Praising and Burying the Rock and Roll Hall of FameOver the course of these audits, it has been easy to take shots at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for its selections. However, this criticism must acknowledge that the Hall set out for itself a monumental task, one that hasn't been helped by its vague, expansive, and sometimes non-existent parameters and statement of purpose. Not to mention suffering the slings and arrows of countless music fans sneering at the Hall's "elitist" selections while bemoaning the Hall's "incompetence" in not selecting their favorites. Nevertheless, this task, to evaluate and memorialize the artists who have made the greatest, most lasting contributions to the music of the Rock Era, is a laudatory and—dare we say?—necessary one to our understanding of our cultural history, which in turn ultimately feeds into the much grander tapestry of civilization and humanity.
And if that sounds overblown or grandiose, consider this: As of this writing, the Wikipedia entry for Christina Aguilera cites about 75 more references than does the Wikipedia entry for Noam Chomsky, and if you instantly recognize Aguilera's name but draw a blank on Chomsky's, then that suggests the pervasiveness of pop culture over more serious concerns.
I'll be honest: When I first learned that there was a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it had already been in existence for several years—and, quite frankly, my first impression was, "That sounds a bit cheesy." I was well-aware of the sports Halls of Fame, but there seemed to be a significant difference here.
Sports have had, historically, a more visible role in societies, a role that is often a representation, whether of the potential of human ability, or of the society—think of the Olympics and of how bands of athletes reflect each country—or, in an abstract manner, of warfare between societies as teams become surrogates for armies (think of George Carlin's famous depiction of football). For example, the teams of the four major professional team sports of the United States and Canada—baseball, basketball, (American) football, and hockey—represent municipal or regional pride with which the residents can identify, although the fan base for each team is certainly not limited to local support. Think of the outpouring of celebration that arose when the Boston Red Sox broke the "Curse of the Bambino" and won its first World Series in 86 years in 2004—or of the blight of rioting that erupted in normally placid Vancouver when the Canucks lost in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
Athletes have long been regarded as "role models"—although the pure and idealistic image of athletics had lost its luster decades ago—and the admiration and idolization of athletes and athletics begins early and persists through schooling and into adulthood. It's not surprising, then, that a "Hall of Fame" for a given sport should arise to memorialize the athletes of that sport for their talents, accomplishments, and legacy. Generals and admirals get tanks and aircraft carriers named for them; baseball and basketball and football and hockey players get named to their respective Halls of Fame.
By contrast, rock and roll arose in rebellion to traditional societal attitudes, values, mores, and activities, or at least as a challenge to them, and at the very least as an alternative to the prevailing norms. Certainly mainstream society's initial reaction was one of fear and loathing, a reaction that has been repeated periodically since the beginning of the Rock Era as the music and its accompanying culture have evolved or re-invented themselves. Even in the 1980s a band such as Huey Lewis and the News could be derided as being "jock-rock" because its clean-cut, mainstream image—with "jock," slang for an athlete, indicating that it was a mainstream identification—conflicted with the dirty, rebellious image of rock and roll. (And the band's riposte? It's "Hip to Be Square"!)
So for rock and roll to then open a Hall of Fame to itself seemed to be a concession, if not an actual capitulation, to mainstream society. I don't want to sound naïve or idealistic (unrealistic?) here, because rock and roll might have maintained a rebel-outsider image but it was recognized as a lucrative entity early on, and its incorporation into society as the symbiotic "black sheep" similarly occurred early on—after all, how can you have anyone working for society (Huey Lewis and the News) if you don't have anyone working against it (the Rolling Stones)? Thus, the creation of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seemed inevitable, yet another commodification of the music.
This is not to say that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame cannot be a worthwhile venture. As a museum, the Hall serves a necessary function: to memorialize the music and present it to the public in a structured, understandable manner. Rock and roll has been a cultural watershed since its creation in the 1950s, and its evolution, impact, and history is a legitimate subject for study and promotion. An obvious component of that is the acknowledgement of the artists that had the greatest impact on the music, which is what brought the actual induction of artists into the Hall of Fame into being.
However, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame must show greater clarity in what it considers to be the criteria that identify an artist as a Hall of Fame talent. Currently, it uses the term "musical excellence" as its benchmark—but what does "musical excellence" mean? Anything you want it to because that vague phrase can have a broad interpretation. Correspondingly, the Hall should show greater discrimination regarding which artists are inducted into the Hall. As we have seen throughout these audits—and this current audit is no exception—several artists currently inducted are at best marginal talents and some are clearly substandard. (I say "should show" and not "must show" because I am a "small Hall" proponent who believes that the bar for inclusion should be high, although this is not a unanimous position—but even a "big Hall" proponent would object to some of the artists included already.) Finally, the Hall must define what it considers to be "rock and roll." This has proved to be a catchall term during the Rock Era, and with country, reggae, and, as we will see in this audit, even jazz artists inducted as "rock" performers, the term has no specific meaning.
These precepts have informed my previous audits and that has continued to be the case with this current audit, as it will be for the final audit, Part 6, that will bring us up to last year's inductions. As with the previous audits, the conclusions I've drawn are ultimately subjective although I continue to make my best explanations for why I believe an artist should be in or out of the Hall.
2006: Likely and Unlikely Choices5 Inductees: Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Sex Pistols
Yes: Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Sex Pistols
Borderline Yes: Miles Davis
Of the five inductees in 2006, two can be said to be seminal artists: Black Sabbath was not only a formative influence on heavy metal but also on post-punk and hardcore acts, while the Sex Pistols, although a short-lived punk band, made history by forcing the transition from classic rock to modern rock. It wasn't the first Southern rock band, but Lynyrd Skynyrd came to exemplify the genre while taking its place as one of the top American rock bands of the 1970s. Those three acts are no-doubt Hall of Fame inductees, but the remaining two invite comment. Miles Davis remains one of the greatest jazz artists ever—but what is he doing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? His invention of fusion owed its development to rock and soul, and his induction is sly—albeit controversial—acknowledgement of this fact. Meanwhile, Blondie became the most pop-oriented of the CBGB acts of the mid-1970s, but the band could never transcend its influences and is too derivative for inclusion in the Hall.
