlet, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Stephan Bruton, String Cheese Incident, Randy Newman, the Bottle Rockets & David Lindley, Allen Toussaint, Taj Mahal, J.D. Souther, and many many more.

Not familiar with their work? You probably know at least two of their songs. Dixie Chicken ("If you'll be my dixie chicken) and Willin.

Though they never quite "broke through" to widespread popularity, they continue to make a mark on the scene.

Whaddya think?

Posted by: Richard | Feb 6, 2004 11:45:58 AM

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, those guys were great, and certainly a band not just a one man show.

What about ZZTop? they influenced so many artists.

Chicago, don't even think about excluding them.

Posted by: Tyler | Feb 6, 2004 8:36:12 PM


Still, Bob Seger is a solo artist with a backing band, and definitely not a group.
If we were to judge Seger a group, they'd still be way down the list behind Springsteen . . .

Ont he other hand, ZZ Top is definitely overlooked -- a very good call there.

Chicago, who I've seen any times in my misspent youth (tho Chicago hardly qualifies as part of a misspent youth!) is another overlooked group. But since Terry Keith died, they really lost their chops. Now, they are a fun, edgeless horn ensemble -- and barely a rock group.

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Feb 7, 2004 4:41:57 PM

The best American band ever was X. Nobody wrote as well, no one played as well and no one ever could touch them on sex ("we slept for a week. cinders on the sheets" - "arms like two swords, goldmine where they meet, long fine legs and a treasure chest where they meet") broken people ("she gets confused flying over the dateline" - "the bartenders eyes are full of pity as he tells her , 'you're all alone and its 2:30. All the chairs are on the tables and it's time to close' she said, 'a minute ago they were all starin at me. where the hell did they go?'), rock and roll ("I've seen a lot of people with plenty of guts. the say, 'make my music new & loud & rough!' give it a beat or give it a twang in a dark sweaty club its the same damn thing. bang bang make the music go bang! brilliant shining and nasty!") or a sense of culture and history ("honest to goodness the bars weren't open this morning. they musta been votin' for a new president or somethin'. do ya have a quarter, I said yes, because i did. the tears have been fallin all over this country in spades. it was better before we voted for what's his name. this was supposed to be the new world.")

The only band that could touch them would be if you considered Bob Dylan and the Nighthawks/the Band a band. The Basement Tapes, Songs from Big Pink and Bob Dylan Live 1966 make a good case.

The American band that tops the chart in terms of the Best Band at one point in their career/ Worst Band at another career quotient is certainly ZZ Top. Very few American bands touch the brilliance of albums 3-6 and the utterly craptacular 10+. The blow the doors off of Springsteen, Van Halen, and any number of bands for in high genius/cheese-eater quotient. Though the Chili Peppers . . .

The big monkey wrench questions in my mind is: Are the Beastie Boys a rock band? If the answer is no, then X is the knock down drag out best American Band.

If you don't know their work start with Unclogged, a live acoustic album to get a feel for their song writing and then move on to More Fun in the New World and Los Angeles to catch the full steaming, diesel force of American Rock and Roll.

Honorable mention: Little Feat, Iggy and the Stooges, Concrete Blonde, Steely Dan, Creedence, Skynyrd, Allman Bros. BS and the E Street Band, Husker Du, Talking Heads, Grateful Dead, Nirvana, Soundgarden, the Ramones, the Replacements.

Posted by: Marc Brazeau | Feb 20, 2004 2:14:33 AM

I was dumbfounded that nobody considered X -- but then I got all the way down here and found Marc's post. Seconded.
Landlord, clean up the mess.

Posted by: Mr Dithers | Mar 7, 2004 12:23:07 PM

Weren't the boys from "Mountain" all from the U.S.? Great, great band.

Posted by: Ivor the Engine Driver | Mar 9, 2004 12:54:31 PM

What about KISS?

Posted by: Mort | Mar 9, 2004 2:59:00 PM

Fun! How often to you get the urge to post something like: "Yeah, there all pretty good choices." And they are. Attended morfe Dead concerts but was initiated to California psychedelia by Jefferson Airplane. We had a little college cult for JA which stayed with them right through their truly inspired, one-of-a-kind After Bathing at Baxter's followed by their split and evolution into Starship with Blows Against the Empire (which is practically sampled by Radiohead for OK Computer!).

So I like the Byrds, Beach Boys and then the darknes that shades the Doors' take on Californication. And that's just my Left Coast favorites.

Posted by: Radio Head | Mar 9, 2004 6:29:15 PM

Neil Young and Crazy Horse deserve a mention on any list of great American Rock and Roll Bands. I would argue that Neil Young with Crazy Horse was a true band and not a leader and a bunch of back ups. Neil once said he wanted them thought of as the American Rolling Stones and I think they are. Also, a quibble: the name of the band is Talking Heads, not The Talking Heads. It's like saying The Van Halen or The Pink Floyd. They even put out an album to explain it: "The Name of This Band is Talking Heads." Drives me nuts when people put the "The" in there.

