Of course, there was no shortage of talent to induct—but the problem seemed to be that the Hall was inducting only certain kinds of talent. By now it was apparent that the Hall was being selective about which genres it considered worthy of inclusion. Acts from the genres of disco, proto-metal, proto-punk, progressive rock, and just about anyone avant-garde were being passed over in favor of mainstream rock, pop, and soul, and zealous backfilling of early rock and -soul pioneers. But before looking at which genres might be overrepresented and which might be excluded, we should examine what is meant by "talent."
What Does Talent Have to Do with Anything?In my examination of the Hall of Fame's selections, I have described the Defining Factors used to evaluate each act—innovation, influence, popularity, crossover appeal, and legacy—in Part 1, and I have further elaborated on the idea of legacy, looking at artists in historical context, in Part 2. In Part 3, I discussed why a "small-Hall" approach—selecting only the most talented artists from any category or genre—gives the strongest representation of that legacy of the Rock Era. But missing from these descriptions has been any indication of what "talent" has to do with evaluating candidates for their worthiness.
There is a good reason why we've avoided it until now: "Talent" can be elusive, not obvious, and deceptive. "Talent" can mean a special or natural ability, or it can mean a capacity for achievement or success. You could have a remarkable natural gift but manage not to be a success with it (with "success" meaning anything from recognition to financial reward), or you could have a modest, even meager, natural gift but the ability to succeed with it, based on other talents. Bob Dylan is an example of the latter. As a singer, he was once described as singing like "a cow with its leg caught in a fence," but it is the lyrics he sang with that voice that made him a success. Art Garfunkel is an example of the former. Gifted with a pure and clear singing voice, he was the pleasant-sounding half of Simon and Garfunkel, but as a solo artist—well, he wasn't a bad actor in either Catch-22 or Carnal Knowledge.
So, clearly, it takes more than just "raw talent"—that natural ability—to succeed, but, as we'll see in a moment, that natural ability could be enough to push an artist into success, or, in our case, into earning his or her legacy as a Hall of Fame artist.
Two of the most innovative and exciting guitarists of the classic-rock period are Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom could dazzle listeners with their fretboard pyrotechnics. However, Beck seemed only to be interested in his guitar work. Most of the many albums he has released over the decades have been little more than vehicles for his virtuosity; there are worthwhile songs scattered throughout his catalog, but they are buried among many indulgent and lackluster ones. And although Beck was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, we will see in the next installment whether that induction was warranted. By contrast, Hendrix, who similarly displayed his guitar technique on his albums, was concerned about creating an entire sound package for that virtuosity, a song that actually conveyed an idea or emotion rather than as a perfunctory platform for showing off. So even though Hendrix had a famously short career, his overall effort at record-making, at music-making, had a lasting impact that makes his inclusion in the Hall of Fame compulsory. "Raw talent," that natural ability, is a blessed gift—but it still needs to be in the service of a larger expression to be meaningful to others.
Yet raw talent can also push an artist into greatness even if other success factors are marginal. Two such examples in this audit are Solomon Burke and Brenda Lee. Both were gifted with exquisite singing voices, and although Lee had a burst of pop stardom early in her career, she receded into the shadows when she moved into country later on. Meanwhile, Burke flirted with pop stardom but never broke through as did better-known soul singers such as Wilson Pickett (who lacked an instrument as glorious as Burke's) and Otis Redding. As I detail below, both are borderline picks who I believe are Hall of Famers partly because each was a pioneer—and partly because their singing talent pushed them across the line. Burke even has an analog in Percy Sledge, another marginal Southern soul singer but one who at least had a blockbuster hit, "When a Man Loves a Woman." But Sledge had a thoroughly ordinary singing voice, at least compared to Burke's, and thus he gains no additional benefit from a natural talent.
"Talent," then, is a mercurial quality. In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell outlines the case of Kenna, a talented musician who as an opening act dazzled audiences as well as industry insiders including Paul McGuinness, U2's manager, yet when he released singles and then an album, he couldn't find an audience. According to the experts, Kenna had the talent, yet his music didn't seem to strike a chord with those whose impressions matter the most: listeners.
As with so many things, the appreciation and evaluation of talent is ultimately subjective. Also ultimately subjective are the audits of the inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from 2001 to 2005, yet with that caveat I offer them below for your consideration.
2001: Rock and Soul Rainbow Coalition8 Inductees: Aerosmith, Solomon Burke, the Flamingos, Michael Jackson, Queen, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Ritchie Valens
Yes: Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Steely Dan
Borderline Yes: Aerosmith, Solomon Burke, the Flamingos
No: Queen, Ritchie Valens
The millennium began with the broadest palette the Hall of Fame had chosen so far. The recently eligible inductees covered R&B/disco pop (Michael Jackson), folk/singer-songwriter pop (Paul Simon), and jazz/progressive pop (Steely Dan); Rolling Stones hard rock (Aerosmith) and glam hard rock (Queen). The backfilling inductees came from Southern soul (Solomon Burke), doo-wop (the Flamingos), and early rock (Ritchie Valens). The pop contingent was the strongest—Jackson and Simon were practically automatic entries, and Steely Dan was distinctive and successful enough during its crucial decade (the 1970s) to slide through the door. Aerosmith might not have been innovative but it was sharp and sly—and its mid-life rebirth helped considerably—while the Flamingos made the old seem new; meanwhile, Solomon Burke, gifted with a remarkable vocal talent, was a Southern soul pioneer. With its cheerfully brazen overkill, Queen seemed as if it belongs in the Hall but it is a case of hype rather than substance. Finally, Ritchie Valens was among the Rock Era's earliest tragedies—made even keener by his tender age—but his was a case of unrealized potential, and what he might have accomplished had he lived is not a valid reason to induct him.
King, Prince, Princelings of Pop: Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Steely DanAs three examples of how pop in the 1970s and early 1980s could become sophisticated while remaining accessible, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan put up formidable material to make their cases for the Hall of Fame. Jackson of course became a phenomenon as big as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, although his output is surprisingly thin when stretched from the start of his solo career to his 2009 death. Simon sustained first-line interest across two decades, even longer if you factor in his start with Art Garfunkel. And although Steely Dan resurrected itself nearly two decades after its desultory dissolution, its prime material burned throughout the 1970s. Both Jackson and Simon are truly first-tier artists in terms of Defining Factors, but Steely Dan marked an important advancement in pop music while maintaining popularity and crossover appeal.
Michael Jackson: Given the unremitting media scrutiny that dogged him for the last half of his life, it is easy to forget just how hugely talented Michael Jackson was, as a singer, performer, record-maker, and songwriter. With the Jackson 5, he burst into the public eye while still a grade-schooler before testing the solo waters in the mid-1970s. He scored some hits ("Rockin' Robin," "Ben") at the time, but it was 1979's Off the Wall ("Rock with You," "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough") that marked his maturation. Then came Thriller, and Jackson entered the realm of Elvis Presley and the Beatles—pop icons whose light shone into every corner. In an age of both unabashed celebrity-worship and unrestrained media examination, Jackson found himself challenged to match—let alone top—an album that redefined the pop-music landscape, both sonically and visually, as his videos for "Beat It," "Billie Jean," and the title song (directed by John Landis, no less) proved to be equally influential—and, more importantly, they broke MTV's implicit color line. It took five years for Bad to arrive, and not only was there fatigued posturing in the grooves ("Bad," the clunky "Dirty Diana"), but Jackson's burgeoning public notoriety was beginning to wear on him ("Man in the Mirror," "Leave Me Alone"). And while the touching if trite "Heal the World" felt like a retread "We Are the World," the New Jack Swing of Dangerous felt like Jackson chasing the trend rather than establishing it. Then came the shambles of his personal life, played out in living rooms around the world, and the desperate comeback attempt that, one way or another, killed him. As with Elvis, we like to martyr our musical kings. At least they go into the Hall.
