The Best American Band: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Steve Miller, and Nine Inch Nails

Bruce and the E Street Band

Bruce and the E Street Band

As Richard and I have explored various candidates for best American band, we’ve also discussed a fundamental question: how do you treat groups like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Steve Miller Band, or Nine Inch Nails? Each of those bands consists of one principal member who has been the focus of the band; the other members have changed over the years. Our cut is that those groups really shouldn’t be considered because they aren’t “bands” in a true sense of the word. A band presupposes some members who contribute on a more or less equal basis to the group’s musicial work and who stick with the band for a significant period of time. It’s not just one star and a back-up band whose members change from one tour to the next; instead, it is a cohesive unit that functions as such. I recognize this is an arbitrary distinction, but trying to come up with “best of” lists is necessarily an exercise in arbitrary line-drawing, anyway.

Steve Miller Band

Steve Miller Band

If I hadn’t drawn this line, I would view Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Nine Inch Nails as very strong candidates for designation as the best American band. The first three bands were mainstays of late ’70s college student stereos. Born to Run is a classic album; Born to Run is an anthem, and songs like Thunder Road and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out are terrific hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll songs. The Steve Miller Band pioneered guitar-oriented space rock and offered songs with a lot of humor to them — songs like The Joker, Livin’ in the U.S.A., Space Cowboy, Fly Like an Eagle, and Jet Airliner — as well as songs with interesting messages, like The Stake or I Want to Make the World Turn Around.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

The lyrics alone — who is “Maurice,” and what is “the Pompitus of love,” anyway? — were worth repeated listenings. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded a series of excellent, straightforward rock songs, like Breakdown, Refugee, American Girl, Here Comes My Girl, Even the Losers, and Free Fallin’. Tom Petty and the topics of his songs would have fit very comfortably into the ’50s and ’60s rock eras — witness the classic “Watch her walk . . . ” passage in Here Comes My Girl — which is probably why he also was successful with The Traveling Wilburys. Nine Inch Nails, founded by Cleveland native Trent Reznor, has produced a long line of great songs that straddle many different sounds and styles.

Nine Inch Nails

I’m particularly fond of Suck, Head Like a Hole, The Wretched, The Hand That Feeds, Only, and Capital G, among many others. I like heavier music, and Nine Inch Nails is right up my alley.

So, we aren’t dissing these guys — we just think that a band should be a band.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Nine Inch Nails

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake

Political Songs

Recently I’ve been listening to my “political songs” playlist on my Ipod. The only criterion for inclusion on the list is that the song has to have some kind of overt “political” message, as opposed to being about love, or cars, or some other song topic. I like the playlist because it has really good diversity of genres, artists, and even political viewpoints. The first 20 songs are as follows:

The Times They Are A-Changin’ — Bob Dylan
New Millenium Homes — Rage Against The Machine
What’s Going On — Marvin Gaye
Ohio — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Good People — Jack Johnson
Revolution — The Beatles
Capital G — Nine Inch Nails
Tom Dooley — Kingston Trio
Authority Song — John Mellencamp
It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) — R.E.M.
Pride (In The Name Of Love) — U2
Working Class Hero — John Lennon
Born In The U.S.A. — Bruce Springsteen
Why Don’t You Get A Job — The Offspring
Redemption Day — Sheryl Crow
Uneasy Rider — The Charlie Daniels Band
Zombie — The Cranberries
American Anthem — Norah Jones
Things Goin’ On (Acoustic) — Lynyrd Skynyrd
For What It’s Worth — Buffalo Springfield

If you’ve never heard it, Uneasy Rider is an absolute classic: