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Sunday, March 21, 2004

Douglas Wolk asks, "Has there ever been a less-influential great band than Fleetwood Mac? ". It's an interesting question, and I'm not so sure he gets the answer right. What are we talking about when we say that an artist or a band is "influential"? Do we mean that a lot of imitators were inspired by the band? By this measure the existence of the Knickerbockers and Badfinger establishes The Beatles as influential, but that doesn't seem to really address why The Beatles were great. We are about million or so New Dylans down the road, and that hardly defines him either.

Seeing Springsteen on the last tour it occurred to me that the Boss was less the vision of rock'n'roll future Jon Landau thought he saw, and more the culmination of a complex set of influences-- Phil Spector, Roy Oberson-- lest we forget, Springsteen was a New Dylan for a while. Rethinking it a bit, it occurred to me that this was not altogether true-- we owe Bruce for Thin Lizzie, and Melissa Etheridge, and Meatloaf.... I don't know that this is a good thing, but there is no denying the influence.

Do we value Rod Stewart because Bonnie Tyler sounds like him? I would submit that The Who were influentially primarily to the extent that they inspired a lot of bands to produce overwrought concept albums. We have a lot of bad Kinks albums that should be on Pete Townsend's conscience, let me tell you, but we still know that The Who were great.

So perhaps that's not what we are getting at. I would submit that the value of "influence" is something more like what Brian Eno was talking about when he said of the Velvet Underground, "Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band." The DIY aesthetic inspired by the Ramones (and others) had a similar effect-- and I think the same could be said for Chuck Berry, and James Brown, and a handful of others-- but if that is the standard of greatness, it is a pretty high bar. In the jazz realm we think about the founding fathers of bebop-- Charley Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk-- in those terms; and, of course, Miles Davis made a career of inventing jazz forms that others would devote careers to exploring. Is it fair to Fleetwood Mac to be held to the standard of artists like Miles, or Dylan, or the Vevets? I hardly think so, but I agree with Wolk that they were a pretty terrific band for a while there.

This sort of hierarchy is impossible to quantify. It is why being a fan is fun, of course-- making lists and arguing about this sort of thing is entertaining. It is also why the idea of a Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame is absurd. I would submit, however, that the significance of Fleetwood Mac may be twofold: although it is probably true that nobody aped their sound, everybody became the sort of studio obsessives that they were, and for a good long while that sort of high gloss production was the gold standard in pop music. I would also argue that our notion of what constitutes a blockbuster album may have been largely shaped by "Rumours"-- it was a gigantic seller before "Thriller" and its progeny, and in an interesting way shaped the music distribution industry's idea of what constituted success for years. It is notable that "Rumours" was the album that Reprise used to introduce the new album list price of $7.98 (bonus trivia question: What was the first album released with that list price?). I keep thinking that the intersection of Art and Commerce is where the next great study of American popular music is going to take place, and maybe Fleetwood Mac would be a good case study. If that's not influence, I don't know what is.

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