Paul Simon: When Paul Simon split from Art Garfunkel in 1970, all eyes were on Rhymin' Simon as he was the compositional brains behind the wildly popular folk-rock duo. Simon didn't disappoint audiences enamored of his seemingly effortless songcraft: He burst into his solo career with a pair of albums, Paul Simon and There Goes Rhymin' Simon, that reinforced his understated perceptions ("Something So Right," "St. Judy's Comet") by incorporating a variety of musical styles into his spare yet textured arrangements ("Mother and Child Reunion," "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," "Loves Me Like a Rock"). That catholic assimilation of styles set Simon up for charges of cultural plundering amplified by his overt foray into world music in the 1980s, a not-unjustified if still-unfair accusation—rock and roll has always been about hybridization. But even as Simon's musical underpinning ripened throughout the 1970s, his lyrical acuity lapsed into facile sentiment ("Still Crazy After All These Years," "Slip Slidin' Away"), exemplified by "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover," as glib as it is catchy. By the early 1980s, he regained a measure of discreet maturity ("Hearts and Bones," the quietly engaging "Train in the Distance"), if you can overlook the self-conscious poesy of "Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War." However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Simon engineered a mid-1980s renaissance with Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints, which integrated (expropriated?), respectively, South African and Brazilian idioms and reasserted his claim to top-tier pop respectability. From the beginning, Paul Simon thirsted for the artistry of Bob Dylan and the popularity of the Beatles—with all, of course, indebted to Elvis Presley—and if he fell short, his talent and track record still make him a legitimate Hall of Famer.
Steely Dan: No band personified 1970s high-concept, technically polished pop as did Steely Dan—so much so that you could mistake its music for progressive rock or even jazz-rock. And in truth its ringing, hard-charging guitars, wielded at various times by Skunk Baxter, Denny Diaz, and Elliott Randall, rescued a lot of its conceits from runaway pretension. That pretense sprung from Steely Dan's co-leaders, bassist Walter Becker and singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen, and their liberal-arts education—they borrowed the name "Steely Dan" from a milk-squirting dildo in the William Burroughs novel The Naked Lunch—which lent their compositions that post-grad sophistication. They scored early with the hit singles "Do It Again" and the rocking "Reelin' in the Years," which presaged the excellent Countdown to Ecstasy album ("My Old School," "Show Biz Kids"), and attained a stylistic high point with Pretzel Logic (the homoerotic hit "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," the arch title song), before sliding into pomp (The Royal Scam) and Quiet Storm (Aja), sneaking in one of the great paeans to radio ("FM") as it exited the decade. Becker and Fagan might have crawled like vipers through the 1970s suburban landscape, but they managed to remain complex and inscrutable (not to mention languid and bittersweet) while retaining accessibility, this despite operating Steely Dan not as a conventional working band—they gave up touring early—but as a corporate collective. Steely Dan might be the band you love to hate, but there is as much envy and grudging admiration at work there as well, making it the Barry Bonds of rock and roll.
Polished Practitioners: Aerosmith, Solomon Burke, the FlamingosAll three of these acts—Aerosmith, Solomon Burke, and the Flamingos—might not have been innovators in their respective genres, but each brought vitality to their approach that nudged them ahead of their fellow practitioners and into the Hall of Fame. Aerosmith succeeded through longevity and flexibility, Burke primarily from his tremendous vocal talent, and the Flamingos from re-invention of the past.
Aerosmith: Defying F. Scott Fitzgerald's maxim that American lives have no second acts, Aerosmith did indeed experience a late-1980s renaissance following its initial 1970s prominence and subsequent mid-1980s swoon. Granted, this punchy hard-rock act didn't really change its style for the second half; it only magnified its gestures while boosting its videogenic savvy. The first act found the band—after lifting its cues from the Rolling Stones—establishing its influence on subsequent hard rockers with sharp, witty highlights like the droll "Back in the Saddle" and "Walk This Way," while ballads like "Dream On" anticipated Aerosmith's second-half epics like "Amazing" and "Cryin'." Aerosmith avoided dinosaur-dom when Run-D.M.C. found "Walk This Way," with its funky gait, adaptable to hip-hop, with the band willing to play along; meanwhile, "Janie's Got a Gun" flashed a social conscience while "Rag Doll" kept the swaggering rockers rolling. Like the slacker in the back row careful not to reveal too much cleverness, Aerosmith built a career on smart hard rock with a surprisingly healthy respect for the Rock Era's past—the Shangri-Las' "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)" figures among its various covers, don't forget. Never an innovator, Aerosmith refined and exemplified the style, while its longevity enabled it to influence numerous subsequent acts. Here's your Hall pass, kid.
Solomon Burke: What to do about Solomon Burke? Contemporary listeners know this Southern soul singer primarily, if at all, for "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," and that perhaps because the Rolling Stones covered it early in their career; indeed, Burke was a formative influence on Mick Jagger's vocal styling. Burke himself cracked the Top 40 a few times in the early to mid-1960s before attempting a number of approaches, ranging from assured eclecticism to embarrassing excess, from the 1970s until his death in 2010. But early on Burke forged a dynamic synthesis of gospel, R&B, and country (just check his satiny cover of Patsy Cline's "Just out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)" for proof) delivered with one of the (pardon the expression) unsung great voices of the Rock Era. Combining the soulful croon of Otis Redding with the swaggering power of Wilson Pickett—often in the same measure—Burke owned everything he sang, from the naked testifying of "The Price" and the wry "You're Good for Me" to the bluesy declaration of "Can't Nobody Love You" and the assured swing of "Got to Get You off My Mind" and "Cry to Me." Solomon Burke's is yet another true borderline case—I went back and forth more times than windshield wipers in a monsoon—but as a Southern soul pioneer he bridged the gap between Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, while his expressive, agile voice pushes him past the entrance and into the Hall.
The Flamingos: In a curious and delightful paradox, the Flamingos emerged both as the quintessential doo-wop group and as one of the least conventional. Of course they featured gorgeous, intricate vocal harmonies, topped by crystalline lead tenors such as Tommy Hunt and Nate Nelson, but the Flamingos also drew their inspirations from more than the standard doo-wop sources. Founded by cousins Jake and Zeke Carey, the group avoided the typical melisma of black gospel—the Careys were black Hebrews—while displaying the influence of earlier vocal ensembles such as the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers; their best-known hit, "I Only Have Eyes for You," had first appeared a quarter-century earlier in the 1934 movie Dames. Yet the Flamingos approached each arrangement with freshness and flair, unlike, say, the Platters, who sounded like throwbacks even on contemporary material. Their rich, evocative ensemble singing naturally lent itself to the slow, dreamy ballads that became their forte—"I Only Have Eyes for You," "Mio Amore" (practically a re-write of "Eyes"), and more chestnuts like "A Kiss from Your Lips" and "That's My Desire"—but don't think that the Flamingos couldn't kick out the jams: Both "Jump Children" and "Ko Ko Mo" are swinging R&B while "Nobody Loves Me Like You" and "Your Other Love," recalling the Drifters, are proto-soul. They could even make hokey spoken interjections, such as in "The Ladder of Love," sound natural and believable—unlike, say, the Moonglows (although said affectation in "The Vow" does seem to have tongue firmly in cheek). As an influence on the Temptations and other soul acts, in addition to their timeless precision, the Flamingos are Hall-worthy.
Too Much and Not Enough: Queen, Ritchie ValensGiven its enduring popularity, Queen is considered a shoo-in by many rock and pop listeners, but although this preening, pretentious pop-rock quartet stole from an impressive array of sources, it couldn't muster much more with them than crowd-pleasing pomposity. Given the heartbreaking circumstances of his death, Ritchie Valens, not even legally an adult when he died, garners understandable sympathy along with projections of what he might have accomplished had he lived. Neither case is a justified inclusion.
