Thursday, April 23, 2009


First of all this is a trick question. There are no great American rock bands. They’re all from the UK. In no particular order: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, U2, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, any of these groups are arguably better then the best America has to offer. So what is America great at? Solo acts: Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson (I know Michael is not even close to a rock band, but he is greatest pop star ever so he must be mentioned and for that fact Madonna should probably be mentioned as well because she is the second greatest pop star ever).

Many people (my friend John Conrad included) would say that the greatest American rock band ever is Aerosmith. But that is wrong. They are arguably the most American rock band ever. They’ve starred in Superbowl halftime shows with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake; not to mention Wayne’s World 2; they’ve made the soundtrack to a movie with Ben Affleck, Bruce Willis, and Steve Buscemi; Aerosmith even has their own Guitar Hero video game. What’s more American then that? 

But are they great? They were good for a long time. They are the Karl Malone of rock bands. They have all the stats but they’re too easy to forget.

Which is why the answer to this question is Nirvana. I’m not stating that you should or shouldn’t listen to them, I’m just giving you a cultural fact. And you can’t even really debate this (what are you going to tell me Journey was a greater band?).  And there are three primary reasons for their greatness. 

1) They Defined An Entire Music Movement

Grunge, alternative, call it whatever you want, but when Smells Like Teen Spirit showed up in 1991 it changed everything. From the music video in that old musty gym, to their appearance on SNL, to all of the alternative bands from Seattle that followed—Kurt, Dave, and the funky looking bass guitar player changed the face of music.

2) Cobain’s Death

Again legendary. It’s been debated, books have been written and movies have been made but it was tragic to loose such a talent. Still, I’ve often wondered what would have happened if he wouldn’t have died so young. I’d like to think great things. But who knows, maybe they would have become Pearl Jam making a string of good albums until they finally scored a Sean Penn movie. After all, Nirvana only had one great album, Nevermind. However, my real guess is Nirvana would have followed a career path closer to Guns N’ Roses.

3) The Foo Fighters 

Dave Grohl’s band must be talked about when talking about Nirvana’s legacy. And The Foo cements Nirvana as the greatest American rock band ever. Even though, in so many ways the Foo is a better band but mostly Wayne Campbell sums up the Nirvanna Foo relationship with this brillant Star Trek analogy. “They’re a lot like Star Trek: The Next Generation. In many ways, they’re superior but will never be as recognized as the original.” I cannot believe that’s my second Wayne’s World mention today.  

This blog is dedicated to my friend Chris Londino. He’s lives in Dallas and asked me a year and a half ago what the answer to this question was. Now you know Chris. If you have other pop culture questions you want me answer feel free to comment below and let me know.


Kendal Franks said...

I'm sad that you leave Oasis out of your shortlist of great non-American rock bands. And I would argue Metallica ties with Nirvana as the best American rock band. Bam.

Ash said...

i seriously feel like i've read this exact same blog by you somewhere else, facebook maybe? who

kendal, i'd have to disagree on the metallica bit, mostly b/c they carried ON a form of music- (and developed further)- that is considered to have begun w/ bands like black sabbath and judas priest.

w/ nirvana, "grunge" was almost something that was entirely new. so sure, i can go w/ that....nevertheless that period of music has essentially sloped downward and is left more as a legacy & an era.

Wendel said...

I think that the death of Cobain is also what makes Nirvana so great. It's like Episode 4-6 of Star Wars, they were great (even with the Ewoks) but then episode 1-3 appeared and pretty much ruined the Stars Wars franchise. Would that have eventually happened with Nirvana? Who's to say, but it all ended when they were in their prime.

Kendal does have a point about Oasis. They are great and I have all their albums...but why do I skip their songs every time they play??

Rob Stennett said...

Kendal: Metallica is the heavy metal version of Aerosmith. Whatever I said about Aerosmith just insert that and the same is true about Metallica. (and used to own a "And Justice For All" tee shirt.

Ash: I may have said this before. I may have had a status update that said," Nirvana is the greatest American rock band." I doubt that.

J Wen: I agree, death is what may have made Nirvana legendary. Otherwise he may have become Jar, Jar.

Kendal Franks said...

