Monday, February 15, 2010

California Über Alles

So I was thinking of creating different sorts of pop culture Top 10 lists, as you may have remembered if you saw the first post I made here (if you didn't, well... now you know, and apparently that's half the battle. The other half? Big ass guns.) And I was listening to stuff on my iPod when I asked myself, "What's the best band California ever produced?" Suddenly, a light bulb went on in my head (an EnergyStar - gotta think of the environment!), and so I decided to compile of a list of - in my opinion - the 10 Greatest Rock Bands from California. This is a list of the bands whose success and influence, along with their talent (obviously), made them stand out from all the others.

Now, before I start the list, let me tell you that this was a lot more daunting task than I first imagined. The variety of styles is as diverse as the landscape in the Golden State. Over the last 50 years, Cali has given us punk, metal, surf rock, psychedelic rock, funk, new wave, ska, and more. I tried to get as many different styles as I could on this list, but when you limit yourself to 10, you end up having to make tough choices, like which child you "accidentally" leave behind at the house while you go off to spend Christmas in Paris (you still can't convince me that wasn't on purpose...). For example, here's just a small number of the bands I left out: Bad Religion; The Bangles; Black Flag; Blink-182; The Byrds; Counting Crows; Creedence Clearwater Revival; The Go-Go's; Incubus; Jane's Addiction; Jefferson Airplane; Linkin Park; Mothers of Invention; Motley Crue; No Doubt; NOFX; The Offspring; Rage Against the Machine; Rancid; Santana; Slayer; Sly and the Family Stone; Social Distortion; Stone Temple Pilots; Sublime; Tool; Weezer; and X. Whew. As it is, I'm probably missing some big name act, and will have to revisit this list again. Dang.... Oh well, on with the show!

10. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Started: Los Angeles, 1983
Signature Albums: Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Californication

Since forming in 1983 - hold it, they've been around for 27 years?!? How did I miss this fact? - RHCP has sold countless albums while retaining their original sound (would've been the original roster until John Frusciante left last year). Befitting a city as ethnically diverse as LA, their sound is a mix of hard rock, punk, and funk, the last part thanks largely to the often-underrated bass-player Flea. It seems that they have a few quiet years before releasing a monster album, but when you've been successful for a quarter-century, I suppose you learn how to pace yourself.

9. Green Day
Started: Berkeley, 1987
Signature Albums: Dookie, American Idiot

It would be easy to find reasons to keep this trio off the list - their sound is too much pop-punk; they've become sell-outs; "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" was vastly overplayed; etc. And while many of the complaints hold water, it's hard to overlook the fact that they've been a very successful band despite (or perhaps, because) of those changes. And even though it does make me sad about the state of rock music in general, it has to be said that American Idiot was one of the best rock albums in the last decade (there's an idea for the next Top 10 list, perhaps...)

8. Dead Kennedys
Started: San Francisco, 1978
Signature Albums: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, Frankenchrist

Arguably the most influential punk band not to come out of England or New York City, DK spent most of the 1980's as the figureheads of the anti-Reagan, anti-censorship, anti-authoritarian movement. One of their more subtle assets was their ability to cross-breed their punk sound with other genres, like funk and folk. They were not averse to writing silly songs, like "Too Drunk to F**k", but when push came to shove, they could create a scathing condemnation of society as well as anyone. Bonus points for the lead singer being named Jello, and for giving me the title for this blog post (great song, too - definitely check it out).

7. The Eagles
Started: Los Angeles, 1971
Signature Albums: Eagles, Hotel California

OK, if you were born after 1980, go through your parents' record collection (hint: they're vinyl) - chances are good there's at least one Eagles album in there (but if it's Desperado, feel free to laugh at them). They certainly weren't the hardest-rocking band ever, but their mix of rock and folk music was a damn potent combination - their Greatest Hits compilation ranks only behind Thriller as the highest-selling album of all time in the US, and the gap is not nearly as big as you'd think. Toss in one of the most acrimonious break-ups in music history, and you've got a hell of a legacy.

6. Van Halen
Started: Pasadena, 1972
Signature Albums: 1984, Van Halen

Speaking of acrimonious breakups.... There are 3 camps of Van Halen fans: The Roth fans (AKA - the right ones), the Hagar fans (AKA - the naive ones), and the ones who actually thought Gary Cherone was a decent frontman (AKA - the morons). The band's biggest successes and wildest stories all come from the Diamond Dave era, so we'll stick to that. As much as the punk bands of the early 80's were singing about rebellion and dissention, Van Halen was singing about girls, teachers, and more girls. And Panama. But it was fantastic fun, because they were everything a rock band should be - talented (namely Eddie), charismatic (namely David), and ultimately a way for us to forget about the stresses of life and focus on the fun stuff. Like girls. And jumping.

5. Metallica
Started: Los Angeles, 1981
Signatue Albums: Metallica, Master of Puppets

It's kind of a shame, really, that for the last decade or so, when people mentioned Metallica, most people thought not of songs like "Enter Sandman", "One", "Whiplash", or any of their other excellent tracks, but of Lars Ulrich crying like a 3-year-old who just got his favorite toy taken away. Regardless of what side you take in the DRM/royalties/Napster debate, it was a little off-putting to see the drummer from perhaps the most famous metal band on the planet looking so downright annoying ("Some Kind of Monster" didn't do much to change that). And yet, despite that and the never-ending carousel of bassists, they seem to keep plugging along. Death Magnetic is their best work in years, and it seems (for now, at least) that people have started to remember that these guys could write some truly epic pieces of rock music.

