Since we are in the midst of the quadrennial potpourri of bonhomie known as the World Cup, it seems like a logical time to discuss a subject that is on the tongues of every Football fan, from Croatia to Cameroon, from Côte d’Ivoire to Costa Rica:
What is the single most underrated band of the rock era?
(First, a brief aside to discuss the rather gorgeous word Quadrennial…like wainscoting, Ossobucco, parasympathetic, or Dawn Wells, Quadrennial is a word that just rolls off the tongue and sluices across the lips like a sensuous puff of breath from Kamadeva, one of the Hindu Gods of Love…)
ANYWAY, at our advanced age, opinions have become dozens of stone babies clogging up our sad and disappointed souls; but we must take pride in our prejudices, as they are the only aspects of our teenage dream to have achieved full realization. In other words, I’ve suffered for my opinions, and now it’s your turn.
So, how do we decide who is the most underrated rock band of all time? Or is it “Who ARE the most underrated rock band of all time?” WHERE IS REASON A. GOODWIN WHEN YOU NEED HIM? Or her? Because “Reason” could certainly be a woman’s name, nicht was? And WHY am I speaking German (the “nicht was” bit)? Anyway, how do we make this determination? What are our ground rules? And WHY am I making references no one under 50 will even remotely understand (the “Reason A. Goodwin” bit)? I will TELL you why: BECAUSE I have just learned that there are now chimps that have MASTERED THE SECRET OF FIRE, and we humans have to get a LEG-UP on these FIRE-MAKING CHIMPS in ANY WAY POSSIBLE, and most certainly OUR ABILITY TO MAKE REFERENCES THAT REQUIRE RELATIVELY SPECIFIC KNOWLEDGE OF 1960S/70’s TV GAME SHOWS IS ONE WAY WE WILL ALWAYS BE SUPERIOR TO OTHER PRIMATES. Nicht was?
First of all, some amazing artists linger in the land of obscurity, but it is important to underline that we are not discussing obscurity; we are discussing The Underrated. Big Difference. In order to qualify as “The Most Underrated Band,” one has to be an artist that was capable of universal greatness and acceptance, an artist where there is an enormous disparity between the potential for their work to be accepted and the acceptance of that work. So we are not just talking about the artistically brilliant or groundbreaking. This is why some of the greatest artists of our time do not qualify for this prize; for instance, the Velvet Underground, Neu!, and P.i.L. are three of the primo art-rock bands of the last half-century, but they likely achieved precisely the level of cult-dom and appreciation they merited, so they could hardly be called underrated. The same goes for many other ineffably magical art rockers. Also ineligible for the prize are Very Popular Bands Who Maybe Should Have Been Even More Popular. So no R.E.M., okay?
In order to be designated the Most Underrated Band, one has to be an artist who didn’t get the attention or credit they deserved; an artist capable of bringing original and passionate music into the mainstream while simultaneously making something devilishly original; and an artist who also had a catalog large enough and long enough to allow the listener to distinguish differing stages and rewarding evolution, with each stage being rewarding in-and-of-itself (this requirement of a reasonably sizable catalog eliminates some phenomenal one-album bands, like the Rich Kids, Young Marble Giants, and Empire).
So where does that leave us?
It leaves us with two finalists – yes, only two — each of which should have been as artistically important and commercially successful as ANY act in the business. Let me delineate a little further: These are both acts that should have been the Stones/Beatles/Who, or acts that should have been U2 or Radiohead.
The Small Faces were every bit as good as any British rock act of the 1960s. They’re better than the Stones, as remarkable as the Who (I won’t say as good as the Who, because, let’s face it, it’s hard to beat the Who at their best), and an utterly worthy counterpart to the Beatles. The Small Faces were a beautifully British, ferocious, musically complex group that married the power and the incendiary guitarisms of the Who with an element that was pure music hall, and which honored a tradition of British music that went far beyond (and further back from) the blues tradition of the Stones/Who/Yardbirds. They wrote spectacular songs about the British way of life, they played them brilliantly, their albums were full of sugar experimentation and brutal rock, and they should have been right up there with all the cats I just mentioned. There should be Broadway musicals full of their songs, and they are the missing link between Kinks-ish music hall and Zeppish heavy blues.
(Now, why weren’t the Small Faces bigger? That’s a long story – books have been written about it – but a large part of it is likely due to having horrific, criminal management – something that did not hinder the Beatles, Stones, and Who).
(What about the Kinks, you ask? Well, I freaking love the Kinks, but I would probably contend that the Kinks were just as popular as they should have been; they were best suited to be a delicious cult, and they actually likely exceeded expectations, at least in terms of their commercial success and acceptance.)
And the other contender for our prize would be the Damned.
The Damned should have been the other great classic rock band of our era, right up there with U2. They were that good. They were full of power and subtlety and absolutely genius songwriting, and a diversity that ranged from the unsubtle frantic burps of punk to delicate and orchestrated mood pieces that would have made the Moody Blues proud. The Damned, with their predilection for both massive power and chaos and highly developed and subtle songwriting, were the natural and logical successors to the Who. Everything they did between 1976 and 1983 is worth owning, worth analyzing, worth dissecting, worth disseminating, and worth proselytizing about: five magical, diverse, rewarding, complex albums (Damned Damned Damned, Music For Pleasure, Machine Gun Etiquette, Black Album, and Strawberries), which, together or apart, hold their own with anything else the rock produced.
I won’t detail here why the world missed out on the Damned (largely, it has to do with the unwillingness of the American music industry to take the first generation[s] of UK punk bands seriously, with very, very few exceptions), but they did, and it is a fucking shame. There may be bands of that era I like almost as much as the Damned, but the Damned are the biggest loss. Because they should have been the Who, goddammit.
Now, The Small Faces, in fact, came significantly closer to bridging the gap between achievement and acceptance, even if they didn’t quite reach the heights they should have…and because of that – because of the disparity between the magic that was produced and the acceptance that should have been received – I have to name the Damned as The Most Underrated Band of the Modern Rock Era.
(Note: Portions of this piece appeared earlier in the magazine The Big Takeover; if you were one of the four people who read any of this in its’ earlier form, buried in almost hysterically tiny type in the midst of a phone-book of didactic information about unbelievable obscure alt-rock marginalia, please accept my apologies and/or thanks.)
(Note II: Please assist us in making the phrase “potpourri of bonhomie” a common catchphrase.)