Posted by: mthogan | Mar 9, 2004 10:55:57 PM

I just stumbled onto this website and I am astounded that not one poster has even mentioned as a possibility for the Greatest American Band ever a little outfit called, The Band. On musicianship, they stack up against anybody. On influence, its difficult to know where to begin. Can you imagine the alt. country movement without them? Clapton said he disbanded Cream after hearing "Music From Big Pink." The Lowell George-led Little Feat owed a huge debt to Levon, Robbie, Rick, Richard and Garth. There was also this guy named Zimmerman. The Band played lots of different genres [blues, country, New Orleans, funk, soul, Appalachian folk] but it was all identifiably rock n roll. As for live performances, I never saw them personally, but check out "Rock of Ages," my all-time favorite live record. The Band produced two of the seminal records in rock n roll, "Music from Big Pink" and "The Band." They also were Dylan's equal on "The Basement Tapes," perhaps the greatest testament to the wonderful collage of American music, all coalesced around rock n roll. Finally, although not relevant to this poll, The Band also produced, via Levon, perhaps the best book ever chronicling the life of a rock n roller, "This Wheel's on Fire."

After the Band, I go for the Ramones, REM & CCR.

Posted by: merthulbert | Mar 11, 2004 12:32:08 AM

Please tell me the tile of songs and group.
I'm Japanese. So I cannot hear the music clearly.
the music opening is.... Sometimes I wonder love you like a do ~ ending is 'cause you're giving love just enough, you keep me hanging on

Posted by: taeko nicky | Mar 11, 2004 9:20:09 PM

Pls tell me about lyrics of just enough to keep me hanging on.
It was song by Linda Thompson.(album title is 'One clear moment'.

Posted by: taeko nicky | Mar 14, 2004 8:40:56 PM

The Funk Brothers at Motown, Booker T & The MG's at Stax, and the Swampers down in Muscle Shoals. All three were American, all three were bands. And between them they played on more hits *and* more influential records than pretty much all the other bands mentioned in this thread combined. I love the vast majority of the bands mentioned thus far...but this has been a ridiculously white discussion. There's more transcendant rock & roll in the first 30 seconds of "Green Onions" than in the entire Steely Dan catalog.

Posted by: charlie board | Mar 15, 2004 4:42:12 PM

No long winded explanations, no arguments, this is the list , period. The TOP 15 ROCK & ROLL AMERICAN BANDS

15.  CCR/ Greatful Dead
14.  Guns & Roses
13.  REM
12.  Pearl Jam
11.  Allman Bros
10.  Red Hot Chili Peppers
 9.  The Ramones/
 8.  Lynyrd Skynrd
 7.  Kiss
 6   ZZ Top
 5.  The Doors
 4.  Fleetwood Mac
 3.  Beach Boys/ Van Halen
 2.  Aerosmith
 1.  Eagles

Posted by: Jeff Thure | Mar 16, 2004 10:02:50 PM

Hey Jeff,

Not a bad list of 15/17; But a few quibbles:

1. No Talking Heads? No Steely Dan? C'mon !

2. The Ramones are good drunken fun - but better than either band in #1? (No) And in your top 10 to boot?

3. I saw the Eagles live, and they were pretty boring, which is why they cannot be #1 for me. Top 20, sure, top 10 maybe, but not #1.

4. REM as #13 of 15? Top 5 at least

5. Allman Bros below Skyrnard?    

6. Kiss above Van Halen?

7. ZZTop above RHCP?

8. Fleetwood Mac over the Doors? (Puh-leeze!)

Not a bad stat anyway . . .

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Mar 16, 2004 10:06:47 PM

the grateful dead for sure. and if you want a free copy of a live show to prove it, email me your address at US address only, i'll take the first 5 responses

1. Grateful Dead
2. Allman Bros
3. The Ramones
4. Aerosmith
4. ZZ Top
5. Kiss
6. The Doors
7. CCR

Posted by: craig h | Mar 17, 2004 7:46:08 PM

Looking at longivity, tour attendance, and impact, I can't consider any poll that leaves out the Grateful Dead as even being legitimate. I'd put the Dead at number one, but I could accept a poll that had them in the top 5, or maybe even 10, but...not even mentioned? The Dead are a huge part of American culture.

Posted by: Mobiledan | Mar 21, 2004 10:04:04 PM

hmm, most of people's "greatest" bands would make my worst ever list with aerosmith at the very top. god theyre awful.

but to each his own.

Posted by: rick | Apr 2, 2004 5:01:26 PM

Okay, I came to this conversation late. However, if we`re talking mass appeal, originality and muscicianship into equal consideration I think we`re going to wind up with:

1: Grateful Dead (despite the scene and long tangents they sometimes took, these guys were the jazz musicians of rock... ready to let it all hang out in an exploratory, improvisationary way.)

2. R.E.M (they were also of the kind of group mind that great bands are, but allowed each member the freedom to bring whatever they wanted to the table... the result, an innovative and affecting meld of American genres)

3. Red Hot Chili Peppers (they represent the funky turn it up loud side of American rock better than any other band, while surprising us from time to time with the melodic turns they sometimes take)

4. Aerosmith (for durability and wealth of catchy raunchy material)

5. Allman Brothers Band (the twin guitar, twin drum attack was innovative and propulsive... the only thing better sounding for pure groove was the Bros and the Grateful Dead playing live together.)

Posted by: dango | Apr 19, 2004 10:12:21 AM

In a word: CHICAGO

Does everyone forget what a band is all about?

Look at the musicianship and popularity in their first six albums (most of them actually album-sets), and Lamm, Kath, et. al. are still going strong 30 years later.

Posted by: Pat T. | Apr 29, 2004 8:46:17 PM

On of the first concerts I saw was Chicago -- CTA was a great double disc -- I saw them many times after.

I found a lot of their albums were hit or miss, and they faded rapidly once Terry Kath died,

Still, definitely worth talking about . . .

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz | Apr 29, 2004 10:47:17 PM

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