In 2004 — 50 years after Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios and cut “That’s All Right” — Rolling Stone celebrated rock & roll’s first half-century in grand style, assembling a panel of 55 top musicians, writers and industry executives (everyone from Keith Richards to ?uestlove of the Roots) and asking them to pick the most influential artists of the rock & roll era. The resulting list of 100 artists, published in two issues of Rolling Stone in 2004 and 2005, and updated in 2011, is a broad survey of rock history, spanning Sixties heroes (the Beatles) and modern insurgents (Eminem), and touching on early pioneers (Chuck Berry) and the bluesmen who made it all possible (Howlin’ Wolf).
The essays on these top 100 artists are by their peers: singers, producers and musicians. In these fan testimonials, indie rockers pay tribute to world-beating rappers (Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on Jay-Z), young pop stars honor stylistic godmothers (Britney Spears on Madonna) and Billy Joel admits that Elton John “kicks my ass on piano.” Rock & roll is now a music with a rich past. But at its best, it is still the sound of forward motion. As you read this book, remember: This is what we have to live up to.
By Dave Sitek
When I was a kid, I was really into hardcore punk. Hardcore was very rigid. Talking Heads was the first band I remember telling my punk friends about, saying, “Yo, check this out! This four-chord thing we’re doing? We’re missing out on something!”
The first song I really liked was “Once in a Lifetime.” MTV had just started to sink its claws into people, and that song was like an anthem for coked-up adults trying to make sense of their world. Remain in Light was this combination of ambient music and strong lyrics and incredibly inventive percussion and bass parts. I was a kid, but I still thought, “I should have been involved in that record!” It’s amazing.
They had so many things going on. If you listen to a Talking Heads bass line, you think the song’s going one way, and then you listen to the drums and you think it’s going a different way, and then you listen to David Byrne’s lyrics and you’re like, “This is a completely different song from what I thought it was going to be.” And then the guitars come in, and then the ambience comes in — it’s like several songs all blending into one. If Talking Heads were around a cool idea, they would make it their own. I feel like they saw Brian Eno, their producer, as another instrument.
The town that I grew up in was called Columbia, in Maryland. It was a planned community with man-made lakes. David Byrne’s parents lived there for a while. It presented this facade that everything around us is solid and real and going to be here forever, even though we know we created it. Byrne’s lyrics spoke to the artifice of the American landscape. The American Dream has a lot of back alleys, and he was showing those things, and I felt like, here’s a guy trying to talk to me about something I had seen firsthand.
I think the artist’s primary responsibility is to reflect what life was like in their time. Talking Heads did that. I’m all over the map emotionally and spiritually, like most people are, so different Talking Heads records speak to me at different times, but with Remain in Light and Fear of Music, the grit of modern living is there. What they’re addressing still applies.
They weren’t always complex, either — there’s some stuff where it’s just bare-bones essentials. “This Must Be the Place” is probably one of the most important songs in my entire life. I find the lyrics really calming. The song is simple, but when you look at all the elements and how they’re put together and where the downbeat is, it’s kind of … clever is not even really the word. Genius, maybe?
By Tom Petty
Carl Perkins‘ songs will outlive us all. On tracks like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Honey Don’t!” he took that country-picking thing into the rock world. He was an amazing guitar player: If you want to play Fifties rock & roll, you can either play like Chuck Berry, or you can play like Carl Perkins.
Considering how important he is to rock history, many people don’t know about him. But the right people did. The Beatles covered five of Carl’s songs on record. Carl was actually there in the studio when the Beatles cut some of them. Listen to the guitar break in “All My Loving”: George Harrison told me that the Beatles would study the B sides of Carl’s records to learn everything they could from him.
