Who is the Best Rock Band of All Time?
I apologize for not posting here much lately. I had to return to work shortly after the first of the year and have been chasing a major political story here in my town for the paper ever since. The story is now done (although I suspect I will begin working on the follow-up Monday) and I can now post this blog that has been in my head for a week.
But first, I want to just say one thing: God bless all of the people who lost their lives, their families, and their homes in Haiti. What we in the United States and most of Europe see as major problems are far better than the rest of the world has it at the best times. What happened in Haiti can really put that into perspective. Please continue to pray for those in Haiti.
What I want to discuss tonight is the greatest rock band of all time. Many of you will not agree with my assessment and that’s fine. Please post your thoughts in the comment section. That is one of the many great things about a site like this: good-natured debate (over music, of course) that may help open the eyes of both sides to a new way of thinking.
Other bands that I think a good case can be made for are The Byrds, the Doors, the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and, if they can be considered a “band” Simon & Garfunkel. I love ’60s music, what can I say.
To begin with, you all know that if this were a Rolling Stone list, only two bands would seriously be considered. Probably only one. However, I give the title to neither of them and here is why.
The Beatles were one of the greatest and most creative bands in any genre of music. I argue that they are just a little overrated, but please do not think that I’m saying they do not deserve to be rated highly. Hell, they had three of the best songwriters on Earth and four very competent vocalists and musicians. But a band is measured not only by their own work, but also by the work they influenced. The Beatles influenced several forms of music, but for now we’ll only talk about two: garage rock, which was, in a nutshell, teenagers attempting to imitate the Beatles and their British Invasion counterparts and instead creating a new, distinct style that is still influencing new bands to this day. The other is harder to pin down, but it is from people who thought anything the Beatles released prior to Rubber Soul was total crap (they feel the same way about any rock prior to the Beatles as well) and spent their entire careers trying to imitate The White Album. Call it what you will and there are many names for it, but the best one is pretentious. Again, not that The White Album isn’t a masterpiece. It is, in fact, my personal favorite Beatles album, mainly because it is very musically diverse and provides a proper showcase for all band members.
The other band that would possibly be considered for the status of best band of all time by Rolling Stone is the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones were, in my opinion, as important as the Beatles in the development of rock and roll. They began as a blues-rock band who later developed into one of the elite hard rock bands before the term “hard rock” even existed. Not to mention their early influence on the country rock genre (“Wild Horses”, “Honky Tonk Women”). And Let It Bleed is still on my rotation almost constantly. However, they also are not the best ever. Why not? Because other than 1981’s Tattoo You, they have not released a great album since Exile on Main St. Have they continued to record good and sometimes even great music? Yes. Is their later-period work the work of a Hall of Fame band? Certainly. Is it the work of the best band of all time? No way.
So if it is neither the Beatles or the Stones, who is the best rock band of all time? It’s coming soon, I assure you. One hint: the band I’m referring to broke up in 1972, two years after the Beatles and this was what put mainstream music on its deathbed. This is important.
Mainstream music began dying in 1972. Sure, there was some great music throughout the ’70s, but it was nowhere near as great as what came before it. The good stuff began to go indie/underground and that is when we got the Americana movement among other things. But mainstream music itself was still okay until the time of MTV. I know you have heard it a million times: “Video Killed the Radio Star”. But I’ll explain to you exactly why this is true.
What happened to roots rock genres when MTV came? Great blues rock bands like ZZ Top changed to more of a pop style and became all about image. Bob Seger’s career began to decline commercially when music videos were needed and it declined artistically when he attempted to add synthesizers and drum machines. Tom Petty survived only by continuing to make great music while also making extremely creative and weird videos. The success of Springsteen and Mellencamp in this era are the exceptions that prove the rule (although, in the video era their success may have been related to sex appeal).
In short, the “music” business became all about image and sex appeal. Would a somewhat nerdy-looking guy like Buddy Holly have a chance in this era? Let alone a Janis Joplin. Sad to say, but had John Lennon lived he would have made years of great music that would never have been heard by the masses because he was, like Holly a bespectacled man without much sex appeal. Even Paul McCartney had to rely on Michael Jackson for a hit. How about Elvis Presley? He may have had another hit or two had he lived and gotten himself into shape. But even then, it wouldn’t last long as he neared 50.
I may be selling the public taste a little short, but just barely.
