Thursday, March 01, 2007

American Music

Along with a handful of friends, I've been having a roundtable e-mail discussion about the best and most influential American rock bands. It's not a pretty picture. I think of the group, I'm the least concerned with a band's influence as a factor in judging their greatness, but giving it weight rightfully leads to a lot of talk about the Velvet Underground and Talking Heads and Big Star.

What initially astonished me was just how dominant the UK was in producing great/influential bands. The big three -- the Beatles, the Stones, the Who -- are obvious, but just behind them is a virtual avalanche: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Police, U2, The Kinks, The Cure, Fleetwood Mac, The Smiths, Radiohead, etc. It's an incredibly impressive list, all the more so when you turn your attention to American bands. In my unsurprising opinion, the hands-down winner is REM, but I do say that with a straight face as well as a full heart. Despite some evidence to the contrary over the years, I can separate my personal opinions (I really like Journey's Greatest Hits) from more objective considerations (Journey is decidedly not one of the greatest or most influential American bands).

So, there's REM. And in my opinion, Uncle Tupelo's four very good records, and their unique blending of punk and country, and their influence on a great many bands that followed make them a solid choice. But when you go back to the most fertile time in rock, when many of the aforementioned Brits were storming our shores, we were a sad bunch. My friends are throwing around names like The Doors and The Byrds and CCR, all bands that had some very fine moments, but come on. No one seems to be as dispirited as I am by the names we're coming up with. Also mentioned: The Beach Boys, the Allman Brothers, the Ramones. And of course, we've mentioned some more recent bands, like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys.

I got less depressed about my nationality, though, when I realized two things: 1) The great music that gave birth to rock was definitely ours: Louis, Stevie, Aretha, on and on. And 2) when you move the focus from bands to individual artists, the U.S. starts redressing the balance. Yes, there's Elvis Costello and Van Morrison (and surely more that I'm forgetting), but they're up against Dylan, Springsteen, Paul Simon, Prince. This might say something about American individualism, but I'll spare all of us an amateurish unpacking.

Anyone care to defend another American band, or any of those listed above?

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. the pixies
2. sonic youth
3. television
4. pavement
5. dylan should be number one, if you're talking about one artist influencing the most later musicians.
6. please no pearl jam.
7. the misfits
8. bad brains
9. tom waits
10. jimi hendrix
11. Yo La Tengo

these are all artists that came to mind after reading your post. and my list is certainly not a replacement of any kind, but i don't believe that american rock music has been as devoid of influencers as you imply. they've just been a little quirkier. and please no pearl jam. any band citing pearl jam as an influence is horrible.

AND, one more thing, it's not just about who the big influencers are, but also whether the music they inspire is any good. Creed might have influenced Nickelback, but that doesn't make Creed an important rock band.

11:33 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Yes, we forgot the Pixies. And the Replacements.

11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shouldn't this have a "Brits are better than us" tag?

Some other possibly influential American bands/artists:

Van Halen
CCR
Crosby Stills & Nash (& Young)
Wilco
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Parliament Funkadelic
Metallica
KISS
The Grateful Dead
Jefferson Airplane (it hurts me to include them)
Alice in Chains
Marvin Gaye
Stevie Wonder
Fats Domino
Neil Young
Tom Petty
Al Green
Alice Cooper
(The entire rap genre, including Public Enemy, NWA, Snoop, and Dre)
(The entire jazz genre, including Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane)
(The entire blues genre, including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughn)

I realize you're talking about rock bands, but if we're talking about musical influences, I think it's hard to separate out genres cleanly.

But your point is a good one. It sure seems like we should have more and better bands based solely on population.

-- Comish

3:08 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

Comish,

I purposefully left out rap and jazz for the reason you mentioned. Certain bands -- Public Enemy, Beastie Boys -- do straddle the line, but I think you can draw broad distinctions. That's why I made the point about Aretha, etc. Yes, in the music that predated rock, we kick some serious ass.

We also didn't use individuals, which eliminated Dylan, Waits, Hendrix (despite the Experience), Petty (despite the Heartbreakers), and Young (despite CS&N).

10:47 AM  
Blogger Amanda Mae said...

For the past five years, I have had a huge and overt love of Dylan, I am well on my way to owning his entire life's work.

I really do like the Talking Heads. I also own almost everything they ever did, and they're something perfectly cynical and satirical and still wonderful to listen to.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous SARAH said...

I know they're Brits, but you cannot ignore Black Sabbath. Without them there would be no metal--heavy, black, death, speed, viking or otherwise. And where would we be then?

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neil Young is Canadian. And certainly Carlos Santana should be there too. But I also think that Americans tended to influence more as individuals than as a group; the Dylan/Waits/Petty/Hendrix exclusion isn't really fair, since American music in general has celebrated the individual far more than the group as a whole. All of the above artists have had bands with them forever, but the bands never get anynotice because American music culture has always sought out one person on whom the entire value of the band is placed.
And i agree with leaving out jazz, blues, rap, hip hop, soul, funk; America so profoundly wallops every other country in the world that it would be an unfair comparison.
end note: slayer!!!!

3:29 PM  
Blogger Dan Carlson said...

At the risk of, you know, being laughed right out of the room, I feel I should stick up for country. And I don't mean the watered-down stuff that's just bad adult contemporary with a "crazy" electric guitar solo. I mean the classic stuff: Cash, Willie, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, George Jones, the Louvin Brothers and that whole gospel-country gray area, etc. That sounds seems (to me, at least) to be powerfully American. You can get shoegazing indie pop anywhere, but no one does pedal steel like the U.S.

Okay: Mock away.

2:47 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

Dan,

I guess there's no reason why you should, but I don't think you understand how much I share your alt-country leanings, and so I have a lot of those forefathers (and mothers) in my collection, too -- Cash, Cline, Jones, Williams, etc. Great stuff. Again, I think it didn't get mentioned here because we're talking about rock specifically. But I love country music.

1:10 PM  
Blogger MQM said...

Not quite sure how this fits, but given that you narrow this to influential American groups (not individuals) I note the absence of the two bands that I always felt were underrated influence-wise: Little Feat (with Lowell George - gone too soon) and Steely Dan. Influence is best when it comes up capillary-style rather than fire hose (or Xerox) style.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Dan Carlson said...

Yeah, I figured you went in for alt-country, from your Uncle Tupelo shout-out. I guess I just let the label of American music distract me from discussing mainly rock bands; then again, it seemed like most of the biggies had been covered, so I guess it was as good a place as any to give some praise to the country side of things. After all, who doesn't like Willie? Commie bastards, that's who.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

U2 is most assuredly NOT from the UK. They're from Ireland. And the Irish won't let you forget it either. :)

1:54 PM  

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