I was given my first album at age 5, a disc by the band The Four Seasons. They were a cheesy vocal pop band that competed with the Beach Boys at the top of the charts in the early sixties. (you’ll notice that they don’t appear on the list later in this blog) From that moment I was hooked. I have been collecting and, more importantly, listening to music compulsively. I don’t watch TV. I don’t follow sports (I do enjoy baseball as a live spectator sport) Now why, you may ask, do you give a damn about this little personal biography?
It’s simple really. For the past 48 years I have been listening to music, mainly rock, and learning what counts, what is related to whom and what is truly worth listening to. If you are in a band then listening to other bands is the most important thing you can do. It’s research. It’s what influences your thinking and what shapes your music.
If you are a young musician then most likely you are obsessed with one or two bands or at best obsessed with a particular rock movement like Nordic speed death metal with superhero themed concept albums. This is natural when you are young. You are developing your sense of aesthetics. (feel free to look that word up, I did) You may also be convinced that French guitar pop or Early 80’s straight edge hardcore or Electronica or Zydeco or Polka blues is the most important music in the universe. You are wrong. It is very important to you and it has its place in the great pastiche of rock but it is not the only form of rock that is important.
The most common mistake bands make (other than not firing the drummer)is they are too focused on the one or two bands that they love. As a result they end up sounding just like the bands that they admire (or worship) and end up making music that is a pale imitation of another band.
I have listened to thousands of demos in the past thirty years. Really great bands are rare. Really bad bands are equally rare and often can be highly entertaining because they are so awesomely bad (The Shags for example) the vast majority are OK, mediocre, uneventful and they are always derivative. This is the mistake that almost every band makes; they sound like another, successful band. They fail to do anything new, to do anything risky, and to do anything that makes them truly special. Why listen to a band that sounds like the Black Keys? Why not just listen to the Black Keys?
That brings us to the subject of this blog and likely a few more to follow – What bands really count? What bands are great? And I mean undeniably great. I intend to list a shitload of bands in an effort to outline a good basic knowledge of rock and roll. As you read through the list you will likely say to yourself, ‘hell, I know all these guys. There is nothing new here’. That may be so. I doubt it but assuming you do know all of these bands are there any on the list that you haven’t heard? If it’s on the list and you haven’t heard it then you should check it out then wonder ‘what other cool bands are out there?’.
I am also posting this list to spur people to comment. Please suggest additions to the list. Feel free to criticize my choices and to justify your suggestions. I know that I have ignored large sections of rock history. This is a result of putting together a quick list. Feel free to post bands the comments section.
I will be posting some lists from other people soon. I am certain that the following lists will highlight some of the holes in my first list.
Finally I’ll close with a rock anecdote. When Columbia records acquired The Clash for the American reissue of the first Clash record and for all the follow up records someone at the label’s PR department came up with the slogan “The Only Band that Matters!” In one of those truly rare moments in history the record label had it right. In many ways The Clash were the most important Punk band and Punk was the most important change to come along in a decade. Over the intervening years it became apparent that The Clash summed up and perfected all of the elements that made Punk important. You may disagree with this opinion or you may agree. If you never had bothered to listen to the Clash’s five main albums could you really claim to have an understanding of Punk and be certain that your Punk band is really something fresh and new, something great with a capital G?
