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Arena Rock's 10 Greatest Bands

Arena Rock's 10 Greatest Bands
Steve Wiley

Steve Wiley is Up on the Sun's resident Record Store Geek. Biweekly, he shares stories of great music and whacky characters from his continuing 27 years in Valley record stores and the always-zany music biz.

When I was a young music fan, I just liked what I liked. I didn't know about critics, or cool, or cheesy. I didn't have any peer pressure or older siblings to guide me, I just listened to the radio. And I liked most of it.

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As I got older, I found myself drawn to upbeat music, to guitar...to rock and roll. So my friends and I jammed it. We partied to it. We had a hell of a time, all the way through high school and college, with a soundtrack of that fine rock and roll.

Then I got to Phoenix in 1987, began working in the music industry, and I discovered that most of the stuff I just thought was rock and roll was not, er, well accepted by critics, or my new work peers. They called it "arena rock." They did not use those words positively.

And so began my defense of my beloved arena rockers, and it continues to this day -- in this blog.

What Do You Mean You Don't Like Boston?

What can I tell you? Back in my neck of the woods (Minot, North Dakota, in case you've never, gasp, read my ramblings before) we just weren't that tough on music. Rock music, at least.

If it sounded good and kept the keg party moving, it was good by us. We didn't read books about it, we just put it on and let it help rock us through our weekends of teenage debauchery.

So when I first started working in a record store, and my fellow assistant manager laid into Boston, and then tried to make me listen to Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" every night during the closing duties, I was shocked (although I've grown to love that song over the years) and more than a little defensive.

Are you fucking kidding me? Who doesn't like Boston?

I could understand if they didn't like Motley Crue, or Poison, or Bon Jovi, or any number of the fine-dressing boys on the burgeoning hair band scene. But how could they bust up on a complex, unique, hard-rockin' band like Boston?

My first album (Don't Look Back). My first concert (Bismarck, eigth grade, 1978). Sonic, driving, great vocals, double guitar attack -- what's not to love?

In record store land, a lot, apparently.

It wasn't just Boston. They hated 'em all. Shit, in those days, with alternative music totally finding its place and record store geeks flocking to it, I could barely find people to give it up for Led Zeppelin and The Stones, let alone Foreigner or Styx.

 

Why Do You Think They Fill Arenas, Jack?

I didn't give a shit. In a land of counter-culture behavior, I considered myself a rebel. No tattoos. No piercings. No Depeche Mode. Not a whole lot of hipness in general.

So I battled my comrades. I stuck up for arena rock. And I gleefully took the free tickets and the meet-and-greets that those elitist rascals didn't want.

And time went by...

And here we are, 20-odd years later, and what can I tell you, my hipster friend? A great deal of that shit still holds up.

Not all of it, mind you.

Not even within the discographies of the genre's champions -- almost all of whom "jumped the shark" (it's a Fonzi-related term, look it up) with some sort of terrible album or barf-inducing, big-selling ballad.

But plenty of it.

In fact, there's still so much of the arena rock that holds up for me, I had a hard time whittling down the list of the 10 All-Time Arena Rock Bands.

But I managed, and here it is. Complete with a deep-cut Spotify playlist, a guide to each artist's three essential albums, and the song/album that (may have) caused the group to jump the shark.

Because I'm "hear" to guide you through the music of the past, my little puppies.

Record Store Geek: Arena Rock's 10 Greatest Bands

If you've read my stuff before (thanks), then you know I always have a few list qualifiers.

To make this list:

  • You can't be a legendary heavyweight.
That means no Zeppelin, Stones, Pink Floyd, Eagles, Queen, or Who.

  • You have to have started in the 1970s. That leaves out Santana, Steve Miller Band, Chicago, Grand Funk, and Bob Seger.

  • You can't be widely or critically accepted.
This means the (bullshit) Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has deemed you worthy, or that you have a truly sustained recording career. This eliminates Rush, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Queen, Little Feat, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

  • You have to have been able to fill an arena. Which leaves out bands (that I still love) like Head East, Nazareth, April Wine, Foghat, Heart, Scorpions, and Triumph (all of whom could fill the barn as a pairing, but not alone).
  • You have to have at least three albums I can I can still put on. Montrose, Kansas, and The Guess Who, along with countless others, bite the dust on this one.

Here they are, in no particular order (except for the albums recommendations).

Note: There are a couple exceptions to the rules (I'm rebelling against myself).

 

10. Journey

I had to start here because I first thought of this blog when I heard they were coming to town, and then really put it into action when I saw the Youtube clip of Steve Perry singing with the Eels. I thought, "I've been saying it all along, that boy could sing." (still can, check out the vid). But it wasn't just Steve, it was the totally-underrated Neil Schon on guitar, and a band full of players.

Spotify Deep Cut: "Loving You Is Easy" from Evolution.

Three Albums:Evolution, Infinity, Escape

Jumped the Shark: The three over-blown, popular, sappy cuts that you love off of Escape (which still has enough rockers to make it a solid album).

9. Foreigner

We were stuck in Oklahoma City on a family vacation, and all I had was the city's fantastic rock station, KATT. I heard "Seventeen" from Head Games (I still can't believe they went that deep), and I made my mom take me to the store so I could spend my vacation money on it. Like most of the bands on this list, they've produced some of the fluffiest hits on Earth, but overall, they were just a solid hook-heavy rock band. Don't tell me that Lou Gramm didn't have pipes.

Spotify Deep Cut: "Seventeen" from Head Games

Three Albums: Head Games, Double Vision, Foreigner

Jumped the Shark: "Waiting for a Girl Like You" started the sap trend, and then "I Want to Know What Love Is" killed off the band for good.

