photo taken from Thomas Steffan
“Stones or Beatles?” is a question you see on dating sites and early on in relationships when you’re trying to figure out if it really is the right match, but perhaps there should be a follow up: “John or Paul” and “Mick or Keef?”
There are some famous rock bands that, without a doubt, recognize one band member as their leader over the others. Take the E Street Band for example: Bruce Springsteen is so obviously the leader of the Jersey tribe that the rest of the members took to calling him “Boss,” and the handle stuck, resonating from Press backstage to crowd into the ether of pop culture history.
Another doubtless leader was Jimi Hendrix from the band that bore his name, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Even though the Experience was a three-piece band, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell are usually an afterthought while considering the magnitude of both the band’s sound and influence on rock history. There are countless others, too: Van Morrison and Them; Neil Young and Crazy Horse; Eric Clapton and Cream (although some would say Ginger Baker was just as influential as Clapton); Jim Morrison and the Doors; The Steve Miller Band.
Yet what about those bands for whom the title is still up for grabs? Just as there are numerous examples of classic rock bands lead by great talents who fed off the limelight, there is also a multitude of groups wherein debate still reigns.
Let’s start with the biggest debate of them all: The Beatles.
The answer to the question: ‘who lead the Beatles?’ is a futile one to most Beatles fans. A lot of diehard classic rock aficionados recognize the band to be more of a collaborative effort than any sort of hierarchal structure. Personally, I think it’s a real toss up between George, Paul and John (sorry,Ringo). Many would exclude Harrison from the conversation, but I think that undermines all that he brought to the table.
Never one to solely trust my own limited knowledge when writing on such important matters, I turned to the Google machine to see what it had to say:
“John Lennon was the nominal leader of the Beatles, but the group was a democracy. If any one member objected strongly to an idea, they usually didn’t carry it out,” says wiki.answers, “Lennon can be considered the leader of the Beatles because around 1957, he formed a band called the Quarrymen. Paul McCartney [joined] in 1957 and George Harrison in 1958. The Quarrymen changed their name to the Beatles in 1960, and Ringo Starr joined after they got signed with EMI-Parlophone Records in 1962. So Lennon is seen as the leader because he was the one who first founded the band that became the Beatles.”
Yahoo.answers provides a much more detailed (and interesting) debate into the quandary, but the “best answer – chosen by voters” echoes that of Google: “John started the Beatles in 1957, when he and Paul met and began a songwriting partnership that would alter the course of popular music. John’s assertive persona and aggressive approach certainly put he [sic] as the ‘visual’ leader (especially to the press).”
Is the leader of a band always the one who brought the musicians together – the founding father so to speak? Not all the time – the second best example of the “who was the leader” controversy tells us why: The Rolling Stones.
Some people say Mick Jagger, others argue Keith Richards. What is not universally known is that these two were not always the front-and-center Glimmer Twins of today. By most rock historians’ accounts, the band was actually originally lead by its first casualty (both metaphorically and literally)—Brian Jones.
According to ‘Keno’s Classic Rock n’ Roll Web Site’, “the Stones were formed by blues purest, guitarist and harp player Brian Jones in 1962.” Keno explains: “He wanted to start a R&B band and the first to join him was pianist Ian ‘Stu’ Stewart, followed by guitarist Geoff Bradford. In June, Mick Jagger (vocals) and Keith Richards (guitar) joined them. Also to join the band at that time was bass player Dick Taylor, but no set drummer was to join at first. Bradford left the band shortly after Richards and Jagger joined. Several drummers would play with the band – Mick Avory (who later would join the Kinks), Tony Chapman, Charlie Watts and Carlo Little. Jones was the band’s early leader and was the one to come up with the name, which he took from a Muddy Waters song.”
As history tells us, Brian Jones eventually fell a little out of touch with reality and ended up dead in a swimming pool in 1969 (whether he was murdered or drowned accidentally is still a topic of debate). Yet even before that unfortunate incident, it was clear that the torch had been passed to Mick and Keith. If you were to ask Mick and Keith today, however, they would tell you it was Charlie Watts who led the group.
Here are some more acts whose leadership could very well be called into question:
- Led Zeppelin: Jimmy Page or Robert Plant?
- The Band: Robbie Robertson or Levon Helm?
- Fleetwood Mac: Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Lindsay Buckingham, or Stevie Nicks?
- Guns N’ Roses: Axl Rose or Slash?
- Oasis: Liam or Noel Gallagher?
- The Clash: Joe Strummer or Mick Jones?
- N.W.A: Dr. Dre or Eazy-E?
- The Who: Roger Daltrey or Pete Townsend?
- Pink Floyd: Roger Waters or David Gilmour?
- The Allman Brothers: Duane or Gregg Allman?
My first position was that the best bands have no leader; it’s all about collaboration and integration, but that just can’t be true. I am just as much of a Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison fan as I am a Band fan. Determining any rock band or rap group’s leadership is just food for thought – call it an exercise for fans to show off their “musical IQ”. In reality, it shouldn’t matter. While leadership may be an integral part of sports, politics, and business, when it comes to music it’s one in the same. After all, the very idea of music (aside from the solo performance) is the collaborative effort by one or more persons to turn random pitch into harmonic melody. In other words, the end is much more important than the means.