A purely subjective list of the groups that changed music forever
1. The Beatles
The Beatles are unquestionably the best and most important band in rock history, as well as the most compelling story. Almost miraculously, they embodied the apex of the form artistically, commercially, culturally and spiritually at just the right time, the tumultuous ’60s, when music had the power to literally change the world (or at least to give the impression that it could, which may be the same thing). The Beatles are the archetype: there is no term in the language analogous to “Beatlemania.”
Three lads from Liverpool — John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison — came together at a time of great cultural fluidity in 1960 (with bit players Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best), absorbed and recapitulated American rock ‘n’ roll and British pop history unto that point, hardened into a razor sharp unit playing five amphetamine-fueled sets a night in the tough port town of Hamburg, Germany, returned to Liverpool, found their ideal manager in Brian Epstein and ideal producer in George Martin, added the final piece of the puzzle when Ringo Starr replaced Best on drums, and released their first single in the U.K., “Love Me Do/P.S. I Love You,” all by October of 1962.
Their second single, “Please Please Me,” followed by British chart-toppers “From Me to You,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” (all Lennon/McCartney originals), and the group’s pleasing image, wit and charm, solidified the Fab Four’s delirious grip on their homeland in 1963.
But it was when the group arrived in the U.S. in February 1964 that the full extent of Beatlemania became manifest. Their pandemonium-inducing five-song performance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9 is one of the cornerstone mass media events of the 20th century. I was five at the time — my parents tell me I watched it with them, but I honestly don’t remember. I do remember, though, that the girls next door, four and six years older than I, flipped over that appearance and dragged me into their giddy madness soon thereafter. I loved “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the Beatles’ first No. 1 in the U.S. (they had 19 more, still the record), more than any other song I have ever heard, or almost assuredly will ever hear, with a consuming intensity that I can only now touch as a memory.
The Beatles generated an intensity of joy that slapped tens of millions of people in the face with the awareness that happiness and exuberance were not only possible, but in their presence, inevitable. They generated an energy that was amplified a million times over and returned to them in a deafening tidal wave of grateful hysteria.
A partial result of that deafening hysteria was that the band became frustrated with their concerts and stopped performing live after a San Francisco show on August 29, 1966. Yet even this frustration bore fruit, as the four musicians, aided almost incalculably by producer Martin, turned their creative energies to the recording studio, producing ever more sophisticated and accomplished albums “Rubber Soul” (1965, “Drive My Car,” “Norwegian Wood,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Nowhere Man,” “Michelle”), “Revolver” (1966, Harrison’s “Taxman,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “And Your Bird Can Sing”), the majestic and epochal “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967, title track, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “A Day In the Life”).
Though centrifugal force began to take its toll, they still managed to produce three more album masterpieces, double-album “The Beatles” (1968, a.k.a. “The White Album,” with “Back In the USSR,” “Dear Prudence,” “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Blackbird,” “Birthday,” “Helter Skelter”), “Let It Be” (recorded in early 1969 but not released until 1970, with the title track, “Two Of Us,” “Across the Universe,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “The Long and Winding Road” and “Get Back”), and the fitting climax “Abbey Road” (1969, Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something,” Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden,” “Come Together,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “I Want You,” “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”).
They made an incredible promise and instead of backing down from that promise they delivered and delivered and delivered for eight years until the full implications of the promise finally hit them: they were staring into the jaws of an insatiable, ravenous beast that was no less beastly because it smiled and waved and gave them money. The Beatles finally suffered a collective inability to pretend that the beast was not a beast, and in 1970 they broke up and returned to being human.
A small but significant slice of the Beatles’ magic came back in 1986 with release of the classic John Hughes teen flick “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” wherein Matthew Broderick’s title character lip-syncs the early Beatles classic “Twist and Shout” (ironically, a song they didn’t write) from the top of a float in a downtown Chicago parade.
John Lennon sang “Twist and Shout” as though the words were joyful corrosive poison, that his only hope of survival was to expel them with all the vehemence that his rhythm-besotted body could muster, and so does Ferris in the scene. Paul and George’s responses matched John’s zeal at the end of each stanza with their delirious “Ooohs.” They were enjoying themselves so much that this song seemed the most important thing in their lives at that moment. The Beatles knew the awesome responsibilities of pleasure.