Queen: Is there another rock band whose reputation is more overblown and overrated? Queen is beloved of a surprising cross-section of rock and pop fans, perhaps because of the sheer hybrid quality of its work, fusing glam and touches of artsy pretense with a hard-rock core (highlighted by Brian May's not inconsiderable guitar work), all capped by the operatic belt of frontman Freddie Mercury. The results ranged from the football stadium/Nuremburg Rally blast "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions" to the glorious bombast of "Bohemian Rhapsody" to the sly roots exercise "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Queen could have only happened in the 1970s, which is why it faded away come the 1980s. You could argue that as an artifact of that era, Queen belongs in the Hall. Here's the counterargument: With David Bowie, Elton John, and Led Zeppelin, you've already got all the elements that composed Queen's derivative (did someone say opportunistic?) strategy. And I don't care how funky "Another One Bites the Dust" seems—Chic wrote it first, and it's called "Good Times."
Ritchie Valens: The Ritchie Valens story is undoubtedly tragic: A rising star of the Rock Era's early days, Richard Valenzuela was not only a teenage sensation, he was the first Latino rocker of note. Based on the first blush of his talent, notably the touching ballad "Donna" and the infectious, heritage-drenched rouser "La Bamba," Valens seemed set for a long and successful career. But he died, only 17 when he was killed in the same 1959 plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly, before he could even get started. Who knows what Valens could have accomplished? But that rhetorical question is no justification for inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Yes, Valens inspired numerous Latin rockers, from Carlos Santana to Los Lobos, as the first Latino rock star. But you evaluate the record you have, not the record you wish you had. Valens was just starting out, and his young demise is an immeasurable loss. But it is that very immeasurability that makes it impossible to justify Valens's as a Hall of Fame career.
2002: Another Eclectic Bunch6 Inductees: Isaac Hayes, Brenda Lee, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Gene Pitney, the Ramones, Talking Heads
Yes: The Ramones, Talking Heads
Borderline Yes: Brenda Lee
No: Isaac Hayes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Gene Pitney
The Class of 2002 was almost as diverse as the previous set of inductees. The assured picks were a sundry pair from the birth of modern rock, New York City division—the stripped-down punkers the Ramones and the wound-up funk-rockers Talking Heads. The borderline pick might raise eyebrows—Brenda Lee, the first white woman rock singer of consequence. But although both Isaac Hayes and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are marquee names, examination of their records show their distinctions lacking, while Gene Pitney, perhaps the Rock Era's first cult figure, had a weird, wonderfully eclectic career that is too diffuse for a Hall of Famer.
The Birth of Modern Rock: The Ramones, Talking HeadsFrom the birth of the Rock Era, certain locations have become milestones in the development of rock and soul, from Memphis's Sun Studios to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district to Seattle's, er, coffee houses? A poky club in New York's Bowery, CBGB, became such a milestone in the mid-1970s when it hosted an array of acts that broke from what is now called classic rock and into new and fresh sounds. Two such acts were the Ramones and Talking Heads. Although hardly similar, both bands channeled the same restless energy into their attempts to revitalize rock and roll, with results that were impressive enough to easily usher them both into the Hall of Fame.
The Ramones: For many rock and roll fans, the Ramones were either the Savior or the Second Coming of the form, and very possibly both. Emerging from the New York Bowery just ahead of the punk explosion in Britain, this energetic quartet stripped away the music's excesses that had begun accreting since the 1960s to crank out hyperactive bursts of primitive power-chord rock that delighted proponents of the Noble Savage Theory of Rock and Roll to no end. The Sex Pistols became notorious for their political statements, but the Ramones simply seized the id unleashed from rock's formation (acknowledged later in the faux-nostalgic "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?") and celebrated that original liberating spirit with a decidedly urban, contemporary bent ("Blitzkrieg Bop," "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," "Teenage Lobotomy"). It's tempting to say that no one did stupid more brilliantly than the Ramones, but there was cagey intelligence lurking underneath songs like "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World" and "I Just Want to Have Something to Do Tonight"; furthermore, original drummer Tommy Ramone was a ringer of sorts, already a recording-studio veteran as Tommy Erdelyi. Eventually, the Ramones were hoisted by their own premise—instead of burning up, they stuck around and found themselves having to sustain a career, something that the planned obsolescence of "Beat on the Brat" and even the great "I Wanna Be Sedated" never anticipated but that the plastic "Rock 'n' Roll High School" tried to perpetuate. But by injecting the unsullied energy of rock's earliest days into rock's mid-1970s jaded, bloated carcass, the Ramones almost single-handedly rescued the form. That's a Hall of Fame-sized effort.
Talking Heads: Because Talking Heads built a layer of accessibility into even its earliest, most inscrutable material, it is easy to forget how influential, at least attitudinally, it was—not to mention launching the trend of girl bassists playing in hip, alternative bands: The twitchy strum of "Psycho Killer" seemed to usher in a panoply of postmodern poses, from slacker existentialism to horror-movie semiotics—and if you needed to look up any of those words, then that is probably what Heads leader David Byrne wanted you to do. The band began as art school habitués who decided to cross James Brown with the Modern Lovers (keyboardist Jerry Harrison was an alumnus of the latter) while Byrne delivered tense, neurotic observations such as "Don't Worry about the Government," "No Compassion," and "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls." The band hit its stride with the angular Fear of Music ("Memories Can't Wait," the urgent "Life during Wartime") and the sinuous Remain in Light ("The Great Curve," the propulsive, compulsive "Crosseyed and Painless," the brilliant "Once in a Lifetime") before finding mainstream success with Speaking in Tongues (the charming "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)," the infectious "Burning down the House"). Then director Jonathan Demme spotlighted Talking Heads in one of the greatest concert films ever, Stop Making Sense, which cemented its popularity. Unfortunately, Talking Heads began to lose steam by the mid-1980s as Byrne pursued side projects and the husband-and-wife rhythm section of drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth devoted more time to their own sideline, the Tom Tom Club. Talking Heads petered out by the end of the decade, but as one of the most distinctive modern-rock bands, one that fused many elements into an appealing whole, Talking Heads earned its entry into the Hall.
Fame Forgotten but Found Again: Brenda LeeAt first glance, it seems easy enough to dismiss Brenda Lee's career as not being Hall-worthy, particularly if your first impression is her seasonal novelty "Rockin' around the Christmas Tree." But from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, Lee was a huge pop star—only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Ray Charles, and Connie Francis charted more singles than did Lee in the 1960s—and Lee had enough rock oomph to make a case for the Hall. Combine that with her powerhouse voice, and Brenda Lee's is a case of the Hall bestowing recognition on a key but forgotten figure of the early Rock Era who genuinely deserves it. Don't buy it? Read on.
A child prodigy—her biggest pop successes happened before she turned 21—Lee's career coincided with the birth of the Rock Era. She was among the first female rockabilly singers and remains the best of them: The way she jumps right into "Sweet Nothin's" epitomizes rock and roll swagger, amplified by the forcefulness and flexibility of that terrific voice. Even better, Lee intuited the tenor of each song she sang—listen to the way she keys her vocal to the bluesy organ and saxophone in the infectious "Dum Dum" to deliver a palette of soulful effects, and how she effortlessly picks up the drive in the swinging "That's All You Gotta Do." But with her big, expressive voice Lee's forte became the ballad, and the best of them—"Break It to Me Gently," "Emotions," and her signature tune, "I'm Sorry"—can raise the hair on the back of your neck. Those catches and breaks in Lee's voice, coupled with legendary producer Owen Bradley's proto-countrypolitan arrangements, fairly predicted a change of course into country music (presaged by "Everybody Loves Me but You" and "Fool #1") as she got older, although it to turned out to be a surprisingly disappointing move.
