Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Great American Rock Band

There' a pointless yet deeply enjoyable game of Rock Nerd one-upmanship being battled out over at the Onion A.V. over the question of who were the Great American Rock Band (i.e. the American Beatles). America is fixated on the cult of the individual and so the clearest choices (Elvis, Dylan, Hendrix) are disqualified and, judging by the number of names in contention, no final victor is likely. We can't cover all of the nominees (plus Sly and the Family Stone and Bruce Springsteen and E-Street Band count as solo artists to me) here are a few of the prominent ones:
  • The Beach Boys? Brilliance in composition, harmonizing and studio wizardry does not make the Beach Boys a rock n' roll band. The Beatles were an ass-kicking bar band before Epstein put them in suits, Jagger-Richards bonded over old blues records and Dylan wanted to join Little Richard. Brian Wilson wanted to be in the Four Freshman. No knock on his well-established genius, his band just lacks rock cred.
  • The Funk Brothers? It's no compliment to these masters to claim that they, and not the singers and the songs (um, Smokey Robinson anyone?), were what made Motown the Sound of Young America.
  • CCR? Too few great years, with their awe-inducing run of singles lasting between 1969-1971.
  • The Velvet Underground? Their intensely adventurous, frequently beautiful body of work is wounded by art-school self-indulgence.
  • The Ramones? Would get my X on the ballot straight off but since they didn't develop terribly well and really only upset the status quo's apple cart once (while the Beatles did that a few times) they lose some points.
  • The Grateful Dead? Fuck. Off.
So with no indisputable winner, why not Hüsker Dü?

Yes, Hüsker Dü's so-called creative arc was more imperfect than the Beatles. In fact, they had no hits, no support from the music industry and no media presence. But that was the fate of most Great American Rock Bands of the eighties, from the Bad Brains to the Replacements to the Pixies. Unlike the sixties, it was a terrible time to be great, at least if you played guitar and wrote your own rock n' roll songs without dominant keyboard parts. So Hüsker Dü accomplished one of the most wild, sustained creative streaks in American music almost entirely under their own power.

With Hüsker Dü, you had Bob Mould and Grant Hart, two fantastic song-writers locked in an epic struggle between each other and their addictions, churning out glorious pop songs and sprawling conceptual double albums at an incredible pace, all of which redefined what constitutes rock n' roll. While Land Speed Record is definitely no Meet the Beatles, Zen Arcade might be the White Album AND Sgt Pepper's combined, thus allowing New Day Rising and Flip your Wig to be their double whammy like Rubber Soul and Revolver. A stretch perhaps, but well worth considering.

Let's consider an example shall we? Listen to the distorted, ringing folk-rock put-down that is, "Makes No Sense At All" followed by the pulverizing but sweet cover of the "Mary Tyler Moore Theme" and deny that Hüsker Dü are anything less than a Great American Rock Band.

MRML Readers: Who do you believe is the Great American Rock Band?

(Here's one interesting answer from over at My Own Pirate Radio)


  1. I won't disagree with your choice (Zen Arcade is my White Album, New Day Rising = Revolver and Flip Your Wig = Rubber Soul, but I've got to call you on the Grateful dead - it's not easy to pigeonhole them as a rock band to begin with, and they succeeded in spite of almost completely turning their back on the "music industry" and "record label support". That's pretty punk rock to me.

    And they were the first band to perform with stereophonic sound.

  2. How about Jefferson Airplane?

  3. j weber
    Yeah I was ridiculously terse about the GD. I suppose I did it partly to show my bias up-front. Clearly the Dead did have a huge impact on music and popular culture and I once owned (and loved) Skeletons in the Closet. The more rationale side of me still says they did not write enough SONGS (as compared to jams) to qualify. But I know they have a place in this (doomed to fail) discussion.

    You know with over a thousand comments at the AV post, I don't remember anyone adding Jefferson Airplane. I'm not convinced they could make top five but for their originality and their influence (i.e on SoCal punk - especially X but also Bad Religion)they deserve an advocate.

