This inquiry is drawn out of a conversation I had last week with a couple of friends. The discussion flowed out of a question about who each of us considered our five favorite bands ever. For the record, mine are (and this doesn't include solo artists) The Beatles, The Replacements, Pink Floyd, The Band, and then a lot of hedging about; The Jayhawks, The Beastie Boys, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Rolling Stones, and Steely Dan. I had to cheat because when it got right down to it, I could probably only choose between The Beastie Boys and Steely Dan with a gun to my head and even then I would have to apologize. Somewhere along the way the Eagles were brought up. One of us was really cold. One of us was medium cool. The other was more hot on them. I was the one that was hot on the idea that the Eagles were America's greatest rock band. I later apologized and leaned on the fact that I may have had my mind clouded just a bit on that lazy Saturday afternoon.
How I got there (to proclaiming the Eagles as the greatest American band) was by an outburst. I didn't think it through, but I felt as though I had to defend what they were against an onslaught of ripping for them being so, well.....mediocre. I fully realize they are not a particularly influential band, but they had a great deal of talent as individuals. They were easy to listen to and in my opinion they only made one album that I just think was bland (their "comeback" East of Eden). They made five really good records and one great record (Hotel California). I think much of the backlash over them was the type of sound they had coming out of the 1960's, which ended on a string of raw sounding guitar oriented bands, progressive rock, and politically motivated music. It isn't too hard to see why they could be so easily discounted as having substance. That California sound which they lifted from the Byrds and the country tinge they swiped from Gram Parsons captured the ear of the mainstream. Every album they released in the USA went platinum and I do mean EVERY record. That includes the greatest hits. Only eight artists have sold over 40 million records and they are on the list, with Greatest Hits volume 1. They also rank 14th all-time in sales with Hotel California. They won six Grammy's and that's nothing to sneeze at. They were doing something right and I think a very good argument could be made that they are the best American band ever. Don Henley and Glenn Frey were solid song writers, good (not great musicians) and the supporting cast that were in and out of the group (Randy Meisner, Bernie Leadon, Joe Walsh, Timothy Schmidt, Don Felder) are strong musicians and would occasionally contribute songs.
I won't make that argument though (at least not anymore than I already have), but they really do have to be up there. I think influence should come into play when there is a discussion of "greatness". Sometimes a band doesn't find an audience that makes them popular in the mainstream, but they find an audience that inspires others to create music or move their music in different directions. Progress is important from record to record in my opinion. The Eagles were pretty much (though they didn't stay entirely static) the same band making the same kind of music in 1979 (and 2007) as they were when they released their first record in 1972. So, while it would be hard to put up a well rounded argument against the Eagles with a serious Eagles fan, I think there are some bands that have had either popularity, influence, volume sales, and artistic respect (or all of the above) that could be mentioned as "great". Are any of these the "greatest"? Are any of them greater than the Eagles? It's subjective to the taste and opinions of each person, but I'll throw a few out there that I have been a fan of at varying levels of interest.
The Beach Boys
This is a band that probably doesn't get the respect they deserve in some circles of rock "fandom". That definitely comes from the misconception (stemming from their earliest records) that they were a niche band for teenagers and that they wrote shallow songs. Well, sure, there are the surf, car, and girl tunes (which I have NO problem with), but the greatness of Brian Wilson emerged as being much more than that simple formula. The melody's he created that were textured, and sensational to experience, helped them rise above being just some sort of "boy band" that lacked credibility. You simply can't listen to "Don't Worry Baby", "When I Grow Up", "Good Vibrations", "Wouldn't It Be Nice", "Help Me Rhonda", "Sloop John B", and "God Only Knows" without hearing greatness, both musically and lyrically. They influenced The Beatles. If that isn't chops, I don't know what is!