I kind of went off track, but I began telling you this for a reason: some music is so great that it is able to defy the public taste.
The leader of the best band of all time is one such example. One could not consider him to be very commercially successful in the 1980s. He only released two albums in the decade and one was the worst of his career. But his music was so great that for a brief instant in 1985 (the year that Phil Collins won the Grammy for “Album of the Year”) a longtime radio listener could imagine themselves back in the late ’60s. The song was “The Old Man Down the Road” and the performer was John Fogerty. In retrospect, the song wasn’t as great as his CCR work, but the fact that he was able to cut against the grain of the music industry and have a number one album in the process proved his staying power. And he was just one member.
So why was CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival) the greatest rock band of all time. As you know, numbers mean nothing, but at least in the late ’60s and early ’70s one had to make reasonably good music to sell tons of records (most of the time). I’ll begin with the numbers and then move onto the more important stuff.
26 million albums sold in the U.S. alone. Five multiplatinum records. Two platinum records. One gold record. Eight gold singles. In 1969. they were named the Best American Band by Rolling Stone and the Top Male Pop Group in a reader’s poll in Record Mirror, a British publication. They were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993, a fact that is often remembered more for Fogerty’s unfortunate behavior at the ceremony than the band’s worthiness.
There are two numbers that are important, however: seven and five. Seven albums in five years, including three in one year and one year without any. In a day and age when it is common for artists to take long breaks between albums (Fogerty himself has taken two decade-long breaks in his solo career) this is hard to imagine. If you are probably thinking that this is just a few good singles and a lot of filler, you are wrong. In fact, they were some of the best albums ever and until the last two albums. I cannot think of a single bad song on any CCR album. Now imagine the masterpieces we would have gotten had they released an album every two to three years like normal and lesser bands.
But more important than this, is the music on the albums. Fogerty’s triple threat of voice, guitar, and songwriting is amazing and still underrated to this day. We all know that he wrote great songs, but how about covers? CCR may have, in fact been one of the great cover bands of the era. “Suzie Q”, “I Put a Spell on You”, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, and that’s just the hits. If you really want to hear something special listen to them do Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” or Leadbelly’s “The Midnight Special”. In short, they could and did play every form of music.
What I always liked about the band, though, was their willingness to stand up for the working class, whether on album tracks like “Wrote a Song for Everyone” or the now anthem-like “Fortunate Son”, which unlike some political songs of the era, was not an attempt to make an iconic political statement. This is why, unlike most political songs of the era, it did make an iconic political statement. The same goes for the chilling song “Effigy”. Much in this same vein are seemingly upbeat songs with dark imagery throughout the lyrics, such as “Graveyard Train” which wouldn’t sound too out of place on an Angry Johnny album. But they also knew how to have fun. Just take a listen to the comedic “It Came Out of the Sky” (which contains one of the earliest reference’s to Ronald Reagan in a song).
And on this website, we cannot overlook their impact on Americana. Here was a band who in 1970, amidst semi-psychedelic imagery of tambourines, elephants, and flying spoons included the line “Listenin’ to Buck Owens”. And the first thing Fogerty did upon leaving the band was recording a straight country record.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. The first sign of trouble came on 1970’s Pendulum, a very good, but not great, collection that was a little more soulful than most of their previous work. Nothing wrong with that. But there was something wrong with the last track on the album “Rude Awakening #2”. You can probably surmise from the title exactly what this is and, while the Beatles created a masterpiece out of a similar piece, it has no place on any roots rock album.
The final nail in the coffin came with 1972’s Mardi Gras. By this time, Tom Fogerty had left the band and Stu Cook and Doug Clifford had agreed to write and sing a third of the album a piece. You can imagine what the results were. A sad ending for the greatest band of all time.
Some will say that CCR was really nothing more than a one-man show. While it is true that John Fogerty sang, played lead guitar, and wrote most of the band’s best songs, he has also never sang them as well since. That is because he had an excellent band behind him, a band that has a chemistry that you don’t get from session players. Not that John Fogerty’s solo work is bad by any means. The overwhelming majority of it is great, but there is absolutely no comparison to CCR. Also, those doubting the talents of the other members needs to check out some of Tom Fogerty’s solo work.
Okay, I’ve ranted enough about this for one night. Please comment and tell me if you agree or disagree and why.