[Note: In order to level the playing field, Tenacious D was not invited to this soirée.]
While there are other bands worth considering, the bands I most often hear accused of being the greatest are the following: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, U2, Depeche Mode and Radiohead.
I'm going to start by dismissing U2 and the Rolling Stones. Both bands have many songs I like, can put together an album, allegedly put on great shows, and have astonishing staying power. But the Stones have the thematic variability of Howard Stern and U2 just get annoying after a while.
Depeche Mode just don't have enough musical flexibility--- Say, how'd they get on this list anyway?
Led Zeppelin, I am ashamed to admit, I just don't know well enough to judge. I only know two of their songs by ear. One I love, but "Stairway to Heaven" is an abomination that precludes this band from further consideration. We would have to go deep into the Celine Dion catalogue to find something more atrocious.
This leaves the Beatles and Radiohead which---wait a second!
All these bands are from across the pond! What gives?
Okay, hang on:
The Beach Boys were only good when they had a sane Brian Wilson.
Tool annoys me to no end.
The Everly Brothers never evolved enough.
I know nothing about the Mars Volta and besides: it's too soon to say.
For the Doors or the Dead it may always be too soon to say.
There never was a Motown band that truly stood high enough above the others, and---
Hang on! Where are the chick bands! This is particularly ridiculous because it's well established that nine times out of ten, I'll pick the chick-fronted band!
---Sorry: Beatles v. Radiohead
I have to dismiss Radiohead because they are only a good art band--they never were a great pop band, and rock and roll is made of both pop and art.
So. The Beatles.
That's who's left.
Do they deserve the title?
Let's start at the beginning.
Before the Beatles, rock and roll was tough to distinguish form other brands of American music. Why were Elvis and Buddy Holly rock and roll while Johnny Cash and Buck Owens country? Because they were. No other reason. Which was Jerry Lee Lewis? People still aren't sure. It took the British Invasion to cut the umbilical cord and far more than anyone else, the Beatles were the British Invasion.
Part of being rock and roll is holding the public imagination hostage, and no one has ever seen anything like Beatlemania. Now do I imagine we ever will again.
Keith Richards once told Paul McCartney that the difference between the Stones and the Beatles is that the Stones had but one frontman while the Beatles had four.
(Try asking people who their favorite member of U2 is. Dollars to donuts no one says Larry.)
And the Beatles wrote songs too--they were a huge force in creating the notion that bands should perform their own songs. All four of them wrote as well. In fact, I think the biggest problem with the band is that they did not perform more George songs.
(George is my favorite Beatle.)
George is proof that an extraordinary musician can also be humble and zen. It's hard to imagine someone that talented spending so many years in the background. But he did. And his willingness to hold back helped propel the band through their decade of greatness.
Paul may be the greatest writer of pop songs ever. If not, he's up there. Note what I say about "Yesterday" in a few paragraphs.
John was the primary mover when it came to turning pop music into high art. There are other competitors for this title, yes, but Bob Dylan isn't a band.
Paul has said that Ringo is an awesome drummer--the best. I don't know how to tell so I'll have to take his word for it. (Sure, Jack White says Meg is the best drummer he's ever worked with, but he's never worked with Ringo.)
I think influence is a worthwhile way to measure greatness. And good luck finding someone more referenced or listened to or covered than the Beatles. "Yesterday" is the most heavily recorded song of all time (a fact I have frequently read but have no idea how to track down an original source for). Even people who avoid the Beatles can't help but be influenced by bands that worship them. That's just the way rock and roll is.
It's not my favorite Beatles album (today that designation goes to Revolver), but the most important album of all time is Sgt. Pepper's. We weren't there; we can't know: but the people who were there are quick to say: Sgt. Pepper's changed everything. Sgt. Pepper's created the idea of rock-and-roll album as art just as Rubber Soul had first created the idea of an album.
Basically, everything that I could laud Radiohead (or anyone else) for, the Beatles did first--and as well. Maybe you don't like their version of it as much, but you have to admit it is excellent all the same. And in the even of a tie, I say leave the title with the old champion.
But it's no tie. I say they win straight out.