Ferris lips lustily, the frauleins on the float shimmy and shake and bounce off of Ferris like electrons, the thousands in the crowd sing along from the pits of their pelvises. Chicago jams as one, recreating the Beatles’ amazing real-life feat of a unifying mass-madness that changed people’s lives for a time.
When I saw the movie in the theater in ‘86, people actually stood up and danced in the aisles. How could they not? The “Twist and Shout” segment was the most exciting and joyous musical moment in a movie since the Beatles own “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964), and was the perfect climax to Ferris Bueller’s film exploits.
The public was so wistful for Beatlemania that “Twist and Shout” returned to the charts for 15 weeks that year, a brief but sweet reminder of the real thing.
2. The Rolling Stones
When the Beatles ceased to exist in 1970, the title of “World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” fell with very little dispute to the Rolling Stones, who by then were in the middle of such a wondrous creative peak that they might have challenged the Fab Four for the title anyway. It’s a title the one-time “anti-Beatles” haven’t relinquished since. Not only have the Stones been the greatest rock band in the world for more than 30 years, but they have been a functioning rock ‘n’ roll unit for more than 40, the longest run in history.
Boyhood friends Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, along with guitarist Brian Jones and pianist Ian Stewart, formed the first version of the Rollin’ Stones in 1962, and with the crack rhythm section of Charlie Watts on drums and Bill Wyman on bass soon on board, were ripping it up in an eight-month residency at London’s Crawdaddy Club shortly thereafter. A young and ambitious Andrew Loog Oldham saw them there:
“I saw them April 23, 1963 and then I knew what I had been training for,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Colombia. “The main thing they had was passion, which has served them to this day,” Oldham continued. Oldham’s first act as manager was to demote the shambling Stewart from the band’s live act for not keeping with his image of a lean, mean and sexy Stones (Stewart was the band’s road manager and recorded with them until his death in 1985).
At the time the Rollin’ Stones (named for the Muddy Waters song, Oldham added the “g”) were a ragged R&B cover band, but their run at the Crawdaddy had generated much attention, and with the Beatles on their way up no one wanted to miss the next big thing. Oldham quickly got them signed to Decca Records, which was still smarting from having turned down the Beatles.
In June of ’63 the Stones’ first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” went to No. 21 in the UK. The follow-up in November was a cover of the dreaded Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which rose to UK No. 12. By February of ’64, they reached the UK Top 10 with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which also cracked the Top 50 in the U.S. — the bad boys were on their way.
Oldham split with the band amid the insanity and media frenzy of drug busts in 1967, but he and the band generated some amazing music during the two years between the squirmingly lascivious “Satisfaction” — considered by many the greatest rock song ever — released in May 1965, and the hit-filled “Flowers” compilation, released in July ’67. Included was the incredibly self-aware narcissism of “Get Off Of My Cloud,” chamber music gentility and vulnerability of “As Tears Go By,” bemused urban modernity of “19th Nervous Breakdown”; and the Stones’ first classic album, “Aftermath,” with the simultaneously mocking and empathetic drug song “Mother’s Little Helper,” deeply groovy and misogynistic “Under My Thumb” and “Out Of Time,” lovely “Lady Jane,” and exotic, roiling “Paint It Black.”
Then came the Stones classic late-’60s/early-’70s period between “Beggar’s Banquet” and “Exile On Main Street,” possibly the most productive run in rock history, when the Stones turned an unequaled alchemy of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and country into something dark, dangerous and enduringly deep.
The 1967 busts seemed to spur Jagger and Richards to another creative level, but Brian Jones appeared beaten and sinking fast. He was absent from the devilish, riff-rocking “Jumping Jack Flash” single. He barely worked on 1968’s exceptional, bluesy “Beggar’s Banquet” (seductive, percussive and stinging “Sympathy For the Devil,” guitar-pounding “Street Fighting Man,” slashing and sinful “Stray Cat Blues”), was out of the group by June ’69, and dead at the bottom of his swimming pool less than a month later.
