It’s easy to focus on the face we recognise. David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Bob Marley – these are all iconic figures whose names we can immediately attach to their body of work. But what about the musicians behind the scenes, the drummers peaking out from behind a rack of toms, or the guitarist bathed in a wash of impenetrable dry ice? What about the musicians who, even with their astonishing virtuosity, felt content to sit back and let somebody else take all the glory? Well, let me tell you, their time has come.
It’s easy to underestimate the role of backing bands. Still, music history is littered with examples in which the talent of backing musicians has allowed an artist to reach new heights in their career and in their creative output.
Without acts like The Band, Bob Dylan wouldn’t have had the courage to go electric in the latter half of the 1960s. Nor would Elvis Costello have had the freedom to write new-wave hits you could actually dance to.
It’s hard to define what makes the perfect backing band but, it would seem to be something along the lines of: excellent musicianship, a lack of arrogance, and that indescribable quality known only as “chemistry.” Without chemistry, a backing band merely fades into, well, the background.
It’s essential that the musicians behind a solo act are able to elevate the soloist’s performance somehow. One way to do that is to imbue their performance with a sense of theatre – something that convinces the audience that the group of musicians on stage must have been born from the self-same seed. All of the bands on this list do that in some way, so join us as we look at the ten greatest backing bands of all time.
The 10 greatest backing bands of all time:
10. The Mothers Of Invention
Frank Zappa’s legendary backing band kick off the list. With his superhuman musical virtuosity, Zappa could well have got by without a backing band at all. Instead, he decided to use The Mothers Of Invention to create some of the most pioneering avant-rock of the 1960s and ’70s.
Formed in 1964, the group was originally an R&B outfit known as The Soul Giants. The Mothers Of Invention went through many incarnations before becoming the band that would help Zappa achieve critical and commercial success with the 1966 album Freak Out!
9. The Blackhearts
Joan Jett’s The Blackhearts represented a new gender dynamic within rock music. Alongside Blondie, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts demonstrated that women could own the stage with as much fuck-you vigour as any man.
Although Jett had been signed to perform independently, she didn’t want to go anywhere without The Blackhearts and continued to perform with them throughout her incendiary career. Featuring Ricky Byrd, Gary Ryan, Thommy Price, Lee Crystal, The Blackhearts helped Joan Jett craft some of rock’s most recognisable anthems.
8. Crazy Horse
Neil Young’s discography is filled to the brim with phenomenal tracks, but the most formative were those he performed with the help of Crazy Horse. Born from the ashes of the Rockets, Crazy Horse gave energy and vitality to Young’s studio recordings, allowing them to endure to this day.
Their work on Niel Young’s early recordings filled in all the necessary sonic detailing without overdoing it. As Young would later say: “Crazy Horse was so good with the two guitars, bass and drums it didn’t need anything else.” Crazy Horse continued to work with Young on and off throughout the subsequent decades, but their best work remains an integral part of the 1960s and ‘70s.
7. The Wailers
Not many backing bands can claim such legendary status as The Wailers. With their work supporting Bob Markey, the reggae band occupy an essential part in musical history.
The original group was made up of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. But when The original Wailers broke up, Marley decided to form a new version that would go on to back one of reggae’s greatest pioneers throughout his career.
6. The Spiders From Mars
People underestimate the importance of Bowie’s backing band The Spiders From Mars. Bowie’s charismatic ‘Ziggy Stardust’ persona was understandably all-consuming and, as a result, The Spiders are often not given the recognition they deserve.
As well as imbuing Bowie’s live performances with a mesmerising theatricality, the guitarist, Mick Ronson was a classically trained musician who wrote many of the orchestral arrangements speckled throughout Bowie’s discography.
5. The Attractions
Elvis Costello’s gang of angsty nerds, The Attractions, helped the singer achieve critical acclaim with his sophomore album This Year’s Model. Whilst His debut, My Aim Is True, contains iconic tracks such as ‘Alison’, his second record took things to the next level.
The musicianship of Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Peter Thomas allowed Costello the freedom to write songs that were steeped in the new-wave tradition whilst capturing the infectious grooves of Motown, two-tone and reggae. Highlights of The Attractions’ work with Costello include ‘Everyday I Write The Book’ and ‘(I Don’t Want To) Go To Chelsea’.
4. The Revolution
You need only watch Prince’s performance of ‘Purple Rain’ at the 1985 American Music Awards to understand why The Revolution deserve a place on this list. The backing group gained recognition after starring alongside Prince in the movie of Purple Rain and developed an intoxicating mythos.
As well as helping Prince to write some of his biggest hits, The Revolution added a theatrical flair to the musician’s live performances, solidifying themselves as one of the most watchable live acts of all time.
3. The J.B’s
Acting as James Brown’s backing band throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, The J.B’s played an essential role in producing some of the most influential funk records of the era. It’s impossible to imagine the existence of hip-hop, disco, or drum ‘n’ bass without the polyphonic grooves created by The J.B’s twin drummers Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield.
The group backed James Brown on some of his most legendary records, including ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ and ‘Soul Power’. The lineup of the J.B’s has featured such names as Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Bootsy Collins, and St. Clair Pinckney.
2. E Street Band
To call the E Streets “Bruce Springsteen’s backing band” would be an incredible understatement. Arguably, they were the key to Springsteen’s success, imbuing his tracks with energy and stunning virtuosity. The subsequent solo careers of the E Street Band’s members is a testament to their musical talent.
As well as embarking on solo careers, they have backed countless other acts, including David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Emmylou Harris, Lou Reed, and Paul McCartney, just to name a few.
1. The Band
The Band top this list because they are the only backing group who were able to redefine themselves as an act in their own right successfully. The Band’s career was born out of Bob Dylan’s controversial 1966 world tour, in which he put down the acoustic guitar and picked up the electric. It would be during this tour, at a concert in Manchester, that Dylan would be called “Judas!”’ by a particularly disgruntled member of the audience.
It was a baptism of fire for The Band and from that point onward, Dylan returned to the musicians time and time again. The group played (officially) on three of Dylan’s albums before making a name for themselves with tracks like ‘The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down’ and ‘The Weight’. With their debut album Music From The Big Pink, The Band redefined the meaning of Americana music, which, considering they hailed from Canada, is pretty ironic.