Rather than delve into the delusion that currently is supposed to oversee this country (and trust me, there’s plenty to call the Tangerine Ignoramus out on simply from this last weekend alone), I’ve decided to start something that will definitely be much more fun. Since college basketball is deciding the 64 teams (OK, 68 teams because of those simply idiotic play in games the NCAA conducts) that will compete for their championship, thought it would be fun to do the same but in a different arena – the genre of hard rock/metal music.
As it is one of my personal fortes, hard rock/metal music is essentially celebrating its 50th Anniversary since the release of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” which contained the lines “Get your motor running/heavy metal thunder.” With this in mind, I’ve put together a compilation of the top 64 hard rock/metal bands from four different eras – the 1960s/70s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s/10s – and split them up in accordance with those eras into “regions.” We’ll break down the matchups in each bracket and, with hope, readers will make their own comments and vote on the matchups and perhaps they’ll be some sort of prize at the end – the management here (re: me) is still trying to come up with that prize.
What are the criteria for consideration? First, the band/singer would have to have some sort of longevity to their career – you don’t see many bands or singers that are considered “legendary” if they were only around for a couple of albums (Amy Winehouse is a rare exception, but that’s a discussion for another time). Second, the band/singer would have to have an impact on the genre – did they do something particularly noteworthy or notorious that put them into the annals of the genre’s history, a song or “behavior” that was historic. Third, just how popular were they when they were in existence – a band or singer that was wildly popular with the fans might get some leeway over a critical darling OR vice versa (depending on tastes). Fourth, what accolades did they receive – awards, gold records, and recognition by the industry (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, hello?) are all under consideration here. Finally, was the band/singer influential on future generations of music – have they helped shape the genre since they have left the sphere?
Without further ado, here’s the breakdown of the 1960s/70s bracket, with the seeding by each band/artist name.
Led Zeppelin (1) vs. Steppenwolf (16)
Led Zeppelin as the #1 seed was about as much of a lock as you could expect. They never had a #1 song and they might lack the longevity of some of the other competitors (Zeppelin’s heyday was 1968-80, only a scant 12 years). But they make up for those deficiencies in every other area under consideration – their “tour behavior” became the stuff of legends and they had the musical chops to back it up (“Stairway to Heaven” is widely accepted as one of the greatest songs of all time), their popularity was outstanding and they were inducted into the R&R HOF on the first ballot in 1995 (minimum of 25 years after first album release). Although Steppenwolf coined the term “heavy metal,” Led Zeppelin lived it, thus they should move to the next round.
Rush (8) vs. Queen (9)
These are the fun matchups where the smallest thing can push one of the competitors past their opponent. Throwing these two against each other is roughly akin to picking a favorite child as both are outstanding and legendary groups that click all the boxes. Rush pulls ahead slightly on the longevity front – they’re still active today, while Queen disbanded after Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991 after a two-decade career, but Queen has the epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” that is arguably better known than any Rush track. Queen is arguably more influential than Rush, especially given Mercury’s soaring vocals over Geddy Lee’s vocal individuality. Both have their accolades to lie back on, but Rush waited quite some time before being inducted into the R&R HOF. Deciding a winner here could come down to a few votes.
Judas Priest (4) vs. Scorpions (13)
Some may debate ranking Scorpions that low in the region, but it goes to demonstrate how tough it is to even get on the rankings. The Priest has been a monolithic machine that has rumbled since the early 70s (and are still at it today, albeit with an adjusted roster), while Scorpions have been up-and-down since the latter part of that decade. As far as the definition of “heavy metal,” Judas Priest for many would be the template to go with – the “leather and chains” look was patented by Judas Priest front man Rob Halford. What may tip the scales is that Judas Priest is in the R&R HOF; at this moment, Scorpions have not even been considered. It’s unfortunate that one of these giants of the genre doesn’t get to move on in the competition, but which will it be?
Black Sabbath (5) vs. Motörhead (12)
The 5/12 matchup is always one ripe for an upset and this battle is no exception. Black Sabbath were extremely influential on burgeoning metal bands, but Motörhead has their own legion of followers. The front men for both bands are iconic, with Ozzy Osbourne as the first singer for Sabbath followed by the legendary Ronnie James Dio and Motörhead featuring the late, lamented Lemmy Kilmister. Sabbath never got the critical recognition that Motörhead did – yes, if you’re asking, hard, fast, and loud can be critically appraised! – but Sabbath has been recognized with more accolades than Lemmy and Co. Perhaps Sabbath might win for their “Stonehenge” moment, but it will be a tough fight between this twosome – and, once again, a travesty to see one out of the competition.
AC/DC (2) vs. Thin Lizzy (15)
Critically acclaimed Thin Lizzy had a handful of hits (“Cowboy Song,” “Jailbreak,” “The Boys Are Back in Town”) before decadence and the untimely passing of leader Phil Lynott ended their run in 1983, but they are running into a buzz saw coming from “Down Under.” AC/DC is still going strong 45 years since their creation, although some might think the road has come to an end without Brian Johnson’s vocals (and, prior to him, Bon Scott) heading the riffs of lead guitarist Angus Young. Influences? Accolades? Longevity? All the clicks go in the corner of the Australians over the Irish in this one, but we’ll see if an upset is brewing.
Van Halen (7) vs. Aerosmith (10)
Another difficult matchup between two U. S. bands that have been part of the backbone of the genre. Both have influenced the “up and coming,” especially Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler’s sound (it is arguable he might have had an influence on a young David Lee Roth from Van Halen), while band namesake Eddie Van Halen is recognized as one of the great guitarists of all time (no shame to Joe Perry for coming up second-best in that comparison). Both bands have awards and accolades, critical respect, and longevity as seminal parts of their being – who can come out on top when the competitors are almost dead equal?
Deep Purple (3) vs. KISS (14)
For some reason, I smell an upset brewing here. KISS has been around it seems since the dawn of time, but Deep Purple was one of the formative bands of the hard rock genre in the late 60s and 70s (and even a bit into the 80s). Deep Purple’s constantly shifting lineup, however, might be a detriment to them…KISS has kept two of its four members, singer/guitarist Paul Stanley and bassist Gene Simmons, intact since its creation and, for the most part, has had all four original members (lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss) for a sizeable segment of the band’s history. KISS has had more of an influence on perhaps the stage performance side of the equation that Deep Purple didn’t have, but Deep Purple had the critical love. Which will be enough to provide the edge in this race?
The Who (6) vs. Jimi Hendrix (11)
There might be some chirping from the crowd on these two picks but, for their time, they were considered as “hard rock” as you can get. The tipping point in this battle may be the longevity question – The Who lasted well into the 1990s (for better or worse), while Hendrix’s stay was short-lived (he only released three albums while alive with the Jimi Hendrix Experience; his work with the Band of Gypsies was released posthumously), which should push them ahead (Hendrix arguably was Winehouse of the 1960s). But when you’re running up against the man the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame calls “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music,” you’re going to be in for a fight.
That’s it for the first “region” of our tournament. Later this week, we’ll look at the 1980s and over the weekend perhaps we’ll delve into the 1990s and the 2000s/10s (and be thinking of who could be the #1 seeds for those “regions” – would love to hear those opinions). Don’t forget to vote by replying here and I will compile the responses – and maybe award a prize once a champion is crowned to a reader!