Young Mick Taylor joined as Jones’s replacement, and his hefty bluesy leads were the perfect foil for Richards’ open-tuned rhythm work, and the sound and imagery grew darker and harder still on “Let it Bleed” (the sex and death apocalypse “Gimme Shelter,” Robert Johnson’s anguished blues “Love In Vain,” mysterious “Monkey Man,” the druggy camaraderie of the title track, powerful and murderous “Midnight Rambler,” and the oblique, uplifting coda “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”).
The band’s dance with the devil bore bitter fruit when they put on a free concert at Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco on December 6, 1969 (just three months after Woodstock) where a fan was stabbed to death in view of the stage by Hell’s Angels (all the mounting bad juju was captured for posterity in the film “Gimme Shelter”).
“Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out” (1970), one of the most satisfying live rock albums ever, focused on their ’68-’69 hits, including an extended, definitive “Midnight Rambler,” and showed how integral Mick Taylor had become to the Stones’ roaring live sound.
The band’s first release on their own Rolling Stones Records was the druggy, shambling, brilliant “Sticky Fingers” (1971), with the infamous working-zipper cover by Andy Warhol. Taylor again sparkled and the Jagger/Richards songwriting continued at the highest level: swaggering “Brown Sugar,” plaintive “Wild Horses,” jazzy grooving “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” horn-rocking “Bitch,” chilling “Sister Morphine” and countrified “Dead Flowers.”
The murky, dense, jumbled double album “Exile on Main Street” closed the era of Stones invincibility in 1972. A yeasty blend of all the band’s roots influences — blues, country, soul, gospel and rock — “Exile” yields fresh revelations more than 30 years later, and “Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Happy,” “All Down the Line” and “Shine a Light” are among the band’s best work.
The Stones have been a different band ever since: Mick Taylor left in 1974, replaced by the stalwart Ronnie Wood. They have released a couple great albums: “Some Girls” (1978), their rough response to the challenges of disco and punk (“Miss You,” “Some Girls,” “Respectable,” “Beast of Burden,” “Shattered”), and “Tattoo You” (1981, their top-charting album ever — nine weeks at No. 1) with standouts “Start Me Up,” “Hang Fire” and “Waiting On a Friend.” They have also released a lot of simply good albums: the ’70s were better than the ’80s, which were better than the ’90s.
But they have soldiered on, taking breaks but focusing more and more on getting the music out to the fans live, becoming particularly reinvigorated with the “Steel Wheels” album and world tour in 1989. I caught that tour in Los Angeles and the Stones came on with an air of eager assurance. All of the elements clicked: the guitars cut and slashed, the rhythm section locked in and rode it out, the songs were a perfect blending of old and new, the band was abundantly enthusiastic.
Jagger didn’t exhibit a drop of Cool Star attitude: he worked, talked, sang with energy and attention to detail. He was obviously happy to be liked again. The collective joyous relief of the stadium buoyed Jagger to childlike vulnerability:
“Do ya like the new songs?” he almost pleaded of the throng.
”We love them, Mick!”
”We love you!”
Maybe Mick was reminded of his quote from the ’70s, “Sometimes I prefer being on stage, sometimes I prefer orgasm.” That night, I’m pretty sure the stage won.
In the 1990s, the band took in a staggering $750 million from three tours. When I watched them live from Madison Square Garden on HBO early last year my eyes confirmed that these craggy, gaunt guys are about 60 years old, but when the cameras pulled back 30 years melted away and the magic was real and grew in intensity as the night wore on.
What a great show! The Stones are a better band live now than they were in the ’70s when their lives, bodies and minds were a quagmire of sex, drugs and alcohol. Age has focused them, yet taken away very little of their maniacal energy, and Keith Richards is still the greatest rhythm guitarist who ever lived.
Long live rock ‘n’ roll — long live the Rolling Stones!
Ireland’s U2 is the most important and influential band of the post-punk era, joining ringing guitar rock, punkish independence, Celtic spirituality, innovative production techniques and electronic experimentalism — all held together by singer/lyricist Bono’s transcendent vision and charisma.
U2 — Bono (Paul Hewson), guitarist the Edge (Dave Evans), bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen — formed in Dublin in 1976 as a Beatles and Stones cover band while the players were all still in high school. In 1980 they were signed to Island Records and released their spectacular first album, “Boy,” produced by Steve Lillywhite.
