10. The sex pistols
The Sex Pistols are credited with creating the punk movement. They’re cited as one of the most influential bands in the history of rock music. They’re members of the rock and roll Hall Of Fame. They’re also pissy and angry little children who put out just one studio album that made a splash, created a furor and included a handful of good songs, and several others that are forgettable at best.
Certainly, the Pistols had an influence on the burgeoning punk scene, but the legacy of a band should be a great deal more than its’ choice of fashion, its’ attitude and in the case of Lydon and Co., its’ knack for petulant and childish behavior. The Clash wrote far better songs and were much more influential in terms of their politics entering in their music to create a true movement as opposed to a clan of leather clad youths hell bent on breaking skulls and bitching about their current state of affairs.
The Pistols aped much of what bands like The Ramones had already done years earlier. Bands like The Modern Lovers, The Jam, The aforementioned Clash, The Buzzococks, The Undertones and others all began at the same time as a nascent version of The Sex Pistols. Those bands also wrote much better songs and packed them with a much greater level of musicianship - which is to say some musicianship. So, while The Sex Pistols placed their own stamp on punk, they did so with a dozen or more acts at the same time.
Sid Vicious’ fatal heroin overdose in 1979 has helped to cement the band’s legacy in the mind of the popular culture. But to look back at the music of The Sex Pistols is to find a band that could barely play, could barely function as a unit and was a great certainly much more fascinating as a spectacle than as a musical entity. They may have been a puzzling sideshow, but they are not one of rock’s greatest acts of all time.
9. The Grateful Dead
Perhaps the greatest detriment to The Grateful Dead is its’ legion of followers. The Deadheads have become a trope upon which to base the stereotype of the lazy hippie who trades sandwiches in the parking lot before gigs, plays hacky sack 13 hours a day and engaging in seemingly endless drum circles. Sure, this is like blaming Jesus for the conservative Christian movement, but it cannot be left unstated.
The most puzzling fact about the Grateful Dead and their seemingly endless inventory of bootlegs is to wonder how a band that wrote derivative and uninteresting blues and country songs could develop much of a serious following to begin with. It's even more puzzling for this act to have a cult following that is infamous for cross country journeys and years on the road of watching the same mediocre four minute roots song get torturingly transformed into a 27 minute cascade of masturbatory guitar noodling. And as if that were not enough to turn a music lover away, some 73% of the crowd is performing an interpretive dance during said noodling that's apparently fueled by grilled cheese sandwiches, body odor and a patent disregard for songs or the brevity of them.
Sure, there are some decent songs on Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, but the bulk of The Dead's catalog plays like a meandering melange of tunes built around an imitative songwriting approach and a terribly boring penchant for self-indulgent guitar noodling that's likely much more enjoyable for the participants than it is for the listener.
8. Led Zeppelin
Saying that Led Zeppelin are overrated will just about get you kicked in the dick in nearly every bar in America. Many say a statement like this is sacrilege. So I ask you to unbunch your panties and allow me to state my case.
Jimmy Page is a very good blues guitar player. He's not the greatest player ever, but he's quite good and that can't be ignored. He is however, a very, very bad songwriter. Unfortunately, he was the guy who wrote the songs for Led Zeppelin. In 1969, John Mendelssohn pointed out the same in a Rolling Stone review of the self titled LP, "Jimmy Page, around whom the Zeppelin revolves, is, admittedly, an extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist and explorer of his instrument's electronic capabilities. Unfortunately, he is also a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs."
Often bands can overcome mediocre songwriting, but being a great band with bad songs is like making a classic film with a shitty script. Some of Page's riffs are great, but take a closer look at the songs around them. The lyrics are either insipid and meaningless or they're steeped in language fit for a DIY occult book co-written by Alastair Crowley and J.R.R. Tolkien. Riffs and performance, panache and balls out rock can only overcome so many songwriting transgressions.
