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The 100 Greatest American Rock ‘n’ Roll Bands, Part III #75 – # 66

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As we continue our countdown, we take a stroll through “Paradise City,” where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.

#75 – The dB’s

The dB’s were comprised of North Carolina musicians who became part of the late 1970’s New York music scene. Chris Stamey made the trek first, and after playing bass for Alex Chilton, formed the first version of the band. Chris Stamey and The dB’s released an excellent power pop single in 1978 titled “(I Thought) You Wanted to Know).” Shortly thereafter, Peter Holsapple joined the group, completing the unit and sharing the songwriting duties with Stamey. Their 1981 debut album, Stands for Decibels, served as a bridge between 1970’s power pop and the Southern jangle guitar sounds of the 1980s. 1982’s Repercussion had a similar sound, with a bit more polished production.

Chris Stamey left the band after Repercussion. The band continued as a trio and Peter Holsapple wrote all of the material for the 1984 album Like This, one of the strongest pop records of the decade. Songs like “Love is for Lovers,” “Lonely Is (As Lonely Does),” and “Amplifier,” displayed a strong melodic sense as well as humor, empathy, and hope. Unfortunately, poor distribution and promotion from Bearsville Records ensured commercial failure. The dB’s broke up in 1988, but a reformed version of the band released the hard hitting single “Revolution of the Mind” in 2011 and their 2012 album Falling Off the Sky was another well received effort. Two reasons why it’s a shame that The dB’s never had a hit record: (1) they were truly deserving and (2) it would be incomparable fun to hear a filled arena sing “Danny went home and killed himself last night.”

#74 – Buffalo Springfield

Buffalo Springfield was a retroactive supergroup who helped to advance the country/rock or California sound that had been developed by The Byrds. Springfield formed in 1966, with Neil Young and Stephen Stills being the major creative forces. The band wasn’t happy with their 1966 debut album, but shortly after it was released, Stills wrote the generation defining 1960’s protest anthem “For What It’s Worth,” inspired by civil unrest in Los Angeles. Stills’ dark guitar lick gave the song a sense of inevitable, impending doom.

The 1967 Buffalo Springfield Again release was the band’s best album, anchored by Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” and the interplay between Young and Stills on “Bluebird.” However, egos quickly killed the unit and their final album, titled Last Time Around, was patched together from various studio sessions, most featuring only a few members of the band. Neil Young and Stephen Stills went on to have successful solo careers and to work together in various projects (including, of course, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young). Richard Furay combined forces with sometimes Buffalo Springfield producer Jim Messina to form the band Poco.

#73 – The Go-Go’s

The Go-Go’s rocked the world in the early 1980s as the first all female rock band to go multi-platinum. The group formed as part of the late 1970’s Los Angeles punk scene and, after pursuing a more pop oriented sound, were labelled as “new wave” with the release of their 1981 debut album Beauty and The Beat. The record was hook filled, aggressively performed, and included two smash singles – “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed.” The latter song, written as a result of an affair between songwriters Jane Wiedlin and English musician Terry Hall, is remarkable pop perfection.

The Go-Go’s never replicated the success or spirit of their debut album, but scored three more hits with “Vacation,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Turn to You.” The band broke up in 1986 and lead singer Belinda Carlisle had pop success with the singles “Mad About You,” “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” (a #1 pop hit), “I Get Weak,” and “Circle in the Sand.” The Go-Go’s had several reunions during the 1990s and have been touring regularly since 1999. A “farewell” tour is scheduled to begin in August of 2016. Retrospectively, the Go-Go’s biggest sin might have been their unpretentiousness, which has probably kept them from receiving their just recognition as female rock ‘n’ roll trailblazers.

