What makes a great band iconic? It’s the little things.

Last night I was watching a great program on the History channel called “The Beatles: On Record“.  It’s a facinating introspective on The Beatles and their recording process, starting with their first single “Love Me Do” through their first album, “Please , Please Me” on to “Abbey Road” (their last recorded album, although “Let It Be” was released after).  The show is narrated via interviews with the boys in the band (do I really need to name them?) and George Martin.  With studio film footage and rare outtakes.  It’s really facinating to hear their take on songs and a little bit of the recording process.

Unfortunately the show was only an hour long.  One cannot possibly expect to compress the entire Beatles library into one hour and satisfy the palate.  I could have watched eight hours of this stuff and not been satisfied.

As I was watching I thought to myself, what is the difference between bands such as the Beatles, Stones, and Zeppelin that seperates them from the rest.  And I’m not talking about them compared to average run of the mill bands.  I’m talking about them compared to bands on the next level.  Kind of like comparing Michael Jordan to say, Dominique Wilkins.  Talent wise there may not be a huge difference.  But still, there’s a HUGE difference.

What I surmised was this, the truly iconic bands seperate themselves from the rest by the “other songs” they wrote.  For example, my favorite Stones album is “Sticky Fingers”.  Now yes, I love “Brown Sugar”, “Bitch”, and “Wild Horses” (the hits from the album).  But what makes that album extremely special for me are the songs like “Moonlight Mile“, “You Gotta Move“, and “Dead Flowers“.  These are the songs you don’t hear much on the radio, but nonetheless they are terrific songs.  And they show the breadth of the band.

Again, watching that Beatles show last night I was reminded of some of the songs on “Revolver” (probably my favorite Beatles album) and “Rubber Soul” (close 2nd on list of favorites) that were the “other songs”.  Songs like “And Your Bird Can Sing“, “Doctor Robert“, “You Won’t See Me“, and “If I Needed Someone“.  Remarkable songs all of them.  And for almost any other band they would have been considered masterpieces.  Which again makes the iconic bands stand out from the rest.

The fact that those songs don’t get the airplay or recognition that the “hits” off the albums get is not a tragedy.  It just goes to show that when you are THAT great your only measure of comparison is to yourself.  Often I hear Zeppelin fans pan “In Through the Out Door”.  Really?  Maybe, for a Zeppelin album, it doesn’t measure up to “Physical Graffiti” of their first album, but still, it’s a great album.  Put it up against most other bands best (except the icons of course) and I think you would feel the same.

What’s my point here? I guess it’s just that true greatness cannot necessarily be measured just by record sales, although all of the aforementioned bands sold plenty of records.  I would say it’s the reason why many people view Willie Mays as the greatest baseball player of all time.  Sure, guys hit more home runs than Willie, stole more bases than Willie, hit for a higher average, etc.  But it was the little things that set Willie apart, his true artistry on the field, and his overall volume of work that amazes people. 

And the same holds true for the rock ‘n roll icons.

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