The band’s sparkling, radiant sound jumped from the grooves from the first note of “I Will Follow” and rode Mullen’s massive drums and the Edge’s angular, careening guitar into history. Neither “Boy” nor its follow-up “October” (with the glorious “Gloria”) tore up the charts at the time (though both are now platinum), but “War” — passionate, martial “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” melodic wailing “New Year’s Day,” and the fierce, new wavy love song “Two Hearts Beat As One”—turned U2 into a worldwide phenomenon in 1983.
In preparation for 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire,” producer Brian Eno had a long conversation with Bono, as he later told Q Magazine. “I said, ‘Look, if I work with you, I will want to change lots of things you do, because I’m not interested in records as a document of a rock band playing on stage, I’m more interested in painting pictures. I want to create a landscape within which this music happens.’ And Bono said, ‘Exactly, that’s what we want too.’”
The results of this fateful change of direction were Eno productions of U2 standards “The Unforgettable Fire” (including “Bad,” “Pride In the Name of Love”); Grammy’s 1987 Album of the Year, the personal yet universal “The Joshua Tree,” which made the band superstars (with “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With Or Without You” and “One Tree Hill”); 1991’s “Achtung Baby,” a brilliant and emotionally dark move toward electronica (“Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “One,” “Until the End of the World,” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and “Mysterious Ways”); and “Zooropa,” deeper still into Euro-dance music and electronics (‘93, with the title track, “Numb,” “Lemon,” “Stay”). Wow, what a journey.
U2 was the leading rock band of the ’80s because its members, like perhaps only Bruce Springsteen in the U.S., still believed that rock ‘n’ roll could save the world, and they had the talent to make that notion not seem hopelessly naive.
This earnestness and willingness to shoulder the heaviest of responsibilities led to soaring heights of achievement and escalating psychic and artistic demands that eventually led the band to adopt irony as its basic means of expression for a time in the ’90s.
All bands want to be cool, and in the ’80s U2 almost single-handedly made earnestness cool, but it was hard, relentless work. After the gritty, chunky guitars-and-idealism of the ’80s, the ’90s saw the diaphanous chill of electronics-and-irony, which was literally and metaphorically cool, but ultimately not what the band is about.
“All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (‘00) returned to what the band is about, and is the sonic and spiritual follow up to the “The Joshua Tree,” the band’s most idealistic, spiritual and melodically consistent album.
Remnants of the band’s forays into electronics seasoned the album (especially the impressionistic “New York”), but the Edge’s guitar returned to center stage where his unique, chiming style belongs, though it never upstages the songs, every one of which is blessed with a memorable tune.
Following the ecstatic release of the opening track “Beautiful Day,” the second song “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” states a seemingly modest but deeply profound, earnest and idealistic notion:
“I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song I can sing in my own company”
They have found it and then some. U2 is now a mature, confident, still amazing band that knows it doesn’t have all the answers, but isn’t afraid to keep asking the right questions.
4. The Grateful Dead
Out on the road today/I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head/Said ‘don’t look back, you can never look back.’ — Don Henley, “Boys of Summer”
When Henley wrote “The Boys of Summer’ in 1984, he saw the sticker on luxurious Detroit steel as a contradiction of values: a symbolic matter/antimatter collision that obliterated the meaning of both. But Henley didn’t realize that his symbol of a Dead past was in reality a very powerful symbol of the present and future.
The Vietnam War was the perfect polarizer between youth and adult culture: it had no clear objective, it was far away, it cost many lives, and it was involuntary — the old made the decisions, the young died. After the war was mercifully killed in the mid-’70s, the nation came to realize that it had hated the internal confusion more than it had hated the external enemy — blood is thicker than ideology.
As a result, both sides of the internal conflict embraced the perceived highlights of the other’s culture: adults lightened up — Johnny Carson grew his hair long and joked with the band about smoking pot — and the youth embraced the acquisitive materialism of their parents with the shamelessness of Midas.
The Dead became the symbol of this blending of ideologies until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995: a well-oiled money making machine ($50 million a year in concert revenue) that sold peace, love and understanding to a legion of internally divided admirers. The Dead sold out every show because a Dead show was a socially acceptable place to temporarily take a break from the rat race and try on ’60s hippie values without having to live them. People who didn’t do drugs any other time indulged and danced around like pixies to the Dead and their light, rhythmic, pleasant, sometimes inspired, extended musical journeys.