But her initial stint in the pop arena was enough to carve her legacy into the Rock Era. Before Dusty Springfield, before Janis Joplin, Brenda Lee made it clear that rock would have to accommodate women as more than accessories. And from time to time rock has acknowledged her: Chuck Berry wrote an homage to Lee for his 1964 St. Louis to Liverpool album, while she is namechecked in, of all places, Golden Earring's 1973 monster hit "Radar Love"—with the reference to Lee's "Coming on Strong" noting that it is a "forgotten song." But with her induction into the Hall of Fame, Brenda Lee is no longer forgotten. When I did my initial sort of inductees, I expected Lee to be a definite No. However, in re-examining her case, I have to admit that this is one forgotten artist who deserves induction.
Rock Regulars and Pop Peripherals: Isaac Hayes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Gene PitneyMentioning Isaac Hayes, Tom Petty, and Gene Pitney together sounds like the beginning of a pretty interesting joke, and having Isaac Hayes in the Hall of Fame—as a performer—is a joke. Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, are solid journeymen who have never been exceptional. And Pitney, who might be the first cult figure of the Rock Era, is a weird and wonderful talent who just never rose to the level of excellence demanded by the Hall.
Isaac Hayes: As a producer and, with David Porter, a songwriter for Stax in the 1960s, Isaac Hayes is a seminal figure in the development of soul music. And even though his "Theme from Shaft" remains one of the greatest songs to win a Best Song Oscar, Hayes as a performer is a woeful talent whose induction into the Hall is entirely unwarranted. The orchestration that informed "Shaft" had seen its full-flowering on Hot Buttered Soul, a Hayes touchstone that found him in essence applying the soul version of the Vanilla Fudge technique—groaning, grandiose arrangements—to white pop ("Walk on By," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix"), although the spoken introduction to the latter heralded an overblown pretense later picked up by Barry White as his jive seduction patter. In fact, Hayes could be held responsible for introducing the more ostentatious aspects of disco; certainly he is an exemplar of 1970s excess more often associated with progressive rock. All of which might not have been so terrible were Hayes not such an awful singer; his version of the Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye," for instance, makes journeywoman Gloria Gaynor, who also covered the song, sound like Aretha Franklin. Isaac Hayes would be an ideal Ahmet Ertegun Award winner, a non-performer whose producing, arranging, and songwriting talents contributed significantly to the Rock Era, but to call him a Hall of Fame performer is absurd.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Emerging in the mid-1970s, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at first glance suggest an American Dire Straits—both brought an updated approach to rock tradition, and in the Heartbreakers' case, thanks to the chiming guitars in "Breakdown" and especially "American Girl," they bore a passing resemblance to the Byrds. The band's first few albums, particularly Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises, sported a lean attack that invited comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger as exemplars of American mainstream rock. Moreover, Petty and his band adapted to the 1980s, fleshing out their arrangements with contemporary flourishes ("Don't Come around Here No More," "You Got Lucky") while retaining their taut heartland core. It's never been innovative but Petty and crew have grown over the years, to the point where they've attained elder-statesman status. Is that enough to put Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers into the Hall of Fame? Frankly, no. They have been a good, consistent band over the long haul, but lacking Seger's passion and Springsteen's grandeur, Petty and crew are certainly likeable enough, and their best moments, from "American Girl" to "Refugee" to "Even the Losers," help compose the cream of American classic rock. But they are ultimately competent veterans who have never distinguished themselves, and those are not Hall credentials.
Gene Pitney: In appropriately curious fashion, Gene Pitney just might be the Rock Era's first cult hero. He charted in the early 1960s with a string of offbeat hits including "(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance" and the gloriously kitschy "Town without Pity," but more importantly, he skirted the pop periphery with odd, striking eclecticism.
Both "Liberty Valance" and "Town without Pity" were recorded as title songs for film soundtracks (although "Liberty Valance" didn't appear in that John Ford western). On his first single, the rollicking, self-penned "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away," Pitney heavily overdubbed his own vocals and played every instrument years before Todd Rundgren. He worked briefly with the Rolling Stones, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the out-of-character—for them, not for Pitney—"That Girl Belongs to Yesterday" for him. Pitney became the biggest interpreter of Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs ("Only Love Can Break a Heart," "Twenty-four Hours from Tulsa") this side of Dionne Warwick. Finally, thanks to his high, winsome tenor, Pitney found himself duetting with country star George Jones—weirdly taking the female role—and recording a number of bel canto albums in Italian.
Pitney's was a long, strange trip long before the Grateful Dead, and if you are drawn to the surging melodrama of "Last Chance to Turn Around" or the Middle Eastern accents of "Mecca," you might endorse his induction. But no matter how fascinating, Gene Pitney's was a patchwork career that falls just short of Hall-worthy, a sadly appropriate epitaph for a cult hero. And why Quentin Tarantino hasn't yet used a Gene Pitney song in one of his films remains a mystery.
2003: White and Wrong5 Inductees: AC/DC, the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the Police, the Righteous Brothers
Yes: The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the Police
No: AC/DC, the Righteous Brothers
By a curious coincidence, the five inductees into the Hall of Fame in 2003 all happened to be white although four of the five displayed the influence of black musical styles. The Righteous Brothers became pioneers of blue-eyed soul; both the Clash and the Police incorporated reggae and other Jamaican flavors into their mixes; and Elvis Costello and the Attractions delved into soul and R&B for their Get Happy!! album (leaving aside Costello's notorious 1979 remarks about the character of James Brown and Ray Charles). Meanwhile, AC/DC's brand of simple hard rock bridged the gap between the blues-based hard rock of the 1960s and early 1970s and the punk-inspired New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Did this help or hurt these five acts? Who can tell? Neither the Righteous Brothers, closest to soul music's naked emotionalism, nor AC/DC, whose guitar riffs contain only faint echoes of their blues-based derivation, belong in the Hall of Fame, suggesting that talent is truly colorblind.
British Invasion Redux: The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the PoliceWhat if they gave a rebellion but no one came? The punk revolt in mid-1970s Britain, along with a similar, if slightly less climactic, changing of the guard in the United States, marked a clear break with rock convention whose only precedents were the mid-1960s British Invasion and the advent of Elvis Presley himself. The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and the Police were not only among the most talented British punk and New Wave acts, they were also among the most commercially successful. Purists might cry "sell out!" but how can you effect change if you cannot get your message across? Interestingly, all three acts had ceased operations by the mid-1980s—Costello continued with his career but had ended his relationship with the Attractions—but during their heyday all three proved to be worthy of the Hall of Fame.
