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The 100 Greatest American Rock ‘n’ Roll Bands, Part VI – #44 to #33

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On this part of our journey – acid, burritos, brothels, lobster.

#44 – The Flying Burrito Brothers

The Flying Burrito Brothers are a band whose legacy is much more meaningful in terms of artistic influence than sales or longevity. In 1968, songwriter Gram Parsons joined The Byrds, moving that band to a much more country oriented sound with the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Despite their new material, the musicians with unacceptably long hair were met with boos and catcalls when they performed at the Grand Ole Opry. After The Byrds album crashed and burned (it is now considered a classic), Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons left to form The Flying Burrito Brothers. While Sweetheart of the Radio may have been viewed as experimenting within a new genre by a rock band, The Flying Burrito Brothers were clearly a country rock group form their outset. The band quickly released The Gilded Palace of Sin, an effort where Parsons did not simply emulate his country heroes on tracks like “Sin City” and “Hot Burrito #1,” he surpassed them.

Despite overwhelming positive press, The Gilded Palace of Sin was a commercial failure. The band’s 1970 album Burrito Deluxe is perhaps better known for including the first commercial release of The Rolling Stone’s composition “Wild Horses,” than any original music. (Future Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon joined Gram’s outfit for this album. A few years ago when I saw the Eagles, Glenn Frey mentioned that Leadon had been a member of The Flying Burrito Brothers and the audience responded with laughter. They had no idea that the Burritos were considered a legendary band – they just thought it was a funny name). After Burrito Deluxe, Parsons left the group, released a few highly regarded solo albums, and then passed away from a drug overdose in 1973. Various incarnations of the band have existed since the mid-1970s and one version of The Burritos scored five Top 40 country hits in 1981 and 1982.

#43 – The Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead, perhaps the most famous cult act ever, had an image defined as much by their audience than by their music. Deadheads were nomadic creatures who crossed the country attending shows, collecting tapes, experimenting with tie-dye designs, dropping acid, and finding rapture in extended, psychedelic jams. While unimpressed peer John Fogerty thought that The Dead represented an undisciplined attitude towards music and showmanship, their hardcore base celebrated their messy counterculture appearance and approach. Forming in San Francisco in 1965, the band drew inspiration from early 1900s blues and folk records. While their 1967 debut album included several cover songs reflecting those influences, they would soon use those tools as a foundation for their psychedelic expeditions.

The group released two gold albums in 1969, the palindromic Aoxomoxoa and Live/Dead, setting the stage for greater success. The 1970 albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty went platinum and included some of their most well-known material, including “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” “Truckin’,” and “Sugar Magnolia.” The band decided to release four albums on their own imprint in the mid-1970s, instead of working for the man. They went back to a major label, Arista, in 1977 and quickly scored two gold albums with Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street. In 1987, after two decades of recording, the Grateful Dead had their first pop hit, “Touch of Grey” went all the way to #9 on the pop charts. The group disbanded in 1995 after the death of Jerry Garcia, but quality flashbacks are still available.

#42 – Run-D.M.C.

Hip hop music began in the Bronx in the early 1970s, as Clive Campbell (better known as DJ Kool Herc) found a way to isolate instrumental breaks on funk records and rap over them. Grandmaster Flash was a founding member of the rap community and the genre had its commercial breakthrough with “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang. Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels started rapping in Queens in the early 1980s. Run-D.M.C. released “It’s Like That,” their debut single, in 1983 and it immediately went Top 20 on the R&B charts. Their 1984 album went gold and represented a new harder sound in rap music, featuring sparse drum machine beats and incorporating the occasional guitar riff. It was a record that found strong proponents from the white rock critic establishment.

“King of Rock,” their 1985 single and the title track to their second album, was another step toward a rock/rap fusion. In 1986, Run-D.M.C. became a household name with their cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” The single went Top 5 in the U.S. (a bigger hit than Aerosmith’s original version), the video collaboration between Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith was on heavy rotation on MTV, and the Raising Hell album went triple platinum. The album title track wasn’t a hit, but may have been their most hard hitting rock/rap fusion. “You Be Illin’” and “It’s Trick” also received significant airplay as did their 1987 holiday effort “Christmas in Hollis.” Run-D.M.C.’s last Top 40 hit was the highly recommended “Down With the King,” a #21 pop hit in 1991. The rap act ran out of creative steam and broke up in 2002, but have done the occasional high profile/high paying gig. Run-D.M.C.’s legacy is one few can match – they completely transformed an entire genre of music.

#41 – Flamin’ Groovies

The Flamin’ Groovies are the aural equivalent of a Where’s Waldo image. They have been classified as pub rock, rockabilly, power pop, protopunk, and blues rock. At one time or another, all of those labels have been correct. The Groovies formed in San Francisco in the mid-1960’s, but sounded nothing like their peers from that era. Supersnazz, their 1969 debut album is insanely eclectic with a mix of rockabilly, blues rock, teen tragedy, British Invasion, and ‘50s cover tunes. The overall feel is a bit scattershot and retro. Epic Records had no idea how to promote the band and they were immediately dropped from the label.

Their next two albums, Flamingo from 1970 and Teenage Head from 1971, focused more on a garage rock meets early Stones style. The latter release was included in the 2006 Robert Dimery book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Roy Loney left the band in 1971 and their only recording for five years was the gripping Stones-meets-Beatles anti-drug rocker “Slow Death.” The band released three albums for Sire Records in the late 1970s, with an early Beatles sound. “Yes, It’s True” replicates a perfect pop hit from 1965 and “Shake Some Action” is an eternal power pop anthem. The Groovies have had several reunion tours in the past decade that have not added to their legacy. Their catalogue may be frustratingly uneven, but the peaks are breathtaking.

#40 – The B-52s

The Athens, Georgia based party/dance band The B-52s formed in 1976 and quickly developed a highly defined trash aesthetic, grabbing what they liked from funk, glam, 1960’s girl groups, and garage rock to make a demented sound that was too foreign and fun to ignore. Pairing Ricky Wilson’s non-traditional open tuning technique, Fred Schneider’s sprechgesang, and the otherworldly vocal styles of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, The B-52s were marketed as a “new wave” act, but functioned in their own parallel universe. Their 1978 single “Rock Lobster” created a buzz that got them quickly signed to Warner Brothers. Their 1979 debut album included the kitsch classics “Planet Claire,” “Dance This Mess Around,” and a re-recorded version of “Rock Lobster.” Without any hit singles, the album eventually went platinum.

Their 1980 album Wild Planet went gold behind the geography as mental state “Private Idaho.” They spent much of the 1980s in a commercial holding pattern and took an extended break after the death of Ricky Wilson in 1985. By the late 1980s, the group seemed like a fading novelty act, but the 1989 album Cosmic Thing, produced by Nile Rodgers and Don Was, brought the band a new generation of fans. “Love Shack” and “Roam” were Top 5 singles and the album sold over four million copies. They haven’t scored any significant pop hits since then, but continue to bring their party out of bound dementia to the masses. Their 2008 release Funplex, their first album since 1992’s Good Stuff, is recommended listening.

#39 – The Bottle Rockets

If I were going to create a perfect American rock ‘n’ roll band, I would start with the economy of the Ramones matched with the eviscerating guitar stomp of Crazy Horse. I would get a John Prine quality lyricist and find musicians who could play the music of Buck Owens and Tom Petty with similar ease. If I were going to create a perfect American rock ‘n’ roll band, I would go to Festus, Missouri and discover the Bottle Rockets. The Bottle Rockets emerged from the early 1990s alt-country scene and received national attention with their 1994 release The Brooklyn Side. One of the best albums of the decade, The Brooklyn Side addressed working class concerns, both small (speed traps, local hipsters, having an undependable car) and large (poverty, soul sucking jobs). “Radar Gun” received some hard rock airplay, but changes at their label quickly ended their support.

The band released another solid album in 1997 with 24 Hours A Day, but were dropped by Atlantic before the world could hear how John Cougar impacted Brian Henneman’s stomach. The Bottle Rockets went on to release a tribute record to Doug Samn, a live electric double album and a live acoustic record, and in 2015 released their tenth studio album. More than anything else, the Bottle Rockets are a great song band, the latter day equivalent to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Check out the ZZ Top rip “Nancy Sinatra” from Brand New Year or the psychedelic rock of “I.D. Blues” from Blue Sky or the extended jam on the community trumps politics title track of Zoysia. Really, check out everything they’ve ever done and have a much more fulfilling life by doing so.

#38 – ZZ Top

The “little ol’ band from Texas,” ZZ Top has been taking arena blues rock around the world since the early 1970s. The Houston based band released their debut album in 1971 and had their first minor hit in 1972 with “Francine.” They had their commercial breakthrough in 1973 with the Tres Hombres album and the song “La Grange,” written from a John Lee Hooker riff with lyrics about an infamous Texas whorehouse. The album went Top 10 and was certified gold; their 1975 Fandango! album with the hit single “Tush” had similar success. The 1979 Deguello album was their first platinum effort with their Stax cover “I Thank You” breaking Top 40 and with album rock stations putting the wickedly good “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” and “Cheap Sunglasses” on heavy rotation. It looked like ZZ Top had peaked as a dependable hard rock act, but video loved the blues boogie stars.