On that musical front, Rhino’s “Very Best of the Grateful Dead” is an excellent representation of the band’s eclectic blending of country, folk, psychedelic rock, R&B, jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms on classics like “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Ripple,” “Truckin’,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” “Franklin’s Tower,” and their lone hit single “Touch of Grey.”
“Grateful Dead” (1971) is my favorite live set by the band — it rolls along with “Bertha,” “Mama Tried,” “Playing in the Band,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Not Fade Away” and “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” showing great energy and versatility.
The Dead’s success inspired the entire jam band movement, which carries on its musical and cultural lineage to this day.
5. Velvet Underground
Brian Eno has famously said that not many people bought the Velvet’s albums when they were originally released, but everyone who did formed a band. After bravely jousting the twin enemies of indifference and open hostility in its lifetime, the Velvet Underground has gradually been embraced as one of the best and most important bands in rock history.
Recording a mere four studio albums and one live album in the late-’60s, the group established an aesthetic so extreme, alien and ahead of its time that it has taken three decades for the world to catch up. The essence of that aesthetic is an unapologetic embrace of the opposite poles of the musical, emotional and thematic spectrum: naked power on the one end and exquisite beauty on the other, squalid Saturday night nihilism followed by pristine Sunday morning reverence conjured from the urban essence of New York.
The Velvet Underground formed in 1964 when singer/guitarist/songwriter Lou Reed and Welsh multi-instrumentalist John Cale met and decided to form a rock band (eventually with Sterling Morrison on bass and guitar and Maureen “Mo” Tucker on percussion), drawing upon their mutual interest in R&B, the free-form jazz of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman and the avant-garde minimalism of John Cage and La Monte Young.
The band sought not just to entertain, but to challenge, to prove that rock ‘n’ roll could be dangerous again. They gravitated toward Andy Warhol — who brought Austrian actress/model/chanteuse Nico into the fold — and became fixtures in Warhol’s multimedia organization, the Factory, and in the Village bohemian art scene.
Live, the Velvets were a bizarre amalgam of vigorous R&B, pretty pop songs, extended experimental noise jams and the performance art of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The original band lasted just two albums, “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” and “White Light, White Heat” (both 1967), the first of which stands among the greatest of all rock albums.
“Waiting for the Man,” with a breezy rock groove, follows a Reed character in pursuit of drugs. Reed is almost giddy with self-contempt as his need for drugs drags his social status below that of ghetto dwellers, and that defiant self-contempt defines the Velvet’s status as the first post-modern band and the progenitor of the entire punk/new wave movement.
“Heroin” takes the external adventure of obtaining drugs into the internal realm and captures the seduction of addiction with a power, beauty and grace that makes it all the more frightening. “Venus in Furs,” an unblinking examination of an S&M relationship, conveys ennui of almost black hole density. “All Tomorrow’’s Parties” is Nico’s finest moment, a towering aural monument to ephemeral glamour, with the pulse of dread and Reed’s destabilizing frantic guitar.
Also on the record are two more pretty, Reed penned/Nico sung jewels, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Femme Fatale,” and the loveliest song of Reed’s career, the preternatural “Sunday Morning,” which captures the hope and regret of a dawning Sunday with awe and delicacy.
The group’s remaining three albums produced several more gems in “White Light, White Heat,” “What Goes On,” “Beginning to See the Light,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Rock and Roll,” all of which and more can be found in the highly recommended box set “Peel Slowly and See.”
6. Led Zeppelin
Over a 10-year, nine-album career from 1969-79, Led Zeppelin was the most popular rock group in the world, ultimately selling more than 50 million records in the U.S. alone (more than 200 million worldwide), developing the blues-based power trio-plus-lead singer archetype in many directions including mystical English folk-rock, Middle Eastern-influenced exotica, quirky pop and every manner of heaviness. They also came to symbolize the Dionysian excesses of the rock lifestyle.