Heavy Credibility: Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Sex PistolsHard-charging 1970s guitars identify the three sure-fire inductees for 2006 although Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Sex Pistols are from three different sectors of the rock and roll map. Yet each also had to overcome a certain degree of prejudice. With its crude, primitive proto-heavy metal, Black Sabbath was ridiculed during its early career even as it provided the seedbed for countless post-punk hardcore and metal acts. Sometimes dismissed as exemplars of Southern chauvinism, Lynyrd Skynyrd not only had solid musical credentials but, more importantly, a smart lyrical outlook that belied regional typecasting and enabled Skynyrd to become one of the best American rock bands of any genre. As for the Sex Pistols, their id-driven rebellion harkened all the way back to the advent of rock and roll, changing its course in the process. The Hall would be sorely lacking without any of them.
Black Sabbath: Who could have foreseen that Black Sabbath would become such a huge influence? Emerging from England around the same time as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, this proto-metal quartet lacked the vision of the former and even the technical ability of the latter, inviting critical derision from the start. Yet lurking in the recesses of Sabbath's first two albums were the building blocks for a broad swath of post-punk hardcore and heavy metal from Black Flag to Faith No More to Metallica. "Black Sabbath" and "N.I.B.," from the eponymous debut, displayed demonic flirtations picked up by the likes of Danzig and Slayer, while Slayer accelerated Sabbath's sludgehammer riffs to create speed-metal. The follow-up Paranoid was even more influential with the compelling title track, early Sabbath's most accessible song, the fearsome "War Pigs," the deathless "Iron Man," and the incomparable (incomprehensible?) "Fairies Wear Boots." Black Sabbath's rudimentary talent fueled the abrasive minimalism that erupted by the late 1970s, although by then singer Ozzy Osbourne had been fired. As the 1980s began, Sabbath mutated into Rainbow thanks to replacement singer Ronnie James Dio, not to mention Martin Birch's homogenized production ("Sounds like Rainbow!" "Wait, it's Deep Purple!" "No, it's Whitesnake!"), although that pop sheen did get Sabbath noticed again (Heaven and Hell). No matter, because "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," "Children of the Grave" (check out that drum clatter!), and even the primitive ballad "Changes" were already spawning countless downtuned hardcore and metal acts. What can you say? Those are Hall of Fame credentials.
Lynyrd Skynyrd: With three guitars wailing songs about whiskey and women—not to mention its signature song "Sweet Home Alabama"—against the backdrop of the Confederate flag, Lynyrd Skynyrd seemed to conform to any number of Southern stereotypes. But you don't have to dig too far below the surface to see that, as the band might put it, "there are things goin' on that you don't know." Formed in the wake of the Allman Brothers Band, Skynyrd eventually came to epitomize Dixie rock—and, again, that is not a slight—with robust riffs and taut rhythms and its share of down-home poses ("You Got That Right," "Don't Ask Me No Questions") and shaggy-dog tales (the hilarious "Gimme Three Steps" and the equally wry "What's Your Name?") that echoed country influences along with the occasional big ballad ("Tuesday's Gone"). But there were indeed things going on with singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant and the band: "The Ballad of Curtis Lowe" was simply compelling storytelling, as was "Was I Right or Wrong?," while the evocative drug tale "The Needle and the Spoon" bristled with lightning licks and leads. Meanwhile, the pistol-cracking "Saturday Night Special" is the hippest gun-control song you're likely to hear—and how's that for defying stereotype? Then there's the transcendence of "Free Bird" and its miles of guitars—it might be overexposed but it still packs a wallop. And when quicksilver guitarist Steve Gaines joined the band, he whipped Skynyrd into an even leaner machine; 1977's Street Survivors fairly shook with gems like "I Know a Little," "I Never Dreamed," and especially the propulsive "That Smell," and Skynyrd truly became a top-flight American rock band, transcending genre. Then the band's tour plane crashed—because it ran out of gas—and Lynyrd Skynyrd was never the same. But what it accomplished in the 1970s is worthy of the Hall.
The Sex Pistols: It is entirely appropriate (and predictable) that the Sex Pistols should have refused their induction into the Hall of Fame—the very concept behind the Hall is what spurred the band into existence in the first place. The delightful paradox is that its defiance and truculence is an aspect of Rock Era history that must be memorialized. The Sex Pistols of course spearheaded the punk rebellion that marked a schism in rock music matched previously only by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. They weren't the first, or even the best, but they were the most sensational, spitting in the face of the music and the society that spawned it and them. Their debut single, the epochal "Anarchy in the U.K.," was banned from British radio, prompted their record label, EMI, to dump them (in turn prompting the band to record the blistering "EMI"), and still became a hit. Their next single, "God Save the Queen," raised the stakes even higher while declaring the state of post-imperial Britain—a "fascist regime"—in unequivocal terms: "No future for you" sneered singer Johnny Rotten while bassist Sid Vicious postured and guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook—the musical half of the band—pounded out a barbed, raucous din that also included "Pretty Vacant," the amazing "Holidays in the Sun," in which Rotten peers over the Berlin Wall only to see the inhabitants on the other side staring back at him, and "Bodies," whose anti-abortion stance is unexpected and surprising. And that's it—the band soon self-destructed. Despite a string of posthumous releases, the Pistols produced only one official album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, and even that had filler. But it was enough of a "piss stain" to alter the course of the Rock Era and warrant the Sex Pistols' induction—even if they could care less.
Influence in the Other Direction: Miles DavisAlthough snippets of jazz flavored rock and soul during its early development, jazz did not have the widespread impact and influence as did blues, country, and rhythm and blues. However, rock and soul did have an influence on jazz, and this is why I think that Miles Davis, arguably the most controversial inductee into the Hall of Fame, was inducted—and deserves to be inducted: Parsing the Hall's own statement that it recognizes " the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll," Davis was the first jazz musician to openly acknowledge rock, incorporate it into a jazz setting, and thus perpetuate its influence—indeed, its dominance in the market—in another form. Rather than jazz being an influence into rock and soul, it was the influence from rock and soul into jazz that is significant in Davis's induction.
Trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Miles Davis is not only one of the most important figures in jazz history, he is a leading figure in 20th century music. Davis began in bebop in the late 1940s before becoming a seminal proponent of post-bop, cool jazz, and modal jazz throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Then, in 1969, Davis released a pair of albums, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, on which he used rock rhythms in a jazz setting. Beat and rhythm are the engines of both jazz and rock, and listeners can immediately feel the difference between the "side to side" swing of jazz from the "up and down" thrust of rock. For Davis to essentially replace the traditional jazz engine with rock's was a radical, and controversial, move, one that caused an uproar among jazz traditionalists.
However, it was an innovative move that had a profound influence on the musicians with whom he made those two albums. Just about every one of them formed a fusion band after working with Davis: Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul formed Weather Report; Chick Corea and Lenny White formed Return to Forever; John McLaughlin, Tony Williams, and Larry Young formed Lifetime before McLaughlin then left to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra; and Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin formed Hancock's Headhunters. Although Weather Report stayed closest to jazz, at least initially, the others were quick to embrace rock and funk as they upped the volume. And while fusion quickly turned bombastic, the initial wedding of power and virtuosity was exhilarating, and remains so for the best fusion. It also proved influential on subsequent rock performers from Jeff Beck to the Dixie Dregs and even Megadeth, while in recent years Corea and McLaughlin have formed the fusion supergroup Five Peace Band that included rock and jazz drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and featured Davis's "In a Silent Way/It's about That Time" in its repertoire.
Through Miles Davis, jazz in essence helped to perpetuate rock and roll by incorporating it into jazz's vocabulary to such an extent that it altered jazz's own development. A generation of jazz musicians became rockers of sorts, and the two forms, which had only been nodding acquaintances until Davis's fusion, became intertwined ever since. Miles Davis's induction is the Hall's canny way of citing the supremacy of rock by noting that even jazz had to bow to its prominence.
Style over Substance: BlondieGiven its overt pop sheen, you might forget that Blondie had its roots in New York's CBGB milieu that spawned the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Talking Heads. Early songs like the swaggering "Rip Her to Shreds" displayed a punk cattiness while the manic "Attack of the Giant Ants" sported a carefree wackiness the band would hardly approach again, although its invasion-from-space theme would re-emerge later in "Rapture." And although "X Offender" had a similarly offbeat tale, it and "In the Flesh" revealed Blondie's penchant for 1960s pop, particularly the girl groups, while "(I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear" recalled the British Invasion. Already gathering steam in Europe, Blondie became international superstars with 1978's Parallel Lines, which yielded the disco-crossover hit "Heart of Glass" and the exuberant stalker anthem "One Way or Another" along with the mock-coquettish "Sunday Girl," which faintly recalled the Velvet Underground (or at least its original singer Nico).
At this point singer Deborah Harry couldn't help but emerge as the band's focal point: With her stunning looks, complete with platinum-blonde hair, and the casual disdain for conventional romance she tossed off in "Heart of Glass"—although she would sound sincere enough in later songs like the winsome "Dreaming" while sounding ardent enough in "Call Me," the propulsive hit from the film American Gigolo—it was hard to take seriously the advertising claim by the band's record label, Chrysalis, that "Blondie is a group!" Blondie might indeed have been a group, one driven by powerhouse drummer Clem Burke, but as the surf-tinged "Atomic" showed, it was a group that seemed unable to transcend its influences and produce more than just pop pastiche with New Wave attitude. Not that Blondie stopped plundering other sources: The grandiose "Europa" fumbled to express Americans' relationship to their cars in a manner suggesting Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" while "Rapture" and "The Tide Is High" gamely (lamely?) embraced rap and reggae, respectively.
Then guitarist Chris Stein became seriously ill, prompting wife Harry to care for him, and Blondie ceased operations for nearly two decades. (Stein eventually did recover from his rare autoimmune disease.) Had it continued to record in the 1980s, could Blondie truly have created a distinctive pop style that was more than just the sum of its influences? It's a rhetorical question, of course, and based on the existing record, Blondie might have been a commercially successful pop stylist at the birth of New Wave, but it is not a Hall of Fame-caliber act.
2007: No Misfires5 Inductees: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, R.E.M., the Ronettes, Patti Smith, Van Halen
Yes: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, R.E.M.
Borderline Yes: The Ronettes, Patti Smith, Van Halen
The Hall of Fame looked solid in 2007—all five of its inductees are worthy ones. Two of those, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and R.E.M., are pioneers in their forms: hip-hop and alternative rock, respectively. Of the remaining three, Van Halen has the name recognition earned from its auspicious debut, although much of the band's output was middling material, forcing a long look before getting the nod. One of many girl groups, many of which had only fleeting moments of glory, the Ronettes distinguished themselves enough to merit induction, thanks in large measure to singer Ronnie Spector. As much a female pioneer as Brenda Lee and Janis Joplin, Patti Smith's reputation as the Godmother of Punk belies her marginal commercial status. It was a year of no misfires for the Hall.
Modern Rock and Hip-Hop Pioneers: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, R.E.M.Each in its own way, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and R.E.M. shaped the course of its respective musical form, the former giving social weight to burgeoning hip-hop while the latter created the template for alternative rock of the modern-rock era. Grandmaster Flash had a brief life span but its contributions were indeed seminal, influencing numerous subsequent acts. By contrast, R.E.M. endured for three decades, developing a more complex musical approach while retaining its mellifluous appeal, and becoming one of the landmark rock bands of the Rock Era. Both groups have easily earned their places in the Hall of Fame.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: If Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had never done anything but release the epochal "The Message," they would be Hall of Famers. This landmark track, an evocative narrative of urban blight underpinned by gritted-teeth resolve, moved nascent hip-hop away from party and pussy records and toward social consciousness, imbuing hip-hop with a tribunicial function similar to folk music—plainspoken testaments of everyday struggles. Grandmaster Flash began with good-time records ("Freedom," "The Birthday Party") that featured the group's five MCs—Cowboy (Keith Wiggins), Kid Creole (Nathaniel Glover), Scorpio (Eddie Morris), Raheim (Guy Williams), and social commentator Melle Mel (Melvin Glover)—passing around the buoyant boasts and come-ons above the record-spinning and scratching of DJ Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler), whose axe was his turntable and who is a pioneer of the form. "It's Nasty (Genius of Love)" upped the production level, as did the ambitious sampling of "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," but "The Message" wedded its irresistible musical bed to a compelling rap by Melle Mel whose impact was felt from East (Run-D.M.C.) to West (Snoop Dogg) and all points in-between (Eminem). "New York New York" offered more inner-city observations with lesser returns, but the addictive "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)" was an intriguingly equivocal discourse on cocaine and became as influential as "The Message." By this time the group was fragmenting internally, and Melle Mel became the dominant force trading on the original glory ("Message II (Survival)," "Beat Street"). However, like Bill Haley and the Sex Pistols, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five made an impact that was brief but monumental, altering pop music of the Rock Era irrevocably. That is a Hall of Fame-sized feat.
R.E.M.: Much like U2, R.E.M. developed a huge underground following that could not be contained, so it became one of the greatest mainstream bands of modern rock. And if R.E.M. didn't embrace the grand arena as did U2, it certainly proved it could deliver hit singles ("The One I Love," "Stand," "Losing My Religion") that largely retained the melodic inscrutability of its earlier alternative material. (It also delivered a couple of impressive U2 knock-offs in "Finest Worksong" and especially "Orange Crush.") Its early material, delivered with Peter Buck's chiming guitar and the rolling crest of the Mike Mills-Bill Berry rhythm section, spotlighted singer Michael Stipe's impressionistic rush of words, divorced of conventional meaning, that painted their own abstract music: "Carnival of Sorts," "Radio Free Europe," and "Talk about the Passion" were as evocative as they were obscurantist. Sharpening its musical and lyrical hooks, R.E.M. became a college-rock darling by the mid-1980s with the endearing "Pretty Persuasion" and "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)," the engaging "Can't Get There from Here" and "Driver 8," and the enduring "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" (because "Subterranean Homesick Blues" deserves to be re-written now and then), while "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" was simply a great modern country song, and the brawny "Finest Worksong" found the band venturing into social commentary, albeit in its allusive manner.
With Green and its hit single "Stand," R.E.M. could no longer be contained in the underground, which it wryly acknowledged with "Pop Song 89" although both the itchy "Orange Crush" and "World Leader Pretend" continued the band's broader concerns. Out of Time ("Losing My Religion," "Shiny Happy People") and especially Automatic for the People ("Everybody Hurts," "Man on the Moon") found R.E.M. with unabashed mainstream success in the early 1990s, sporting musical arrangements that were more complex than its early jangle-rock approach. The band returned to simpler, harder-rocking songs for Monster ("Crush with Eyeliner," the oddly inspired "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"), keeping itself in the spotlight, but although R.E.M. got to work later in the 1990s with early inspiration Patti Smith ("E-Bow the Letter") while acknowledging another influence, Leonard Cohen ("Hope"), it was beginning to scramble for inspiration. More recent songs like "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" and "Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter" were quite straightforward, especially lyrically, and by 2011 R.E.M. had called it quits, with drummer Bill Berry having left back in 1997. But as one of the first bands—perhaps the band—to establish "alternative" rock as a viable, legitimate parallel to the mainstream, R.E.M. is a lock for the Hall of Fame.
Divergent Influences: The Ronettes, Patti Smith, Van HalenExerting influence from two ends of the late-1970s pop spectrum, Patti Smith and Van Halen are an unlikely pairing: Smith has been called the Godmother of Punk and she was certainly present at the birth of modern rock, when abrasive minimalism and a hard, frank lyrical attitude supplanted melodic richness and more optimistic lyrics, and helped to create a teeming alternative music movement. By contrast, although Van Halen stripped down hard rock and provided it with a new blueprint, it launched commercial hard rock and heavy metal of the 1980s. Meanwhile, in its continual mission of backfilling, the Hall chose the Ronettes, one of the most distinctive girl groups thanks largely to lead singer Ronnie Spector and their tutelage under producer Phil Spector, but one that exerted an influence on contemporaries and later acts alike.
The Ronettes: The girl-group phenomenon of the early 1960s was an ephemeral one yet it did exert an influence on the Rock Era; the hardest part of assessing the genre is determining which of the plethora of acts were long-lasting and influential enough to merit inclusion in the Hall of Fame. The Shirelles stood out from the pack sufficiently to be inducted in 1996; next in line are the Ronettes, and it is no coincidence that, like the Shirelles, the group derived its name from its lead singer, in this case from Ronnie Spector (née Veronica Bennett), one of the most distinctive voices of the era. (The Shirelles took their name from lead singer Shirley Owens.) Also giving the Ronettes an advantage over the competition was producer Phil Spector's vaunted Wall of Sound recording style, which gave Ronettes' keynotes "Baby, I Love You" and "Be My Baby" a deep, resonant, echoing quality that magnified the surface emotion of the song as well as the coquettish, sexy timbre of Ronnie Spector's voice. Ironically, Phil Spector's jealous hoarding of the group's material—the Ronettes had first recorded "Chapel of Love," which became the Dixie Cups' signature song—which stemmed largely from Phil's stormy relationship with Ronnie, probably kept the Ronettes from becoming even bigger than they had been. Nevertheless, the Ronettes' mid-1960s glory period made an impression on the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and even the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards became an early fan) with "Baby, I Love You," the Buddy Holly-flavored "(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up," the forward-looking production of "Born to Be Together," the surging "Walking in the Rain," and of course the irresistible pleading of the terrific "Be My Baby." As one of the very few girl groups to become both distinctive and enduring, the Ronettes belong in the Hall.
