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.
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.
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.
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!