Friday, February 29, 2008

The Quintessential American Rock Band

This Faces binge (especially the Five Guys Walk Into a Bar box) was brought about, in part, by a friend asking me what I thought the quintessential rock and roll band was.

Not the best, or the most important, or most ambitious, or most intelligent, or whatever other critical tag you want to affix, but the quintessential. The one that, in its existence and its music, summed up and pushed forward not only rock and roll, but also the country of its origin.

And I couldn’t come up with one.

Plenty of American solo artists could define rock and roll, and most of those artists had significant bands behind them, but I couldn’t come up with a band.

With the Brits, it’s easy. They’ve got the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, the Faces. Take your pick, right? Any one of them, one way or another, could be argued as representing what’s quintessential about the form. Even if you don’t like one of them, you have to concede their status as fundamentally Rock. Like, most of the time, I have little to no use for Zeppelin, but I have to admit that there are few bands who might be said to so strongly for the ridiculous middle-school machismo of rock and roll. (And, sure, maybe the Kinks are the odd bunch out, but, they’re so damn good that I had to include them anyway).

So, the Brits have those, and we’ve got the Beach Boys.

And Grand Funk Railroad, for God’s sake.

And there’s no quintessence there.

Yes, we’ve got Muddy, Buddy, Elvis, Dylan, and Bruce. But those aren’t bands.

We’ve got “River Deep, Mountain High” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Rolling and Tumbling” and “Thunder Road” and “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” but we don’t have the band.

I mean, we’ve got The Band, and, for one or two albums, they were the best ever, but they were mostly Canadian. And Canada, obviously, ain’t the U.S.

I thought maybe REM or the Replacements, but REM has now officially sucked for more than 50% of their time in existence, and, as for the Replacements, I just don’t think enough people ever listened to them. (The future issue with the Hold Steady, I suspect).

So, who is it?

Who can define rock and roll in that quintessential way, that way that leaves no question, when you hear it, that leaves no doubt that, you know, that’s frickin’ rock ‘n’ roll, man.

Cheap Trick? Closer than Grand Funk Railroad, that’s for sure, but not close enough.

Guns ‘n’ Roses? Could be, but I don’t think a single album can get you there.

Who am I missing? Tupelo? They fit the bill in that they can, like the Stones, even make a fiddle sound completely badass when necessary (has there been a straightup nastier fiddle than on “Factory Girl”?), but, like the Replacements, they never sold. And being Rock means having an audience.

The Byrds? Never as good as they thought they were. And they never made an album without a ridiculous amount of filler.

The Doors? Honky, please.

Creedence? Velvet Underground? The Stooges? The Ramones? Nirvana?

I kept turning the question, sure that I was forgetting someone, sure that there was some big ol’ obvious elephant that I couldn’t see, some big ol’ pachyderm hiding in plain sight.

So, yes, I felt pretty dumb when I realized it was Aerosmith.

Like Zeppelin, it’s not a band that I necessarily want to listen to with any frequency (though, let’s face it, Toys in the Attic will outlive us – as will, I suspect, Pump), but, for the sake of that bizarre, wonderful mixture of machismo and melody, of homage and growth, of hurt and celebration, of, yes, guitars, bass, and drums, that, together, are capital-R-rock.

If it’s actually some other band, please let me know.


Nobis said...

Does Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers count as a band instead of a solo act? I'd argue yes, and that they should be in contention. It is hard to dismiss Aerosmith though; that's a fine argument you've made there, son.

And if longevity doesn't count, then you know durned well that my vote goes to the Replacements.

One last thing, I'm not sure that CCR shouldn't be in the running. I know they were short-lived, but their music has had incredible staying power. It's eminently likable and everybody loves them.

I think we should get a petition together and get this on the November ballot.

Nobis said...

Man, I just typed a nice long response to this that got dumped. In a nutshell, I said:

1. Nice work on the Aerosmith defense. Hard to argue with, but nevertheless...

2. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Band, not solo act, and should be in contention.

3. How much is longevity really worth? The Replacements are clearly the best true American rock band ever.

4. Also in the screw longevity argument, I give CCR a vote. The band didn't last, but the songs sure did. They're eminently likable. Everyone loves 'em. And they're just so gol-durned American. That's hard to beat.

Nobis said...

I now realize that Google/Blogger is just punking me out and requiring comment moderation. So now you can compare and contrast my two responses. Which do you like better? Version A or version B? Paragraphs or numbered list? You make the call.

Honkymagic said...

I like them both. So I publish them both.

But I'd put Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the same league as Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, etc.

Certainly, Tom and Bruce are inseparable from their bands, and, certainly, Neil made most of his best music with CH, but, I have to hold the line at a band, not a singer + band that bills itself that way.

And I'm fine with the Replacements and Creedence, ultimately, but there's something about both that keeps me from immediately approving them. Not sure what.

But, of the two, I'd take the Replacements, I guess. You get the snotty adolescence, the romance, the humor, the yearning to be honest, to be drunk, to be better than you are. And you get a perfect rock and roll voice, too.