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R.E.M. are the Best Ever American Rock Band and what that means about American Music

26 Feb

R.E.M. are Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers, legends and universally respected. They’re also established hitmakers, considered massively influential to the direction of alternative or college rock and have maybe 7-8 great records to their credit. However, it also seems wrong to give them a label as lofty as ‘The Best Ever American Rock Band’, yes? But as far as I can dicern not only is there an argument to made for it but I think it’s tough to argue against.

A large part of the reason for this lies in the phrasing of the honor I seek to bestow. In every word of it there are major disqualifier for artists who you might otherwise think might fit the bill.

When it comes to being the ‘best ever’ band and to me that comes with an expectation that you were very good for a meaningful amount of time. Nirvana is a great American rock band, with all the critical bona fides to at least nearly match R.E.M. but they have 3 records (only 2 meaningfully popular in their life time) and one well beloved live record – they seem more significant on some level but they aren’t objectively better.

And then we come to many a beloved American band that seems ‘imporant’ for their commercial success but who I have a hard time making an argument as being in any way objectively better than R.E.M., in my eyes, the eyes of critical opinion and in terms of being universally liked in general.

There are bands, such as The Eagles and Aerosmith, who have had many hit singles and a few ‘classic’ records. But both bands suffer from a lack of meaningful critical success and from the fact that they have a fairly wide base of detractors. Maybe I’ve got tunnelvision but it seems to me that R.E.M. are a band that even if you don’t actively enjoy, per se, is known to be or have been for a long period of time, a great band. I think my two above examples are bands that people know are famous bands and ‘classic’ bands but I don’t think they’re regarded as ‘among the best’ bands.

Then there are the other words. The first – American, gets to the root of what I believe this is really about. There are perhaps dozens of bands, rock bands, who have careers that either rival or easily outshine R.E.M.’s. But none of those bands are American.
The obvious choice for ‘Best Ever Rock Band’? The Beatles. Hard to argue it. But in addition The Rolling Stones. A band like U2 has bona fides that R.E.M. probably can’t touch (although I’d argue they aren’t as good, I think it’s an argument I’d be likely to lose with the majority of people, even if not critics) And the thing is, you don’t even need to go that big to find a band that compares favorably with R.E.M. in Europe – Radiohead, The Clash and several other could have a reasonable argument made for them. But they aren’t Americans.

How about ‘Rock’. Another category where there’s an argument and it’s two-fold but related. For one, is R.E.M. really, foremost, a rock band or a pop band and then if that’s up for question then isn’t it arguable that another band, say Van Halen, is inherently a better ‘rock band’.

I think R.E.M. are definitely a rock band and I think the argument boils down to how wide or narrow you define ‘rock n’ roll’. I have a wide pallet for judging rock n’ roll – Van Halen, for example is a good rock band but a) they aren’t ‘the best’ and b) they aren’t any more in the genre than R.E.M. just because they fit a better cultural shorthand for the term. There is an argument that there are several bands that are more rock n’ roll than R.E.M. but I think the spirit of the idea is the best band who is American and fits into the genre of rock, if you disagree and would take it as the most Rock n’ Roll band band that is good and American, however, Van Halen, among others, have a fair argument.

Then there’s the fact that if you take the qualifier of ‘rock’ off, as in the case of ‘American’ the whole argument falls apart. American has a great history of pop and R&B bands and there are even a few hip hop acts who’ve achieved the longevity that would make them a fair argument with R.E.M., perhaps.

For the sake of argument, some pop bands that come to mind as having a case against them (or outright beating them) include The Supremes (by a landslide in my mind), The Temptations and then the hardest to exclude – The Beach Boys.
If you are casting a wide net in terms of the rock, to avoid falling into the ‘Van Halen rock credibility’ trap then you welcome in scrutiny of several acts that could reasonably be described as ‘pop-rock’. Among the top contenders to make this argument moot, in my mind, is The Beach Boys. The thing is, wide net or not – I think the Beach Boys are a pop band in a way that R.E.M. is not.

