Who is the greatest American rock band? Who gives a shit. In 2020, that’s like asking which was Churchill's best derby hat. All “best of” considerations are the purview of time killers and space fillers. Counterpoint: I’m trying to do these newsletters every week and I don’t have 52 good essay ideas in a year, and “who is the greatest American rock band” is grade A filler. Sorry, what I meant to say was “in these trying times, I hope that this discussion of music, that eternal salve, can provide some comfort. Please support my patreon.”
This newest exercise in Empire-in-Decline parlor game, plague distraction, frippery (excuse me “unifying salve”) was inspired by the question itself posed by Brockmire superstar, bestower of the grace known as Moe Sizlack, and Apu dead-ender, Hank Azaria. He tweeted “Fairly safe to say that the greatest rock band of all time discussion is USUALLY between The Stones, The Beatles and Led Zep- so what is the greatest AMERICAN rock band of all time?- I know what I think” and an online nation responded with suggestions so obvious (E Street Band) and populist (The Eagles) that they could have been designed in a lab to make professional rock critics feel bad about their life choices. He finally answered his own question with “Aerosmith and The Doors” to which a nation screamed in vain, “huh. Really? Ok.”
Of course, in questions of this sort, there are no wrong answers. Let’s get that out of the way. If you feel like the following might hurt your feelings, please stop reading. Whether one sees Rock and Roll Music as transcendent, life changing/saving ART or Pavlovian state sponsored *extreme Jello Biafra voice* hamburger meat slurry (it’s both), hopefully one can take the following in the spirit it’s intended: time killing fun to be had on Beyonce’s internet, to be carried into Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s irl once the bars reopen. As has been proven again and again, taste has zero bearing on character. I bet half the people who said Journey is the Best American Rock Band are pure-hearted social workers who give blood to orphan puppies. And I, a certified Good Taste Haver, am a 6’3” concave-chested parasite who would give Gandhi a wedgie for ten Facebook likes and half a pack of Newports. Our preferences say nothing about us outside of our discog accounts. Greg Gutfeld loves the Gun Club. Never forget that.
Furthermore, as this is a discussion of Rock and Roll, sex may come up. As might a band’s looks and/or charisma and how that affected the nether regions of fans at the time. I realize that such analysis is out of vogue (for good reason) and specifically out of vogue coming from middle-aged cis men. I get it. You can, again, stop reading. I’ll never know. OR, if it helps, you can read the following pretending it’s in the voice of either of these members of the DC Comics anthropomorphic superhero team, Zoo Crew. Either
Felina Furr / Alley-Kat-Abra or
Timmy Joe Terrapin / Fastback
Hope that helps.
Determining who The Best American Rock band is/was, if not entirely subjective/arbitrary, calls for a few guidelines (also entirely subjective/arbitrary, but we gotta start somewhere). I’m going to say that, to be considered, a band should have at least two great albums (Sorry, G’n’R), be or have been at least somewhat popular at least at one time (sorry, all your and my obscure faves), and, this is where it gets controversial, not have had such a precipitous decline in quality that they have more band albums than good. Sorry Van Halen and Aerosmith. Shoulda stayed on or off the hard stuff.
Even in a phrase where every word is archaically suspect, the “American” part of “Best American Rock Band” is a pickle. In a genre where the supposed “all time” greats (The Stones, The Beatles and Led Zep) at least began and largely existed as pure pantomime of African-American culture and accent, it grates to be forced into sub-division. My partner, Zohra Atash, argues that all “classic” rock bands except The Kinks are American. She correctly points out that even Fleetwood Mac didn’t really get cookin’ till they added the members from the colonies. This is very much a theory for a later discussion but adds fuel to my regret that Canada’s The Band can’t be considered. What, after all, is more (white) American than romanticizing the Confederacy in your worst song.
