Last month, a tweet sent out by (of all people) Hank Azaria spawned an online conversation that got people flipping through their mental rolodex.
At first, upon reading this, I surely thought there’d be a definitive answer, but when I started to think, I found myself scraping the bottom of the barrel – what American band can hold up against the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Stones? The answer is not as clear as you think, and some names may surprise you. Discounting singer/songwriter driven bands (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band) in consideration for groups that contained individual personalities coming together to create, among popular answers were the Ramones, Guns n’ Roses, The Eagles… And after a few weeks of digesting this question, we’ve come down to a few solid names that could even hold a candle up to those British bands.
Out of the most popular answers was the Grateful Dead. A worthy suggestion based on their influence of psychedelic music and how we hear/see live shows, the Grateful Dead was one of the more experimental bands that played with how their sound could travel, going so far as to even be one of the first bands to use dual-polarity techniques to cut out the “buzz” from their microphones due to the ever changing positions of their walls of amps on stage. But still, the only works of theirs I feel will stand the test of time are The Working Man’s Dead and American Beauty. Outside of that, their sleuth of albums and toying with how we hear live sound are worth mentioning, but when it comes to groundbreaking American bands that can hold up with the Brits, they’re not the first or strongest that come to mind.
Another popular answer was the Talking Heads. In terms of taking the pop sound and making it into a baroque art painting, the Heads definitely had a hand in making rock music actually move. They definitely ran point in assigning their own definitions to what we now call “art-rock.” Along with producing arguably the greatest concert film of all time, they produced an array of hits that will surely transcend their years. However, their discography doesn’t nearly stand out as one that grows better with age. Sure, they’re all collections of great songs, but none of the albums really challenged or changed how we perceive music.
One of the more popular answers was Aerosmith, which, to me, is already not my first choice at first thought. I could see why people would think that – the 70s, the heavy popular rock music – but I haven’t heard anyone mention Permanent Vacation in 10+ years, then say, Sgt. Peppers. No one can deny their popularity, reach, and accessibility, but in terms of changing the path of music as we hear it today, they don’t even come close.
Another popular answer was, of course, the Beach Boys, which was my very first choice as the greatest American “rock band.” But not many people would agree with me, why? Well, because aside from being just a “touring band,” they weren’t really an actual “band.” That is, when it came time to come together to create, the music was mainly springing out the head of Brian Wilson. Yes, every member had a contribution, but not the “forged in fire” collaboration we’re talking about here in comparison to the Beatles and the Stones. If we’re going by albums, I would argue that Pet Sounds is the greatest album made by an American band (the sticker even says so on the album cover! Then it must be true, right?) However, to have that as your only album that will remain timeless amongst your discography isn’t a strong enough asterisk to put you in the ranks of creative collaboration.
Nirvana was also a name that popped up frequently. And while I’ll admit they had a huge hand in making alternative music popular and accessible, their legacy and discography will always stand in the shadow of Nevermind. But, they are an important band for that landmark album alone. Having a big to do in shaping American rock music, they set a precedent for the many popular alternative bands that would follow in their footsteps, paving a way for record labels to start seeing dollar signs in the careers of alternative artists. Had Nirvana not been successful, perhaps neither would have Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Primus, or Pearl Jam. Nirvana gave a reason for cathartic rock music to be invested in, which is a groundbreaking achievement, but still, when I think of the label “greatest American rock band,” Nirvana is not even close to one of the first names that pop in my head.
But to name what I think should be dubbed the greatest American band of all time: the Velvet Underground created what we define as “art-rock” today. They are the one American band in my mind that truly created a new, singular sound which buzzed the atmosphere to encourage others to pick up the guitar. The collaboration of Lou Reed and John Cale was so cosmic that it forced every other musical group at that time to re-evaluate the passion and grit that went into their music. The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light White Heat, and Loaded are three of the greatest rock albums of all time, and not just by American standards. Their debut album was initially a flop, selling only 30,000 copies in its early years, but as Brian Eno put it in 1982, “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
However, the only thing that separates the Velvet Underground from being considered the greatest American rock band is that they were never a household name. You think of the Stones, Led Zeppelin… everyone knows these names. Anyone can recognize the lips with the tongue sticking out or the cover of Abbey Road. It’s a clout the Velvet Underground was too cult to achieve: they were always underground, the single thread that prevented them from being spoken in the same breath as these bands. But outside of the Beatles and James Browne and His Famous Flames, the Velvet Underground was possibly the third most important band of the 60s.
Which brings us to who we think is actually the quintessential American Rock band of all time. Taking into account everything in this article we’ve talked about, all the criteria, we believe that the Doors are the greatest American rock band of all time. Many of you I’m sure will disagree, as well as with this whole article, because I, too, disagreed at first. “Why them? They’re not nearly the first name I think of when I think about American rock.” But then I started thinking: if the Beatles were the crowning musical achievement in the 60s that embodied change, then surely the Doors were the closest musical equivalent for the U.S., because they too were the embodiment of change, Americanized. Throughout the Vietnam war, the moon landing, the counterculture movement, the Doors were always in the background. Not only that, but they’re the only American band I can think of whose legacy only skyrocketed after their break-up. Every American frontman from Glenn Danzig to Julian Casablancas to Marilyn Manson site Jim Morrison as their greatest inspiration. Jim Morrison leads more of a legacy in the afterlife than he did roaming the Earth, which is enough to prove how timeless they were in the mere five (!!!) years spent together, with each following generation still finding a fascination for them. They were the pinnacle American musical achievement in merging blues and heavy rock, with Morrison’s lyrics elevating the rhythm section into truly universal songs.
But what does this say about American rock music as a whole? What do we consider real “bands?” Or are we just more fascinated with the individual personalities (Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Prince)? It certainly appears so, given the “lack” of cohesive individuals to come together to create. One could easily see Bob Dylan and Elvis on this list if the given qualifications were different, but maybe that’s just how American pop culture has shaped up to be. We crave and reward individual talent and personalities mainly because Americans have been programmed to do so – we are obsessed with the success of the individual. It is an icon to easily lock onto, to look up to. An individual is marketable. It’s the same reason why soccer isn’t as popular in the States – Americans crave the immediate pay off. It is the product we are enamored with, the façade we can identify with.
So, what does this mean for the future American bands? Are there any bands today that will stand the test of time? Who will we still be talking about 40-50 years from now? Will the pandemic spur on another wave of organic, singular group projects? Feel free to fire off in the comments section.