    At thirteen I would have argued dead seriously for the Doors. But as the years have gone by the meandering songs, the weaker albums and Morison's sometimes interesting, sometimes pretentious verse wore on me. Still influential, still in possession of a clutch of classic songs but not in my top five. Not surprisingly, there's a row going on over at the AV in regards to Door's palce on this list.

    Please write a post defending this very cool choice - that 'Battle of the Bands' album alone has to put them in contention for some honour.

  4. Anon X
    An awesome choice, especially with four such distinct personalities making the band what they were (and man what happened after they lost Billy Zoom!?!)

  5. The Monkees, a completely pre-fabricated glob of child actors and failed musicians slammed together in the best Hollywood trash-dition of "it's hip with the kids right now! Suck 'em in and spit 'em out (with lunchboxs, bubble gum cards and dolls in tow) before anyone has a chance to exhale their disapproval!" But wait a sec, minus the Cute But Largely Musically Talentless English One they had two great (no, I'm not kidding) songwriters in Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork ("The Girl I Knew Somewhere" and "Tear The Top Right Off Of My Head" being but two fine examples)and a seriously under rated lead vocalist in Mickey Dolenz, a young man capable of the handling the most tender of ballads ("Sometime In The Morning") and, for 1967, some pretty ferocious rock n' roll (the three chord proto piano punk of "No Time" comes to mind). Yeah they were kinda inept live (like 90% of all punk rock bands are in their first two years of exsitence) and there's that troubling tendency towards shmaltz (which infected The Beach Boys, Doors and, another on my personal picks, Love to some degree) but, all that aside, the zero-to-hero, pre-fab to "No, we're taking (doomed to fail) control of our own destiny!" makes the Monkees the clear choice for the most American of the Greatest American Bands...

    Of course Big Star's my actual favorite and I'd love to hear an argument for either Redd Kross or Slayer but I'll leave that to someone more capable than myself.

  6. Fuck this Greatful Dead/Doors hippy love-fest!

    Black Flag.

    Black Flag's tenacity plowed the furrows through the American Wastes that would sprout new talent in their wake, talent that, like Husker Du, wanted to be on the SST label.

  7. CPB
    All these defenses of bands of whom I had Greatest Hits L.P.'s (and tapes) of when I was thirteen are most excellent.
    As for the Monkees, I know the revisionist PR machine has been in overdrive for twenty years but the fact that their 'we're in control now' stuff is remembered is because of the success of their ultra-manufactured phase, which, in turn, has been pretty directly responsible for much of the worst music ever made.
    Some crackin' tunes tho' and I can't imagine a better argument for them getting made.

    Flag. Yeah, They did revolutionize music twice, though that second phase always left me cold.
    Truly, one of the most important bands in American musical history.

  8. Nominations may depend on how one defines "American." "American" as in barbaric yawp / seeking an original relationship with the universe and all that? Or "American" as in finding a way to keep an honest course past siren capitalism? There's another "American" too--the scary one with the guns and the ache for regeneration through violence and the Second Coming and all that, but let's not go there (the music's no good!).

    Barbaric Yawpers as yet unmetioned: Replacements, Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, The Gun Club

    Canny Negotiators: REM, Talkingheads, The Flaming LIps, the Breeders

    --or maybe American rock bands, like American authors, often only have one great record in them (Violent Femmes? Neutral Milk Hotel?)

    Thank you for lauding Husker Du, BTW. Their history repeats itself as farce in the form of Green Day.


  9. jbull
    I love those distinctions (Yawpers, Negotiators, and Fitzgeralds) but you've also opened up a nationalistic can of worms.After all there are any number of different Americas.
    I mean if were talking about Robber Baron America, how about Kiss as the Great American Band?

    P.S.More Husker Du to come.

  10. The Replacements would be a good contender.

  11. The Band: Yeah, I know they are Canucks, but any band that can write and perform "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is an honorary American band.

