Sunday, 28 June 2009

Who are the defining rock performers?

I'm not going to pretend that I'm a great Michael Jackson fan because I'm not. Although I do like Smooth Criminal and would really like to moonwalk. That aside, his death was very depressing and, like a lot of people, I guess I find myself talking about it with friends and family at the moment. Conversations normally start with, "So, what about Jackson then, bit of a surprise," and the whole thing shifts in to gear from there.

Today I found myself on Woodmansterne Green in Surrey in the UK, having cycled there early in the morning with a pal. We've been cycling out into the sticks like this every weekend for the best part of three years, and our exercise has always been accompanied by chit chat about virtually anything. Today, flask of tea in hand, I started the conversation. "So, what about Jackson then, bit of a surprise," and for a while we chatted about the great man, his music and his untimely departure from the world.

And then we started thinking that, like a lot of things, there are only really a few defining rock acts and how the rest are all derivative. But who were the great defining rock performers and are there really only a handful of albums needed for any of us to lay claim to owning the ultimate 'all you need' collection? This is not about choosing your top ten albums, that would be easy, this is about naming mainstream acts (bands or solo performers) that define rock.

I would guess that the list would have to include Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols (and possibly the New York Dolls too) but who would you choose as the defining heavy metal band? Who started it? Deep Purple, Black Sabbath? For the grunge period, I would choose Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.

And then, of course, there is the late, great Michael Jackson: his Thriller album would have to be part of your collection. But what about Morrissey and The Smiths? What about The Clash, The Jam, Roxy Music, Dire Straits and Thin Lizzy? What about U2, what about all those bands in the 80s like Duran Duran, ABC and Spandau Ballet? What about Blur and Oasis? What about the Stone Roses? They've all had their defining moments, but would they be on your list of bands who defined an era or pioneered a style of music?

People say that the Stone Roses missed a trick by splitting up and that their first album was a defining piece of work – as opposed to their second which was widely regarded as a bit of an anti-climax. But should Ian Brown and John Squire be lauded as rock gods? I love Squire's jangly guitar on She Bangs the Drum and one day I will get round to buying that first Stone Roses album, but are they leaders or followers?

I know that, ultimately, every band and performer out there is influenced by somebody or something, but the thinking behind this blogpost is this: who, out of our current run of bands from the mid-20th century to the present day, have been responsible for starting something? Were the Rolling Stones and the Beatles the original guitar bands? Was Black Sabbath the defining heavy metal band? Did Led Zeppelin pioneer heavy rock? Which bands, in other words, were first out of the traps?

If you had to choose a particular album from Presley, Dylan, The Beatles and so on, which one would it be – or would you go for 'greatest hits'? What, for instance, is the defining Beatles album: is it Rubber Soul, Revolver or Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?

I think The Beatles are overrated. I would have to pick individual hits, avoiding howlers like Yellow Submarine – talk about The Emperor's New Clothes.

With the Sex Pistols, it would have to be Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, because it defines the punk movement and was, I think, their only proper album. I've already mentioned Nevermind by Nirvana: every track is good, which is saying something as a lot of albums carry one or two good tracks and then a load of mediocre stuff that, in the old days of vinyl, required plenty of 'stylus lifting'.

Take Who's Next, for example. I loved that album, but felt it was ruined by My Wife. When I was at college, myself and a friend used to rave about Who's Next and then pretend we thought My Wife was the best track on the album. We were suspicious of people who thought that Money was the best track on Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd, when it was clearly Time.

My Zeppelin album would be Presence; my Floyd album would be Dark Side of the Moon and I'm not sure about the Rolling Stones – they have so many albums and so many recognisable hits that I would be foolish to choose just one. As for Black Sabbath, it would have to be their first album, the one with The Wizard on it, and if I had to choose a Deep Purple album, it would be Deep Purple in Rock – for Speed King.

Right now, though, proof that pop, rather than eating itself, just rolls on regardless. I am listening and watching Blur performing an excellent set to an excited, sing-a-long crowd at Glastonbury. No, I'm not there, I'm sitting at home watching it on television. Hardly very rock and roll. It's gone 11.30pm and I need to sleep. All that cycling, fresh air and sunshine – and three bottles of Stella – mean it is time for bed. But I'm not going anywhere until Blur leave the stage, they're brilliant. Or is that the Stella talking?

"Take care. Goodnight!"


  1. Ther are some bands who you could say helped to define rock. But, the problem, as you point out, is that it's sometimes hard to find one album by a band that isn't marred by at least one 'filler' track.

    My defining bands include:
    - Nirvana at their height at the time of 'Nevermind'.
    - The Clash's debut album and later during their 'London Calling' phase.
    - The Beatles 1966 'Revolver' era.
    - The Jam in 1978/9 when they released 'All Mod Cons'
    - The Stones, 1968 at the time of 'Beggar's Banquet'
    - Iggy Pop & The Stooges 'Lust for Life'
    - and The Who at various points during their career; so I'd probably choose 'The Kids are alright' compilation and video.

    Albums can be patchy so perhaps great bands are better served by downloading and by plrock aylist sites like Spotify.

  2. Agree with the post, and the comments, all good stuff!

    Matt, do old copies of Foodservice Forum appear anywhere in the internet in pdf or similar? I am trying to track one down, but with no joy?



  3. Hi, Bruce.

    I have some old copies (I would love to start it up again to be honest, if I could get the backing!), but no, in short, no web presence, although I've thought about a web version. Having said that, I don't think one would work without the other. I'd need a print version to make the web product work. Bruce, email me on


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