Carl was the real deal — a true rockabilly cat. He told me about picking cotton when he was a kid and learning the blues from an older black field hand he knew. Carl would go home from the fields, be practicing a Roy Acuff country type of thing on his guitar, and then he would start bending the notes. He told me his father would actually get mad, saying, “Play that thing right, boy, or don’t play it at all.” But it was organic with Carl. He took it to the honky-tonks — the real honky-tonks where people would be drinking out of a jug. It sounds like a cliché now, that rock music was born out of cornfields and honky- tonks, but with Carl it was all true.
He didn’t get the breaks he deserved; hard luck seemed to follow him around. He had a terrible car crash on the way to The Ed Sullivan Show when “Blue Suede Shoes” was breaking really big. Elvis ended up covering the song and took a lot of the glory there. Some people might not know that Carl played guitar with Johnny Cash for 10 years on the road. At a certain point in the Sixties, things got tough for Carl — he had a drinking problem, which he eventually overcame — and he went back into the lead-guitar business.
Carl himself was a very bright guy, and very funny. He once told me, “Tom, I like you so much — if I lived by you, I’d cut your grass.” That warmth and wit came through in his music. He was not the kind of guy to blow his own horn; he was very humble. When we did a long stand at the Fillmore in the late Nineties, I talked Carl into sitting in with us. Backstage, Carl was very nervous about coming out with us. He said, “They may not know who I am.” I told him, “Carl, they’re going to know you and love you.” When Carl hit the stage, he just ripped the room apart. Neil Young was there that night, and he was shaking his head. Carl was that good.
By Boz Scaggs
If, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, you were drawn to that place on the AM radio dial where the rhythms, the grooves and the beautiful sounds of African-American soul were playing, you would have found Curtis Mayfield. Many of us first heard him as backing vocalist in the Impressions behind Jerry Butler, singing “For Your Precious Love.” But he really came into focus in Butler’s next big hit, “He Will Break Your Heart,” which was written by Mayfield and features his strumming electric guitar to a saucy tango beat that you can hear echoing in Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem.”
After that he was front and center, singing the lead about a “Gypsy Woman” in an exotic brew of castanets and dark minor chords. At one point, after the lyric “She danced around and round to a guitar melody,” he fired off an accent on his guitar that resonated for years for many of us who tried to emulate him — she cast her spell and he followed, with the rest of us close behind. You can clearly hear his influence in the monumental “Little Wing,” by Jimi Hendrix.
But it was his voice that reached the higher ground. It burned with the abandon of the blues singer and an almost feminine longing, at once powerful and deeply personal. Women responded overwhelmingly to his profoundly respectful and sensitive approach. When he sang “The Wonder of You,” the vulnerability and passion got in real close. They knew he knew.
At first, he made a gospel-like call to rise up, get on board, get ready. “I know you can make it,” he exhorted to soul-stirring harmonizing. He later took the voice of activism, calling out diseases of urban America and challenging people to see what was going on, a plea Marvin Gaye would take up, too. The full range of his powers can be heard in the soundtrack to Superfly. It hits you in waves: driving rhythms with brass and strings countered by down-in-the-alley funk.
He was a dynamic performer right up until he was disabled in an accident onstage in New York in 1990. I only met him once, after a show in San Francisco. He was funny, gracious to all, had a beautiful smile and a genuine way about him — a gentle and humble man at heart.
By Colin Meloy
I first heard R.E.M. in 1986, a song tacked on to the end of a demos collection of a Eugene, Oregon, band that my uncle, then in school at U of O, sent to me for Christmas. The song was called “Superman,” a bit of meticulously crafted bubblegum that was so simple and honest and funny that my entire nascent library of cassettes (chiefly: Yaz, Scritti Politti and Depeche Mode) seemed to be rendered obsolete in the span of the track’s three minutes. I was fully hooked. Little did I know: Becoming enamored with indie bands in Helena, Montana, in the late 1980s was kind of like developing a taste for beluga caviar in rationing-era postwar Britain.