    The Blasters: Such great songs written by Dave Alvin, and no one sang them better than Phil Alvin. I like Dave's solo albums, and Phil's solo album, Unsung Stories, is fantastic, but they were never as good as when they were together.

    The Stooges: Funhouse. 'Nuff Said.

    Yo La Tengo: I would not put any of their records in my top ten, but I just keep listening to them over and over and over again.

  12. Stooges!

    I think we have a serious contender.

    Extremely influential in all my faves...

  13. Bio
    Yeah the Replacements were a frequent nominee over at the AV. I think a great case could be made and certainly their debut smoked the Huskers first two albums, hands down. I'm still partial to the Huskers for their balancing of pop and experimentation (plus they stayed great till the end) though I own more Replacements albums than Huskers album, so ask me again next week....

    Nobody mentioned the Blasters yet, who certainly embody a hell of a lot of different strands of American Music - kinda like...

    The Band are 75% Canadian, and while their work from '65-'70 both backing Dylan and their own work)is amongst the most important in the entire 2oth century, The Guess Who are Canada's Beatles.

    Yo La Tengo
    Someone has to explain YLT to em. I've worked in record stores for years (Still do actually) and I don't get them. not in a bad way, I just never found a point of entry.

    So many of the nominees were influential trailblazers with artistic success but no commercial reward. Why is that?

  14. Yo La Tengo: Like I said, I don't think they have ever made a great record, but I just keep listening to them, repeatedly. They are the Vistory Brewing Company of bands; I don't think Victory Beer is great, but when I don't know what to get, I grab a six of Hop Devil, and I am never let down.

    As for the Stooges
    and other nominees being "influential trailblazers with artistic success but no commercial reward", well, duh, we are all record collecting geeks

  15. and I forgot to nominate NRBQ. They covered the whole of the American songbook.

  16. No commercial reward?

    I don't think many of them had that intention.

    Not pretty enough?

    The Stooges swam against the current of the love-in trend and had no niche to fit in. The whole scuzzy-biker look wouldn't get them on Dick Clark's Bandstand.

    Too wasted to care?

    The Replacements were totally hit-or-miss. Unfortunately for me, the only time I did see them, it was a miss. But the never let little things like that slow them down.

    Or maybe just that the bulk of people influenced by these groups actually picked up instruments and made music they wanted to hear, as opposed to most of the stuff that was out there. Mainstream 70's and '80's groups were seriously alienating. The singer/song-writer seemed much more interesting than the group. More serious somehow. I'm thinking Diamond Dave era Van Halen might be an exception, but it's also the period when spectacle was a going concern. I think the "Hey, you're really good, but the rest of the band..." type of conversations were also widespread. How many of the bands on the list split with the immediate rumours of a solo album? How many actually had successful solo albums?

  17. the real pre-plane crash lynard skynard.

  18. Sean
    Being record collecting geeks is not the problem. The vast majority of us RCG would agree that the Beatles were the Great British Rock Band (And even out other nominees probably had chart success) but most of our American nominees are hit-less inluencers and why that is, is still up for discussion.
    Someone mentioned NRBQ over at the AV on the grounds that they encompass so many types of American music.

    Those are some good reasons. In some ways commercial success in America is more incompatible with artistic success than it is in Britain. If you're in a group anyway. If you look at those American solo artists (Berry, Dylan, Hendrix) they are major artistic and commercial successes.

    Ian MacKaye changed the rules at least twice, so Fugazi have a place on the ballot.

  19. Anon
    A few folks argued for Skynard over at the AV and I can see their point, though I wouldn't advance it personally.

  20. Okay, I'm rethinking my previous comment; so many bands that I'll be re-listening to this week.

    If Husker Du are the american Beatles, does that make SST the american 4AD?

  21. It's a fuckin' vexing question, I've been re-listening a lot too - that was the idea I suppose.

    4AD had an amazing roster but the influence of SST is almost unparalleled since... I dunno - Sun or Chess or something.

