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Comments

Jim

wait, what about grand funk railroad ha ha

Michael Azerrad

Well, the title of their song was "We're an American Band," not "We're the Great American Band." That's the only reason I didn't mention them.

Sandwell

Deerhunter

Michael Azerrad

Deerhunter! Ha, good one.

Susie Tennant

Thats a hard one to try to answer michael....Intellectually I get the points you are making, but emotionally I'm just not there with the conclusion. The beauty of music I guess... It's deeply personal yet universal at the same time. Or, we could say that's the difference between a cultural observer / critic and the average 'yeah, but what about MY needs?' person --the category this thread puts me squarely in...thanks for posting I've enjoyed thinking through the many bands that would be contenders on my list...

Michael Azerrad

Well, I actually do stand behind my conclusion as a fan as well as a cultural observer. I saw the Dead three times back in the day and was fascinated. I'm really interested to hear what your Great American Band is, Susie! And no explanation necessary.

susie tennant

the replacements were the first band i discovered that really spoke to me, outside of what was mainstream at the time. sure i heard/seen the ramones by then, but for me, i had more of an emotional connection to the replacements. plus, they led me to the indie & punk rock world that thrived in the early 80's - early 90's, (my twenties, which is a related fact, i'm sure) and led me on musical journeys backwards and forwards, both obscure and mainstream.... never saw the grateful dead, never owned one of their records, so i can't say either way on them but i do get the criteria you laid out in your argument.

but in the 'my world/my needs' catgeory: replacements and nirvana = the most life changing american bands. xoxoxo!

Michael Azerrad

As you know very well, I love both those bands too! Vastly more than I love the Grateful Dead, I might add.

Countryfckr

I think your begrudging acclimation is another good sign that you hit the nail on the head. The band itself is a paradox similar to our own great yet troubled nation. DIY credo yet masters of capitalism. A lot of people are loyal to the point of being blind to the mistakes, greed, and 40 minute jams. And a whole lot of people hate them based on the worst of the fanatics with out ever exploring the subtleties, dedication, and genius that truly made them great. There are certain stages of their existence that make me cringe and others that make me happy.

Michael Azerrad

Outstanding comment, Countryfckr. Thanks for weighing in.

Sandwell

You've lost your edge, Azerrad. anyone can relate to "Cryptograms", everyone has been through that in life. good as they are, who can relate to the Dead?

Michael Azerrad

Their multi-generational legions of fans aside, the question is not who can relate to the Grateful Dead, but who wishes they could.

Sandwell

i dont think their can be one band really, america is too big and broad a place. there are too many different places. maybe there should be the great regional american bands. any suggestions? i say (early) meat puppets for the south west and (early) modest mouse for the north west

Michael Azerrad

Might as well break it down to areas of each state: southern New Hampshire, eastern Washington, northern Idaho, central Kentucky, etc. Go for it — I look forward to your list.

Sandwell

yeh good point haha

Neal

Speaking as the son of an die hard Deadhead there is an excellent case to be made for the Grateful Dead possessing the scope to qualify as America's band. They helped define the modern concert as a stand and listen event whereas before musicians were, on balance, either utilitarian performers or else played in theaters. With the Dead it was about standing and listening, something pretty new to pop music that was only ushered in with a handful of acts beforehand and even then there was often more spectacle than performance.

I'm surprised Springsteen hasn't been mentioned by anyone, given that his entire pallet was 20th Century working class Americana.

I think though for all the baggage which comes with the choice, that it's not a band but Elvis Presley. We're living in the landscape that Elvis and those he took with him on the American charts pioneered for about a dozen years.

And that's a risky choice because often Elvis more associated with celebrity culture. But Elvis pioneered the idea of a national act with pop music. Arguably the first person to succeed nationwide. He was a southerner who worked hard to please RCA in New York and convince them he could be marketed out of the traditional country and rockabilly markets on and below the Mason-Dixon: something Frank Sinatra couldn't do while a foreign band like the Beatles took the Elvis road map and exploded with it.

His styles did encompass everything geographically during his salad days. West coast sentimental balladry, east coast urban toughness, southern sleepiness, and enough gospel to sweep him through the Midwest.

Will T

Hmm, but what about The Velvet Underground? Too New York?

Okay, The Byrds?

