This one is for the young ones who, possibly, haven’t heard too much of the great rock music of the 1960s, 1970s and even the 1980s. So here’s my compilation of the top 10 rock bands that created, well, magic.
Just three points:
1. Listing a top 10 is a pretty hazardous exercise since I am bound to infuriate a number of people whose favourite bands haven’t featured. To them, my apologies; there is a bit of subjectivity in my list (but only a wee bit as there is enough evidence to support my shortlist).
2. I have excluded individual artists like Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton and the like; after all, this is about BANDS!
3. The bands that I have selected – barring U2 – were formed in the 1960s. Younger fans may be outraged that their favourite bands of the 1980s, 1990s and Noughties have not been included in the list. Well, the bands listed below were the progenitors of rock; others have built on them. And none of the newer bands have yet stood the test of time as these bands have.
The Ten Greatest Rock Bands
1. The Beatles
Very few people (and do they know their rock music?) will argue that the Beatles were the greatest rock band in history – by a distance. I got into them AFTER they had split; I was too young and not into Western popular music when Beatlemania hit the world; yet, when I did start listening to them, their music had an immediate impact and pretty soon I was a Beatle junkie. They had everything – great singing, great song writing and an amazing passion for innovation and doing things differently. It is rare to have a genius in a band; the Beatles had two in John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And George Harrison wasn’t too far behind.
Almost all their albums are gems; ideally, you should listen to their entire repertoire. The albums definitely worth OWNING are Revolver, St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rubber Soul and Abbey Road. However, if you are the impatient type but still want a feel of their evolution from 1962 – 1970 (yes, they were pretty short-lived), pick up their red (1962 – 1966) and blue (1967 – 1970) double albums.
2. The Rolling Stones
The influence of the Stones is not evident to many Indians but, in my opinion, is second only to that of the Beatles. While they were formed in 1962 (around the same time as the Beatles), they took time to hit their stride. Thus, their greatest albums – Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile on Main St. (1972) – were released AFTER the Beatles had seen it all and done it all. Of course, some of their earlier albums – for example, 12*5 (1964) and Aftermath (1966) – were pretty good and they soon established themselves as the anti-Beatles (that’s clever positioning).
I always like listening to complete albums – and I have listed the great ones above – but in these days of compilations, I would recommend Hot Rocks; it contains some of their gems from 1964 to 1971. Forty Licks is another compilation that is very good; it scores over Hot Rocks in having later Rolling Stones songs but I would still opt for Hot Rocks any day.
3. The Who
I may be mistaken but I feel that The Who, in India, have largely been forgotten. Sacrilegious because they were one of the most influential bands ever; many future rock stars like Bono of U2 and Brian May of Queen cite the band as their inspiration as have Led Zeppelin and The Clash. In 1979, Time magazine wrote that “no other group has ever pushed rock so far, or asked so much from it.” According to Rolling Stone magazine, “along with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Who complete the holy trinity of British rock.”
The individual band members were all extremely talented; Pete Townshend, in particular, was a visionary writer and composer and Roger Daltrey was a charismatic vocalist.
The progenitor of the concept album and the rock opera, the Who have a number of great albums that one could choose to hear. My favourites – Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, Tommy and The Who Sell Out.
One hears little of The Who in India nowadays. But one must never forget the incredible influence that the band had on their fans and a number of future rock bands.
4. The Beach Boys
Three brothers, a cousin and a friend formed what, in my opinion, was the greatest American rock band. Brian Wilson was the genius (on par with Lennon and McCartney) who got them going, writing most of their brilliant original material. However, Brian’s mental health and substance abuse led to his losing control of the band and their output in the 1970s was uneven. But their 1960s music, up to Pet Sounds, is pretty amazing. Their vocal harmonies are, possibly, even better than those of the Beatles.
Pet Sounds, released in 1966, is universally acknowledged as the best album of the Beach Boys and you just cannot go wrong with it. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at no.2 (after the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) in their compilation of the top 500 rock albums of all time. Other great albums include Sunflower (1970), Today (1965) and Surf’s Up (1971). If you are looking for a compilation album, go for the five-CD boxed set – Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys; expensive, but worth it!
5. Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin were, undoubtedly, the pioneers of heavy metal and hard rock. However, they were not just a heavy metal band; some of their acoustic pieces are just divine. If you don’t believe me, just listen to Bron – Y- Aur Stomp, That’s the Way, Tangerine and Going to California.
A friend came over to my home in the early-1970s and the first songs of theirs that I heard – How Many More Times and Whole Lotta Love – knocked the socks off me! All four band members were consummate artists – Jimmy Page is acknowledged as one of the greatest guitarists (after Jimmy Hendrix and Eric Clapton), John Paul Jones was an amazing multi-instrumentalist, John Bonham was a gifted and manic drummer and Robert Plant has been voted as the best vocalist in the history of rock by many.
I have their entire repertoire and it is difficult to choose the albums one should recommend. Many Led Zep fans may differ but my favourites are Led Zeppelin IV, Physical Graffiti, Houses of the Holy and Led Zeppelin II.
