Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Wish They Were There

Given our recent discussion of "greatest album" lists, I thought I would call attention to another list that caught my attention a few days ago. Actually, it's been around for a while, but only now have I decided to give it greater scrutiny.

Back in 2004, Rolling Stone put together a list of "The Immortals" - their idea, one can assume, of the greatest artists of the popular music era. Back when the list first came out, I thought it was pretty respectable, and quite thorough (with most of my favorite artists making a placement), if not exactly my idea of how I would rank the greatest acts of rock and roll myself. What was interesting about the list, however, was Rolling Stone's decision not to write crappy, pretentious blurbs of their own, but to give other rock artists the chance to write something about one of their favorite acts. Suddenly, instead of being a bunch of snarky posturing from rock critics, the list was a celebration of mutual fandom between other musicians. This gave the list a much more positive, productive dimension, since not only did we want to read about the artist on the list, but we were also curious about what another artist we liked had to say about the artist they were writing about. Thus we got to hear what Elvis Costello thought of the Beatles, what Lou Reed thought of David Bowie, what Peter Buck thought of the Kinks, what Keith Richards thought of Gram Parsons, and what Paul Simon thought of the Everly Brothers, and so on and so on. Obviously this approach was only as fruitful as the artist assigned to do the writing. I'm not sure how interesting it is to hear what John Mayer has to say about Jimi Hendrix, what Flea has to say about Neil Young, what Lenny Kravitz has to say about John Lennon, what Jewel has to say about Joni Mitchell, or what Dave Matthews has to say about Radiohead. But you've gotta take the highs with the lows, I guess.

(You might want to take a good look at the list before you read the rest.)

Anyway, what brought this list under renewed scrunity was a realization I had a few days ago. It had been a while since I'd taken a look at it, and I suddenly became curious to see who they'd picked to write about Pink Floyd, and what that person might have said (given that I've been on a Yoggoth-inspired Pink Floyd kick as of late). But as I scanned the list, a chilling realization dawned on me: Pink Floyd . . . were absent! I checked and I checked again, but out of 100 artists, Pink Floyd were somehow not among them. There must have been some mistake. It was like if one of my best friends suddenly wasn't allowed to graduate high school with me; it kind of takes the fun out of the whole thing. The previously harmless list suddenly took on a sinster, evil aura. I became instantly bummed. How could they have left off Pink Floyd? Who was behind this list anyway? How could they be celebrating all these great bands and not even give at least one spot to Pink Floyd? Was my high opinion of Pink Floyd misplaced? Were they not as universally admired as I had assumed they were? Was I somehow out of touch with the rock canon? I get anguished over a lot of questionable bands I like, but I always figured that I was safe with Pink Floyd; their greatness was not in dispute. But maybe it was. God what a headache. I felt like my whole aesthetic world was crumbling. I had to get to the bottom of this.

I tried to see if there were any other obviously great bands that were missing, as if their absence would further discredit the list. Led Zeppelin? Nope, they were way up there at number 14. The Clash? Maybe Rolling Stone would have been lame enough to leave off The Clash. Nope, they were pretty well-represented at number 30. I inspected the list several times over. Nirvana made it to 27, but no love for Pink Floyd, huh? Aerosmith? The Police? AC/DC? The Eagles? Guns n' Roses? Radiohead? Radiohead wouldn't even exist without Pink Floyd. But there they were, with a loving article by Dave Matthews, while no one was assigned to write an article for Pink Floyd, because THEY WEREN'T ON THE FUCKING LIST.

But wait, there was some hope yet. Where was Creedence Clearwater Revival? Hey. That's a pretty major omission. Some would say that's a worse omission than Pink Floyd. Yeah! No CCR? This list is a joke. And where were Talking Heads? They should have made the cut easily. If Patti Smith and The Stooges made the cut, then Talking Heads should have been a shoo-in. But no Talking Heads. And how about R.E.M.? We get Nine Inch Nails but no R.E.M.? What about Tom Waits? Or Fleetwood Mac? Suddenly my brain had brought the list down a couple of pegs. It wasn't perfect. But still, it was a pretty good list. I mean, if your favorite album didn't make it onto that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list, it didn't matter at all because that list was ridiculous. But this list was pretty credible. The absence of Pink Floyd still stung.