Their ubiquity on classic rock radio formats and the aforementioned excesses have led many to dismiss the band as overrated and symptomatic of the decline of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’70s. The super value collection “Early Days and Latter Days: Best of Vols. 1 and 2” (two discs) prove that, if anything, the band’s musical greatness is still underappreciated, due to the previously mentioned resentments and the fact that the band had no greater cultural impact — they didn’t much stand for anything.
Jimmy Page, who had led the last incarnation of the Yardbirds and had been an extremely successful session guitarist (Who, Kinks, Them, Donovan, Joe Cocker), formed the band in 1968 with veteran session bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, 19-year-old singer Robert Plant and Plant’s friend, drummer John Bonham. Commenting upon Page’s low expectations for the success of the band, Keith Moon suggested the name “Led Zeppelin.”
They were both wrong: “Led Zeppelin 1” (“Good Times Bad Times,” “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Communication Breakdown”), “Led Zeppelin 2” (“Whole Lotta Love,” “The Lemon Song,” “Hearbreaker,” “Living Loving Maid,” “Ramble On”) and “Led Zeppelin 4” (a.k.a. “Zoso,” with “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” “When the Levee Breaks,” “Stairway to Heaven”) are among rock’s greatest albums.
Plant’s vocals reached levels of deranged ecstasy matched perhaps only by Little Richard on lyrics typically either oozing with sexuality or derived from Anglo-Saxon myth and/or the occult. Bonham (whose accidental death in 1980 broke up the band) pounded his drums relentlessly like a nimble elephant dancing through the house. Jones’s bass and strategic keyboards glued the disparate elements together. And Page, who did most of the writing and production, played some of the most fundamental and memorable guitar in rock history — from the heaviest crunch to the most delicate acoustic finger picking.
Proving the band’s vast enduring popularity, the band’s live two-DVD set “Led Zeppelin,” released last May, has sold more than 600,000 copies.
The Ramones — Dee Dee (bass, vocals), Joey (vocals), Johnny (guitar), Tommy (drums, later replaced by Marky) — were the American punk band, an endless wellspring of noise, energy, attitude, humor and (sometimes forgotten) great songs, who helped reinvent rock ‘n’ roll when it needed it most in the mid-’70s.
Working for indie Sire Records in the mid-’70s, producer/talent scout Craig Leon became involved with the percolating New York underground music scene. One summer night in 1975 he went to CBGB’s and saw two bands, the Talking Heads and the Ramones.
“I went to that show and there were literally four people in the audience besides me, but the bands were phenomenal,” Leon said. “A lot of people didn’t even think the Ramones could make a record. There were weeks of preproduction on a very basic level: like when the songs started and when they ended. Their early sets were one long song until they ran out of steam or fought. You could see it as a performance art-type thing, where you had a 17-minute concise capsule of everything you ever knew about rock ‘n’ roll, or you could see it as 22 little songs,” he said. They went for the songs.
The Ramones’ first album (1976) is a roaring minimalist icon — the first real American punk record. Layers and layers of accumulated bloat and sheen were stripped away to reveal rock ‘n’ roll at its most basic and vital on songs like “Blitzkreig Bop,” “Beat On the Brat” and “Let’s Dance.” The Ramones’ sound was blazing early-’60s surf music played through the overdriven distortion of Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath. Yet, according to Leon, the Ramones saw themselves as a pop band. “In our naivete, we thought they were going to be bigger than the Beatles. They had even named themselves after Paul McCartney’s early stage name, ‘Paul Ramone,’” Leon said.
While most agree the Ramones’ astonishing first album — which cut through the competition like a 747 in a paper airplane contest — is their most important album, it isn’t my favorite. My favorite is one of the band’s most eccentric, “End of the Century” — produced by the enigmatic pop icon (and now murder suspect) Phil Spector — and the album that explicitly acknowledged such a thing as “pop punk” for the first time.
Recorded in 1979, the album made explicit the connection between early-’60s pop-rock and the punk band’s psyche, and holds up as both a Ramones and a Spector classic — Spector’s idiosyncrasies never overwhelm the roar of “Chinese Rock” or “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” and the Spectorish “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio” rollicks with just the right retro touches. The band’s remake of the Ronette’s “Baby I Love You” is as touching as it is fun, and shed a whole new light on singer Joey Ramone (who died in 2002 after a long bout with cancer — I sure do miss that guy).
