Determining the greatest band of all time is one of the most difficult questions in all of music. It’s arguably impossible to answer correctly as well because to nearly everyone in the world, the matter is entirely subjective, they prefer a certain band over others because there is something specific about that band that just speaks to them. They may not even realise what that something is, but it still elevates the band in their opinion. It is this subjective manner in which people try to answer this question which leads people to try and justify one band being the greatest of all time by the objective means of what is known as a Proxy.
A Proxy is an approximate measurement. They are used when there is no way to count something exactly so instead we measure something which nearly measures it. One of the best examples of this comes from the world of crime. As there is no way to measure all of the criminal activities which go on in society, because only a certain number of them are detectable, we measure recorded crime (crime which is reported). While this is still arguably a decent enough measurement for crime, you still can’t determine whether crime rates are actually dropping or if there is just less criminals being caught.
This is the issue which arises when using Proxy measurements, instead of measuring what actually counts; we end up measuring what is easy to count. The same issue arises when we try to decide who is the greatest band of all time because there is no actual measure for greatness, so we just measure things which we associate with greatness, and when we do that we get a different answer each time.
If you want to measure greatness in terms of success, the Beatles are the greatest band of all time, if you want to measure it in terms of career longevity it’s probably the Rolling Stones. If you want to measure greatness in terms of accolades, U2 have the most Grammy awards of any band. In terms of the band which played the largest concert ever Metallica have played to 1.6 Million in Moscow in 1991. In terms of impact in a short space of time, the Sex Pistols only ever released one studio album and still made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
If we veer away from success and look at greatness in terms of musical ability, then Led Zeppelin probably had one of the most musically proficient line ups of all time with John Bonham on drums, John Paul Jones on Bass, Jimmy Page on guitar, and Robert Plant on vocals; all considered legends in their own respective fields. However, that only looks at the musical ability of band members relating to an instrument, if you’re talking about each member of the band’s own ability to create music then Queen are the only band ever where each member wrote a number one single.
Then you get into the realm of influence vs. success with regard to determining greatness, which is a whole other quagmire in itself. Bands like the Pixies never sold a lot of records but they did influence an incredible amount of artists who did, Nirvana, Radiohead, and Bush to name a few. The same can be said for the great delta blues stars of the 1930’s who influenced all the great rockers during the 50s, 60s, 70s, and onward. It is this large amount of debate and opinion regarding the measurement of greatness which means we will never be able to definitively determine who the greatest band of all time is using a measurement or coming to an answer that satisfies everyone.
By Daragh O’Leary