Cream, the Police, Rush, Emerson Lake and Palmer + others: Rock Trio Odd Couples

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Let’s start with the obvious: No matter how you try to finagle it, by definition one musician doesn’t constitute a band: One musician is a solo artist.

More problematic are two-person formats such as duos, partnerships, or collaborations, which aren’t usually classified as bands. Sometimes there are exceptions like the White Stripes or the Black Keys, but they seem to be called bands mostly because the artists themselves said they were. Still, in cases like those it’s hard to see how one partner could justifiably kick the other out of the group if it came to a vote.

Which brings us to the magical, minimum number of musicians needed to qualify as a rock ‘n’ roll band (sure, you guessed it already): three. They are sometimes referred to as “power trios,” probably because each of the three players has to put out a lot of power to make up for their small numbers. And let’s not forget the built-in accountability factor: if you don’t pull your weight, the other two have the power to hand you your walking papers.

So, in this series of battle of the bands, let’s see who among some well-known (and not so well-known) rock trios have the most power, round for round and pound for pound:

“BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN” (CREAM) vs. “WALKING IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS” (THE POLICE): Cream is considered by many to be the original power trio, grounded in the blues but building on the genre through improvisation and virtuosity. “Born Under a Bad Sign” typifies their sound; it’s easy to hear how each member contributes to the overall performance.

The Police came along much later in rock history and mined a different vein of popular music that utilized elements of punk, pop and reggae. “Walking In Your Footsteps” shows this rock trio’s skills at crafting a catchy pop tune out of an assortment of elements.

Winner: Despite what looks like a pretty even bout, this one goes easily to the Police, Sure, Cream stands tall as a great blues band and all that, but in “Walking In Your Footsteps” the Police manage to steal and disguise the basic rhythm from the blues rock prototype “Hey, Bo Diddley!”

“THE SPIRIT OF RADIO” (RUSH) vs. “SWEET CITY WOMAN” (THE STAMPEDERS): During the classic rock era, Canada was fertile ground for three-piece rock bands, spawning such acts as Triumph, Thundermug and early Chilliwack, to name but a few.

Of course, this includes Rush, arguably the kings of the power trio format. Though known primarily as an album band, “The Spirit of Radio” shows Rush making a conscious effort to record some airplay friendly product, resulting in this meditation on the hit making process.

The Stampeders were yet another three-piece rock act from the Great White North. Though they had their share of national hits, none were so big as “Sweet City Woman,” a simple little pop song with a catchy melody overlaid on top of a two-chord banjo lick.

Winner: The Stampeders. “Sweet City Woman” isn’t about the spirit of radio. That simple yet insistent banjo hook embodies the spirit of radio.

“TOUGH TIMES” (GODDO) vs. “TIME OF YOUR LIFE (GOOD RIDDANCE)” (GREEN DAY): Let’s include one more Canadian rock trio dark horse: Goddo, the hard rock road warriors who – as legend has it – always put on a full-tilt rock show whether it was for an audience of 5,000 or just five.

Green Day, though not the creators of punk-pop, certainly rose to fame as one of the most popular punk-pop bands ever. “Time of Your Life” (a/k/a “Good Riddance”) is an acoustic guitar-based piece with strings, and not representative of their usual sound. Still, the song continues to function as a kind of anthem, particularly for teenagers about to graduate from high school – sort of an anticipatory nostalgia kind of thing. It’s hard not to shed a figurative tear as the tag line “I hope you had the time of your life” brings the song to its logical conclusion.

Goddo also steps out of character with “Tough Times,” its own acoustic guitar-plus-strings ballad. Like the Green Day hit, this song too looks backwards, but it reaches a different conclusion about the function of experience and memory. The tag line this time takes the form of a mantra: “Tough times; hard knocks / When you get too low it’s best to let it rock.” It’s a flash of insight, or revelation: Sometimes the only thing that’s left is the will to go on.

Winner: Goddo. Unlike the Green Day piece, “Tough Times” is lyrically way too punk rock to ever be played at any grad anywhere.

“FOOTSTOMPIN’ MUSIC” (GRAND FUNK RAILROAD) vs. “KNIFE EDGE” (EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER): An odd matchup at first glance, but Grand Funk surprises everyone in the opening moments by utilizing Emerson Lake and Palmer’s own distinctive keyboard/bass/drums rock trio format as guitarist Mark Farner swaps his six-string shotgun for a hot-wired rock organ.

Sure, ELP are probably the superior musicians, but it takes a lot of cheek to steal a signature move from the British prog pioneers, whose hard-rock showcase “Knife Edge” moves along nicely until the band realiszs they don’t really have a way to end the song other than through the use of some recording jiggery-pokery.

Meanwhile, Grand Funk’s “Footstompin’ Music” brings the guitar back into play after the first chorus, and the trio beats the final two chord riff into the dirt before capping off the proceedings with some soulful vocal ooh ooh ooh and yeah yeah harmonies. Hey, it’s rock ‘n’ roll: Why reinvent the wheel?

Winner: Grand Funk Railroad. C’mon, you’ve got to admire a band that tours around with an entire Hammond organ setup just to play half a song.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at
JC Mosquito
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