Big hair maybe, but are Bon Jovi really the biggest rock band?

 

Bon Jovi claim to be the biggest rock band on the planet, but where does that leave Springsteen or U2? And what comes into the equation when the sums are being done, asks BRIAN BOYD

THE PROMOTIONAL material for Bon Jovi’s current two week residency at London’s O2 Arena describes the New Jersey rockers as “the biggest rock band on the planet”.

Given the emotions Bon Jovi arouse in most rock critics (ranging from cynical detachment to outright hatred), the grandiosity of the claim and the nerdy, fact-checking nature of the more dedicated rock music fan, such an inflammatory claim has sparked a heated debate on music forums. Driven in the first place by a very intelligent discussion on the website of the esteemed music magazine, Word (wordmagazine.co.uk), the bald statement “biggest rock band on the planet” is now the subject of a forensic-like examination.

What are the criteria? How much weighting is given to album sales as opposed to tour sales? Does current chart profile count? Should it? What about Springsteen, U2, The Stones? Reviews and critical acclaim? How dare a bunch of unfashionable big hair rockers make this claim, etc.

At the more reasonable end of the argument a consensus is emerging that rock music needs a type of Duckworth Lewis method to accurately answer this question. The Duckworth Lewis method is a mathematical formula used in cricket to predict the outcome of a match which can’t be completed for whatever reason.

Even before getting close to coming up with a formula, there needs to be “talks about talks”. Given that we’re talking rock band here, we can rule out the likes of Lady GaGa and Madonna. But is the term “rock” flexible enough to take in everyone who should be under consideration.

For some people, “rock” means a certain genre (Metallica, etc), which would exclude “rock’n’roll” music, as exemplified by The Rolling Stones. But best just to use a working definition of “rock” that doubles as “popular music”. So Take That make the cut.

Then you get into the notion of contemporary relevance. Surely, our “biggest rock band on the planet” must still be a going concern, capable of throwing their new releases to the higher end of the charts and not just a bunch of megamillion-selling dinosaurs of yesteryear on a never-ending “nostalgia” tour? That would appear to rule out The Rolling Stones who more or less gave up on good new music decades ago. But they are still releasing albums today, so best to keep them in.

Then how to weigh up the importance of album sales vs live tour sales? Should both carry equal clout? In that case AC/DC would leapfrog right over The Stones in that the former can go to number one in album charts all around the world with their new release and also attract a huge live audience. The Stones can get more people through the turnstiles but shift nowhere near as many new release albums as AC/DC.

What about quality? Bruce Springsteen’s latest Working On A Dream may have been critically acclaimed but Taylor Swift sold far more copies of her album, Fearless which was released in the same time period. But a far higher percentage of people who bought Working On A Dream are going to see the live show than in Taylor Swift’s case. And where does all of this leave U2? Their current album is a slow-seller (by their standards) but more people than ever before are going to see them play live.

When it comes to touring, should you be looking at gross or net box office sales? Should sponsorship money be taken out of the equation (which would instantly elevate Springsteen’s takings)? Can you factor in the price of the ticket? Number of continents visited? Size of the stadia? Press reviews of the shows? Twitter feeds generated?

Then you get into the nitty-gritty. Should bands be awarded more points if all original members are still present and correct? What if, like The Eagles, they have been dormant for decades before resurrecting themselves? Do Arcade Fire fare better because they are “cool and fashionable”? Does a band’s pan-generational pulling appeal matter? What if they play live for over three hours instead of lip-synching and having loads of back-up vocalists and dancers to distract you from their musical limitations but still put on a superbly entertaining show (Take That, for instance)?

At some stage you have to call halt and come up with an authoritative working formula. Over at Word magazine they think they’ve cracked it: take the gross for the last tour, divide by the number of dates, and then factor in sales of the last album and headlining gigs at recent major events and festivals.

If you feed all that into your computer, though, your hard drive starts to melt. Ultimately though, an answer is grudgingly thrown up and it appears to be, through the haze, Bruce Springsteen. But there’s an instant appeal in from the U2 camp, who point out that their 360 tour has double the gross with only half the number of shows and furthermore that No Line On The Horizon has outsold Working On A Dream.

But what if you use four straightforward but all -encompassing criteria: sell out tours, number one albums, critical acclaim, artistic integrity. Bon Jovi can only tick the first box here so that’s them out; The Stones can only manage (at best) two out of the four, so that’s them out. Which leaves just Springsteen and U2 who both have a claim (no matter how hotly disputed) to all four. That’s if you ignore the claims of Coldplay and AC/DC. And what if Pink Floyd and/or Led Zeppelin reformed . . .

The five best-selling . . .

. . . ALBUMS OF ALL TIME

1 ThrillerMichael Jackson

About 105 million

2 Back in BlackAC/DC

About 50 million

3 Dark Side of the Moon

Pink Floyd About 45 million

4 Whitney Houston

The Bodyguardsoundtrack

About 44 million

5 Meat Loaf

Bat out of Hell

About 42 million

. . . TOURS OF THE NOUGHTIES

1 A Bigger Bang

Rolling Stones $550 Million

2 Vertigo

U2 $389 million

3 360 Degree

U2 $311 million

4 Sticky Sweet

Madonna $280 million

5 The Farewell

Cher $192 million