It's also important to point out that much of what did succeed in the Led Zep canon was plagiarized. The band have as much as admitted to stealing sections of songs by Willie Dixon, Howling' Wolf, Jake Holmes, Traffic, Moby Grape and Eddie Cochran and calling them their own. If Zeppelin had sampled these artists instead of just ripping off chord progressions and lyrical phrases, they'd be in a never-ending legal argument.
And now the gloves come off, truly. Robert Plant is an annoying lead singer, not a rock God. A screeching caterwaul that seems to nearly be in key is not the work of genius just because it's loud and overbearing. Lester Bangs took Plant to task in a review of Led Zeppelin III by calling his technique "monotonously shrill breast beatings" and suggesting that he "give a listen to Iggy Stooge." Bangs is often an assuage who is mistaken. In this case however, he is spot fucking on.
Sadly, Plant's vocal style is in lock-step with his bandmates: Led Zeppelin perpetuate a philosophy of more is more. Plant shrieks and howls. Page's guitar spikes and wails. Bonham's drumming sacrifices dynamics for bombast. This is a group of musicians with talent and verve, it's a shame they never had truly great songs to sing or someone who could reign them in enough to be as great as they're perceived to be.
Nirvana were a good band. They made some very good records. They might have even been a band one could call great with a straight face in the correct frame of reference. That doesn't mean they were the best band of the 90s. Nor does it mean they were the voice of a generation or that Kurt Cobain was the John Lennon to a brood of angry Gen-X kids.
Because they were the most nationally known band from Seattle during the uprise of grunge and because lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide when he was just 27 - at the heigh of Nirvana's popularity - it has become easy to glorify Nirvana within the pantheon of rock. It seems dubious to state that Nirvana were a significantly greater musical entity than many of their Seattle brethren. Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden, and Temple Of The Dog were all very good bands parsing out the same musical landscape as Nirvana. The media however, needed the grunge movement to have a leader as a face to put on the masthead, and on the strength and popularity of Nevermind and the single "Smells Like Teen Spirit", that leader became Nirvana.
Simply because grunge was the music that defined the first half of the 90's, and because of Cobain's untimely death, Nirvana's reputation began to explode into something much greater than the sum of its' parts. Even twenty years later, it's obvious looking back that Nirvana's output is certainly of high quality, but there is nothing there to suggest that they are the Beatles of the 1990s or that they're even any better or more important than The Pixies whom they idolized and formulated much of their sound upon.
Kurt Cobain, were he here today, might even agree that Nirvana have been given a much greater musical legacy than they actually deserve. And sadly, if Cobain were here today, his band would not be considered the kings they are so frequently thought to be. It is his early death and the question of what could have been that propagates the Nirvana myth.
6. Smashing Pumpkins
It's difficult to view Billy Corgan as anything other than a self -obsessed douche. The Smashing Pumpkins frontman has a legendary temper and fractured relationships with virtually every person he's ever worked with. Given his capricious nature, his overtly melodramatic lyrics and his idiotic public persona, it seems unfathomable that anyone would want to be in a band with him at all.
The Pumpkins' 1991 debut Gish was something of a revelation upon its' release. The swirling guitars were reminiscent of shoe gaze, but packed a heftier punch than previous recordings in that scene. The songs were good, if not great, and it seemed this Chicago outfit might be on to something. Siamese Dream, the band's 1993 second LP, would be that something. Almost immediately upon release, Siamese Dream was an enormous success. Corgan and company became part of the inaugural Lollapalooza Festival and both mainstream rock fans and alternative kids seemed wooed by their charms. Unfortunately, big sales and the coddling music press inflated Corgan's already super-sized ego to gargantuan proportions.
