I was reading Clarence Clemons’s very entertaining autobio, BIG MAN. The flap copy, and I know from flap copy, calls Clarence’s group, the E Street Band, “the greatest rock & roll band in existence.” Toward the end of the book, Clarence’s co-author and close friend, Don Reo, amplifies: “This is the last and best rock aggregation with ties to the birth of rock in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it is not a dinosaur act like the Stones have become. U2 came along later and doesn’t have the history of E Street to draw from.”
That passage makes you think, and wonder for yourself: who is the greatest rock & roll band?
Note that the flap copy said “in existence.” So that lets out the Beatles, doubtless the most important, influential band of them all. But I think I know what’s being said here, what’s being compared, so let’s cut those two words out, make it OK to be defunct. The Beatles still don’t even make the final cut.
First, while they could definitely rock when they wanted to, even late in their career (“Birthday”), the post-Pepper Beatles played pop music. Beautiful, yes, but, with rare exceptions, not rock & roll. Their creative cousins were the Beach Boys, not Chuck Berry; they’d long since outgrown the sweaty Hamburg clubs where they earned their rock & roll credibility.
Second, and this is related: to be the greatest rock & roll band, you have to play live. That’s part of the freight. When the Beatles abandoned the road for the studio, they became a different kind of musical act, and created their work in a different way. Even their last shot, the rooftop concert depicted in LET IT BE, seemed to be more about proving something to themselves than to the live audience (for which they obviously, even humorously, had little regard). I understand that it’s tough to play when teenage screams overpower even your stage monitors, and unlike anyone else I can think of, the Beatles were already an international sensation before America saw them live. But you have to overcome, and you have to keep sloggin’ on the road to get anywhere near what we want for “best band” laurels.
Third, you need a robust and extensive catalog from which to choose your set list, one that continues to feed itself as long as your career lasts. No one-hit wonders need apply, obviously, but when you consider even the Beatles’ ten or so very popular albums, maybe a third of that material couldn’t be reproduced live – hardly surprising, because that’s not what it was created to do.
We’re also looking for a band that has stood the test of time. Great as they all were – even live – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Doors are each of a moment. You can confirm that by watching how their material is used in the 21st century: almost exclusively to invoke a specific bygone historical period. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fantastic music, representing important benchmarks in the field, and I love it. But it’s not still being made today, and it hasn’t remained as urgent and relevant as musical tastes have continued to evolve. There was a time when both the Who and Led Zeppelin could look you in the eye and say they were the greatest, and you might have even nodded. But the Who hasn’t made new music together for years, and Robert Plant is off on his own, ‘cause there ain’t no more Zep either. (Check out Jimmy Page in IT MIGHT GET LOUD, though: he’s still got it personally.)
Joplin and Hendrix have one more problem. They’re individual stars, not bands. If you saw the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, as I was lucky enough to do in 1968, you saw musical incandescence. But you would have been just as excited to hear the Band of Gypsys, because you were there to see, the important music was coming from, one person. Same with Janis: no matter who her backup musicians are (I still prefer the ragged raunch of Big Brother on CHEAP THRILLS to the more studio-crisp Full Tilt Boogie), the flames are roaring out of one particular person’s mouth. Elton John passes all other tests as well, but he’s not a band either, and if you’re a fan, it doesn’t matter who else is on stage with him. That’s also why we’re not talking about Elvis, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison or Neil Young here, not that I want to incite a debate on, “What Is Rock?” (What the hell: why not?)
Then there are real bands who are utterly dependent upon the headliner. The obvious example is the Famous Flames (assuming you’d allow “soul” or “funk” under your rock & roll umbrella at all). Listening to some of these guys’ later work with Talking Heads or Parliament, you know how essential they were to James Brown’s signature sound, which definitely changed pop music forever (hip-hop is directly descended). But from the T.A.M.I. Show onwards, it was all about the Godfather himself. Same with Motown’s Funk Brothers, and remember, you have to play live to get into this VIP section.
Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers are venerable, all right, and they each have plenty of ardent fans to this day, but they’re more like Roman candles which exploded years ago but are still burning bright enough to remain in light, as it were. Everybody undergoes peaks and valleys, and personnel do change over the years, but these bands were hottest by an order of magnitude in their original incarnations, and you can’t hear/watch either of them without ruminating about absent friends. Same with Chicago, which hasn’t really played rock & roll since Terry Kath. People of a certain age might even nominate Kiss — after all, they rock, and they do it live, and they’ve done it for decades. (Boomer snobs would do well to keep in mind that rock & roll is the music your parents hate.) But all the masking and unmasking only obscures the fact that they, too, were “the hottest band in the land” (per their own classic introduction) for only a few years, and for all their legendary showmanship, they’re still just dining out on that era.
I can see only four contenders still standing. Please suggest any others.
THE ROLLING STONES. They have been at it since the Beatles started, and they are still around. Mr. Reo dismisses them as a “dinosaur act,” but what he’s really describing there is the Who at the Super Bowl! When the Stones take the stage, they still have cred: the band members have preserved their right to rock at a ludicrous age (I think that’s really what Mr. Reo was trying to get at with his Jurassic wisecrack), and they can still do it in person. Trust me: I’ve seen it happen, and when a shaken audience walks out of the venue (the last time I saw them was at the “intimate” – for them – Madison Square Garden), if somebody stuck a mike in anyone’s face and asked who was the greatest, they’d get a quick answer.
U2. Go down the checklist of criteria, and U2’s still there. Not only are they transcendent live, but they manage to spit out magnificent recording work, some of it as important as the Beatles. THE JOSHUA TREE, for example, will still be played and enjoyed even after the band dissolves. “Beautiful Day” is lyrically sophisticated and musically exuberant, dripping with irony, the absolute equal to “Born in the USA.” Mr. Reo says they haven’t been around long enough, but (1) add up the years: there are more of them than you might think, and (2) as Bruce Springsteen was off touring solo or with LA musicians (see below), U2 continued to record and play all the while. You’d have to count carefully to determine which group has actually spent more time together. I don’t know for sure.
THE GRATEFUL DEAD. Mr. Reo left them out, probably because they’re not still “in existence,” but I believe they meet all other criteria. (Remember, way up there we said it was OK to be defunct.) The Dead is a band, not a star. Tremendous reservoir of tunes. Live? Off the scale. The only thing you have to ask yourself is, did they play rock & roll? That will depend on your definition. There was something, though, that the Dead did, and whatever that was, they were the greatest ever at it. No “jam band” gets anywhere close: not Phish, not Widespread Panic, not even the Allmans. The Dead was a beautiful prism with a multitude of aspects. “Dark Star,” for example, will still fascinate people in twenty more years, but so will the whole of AMERICAN BEAUTY.
THE E STREET BAND. Mr. Reo’s choice. Notice that I’ve stacked the deck by omitting the bandleader’s name, and here is where we have to fudge a little. Bruce Springsteen is the headliner, sure. But he cut some ties with E Street and relocated to Los Angeles in the late Eighties, and though I’d never doubt his devotion to his music, I would imagine that many longtime Springsteen fans felt part of the magic had gone away. Let me try again. In 1999, I was there for one of the fifteen Continental Airlines Arena dates at the Meadowlands (in other words, in New Jersey) with the brand-newly reconstituted E Street Band. The concert was magnificent, almost beyond description, the boys back on home turf, joyous, explosive. About a third of the way through, the Boss gave the band a break and did a couple of solo acoustic numbers from his very fine albums NEBRASKA and THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD. You could look up and see dozens of people hitting the exits for a smoke. I’m not saying people wouldn’t have come without the E Street Band, but I am saying a solo Springsteen, even with ringers, wouldn’t have filled up that arena anywhere near fifteen times. The Boss’s fame transcends the band’s, but they are such a part of him – and, as Mr. Reo aptly puts it, they serve as probably our last direct connection to the roots of American rock & roll – that they must be the greatest rock & roll band there is. If you get a chance, if the Boss gives you one, then see them soon. But hurry. Danny Federici has already passed away. Clarence Clemons can still blow, but he can barely stand up. Max Weinberg can’t continue pounding that hard without a back brace. Even the Boss himself is 60 years old, though Mick Jagger is an object lesson in continued physical rocking. We’re starting to lose them by attrition, and when we do, there’ll eventually be another greatest rock & roll band in existence. But for right now, I have to hand it to the guys from Jersey, and selfishly hope they can hang on to it just a little bit longer.