Sloan Picks Up Where the Beatles Left Off

by Aaron Pinto

28 October 2014

Picking up where the Fab Four left off isn't easy, but if one band has done it in the past 30 years, it's Toronto's Sloan.
 

One could readily make a strong argument that the Beatles are the greatest band ever. For starters, they were among the first to both write and perform their own original material; before them, most bands just performed songs written for them by a songwriting team. If that wasn’t enough, in just seven years, they released 11 full-length studio albums (or 12, or 13, depending on how you view Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine) and around 35 non-album tracks released as the respective sides of singles and extended plays, bringing their total number of original songs to a little under 200. 

Not only were these songs incredible and unprecedented in their scope of melody, harmony, instrumentation, and recording techniques, but they took the world by storm. The Beatles didn’t just change music; they changed culture. How can you top that?

In short, you can’t. There will never be another Beatles. No matter how popular or idiosyncratic a band is, it will never pull off that same perfect ratio of innovation, artistic freedom, and commercial success that the Beatles did.

Think of your favorite band. No matter how good they are, they are not going to affect the culture in the same way that the Beatles did and still do, kids and parents alike dancing to their songs, teeny boppers and music scholars reaching for the same album in the record store bin, jocks and outcasts quoting the lyrics. That level of universal acceptance would be unfathomable for a new band today.

So how do we rank every other band in comparison? To be fair, we must take out the cultural impact factor, since it is categorically impossible to top the Beatles on that front. But if we’re in agreement that the Beatles are the greatest band of all-time, then we can use a list of golden characteristics that they possessed as the measuring stick against which all other bands are sized. These characteristics, while uniquely shaped by the Beatles due to the strength of their legacy, are possible to be realized by any band. These are:

  • 1. The band’s lineup never changed after its first album was released.
  • 2. Each member was indispensable and irreplaceable.
  • 3. Each member had a distinct, unique personality.
  • 4. Each member could sing.
  • 5. Each member could write. (In the case of the Beatles, three did regularly.)
  • 6. Every album is essential and different from the one before it.
  • 7. There are enough albums to constitute a complete career, but not so many that it’s a burdensome task to listen to and keep track of them all.
  • 8. They were a tremendous live band.
  • 9. They cared about their band image—every album except one features each member’s likeness on the cover.
  • 10. The band always possessed a sense of humor, be it in its lyrics or its public interactions.
  • 11. They broke up instead of continuing and potentially tainting their band legacy with a lineup change or a bad album.

Now take a moment to make a list of bands. See how many of them possess all of these characteristics. Any of those who do will be considered the next greatest bands on the list of all-time band supremacy.

Some of the bands you listed probably possess most of them. And even more will possess a few of them. But you will come to realize that, in the 40-some years since The Beatles disbanded, no band has possessed all of them—almost no band, that is.

Meet Sloan, Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, and Andrew Scott, who together form the Toronto-based/Halifax, Nova Scotia-formed rock quartet that has proudly carried those elusive, Beatle-esque golden characteristics for 23 years and counting.

But despite this, Sloan has somehow never enjoyed mainstream success outside of its native Canada. As a result, the majority of people have no idea who the band is. Though it’s a shame that most people have never even heard of Sloan, those who champion the group feel like they’ve been granted exclusive access to the greatest band since the Beatles; to paraphrase writer Tom Cox, “you’ve either never heard of Sloan, or you think more fondly of them than your godchildren.” Here’s how Sloan measures up with respect to the golden characteristics:

Band Identity: Sloan has maintained the same four members throughout its 20-plus years together. The day one of the members leaves the group, the band will cease to be. Sloan respects what its name represents, unlike so many bands that have no problem replacing a member at the drop of a dime.

Highlighting this feat is the fact that almost every Sloan release features their likeness on the cover; much like most albums released by the Beatles, KISS, and the Ramones, there’s an immediate sense of group solidarity before you even hear a note of music. You have no questions about who is making the music you’re about to hear. And just like it is with those bands, it’s standard fare for the fans to choose a favorite member while still loving the band as a whole.

Quantity of Albums and Songs: Sloan has released 11 albums, two EPs, and an assortment of non-album/non-EP tracks, bringing their released-song total to almost 200. They also have a triple-vinyl live album, 4 Nights at the Palais Royale, and a slew of cover versions and limited-edition vinyl goodies.

