Rock & roll music is more American than apple pie. The great American bands, however, pale in comparison to their English counterparts. Is it something in the water?In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine compiled their list of the 100 greatest artists of the rock & roll era. The list isn’t perfect (no list is), but it captures a relatively undercovered transatlantic disparity. Unsurprisingly, the top spot is held by the Beatles. The next band on the list is the Rolling Stones. The next, and first American band on the list is the Beach Boys.
Other English bands on the list include Led Zeppelin, the Clash, the Who, Pink Floyd, Queen, Radiohead and the Yardbirds. The American bands include Nirvana, the Doors, Aerosmith, Metallica, the Eagles (I hate the fuckin Eagles, man), Creedence Clearwater Revival, R.E.M. and Guns n’ Roses. With the exception of perhaps R.E.M. and Nirvana, I feel confident in asserting that every single one of those English bands is better than every single one of those American ones.
It should be noted that all of the English bands mentioned took inspiration from distinctly American musical roots. The Beatles were vocal in their indebtedness to Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Little Richard, the latter of whom incidentally stayed with and advised the Fab 4 during their stay in Hamburg, which, according to Malcolm Gladwell, marked the turning point in the Beatles’ career in terms of them actually becoming a good, and eventually, great band. The Rolling Stones made it no secret that they were following in the footsteps of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and other greats of American blues and R&B.
Furthermore, all of the bands on the list, including U2 and ACDC, neither of which are English or American, toured extensively in the States and sold more records there than anywhere else. It can be argued that in terms of inspiration and a market to consume and appreciate them, there would be no Beatles or Stones without the US. But now it feels as though I’m getting patriotically defensive. The fact of the matter is that either by historical accident or some other cultural reason, the iconic bands of England are far better than those bred in the US.
But why focus on mainstream bands? Perhaps there are plenty of underground groups in the States that are better than those in England, but by that logic, underground rockers in Germany, or Korea even, may be better than anyone on the Rolling Stone list. For ease of analysis, my use of the word “better” applies, unfortunately or not, only to bands that have achieved popular success.
Perhaps unfairly, I have intentionally excluded many bands (Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament Funkadelic and essentially every Motown band on the Rolling Stone list). Although these bands can be considered part of the rock world, they are also different enough to merit their own genres. I may hate the Eagles (seriously, I do), but they are unfortunately more of a rock band than the Temptations (who are great). In other words, being called a rock band is not a compliment – it’s a description. Also excluded are Simon and Garfunkel (seem more like Batman an Robin than a band) and the E-Street Band of Bruce Springsteen fame – neither or whose omissions change the larger point mentioned above concerning the English advantage.
Take a look at the list again and let me know if you think there are any deserving bands that were left out. Possibilities include the Cure, Outkast, the Smiths, Pearl Jam, the White Stripes and many more – please don’t say Coldplay. Later this week, I will explore whether the English advantage exists when dealing with individual artists as opposed to bands (hint: it’s the complete opposite).