If you asked anyone who grew up in the 1980s, they would probably say that “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Sharp Dressed Man” were huge pop hits. They weren’t but ZZ Top received major support from MTV due to their stylish videos featuring sexy young women in eye popping skirts who cruised with the band in a customized 1933 fire engine red Ford coupe. ZZ Top worked the hipsters to become the hipsters and their Eliminator album sold over ten million copies. By the third video with the same theme, Top 40 could no longer resist and “Legs” was a Top Ten hit. Their 1985 album Afterburner included the Top Ten single “Sleeping Bag” and sold over five million copies, many based on Eliminator momentum. ZZ Top released their fifteenth studio album in 2012 and have proved that three guys from Texas could conquer the world by exploring the blues and keeping a groove.

#37 – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a Los Angeles by way of Gainesville, Florida band who scored hit singles consistently from the late 1970s through the early 1990s with their hook laden, often Byrds inspired material. If you listened to a collection of the Heartbreakers’ best singles, you might think they are the best American band ever. If you listened to their complete albums, you might reach my conclusion – that they are a smart singles band. The Heartbreakers debuted in 1976 and were originally categorized as power pop/new wave due to “American Girl” and “I Need to Know.” While not major hits, those songs, as well as “Breakdown” and “Listen to Her Heart” became staples in the band’s catalogue. The commercial breakthrough came with the triple platinum 1979 release Damn the Torpedoes and its hit singles “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee.” If there’s one album track you need in your Tom Petty collection it’s “Even the Losers,” which also could have been a hit.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Heartbreakers career has been their consistency – every album they released from 1976 through 1999 went either gold or platinum. Some highlights include the strutting confidence of “You Got Lucky” and the Dave Stewart collaboration “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Petty raised his profile in the late 1980s by joining the Traveling Wilburys and his 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever sold an astonishing six million copies. That momentum and the single “Learning to Fly” pushed the 1991 Heartbreakers album Into the Great Wide Open to double platinum status. While it seemed like the Heartbreakers might be winding down, they hit a late inning, oh hell yes, grand slam with the hit “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” in 1993. Enjoy the surface sheen of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, don’t look for depth.

#36 – Booker T. & the M.G.’s

“Walking the Dog,” by Rufus Thomas. “Soul Man,” by Sam and Dave. “Who’s Making Love,” by Johnnie Taylor. “Try a Little Tenderness,” by Otis Redding. “Knock on Wood,” by Eddie Floyd. “In the Midnight Hour,” by Wilson Pickett. “Born Under a Bad Sign,” by Albert King. What do these classic soul records have in common? You’ve guessed it, they all were supported by the Stax house band – Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The M.G.’s started doing studio work at Stax Records in Memphis in 1962 and soon recorded a smash hit – “Green Onions” peaked at #3 on the singles chart in August of that year. During the mid-1960s, they focused on supporting other acts and Booker T. spent some time away at Indiana University. They returned to the Top 40 charts in the late 1960s with “Hip Hug-Her” in 1967. In late 1968/early 1969, they had two consecutive Top Ten hits with “Hang ‘Em High” and “Time Is Tight.”

During the early 1970s, Cropper and Booker T. left Stax Records due to turmoil within the company. The excellent title track of their 1971 album Melting Pot found new life decades later, often sampled in rap and techno music. Guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn raised their profile in the late 1970s by becoming key members of the Blues Brothers Band. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. In the 2000s, Booker T. has lead a new version of the M.G.’s and completed studio projects with Neil Young and the Drive-By Truckers. If, as Deee-Lite suggested, groove truly is in the heart, then Booker T. & the M.G.’s are the pulmonary artery of rock ‘n’ roll. (Somehow, I don’t think that’s a nickname that will stick).

#35 – The Pretenders

Are the Pretenders an American band? Well, Ohio born lead singer and creative force Chrissie Hynde is as apple pie as a bank bailout, so even if the supporting cast has frequently been Limey filled, there is only one great pretender. Hynde moved to London in her early twenties and spent several years on the fringes of the British punk scene. The Pretenders formed in 1978 and had a minor hits in 1979 with their cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing” and the Chrissie Hynde penned “Kid.” Their 1980 debut album was an international sensation, going platinum and Top Ten in the U.S. behind the single “Brass in Pocket” and the tough girl attitude displayed in “Tattooed Love Boys.” The Pretenders merged classic 1960’s pop music with the rough edged attitude of punk. Critics lapped it up like free booze on a record label expense account. Their 1981 Pretenders II album went gold in the U.S., although for some inexplicable reason “Talk of the Town” wasn’t a hit. In 1982, bassist Pete Farndon was fired and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died, ending the original version of the band.

