On one hand, you’ve got The Beatles. The Stones. The Kinks. Led Zeppelin. The Clash. The Who. The Sex Pistols. U2. Pink Floyd. Radiohead. Thin Lizzy. Hell, even Oasis.
On the other hand, you’ve got Elvis Presley. James Brown. Muddy Waters. Bob Dylan. Otis Redding. Bruce Springsteen. Prince. Michael Jackson. Buddy Holly. Roy Orbison.
What’s the difference? Your don’t have to be Lester Bangs to ascertain that the first category are all bands; the second, all individuals. But look a little closer, and think geographically.
That’s right,the first category consists of all British or Irish rock icons. And the second category is as American as Apple Pie.
Or Daniel Boone. Or Davey Crocket. Why are many if not most of the greatest bands in the rock cannon all British, while most of the individual icons are American. What does it say about our respective characters as nations? Is that frontier brand of rugged individualism so endemic to the American spirit that it manifests itself even in our music? Especially our music. Jazz, blues and rock-n-roll are America’s greatest 20th Century gift to the world (save the storming of Normandy, natch), and the progenitors of each genre are individuals.
From Louis Armstrong to Robert Johnson to Janis Joplin, the history of American music has largely been one of the individual. Even when individuals are paired with great bands, it’s often the name of the individual that proceeds the ampersand. James Brown & The Famous Flames. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Prince & The Revolution. Bruce & The E Street Band.
I”ll leave it to the sociologists to theorize on the precise cultural underpinnings to this phenomenon. But you can’t ignore the overwhelming evidence.
But of course every rock-n-roll rule has many glaring exceptions (David Bowie anyone?). And the got me thinking about the exceptions to the “all the great rock bands are British” rule.
Who exactly are the greatest American bands? Ahh– this is where the debate begins. It’s slim pickings when you first start naming bands (The Band is Canadian, so that doesn’t count, Levon Helm notwithstanding), but once you get into it, the good ol’ US of A comes up fairly strong. Here is my top ten list. It’s likely missing many of your favorite American bands. So chime in in the comments section! (But be forewarned–if anyone offers up The Eagles, I will beat your ass.)
10. The Stooges. Iggy Pop is arguably the greatest front man of all time. And the Asheton brothers took raw American noise to transcendent heights. The Stooges are the Detroit Muscle car of rock-n-roll, and they changed everything that came after them.
9. Creedence Clearwater Revival. They are the Mississippi River of the American rock cannon. If Huck Finn grew up and formed a band, it would’ve sounded like Creedence.
8. The Talking Heads. The CBGBs Era is the third golden age of American rock history (after Sun Studios and Motown/Stax), and Talking Heads were at the epicenter. Simultaneously tribal and angular, the Talking Heads virtually invented the sub genre of art rock. And the first song they ever wrote was “Psycho Killer.” Top that!
7. The Replacements. America’s clown princes of drunken rollicking rock. Part punk, part blues, all rock-n-roll, they embody the twin American impulses of self-grandiosity and self-sabotage. I like to think they’re still out there in the van somewhere, roaming the American underground landscape, looking for for a club to load into, and get loaded in.
6. It’s a tie.
The Byrds. If you go to heaven when you die, the sound you’ll hear as you enter the pearly gates is Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker.
The Doors. Okay, Jim Morrisson is the most over-exposed dead rock star this side of Elvis Presley. And a bit of a self-absorbed douchebag. But you can’t argue with “Peace Frog” and “Waiting for the Sun.” Plus, “Riders on the Storm” is the only song that has ever scared me, and that’s gotta count for something.
5. Public Enemy. If you don’t think Public Enemy is a punk band, I strongly urge you to listen to “Fear of a Black Planet” again. Iconoclastic, revolutionary, incendiary, dangerous. And the greatest hip-hop vocalist of all time. They deconstruct all the disparate elements of the inner city American experience, sample them, then lay them down over the thickest, most urgent beat known to man. “Bring the Noise!”
4. The Beach Boys. “Help Me Rhonda” and “Barbara Ann” nearly disqualify them from this list, but “God Only Knows,” “Hang Onto Your Ego,” “Good Vibrations” and “In My Room” are unimpeachable, as are the following two words: “Pet Sounds.”
3. The Ramones. Three chords. Four leather jackets. One perfect band.
2. The Velvet Underground. Probably the most influential band in American history. As the adage goes, they only sold about a thousand albums. But everyone who bought one formed a band. The great Jonathan Richman (whose own band, The Modern Lovers, are in contention for this list) said it best:
“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?
1. R.E.M. What Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner were to Southern literature, R.E.M. is to Southern music. More mystical and nuanced than their Muscle Shoals Southern predecessors, R.E.M. took the Byrds jangle pop formula, added molasses, kudzu, and mystery, and rode it all the way to the promise land. They put college rock and indie music, not to mention Athens, GA, on the map. They’re the band you grew up with. And will grow old with.