8. REO Speedwagon

To me the REO story most typifies the story of most of these bands. They toil for years as a simple midwest rock band. Great singer. Great guitarist. Tight band. They build a loyal fan base, but never make it big.

Then a big-ass ballad hits, and their lives are never the same. The band instantly gets rich, and soon after loses all rock credibility. Never did this happen on a bigger scale then the zillion-selling Hi-Infidelity. I assure you, they are better than that album.

Spotify Deep Cut: "Like You Do" from Live: You Get What You Play For

Three Albums: Live: You Get What You Play For, Nine Lives, REO T.W.O.

Jumped the Shark: "Keep On Loving You" (makes me shudder just thinking about it).

7. Styx

This might be the band I've taken the most shit over. I will admit that they went bad, and I mean really bad, but like most of these bands, they've got a hard-working background and a string of solid albums (which, as I told you in 10 Hall of Famer Artists Who Never Matched Their Debut, is hard to do). Styx seems to fit the common AR theme: Great vocalists and guitarists, solid rhythm section, lots of great rock hooks.

Spotify Deep Cut: "Midnight Ride" from Equinox

Three Albums: Equinox, Pieces of Eight, Grand Illusion

Jumped the Shark: "Mr. Roboto." I still can't believe that song exists. Uggh.

6. Bad Company

I wasn't sure if Bad Company qualified. They were sort of a super-group, formed out of successful '60s bands -- on Zeppelin's label -- and they really don't have an obviously annoying, cheese ballad like most of their list-mates. But they still have taken shit from critics, and I've taken shit for them.

I don't care. I can still listen to almost all of their albums. They should be in that silly HOF, sure as Paul Rodgers can sing the blues.

Spotify Deep Cut: "Weep No More" from Straight Shooter

Three Albums: Desolation Angels, Bad Company, Straight Shooter

Jumped the Shark: In my book, Bad Company never really jumped the shark.

 

5. Supertramp

There's a line in High Fidelity where John Cusack's character makes a derogatory comment about his ex-girl's new lover being a Supertramp fan. Now that's a typical record store employee. It sort of illustrates what it's like being an arena rock fan in a sea of cooler-than-thou elitists.

Fuck 'em. I like Supertramp's instrumentation. The vocals. The lyrics. The works. Especially on the three albums that I play constantly.

Spotify Deep Cut: "Rudy" from Crime of the Century.

Three Albums: Crime of the Century, Breakfast in America, Brother Where You Bound?

Jumped the Shark: Hmmm. That's tricky. I can't think of something awful, but the album after Brother bored me, so I left.

4. KISS

I don't really like KISS that much. Never did. Sure, there's songs like "Deuce" and "Detroit Rock City" that are excellent, but as a band I always considered them poseurs.

But how can I not include them on this list? It's like their recent inclusion into the RnRHOF, ya sorta have to give it up for their theatrics and their overall commitment to the craft.

Spotify Deep Cut: "Deuce" from, well, I'm not sure. I've never listened to a full KISS album.

Three Albums: No idea. I've got a Greatest Hits, and it does me just fine. In fact, they are the only group on the list I haven't played while writing this.

Jumped the Shark: About twelve seconds after they put the makeup over their credibility.

3. Yes

Sometimes you find a group in a later album, and then you go backwards. Like many people my age, I didn't find Yes until 90125, which many original Yes fans, at least the elitist type, consider a lesser "phase" of the band.

But Holy Kick-Me-In-The-Head, Batman, did I love that album. Such vocals. Such players. It made me go back and listen to that other stuff that the original fans were talking about, and I loved that stuff too. You won't find a better batch of musicians on the list. Many critics do love 'em, so it was a tough call. But hey, I wanted to jam "Yours is No Disgrace" on the headphones.

Spotify Deep Cut: "Changes" from 90125

Three Albums: 90125, The Yes Album, Fragile

Jumped the Shark: Big Generator is where I left off, but it wasn't exactly a shark jump.

(Rule exception: They had one '60s album)

2. ZZ Top

Like Yes, I first discovered ZZ Top on their "reemergence" album, Eliminator. Unlike 90125, Eliminator did not blow me away. But it did make me interested. Interested enough to go back in the catalog and find Tres Hombres and Deguello, which still get played constantly. By contrast, I don't even have Eliminator ripped into my digital library.

Spotify Deep Cut: "A Fool For Your Stockings" from Deguello.

Three Albums: Tres Hombres, Deguello, LIve in Germany 1980

Jumped the Shark: The whole fucking Eliminator album, which ended up defining the band as "those guys with the beards and the bitchin' cars" instead of the wicked Texas blues band that they had always been. I'd be a happy cat if they'd shave 'em off.

1. Boston

I told you that the list is "in no particular order," and with the other nine groups on the list, that's true.

But not with Boston. They are No. 1 on my list.

Which is ironic, since I had to break my "must have three good albums" rule to include them.

But what can I say, in spite of my incredibly-expanded mental playlist since I first heard Don't Look Back way back in 1978, Boston's first two albums still hold a place way up the list. The debut would be Desert Island. Thanks to the genius of Tom Scholz, there just isn't another sound like it.

Put on the headphones and see.

Spotify Deep Cut: "Party" from Don't Look Back

Three Albums: Boston, Don't Look Back

Jumped the Shark: "Amanda" (after eight years of litigation, I bought Third Stage on street date. I currently do not own a copy in any form).

There it is, the list I've been defending for years.

And you can bet your ass I still take some shit from my lifelong colleagues when I post it to my Facebook page.

Oh well, I'll just keep defending... and listening. Don't forget to check out the Spotify Playlist if you want to hear 'em for yourself (click here for Spotify link).

Thanks for reading.

See also: - Record Store Geek: Sixteen Slices of Sweet Soul - Record Store Geek: A Father's Duty: Listening to Worn-out Classic


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