Lit and Crit
TOP 10 GREATEST
BANDS OF THE
CLASSIC ROCK ERA (1960-70s)
Before we start, let's mention the almost made it bands: A. Aerosmith (too derivative of Zeppelin but damn catchy blues rock). B. The Doors (a great sound but Morrison was too much of a dickweed) C. Deep Purple (uneven catalogue but a foundational sound), and D. Yes (just a little too prog but a helluva band). Also, The Beach Boys who --though they were rock and roll in many ways-- were just the other side of pop for this list. Also, I wish we had space for the Kinks, Heart, Rush, ELO, Supertramp, Bob Marley, Steely Dan, Parliament Funkadelic and a few other originals and greats who just didn’t dominate the stadium touring, performance prowess, or sales charts figures like the superheavies on our list did during their salad days. Maybe I'll do a top 100 list. Ok, here's our list of the Top Ten Classic Rock Bands of All Time:
10. Van Halen - Though they were a mid-70's latecomer, Van Halen crystallized the sound of pop crossed with metal and thus focused classic rock into a laser-hot attack that never stopped being fun and melodic until the end of the David Lee Roth era. While ultimately they weren't profound in any significant way, without a doubt they revolutionized guitar-based riff rock by subtracting some blues and adding a guitar wizard and the prettiest partyboy on the planet. It became a caricature in the end (see 80s hair bands) but they did it with an original youthful panache. This group still sets the standard for boys in rock bands peacocking for girls.
9. The Grateful Dead - A little on the roots, folk and country blues side of things, this rock group nonetheless was the flagship of 60's psychedelica and the jam band way of life, thus helping turn on several generations of psychonauts to the power of libation to spur liberation. A family more than a band, their egalitarian values set the tone for every hippie following in their footsteps. All the big rock tours since the Dead have used their formula. I'm not as big a fan of their music as some others, but they have written and performed numerous classics which still resonate today. Every once't they're a refreshingly pleasant sound with a dark lyrical undercurrent. Meanwhile, their jazz-influenced sense of space, improvisation and fealty to the roots of their music confirms that The Dead were not just another band but a movement that put its stamp on modern rock for all time. Simply the re-inventors of the travelling rag tag band of gypsies extravaganza and tour format of old adapted for the rock era.
8. Eric Clapton's Cream/Derek & The Dominoes - Although he's kinda a solo artist, Clapton was also a member of several bands whose early output defined the genre (We're not even throwing in The Yardbirds or John Mayall, etc). Most English rockers give Cream the credit of inventing the idea of amplifiers so massive you thought they were simply from another planet of blues-based heaviness. Clapton's allegiance to authentic style melded with virtuoso playing set the standard throughout the end of the sixties and 70's, producing some of the defining early classics of the genre. Sometimes it's easy to forget just how many hits he managed to write while banging everyone else's wife or whatever those swinging London cats were doing back then.
7. Pink Floyd - As a band they perhaps barely kept it together but as an innovator of modern sound and rock and roll performance, few if any can match the Floyd. Originators of a sound so classic and beguiling that it gave birth to a whole genre (psychedelic rock using synths and superior production to bring home its points), they then went on to write a modern rock opera masterpiece that deconstructed the whole era, made timeless observations about humanity, and cross-applied it to politics and art. Brilliant in every way.
6. The Rolling Stones - (edit down and transfer some to their own review page) - They quoted R&B with such verve it was taken as the real thing by the youth of the 60s. The kids saw the self-knowing sneer and the shirt off and it must 'ave seemed like genuine American blues attitude. In fact, later when they made money at it, we found that it had been just a kind of contempt for the whole enterprise in a way.
At the very least it was disgust with the powers that be, those who weren't morbid or beleaguered teens or rabid dogs. Sarcasm mixed with the sheer seduction of still wanting it in public anyway, that was the resonant vibe. Loose one extra button down towards the navel and it's a kind of black man animal magnetism that can also sell Rice Crispies. Those American black folk knew how to move their bodies and wail, they were in touch with the earth and authentic suffering, and they were marching on TV. White Protestants did not behave in such a fashion; it was perfect. Everyone in London had their parents' money to spend and here was a Yank sneer in Harrods' cellophane, fresh produce from overseas.
Perhaps the fact that they were not actually black but just borrowing is the biggest criticism of the band you can make --and it would probably have been better that an actual authentic bluesman like Muddy Waters got stadium sized enough to make the list-- but perhaps that doesn't matter when you're talking about how well The Rolling Stones imbibed from the primal well and sweat out appreciation of the stuff in every hip swivel they supplied to the whole wide world.