  22. Your dismissal of VU ("wounded by art-school self-indulgence") needs some serious explaining. An objective categorizing of their four official albums would show 80% of their output was straight-ahead rock and roll, with their last two providing exactly one such indulgence ("The Murder Mystery"). Their music inspired every alternative and much of the commercial music of the last 25 years. Their live recordings, despite sounding like crap, are all worth hearing, because they never played anything the same way twice. Their influence was at a peak in the prime post-punk years of 1978-82, despite their first 3 records being out of print in the US. I love Husker Du (and I'll love them again when Greg Ginn loses his rights to the masters and better sounding CDs are made available), but to be the Great American Band, your legacy should extend well beyond several great records.

    I would also note that if you think "I Heard Her Call My Name" is an example of VU indulgence (I don't, but I would understand if you did), it would explain why you don't get Yo La Tengo.

  23. Crozier
    Is that 80% number determined by weight (length of A.S.S.I. songs) or volume (number of A.S.SI.)? Cause each of those ASSI songs is loooong.
    Truth is the V.U. were a Great American Band, who I've loved since I got Rock N' Roll Diary in the eighth grade (that's a post right there). The fact that they have a strong songbook that can be re-interpreted by so many helps to make you point.
    (Husker re-issues are way over-due.)
    I'd still say the Huskers depth of material(they have four stone classics, with one being a double)and their direct influence on the Pixies and Nirvana makes them a valid choice.

    P.S. Always liked "I Heard Her Call My Name" it's noisy and catchy all at once.

  24. Husker Du changed my life. I was in 8th grade. I loved the intensity of thrash metal yet, found their lyrics pretty boring, and long song even more boring. I also found that I loved listening to the oldies station when driving around with parents, and loved the melodies and lyrics a lot more than I liked thrash metals.
    The problem was was that I wanted the intensity of thrash metal, and loud guitars, but with the pop hooks 60's pop- only I didn't really know it at the time.
    Then I heard "Don't Wanna Know If You Are Lonely"- and everything changed for me musically. I rode my bike to the record store that day and bought "Candy Apple Grey" and never looked back. Husker Du opened up the whole punk underground to me. I don't know if they are the Great American Band or not- and while I find the arguement fun to make, in all honesty it doesn't make that much of a difference if they are or are not- however, to me they will always be way more than that.


  25. Nick
    "I rode my bike to the record store that day and bought "Candy Apple Grey" and never looked back" is favourite sentence from this entire discussion. Your whole response was very well put.
    By the way, you and fellow commentor CallPastorBob have a very similar musical autobiography.

  26. As much as I will have to endure the cyber-barbs, AEROSMITH is the great American band. They've had:
    1) The hits (both deservedly - Sweet Emotion, Dream On, etc)and , ahem, non-deservedly (anything penned by Diane Warren).
    2) The longevity (35 years plus)
    3) The notoriety
    4) And they've toured pretty much constantly.
    Dismiss them as Jagger/Richard wannabe's at your own peril, Tyler and Perry have been kicking ass for longer than anyone... and with the same crew (1979-1981 notwthstanding).

    Other contenders:
    Beach Boys - perhaps from 1964-1969
    Ramones - Not enough 'mersch success
    Replacements - From Sorry Ma to Tim (I'll even include Pleased To Meet Me)
    X - Reaaaal close
    Creedence - For a three year period!
    The Dead - More of a culture than a band

    Kinda interesting that the USA legends are generally solo artists (Springsteen, Dylan, Elvis, Hendrix, etc), while the European legends are generally bands (Stones, Who, Beatles, U2, Floyd, Zep)