The Clash: The Sex Pistols are the legitimate schism between what rock and roll had been and what it was to become, but it was the Clash that realized the potential of the new order. Indeed, these English rabble-rousers proved so resourceful that they threatened to have a career as a rock and roll band. That turned out to be a mirage as internal dissent sundered the band after a few years, but from the late 1970s to the early 1980s the Clash almost justified the hyperbolic claim to be "The Only Band That Matters." Its early scorchers ("Career Opportunities," "Clash City Rockers," "Complete Control," "Police and Thieves," White Man in Hammersmith Palais") combined aggression and energy with passionate, if often inchoate, observations. Surviving Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman's attempts to domesticate the band, give or take "English Civil War" or "Stay Free," the Clash came roaring back with London Calling, an essential album of the Rock Era that epitomized punk-rock's potential, from the clarion title song through "Clampdown," "The Guns of Brixton," "Spanish Bombs," "Lost in the Supermarket," and even the winsome hit "Train in Vain." And the seeming sprawl of Sandinista! was studded with gems ("The Call-Up," "Police on My Back," "Washington Bullets," "Somebody Got Murdered," "Charlie Don't Surf") that suggested a mature wedding of lyrics and music to keep the Clash as the tribune of our times for some time to come. Combat Rock saw a dip in inspiration—the band might have got Mideast politics onto Top Forty radio ("Rock the Casbah") but at the cost of chowder-headedness ("Should I Stay or Should I Go?"), although "Straight to Hell" was punk's salute to Graham Greene's The Quiet American. Then it was over, with a subsequent slew of compilations to put the Who to shame. It was real while it lasted. Damn.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions: The most articulate of punk and New Wave's Angry Young Men, Elvis Costello, with his Buddy Holly glasses and first name cribbed from you-know-who, celebrated rock's past as much as he heralded its future. His auspicious debut album My Aim Is True had a throwback flavor ("Blame It on Cain" and especially "Mystery Dance") in addition to the irresistible ambiguity of "Alison" and the intimate politics of "Less Than Zero," while the astute single "Watching the Detectives" previewed his association with the robust Attractions: organist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas, and drummer Pete Thomas. The band streamlined its influences into potent packages on This Year's Model ("No Action," "Lip Service," the swaggering "Pump It Up") and Armed Forces ("Accidents Will Happen," "Moods for Moderns," the burly "Goon Squad," the cosmopolitan "Oliver's Army"); meanwhile, the single "Radio Radio" remains a brilliant media critique. Poised for greatness, though, Costello and the Attractions stumbled. The R&B- and soul-influenced Get Happy!! ("High Fidelity," Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand up for Falling Down") suggested that Costello's intricate wordplay was simply an end in itself, reinforced by the uneven Imperial Bedroom ("Beyond Belief," the Dylanesque "Man out of Time") although "Boy with a Problem" and "Pidgin English" retained Costello's frank insights. As the 1980s progressed, Costello and his association with the Attractions became desultory, although he could still create the muted social commentary of "Shipbuilding" and his then-biggest US single "Every Day I Write the Book," a gorgeous update of the Monotones' "Book of Love." While he continued to work occasionally with the Attractions, Costello embarked on a lengthy musical odyssey of variable success, but for a time Elvis Costello and the Attractions became the prototype of the modern rock band.
The Police: Another alumnus from the British punk and New Wave revolt, the Police, unlike most of its contemporaries, had an actual musical pedigree—what critic J.D. Considine termed "covert virtuosity"—that it concealed in a series of propulsive, reggae-inflected pop packages. The band's chief songwriter, singer and bassist Sting, also hid his post-secondary education in a string of lonely-guy plaints ("Roxanne," "So Lonely," the driving "Message in a Bottle"), but when he successfully rhymed "Nabokov" in the delightful Lolita homage "Don't Stand So Close to Me" he let the cat out of the literary bag. But by then (Zenyatta Mondatta) the Police was an international sensation, so he, guitarist Andy Summers, and drummer Stewart Copeland threw off their teen-idol capes to reveal the intellectuals beneath. The ambitious Ghost in the Machine (inspired by Arthur Koestler) explored the physical ("One World (Not Three)," "Too Much Information") and the metaphysical ("Invisible Sun," "Spirits in the Material World") while still staying explosive ("Demolition Man") and engaging ("Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic"), augmenting their core approach—Copeland's dexterous rhythms and Summers's texture and coloration—with fuller arrangements. They became Jung Frankensteins with Synchronicity, which spawned blockbuster hits including "Every Breath You Take" and "Wrapped around Your Finger" while the title track references Carl Jung's theories of the collective unconscious and meaningful coincidence ("synchronicity"), although Sting's sensitive-guy angle grew positively overweening ("King of Pain"). Copeland chipped in with the coy "Miss Gradenko"; that and his earlier "Bombs Away" winked at the Cold War, appropriate as his father Miles was a CIA agent who was instrumental in the 1953 overthrow of Iranian President Mohammed Mossadegh. Then the band quit literally at the top of the charts, with Sting establishing his solo stardom; he could become a Hall of Famer all by his lonesome. But with his fellow Policemen he belongs now as one of the most talented and successful acts of the New Wave.
Stylistic Stases: AC/DC, the Righteous BrothersBoth AC/DC and the Righteous Brothers do one thing well. For AC/DC, it is no-frills hard rock delivered with Paleolithic abandon. For the Righteous Brothers, it is richly arranged histrionic heartbreak ballads delivered with the fervor of two men pleading as they are carted off to the romantic gallows. As an occasional appetizer, like deviled eggs or stuffed mushroom caps, both AC/DC and the Righteous Brothers can be tasty treats, but neither makes for a satisfying meal—each offers the same thing, over and over. There is value in doing one thing well, but that creative stasis prevents them from becoming Hall of Famers.
AC/DC: As one of the biggest hard-rock bands of the Rock Era, AC/DC has a lot going for it. The band's industrial-strength sound, rooted in the stinging riffs and leads of guitar-wielding brothers Angus and Malcolm Young and in the agile whomp of drummer Phil Rudd, has yielded a passel of pounding anthems that culminated with the classic albums Highway to Hell and Back in Black. AC/DC's no-frills assault is both reassuring and recognizable—too recognizable, as this band has essentially released the same album since the 1970s. Singer Brian Johnson might have replaced the late Bon Scott, and producer Mutt Lange might have trimmed the sails and streamlined the sound beginning with Highway to Hell, but AC/DC delivers the same dish every time. To be sure, Scott's lyrics ("It's a Long Way to the Top," "Highway to Hell," "Touch Too Much") are wittier than you might remember them, and Johnson approached hard-rock poetry with "You Shook Me All Night Long," and if consumer satisfaction is the overriding criteria for enshrinement, then AC/DC passes quality assurance. Doing one thing well consistently might be impressive, but it's not transcendent. If it were, then Dave Kingman would be in the Baseball Hall of Fame with all those home runs. He's not, though, and nor should AC/DC be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with all those soundalike songs.
The Righteous Brothers: Granted, the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" is one of the most transcendent moments of the Rock Era. It's not just Phil Spector's lush production—"Wagnerian" is the overused adjective, but, boy, is that descriptive—that sells it: As a blue-eyed soul duo, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield deliver the song's throbbing emotion as if their lives depended on it. Moreover, they replicated that feeling in a series of hits through the first half of the 1960s: "Just Once in My Life," "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration," and the evergreen "Unchained Melody" all exemplify the plangent feeling tenor Hatfield and bass Medley could wring from a stately ballad. But the Righteous Brothers proved to be a one-trick pony—one listen to the tepid frat-rock of their early-career "Little Latin Lupe Lu" will tell you why they opted for the histrionics. Yet the Brothers found themselves with diminishing returns as the novelty wore off, releasing "He," a weirdly gushing paean to God, the often-covered big-band standard "Ebb Tide," and Vera Lynn's World War Two chestnut "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover," although in fairness "See That Girl" and "Go Ahead and Cry" show that the anguish of romantic heartbreak isn't necessarily the purview of lovelorn teens. But no matter how much fervent emoting issued from the Righteous Brothers, a sense of sameness pervades their catalog. That is not a Hall of Fame standard.
2004: Scoping out the Seventies7 Inductees: Jackson Browne, the Dells, George Harrison, Prince, Bob Seger, Traffic, ZZ Top
Yes: Jackson Browne, Prince
Borderline Yes: Bob Seger, Traffic
No: The Dells, George Harrison, ZZ Top
All seven of the inductees for 2004 were active during the 1970s. For singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, ex-Beatles guitarist George Harrison, funk-rocker Prince, and blues-rockers ZZ Top, the 1970s was when they began their careers (Harrison's of course was his solo career). Rockers Bob Seger and Traffic began their careers in the previous decade, with Seger finally becoming a star in the 1970s and Traffic, which began with solid psychedelic roots, having established itself in the 1960s and then coasting to a stop by the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, the Dells began as a vocal harmony group in the late 1950s, enjoyed some success in the 1960s, and soldiered on as a soul act from the 1970s on; they could be performing in a casino somewhere as you read this. Browne and Prince are the top-notch inductees for 2004, Seger and Traffic are substantial enough to follow them, but the Dells, ZZ Top, and especially George Harrison do not have the innovation or the legacy to justify inclusion.