But what is a list, anyway? What does Rolling Stone know about the greatest acts of the rock era that I don't? Well lucky for us, they tell you who voted. Suddenly it starts to make a little more sense. First of all, a total of 54 people voted on this list. 54 people. That's it. All this list tells you is what 54 people think represents the greatest rock acts of all time. Hardly something to whine about. But now look at the people who voted. It's a pretty interesting crowd, to be sure. But you don't exactly expect Jackson Browne, Dr. John, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus, Bruce Springsteen, Stephen Stills, or Jerry Wexler to be big fans of Pink Floyd, do you? Still, I would have thought that they'd have gathered enough votes from people like The Edge, Kurt Loder, Ric Ocasek, Moby, and Pete Townsend to at least make the top 100. Hell, maybe even Don Henley and Santana would have pitched in as well. I could see it happening. But I guess it wasn't Pink Floyd's night.

Nevertheless, seeing the list of voters led me to formulate some more general observations on the list as a whole:

1) The Generation Gap/Singles Artists vs. Album Artists

The list heavily favors the first generation of early rock and roll and soul stars. Because rock and roll wasn't really an album-oriented medium yet, these artists' recording legacies essentially rest on their singles. One of my biggest criteria for judging the "greatness" of a rock act would be the depth and variety of their recording career. Thus I would not rank essentially singles-driven acts like Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino as highly as I would 60s and 70s artists who have deeper discographies. But I can understand how the second (and in my opinion, better) generation of rock performers would hold the first generation in higher regard than they would their peers or their followers. To them, Chuck Berry and Little Richard laid the whole groundwork for what everyone else did. As such, it is hard to argue with their placement on the list; I can only say that I would not rank them as highly myself. They may have been first, but I don't think they were necessarily the best, or the most eclectic. Chuck Berry had one basic "song" and most of his other songs were just variations on his one main "song." It was a pretty good "song," but I'm not sure it's as musically rewarding as a later act that mastered several different styles. I wonder in 50 years who's music will have deeper appeal - Chuck Berry's or Jimi Hendrix's. Yet to that 60s generation, Chuck Berry could simply not be beat. John Lennon loved Chuck Berry much more than he loved the Beatles. But to me (and I bet most people) the Beatles were just something else entirely. Thus this list reflects the Baby Boomer generation's unease with rock's transition into album-oriented ambitiousness. I think it's all about perspective. It is hard to outright dislike a lot of these early acts (like Howlin' Wolf, Jackie Wilson, Carl Perkins, The Shirelles, Booker T. and the MG's, Ricky Nelson, or the various Motown groups), but even their greatest hits collections sound a little repetitive to modern ears. How high should they be ranked if their legacies rest on a few influential singles? Witness the recent induction of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No one seemed to deny that they were being inducted on the merits of one song alone. Yes, it was a great song, but was that enough to place them up there with bands that had album after album of great songs? I guess it just depends on who's doing the voting. Why don't they just induct The Kingsmen for "Louie Louie"? (Who knows, maybe they will.)

2) The "Beer Rock" Tendency

I guess when you've got Joe Perry, Rick Rubin, Butch Vig, Slash and ZZ Top voting for the greatest rock artists of all time, you can't expect too much love for Pink Floyd. Instead we get artists like Aerosmith, The Allman Brothers Band, AC/DC, The Eagles, Guns n' Roses, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I like these acts well enough, but I'd drop them all for Floyd. Just listen to Al Kooper talk about Lynyrd Skynyrd: "In 1972, I was searching for a great three-chord band to produce. The radio was logjammed with progressive rock like you wouldn't believe: Yes; Pink Floyd; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Genesis; King Crimson. As a student of rock history, I knew it wouldn't be long before basic rock returned like the cavalry, and I wanted to be leading the charge, albeit behind the scenes." Yes, Prog Rock was getting bloated, but was Southern Rock really what the moment called for? And he lumps Pink Floyd right in there with Yes and Genesis? Lunkhead.

3) Rap

I don't think rock criticism still has any idea what to do with rap. And yet here they are: Public Enemy, Run DMC, Dr. Dre, The Beastie Boys, Eminem, N.W.A., and Tupac. Some of it I like, some of it I've never listened to all that much, but that's sort of beside the point. Do any of these guys deserve to be up there with the best acts of the 60s and 70s? Just because I don't personally like them all that much, does that mean they don't belong on this list? Wouldn't somebody else look at this list and feel that these were the only guys that deserved to be there? Who gets to decide?

4) The Transatlantic Divide

Apparently in England they've got a rather different sense of rock history than we do here (I'm inclined to say that it's a better sense - with much less "Beer Rock" at least). If this list were undertaken by a British magazine (like Mojo), my guess is it would look quite a bit different. Here are some of the artists excluded by the Rolling Stone list that a British magazine would probably include: T.Rex, Queen, ABBA, The Jam, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Pixies, Suede, Blur, and Oasis. But with Art Garfunkel voting, these guys didn't stand a chance.