Patti Smith: Based on her commercial presence, which amounts to 1978's Top Twenty hit "Because the Night" (essentially a Bruce Springsteen cast-off) and 1988's earnest anthem "People Have the Power," singer Patti Smith appears to have at best a marginal Hall of Fame case. Moreover, as a poet and critic in addition to being a performer—her poetry readings, backed by guitarist Lenny Kaye, were her career entrée—Smith exhibited enough affectation to choke a show pony while personifying Peter Green's terse self-description from "Oh Well": can't sing, ain't pretty, and her legs are thin. Which naturally makes Smith one of the most polarizing figures of the Rock Era but one whose influence can be felt from Michael Stipe to the Smiths to Sonic Youth (as well as in her occasional contributions to Blue Oyster Cult's early-'70s work).
The keynote is "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," in which Smith's sneering spoken verse merges into pounding rock capped by the refrain, "Outside of society/That's where I wanna be," an archetypal punk declaration. But appearing just before punk crested, 1975's Horses is Smith's greatest achievement, opening with a dramatic reworking of Them's "Gloria" and culminating with the gripping psychodrama of "Land," a twisted reimagining of Chris Kenner's "Land of a 1000 Dances" that spoke to misfits in countless high schools, with "Break It Up," "Free Money," and "Kimberly" pointing the way to modern rock. Then, after three miss-hit-miss albums, Smith effectively quit the music business to raise a family with former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, with only 1988's Dream of Life, featuring "People Have the Power" and the Stones-like swagger of "Up There down There," appearing during a long, fallow period. However, Fred Smith's 1994 death spurred Patti Smith back into music; she memorialized him with the mesmerizing, elegiac "Under the Southern Cross" while "1959" held similar reminiscence and "Glitter in Their Eyes," "Lo and Beholden," and especially the growling carnality of "Summer Cannibals" displayed Smith's lyrical and musical maturity. Patti Smith has always been a polarizing presence, but it would be a travesty were the Godmother of Punk not in the Hall.
Van Halen: With its 1978 self-titled debut, Van Halen wrote a brand-new chapter in hard rock. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen delivered innovative fretboard wizardry while singer David Lee Roth combined strutting rock frontman with schmoozing game-show host—he looked as if he was having a ball fronting a rock band, even if he couldn't sing for beans. Van Halen acknowledged its influences ("You Really Got Me," "Ice Cream Man") as it charted new territory ("Eruption," "Atomic Punk") and delivered anthems ("Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love," "Runnin' with the Devil") and even sensitivity ("Jamie's Cryin'"). (Not to mention the band's spawning the enduring Legend of the Brown M&M's.) Van Halen was in business. So what happened? It repeated it all ad nauseam, with a lazy reliance on covers to boot. Sure, the occasional gem emerged ("Unchained," "And the Cradle Will Rock"), but the band seemed like a one-trick pony until 1984. Just as Pete Townshend had done, Eddie discovered the synthesizer and used it to enhance Van Halen's approach, yielding the synth-driven hit "Jump" while still firing off scorching rockers like "Panama" and the John Lee Hooker/ZZ Top homage "Hot for Teacher." So then what happened? The band fired Roth and hired veteran hack Sammy Hagar, at which point the band's high school mentality truly became sophomoric (OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge) as it became a corporation spitting out product. Van Halen could have been one of the great ones; as it stands now, it will have to settle for being one of the important ones, and that is enough to get them into the Hall. Which doesn't mean that this hard-rock act, like AC/DC, isn't badly in need of a decent greatest-hits package.
2008: Lady and the Tramps5 Inductees: The Dave Clark Five, Leonard Cohen, Madonna, John Mellencamp, the Ventures
Borderline Yes: Leonard Cohen
No: The Dave Clark Five, John Mellencamp, the Ventures
The one marquee name in the Class of 2008 was Madonna, one of the greatest names in modern pop in addition to being one of the greatest female performers of the Rock Era. Her induction is unsurprising, but the other four inductees deserve closer inspection. Leonard Cohen might at first seem to be a marginal performer, but his influence over the decades helps to push him across the line. The same cannot be said, however, for John Mellencamp and the Ventures—Mellencamp seems to have the artistic credentials, but a closer examination of those reveals a performer whose ambition exceeds his abilities, while the Ventures, who did pioneer an influential instrumental style, lacked the imagination to make that style a definitive one. The most egregious inductee this year—indeed, during this five-year period—is the Dave Clark Five, a marginal act whose popularity faded quickly and who remained all but forgotten until its induction, proving that Percy Sledge was hardly an aberration.
Lucky Star: MadonnaThe most important female performer of the post-punk period, if not of the entire Rock Era, Madonna Louise Ciccione has been as polarizing a figure as Patti Smith although Madonna is Smith's very antithesis: From the very beginning, Madonna wanted to be a pop star, and she has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. That Blond Ambition has earned her almost as many detractors as proponents, but she has been as canny as David Bowie in both sensing trends and adapting her strengths, such as a talent for songcraft that includes almost unerring taste in collaborators as well as mastery of the video message, to those trends. Peppering her compulsive pop approach has been her near-agent provocateur attitude toward sex, shocking the burghers on a periodic basis even as enough of her hits follow the standard script for romantic yearning ("Crazy for You," "Like a Prayer").