Singular Talents: Jackson Browne, PrinceIn a sense, both Jackson Browne and Prince defined their glory decade, Browne's being the 1970s and Prince's the 1980s. One of the most thoughtful and articulate songwriters of the 1970s, Browne expressed a generation's hopes, fears, expectations, and disappointments, while Prince was—is—simply one of the most remarkable talents of the Rock Era, and is arguably the talent of the post-punk period even if he seems not to have fully realized his virtually limitless potential. Nevertheless, Prince's bona fides need no elaboration; Browne's are not as universal, but in fairness few are. Neither needs to be excused for entering the Hall of Fame.
Jackson Browne: By combining the questing personal and social concerns of the 1960s with the deep introspection of the 1970s, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne became one of the great poet-philosophers of the Rock Era. Even better, he did so in an almost self-effacing manner; his lyrics seem almost guileless on the surface, but when the import of his plainspoken expression sinks in, the effect can be profound: "Song for Adam," "For Everyman," the deeply moving "For a Dancer," the apocalyptic "Before the Deluge," even the breezy autobiography of "Running on Empty." Browne's first three albums, underpinned by country rock, featured a lode of considered ruminations, leavened by likes of "Take It Easy," the wry sexism of "Ready or Not," and the smirking "Redneck Friend," that culminated with the brilliant Late for the Sky. The music improved for The Pretender ("The Fuse," "Here Come Those Tears Again") even if the sentiments plowed well-tilled soil, so Browne responded with the patchwork-genius live album Running on Empty, whose "The Load-Out" remains one the most acute descriptions of the rock and roll lifestyle. Then Browne tumbled into pop-rock at the turn of the 1980s, notching a few hits ("Boulevard," "Somebody's Baby") including the terrific social satire "Lawyers in Love." Too bad no one got that joke because Browne then delved into serious political protest (Lives in the Balance) that was earnest if uneven. By the time he returned with more personal insights, he had become an elder statesman, but that also meant he was already regarded as a perceptive, articulate voice of his generation. In other words, a Hall of Famer.
Prince: Prince is the last great commanding talent the Rock Era has produced. As a singer, instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, and performer, Prince has sustained enormous popularity while garnering lasting critical acclaim for a tightly-wound soul-funk approach that has been accessible to a variety of other acts (from Cyndi Lauper and the Bangles to Sinead O'Connor and even Tom Jones) even as it remains utterly distinctive. He emerged on the pop scene in the late 1970s with fresh-sounding if still-formative material ("Uptown," the itchy "Partyup," "I Wanna Be Your Lover'), but by the time 1999 arrived so had he as "Little Red Corvette," "Delirious," and the title track announced his irresistibly outré attitudes. Purple Rain established his abilities without question, with "Let's Go Crazy" and the title song easily incorporating hard rock into his mix; Prince perpetuated his mythology with the feature film Purple Rain, a triumph of pouting rock cliché, but the world remained his oyster, anyway. Too bad the wunderkind couldn't pluck out the pearl, because as he became his own cottage industry, he began to recede into the wilderness while trying to come to terms with sex and God as the main motifs of his music (the unpronounceable symbol didn't help, either). Prince was still capable of something as patchily brilliant as Sign o' the Times (the title song, "U Got the Look," "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man"), but he was becoming both diffuse and opaque, in danger of becoming the Van Morrison of funk—pursuing his muse with general indifference toward his audience. But, as with Morrison, after a decade of establishing his bona fides, his legacy was already written in stone by the time the 1990s arrived.
Classic-Rock Stalwarts: Bob Seger, TrafficPursuing different styles—Bob Seger blended soul and early-rock influences while Traffic developed a folk- and jazz-inflected approach—these two acts also trod different career paths: Seger toiled in the rock hinterlands before he finally basked in the limelight while Traffic burst forth fully formed before receding. Regardless of those differences, both Bob Seger and Traffic parlayed their talent and commitment into well-deserved places in the Hall of Fame.
Bob Seger: It took a decade for Bob Seger to become an overnight success, but the populist singer and songwriter proves the cliché about perseverance paying off. The keynote is his in-concert opus Live Bullet: Released the same year as the first Rocky film, it too paints a portrait of a man fighting for his one shot at the top, particularly in "Traveling Man," "Beautiful Loser," and "Turn the Page," all stirring blue-collar arias. Seger made it, capped his success with Night Moves, and emerged in the late 1970s as a heartland rocker second only to Bruce Springsteen. Poised for bigger things in the 1980s, Seger never realized that potential despite the ambitious The Distance, but he remains a classic-rock icon and one of the finest American rock singers ever. Seger's best, and best-known, songs (including "Night Moves," "Rock and Roll Never Forgets," and "Hollywood Nights") exemplify his plainspoken acuity, but fans know their roots lay in his string of earlier triumphs, among them the swagger of "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," the John Fogerty paean "Looking Back," the class-conscious envy of "U.M.C. (Upper Middle Class)," the Chuck Berry-inspired rave-up "Get out of Denver," and his hippie-Mecca ode to "Katmandu" that's much more astute than its surface sentiment suggests. Bob Seger might not be a top-level artist, but he epitomizes the liberating potential of rock and roll for both performer and audience, and that epitomizes the Hall of Fame.
Traffic: Given its roots in the psychedelic era, Traffic certainly emanated its whiffs of patchouli oil ("Dear Mr. Fantasy," "Medicated Goo," "Smiling Phases," the Beatles-esque "No Face, No Name, No Number"), but informing even its lightest touch was a rich and varied stylistic underpinning buttressed by assured musicianship, exemplified by the haunting "(Roamin' through the Gloamin' With) 40,000 Headmen," the slinky gem "Pearly Queen," and the driving instrumental "Glad." Fronted by the protean talents of singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Steve Winwood, who earned his stripes with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic was also graced by guitarist Dave Mason, whose "Feelin' Alright" became a huge hit for Joe Cocker, woodwind player Chris Wood, and drummer Jim Capaldi. Together they concocted a potent blend of rock, folk, blues, and jazz that stood at the forefront of fusion and progressive rock. Traffic's first two albums, Mr. Fantasy and Traffic, remain prime examples of psychedelia because their fresh, dynamic songs sound hardly dated at all. Even when Mason left, Winwood spearheaded the now-trio's vibrant folk-jazz hybrid, John Barleycorn Must Die, that steered Traffic into the 1970s. And while the inspiration began to flag soon afterwards, though not without atmospheric excursions such as the lengthy "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys," Traffic had already broadened the scope of what a talented, inspired rock band could accomplish, which makes its Hall of Fame induction fitting.
Pale Imitations: The Dells, George Harrison, ZZ TopAll three of these acts—the Dells, George Harrison, and ZZ Top—hovered around the periphery of rock and soul in terms of talent and influence. Yes, Harrison was an ex-Beatle, and not of the Pete Best variety, either, but his talents couldn't sustain him as a solo artist, and although ZZ Top was a huge commercial success, its style and approach was competent craftsmanship, not artistry or innovation. Meanwhile, vocal harmony group the Dells had the skills but not the inspiration. All three produced enjoyable moments but nothing that merits enshrinement.