They were the little alternative band that could. Hailing from Athens, Georgia which also produced another college rock darling The B-52's, REM made killer album after killer album. They sustained a string of critically acclaimed records and finally got a hit in 1987 with "The One I Love", were signed to a major label in 1988, and became an arena filling band with the release of "Out of Time" in 1991. By most any standard, they put together a string of about 7 or 8 fantastic records. I don't know how influential their sound was on other bands, but they were able to sustain some underground credibility even after they "hit it big". For my money, their best album was "Automatic For The People" with "Out of Time", "Life's Rich Pageant", and "Green" being right there. This is a band that continued to develop new sounds for themselves from album to album. You knew you were hearing REM, but they were always able to do something just a bit different to keep it interesting. No better example of that is the difference in their sound and lyrics from "Automatic For The People" to "Monster". From stripped down, subtle pop to the crashing guitars of glam rock! It's hard to ignore 14 Grammy nominations and 3 wins. This is a band that has to be right at the top of the discussion.
The Beastie Boys
Is a "rap act" a band? Sure it is. They played instruments. They wrote their songs. They produced records. They enjoyed some commercial and popular success with their first record, but really hit it off with the hip hop crowd with the stellar "Paul's Boutique" and then took their credibility to the alternative audience with "Check Your Head". "Paul's Boutique" is on quite a few lists for not only best album of the 80's, but for one of the best albums of all-time. They strung together 5 great records before releasing the so/so (in my opinion) "To The Five Burroughs" (which was one of 4 records they had that reached #1). Their influence can be heard in Eminem, Rage Against The Machine, Kid Rock, Pigeon John, and Sublime, among others. I hate that I never got to see them perform live. They were a band that I grew up with. I took to them right from the get go and followed their career until it ended due to the death of Adam Yauch a few years ago.
Now this is an odd "band". It's basically two guys (Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) that used session musicians (Rick Derringer & Michael McDonald among many others) and worked tirelessly to produce music that was hard to pin down or define. Was it rock n roll? Jazz? Blues? R&B? Rag time? Yes. The song writing was stellar. They chose to write most of their music about the culture, the seedy underbelly of city life and about people that society looks down on or ignores. They have released 9 albums in their career and I can't call any of them bad. By their own standards in comparison (using "Aja", "Can't Buy A Thrill", and "Royal Scam" as the highest standard) "Countdown To Ecstacy" and "Everything Must Go" are rather ordinary, but each has several solid songs that stand up to the Steely Dan catalog. On a side note, how can you dismiss a band that names themselves after a dildo from a William Burroughs novel?
This is a band that I really wish more people had an interest in. I've never heard anyone say they hate them, their music is accessible, but I guess it's just not right for radio play. Wilco has had many band members come and go over the years, but the band is built around the ideas and lyrics emerging from the mind of Jeff Tweedy. He may well be one of the most under appreciated songwriters in modern music. Each album for Wilco has been a departure (or growth) from the previous. They started out tapping into their alternative-country roots on the album "AM", dabbled in some pop, a little progressive rock...they just seem to have touched it all. They have released eight albums, with a ninth coming up in August. Each record they have recorded seems to push forward into something they have not done before and as a fan it keeps you on your toes and challenges you to step outside what you think "your kind" of music is and to hear things differently. That had to be what the Beatles were like to their fans in the 60's. If you don't allow yourself diversity in what you listen to, they won't appeal to you very long. Perhaps that's why they have not reached more commercial success despite being critical darlings. They have been nominated for 6 Grammy's and have won a couple. By the way, one of the best music oriented documentaries you will ever see is called "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart". You don't have to be a fan of the band to enjoy this look at how clueless, shallow, and spirit breaking the corporate music world is.
I am going to stop right here. There are more bands that better music fans than myself can probably speak to as in the running for America's best band ever. If I created a list to explore it would also have to include Aerosmith, CCR, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Metallica, The Doors, Pearl Jam, and yes, The Replacements (the best band that America ever missed). I don't listen to some of those bands much, but I realize they have strong followings and I'm sure some solid arguments could be put forth.
To end this long post, I'll just say that I don't know what band I would call the best American band of all-time. There are so many to consider and there are a lot of great arguments to be made for every band I've mentioned. Some achieved great commercial success. Some were critically successful. Some were influences on entire genres of music without ever having gained radio play. I'm just going to have to wind it up with saying, once again, it's simply subjective. But that's not really any fun is it? I mean, how can you spark a debate if you just dance around the subject? OK, so I will go on record as saying that REM is the best American band ever. So, there....let the hate fly!
I'd love to hear anyone else's take on this or see your top 5 lists if anyone wants to take the time to leave a remark.