Beginning as a dance-floor diva in the early 1980s ("Everybody," "Burning Up"), Madonna channeled those energetic grooves into hits with broader appeal ("Holiday," the engaging "Lucky Star," and the melodramatic "Borderline") before releasing a trio of blockbuster singles that defined her early career: "Like a Virgin" flashed a tongue-in-cheek giddiness at new love, while "Material Girl" offered a similarly ambiguous wink at ambition, and "Crazy for You" was her first shot at a romantic ballad, with her voice, never a superior instrument, losing much of its earlier Betty Boop quality. Even better than those gems were "Papa Don't Preach," which sparked controversy with its teen-pregnancy and abortion themes, and the brilliant "Live to Tell," which packed singer-songwriter complexity into its reflection of personal resolve. Unfortunately, Madonna returned to fluffier concerns ("La Isla Bonita," "Who's That Girl") before she came roaring back with the driving funk of the empowerment anthem "Express Yourself" to close the decade.
At the same time, Madonna was pursuing an uneven film career with equal zeal, which included singles ("This Used to Be My Playground," "Beautiful Stranger," "Die Another Day") featured in high-profile films, while maintaining her standalone musical career throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. She kept current with the house-influenced "Vogue," also a nod to gay subculture, while the steamy pair of "Justify My Love" and "Erotica" echoed trip-hop and New Jack Swing, and "Take a Bow" was simply gorgeous ballad-making. Madonna explored electronica at the end of the 1990s with the atmospheric, if slight, "Frozen" and the rave-inspired blast "Ray of Light," sustaining her club-dance reputation with the compulsive "Music" although "Don't Tell Me" found her mining Sheryl Crow territory; meanwhile, "Hung Up" harkened back to the disco days of ABBA, although "Celebration" suggested that Madonna had gone to the dance-floor well one too many times.
In the Rock Era, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Madonna have been among the handful of pop artists to exert a dominant influence on their contemporaries while maintaining enormous commercial success. Thus, Madonna's induction into the Hall of Fame is hardly as polarizing as her attitude—which, if you think about it, is vintage rock and roll, anyway.
Unlikely but Undeniable Influence: Leonard CohenIs Leonard Cohen secretly the Godfather of Goth? Not that the singer, songwriter, poet, and novelist has a fixation on necrophilia or the undead, but his allusive, often evocative verse exudes an urbane dolefulness that, initially, must have appealed to unsmiling co-eds in flats and berets with well-thumbed copies of The Bell Jar on their nightstands. They certainly sound like the kind of women Cohen sings about in his early material from the 1960s and 1970s: the dreamy yearning of "Suzanne" describes one to a tee while "So Long, Marianne" and "Sisters of Mercy" exuded a timeless melancholy delivered in Cohen's earnest if limited singing style couched in folkish arrangements, although the opaque "Bird on a Wire" strained for poesy. Still, the frank expressions of lust and longing in "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," "Famous Blue Raincoat," and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" were miles away from pop's usual adolescent declarations, as was the fairly remarkable "Joan of Arc," a fascinating insight into the French martyr's final moments.
Like fellow singer-songwriters Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne, Cohen's songs were immediately influential, attracting cover versions by Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, James Taylor, and others, even as Cohen himself was enjoying only modest commercial success. By the 1980s, Cohen's voice, never a flexible instrument, was showing its age, but he tailored his songs to accommodate its limitations. Moreover, Cohen had grown as a songwriter—working with spare yet rich and distinctive arrangements, his lyrics were more literal and straightforward, yet pared to their essence they grew in strength. "Night Comes On" had a compelling world-weariness, as did the sly "Everybody Knows," with the punchy "First We Take Manhattan" juggling the personal and the political, while "Tower of Song" was a monument of inventive resilience and "I'm Your Man" was flat-out adult eroticism (think of its effective use in the risqué Maggie Gyllenhaal-James Spader vehicle Secretary).
In the 1990s, Cohen had developed a modern-rock sound as he continued to broach social comment ("Democracy," "Anthem") balanced by self-reflection ("In My Secret Life") while even flashing a wicked sense of humor (the hilarious yet pointed "Closing Time"). His contemporary sound was hardly desperation—remarkably, he exerted an appreciable influence on the post-punk generation. Folk-oriented musicians such as Suzanne Vega drew their inspiration from Cohen while Kurt Cobain namechecked him in the Nirvana song "Pennyroyal Tea." The best example of Cohen's influence is his 1984 song "Hallelujah," which has been covered by numerous artists including John Cale and especially Jeff Buckley, whose rendition remains the best-known. Right from the start, Leonard Cohen supplied a mature, erudite perspective—he was already thirty-three when his first album was released—in an overwhelmingly adolescent medium, a perspective that has had a lasting influence. That is the mark of a Hall of Fame talent.
Illusions of Greatness: The Dave Clark Five, John Mellencamp, the VenturesOn the surface, the efforts of British Invasion stars the Dave Clark Five, heartland rocker John Mellencamp, and instrumental rock pioneers the Ventures appear impressive: The Dave Clark Five were consistent hitmakers, Mellencamp recalls the ambition and earnestness of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and the Ventures' guitar-driven instrumentals were highly influential. It is only when you examine the actual content of each act that their derivations and limitations become apparent. They give the illusion of being great artists, but their own unexceptional work—and in the case of the Dave Clark Five, its stunning lack of legacy—explains why none deserve to be Hall of Famers.
The Dave Clark Five: Since 1979, Rolling Stone has published four editions of its Record/Album Guide, and in none of those editions is there an entry for the Dave Clark Five. How essential can this nondescript British Invasion band be if it isn't even listed in an album guide? A historically significant band, even if its entire catalog is out of print, is listed if only as a token of recognition. The band's recordings are scarcely available now. This is a Hall of Fame-caliber act?
To be fair, the Dave Clark Five had its mid-1960s moment in the sun. In 1964, the Year of the Beatles, the quintet's "Glad All Over" dethroned the Fab Four's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" for the top of the U.K. pop charts, and the band enjoyed a string of hits in the U.S. beginning with "Glad All Over" and including "Bits and Pieces," "Because," "Catch Us If You Can" (also the title of the band's Beatles-inspired movie) and "Over and Over." The Five also became a fixture on The Ed Sullivan Show, appearing more times (18) than any other British Invasion act. A popular if barely influential act, the band petered out by the end of the decade, and to tell from the subsequent archival neglect, receded from memory like a quick fade-out. Until 2008.