R.E.M. was a popular band and The Beach Boys were seen as a rock band in their day. Both of these are true. R.E.M. has songs and even records that could be reasonably defined as more pop than rock. But at their heart R.E.M. is a band whose sound is based on guitars, drums and vocals and anything else in any given song is a quirk to the song outside of the their general mode, which is a guitar, a bass, drums and vocals. The Beach Boys, in my mind, are more defined by their vocals and I think, given their more psychadelic period aren’t entirely a rock band in the same sense.

I think the ‘Surfin’ USA’ Beach Boys are a rock band but I’m not convinced those records are what really makes the legacy of the Beach Boys, especially not in terms of continued appeal. ‘Pet Sounds’ is the #1 essential Beach Boys record and I think that’s absolutely a pop record. And given that fact I think they’re disqualified.

Finally, you have ‘band’ which, again, there can be disagreement to the meaning of and there are borderline choices but which disqualifies a large number of artists who reasonably are R.E.M.’s betters – Bob Dylan being an obvious one. But Bob Dylan is a solo artist – he isn’t a band.

Another obvious one and one that might be seen as dubious is Bruce Springsteen. The dubiousness springs from the fact that Bruce has The E Street Band. And thus, one might claim that the Best Ever American Rock Band is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The problem with this, however, is two fold.

For one: a band is a unit that, while the lead singer might get the lion’s share of the credit, is in fact a unit and are representing that fact by their name. The E Street Band is a band, but they’re a backing band for the solo artist Bruce Springsteen. And even if you argue that is enough, in spite of the fact that they’re unbilled contributors on nearly all the records on which they appear (in terms of the fact that recognized artist, on the front of the record, CD or tape will appear as ‘Bruce Springsteen’) there is also the fact that the legacy of Bruce Springsteen is not entirely dependant on The E Street Band. Several of his finest legacy defining records were recorded without them. My favorite Springsteen record, Nebraska (to be fair, not the consensus choice but a very widely acclaimed record) doesn’t include them, among several others. They’re a massive touring entity and they’re inclusion in a tour will allow Bruce to play slightly larger venues than he would otherwise but that’s hardly enough for me.

The problem I face in making this argument is the fact that despite my enduring love for R.E.M. I just simply cannot fathom this being a make-able argument. And yet, I just made it and I can’t see a good argument against it. Perhaps I’m missing something or perhaps this is something that says something about American Rock Music.

For one thing, to me, it says that quality is not paramount among American rock bands. The bands I mentioned at the beginning, The Eagles, for instance, are more famous and more likely to sell out a stadium. They’re also only a so-so band at best with a shaky critical reputation and who is largely derided by many listeners. There are plenty of famous American rock bands – it’s just that they’re either flash in pans (like Nirvana) or not good enough to cut it when faced with someone like R.E.M. who combine so many laudible qualities.
But also it says that America is despite what you may have heard, not the best place to find a great rock band – England has a premium on them. The Beatles and Stones blow away anyone American – there is no argument for R.E.M. standing up to them in nearly any category. Which consequentally means they blow away all American bands even more. And even if you make the Van Halen argument – try comparing them to either. And The Beach Boys, as a pop rock band aren’t a hundreth as consequental and not nearly as good as The Beatles. Even including pop they both handily rout The Supremes.

Where the argument comes in is solo artists, because Bob Dylan is in a class by himself and is definitely a challenger to The Beatles and Stones. Probably, on the basis of commercial success that I laid out, they have him beaten by a bit but given his longevity as a consequental artist it’s hard to rule him out of a more general argument.

To me, what this says is that the best American rock artist and perhaps best American musician is a solo artist. And in fact most of the most famous American musicians are at heart solo artists, be it Springsteen, Miles Davis or Dylan (among others). It seems to me that it speaks to, at the same time the spirit of America, the spirit of American individualism and to capaitalism as a whole – the communial experience of a band is valued less and less easy to achieve than success as your own person. There is a long, drawn out argument to made about this point that perhaps I will sometime come back to, but it’s strikingly persuasive to me.

Regardless of this, what it comes down to is, for whatever reason, when you pair those terms together, terms that seem like they would have a dirth of credible contenders, there is only a few and none of them, in my mind, match up to R.E.M. Try and prove me wrong, if you wish but arguments aside, there is no satisfying answer to this question and I feel that says something about American music and regardless of what you think it says I have a hard time feeling it’s something positive.