#72 – The Cars

The Cars struck commercial gold by being the perfect mesh of The Archies and Roxy Music. They were catchy, yet detached. Mainstream, yet arty. Calculated, yet respected. Founding members Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr met in the 1960s and released a folk inspired album in the early 1970s as part of the trio Milkwood. Settling in the Boston area, The Cars were formed in 1976 and began receiving local airplay in 1977 with their single “Just What I Needed.” The Cars eponymous debut album in 1978 was a tremendous success, eventually selling over six million copies. Top 40 radio picked up “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl,” while album rock stations put several other tracks in regular rotation. The song “Moving in Stereo” was used in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. For young men, it was one of the most memorable movie scenes of that era. Their 1979 album Candy-O sold four million copies and spawned the Top Twenty hit “Let’s Go.”

The Cars scored a new wave dance hit in 1981 with “Shake It Up” and then had a major commercial resurgence with the 1984 album Heartbeat City, which scored five Top 40 hits and had commensurate MTV support. The plaintive electronic ballad “Drive” became The Cars’ biggest Top 40 hit, peaking at #3. The Cars released a few more hit singles during the 1980s, but appeared to be on (nyuk, nyuk) cruise control. The band broke up in 1988, but did have a minor reunion in 2010/2011. The Cars were, by far, the most uninspired major band I’ve ever seen perform live, but in 1978, they provided the blueprint for much of the commercial pop music of the 1980s.

#71 – They Might Be Giants

In the history of popular music, there have been a countless number of quirky acts who releases a few albums and then faded into obscurity. The absurdist duo They Might Be Giants have managed to build a three decade and counting career out of their catchy melodies, bizarre lyrics, and restless creativity. John Flansburgh and John Linnell met as teenagers in Lincoln, Massachusetts and moved to New York in 1981. They began as a performance art act with Flansburgh on guitar, Linnell on accordion, using backup tapes or a drum machine for percussion, and staging their shows with oversized props. Their 1986 debut album was chocked full of catchy, clever songs and gave the world the observation that “Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful.”

The duo worked the alternative music scene for several years, then formed a full recording and touring band in 1994. Although never a mainstream act, They Might Be Giants have won two Grammys, scored a platinum album their 1990 release Flood, and have released three albums marketed for children that have been certified gold. Sorting through the band’s massive catalogue for their best work can be an intimidating proposition. The 2002 compilation Dial-A-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants is a good starting point and The Dust Brothers produced 2007 album The Else is one of the highlights of their later years. When you go into a deep dive with They Might Be Giants, the world becomes a startingly surreal place.

#70 – The J. Geils Band

The J. Geils Band formed in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1970 and debuted in 1970 with a sweat soaked rhythm and blues based sound. They cracked the Top 40 in 1971 with “Looking for a Love,” then scored two gold albums with “Live” Full House and Bloodshot. The band had their biggest single of the decade in 1974 with “Must of Got Lost,” which went to #12, but had little impact on album sales. With the 1978 album Sanctuary, The J. Geils Band moved to a more contemporary sound and had a minor Top 40 hit with “One Last Kiss.”

The continued its holding pattern with the minor Top 40 hit “Love Stinks” in 1980. However, after a decade of recording, The J. Geils Band exploded on pop radio and scored a #1 album in 1981. The single “Centerfold,” about seeing a high school crush pose nude, was a #1 hit and the title track to the Freeze Frame album also went Top Five. One would have expected a succession of hits to follow, but The J. Geils Band never had another Top Tweny single and the band broke up in 1986. In addition to the band’s many fine attributes, there may not be a sideman in music history with a better stage name than Magic Dick.

#69 – Guns N’ Roses

The Los Angeles group Guns N’ Roses brought traditional hard rock back to the commercial mainstream in the late 1980s. Formed in 1985, the band’s debut album, Appetite for Destruction, would eventually sell over 18 million copies. Guns N’ Roses had an aggressive sound that attracted young men and a photogenic look/image that appealed to young women and MTV. “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” and “Paradise City” were all Top Ten hits and it seemed like Guns N’ Roses were poised to be one of the biggest acts in pop music history.