The Dells: In a sense, the Dells are very much like the Isley Brothers: Both acts began in the 1950s and managed to sustain careers lasting several decades. But unlike the Isleys, who gamely adopted various musical trends as a new approach for them, the Dells tried to adapt those trends, primarily soul and R&B, to their core approach to doo-wop and harmony singing. Granted, that was delightful singing ("Could This Be Magic"), capped by sweet tenor Johnny Carter (who began with the Flamingos) and gruff baritone Marvin Junior, but the Dells' case is one of imitation rather than inspiration. Establishing themselves early with the charming "Oh, What a Night," the Dells recreated it a decade hence in a late-1960s soul arrangement, similarly reworking "Stay in My Corner" into a bigger hit the second time around. Although the then-contemporary backing was successful and yielded perhaps their finest moment, the stirring "There Is" (although Junior's impassioned pleading in "I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love Is Blue" is impressively over-the-top), the sense of replication grew stronger as the Dells' career progressed into the 1970s and 1980s: "Super Woman" smacked of Curtis Mayfield and "A Heart Is a House for Love" cribbed from Luther Vandross, while "Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation" is lounge-act grandstanding. In sports, the Dells would be considered "compilers," good enough to stay in the Show but not distinctive enough for the Hall.
George Harrison: When you're in a band with one of the great songwriting duos of the 20th century, you just might feel stifled even if they do record your songs every now and then. And it turned out that George Harrison had enough songs in him to fill two LPs on his first post-Beatles album, the three-record All Things Must Pass (the third LP comprised lengthy jams with noted guest stars), produced by no less than Phil Spector. Even better, the best of those songs ("My Sweet Lord," "Isn't It a Pity," "What Is Life?," "Wah-Wah") promised a rewarding solo career. Alas, that didn't come to pass. Following his pent-up outpouring of creativity, Harrison was spent. Nothing else came close to that first album (barring the Concert for Bangladesh soundtrack, again with guest-star power). As the "spiritual Beatle," George Harrison had a philosophical bent that encompassed admirable humanitarian concerns, and his death was sadly premature, but in his musical career he proved to be a sideman with little compelling to say as a leader. He has no business being in the Hall of Fame as a solo artist.
ZZ Top: Much like AC/DC, ZZ Top made it into the Hall of Fame apparently by sticking around and remaining popular over the decades. In fairness, the venerable Texas power trio did tinker with its approach now and then, ladling in some jazzy sophistication in the late 1970s (Deguello) and some New Wave electronics in the early 1980s (Eliminator) along with its canny read of MTV culture (splashy T-and-A videos for "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man," and "Legs"). Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? From its early, (Bill) Ham-fisted blues and boogie bursts ("Tush," "La Grange," "Just Got Paid") that culminated with the winking attitude of "Jesus Just Left Chicago," ZZ Top evolved its sound while developing its hipster ("I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide"), shabby chic ("Cheap Sunglasses"), and outré ("Pearl Necklace") attitudes before its 1980s heyday. But even as top Top Billy Gibbons experimented further ("Sleeping Bag"), interest in the band began to wane. At its best, ZZ Top delivers sharp bursts of blues-rock along with a chuckle or two ("TV Dinners," "My Head's in Mississippi"), but in the end this trio of Texans are competent craftsman of an overly familiar style. That's not Hall-worthy.
2005: Something Old, Something New5 Inductees: Buddy Guy, the O'Jays, the Pretenders, Percy Sledge, U2
Yes: The Pretenders, U2
Borderline Yes: The O'Jays
No: Buddy Guy, Percy Sledge
With two of modern rock's finest, the Pretenders and U2, joined by two soul acts, one from the 1960s, Percy Sledge, and one from the 1970s, the O'Jays, and one bluesman, Buddy Guy, the Class of 2005 featured a mix of new stars and old veterans. Two of the first truly post-punk bands, the Pretenders and U2 were this year's no-doubt picks. A solid fixture of 1970s soul that anticipated disco, the O'Jays were not an obvious pick but established a strong enough track record to merit their inclusion. Buddy Guy was a tough pick—his flashy style had a significant influence on rock guitarists, but his legacy doesn't stand up to scrutiny. And the choice of journeyman soul singer Percy Sledge made it clear to even casual observers that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had a deeply flawed system for choosing its entrants.
Post-Punk Pioneers: The Pretenders, U2Both releasing their debut albums in 1980, the Pretenders and U2 were two of the best bands to arise in the aftermath of the punk and New Wave rebellion of the mid-1970s. The Pretenders, at least initially, adopted the hard and harsh sound of punk while applying melodic underpinning. And while the Pretenders were fronted by a woman, Chrissie Hynde, there was no sense of novelty about it because they meshed so seamlessly as a unit. Beginning with a big, echoey sound drawn from punk's minimalism, U2 really turned out to be an arena band, albeit one whose earnestness and commitment overcame commerciality and cynicism; U2 also became one of the giant bands of the Rock Era. As harbingers of modern rock, both the Pretenders and U2 are locks for the Hall of Fame.
The Pretenders: One of the best bands to emerge in the wake of British punk and New Wave, the Pretenders enjoyed a unique paradox. On the one hand, this was a hard-rock band led by a woman, singer, guitarist, and songwriter Chrissie Hynde, and as critic Debbie Geller so eloquently put it, Hynde was "a three-dimensional woman" who "single-handedly reduced all other contemporary women in rock to any one of the number of clichés that abounded about them." On the other hand, the band's eponymous debut album presented the Pretenders as a fully integrated band, driven by nimble drummer Martin Chambers, which was borne out in spades by the hit single "Brass in Pocket," the brash rockers "Tattooed Love Boys" and "The Wait," the 1950s pastiche "Kid," the Kinks cover "Stop Your Sobbing," and the tour de force "Mystery Achievement," all of which made the issue of gender irrelevant. The only time gender did become relevant was in "Precious," when Hynde, busy picking up some stud, worried about getting pregnant—not an issue typically faced by a man. However, despite a few exceptions (""Talk of the Town," "I Go to Sleep," "Message of Love," "The English Roses"), subsequent efforts were not as strong—and then the band hit a tough patch. Bassist Pete Farndon left the group and died of a drug overdose shortly afterwards, while guitarist James Honeyman-Scott also died of an overdose. Remarkably, Hynde and Chambers rebounded with the tremendous Learning to Crawl, tempered by the tragedies ("Back on the Chain Gang") but flashing admirable resilience and maturity ("Middle of the Road," "Show Me," the charming, Christmas-flavored "2000 Miles") and even sardonic reflection ("My City Was Gone"). Although Hynde and the Pretenders might seem to have mellowed with age ("Don't Get Me Wrong," "I'll Stand by You"), they were still capable of the old fire (Last of the Independents, ¡Viva el Amor!). And as the inspiration for women rockers to follow, from Joan Jett (who comes on like Hynde's kid sister) to Courtney Love to Liz Phair and any number of riot grrrls—as well as post-punk rockers in general—Chrissie Hynde and her band the Pretenders are deservedly Hall of Famers.
U2: Just because U2 lobbied for the position of "The Best Rock and Roll Band in the World" doesn't mean it doesn't deserve it. After all, self-aggrandizement has been a driving force—maybe the driving force—since the Rock Era began. And with its clarion anthems calling far and wide, U2's credentials are as valid as anyone's. The band's early tracks featured leading-Edge guitar riffage both ringing ("I Will Follow," "Gloria") and urgent ("Out of Control," "Rejoice") that generated lots of excitement and, thanks to Steve Lillywhite's cavernous production, sounded important even if it wasn't always clear what Bono was singing about. That came into focus with War, which began to blend the personal ("Surrender," "Two Hearts Beat As One") and the political ("Sunday Bloody Sunday," "New Year's Day") in a way that the succeeding production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois could shape for The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, at which point U2 was indisputably an arena band. This is not a slur because by the late 1980s no one qualified to do so stepped up to be the Voice of a Generation except U2. Even though the band arose in the wake of the punk revolt, and even though it has experimented with its basic musical approach (The Unforgettable Fire; Achtung, Baby; Pop), U2 has never really shaken off the 1960s belief that Rock Music Can Change the World—the band's name doesn't refer to the Cold War-era Lockheed spy plane but to the communal exhortation that "you too" can do this. You and I might not believe it, but it's still reassuring to know that they do, particularly when that belief infuses the hidden gems ("An Cat Dubh," "Wire," "Three Sunrises," "In God's Country") as well as the crowd-pleasers ("Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Mysterious Ways," "Vertigo"). No wonder U2 was inducted in its first year of eligibility—the Hall still believes it, too.