[for the sake of brevity I have only included bands and artists from the first 4 decades of rock, that is to say 1950 to 1990]
Classification(s) B-blues, J-Jazz, P-Punk, PR-Prog Rock, CR – Classic Rock, F-Jazz/Rock Fusion, H- Hardcore, I-Influential, S- Soul, A- Alternative Rock, N- New Wave, O – Folk, SY-Psychedelic Rock, C-Country, Reggae –R, Metal – M, Glam Rock -G
The only bands that matter Part 1
The Clash – P, The Sex Pistols – P, The Buzzcocks – P, The Damned – P, The Germs -H, The Dead Kennedys – H, Mission of Burma – A, The Modern Lovers – I & A, Velvet Underground –I & A, The Beatles – CR, John Lennon – CR, Paul McCartney -CR, George Harrison – CR, Big Star I & CR & S, The Small Faces -CR, The Faces -CR, David Bowie -G, Robert Johnson – B, The Kinks CR, Jimi Hendrix –CR, Creedence Clearwater Revival –CR, Velvet Underground-I, The Soft Boys- I, The Pogues – P, The Band – CR, XTC- N, Nick Drake – O, Tim Buckley – O, Fairport Convention – O, Sandy Denny –O, Richard Thompson –O, Traffic –CR, The Byrds –CR, The Ramones –P, The New York Dolls – I, Yes – PR, King Crimson – PR, Frank Zappa –PR, Captain Beefheart – I, The Talking Heads – N The Creation – SY, Love-SY, Scott Walker –SY, The Pixies –I & A, Genesis –PR, Leon Russell -CR, Cream –CR, Derek and The Dominoes – CR, Hank Williams –C, Johnny Cash – C, The Dictators – P Tommy Roe –CR, Jimmy Webb –CR, Joni Mitchell –CR, Janis Joplin CR-, Lou Reed –I, Jethro Tull –CR, Echo and the Bunnymen –N, Bebop Deluxe – N, War – S, Sam and Dave –S, Otis Redding – S, James Brown –S, Gang of Four –N, The Smiths –N, Curtis Mayfield – S, Booker T and MGs – S, Ray Charles –S, Blind Lemon Jefferson – B, Bob Marley and the Wailers –R, Peter Tosh – R, Jimmy Cliff –R , Bob Dylan –CR, Led Zeppelin –CR & B, Van Morrison – CR & S, Temptations –S, Ike and Tina Turner –S, Peter Gabriel –N, The Who –CR, The Rolling Stones – CR, The Dead Boys – P, REM – A, Flamin’ Groovies – I, Thelonius Monk – J, John Coltrane – J, Charlie Parker –J. Count Basie – J, Chet Baker – J, Santana –CR, The Feelies – A, John Cale – I & A, The Replacements – I & A, Deep Purple – I & CR, Little Feat – CR, Grateful Dead –CR, Metallica – M, T Rex – G, U2 – N, Elvis PResley – CR, Buddy Holly – CR, Beach Boys – CR
©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010
So do you know about the Flamin’ Groovies? It’s likely that you haven’t heard of them since they are still relatively obscure. The fact that there is a chance that you’ve heard of them is a major improvement compared to thirty or forty years ago, that is to say, when the Flamin’ Groovies were still a band. They made a few albums. They were signed to a major for a nanosecond.
Then they made their own recordings and released them on little labels. They went through personnel changes. They became hip among hipsters in France and still no one paid attention. They were ahead of the curve and they could write songs. Here is a video of them on French TV in 1972. The song, “Slow Death” is in the grand tradition of drug songs like “Waiting for my Man”, “Sister Morphine” etc.
The song even got them banned from airplay. This is often a step towards glory in the sun, success, stadium shows. In their case it never worked. The point of today’s blog is that there is a difference between being cool and being successful. The Groovies are cool. They wrote some great songs which have survived to be covered by other cool bands. They were never successful, at least not in the terms of becoming rock stars. They did all the things beyond coolness wrong. They signed with a label that promoted kid pop. Since they weren’t kid pop they were ignored by the label.
Don’t take this little tale in the wrong way. Cool is great. Cool is very important. The world needs bands like the Flamin’ Groovies, or Big Star, or Mission of Burma or The Velvet Underground. These bands show us the way to creating music that is new and exciting. My point is that more often than not these bands aren’t very successful. Instead they are influential. Their music echoes through other bands that go on to make it big.
Big Star is another case of too cool to be huge. They, once again, got signed to the wrong label. They were a Beatlesque band with soul roots signed to a large southern soul label. When I first heard them in 1979 they were completely unknown since they sold less than 3000 records total. They were a hidden treasure. People passed around tapes of their songs from hand to hand. They never made it. When I met Alex Chilton, one of the two writers in the band, he had given up playing for almost a decade and was living in a tent in the woods. Eventually the girl pop band the bangles would have a hit with alex’s song September Girls. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, another of their tracks became the hit theme song for That 70’s Show, performed by Cheap Trick. Once again cool wins through but not for the band that was cool.
The ultimate combo is an ultra cool band that explodes all the way to the top. If that is you send me your tracks so I can come along for the ride. If not, learn about cool and learn how to make it your own since it will open doors and pack in the fans as you struggle to succeed at rock………..
©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011