Band Democracy: All four members split the songwriting duties evenly and sing lead on their own songs. Generally, a given song will feature all four members playing and singing in some capacity, regardless of who wrote it. In this sense, you could make the argument that Sloan actually surpasses the Beatles because the Fab Four were really only a Fab Three when it came to songwriting. Etching Sloan’s democracy in stone is a line you will find in the booklet of each and every one of their releases: “All songs written by Sloan.” There’s no “Lennon/McCartney” or “Jagger/Richards”-style partnership or writing credit given to any one member; the money is split evenly between Sloan’s members, and they remain perfectly intact after two decades because of it.

Live Ability: The aging of members and the complexity of the material has no negative effect whatsoever on Sloan’s consistently brilliant live show. Splitting the set evenly between the four members’ songs, Sloan always pulls off the harmonies and challenging instrumentation. The standard configuration features Patrick on lead guitar, Jay on rhythm guitar, Chris on bass, and Andrew on drums, but when Andrew performs his songs, he switches to guitar, Chris switches to drums, and Jay switches to bass. Amidst all these changes, these guys still manage to rock just as hard.

Humor: Lyrically, Sloan has always exhibited a knack for wit and wordplay, but never in a corny, overtly reference-heavy way like their more-famous peers, Fountains of Wayne, are notorious for. In interviews, Sloan’s members come off as comedians who also happen to be great musicians, never missing an opportunity to make a joke.

That leaves us with two more categories: Quality of Albums and Songs and Consistency.

Chris Murphy often likens Sloan to a mutual fund. In other words, by being a Sloan fan, you’re investing in four different creative minds, and because of this, the odds that an entire album will stink are much lower than if you invested in a band with only one songwriter, or one creative mind. And from Sloan’s first album-onward, this has been a smart investment. Every album is good; most are great, which holds especially true if you’re a fan of each member’s distinct writing style. And on their one or two lesser albums, the good songs are so amazing that they make up for the not-so-good-ones, a fact illustrated by Murphy’s “mutual fund” analogy.

So, then, it’s safe to say that the Quality of Albums and Songs is better than most bands’. You can always count on Sloan to release top-shelf albums with extraordinary songs.

Consistency: How is consistency different from Quality of Albums and Songs? Consistency has a lot to do with quality, but more so the retaining of it amidst artistic change.  It involves a paradox: to be a great band, you must stay the same by consistently delivering good material, yet you must change from album to album enough so as not to repeat an album you’ve already made. Great bands never become parodies of themselves. Again, this is the template laid out by the Beatles: Each album (a) is the next logical step forward from the prior one (b) has a unique feel, and (c) is of the utmost quality. Sloan’s consistency along all of these lines is impeccable.

Twenty-three years after they first stepped foot on the battlefield, Sloan still reigns victorious in the fight for supremacy among active bands. When matched against their contemporaries, it’s not even close; Sloan has outdone and outlived almost every band that started around the time it did in 1991. And how many other active bands have put out such a wealth of consistently good music with the same lineup of equally contributing members? Not many, if any. Sloan needn’t watch its throne—it’s quite clear that it will not be usurped by anyone in the foreseeable future. The only way another active band can claim the throne is if Sloan chooses to vacate it. And considering that Sloan is prospering perhaps more than ever, it seems unlikely that it will resign any time soon.

Murphy once said this in a 2013 interview:

People less and less live and die by their favorite bands but I’d like to think for the people who continue to live and die by their favorite bands that we could be—that my band Sloan could be—one of the bands they fight over or fight for. You can love or hate parts of us but I’d like to think that there are some people who have followed us the whole journey along and have favorite records or favorite eras or favorite songs. I think there might be some people who follow us that way; anyway, the prospect excites me. We’re music fans and we’re trying to make music for music fans, too.

Hopefully, he finds solace in the fact that the fans are indeed fighting for Sloan. And we’re succeeding, thanks to the compositions by their four distinct songwriters—Jay Ferguson, the sweet-voiced aficionado of ‘60s and ‘70s AM melodies; Chris Murphy, the sharp-witted wordsmith and infallible hook machine; Patrick Pentland, the resident hard rock hit man and purveyor of punk; and Andrew Scott, the electric beast poet from the Village Greenwich Preservation Society. With 11 quality studio LPs plus an abundance of top-notch non-album tracks by these guys as our weapons, few bands stand a chance.

This is part one of a three-part retrospective on the work of Sloan.

Aaron Pinto is a senior writer at Manik Music and an avid enthusiast of pop music. The two Bs inform his entire worldview: the Beatles and the Beach Boys. He can’t stand Pink Floyd or Radiohead. To quote Steven Van Zandt, “To have impact in two minutes and thirty seconds—that’s very hard to do. It’s much easier to write Pink Floyd’s The Wall than it is to write ‘Louie Louie’”. Word.

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