By the time Lifes Rich Pageant was gracing the yellow Sony Sports boomboxes of the world, R.E.M. was totally a going concern. The following year brought Document, and that landed them a video on MTV, even. Still, in Helena, being an R.E.M. fan meant being part of a tiny community. A community that, as far as I could tell, consisted of exactly one person. Then Green came around, and suddenly this band was on a major label, playing arenas, and every human in America with two ears and access to radio was being demanded to “Stand.” I listened to Chronic Town — procured on a recent family vacation to Los Angeles — on my Walkman backstage during rehearsal for the school production of Guys and Dolls, rehearsing the conversation in my head:
“What are you listening to?” they’d ask.
“R.E.M.,” I’d reply.
“Oh — they do that song ‘Stand.'”
“Yeah,” I’d reply casually, “I’m not really into that song — this is their first EP. It’s, like, from 1982.”
It was well-rehearsed, but it never actually happened. I had to suffer the philistines — stealing my band — silently. But still: To be an ardent R.E.M. fan, happy to venture beyond the pale of the radio singles, was a rare thing. Middle school was brutal for me, and I clung to my music like a life raft. Murmur, Reckoning … even Dead Letter Office, with its beer-soaked goofs and discarded B sides, provided a much-needed insulation against the cruel, Queensrÿche-and-Garth-Brooks-listening world. “When I was young and full of grace/And spirited, a rattlesnake/When I was young and fever fell/My spirit? I will not tell….” However inscrutable Michael Stipe’s lyrics were, they always gave language to this weird, agonizing metamorphosis taking place in my head. I was desperately searching for like-minded kids, but with every semester that went by, I felt like my isolation only grew.
My parents, at a loss, suggested I get involved in the local community theater’s after-school program. I was initially skeptical, but I agreed to give it a shot. As I climbed the stone steps toward the theater’s entrance, the doors flew open and out walked a girl I’d never seen before — someone from the high school, maybe — wearing a gauzy sundress and a notable lack of hair spray in her long hair. But the thing that caught my eye: She was wearing a Fables of the Reconstruction T-shirt. I was floored. She smiled shyly — probably more embarrassed at my gaping than anything — and walked by.
I’d been given the signal. A wayward fugitive, stumbling through the door of some Provençal cafe, his hat and coat soaking wet from the journey. The customers turn and look, each more untrusting than the next. Till a flash of a badge or the wave of a ribbon can be seen from the farthest table, and he knows: This is it. You’re in the resistance now, son.
Diana Ross and the Supremes
By Antonio “L.A.” Reid
For almost 30 years — my entire career, really — all I’ve been doing is trying to discover another Diana Ross. I obviously still have my work cut out for me. She was gorgeous and skinny — and this was back in the Twiggy days, when skinny was new — and she had that big, beautiful hair. And, of course, she was glamorous: I remember all those furs, diamonds and early bling-bling. Everything about her — her mannerisms, her look, her aura — exuded stardom.
The Supremes were the epitome of the Motown sound. People look at Ross and say she had great songs, she was a good-looking girl, behind her she had Berry Gordy — who, in my book, is the greatest record man who ever lived — she had all these things. Holland, Dozier and Holland were amazing songwriters, just pure melody men. As we all know now, the unsung heroes were the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers. They could take those great songs and give them sound. “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “I Hear a Symphony” — at the time, people thought those songs were disposable. And now we realize that they’re true masterpieces. They’re so alive. Everything about the songs was great, even the intros — every one of them had a distinctive, memorable intro, which was a hook in and of itself. And, of course, there were two other wonderful singers in the Supremes, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.
But at the end of the day, Diana Ross’ voice would come on the air and give you chill bumps. It had such presence, terrific tone, and was so identifiable. She didn’t sing like Aretha Franklin — she wasn’t a gospel singer — but she was a stylist, and you always believed her. She was captivating, romantic. When she asked, “Where did our love go?” she sounded like she was begging.
To this day, I believe that her voice could work on contemporary radio. She set the road map for the success of Janet Jackson, Madonna — anybody who could sing but wasn’t a real crooner like Aretha or Patti LaBelle or Gladys Knight. I still ask artists in the studio to “sing this like Diana Ross would.” So far, no one has.