These audits have concentrated solely on examination of the artistic record of each act available to the average listener. Falling outside the scope of these audits is any in-depth examination of how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominates and selects candidates, including the full criteria for selection, who the committees and voters are, and the standards to which the Hall holds itself (beyond the broad, vague descriptions listed on its website). This examination seems overdue to determine just what kind of industry favoritism enabled the Dave Clark Five to be elected to the Hall of Fame. The selection of the Dave Clark Five seems to be as egregious as the selection of Percy Sledge in 2005—this band was not an innovator, did not produce anything beyond its bouncy if lightweight hits, and faded so quickly from memory that it hardly left a legacy. The induction of the Dave Clark Five offers yet further proof that the entire process of inducting artists into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is fundamentally flawed.
John Mellencamp: You have to give John Mellencamp this much: The singer-songwriter is nothing if not earnest. When he first began, he earnestly wanted to be a rock star. Under the name John (or Johnny) Cougar, he pursued the pop charts with a series of singles marked by aggressive appeal—"I Need a Lover" and the breakthrough hits "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane." But when he decided that he wanted to be an artist, he reverted to his given surname, Mellencamp, and stalked off even more earnestly toward Bruce Springsteen's shadow. In his defense, Mellencamp's Middle America roots are genuine enough, as is his musical and lyrical ambition—"I Need a Lover" sported late-period Who dynamics while the slice-of-life pair "Jack and Diane" were memorably "suckin' on chili dogs outside the Tastee-Freez"—along with his blue-collar commitment and (faux?) heartland humility (his 1997 compilation album is titled The Best That I Could Do; aw shucks, John).
Where John Mellencamp falls is the inability of his reach to match his grasp. He struggles to convey insight into family farmers (the portentous "Rain on the Scarecrow"), the working poor (the faintly condescending "Pink Houses"), and the ubiquitous "Small Town," but his limited perspective seldom goes deeper than his song titles (the trite "Lonely Ol' Night" and the juvenile "Authority Song") while "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." makes explicit his continuing debt to classic rock and soul. The rootsy, accordion-and-fiddle approach of 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee lent urgency and poignancy, respectively, to "Paper in Fire" and "Check It Out" while "Cherry Bomb" continued to plumb rural autobiography. The 1990s found Mellencamp waxing both gloomy (Human Wheels) and gleeful (Mr. Happy Go Lucky) as he garnered a hit duet with singer-bassist Me'Shell Ndegeocello on Van Morrison's "Wild Night," while he increased his political commitment ("To Washington") in the 2000s. (Along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, Mellencamp is a co-founder of Farm Aid.) But as a Rock Era artist, John Mellencamp never transcended his musical pretenses and derivations, which keeps him out of the Hall.
The Ventures: In the interregnum between Elvis and the Beatles, rock and roll did not exist, at least according to the tale parents tell their children at bedtime. In fact, any number of rock (and soul) artists thrived in the early 1960s (Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, the girl groups, et al) including this instrumental quartet. Riding the wave of instrumental hits that began issuing almost from the beginning of the Rock Era, the Ventures developed an appealing formula: tight, melodic guitar figures, easy on the soloing, kicked along with a smoothly insistent rhythm. It proved to be influential on scores of rock musicians while, thanks to its loping, twanging timbre, helping to spawn surf music (from the unlikely surfing capital of Tacoma, Washington, no less). So why shouldn't the Ventures be in the Hall of Fame? Because their formula was an ultimately limited and repetitive one, and that lack of imagination keeps the Ventures from the "musical excellence" the Hall insists is its crucial criterion.
The Ventures' formula introduced its theme or mood, such as space ("Journey to the Stars," "Moon Child") or surf ("Diamond Head," "Spudnik (Surf Rider)"), before executing its simple variation on that theme. The most notable example is of course "Walk—Don't Run," a catchy rendition of jazz guitarist Johnny Smith's tune that Chet Atkins had covered prior to the Ventures, and which the Ventures subsequently updated ("Walk—Don't Run '64"). The quartet also delivered a hit cover of the "Hawaii Five-O" theme, which helped keep that initially-struggling television crime drama afloat, while "Dick Tracy" contains hints of punk riffing in years to come, and "Underground Fire" gamely essays psychedelic blues. But the excitement of the Ventures' one-idea exercises wears off quickly; musicians influenced by the sound, which itself bore the echo of Chuck Berry, used it as a springboard to more substantial explorations. Had the Ventures realized their ideas more fully, they would be Hall of Famers.
2009: No Middle Ground5 Inductees: Jeff Beck, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Metallica, Run-D.M.C., Bobby Womack
Yes: Metallica, Run-D.M.C.
No: Jeff Beck, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Bobby Womack
The five choices for 2009 are literally black-and-white ones, although race is hardly a factor here. The two post-punk inductees, Metallica and Run-D.M.C., are pioneers of heavy metal and hip-hop, respectively, and their inclusion in the Hall of Fame is beyond dispute. The three acts that don't belong in the Hall, classic-rock guitar wizard Jeff Beck, doo-wop veterans Little Anthony and the Imperials, and classic-soul jack-of-all-trades Bobby Womack, all contributed key, even crucial pieces to the overall Rock Era puzzle, but, as with the No inductees of the previous year, a closer examination of their overall records finds them lacking the greatness of a Hall of Famer.
Modern-Day Titans: Metallica, Run-D.M.C.Neither Metallica nor Run-D.M.C. were the first acts in their respective genres, post-punk heavy metal and hip-hop, respectively, but they both crystallized their respective genres and thus shaped their course for their contemporaries and all who followed them. Metallica not only codified thrash-metal but used it as a foundation for further development; in fact, Metallica kept growing to the point where it must be regarded as one of the great rock bands of any genre. Run-D.M.C. did not sustain a career long enough to do the same, but as the bellwether of a fledgling form, hip-hop, it established a formidable legacy all the same.