4. The Beach Boys
Started: Hawthorne, 1961
Signature Albums: Pet Sounds, Surfin' Safari

Again, it would be easy to dismiss their contributions to rock music by saying that they only could write about surfing, and that they couldn't stay relevant after the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967. But that's doing an incredible disservice to the band. First, what's wrong with writing about surfing? I've never even been to California, and those songs make me reminisce about Malibu somehow. That's skill. Second, don't overlook Brian Wilson's writing abilities - when the British Invasion came over, he took a very bold step at the time and altered the band's sound to compete with the Stones and the Beatles (and in the process, came up with fantastic songs like "Good Vibrations" - no, not the Marky Mark one). And during their near 50-year career (yes, you read that right), they have sold more albums and singles than any other American band - suck on that, Aerosmith! Finally, I'm not sure whether I should've subtracted or added bonus points for the band having John Stamos as the drummer for a while....

3. Guns N' Roses
Started: Hollywood, 1985
Signature Albums: Appetite for Destruction, Use Your Illusion I & II

What was not to love about this band? You had guys named Axl, Slash, Duff, and Izzy, who all looked like they needed a shower but were too f**kin' cool for soap (they just got drunk until the booze covered up the smell of sweat, anyway). They partied hard, destroyed hotel rooms, hooked up with models (PS - what happened to Stephanie Seymour? Is she a MILF now? We need answers!), and most importantly, they were a damn good band. Even though their covers of Dylan, Wings, and the Stones were brilliantly done, it is their original work which truly makes them praise-worthy. "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Welcome to the Jungle" still sound as good today as they did 20 years ago (good God, this blog is making me feel old...), and they could write power ballads as well as anyone ("Don't Cry", "Patience", "November Rain"(kinda), etc.). It's been a shame to see them go their separate ways, but it was fun while it lasted, and besides, every good rock band needs to get pissed off and break up. So thanks again, Axl!

2. Grateful Dead
Started: San Francisco, 1965
Signature Albums: American Beauty, Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel

For most other lists, it would be rather bizarre to rank so highly a band that, over a lifespan of three decades, has only had one Top 40 hit ("Touch of Grey"). But you would be hard-pressed to find any band who has maintained such a vast and loyal following as the Dead. Hell, how many other bands do you know whose fanbase even has a name? Obviously, their cultural resonance is solid; I think everyone has seen the dancing bears or the lightning-bolt skull affixed to somebody's car/backpack/laptop, and who doesn't love Cherry Garcia (besides Communists)? But make no mistake - the Dead knew how to put on a show. Often called the forerunner of jam bands like Phish, the Dead's concerts were full of eclectic styles, including folk, jazz, and prog-rock, and songs would often go over 10 minutes and contain wild improvisations that were unlike anything on the album. It was like a very long jam session, and when you add in the fact that they willingly let the Deadheads tape their shows, you get a band who loves their fans, loves to perform, and gets loved unconditionally in return. OK, maybe marijuana plays a tiny factor too, but you know a Dead concert is an experience. And that's what music should be about.

1. The Doors
Started: Los Angeles, 1965
Signature Albums: The Doors, Morrison Hotel

If one were to create a band that fit So-Cal, you'd probably need a checklist of qualities, such as:
* Talent - This one is fairly obvious. Their lyrics have often been regarded by critics as poetry, and the guitar/organ work included some of the most famous hooks in the history of rock music. Check.
* Attractive lead singer - Check. I'm perfectly comfortable in admitting that even though I'm totally straight, I so would have f**ked Jim Morrison. And to all you guys who were laughing at that statement, I have 3 words: You would, too.
* Collection of hits - let's see... "Light My Fire", "Break On Through", "Whiskey Bar", "People Are Strange", "Touch Me", "Peace Frog", "Love Her Madly"... do I have to continue, or can I just say "Check"? Thought so.
* Short shelf-life - Sadly, Check. Morrison died in 1971, likely from a drug overdose (how rock-star of him), so the full band was only around for 6 years. And it wasn't even a full six, because portions of that time involved some sort of legal adventure. Which leads me to...
* Controversy - Big Check. Not even so much the fact that they were all tripping on drugs at some point, because, frankly, who wasn't? This is more about the time in Miami when Morrison insulted practically everyone in the audience and whipped his Lizard King out, thereby causing a media firestorm, and leading him to be charged with public indecency. Rock on.
* Having Oliver Stone make a movie about you - No. That never happened. You can't convince me of this.
* Legacy - It's been almost 30 years since they played a note together, but their songs still hold up now, and they still sell records at a steady pace. Sure, they're not as famous as the Beatles, or the Stones, or Elvis, or even some of the other bands on this list. But they rode their star all the way to the top, burned out quickly, and took everyone for a hell of a ride along the way. That's So-Cal. And that's rock & roll.

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