By Al Kooper
In 1972, the radio was logjammed with progressive rock like you wouldn’t believe — Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis — I was searching for a great three-chord band to produce. And so, that year, I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd making their Atlanta debut at a very dangerous club on Peachtree Street called Funocchio’s. They were playing a weeklong engagement, and each night I’d hear another great original song from them and knew I’d found the band I was searching for.
As I got to know them, I marveled at their work ethic. They had a shack on the swamp in their native Jacksonville, Florida, where they rehearsed constantly, honing their original material into polished, shining steel. They may have had three guitar players, but they understood restraint. Of all the bands I’d come across in my life, they were the finest arrangers. “Sweet Home Alabama” sounds like seasoned studio musicians twice their age.
Ronnie Van Zant was Lynyrd Skynyrd. I don’t mean to demean the roles the others played in the group’s success, but it never would have happened without him. His lyrics were a big part of it — like Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard before him, Ronnie knew how to cut to the chase. And Ronnie ran that band with an iron hand. I have never seen such internal discipline in a band. One example: These guys composed all of their guitar solos. Most bands improvised solos each time they performed or recorded. Not them. Ronnie’s dream was that they would sound exactly the same every time they took the stage.
After three or four albums, Lynyrd Skynyrd transcended the Southern-rock tag. They became one of the greatest rock & roll bands in history. They feared no one. On their very first national tour, they opened for the Who. And got encores!
When Ronnie went down in that terrible 1977 plane crash, the forward progress of the band ended. After the survivors all healed, they miraculously reassembled. Ronnie’s kid brother Johnny took over, and you had to rub your eyes to make sure it wasn’t Ronnie. But while the band could duplicate the majesty of past live shows (and still can), the heart and soul of the band was gone forever.
Nine Inch Nails
By David Bowie
When the gods of nasty sounds tacked audition cards to the trees around town encouraging the brutes of industrial rock to brawl for the crown, a small lad with a tuba was probably not what they had in mind for a contender. His name was Michael Trent Reznor, and he also played sax and piano and learned early in life how to engineer a recording-studio console. He produced a terrific debut album called Pretty Hate Machine. Melodically oriented — and, because of record-company contractual problems, supported by what became a three-year tour — it birthed the first real mainstream breakthrough for industrial rock, selling over a million copies.
Following Brian Eno’s example, Reznor unpacked his synth and threw away the manual. In making The Downward Spiral, he encouraged the computer to misconstrue input, willed it to spew out bloated, misshapen shards of sound that pierced and lacerated the listener. As a companion piece to Baudelaire’s “To the Reader” — the preface to his Flowers of Evil — and second to the Velvet Underground, there has never been better soul-lashing in rock.
I had a strange dream a few years back. Lou Reed, myself and a friend known as Warren Peace were having dinner in one of those old-style Greenwich Village places where Pollock was supposed to have fought other painters. Our meal was served by one of the members of Einstúrzende Neubauten. I slowly became aware of the house music and that it was infuriatingly familiar. Our waiter, Blixa Bargeld, leaned in to me and whispered, “The music is a birthday surprise for Lou. Trent Reznor remixed this version of Metal Machine Music as a present.”
As he said this, strands, splodges and blots from a Pollock early-Fifties “drip” painting materialized in front of our faces. While the music got louder, the paint hurtled around us faster and faster till we ran nauseous from the cafe, chased by infernal screaming lavender, blue and black snakes.
And that is it, really. Trent’s music, built as it is on the history of industrial and mechanical sound experiments, contains a beauty that attracts and repels in equal measure: Nietzsche’s “God is dead” to a nightclubbing beat. And always lifted, at the most needy moment, by a tantalizing melody.
I cannot believe that Spiral was released nearly 20 years ago now. It still sounds incredible today. And, no, no one ever calls him Mickey.