The apex of that ego came in the form of 1995's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. During an initial string of interviews for the LPs release, Corgan called it The Wall for Generation X. The double LP featured 28 songs built around a supposed concept idea, although the only apparent theme seems to be Corgan's whiny musings on the state of his life, loves and relationships. He summed up his feelings in trite phrases like "Despite all my rage/I am still just a rat in a cage." The music buying public could not shovel the shit in fast enough. Mellon Collie debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and went on to sell more than 10 million copies, becoming the best selling double album of the decade.
While Corgan has never achieved that level of success since - thank Gawd - his hubris has remained steadfastly in tact. He's managed to break up his band and reform them with different personnel and manage to continue to churn out albums of epic length that are rife with self-referential garbage and his sneering excuse for a singing voice. Most recently, he has been working on a three album collection he's dubbed Teagarden by Kaleidoscope. The third and final installment of that trilogy is slated for release in 2015. Perhaps when that is done, he will mercifully hang up his ZERO t-shirt and walk away from the game.
5. Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton has certainly been around the block a time or two. His fret work in the Yardbirds, Cream, Derek & The Dominoes and as a solo artist has earned him the title of "Guitar God" and his nickname "Slowhand". Hell, even The Beatles had him play guitar on a song. Even if one subscribes to this theory, it cannot overcome the fact that Clapton is a substandard vocalist and a pedestrian songwriter.
The bulk of Clapton's work is, quite simply, boring. Sure, there are moments in the Yardbirds and Cream that are of interest, but they typically revolve around the sum of the parts and not the singular acumen of Clapton. He supports the musical surroundings, but rarely does he elevate them to a level of greatness.
There is also a great deal of rote sentimentality in most of Clapton's compositions. "Wonderful Tonight" is a sickly sweet ballad. "Layla" is a trudging blues number with little ingenuity and insipid lyrical content. Clapton must have also been aware of his own shortcomings as a songwriter as many of his most famous songs ("Cocaine", "The Wind Cries Mary" and "I Shot The Sheriff") are cover versions.
Eric Clapton has always peddled himself as a child of the blues, and as such his style is often unimaginative and a Wonder Bread ripoff of the blues legends he loves so greatly. His heroes Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and B.B. King all had an urgency and furor in their work. In the hands of Clapton that ferocity is transformed into a pasty patchwork of anemic songs that are little more than a pale imitation of the blues.
4. Janis Joplin
Unlike Eric Clapton, one cannot accuse Janis Joplin of a lack of ferocity or grit. Joplin's cigarette smoke-tinged, whiskey soaked voice is often cited as the greatest female voice in the history of rock. Volume and energy are her stock in trade. Unfortunately, volume and energy cannot overcome her gravelly tone and histrionic delivery. Joplin offers a vocal timbre that can only be described as an impression of Tom Waits after he had gargled a quart of hydrochloric acid and has his testicles placed firmly in a vice. Perhaps this is a selling point for some, but it's hard to imagine who that might be.
The vast majority of Joplin's catalog is a hodge-podge of traditional and covers that run the gamut of boring blues rock interpretations to dull traditional blues and folk rendered in a howling miasma of Jack Daniels, patchouli, Marlboro ash and biker bar body odor. The covers and traditional numbers she recorded are never an improvement on the source material and her originals - like "Mercedes Benz" - often play as nothing more than novelty material. Tiny Tim has as much claim to the genius label as Joplin and her raggedy whine.
The specter of early death has also colored Joplin's legacy. But the mystery remains as to what could be expected of Joplin had she not died at a young age. One can only imagine that she would have continued to churn out poor song choices at screeching top volume with very little regard for pitch or dynamics.
When Radiohead's 1997 album OK Computer was released, few fans and critics could have expected the enormous sonic departure from their first two albums. By melding terrific songs with sound effects, loops and layers of dissonance, Radiohead cracked open a perfect concoction of sonic landscapes, lyrical detail and quality melodies. It's safe to say that OK Computer is one of the finest records of the decade. So, that is part of what a shame it is that Radiohead have been deploying the same tricks without any of the songwriting to back it up for the last 17 years.
