Then I started thinking of the great solo acts in history (Dylan, Elvis, Springsteen) - and they all have American passports. I struggled to think of a Brit* in their weight class. Hmm, time for some research...
Instead of a long debate about what constitutes "great", I went to a reasonable source: Rolling Stone magazine's "The Immortals: The Fifty Greatest Artists of All Time". This is by no means a perfect list (the Everly Brothers made it but REM didn't) but let's face it - RS has earned the right to be the arbiter of the 50 Greatest as well as anyone. So let's start there.
First some numbers:
- Of the 50 artists on the list, 37 are American; 10 are from the UK; 2 are Canadian; and one is Other.
- The Top 10 acts all conform to the British Band-American Solo pattern.
- As do 23 of the top 25.
- The first American band on the list is the Beach Boys, at #12.
- The first solo Brit on the list is John Lennon at 38, and frankly, that's cheating, since his band fame got him there. The first true solo Brit is David Bowie at 39, and the only others are Van Morrison at 42 and Elton John at 49.
- Thus, of the ten British artists on the list, 6 are bands and 1 is the guy from the Beatles.
- Of the 37 American artists, only 9, or about 25%, are bands with names that don't include their frontman (e.g. Sly and the Family Stone). And even of those 9, three of them feature brothers (Ramones, Beach Boys, Everly Brothers).
Some thoughts about artists who weren't on the list...
- Eric Clapton is a surprising omission. We tend to think of Clapton as a solo guy, but showing his Britishness, Clapton was a serial band-joiner (Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & the Dominoes) before he finally decided, hey, I'm going Solo.
- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is an American band, but one that followed that Guy+Band nomenclature that is popular among Americans (Bruce + E Street; Smokey + Miracles) but rare among Brits (Elvis Costello being a rare exception - but hey, his whole name is American). I'm inclined to think of these artists as Solos.
- Other popular American bands not on the list also have brothers (think Alex Van Halen and Tom Fogerty). It's as if, even when Americans form bands, it's out of either fraternal pressure, or one guy (Smokey, Bruce, TP, Sly) takes control.
- Bon Jovi: band or solo? More importantly, who cares?
I just find it interesting.
* Yes, I'm using the word Brit here loosely, including Ireland. As someone who marches in the St. Patrick's Day parade in NY every year I should be ashamed of myself - but I'm referring to the British Isles. Further, while I personally put Van Morrison at the top of any list, he was just never as huge as the biggies mentioned in the parenthesis.