I was going to argue further, but the line-item comparison to Aerosmith does match up all the way to a exclusive Guitar Hero game. I've got nothing.

Chris said...

well, it's about time...I've been waiting for part II of this blog for ages now. Well said my friend, I could not agree with you more.

now, I'll get started on my best Australian rock band of all time blog....

Amy said...

I'm going with the Beach Boys. "Pet Sounds" was a legendary and ground-breaking album. They are arguably one of the most overlooked rock bands of the 20th Century. :)

Rob Stennett said...

Chris: Sorry it took me so very, very long. You should be writing this blog. You know so much more about music then I.

Amy: I will give you this, if we're talking underrated bands, The Beach Boys are right up there. Their music was influential, great, and of coarse they were on season 4 of "Full House." Any friend of Bob Sagget's is a friend of mine.

Erick Todd said...

You left out the band Nirvana de-throned - Van Halen. They absolutely defined the 80's. They had major hits in the 70's, 80's, and 90's. They were the most famous soap opera in a band of all time (David Lee Roth vs. Sammy Hagar).

If your criteria are:
1) Defined an era (Van Halen defined a much bigger era as the 80's rock scene lasted from 78-91.)
2) Made major news (Roth/Hagar)
3) Spun off other bands (Nirvana wins here with Grohl, but Hagar and Roth have done much after).

But Van Halen has out sold Nirvana 2 to 1. Eddie Van Halen basically re-defined guitar in general. In fact you rarely hear Nirvana songs played anymore, but Van Halen is STILL a radio staple in America.

They have had a longer lasting musical influence. And if you polled a wider group of American's I think the older generation will know Van Halen better than Nirvana. Our generation knows them both, and while the younger generation would think both bands are crap, almost all of them would know Van Halen a little!

Let's not forget one more major piece of American Culture - Hollywood. Van Halen, Aerosmith, Eagles, Hendrix are seen in film soundtracks far more than Nirvana has been.

Really you could use the above arguments for Aerosmith too.

And who can forget the Eagles (best selling record of any band all time).

Or the genre defining Jimi Hendrix.

Nice blog! (p.s. Nirvana would have still been my number 2).

p.p.s Don't forget the other Brit greats that defined the era like "the Who", "Led Zeppelin", "Queen", and "Cream".

Amy said...

OK, I think it's scary that not only do you know that the Beach Boys were on Full House, but you know the exact season. Do you own the DVD set of the series as well? :)

Dave Cranfield said...

Erick, great post! Van Halen (not Van Hagar) was one that came to mind. I love Nirvana and was in college when Cobain killed himself. I even wore flannel!! ;-)

BUT, grunge came and went (and unfortunately succumbed to the crappiness of mindless bubblegum pop). And Foo Fighters? Rob, you gotta be kidding me? I thought you had grown up from that kid with all one length hair in Tag Chapel during the early Bolin years, Foo Fighters????? If we're talking "influential" a short-lived idealistic movement like grunge unfortunately only influenced a few years.

I don't think the arguments against Metallica are really valid. I loved metal, pre-Metallica. Much of what was once called metal evolved in to glam-metal. Metallica preserved real metal and completely expanded upon it instead of surrendering it to the Poisons of the world.

Since you ruled out individuals like Jimi, here are a few bands no one has mentioned that were truly great and influenced sub-genres of Rock.... Doors - who can leave them out? Lynyrd Skynyrd - pretty much put Southern Rock on the map. I know most people I've seen post here are honkies, but what about Tempations, Supremes, or Commodores? While R&B isn't as hard as some "rock", it's still a sub-category. As much as I love Nirvana's music, it's a HUGE reach to try to say that they had a small percentage of long term influence in rock music. "Greatness" would not only mean an awesome band, but would imply a lasting effect. Unfortunately, as soon as Kurt "No I don't have a gun" Cobain died, the music world drifted away to acts like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and N-Sync.

BTW Erick, pretty sure Queen is from San Francisco, not England. So they would DEFINITELY enter in to this discussion.

JT said...


JT said...

Hey Rob, are you only allowing comments by people you know?

I've sent a few on here, but I guess that they aren't usable or I'm a schlub.

Probably the latter, I figure.