Let the debate begin: Are the Eagles, who bring their signature sound to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City tonight, America’s greatest rock band?
If we’re talking existing bands — bands that are still touring — the case can certainly be made. • During a summer that features big tours by big British bands — the Rolling Stones, the Who and U2 — the Eagles stand out as an American band that hasn’t just survived but has dominated pop.
When it comes to album sales both in this country and worldwide, the Eagles are the undisputed kings, fueled by the success of their two biggest sellers. “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)” has been certified platinum 29 times in the U.S. and has sold more than 42 million copies to date. “Hotel California” from 1976 has been certified platinum 16 times and has sold more than 32 million copies worldwide.
So, besides record sales, what else goes into determining who’s the best American rock band? We’d suggest three criteria: a band’s influence, the strength of its individual members and the ability to write classic songs.
On all three measures, the Eagles, who will be among this year’s Kennedy Center Honorees, score high.
There was a country-rock sound before the Eagles. The Byrds and Gram Parsons both mined that territory. But the Eagles definitely popularized the sound and are probably the first band that comes to mind when people use the term country rock.
In fact, two of the original four members of the Eagles — guitarist Bernie Leadon and bassist Randy Meisner — left bands that were already working in the country-rock realm — the Flying Burrito Brothers and Ricky Nelson’s backing group, the Stone Canyon Band — to join the Eagles.
The Eagles influence has extended to country and alternative-country acts. Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Shania Twain and Lucinda Williams have all been influenced by the Eagles. And you can hear their harmonies when Lady Antebellum performs.
As far as the talent of individual members goes, the Eagles stand out there as well.
Although they were not known when the Eagles formed in 1971, drummer Don Henley and guitarist Glenn Frey eventually turned into stars, both as lead vocalists and songwriters of the Eagles and as solo artists. The addition of guitarist-singer Joe Walsh, formerly of the James Gang, in 1975 turned the Eagles into a virtual super group with three members who could individually command the stage. When the band was touring in 2005, Henley, Frey and Walsh all performed at least one of their solo songs in addition to the Eagles material.
But it may be the tunes written by the songwriting partnership of Frey and Henley that are the Eagles’ biggest claim to greatness.
It unlikely that lite rock stations will ever stop playing songs such as “Take It Easy” and “Desperado.” And as long as there’s classic rock, “Hotel California,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977, will be playing somewhere. Add to those enduring classics the group’s four other No. 1 hits, “Best of My Love,” “One of These Nights,” “New Kid In Town” and “Heartache Tonight.”
The group’s sound is familiar to anyone who’s listened to classic rock or adult contemporary radio during the past 40 years. And one of the reasons the Eagles still play in arenas after all these years is their ability to successfully reproduce live the sounds and the harmonies of those records.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band have plenty of reasons they could be called the greatest American rock ’n’ roll band — classic albums and songs, four decades of CDs worth hearing and five decades of live-performance excellence. But the question remains: Are they a truly great band, or just an extremely creative leader and his talented sidemen?
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been one of the most consistent rock bands of the last five decades. But they are arguably better at producing singles than albums, and their period between 1976 and 1993 is stronger than their output during the last 20 years.
Aerosmith is still performing live with all the original members from its 1970s heyday, and the album “Rocks” from 1976 is a hard-rock classic. But the band is not as good live now as it used to be, and studio CDs over the past 20 years have been weak.
Pearl Jam delivers one of the best live rock shows by an American band that can be seen currently. But their 1990s studio work is better than the material they released during the past 15 years.
Green Day has risen from humble beginnings to become a Grammy-winning band whose members are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their live shows are still energetic. But some of the fun of their earlier years has been lost with the seriousness of the more recent albums.
CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR
Nine Inch Nails has made innovative music and produced visually stunning live concerts, but the group is probably a band in name only as Trent Reznor is the only consistent member.
Red Hot Chili Peppers has one of rock’s greatest bassists in Flea and has produced some good songs. But the group doesn’t rock hard enough and isn’t funky enough to be truly great.
Dave Matthews Band is an enjoyable live act, and it is probably the best adult top-40 group but not the best rock ’n’ roll band.
Phish features excellent instrumentalists whose danceable music is all over the place stylistically, but its studio CDs don’t capture the magic of its live shows.
Foo Fighters have stayed relevant and consistent during the past 21 years with good songs and great live shows, but they have not shown a great deal of artistic growth during the last two decades.
Soundgarden reunited in 2010, and the group’s 1990s output is among the best American hard rock ever made, but its music before and after the 1990s wasn’t as good.
Van Halen could be the greatest party rock band the country ever produced, with a virtuoso lead guitarist in Eddie Van Halen and an iconic frontman in David Lee Roth. But the band’s post-Roth era material didn’t measure up.
The Pretenders have released albums that are worth listening to from 1980s through the 2000s, but the only consistent member has been lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Chrissie Hynde.
Steely Dan released classic albums during the 1970s, and their “Two Against Nature” CD, released in 2000, won the Grammy for album of the year, but their shows aren’t known for exciting stagecraft.
Fleetwood Mac has classic songs and albums and is currently touring with the band’s most famous lineup, but only Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham are Americans.
EAGLES IN ATLANTIC CITY
What: The Eagles’ summer 2015 “History of the Eagles” tour
When: 8 tonight in the arena at Boardwalk Hall, 2301 Boardwalk, Atlantic City. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
How much: Tickets, priced at $50.50, $81.50, $131.50 and $181.50, are available at the Boardwalk Hall box office, at Ticketmaster outlets, by calling Ticketmaster at 800-736-1420, and at ticketmaster.com.
A Boardwalk Pre-Party will be held 4 p.m. today at Kennedy Plaza across from Boardwalk Hall with free admission for ticketholders and the general public. The pre-party features food and beverage for purchase from local vendors such as Ducktown Tavern and Mad Dog Morgan’s. DJ entertainment will be provided by WTKU-FM 98.3. Prizes will be given away by Resorts Casino Hotel, which will be on site along with Britney Shannon’s Hideaway.