So in the end, what does it all mean? That Americans are dumb? That Baby Boomers lack perspective? Is there a better way to ascertain the significance of individual rock musicians on the artform as a whole? Should we care? Ultimately I think it's a lot easier (and more useful) to compile "greatest album" lists than "greatest artist" lists, because as I've already discussed, the artists themselves are like apples and oranges. Do Al Green and Roxy Music even belong on the same list together? If I like Roxy Music more than I like Al Green, does that really make Al Green any worse? Hell no; Al Green is awesome. He's not even trying to do the same thing. I can see why someone else would think Al Green is better than Roxy Music, even if I don't share that opinion myself. There's probably a bit of a race question hanging in all this somewhere, but I don't even personally feel qualified to tackle it. Maybe Pink Floyd is just more of a white guy's band?

Hell, as far as I know, they're at number 101. In the end, a list is just a list. You could never make one list that would satisfy everybody. It's not like the Periodic Table. "God, Hydrogen is just so overrated." "I can't believe oxygen is only at number 8! WTF?"

Still, I almost wish they left off some of my own personal favorites that actually made the list, like Elton John or Roxy Music, just so that Pink Floyd would be on there. I don't always expect Elton John or Roxy Music to make the cut; but my shared admiration for Pink Floyd is one of the things that I've felt has always tied me, however tenuously, to the rest of humanity. To think that such a bond is an illusion creates within me a deep sense of loneliness. BUT - it is just one list. Even so, it's not enjoyable to realize you have such a different idea of popular music than other people. Pink Floyd so strongly represent my ultimate idea of popular music that to see them excluded almost suggests a clash in values. How could Ricky Nelson speak to someone more deeply than Pink Floyd? What did Ricky Nelson have to say to the world that Pink Floyd didn't? What am I missing? It doesn't matter; I will be vindicated by history.

Come to think of it, I didn't see Pavement on the list either.


Peter Matthew Reed said...

Imagine you got a lot more artists to vote, and got them all to score other artists on different categories (maybe longevity, impact, originality etc.) and then put them all in your list-making machine. You could find out say, the most original artists in the opinion of Motown artists. Or who the top 100 most original artists are in the opinion of rap artists. I want some accountability. I want to see Eminem's votes.
This obviously would have to be a website thing, although you could select the most interesting lists for a magazine, as well as having an absolute top 100.

yoggoth said...

Hey Peter! I also want Eminem held accountable!

Your idea for a website would allow us to compare the opinions of various artists. I've noticed that the best artists don't always have the best taste. Does Queen Latifah know more about rock 'n roll than Thom Yorke? Perhaps...

Also, John Landau may be responsible for keeping Floyd off that list. Not enough songs about cars with lower middle class horny people in them.

Little Earl said...

Ah yes, the age-old question: how to compile the "Perfect List"? I actually tried to formulate the most accurate method possible, but in the end it seemed just as arbitrary as anything else. Still, it was a noble attempt, and it went something like this:

30%: All musicians currently working today who have sold at least 50,000 albums and are at least 25 years old

25%: Rock critics who have published printed works of rock criticism for at least five years

20%: Internet rock critics (such as Pitchfork and various bloggers)

20%: The general public, in every first world country

5%: The music industry

Whaddaya think? Such an undertaking would probably solve it once and for all.

Mr. Reed: Any thoughts on the "Transcontinental Divide"?

Peter Matthew Reed said...

Well, I'm inclined by birth to suggest that the Brits have a better sense of rock history. I think only Suede from your list would struggle to get on to a Mojo list - but you also have to ask, who would they take off?

Also, we'd probably end up with someone like 'The Arctic Monkeys' in there.
Also also, you probably don't want every 1st world country voting (think Germany-Hasselhoff). Why not have 20% general public over 25 from the countries with top 5 gross in CD sales? I realise that rules me out...

yoggoth said...

Gentlemen, I think it's okay to admit that England and America have the best taste in rock. We could let France and Germany do the electronic music list. Japan could do the "Music with no Discernable Melody" list. Or just throw Japan, Germany, France, Brazil, and Scandanavia into a catch-all Other category. I'm imagining some kind of awe inspiring Death Noise Bossa Nova list but it would probably just end up with a bunch of odd lounge singers. Oh well.

yoggoth said...

Also--you don't want to know how long it took me to figure out why you would be ruled out.

Herr Zrbo -the poster formerly known as olin said...

More Skynyrd duuuuude!

Little Earl said...

Freeeeeeeee Birddddddddddd!!