The two-CD set “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go” is a spectacular overview of the band, with all of the above songs (except “Baby I Love You”) plus “California Sun,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Cretin Hop,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “She’s the One,” “She’s a Sensation,” “We Want the Airwaves” and many, many more.
8. Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd is the most eccentric and experimental multi-platinum band of the album rock era, creating exceptional cinematic sound sculptures “Meddle,” “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here,” and the band’s popular apex and conceptual death knell, “The Wall.”
Beginning in the mid-’60s as a R&B-based hard rock band, the band (named after Piedmont blues men Pink Anderson and Floyd Council) — Syd Barrett on guitar and vocals, Roger Waters on bass and vocals, Richard Wright on keyboards, and Nick Mason on drums — mutated quickly into a strange combination of twee British psychedelia (“See Emily Play,” “Arnold Layne”) and long-form instrumental space rock (“Astronomy Domine,” “Interstellar Overdrive”), inspired by Barrett’s liberal LSD use: a Cambridge English garden transported to Mars.
Guitarist David Gilmour joined the group as insurance against Barrett’s volatility in ’68, but when Barrett was forced out for unreliability his “backup band” became a democratic foursome sharing writing, singing and leadership duties. As Floyd headed more deeply into experimental symphonic explorations in the sonic chill of space — about as far removed from rock ‘n’ roll’s origins in amped-up American teenage hormones as possible — the more popular they became.
“Meddle,” released in 1971, was the band’s transition album from the Barrett-influenced ’60s to the Waters-Gilmour Floyd of the 1970s, highlighted by a pillar of space rock greatness “Echoes,” over 23 minutes of confidently creative meandering, ingratiating harmony vocals from Waters and Gilmour, burbling organ from Wright, atmospheric axemanship from the incomparable Gilmour, otherworldly pings and drifting whale noises. You can hear the fertile seeds of “Dark Side of the Moon” here.
“Dark Side,” released in ’73, stayed on the album chart for an outrageous 741 weeks, a masterpiece of creative studio craft and a remarkably unified exploration of time, greed and existence — the album is an indispensable rite of passage still. “Wish You Were Here” is an exceptional, ruminative, ambient, long-form look at the disintegration of Barrett intermingled with Roger Waters’ souring view of the world, and in particular, the music industry.
That dim view of life found its ultimate expression in “The Wall,” which used its title to represent literal and metaphoric isolation. In elaborate theatrical presentations of the work, a wall was physically constructed throughout the performance, the collapse of which at the end of each show neatly presaged the group’s fate. Waters went solo in the early-’80s and the group has reunited periodically without him, but neither the group nor he have ever been the same since.
9. Bob Marley and the Wailers
The greatest singer, songwriter, and cultural figure in Jamaican history, Bob Marley brought the righteous message and “positive vibrations” of reggae music to the world, and is the only towering figure of the rock era not from America or the U.K.
Marley and his band, the Wailers, created transcendent music around the entrancing, inverted reggae beat and unforgettable melodies that equally decried poverty and injustice and celebrated physical and spiritual ecstasy — all of it grounded in Marley’s abiding Rastafarian faith. Marley’s influence is so pervasive, his music so seductive, and respect for him so great throughout the world that it is easy to forget the beliefs and customs of the Rastas are rather, in a word, odd: reverence of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia as a living god who would lead the oppressed black diaspora back to an African homeland (rather more difficult after he died in 1975), smoking the holy herb of enlightenment, ganja (marijuana), as daily sacrament, growing their hair in dreadlocks.
Marley was born in rural St. Ann’s Parish in 1945 to a middle-aged white father and a teen-aged black mother, and left home for the tough Trench Town slum of Kingston at 14 in order to pursue a life in music. There he became friends, and formed a vocal trio, with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. They called themselves the Wailing Wailers, later shortened to the Wailers. They worked within the prevailing musical styles of the time, first the buoyant up-tempo ska, then the slower sinuous rock steady, which then gave way to reggae.
The Wailers recorded with legendary producers Coxone Dodd and Lee “Scratch” Perry in the ’60s, recording great songs like “Simmer Down,” the original version of “One Love,” “Soul Rebel,” “Small Axe” and “Duppy Conqueror,” becoming greatly popular in Jamaica. But it was when the Wailers signed with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in 1972 that their reach became global.
