Talking Points Memo recently began a discussion of the greatest American bands, a contentious subject given how many of rock’s canonical bands are from the U.K. (e.g., The Beatles, The Rolling Stones) or have Anglo-American membership (e.g., The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Fleetwood Mac). I was reminded of Simon Kuper’s quip in Soccernomics that the British Empire was alive and well while the American Empire may have never existed. Britain’s exports, particularly soccer and popular rock music, remain way ahead of American equivalents football and jazz/country/blues.
So who are the great American bands? TPM’s criteria are broad, with an emphasis on Importance to rock/pop (so no country and western bands). The usual suspects are The Beach Boys, REM, The Grateful Dead, The Eagles, The Ramones, et all. Strict solo acts and solo vehicles are out, so no Dylan, Springsteen or Zappa. I consider The Velvet Underground to be off-limits, too, since they were at times a vehicle (for Lou Reed) and weren’t entirely American (Nico and John Cale were not American).
In coming up with my list, I thought of how young rock/pop music is (60 years or so), and how great American artists in other fields took ages to be recognized (Melville is the best example). The latter point holds for artists from other countries, too, despite the instant canonization of The Beatles. Who will be today’s Marlowe – popular now but second-tier later – and who will be Shakespeare – a big deal but underestimated in the moment – in comparison?
I’m skeptical of all of the usual suspects, many of whom were very one-dimensional, other than The Beach Boys. I looked for artists that were historically, culturally and to a lesser degree commercially significant.
The Beach Boys
Brian Wilson et al would have been a consensus pick were it not for the post Pet Sounds meltdown that resulted in Smile being shelved for years and the band’s legacy tarnished by never-ending reunions and “Kokomo.” Still, the band has a body of work that traces the commercial and artistic evolution of American music at a critical time (the early to mid 1960s). The band’s singles show an impressive assimilation of 1950s styles (Chuck Berry and surf) with 1960s artistry and they culminate with 1966’s Pet Sounds and its unique combination of early orchestration – which predicts everything from prog rock to indie pocket symphonies – and lyrical introspection. Smile, while never completed at a time when it would have mattered, nevertheless produced “Good Vibrations” and, from the sessions we did get, showed musical imagination approaching Sgt. Pepper.
P-Funk owned the 1970s. They produced rock records – Maggot Brain, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow – that were as good as or even superior to the output of Led Zeppelin, while pioneering an entire genre – funk – with first-rate musicianship and innovative use of synthesizer and bass. Parliament classics like Mothership Connection and The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein predicted hip-hop and EDM. While personnel varied widely from one record to the next, the vision of George Clinton kept it all together but never reduced the proceedings to a solo act.
Simon & Garfunkel
It’s possible to hear Simon & Garfunkel very differently depending on when you came of age. To a baby boomer, S&G captured the folk renaissance of the late 1960s and “The Graduate.” For a millennial like me, S&G are the godfathers of indie rock – just look at their inclusion on the seminal Garden State soundtrack, the 2004 landmark that introduced millions to the burgeoning low-key indie scene. Their “The Last Living Boy in New York” is a perfect complement to The Shins and Iron & Wine songs on that disc, underscoring their enormous influence. They were commercially successful, with a ton of hits at their peak, and their best work – 1968’s Bookends – has ambition to rival The Beatles or Beach Boys’s most daring projects from the same period.
Blondie had the grit to match any punk act from the 1970s, but the versatility to endure much longer than any of them. Their debut was a sublime mixture of 1950s rock n’ roll and New Wave, and it pointed the way to all the skinny-ties and taut guitar lines that would be synonymous with cool for the next 25 years. The classic Parallel Lines perfected this mixture while demonstrating the band’s incredible attention to production (“Heart of Glass”) and a cosmopolitan style that drew upon the best of disco. Autoamerican is one of the most stylistically diverse records in American history, containing early rap (“Rapture”), reggae (“The Tide is High”) and Europop (“Europa”) – all of which would become part and parcel of so many latter-day mainstream and indie artists alike eager to prove that they weren’t one-trick ponies. Even Blondie’s latter-day work is remarkable – they penned one of their best singles – “Maria” – in 1999, and 2014’s double album Blondie 40/Ghosts of Download is important due to its novel approach to the greatest hits format (rerecording the classics) and its deft exploration of contemporary R&B, dance music, and those genres’ guest-heavy formulas.
For some reason, “saving” rock music became an enormous concern for critics in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes that were commercially minor but darlings with critics became inordinately prominent. Sleater-Kinney was well ahead of this trend with its two guitars + drums setup and short, snappy tunes. The band never produced a bad album, and its run from Call the Doctor to All Hands on the Bad One is as extraordinary, with the latter being one of the most overlooked classics since the grunge era. They were never huge sellers, but culturally their politics showed the way to the Obama era, plus their economy, dueling lead vocals, and self-contained nature (no overdubs or outside musicians) makes them a “band” in every sense of the word.