In the five records since Radiohead managed to mesh songs and sonic shapes so well, they have relied almost solely on Thom Yorke's bawl amidst a cacophony of squelches, beeps and digital farts almost exclusively at the expense of songwriting. Even more perplexing is that both audiences and critics have continued to gobble up every utterance with glee and adoration.
Certainly, a great number of bands have used avant garde sound effects and dissonant strains to reinforce their songs - many to wonderful effect (See: Brian Eno, Wilco, The Velvet Underground and more) but Radiohead have essentially built their songs around these precepts for more than a decade and a half. The noises, grunts and squawks have ceased to be a compliment to the songs, but the primary action. It's a lazy approach that's resulted in a boring drone of a catalog that has managed to be lauded by a never-ending circus train of sycophants proclaiming Radiohead as the most important band of their time.
This is not only a sad state of affairs in that these digital explorations are being substituted for quality songwriting but insomuch as to almost force young listeners into being shamed into Radiohead fans. The hipster peer pressure to love Radiohead precisely because they make records with challenging sounds is reinforcing a belief that style and approach are far more important concern than the actual result.
Radiohead can also tick off a box for the listener who wants to be identified as having a broad, eclectic palate. Instead of exploring John Cage or Stockhausen or Steve Reich, the lazy listener can simply state that he listens to Radiohead and therefore has a wide array of taste, all the while forgetting that Radiohead have become nothing more than a caricature of themselves as arbiters of blips and bleeps with little more to offer any longer.
2. The Doors
Jim Morrison is not a poet. He is not a genius, he's not the lizard king. He is a drunken charlatan who fronted a decent rock band that should have been lumped in with dozens of other 1960's California acts instead of being deified as one the great rock acts in American history.
The Doors are often seen as an edgy outfit who encapsulated the 1960s, but upon further inspection, they are a band who more often than not played to the middle. More than 40 years later, songs like "Light My Fire", "Touch Me" and "Love Me Two Times" play like tunes designed to be edgy that now feel staid and guarded. This may be because Morrison was a limited vocalist. Lots of great bands are fronted by singers with imperfections, but they generally tend to play to the flaws and idiosyncrasies, whereas Morrison seems to shy away from anything beyond his reach.
Lyrically, Morrison is mythologized in a way that defies comprehension. Part of that myth is wrapped around America's fascination with the artist as tortured soul and Morrison absolutely framed himself in that context, but it was largely an engineered fallacy. And as for proof of his lack of actual skill as a poet and lyricist, see the verse below from "Riders On The Storm".
There's a killer on the road
His brain is squirming like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
If you give this man a ride
Sweet memory will die
Killer on the road
If that qualifies as poetry, Rivers Cuomo is Robert Fucking Frost.
Another banner that Doors fans love to cart around is that this was a band without a bass player. Famously, Ray Manzarek played his organ parts in a way that was supposed fill the holes normally occupied by a bass guitar. This is an argument that has never made a great deal of sense. The exclusion of bass has very little bearing on the sound of the band as having a bass player would have only served to add heft and rhythm to bridge the gap between Manzarek and drummer John Densmore. The addition by subtraction argument is dead on this particular issue.
In the grand scheme of 60s rock, The Doors are an also ran held to lofty heights. The combination of their popular success, of Jim Morrison posing as a poet and artist and his death at the magical age of 27 has afforded the band a far greater cultural standing than their work deserves. Sure, they sold lots of records and sound very much like the era in which those records were made but the same can be said of The Turtles, The Lovin' Spoonful or a dozen others. Simply out, The Doors are just not that special.
1. The Eagles
Where to begin? The Eagles have committed so many transgressions that to whittle their collective ass-hattery down to a scant few paragraphs would be like summing up Moby Dick by calling it a fishing book. Perhaps the best way to distill down the haters for The Eagles is to allow our good friend Jeffrey Lebowski to have the floor.