Okay, so just for grins and giggles, I posed this question on Facebook: since there seems to be a kind of consensus regarding the four greatest rock bands in history–Beatles, Stones, Who, Zep–who would you put as number five? (It’s surprisingly hard to pose the question without using the word ‘who’!)
Now, this was obviously a silly question. What do we mean by ‘the best’ rock band? What do we mean by ‘rock band’? Do we include solo artists? If you do, do you count, say, Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, Tupac Shakur? Do you count albums sold, do you measure it that way? How much should innovation play a part in our consideration? This about preference, it’s about the heart and gut, not those pesky ‘facts.’ And it’s entirely, completely, absolutely subjective.
And I say that, and yet and yet. . . . When we ask ‘who’s the greatest,’ we’re asking something unanswerable and unobjective and foolish, but is it also without some truth? I think Hamlet is a ‘better’ play than Henry VI Part 2. I think Ibsen was a ‘better’ playwright than his contemporary, Victorien Sardou. I think Willie Mays was a ‘better’ baseball player than Hal Lanier. I think Degas was a ‘better’ painter than Thomas Kinkaid, and that Monet was ‘better’ than LeRoy Neiman. I think Ben and Jerry’s makes ‘better’ ice cream than Western Family (a local, very generic brand). And I don’t think most folks would argue with any of those propositions. ‘Better’ may be meaningless, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean anything.
And we love it, we human beings, we love talking about (arguing about) this kind of thing. Every Oscar season we do it. We even get kind of passionate about it. We say “how can you say The Artist was the best picture last year? Are you kidding me? It maybe made the top fifty. Obviously, the best movie last year was The Tree of Life!” (I’d say that. I have friends who disagree, uh, passionately. I have friends who thought watching The Tree of Life was like watching paint dry. These people are misguided). For many many years, the national championship in college football was decided by a vote, by an opinion poll. If you don’t follow college football, you probably think I’m kidding. If you do follow college football, you’re nodding your head sadly.
Anyway, what’s better, who’s worse, that’s number one, no it isn’t, it barely makes the cut, you guys are all wrong, that one sucked. We do that. It’s something people do.
So the four best rock bands of all time are the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin. They just are. They’re the best, in that order. ‘Cause I say so. Some people argued that they each had long lacunae in their careers, periods where they kind of sucked. You can absolutely say that for the Stones, for example. So what? “Gimme Shelter”. “Sympathy for the Devil”. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Song after song after song. They’re number two. They just are. And then the Who and then Zep. So who’s fifth?
In my completely objective, scientific, on-line Facebook poll, a consensus emerged. The fifth best rock band of all time is, apparently, Pink Floyd.
I strenuously disagree with this assessment, but will defer, reluctantly, to the judges. To me, Pink Floyd is a two album band. I think The Dark Side of the Moon is a genuinely great album (though I don’t think it syncs up all that well with The Wizard of Oz. I mean, I’ve done that, and it’s cool about three times). I think Wish You Were Here is a half of a great album. I think The Wall is great. And that’s it. Two (and a half) great albums doesn’t get you to number five in my book.
But I got out-voted.
So who comes sixth?
My poll arrived at what was to me a surprising consensus. Queen. I like Queen a lot, and I might even put them in the top twenty. To me, though, they were more theatrical than substantive. To me, a band has to have something more to say, something more going on.
My son Tucker made a strong case for Radiohead, and I think he’s right. This starts to get generational, and I don’t want to have the entire list dominated by the 1970’s. Radiohead is a band I admire more than love, but then I’m probably too old to completely get them. But I do get Arcade Fire just fine, and would put them on my top ten list. I think they’re amazing, even after only basically four albums.
Some people argued that REM isn’t a rock band; that their music doesn’t count as guitar-driven rock. I play ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’ for them and rest my case. Great album after great album for twenty five years; they belong. I don’t think you can do a Top Ten list and leave U2 off it. I also think we need to include more classic American rock and roll, especially southern rock, so add Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
I think the people who voted for The Monkees weren’t taking the project seriously. I don’t know, though, how you don’t include the Beach Boys. I have to include two prog rock bands, if only because the critics at Rolling Stone Magazine (a vile and witless lot) hated them SO much: so Jethro Tull and Yes. Three seminal and important bands who were amazing and great, but who had short careers: The Velvet Underground, The Kinks and Deep Purple. And finally, to recognize the importance of punk, The Ramones (I just can’t bring myself to include The Sex Pistols–loathe Sid Vicious).
So here’s my top ten list:
The Rolling Stones
Pink Floyd (under protest)
Queen (under much more muted protest)
The Beach Boys
Creedence Clearwater Revival
The Velvet Underground
There you go. Top Ten. Ten greatest bands of all time. The Ten best. (I also suck at math.)