Which also leads to another point before we get down to just talking wild shit about all your favorite bands. I’m not necessarily even using “Best American Rock Band” as the highest compliment. While I’m not going to engage in slap-dash contrariness (all the bands considered will be at very least “good”), I’m talking “Most American Rock Band” as much as I am “best.” With all the good and band that entails. So… sorry R.E.M. I think you’re wonderful and thanks for all the reasonable genius. Have fun building cuckoo clocks in Sweden.
Finally, if for no other reason than to avoid writing a library, I think we should require all bands in consideration to have at least some, even as a stretch, noticeably aural connection to Rock and Roll’s Rhythm & Blues roots. Yes, it all comes from Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton, but few would call The Melvins, or even Metallica (yes, except Black Album I know) “Rock and Roll” unless they were making that previous point. This is not a hill I’d die on in a court of law but, for our purposes, extreme metal and hardcore exist on Antarctica and Staten Island exclusively. Conversely, we are considering all rock bands (Parliament, Sly & The Family Stone, The Impressions, LaBelle) that were ghettoized on the Billboard Charts as “funk” or “R&B” out of racism.
With their comeback based on a transphobic novelty song and adolescent fixated upskirt videos, followed by decades spent trying to recapture Alicia Silverstone in a bottle, Aerosmith are most assuredly not America’s Best Rock Band, Azaria be damned. I don’t care how perfect Dream On is and to be honest I blame “Back In The Saddle” for all the Jesus Lizard clone bands as much as I blame Jesus Lizard themselves. So, sorry, Aerosmith. Thanks for “Janie’s Got A Gun” and Ben Affleck’s blu ray commentary for Armageddon but you’re out. Which leaves Mr.Azaria’s other, more polarizing choice; The Doors.
Few classic rock bands inspire such equal parts loathing or reverence as Jim Morrison and The Doors. For partisans, The Doors are either transcendent or transcendentally silly in a way that’s admirable, especially in comparison to less ambitious bands. There’s something to both those things and the fact that their fanbase was largely (perceived as) teenage girls had much to do with their dismissal from the dude canon. And I think, because their brand of hoodoo sensuality is especially appealing to teenagers, there’s a degree of embarrassment amongst critics who choose to pretend that Lou Reed or Leonard Cohen was their first poet-rocker. But, for most of us of a certain age, our gateway drug to bad poetry, white boy blues, and psychedelic poster art was a pubic-treasure-trailed lizard king shimmying his way into our (mole)skin.
As with a lot of the bands mentioned here, I could easily (and more fairly) devote a separate essay to The Doors. But briefly, on the face of it, The Doors as Best American Rock Band is totally reasonable. The first, self titled, album is damn near perfect proto-Goth pop ‘n’ blues. Yeah, The End kind of sucks, but in a jollily indulgent way. All their albums have at least a couple songs with more fire in their belly than most bands will accomplish in an entire career. And god knows I’ll see you all in hell before I give a hoot if Jim Morrison “can sing.” Sounds OK to me. So, if The Doors are your pick… OK. But, well, I can’t do it. A few months ago, with time to waste and always distrusting critical consensus, I went through the entire Doors catalog to check my own notions and see just how preconceived they were. And friends, I say unto you: WOOF. I don’t disagree that many reasons to hate The Doors (pretentious, more pop than rock, girls like them, etc) are dumb and bad but… you know what else is dumb and bad? SO MANY SONGS BY THE DOORS. I mean, crazily so. Often made worse by having a good chorus or verse but never both. Just endlessly frustrating cabaret blues with the thinnest production of any classic rock band. Just sub-Scott Walker horseshit. Variety TV show music. Like Dinah Shore trapped in a carnival. OK maybe I’m just talking about Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade. But, guys, I hate Roadhouse Blues and Queen Of The Highway so, so much.
That being said, I’m listening to them as I write this and having a ball so, if we count them being responsible for The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” (lol obviously we do) and Ray Manzarek’s work on X’s Los Angeles, The Doors are still in the running. And god knows Morrison’s egregious misuse of Native American mythology certainly makes The Doors frontrunners in a Most American Rock Band competition. Moving on.
