(Pictured: the underrated Bob Dylan, 1966.)
Here’s the second half of American Top 40‘s “Giants of Rock ‘n’ Roll” countdown from the July 4 weekend in 1986.
20. James Brown. The Godfather of Soul is probably ranked a bit too low even for 1986.
19. Led Zeppelin. Casey plays all of “Stairway to Heaven” and only talks over a little of it.
18. Lionel Richie. Nope nope nope. Lionel was way too high on this list even in 1986. More influential than Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Ray Charles? As I asked the other day about Hall and Oates and Billy Joel, who did he influence, and how? Next to the omission of Aretha Franklin, this is the show’s biggest goof.
17. The Doors
16. The Who
15. Bob Dylan
Casey quoted a lot of DJs who responded in the poll, mostly from small and medium-sized markets. Writing about Dylan, one said, “He gave us something to sing about besides cars and girls.” Precisely: Bob Dylan is largely responsible for the idea that rock lyrics don’t have to be doggerel. They can tell serious stories in a literary way, or be poetic in a way pop songs were not before he came along. So he’s influential in a way unequaled by practically everyone else on this list. He should have been no lower than #3.
14. The Eagles
13. Creedence Clearwater Revival
Chicago is way too high on the list and might not belong on it at all. Several horn bands emerged at about the same time Chicago did, and Casey talks about how Chicago was inspired by Blood Sweat and Tears. If that’s true, shouldn’t BS&T be on this list instead?
11. John Lennon. Casey quotes a DJ who says Lennon belongs on the list “for his love.” Whether that’s accurate is a question biographers have considered since 1980, but it sounded great next to “Imagine.”
10. Buddy Holly
9. The Beach Boys
8. Paul McCartney
7. Elton John
6. Bruce Springsteen
Paul and Bruce get two songs each, as Eric Clapton did in his segment earlier.
5. Chuck Berry. Casey praises Berry as an influential guitarist, but then plays “Maybelline,” even though every kid who bought a guitar because he loved Chuck Berry wanted to learn “Johnny B. Goode” first.
4. Stevie Wonder
3. The Rolling Stones
2. Elvis Presley
1. The Beatles
The songs Casey chose for the top three—“I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Day in the Life,” “Hound Dog,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Miss You,” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—make abundantly clear why these people top the list. Casey’s choice of “Part Time Lover” for Stevie pales in comparison, although it’s in keeping with this show’s tendency to play 80s hits wherever possible. It’s why “We Built This City” got on earlier and not “White Rabbit” or “Miracles,” and why James Brown’s then-recent “Living in America” got on instead of quite literally anything else.
As I listened to the show (which was fabulously entertaining despite all that you’ve read here), I was reminded that merely working in radio doesn’t automatically make you an expert. Some radio people have a historian’s knowledge of music, but many others are simply passionate fans who don’t know much more than their listeners. (And some don’t like music at all.) It’s perfectly fine to be a passionate fan, but such a person is likely to think, Billy Joel and Chicago have had lots of hits so they have to be on the list, without giving much thought to the question of who they influenced and how. They won’t differentiate between the Jefferson Airplane, whose psychedelic style really did have an impact on other performers, and the Starship, which was a generic 80s album-rock band. (That one may be the AT40 staff’s fault, though, for assuming that the entity remained the one and the same for 20 years.) Neither will they single out the house bands at Motown or Stax, for example, even though those groups inspired bands in garages from coast to coast. And there’s a long list of artists experts recognize as pioneers and influencers who never made a radio hit, so they’d never register on a list like this.
Apart from the unconscionable omission of Aretha Franklin and any women other than the Supremes, the show does get a lot of rock history right, though. But who do you think is missing? Who shouldn’t be on it? How would you re-rank the list? Who from the last 33 years would have to be included on a similar list made today, and who would get bumped from this list in their favor?