  27. I will probably get blasted for this but my choice would be KISS. Not because they are by any means the best band actually one could argue they were average musicians but like them or not KISS has had a great influence on American music and its culture.
    1.) The KISS stage show changed the rock concert experience. They weren’t the first but they went bigger and better (?). How very American of them!
    2.) KISS has managed to stick around
    3.) The band has sold over 19 million records in the United States[2]and their worldwide sales exceed 80 million albums (Source Wiki…is that legit? Haha!)
    4.) KISS experimented to try and stay relevant and somehow managed to succeed most of the time. Usually when a band begins to fade and they re-tool it’s a huge failure. Somehow KISS managed to revamp themselves on 3 separate occasions. In 1983 with sales declining the band revamped,-ditched the make up and saw a resurgence of fans. Then again in the 90s as their fans declined the somehow captivated fans again by reforming with the make-up and had two huge successful tours around the world.
    5.) KISS has influenced a number of bands and artists in a number of genres. Obviously they have played a huge part in rock n roll/metal but they have also influenced major artists in other genres. See Garth Brooks…*the fact that I know that makes me want to shoot myself.
    6.) KISS’s fans transcend genres where a band like Husker Du or the Ramones is probably more relevant to someone who enjoys alt/indie/punk music. The Beatles also transcend genres
    7.) KISS is big business. Like the Beatles, KISS is more than a band it is a brand. Whether the Beatles intended or wanted to be they are a brand. KISS on the other hand embraced it. Plus is there anyone more business orientated in Rock n’Roll than Gene Simmons?
    8.) The KISS ARMY - Fans make the band
    9.) Like the Beatles, the different members each brought something very different to each album. You can always tell a Paul, John, George song much like a Gene, Paul or Ace song. Something I would argue made both bands great. It made albums diverse and exciting. I suppose this is true on a lesser scale for Ringo and Peter Criss. Maybe you could argue that both of them are jokes? (kidding of course)
    KISS are no means the coolest band to pick for this but it is hard to dispute that they are the one of the great American Bands

    Please excuse any spelling mistakes and or grammatical error. I am at work and writing this in between angry phone calls and trying to get my job done.

  28. Nazz
    I was dreading this argument. It's true that with their strong group dynamic, their deep songbook, their influence on very different bands, their commercial success make them a valid candidate. My sole argument to back my fierce opposition would be that their mixed artistic success (they were never innovators who really changed much about music) might still disqualify them.

  29. Mike
    Thanks for the in-depth response (if after work you turn it into a full post on your blog know and I'll link to it.)
    This idea that you hit on in points #7 and #8, the Kiss are the Horatio Algers of rock n' roll, the rage-to-riches emblems of American Capitalism is pretty much dead-on I suspect the fact that they, along with ABBA, represent the triumph of pure naked commercialism (almost always a big factor in rock n' roll) is wahy I hate them so much.
    Or it's just a hang-over from being too young to go see the Destroyer tour when it came to Winnipeg and missing Kiss Meets the Phantom movie on TV that same year.

  30. Some very good comments, but why no love here for ZZ Top? Look at their whole body of work, from their early blues & Memphis soul heavily influenced work, up through their more commercially accepted 80's stuff. They even embraced the music video trend and became as popular as any band on MTV during their heyday. 40 years later they still sport the same three man lineup they had in '69.

  31. No one can deny ZZ Top their influence on American blues rock, as well as a lot of American indie bands or their curious eighties re-boot but I'm not sure their song-writing, melodically speaking, puts them as a top contender.
    (As I'm sure my replies have given away, I'm not too big on classic rock)

  32. howza 'bout Carnivore? or maybeez The Scorpions?

  33. Gott in himmel der Scopions ist wunderbar, ja?

    (Every 'word' of German I 'learned' from comic books is right there.)

  34. Little late here, but I would argue that there is no American Beatles because each band everyone has listed is very cultural/era specific. The Beatles transcend all that.

    American culture is all about the here and now. Aerosmith probably comes the closest, but they are not universally loved and praised like the Beatles.

    That or the Backstreet Boys represent all that is American.

  35. thanks for the link to my post!

  36. dj

    Yeah the Backstreet Boys do represent one of the many lows in American popular music (which in chart terms menas they're high up the echelon).

    You're welcome and remember I stole the idea too.


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