CSN&Y are out for being 1/4th English, 1/4th Canadian and having a less consistent catalog than the contemporary CSN&Y, Alice In Chains.
The Impressions, however, despite being classified as a “soul” or “vocal” group, are very much in the running. If the interminable bloat of The Who is deified by mods for the band’s fashion and “maximum R&B” then Curtis Mayfield’s The Impressions 1968-1970 (We’re A Winner through Young Mod’s Forgotten Story) run should be considered the Mt. Olympus of sharp hairdos and pointy shoes. I get that The Impressions don’t, in terms of both lasting popularity and influence, check a lot of people’s boxes of Best American Rock Band. But if people responding to Azaria’s tweet could say Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chili Peppers with presumably straight faces, I can put forth the least whiny falsetto-driven rock band in history.
The flip-side of the Impressions conundrum (vocals with backing band) would be James Brown’s Famous Flames. It breaks my heart to exclude them, but I concede America’s Best Rock Band can’t be overshadowed by its figurehead. Regardless of our historically recurring submissions to whatever cults of personality and their varied positions vis-a-vis whatever Cross of Gold we find ourselves in a tizzy about at any given time, we didn’t dump all that tea in the harbor for nothing. Sorry, James Brown’s backing musicians, you inarguably rule the school… but rock bands just don’t pay fines.
CBGBs Roundup: Logic dictates that Talking Heads are in the running though, while I’m fond of them, I can’t conjure up too many strong feelings about it one way or the other. In my defense, I don’t see David Byrne being overly concerned either.
B-52s would be high finalists even if Cindy Wilson’s screaming “why don’t you dance with me?” on “Dance This Mess Around” was the only moment they recorded. Like The Mekons’ “ClubMekon,” it’s the entire history of rock in under five minutes. (There’s a much longer essay on B-52s importance needed but check this Weingarten piece out for starters.)
The Ramones are out just for, frankly, being too on the nose. I don’t like being told how to feel about rock and roll.
For the inverse reason The Ramones are out, The Monkees are in. Even if Davy Jones is a Brit. If you can’t see how the story, of pretty/ugly weirdos buckling against their TV overlords’ insistence on their remaining a perpetually child-like Beatles knock-off and eventually doing a gorgeous version of Carole King’s Porpoise Song and then imploding, is as American Rock epic as one could hope for, you and I have different ideas of what constitutes rock and roll. And if your argument consists that The Monkees are some “less real” then, say, The Eagles… that’s an argument against the worth of objective reality, not a dig against The Monkees. Anyway, Minor Threat’s cover of “Stepping Stone” was the Monkees version. Also, The Monkees version of “Cuddly Toy” rips. That’s good enough for me.
Despite a toothless version of Tutti-Fruity and somehow managing to both have less songs than The Doors and more, in practice (according to Please Kill Me), retrograde views of women, MC5 are still in the running. Great hair, great dance moves, “Looking at You,” and that song opening speech clinch their inclusion in the final circle.
Sly and The Family Stone are easily in the final five. We, as a nation, love our pleasure spiked with pain. A useful tip to all major dudes tho; don’t say that “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” is your favorite Sly album. It’s like saying “Exile On Mainstreet” is your favorite Rolling Stones album. Yes, you’re a discerning, world-weary aesthete. God still ain’t going to fuck you.
I have too much self-respect and respect for you, the reader, to take easy pot shots at Lynyrd Skynyrd. I did once see the sun set over the pig races at the Orange County Fair while a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band played a fifteen minute version of Freebird so, Real Americans, I sort of get it.
While I’m loath to give Texans any more reasons to shoehorn a mention of their home state into any conversation, regardless of context, both ZZ Top and 13th Floor Elevators are in. Honestly, I suspect that the exceptionalism of Texas’ citizenry would preclude their allowing either band to be reduced as merely “American” anyhow.