You can see it in Mick's performance on the Rock and Roll Circus. He can't best Lennon's wit or The Who's tight power chord arrangements, but he is the sexual shaman, channeling the primal libido of the blues, the cult leader who shows you what liberation is one step at a time until he is the last man still standing in the swirls of smoky spotlight. It's entertainment, it's generational rebellion, it's sweaty and hedonic, it's trying to bottle the danger of the counterculture. And the kid's love it. Just one more button, and he's shirtless, ladies and gentlemen!
No wonder they're one of the greatest of all time, a potent brew of blues, sex, choppy guitar interplay, and stardom. Few bar bands have ever poured a Pale Ale so seductive and bursting with hops as the Rolling Stones did in their heyday.
5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience - I was almost going to put Jimi in the solo artist category, but let's face it, the guys he spent time with had to follow his genius and give it life. The Experience did a great job incorporating a frenzied almost jazz style into the mix, and did all that was necessary as a tight little three piece to bend the blues into the stratosphere of a psychedelic guitar god. His original work using feedback, gnarly upside down finger technique, lighter fluid, and pure rockpower showmanship puts this band in the classic pantheon for all time.
4. Queen - With the greatest singer in all of classic rock, this band also had the brilliance to meld opera, harmony and multi-tracking, guitar god prowess and songcraft into a unique amalgam that no one has been able to top (though the others on this list are its equal in their own ways) since. Every good rock band following Queen carries a little of their catchy virus in their DNA or gut bacteria without a doubt. Brian May innovated the layered fifths guitar sound that is just sweet sweet sonic candy to a human's ears. Plus, he wrote the dissertation "A survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud" as well, so please just step off his cloud, thank you.
3. The Who - A band that grew up into maximum RnB legends before expanding what rock and roll could be, they had muscle, a kind of blue collar work ethic (the Labor party in Britain, I guess), and they were as adept at writing hits as they were yelping and screaming and smashing their instruments. Even more than The Kinks or the Stones, they made the most of the molds they fabricated and then had the grace to not break them. A band centered around the tortured genius of Pete Townshend, the story of his maturation into classic rock's Wagner has been a thrilling one to witness. Thus, every band since has poured their melted wax into their boots when they try to tell a story of teenage angst on record. Watch the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus and tell me they aren’t the best band on the bill that night, I dare ya.
2. The Beatles - A superlative rock band in every way. As performers on the stage as a band they cut their teeth playing in Hamburg. As songwriters, of course, they were brilliant. More than any other band on the list, they were able to alchemize every single genre of music they absorbed into an irresistible concoction, from pop, RnB and blues, to merseybeat, folk and orchestral ambitions. They re-imagine them for the rock era as works of commercial pop genius that just has hook after hook after hook. Yet by the end of the sixties they had taken a leadership role in the revolution of the times both from a psychedelic mind expansion and civil rights social change standpoint to pop. Thus, they became not just a band but a cultural force.
1. Led Zeppelin - If you ask me, a rock band is bunch of other people that finally found a drummer. If you aint got a drummer, you're an acapella folk band. Most A & R people in Los Angeles tell you that you can shake a tree and ten guitarists will fall out. Drummers are special-- they have the most equipment to lug around and they tend to be hard drinking nervous types always in need of some kind of stimulation, usually rhythmic. They're the kid in class who can't stop tapping in the desk with his fingers or leaving teeth marks all over his pencils.
Drummers are like the rug in The Big Lobowski: they tie the whole band together. Led Zeppelin had the best drummer in the history of rock and roll, pretty much. You can have a guitarist go out of tune and it sounds fuzzy, but as long as the drummer is holding down the groove, everyone is pretty forgiving and might just call it noise rock. A band with a bad drummer, tho, just fuckin sucks. People can't move to it and they get tired of standing on their feet to appreciate another virtuoso guitarist going up and down the scales. In the end, they want something that moves them from the gut up to the necks.
A machine can give you some but it can't give you all, it can't change the beat by a few accents because you're in the middle of a 20 minute jam and the guitarist just mimicked the singer's vocal riff. Led Zeppelin did that and more. They harnessed the pounding aggression of Bonham's drums and turned them up higher in the mix than any rock band had ever done, for one thing, making the sound as booming as a cannon in a stadium. Heavy metal was born from the thud of that Ludwig kick. The band took rhythm of funk, gave it heaviosity, then mixed it with psychedelica and folk and blues and some eastern scales. They were mystics and sex gods and could bring the hammer down so hard the dents in the side of rock's tourbus are still there to this day.
Page's ability to synthesize and summarize just about every type of music in the world and spit it out as a rock song with shooting stars and spangles and theramin wails exploding all over means the songs themselves are still a great listen as well. Plant's singing, a wail and a cry, an orgasm of vocal pyrotechnics, still leaves listeners slack-jawed even today.
Bottom line: As a group of humans performing as a unit, listening to each other, complimenting and challenging each other on stage, writing songs to incorporate and reimaging the entire canon of rock and world music, there has been no better band in the history of rock and roll than Led Zeppelin.
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