More Than Just Good-Time Soul: The O'JaysOne of the best of the Philly soul acts, the O'Jays, despite the presence of punchy lead singer Eddie Levert, were also one of the most anonymous. They were the ideal foil for the writing, arranging, and producing strategies of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, releasing a string of successful, communally inspired singles starting in the early 1970s that helped to lay the foundation for disco later in the decade. The O'Jays had actually been (very) modest hitmakers in the 1960s ("Lipstick Traces") before hooking up with Gamble and Huff, and their breezy hits "Love Train," "I Love Music" (its bongo-fueled intro, played by none other than Bill Cosby, recalling Santana's "Jingo"), and "Living for the Weekend" extolled carefree good times emblematic of the period. But the band could also display the flip side to the fun and frivolity—the irresistible "Back Stabbers" might have reflected the paranoia of a man wary of his opportunistic buddies as he was going through a shaky stretch with his woman (a theme echoed in the similar-sounding but still fine "992 Arguments"), but in 1972 that paranoia had a larger social reverberation. That social comment became more explicit with the catchy "For the Love of Money" and its complement "Survival," while "Ship Ahoy," about the slave trade, was the somber counterpoint to Randy Newman's "Sail Away," and "Put Your Hands Together" brought a gospel fervor to its plea. Although they are better-known for their cheery bounce ("Love Train" survives currently as a beer commercial), that shot of substance combined with the smooth, steady groove push the O'Jays past the door and into the Hall of Fame.
Lowering—Then Burying—the Bar: Buddy Guy, Percy SledgeBoth Buddy Guy and Percy Sledge represent dubious backfilling by the Hall. While the Hall had inducted only one other blues artist, Bobby Bland, whose career had begun during the Rock Era, Buddy Guy, despite being a flashy, exciting performer, doesn't quite have the résumé as a front-line artist to justify inclusion.
And then there is Percy Sledge. To date, Sledge was the least qualified performer to be inducted in the Hall. As discussed below, Sledge was not the one-hit wonder he is often perceived to be, but he is a thoroughly ordinary soul singer whose talent and legacy are manifestly unworthy of enshrinement. If there had been any lingering doubts that the Hall of Fame displayed at best suspect judgment in its inductees, the selection of Percy Sledge should have laid those to rest. And as we will see in Part 5 of this audit, the Hall would only continue to get worse.
Buddy Guy: As the story goes, legendary music man Leonard Chess once invited Buddy Guy to kick him in the butt because, as Chess witnessed the wild success of blues-based rockers like Cream and Jimi Hendrix, he conceded to Guy that the flashy Chicago bluesman had been "trying to sell me this shit for 12 years." Guy has certainly been an influence on rock guitarists such as Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan with a vibrant performing style that showcases his frenetic guitar-playing and singing that incorporates as much soul pleading and rock hollering as blues shouting; his psychedelic-era concert set This Is Buddy Guy! established that early on. And were Guy younger he would likely be a Robert Cray—that is, a rocker who just happens to be blues-based and who just happens to be black—rather than one of the generation of blues musicians, such as Freddie King and Otis Rush, whose careers began just as the Rock Era began and thus served as transitional influences from blues to rock.
Like so many, Guy's early efforts were copped directly from B.B. King ("The First Time I Met the Blues") before he developed his own variant of the style, punctuating his nakedly emotive vocals with sudden bursts of steely guitar ("Stone Crazy," the affecting "My Time after a While"). Guy wasn't shy about weaving contemporary references into standard blues structures ("Hold That Plane," "Hello San Francisco") or even re-writing Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" as "A Man of Many Words." Paired with harmonica ace Junior Wells, Guy could be convincing (Hoodoo Man Blues) although Wells often was the one running the show, with Guy as his sideman. I vacillated long and hard on this one, but as much as I like Buddy Guy I don't think, in the last analysis, that the basis of his influence is strong enough to make him a Hall of Famer.
Percy Sledge: If any single Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee first epitomized the lack of credibility the Hall has shown—and continues to show—in its nomination and election process, it must be Percy Sledge. This journeyman Southern soul singer is best-known—for many rock and soul fans, only known—for his 1966 hit "When a Man Loves a Woman," the histrionic plea that proved to have a life all its own. However, it is not fair to say that Sledge was a one-hit wonder, as he did notch a few more singles onto the charts. Nevertheless, Sledge's was a marginal career at best, hardly a Hall of Fame one, and his induction is, quite simply, a travesty.
As a vocal talent and stylist, Sledge is a bargain-basement Solomon Burke, attempting to express big emotions through a broad singing range while covering an array of material. Those who are familiar with only "When a Man Loves a Woman" will be surprised to discover that Sledge didn't always operate with the theatrical entreaties with which he peppered his best-known song. His most effective song might be the winsome "Take Time to Know Her," almost an answer record to the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love," and "It Tears Me Up," "Out of Left Field," and the crunchy metaphor of "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road" are earnest declarations, while "Rainbow Road" is earthy autobiography, and "Push Mr. Pride Aside" injects a sprightly bounce into Sledge's dramatic approach. Yet Sledge lacks the personality or the power to drive that decent song or the tepid Wilson Pickett attempt "Love Me Like You Mean It," a failing glaringly reflected in the series of cover versions he's recorded: "Love Me Tender" and especially "Try a Little Tenderness" are embarrassing in the face of the originals, and even his covers of fellow journeymen Clarence Carter ("The Dark End of the Street") and Ritchie Furay (Buffalo Springfield's "Kind Woman") lack distinction.
In the pantheon of Hall of Fame talent, Percy Sledge is perfectly ordinary and has no business standing alongside the greatest artists of the Rock Era. As we have seen in these audits, particularly for this five-year period, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted several clearly unqualified artists. Percy Sledge is their leader.
At least until we get to the Dave Clark Five. But that is for the next installment.
2001 – 2005: CodaIn its fourth five years of selecting inductees, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted 31 artists. The table below shows those 31 categorized as noted previously: Yes, Borderline Yes, and No.
|Breakdown of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees, 2001 – 2005
|Pct. of Total
In the expansive scenario, that the Borderline Yeses are justified, the Hall doesn't even merit a passing grade of 65 percent: a mere 61.3 percent, 19 of 31 inductees, are worthy of induction. The number of Nos, 12 of 31, equals the number of sure-fire Yeses, perhaps indicating that the delineation of who is a Hall of Famer and who is not had become much clearer, if only for this five-year period. It's true that there were at least two definitely qualified inductees in each of the five years—but there were at least two definitely unqualified inductees in each of those five years as well.
In the exclusive scenario, that the Borderline Yeses are not justified, the Hall drops to a ratio of nearly four in ten (38.7 percent) who are truly Hall-worthy. That is a clear indicator that the Hall has been entirely too generous in its inductions, with the consequences being an overall cheapening of the honor of being named to the Hall of Fame as well as the Hall's rapidly eroding credibility as an arbiter of legacy for the Rock Era.
Perhaps the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realized that its gratuitous inductions were becoming a source of ridicule—in the next five years, from 2006 to 2010, the Hall inducted only five artists per year for a total of twenty-five during that period. But how many of those twenty-five were truly worthy of the Hall of Fame? Be sure to read the next audit to find out!
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