The Stooges, yes. The Cramps, yes. LaBelle, yes. With only one “hit” between them, all three are hard sells. But all three have a singular artiness that doesn’t feel the need to announce itself and all three represent a truly oddball Americana that a million flannel flying Uncle Tupelo revivalists will never hope to capture.
As much of the New York music industry infrastructure of the last half century has been predicated upon Jewish men of varying degrees of self-loathing trying to score with Nico and teutonic approximations thereof, it’s no surprise that many men of my tribe went with The Velvet Underground. Fair enough. The first album isn’t exactly rock and roll and I can barely put into words how much I despise White Light/White Heat’s The Gift, the s/t third album and Loaded are as good Rock and Roll as this country ever produced. Not in Little Richard’s category but easily as good as the first few Cheap Trick albums.
Just kidding! I LOVE the Velvet Underground! Of course I do, I mean, just look at me. OF COURSE they’re in the final running! (I do really hate The Gift tho.)
I also really hate KISS. But my guy Ben Greenberg voted for New York’s worst export outside the Cuomo Brothers so, out of respect and acknowledgement that a strong case could be made by people not me, I include them. He also noted that Velvet Underground=dystopian Judaism and KISS=utopian Judaism. Totally scans.
In the responses to Azaria’s tweet, I was genuinely shocked that nobody except Judy Berman mentioned Sleater-Kinney. This, clearly, speaks to my bubble. I am abundantly aware that men swearing “Sleater-Kinney is the best American rock band,” like outsized claims of male feminism, can be *cough* reasonably taken as a red flag. I have, after all, been in bars in Brooklyn. But that doesn’t make the statement not true. For consistency of catalog, with surfeit of high points, few bands can match ‘em. While they’ve never been huge, if we adjust for the shrinking audience for Rock Music itself, I think a strong argument can be made for both popularity and legacy. While I think No Cities To Love was as overrated as The Center Won’t Hold was under, I don’t have any Sleater-Kinney jokes as I do not have an online death wish.
A lot lot LOT of critics suggested Parliament/Funkadelic. I don’t love them for the same reason I don’t love Led Zeppelin; it all just feels too… BIG for me. Loving Zeppelin or Funkadelic feels like loving the Taj Mahal. I’m really more a Big Duck guy. I will also admit that briefly going to a liberal arts college with plentiful white dreads playing hackysack may have ruined Funkadelic for me. But I’m almost over my late teenage years, so I won’t deny the band’s merit. In!
All three bands are gimmes if we’re being completely fair. Only a monster would disagree. CCR, The Revolution, and Suicide all share a reverence for the traditions that make up Rock And Roll without the piety that makes do-wah-ditty UK hacks like Eric Clapton such bores. All three bands fully inhabit the same spiritual plane as your Little Richards and Chuck Berrys and Elvis Presleys without sounding remotely like them, all three were supposedly transformative to watch perform live, and all three, and here’s where the Americanness shines bright, were far too arrogant to ever share the designation of Best American Rock Band. Even while (correctly) holding the very idea of it being a competition in contempt.
(Yeah, I know Suicide’s inclusion may violate some or all of my stated guidelines. Call the rock list police.)
There! Done! I’m so glad we, using our nation’s storied reliance on good science tempered by a moral compass that’s the envy of the rest of the civilized world, settled this matter of vital importance. Hail hail, rock and roll. Namaste, America.
Shoot. I promised Zohra I’d fit Ian Svenonius in here somewhere. But I forgot and it’s 5:40AM, so let’s just all agree that, no matter who your pick for America’s Best Rock Band is, Nation of Ulysses is a strong pick for number two. I also forgot Husker Du. Please throw them in there somewhere. Thanks. And thanks for reading!
UPDATE: Someone already asked about the Grateful Dead. I, as a rule, neither praise nor mock them. But if I did, my joke would be “The boomer Sonic Youth.” Do with that what you will.