Duncan S

I know I'm a little late for this, but I can't help myself. Something about the conclusion rubbed me wrong, and I just figured out what it is. Since British and American music are inextricably linked, I immediately thought of the Beatles as being the great British band. What percentage of the British population do you think could name a Beatles song? Any song. 90%? 95%? Now, what percentage of Americans do you think could name a single Grateful Dead song? Maybe 25%, I'd guess. And if you took this hypothetical poll, what percentage would say anything other than Uncle John's Band, Casey Jones, or Truckin' (all of which came out in a 16-month period in 1970-71)? They're the great American live band. But, like it or not, part of the equation has to be units moved. The Dead didn't make the Billboard top-ten until 1987.

I know the Beach Boys are thought of as purveyors of a regional style, but the amount of singles they recorded that are identifiable to the average Joe has to trump the Dead's resume in this competition.

Michael Azerrad

Units moved, or chart hits, isn't the sole or even major indicator we're talking about here. If that were true, then the question would be simple, merely a matter of arithmetic. Still, it would be more instructive to ask a cross-generational sample of Americans whether they've heard of the Grateful Dead or the Beach Boys. It's quite likely the former would get as many, or more, yesses. True, the Beach Boys' dysfunction and excess would count greatly in this consideration, but that all became known well after the band effectively ceased to exist.
As far as the Byrds, I've always found them cold, soulless. That's not very American (although you could say it was prophetic). Not much of a mythos swirls around them, or at least a fly-speck of one compared to the Dead. The constant turnover of band members — there were 11 Byrds that I know of, in a nine-year lifespan — counts against their having a distinct identity. And let's face it, they were really only popular for a couple of years. I'm not saying they weren't influential, commercially successful, or didn't embrace American musical idioms, but those aren't the only things we're talking about here.
And if you're basing it on familiar hit songs, then the Eagles surely beat the Beach Boys — they are the best-selling American band. And they certainly embody many aspects of America.

Will T

I'm throwing one more curve-ball in the mix: Sly and The Family Stone.

Highly popular then and now, a slew of hit singles, a couple of classic albums including one all-time pop music masterpiece, an influential sound that incorporated rock, soul, R&B, pop, funk, blues, jazz, and pretty much any other American musical idiom you can think of, politically very much in tune with the national mood, racially integrated, and hey, they even had a quintessentially American rise-and-fall story.

Eh?

Michael Azerrad

Sure, Sly and the Family Stone is a very worthy contender, top ten for sure, probably top five. See Greil Marcus' revelatory and masterly _Mystery Train_ for some great reasons why they are such an important American band.

Steve Holtje

I have to go with the Minutemen, and as late as I am weighing in on this topic, I'm surprised nobody's mentioned them yet. True, they also lack "the universal, household name thing," but they did have a documentary film made about them, which is good enough for me.

They frequently addressed political issues that cut to the core of American identity, including subversion/infiltration of pop culture. They blended musical styles in prototypical American melting-pot fashion, and built their sound on a strongly American foundation so diverse that their cover songs included both Blue Oyster Cult and Steely Dan. They were ambitious, in the sense of wanting to create vast masterpieces (which certainly describes Double Nickels on the Dime), not the I-wanna-be-famous/rich sense, and I think that ambition is a necessary criterion for consideration as The Great American Band. They were prolific and innovative contributors to a new American musical idiom while nonetheless remaining somehow outside of it, than which there is nothing more American (which is why Thelonious Monk is my favorite jazz artist). They were weirdo outsider provocateurs (a major category of musical Americana from William Billings to Charles Ives to the Velvet Underground) who masterfully wielded the ultimate American iconography, the automobile, to give non-weirdos something to latch onto. And they unleashed furious energy with surgical precision, which strikes me as somehow American though I haven't thought it through enough to say why, though come to think of it there is something car-like to that seeming contradiction. And D. Boon and Mike Watt certainly had the individualism-within-teamwork thing working on all cylinders.

As soon as the titular question was raised, the Minutemen struck me as my answer, and I'm eternally grateful to have seen them on their last tour.

Michael Azerrad

Good one, Steve! Well said, sir. Thank you.
Somehow, being as prolific as the Minutemen were also strikes me as very American, but I can't put my finger on exactly why.
Funny, when I think of America unleashing energy, I think of a wildly overpowered, inefficient approach, cases in point ranging from Vietnam to muscle cars, although the latter fits in with your very astute point about the Minutement's association with the automobile.

Steve Holtje

True, "furious energy with surgical precision" is more of an American ambition than an American achievement. Smart bombs, neutron bombs - it's an ideal we're fixated on, but working out the details has, as usual, eluded us. But as long as shit blows up, we're satisfied.

darrenprodger

Pardon me for saying, but I'm surprised that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have not come up. Even the E Street Band by itself deserves acknowledgement. Also, what about Crazy Horse, though of course never received much in the way of chart success.

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