All the bands that feature in my list were formed in the 1960s; the one exception is U2, founded only in 1976. Yet, it took them eleven more years to achieve superstardom when they released their path breaking album The Joshua Tree. This amazing album was followed by an equally brilliant Achtung Baby. If you wanted to own just two of their albums, these two are head and shoulders above the others (which, in their own right, are excellent).
Like other earlier great bands, U2 have created a sound uniquely theirs, based on melodic instrumentals and Bono’s distinctive singing. Lyrically, they have never shied away for social and political issues. If I had to recommend another album to add to the two masterpieces that I have named earlier, it would be All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
7. Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd were the kings of progressive and psychedelic music. Although they started off largely to showcase Syd Barrett’s creativity, they came to the fore when Roger Waters took over as the primary songwriter and lyricist.
Pink Floyd’s first album – Piper at the Gates of Dawn – was essentially a Syd Barrett –led album. However, his alarmingly declining mental health led to his departure from the band and the formation of the classic four-man (Dave Gilmour, essentially inducted as an addition for the increasingly erratic Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright) Pink Floyd.
While Pink Floyd fanatics go into ecstasy over Piper at the Gates of Dawn and their second album – A Saucerful of Secrets – I think they are just about okay. I remember that the first Pink Floyd album that I heard was their third – Ummagumma, not counting their soundtrack for the film More – and was pretty disappointed.
They really hit their stride with the 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon and followed it up with three great albums – Wish You Were Here (a tribute to Syd Barrett), Animals and their magnum opus The Wall. All four are pretty amazing.
8. The Doors
Despite a short recording career that lasted just five years and six studio albums (although after Morrison’s death the other band members continued for a couple of more years), the Doors managed to create a major impact in the rock world. Jim Morrison was a good looking, charismatic singer and his wild, live performances added to his iconic status. He was also a pretty talented lyricist and poet. To me, what made the Doors so distinctive were Morrison’s deep voice and Ray Manzarek’s distinctive keyboards play.
When I was younger and in college, the Doors were a rage amongst the rock aficionado and I can fully understand why. All six of The Doors’ studio albums are worth a listen but my favourites are their debut album, The Doors, Strange Days, Morrison Hotel and their last (with Jim Morrison), L. A. Woman.
Morrison, given to excessive drinking and drugs, died at 27. What a waste of a prodigal talent.
9. Velvet Underground
Of all the bands featured here, I can bet my last penny that Velvet Underground is the least familiar to Indians. Even during the time when they were active in their best known avatar (1965 – 1968; Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker), they were not particularly popular; it was only later that the influence of their path breaking music was acknowledged. It was, possibly, Brian Eno who said that “their first album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
I got into Velvet Underground pretty late in life – in the 1990s – when I bought their 1967 debut album, Velvet Underground and Nico, on a trip to Japan. I was amazed at their range and versatility – from the energetic ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ to the surreal ‘Venus in Furs’ and ‘Heroin’ to the quieter ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Femme Fatale’. This album is a masterpiece and a must own.
The Velvet Underground, their third album, and White Light/White Heat, their second, are also worth a listen. The Velvet Underground doesn’t feature John Cale – he was eased out due to his differences with Lou Reed – and is folksier. White Light/White Heat is a bit uneven but has a few gems like ‘The Gift’ and ‘Here She Comes Now’.
I heard Queen pretty early in their career when I purchased the band’s third album – Sheer Heart Attack – in 1974. As a faithful of the band I was always intrigued and frankly, pissed off, by the almost unanimous negative reviews that the band received from music critics, especially American ones. It is only now that Queen get spoken of with more reverence than in the 1970s and 1980s, although I expect a backlash from some who read this piece for including them in my top 10.
Here’s why: the Queen had a pretty diverse style and borrowed from various genres. In Freddie Mercury, the band had a performer with a powerful voice over a four-octave range and a flamboyant stage persona. To understand how good Freddie was as a performer, you just need to see Queen’s performance in Live Aid, 1985. Queen was a bit of a forgotten band at the time; however, the twenty minutes that the band was on stage was sheer magic and the entire Wembley Stadium sang, swayed and danced in unison to Freddie.
Queen was pretty prolific and diverse; the band also delivered hits right till the time of Freddie death in 1991. However, if I had to choose the albums that just have to be heard, I would recommend A Night at the Opera (1975), Sheer Heart Attack (1994) and A Day at the Races (1976). Since the band came out with a number of albums subsequently, you could even go for the Greatest Hits I and II.
So that’s my top 10. Obviously, I have had to leave out a number of bands, even legendary ones like The Grateful Dead. Also missing are the Ramones, Byrds, Clash, Genesis, Jethro Tull (one of my favourites), Allman Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, Nirvana and many more. However, while some folks may differ on a couple of bands in my list, they really won’t be able to argue on the rest.
If you like music and have somehow not heard the bands above, you are doing yourself a great disservice!
Visual Courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wicker-furniture/