Hynde returned with the album Learning to Crawl in 1984, a strong effort with the hit singles “Back on the Chain Gang” and the scorching “Middle of the Road.” The Top Ten single “Don’t Get Me Wrong” followed in 1986 and while the Pretenders no longer sounded new or cutting edge, Hynde proved her consistency as a songwriter. Her next/last major hit was 1994’s “I’ll Stand by You,” a power ballad written with professional song doctors Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg. The Pretenders final studio album was released in 2008, but beyond the music Chrissie Hynde is important for being (at least in image) a strong, tough, independent female in a field frequently dominated by crass sexism. More accessible than Patti Smith and more artistically accomplished than Joan Jett, Hynde demonstrated how to rock as a female with no sense of pandering or pretensions.

#34 – Love

Love was a racially integrated Los Angeles band that formed in 1965 and had a minor hit in 1966 with the Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition “My Little Red Book.” In 1966 they had their first and only Top 40 single with the Arthur Lee protopunk classic “7 and 7 Is,” an exploding rocker that was significantly different than much of the band’s material. Love’s first few albums included garage rock, Byrds inspired folk material, and a touch of the new psychedelic sound. The band captured their permanent slot in rock ‘n’ roll history with the 1967 psychedelic masterpiece Forever Changes. With less emphasis on electric guitar, producer Bruce Botnik incorporated string and horn arrangements into acoustic guitar material. Guitarist Bryan MacLean often wrote classically inspired melodies and Lee’s impressionistic lyrics gave the album a feel of not being a traditional rock record, but a singular listening experience. (I’ve never taken LSD, but I think listening to Forever Changes is the next best thing). Mojo magazine has rated Forever Changes as the second greatest psychedelic album of all time, trailing only Electric Ladyland.

The first iteration of Love disbanded after Forever Changes. Arthur Lee put together a different version of the band (found a new Love?) and released several hard rock/psychedelic albums in the late 1960/early 1970s, but even the appearance of his old friend Jimi Hendrix on the 1970 song “The Everlasting First” made no commercial impact. Founding member Bryan MacLean became heavily involved in Christianity after leaving Love in the late 1960s and passed away in 1998. Lee spent six years in jail from 1995 to 2001 for firearm offenses and toured with Love again in the early 2000s – the band would often play Forever Changes in its entirety with string and horn sections. Arthur Lee passed away in 2006, however, a version of the band, featuring original member Johnny Echols and musicians who performed with Arthur Lee in the early 2000s, continues to tour as “Love Revisited.”

#33 – Blondie

Blondie was part of the late 1970’s CBGB’s New York punk scene, although they weren’t truly a punk band. They formed in 1974 and released their debut album in late 1976. Although it went nowhere in the U.S., the girl group tribute “In the Flesh” went to #2 on the Australian pop charts. Their 1978 album Plastic Letters also reaped international rewards, with their cover of the 1963 Randy & the Rainbows doo wop number “Denise” shortened to “Denis” and hitting #2 on the U.K. charts. Due to Deborah Harry’s attractiveness, Blondie was getting significant press, but no airplay in the U.S. That changed in 1979 when the disco identified “Heart of Glass,” with a sound that their early punk fans viewed as a betrayal, hit #1 on the pop charts. Parallel Lines was a perfect pop album that went Top Ten and platinum in the U.S. “One Way or Another” brought a punk vibe to the U.S. Top 40 and the shimmering “Sunday Girl” went to #1 in the U.K.

Their 1979 album Eat to the Beat album produced the pop hit “Dreaming,” but a soundtrack collaboration with disco producer Giorgio Moroder resulted in their biggest hit. The galvanizing “Call Me” was a perfect combination of electronic dance music and new wave aggression. It topped the U.S. pop charts for six weeks in 1980 and was the highest selling single of the year. The 1981 Autoamerican record was a critical failure, but they widened genres, topping the singles charts with their version of reggae (“The Tide Is High”) and hip hop (“Rapture”). Problems with managing and sustaining their success lead to a 1982 breakup of the band. Blondie reformed in 1997 and have released four albums in their second life. As a band, Blondie may have been more about calculation than emotion, but they were undeniable when they trusted their pure pop instincts.

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