The Wailers’ first albums for Island, “Catch a Fire” and “Burnin’” (both ’73), became instant classics and introduced “Stir it Up,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” and Tosh’s “Get Up Stand Up” to the world. Tosh and Wailer then both left to pursue solo careers and the Wailers became Marley’s vehicle of expression. Until his tragic death from cancer at the age of 36 in 1981, Marley generated anthem after anthem and brought hope and pride to the Third World, in addition to touching hearts and moving feet across North America and Europe.
His hits collection covering the Island years, “Legend,” with sales of over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone, is the most popular and enduring reggae album of all time. Among its delights are “No Woman No Cry,” “Three Little Birds,” “One Love,” “Buffalo Soldier,” “Waiting In Vain” and “Jamming.”
10. Sly and the Family Stone
Sly and the Family Stone made some of the most buoyant and thoughtful music of the late-’60s and early-’70s, uniting and transforming black and white music at a time of highest hope and deepest betrayal in America. Leader Sly Stone personified both extremes, as the truest of believers and a victim of his own disillusionment.
Stone was a musical child prodigy who recorded a gospel song at age four. In the mid-’60s he produced hit records for the Beau Brummels and Bobby Freeman before his dream blossomed into the colorful, freaky Sly and the Family Stone. Sly wrote the songs, created the arrangements and handled the production, but allowed each member to express his/her individual identity. The Family blended blacks and whites, men and women: Sly’s brother Freddie Stewart on electric guitar, sister Rose on electric piano, Sly’s high school friends Cynthia Robinson on trumpet and Jerry Martini on sax, Martini’s cousin Gregg Errico on drums, and thumping, popping funk bass pioneer Larry Graham.
It was on the band’s second LP, “Dance To The Music” (’68) that they really caught fire. The title song was a perfect representation of the live Family sound, a vibrant amalgam of positivity, fuzz bass, doo-wop, rock guitar and horns, gathered in the context of a traditional R&B revue.
The summer of ’69 found Sly and the Family Stone rising to the heights of popularity and critical acclaim on the wings of their phenomenal album “Stand!,” which included the band’s first No. 1 hit, “Everyday People,” a song that defined the band’s social ideals in the way that “Dance” defined its musical thoughts. The charm of the nursery rhyme refrain cuts through centuries of cultural bias and reminds us of the simple truth that “we got to live together” or die separately. Also on the album was the orgasmic “I Want to Take You Higher.”
That same summer, Sly and Family Stone stormed the stage at Woodstock in rainbow get-ups, flashing of sequins and electricity and came away superstars. If the attendees weren’t high enough, when Sly cried out “I Want to Take You Higher” at the end of the band’s set, many feel the festival — and an era — reached their frenzied peak.
Unfortunately, Sly took his obsession with “highness” literally and came to confuse the easy high of drugs with the more difficult highs of music, love and the joy of existence. With the drugs came increasing paranoia and self-absorption that were expressed first and best on 1971’s “There’s A Riot Goin’ On,” where lassitude replaced spunk but Sly’s incredible talent still shined through the murk. Drummer Errico left during the production and Sly further damaged the family feel by playing most of the instruments on the album himself, isolated in a cocaine cocoon. Ironically, “Riot” was the “band’s” only No. 1 album. The dream and the reality then both fell apart, but the music remains.
While I speak with the thunderous voice of truth, this list of “the 10 best rock bands ever” isn’t a purely arbitrary designation yanked from my nether regions. First, the winners had to be an actual band, which eliminated most of the first wave rock ‘n’ roll greats of the ’50s like Elvis and Chuck Berry, who were essentially solo artists with backup bands, other towering figures like Bob Dylan, and vocal groups. The bands had to be within the greater circle of “rock” music and generate most or all of their own material. I took into account musical and cultural influence, popularity over time (staying power), and the “It’s a Wonderful Life” factor: What damage would be done if the band were to be removed from rock history? — the greater the damage, the greater the band. Removal of any of the above 10 would render rock history unrecognizable.
Eric Olsen is the editor of Blogcritics.org and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.
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