The 1988 extended play record G N’ R Lies seemed like an effort to buy time before another major album and to cash in on previous success (the Top Five single “Patience” was from that record). In September of 1991, the group released two albums (Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II) that have both sold over 7 million copies in the U.S. Still, it was the beginning of the end. Band members started to quit or be fired and lead singer Axl Rose did not display the creativity or talent to keep the band artistically viable. At this point, approximately twenty different people have been members of the band at different times and the group has only released one album since 1993. Retrospectively, the legacy of Guns N’ Roses is one of creative shortfalls and missed opportunities.

#68 – The Lovin’ Spoonful

The Lovin’ Spoonful emerged from the early/mid 1960’s Greenwich Village folk revival/jug band music scene. With a completely different sound and style from the conquering British Invasion bands, The Lovin’ Spoonful was an immediate success. The enthralling “Do You Believe in Magic” was the band’s first single and a Top Ten hit. In fact, the quartet with the innocent yet disgusting moniker had seven Top Ten singles in 1965 and 1966, with “Summer in the City” being their only #1.

In early 1967, guitarist Zal Yanosky committed a cardinal sin of the era by ratting out his drug dealer. In fact, the backlash was so severe that Yanosky had to quit the band. The Lovin’ Spoonful had three more Top 40 hits in 1967, but their commercial momentum was sputtering. They broke up in 1969 and, somewhat ironically, John Sebastian mused with concern about the “Younger Generation” on their last, unsuccessful singer. Sebastian returned to the charts in 1976 with “Welcome Back,” a #1 single that replicated the relaxed, comfortable feel of his prior band. A Sebastian-less version of The Lovin’ Spoonful continues to tour.

#67 – Fountains of Wayne

The New York base band Fountains of Wayne is sometimes referred to as power pop, but their material is much more diverse and interesting than that label suggests. Their albums are filled with smart, sly, tuneful songs – you might want to think of them as a more disciplined (less cutesy) version of They Might Be Giants. Their 1996 debut album gained more critical acclaim than commercial traction, but bassist Adam Schlesinger received attention for writing the theme song to the hit film That Thing You Do! Schlesinger has gone on to do a number of television, film projects and work as a songwriter/producer outside of the band.

In 2003, Fountains of Wayne had a radio/MTV hit with their pastiche/tribute to The Cars, the #21 pop single “Stacy’s Mom.” The accompanying album, Welcome Interstate Managers, is filled with character driven, excellent songs like “Mexican Wine,” “Bright Future in Sales,” “Hackensack,” and “Hey Julie.” The band continued to do consistently rewarding work with their Traffic and Weather and Sky Full of Holes albums. Check out their interstate love song “I-95” to find the band’s intersection between weary, cynical, and hopeful sincerity.

#66 – The Four Seasons

The Four Seasons were a New Jersey based act that brought doo wop sounds and intricate harmonies to Top 40 radio. The group evolved out of a Frankie Valli lead quartet named The Four Lovers who performed between 1954 and 1959 and had a minor pop hit in 1956 with “You’re the Apple of My Eye.” In 1959/1960, Bob Gaudio joined, the band’s name changed, and they began working with producer Bob Crewe. Gaudio and Crewe developed a creative partnership that resulted in three successive #1 singles in 1962 and 1963 – “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.” Frankie Valli’s intense, swooping falsetto became one of the most recognizable sounds in popular music.

The music of The Four Seasons exhibited elements of R&B (“Candy Girl”), Spectorian beats (“Rag Doll”), and garage rock meets Motown (“Let’s Hang On”) as they continued to score hits throughout the ‘60s. Oddly, The Doors nicked the riff from their last 1960’s Top Ten hit “C’mon Marianne” for “Touch Me.” Frankie Valli also had solo success with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” a #2 pop hit in 1967. In the mid-70s, Valli had a resurgence as a solo artist and The Four Seasons had two major hits with “Who Are You” (#3) and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” (a #1 single about a young man losing his virginity). In the mid-2000s, a new generation of fans discovered their music with the smash Broadway hit Jersey Boys. Although never as respected as many of their peers, The Four Seasons wrote first rate pop singles that have stood the test of time.

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