The popular narrative of American individualism may explain why the rock & roll pantheon consists of English bands and lone American men.
Earlier this week, I made the argument that iconic English bands are better than their American counterparts. The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Floyd, Queen and the Who blow away the likes of Aerosmith, Metallica, the Eagles, CCR, Skynyrd and Guns n’ Roses. When it comes to individual artists, however, the Americans are gods.
As mentioned earlier this week, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the Beatles as the greatest artist/group of all-time. Second on the list was Bob Dylan. Also in the top ten were Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard – the very heart of rock & roll music, and all American. Also high on the list are Bruce Springsteen and Prince. The first Englishmen are Elton John and Eric Clapton, who both come in at around 50. Although many consider the Beatles to be the greatest rock band ever, virtually everyone in the rock world agrees that Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all time. As Tom Morello said, Hendrix “exploded our idea of what rock could be”.
Does it even mean anything that the greatest rock bands are English and that the greatest individual rock stars are American?
Perhaps the disparity has to do with the idea of American individualism – cowboy philosopher on the stage – reckless guitar slinger with a conscience. Popular American bands did exist. But the pinnacle of American rock & roll expression was the singular disgruntled, rebellious young man – James Dean with a mic. Angry young bands on the other hand were more like gangs and mobs – such an Old World concept. It’s not that Americans are or ever were more individualistic, but that the dominant narrative of the American spirit in popular culture permitted the worship of only those artists that conformed to it.