Metallica: Not merely the foremost heavy metal band of the post-punk period, Metallica is one of the top rock bands of that same period; moreover, it attained that status with little concession to prevailing trends (Load and ReLoad detractors notwithstanding). The band's early-1980s beginnings displayed standard thrash with some promise ("No Remorse," "The Four Horsemen"), which was quickly realized with 1984's fearsome Ride the Lightning and its standouts "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Fade to Black," and "The Call of Ktulu," all, as The Trouser Press Record Guide described them accurately, "essential lessons in the science of the riff." The follow-up, Master of Puppets, polished its predecessor's ideas, but the 1986 tour-bus death of dynamic bassist Cliff Burton cast a pall on the band. It rebounded with the sprawling ambition of . . . And Justice for All ("Blackened," "Dyer's Eve"), which yielded the MTV (and Beavis and Butthead) favorite "One." That paved the path to a mainstream commercial breakthrough with Metallica, and with "Enter Sandman," "Sad but True," and "The Unforgiven" the pop world ignored Metallica only at its own peril.
Following an Odysseus-like world tour complete with a flood of live material, Metallica released Load ("Ain't My Bitch," "King Nothing"), which seemed to scale back the thunder in favor of sharper songcraft, dismaying long-time devotees. However, Metallica, as with R.E.M. and U2, evolved as it developed into a top-flight modern rock band, not simply a genre fixture. ReLoad seemed like more of the same largely because it comprised material developed around the time of Load, but it was nearly six years before the band released its next album—in the meantime, personal issues sidetracked the band. When Metallica returned with St. Anger, it seemed to be stripping its music to a raw, unfinished state that was only partially successful, although the subsequent Death Magnetic did return successfully to its thrash roots. By this time, though, Metallica had already remade heavy metal in its image more than once, influencing countless bands in the process, while forcing the mainstream to acknowledge the genre. Metallica's induction into the Hall of Fame is thus a foregone conclusion.
Run-D.M.C.: The Sugarhill Gang and, more substantially, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five might have been hip-hop pioneers, but the act that put rap on the map to stay was Run-D.M.C. The bellwether was "It's Like That"; although the title itself became a hackneyed catchphrase (overused by the band itself), the song remains a seminal street manifesto, unsentimental but witty and forceful, led by the double-barreled rapping of Joseph "Run" Simmons and Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels—the Sam and Dave of hip-hop—and underpinned by the turntable cutting and scratching of Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell along with the skeletal beats that stripped away the filigree and focused attention on the boasts, toasts, and roasts of the two M.C.'s, who tossed flows back and forth before diving in together. "Hard Times" and "Sucker M.C.'s" provided further social comment and dissing of competitors, respectively, while "Rock Box" provided another statement of purpose, this one with the wailing metal guitar of Eddie Martinez, an early wedding of rock and rap that proved to be equally influential.
In the mid-1980s, Run-D.M.C. not only defined a hip-hop sound but an attitude as well, even down to fashion ("My Adidas"), becoming the lightning rod for countless acts to follow. The band's influence can be felt directly in LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys (check out "It's Tricky" and "You Be Illin'," both inspirations for the Beasties), while its remake of "Walk This Way," another powerful fusion of rock and rap, cemented that crossover appeal as it revived the fortunes of the source band, Aerosmith, whose Steven Tyler and Joe Perry participated on the remake. Run-D.M.C. even found itself issuing a Christmas single ("Christmas in Hollis") while gamely attempting the gangsta rap ("The Ave."; D.M.C.'s packing a nine?) for which it laid the groundwork. But by then, the status of Run-D.M.C. as a foundational influence on modern hip-hop and rock was indisputable, making its induction into the Hall of Fame no hard times indeed.
Deceptively Talented: Jeff Beck, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Bobby WomackAll three cases of backfilling by the Hall, Jeff Beck, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Bobby Womack can all seem like cases of overlooked talent finally getting their due. After all, Beck is one of the guitar gods of the Rock Era with a flashy, sometimes astonishing technique. Little Anthony and the Imperials enjoyed a lengthy career for a doo-wop outfit while providing a pair of pop evergreens. And versatile Bobby Womack appears at key moments during the Rock Era while forging his own career. But a closer examination of all three finds that the products of their talents do not measure up as those of Hall of Famers. They have deceived listeners into believing that they are more substantial than they truly are.
Jeff Beck: Undoubtedly one of the most dazzling guitarists of the Rock Era, Jeff Beck belongs in the Hall of Fame—as a sideman, because his lengthy record as a performer does not support it. With few exceptions, the slew of albums in the Beck catalog are little more than vehicles for his fretboard virtuosity—Beck as a composer, bandleader, and record-maker has never developed to the level of a Hall of Fame-caliber performer. After his galvanic stint in the Yardbirds, Beck hooked up with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood (as bassist) to help pioneer the sound of 1970s hard rock, but despite a strong debut album (Truth, with "Beck's Bolero," "I Ain't Superstitious," and "Morning Dew") they didn't last longer than the pallid follow-up. Beck slogged through the early 1970s supported by middling talent, producing little of lasting interest—unless you're nostalgic for Beck, Bogert, and Appice pounding out Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" (which Wonder had written for Beck) or crooning Curtis Mayfield's "I'm So Proud."
Then in 1975 Beck embarked on a lengthy excursion into instrumental rock; it's been referred to as jazz fusion, but Beck lacks the emotional commitment and even the improvisational flair to justify the jazz part. Beatles producer George Martin oversaw Blow by Blow, which is Beck's high-water mark ("Freeway Jam," "Scatterbrain," "She's a Woman") although the harder-edged Wired, with keyboardist Jan Hammer, has its moments ("Led Boots," "Blue Wind," "Sophie"). The mid-1980s found Beck reunited briefly with Stewart for a cover of Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and some contemporary flourishes on 1985's pop-conscious Flash (and a dizzying solo on "Ambitious") before ending the decade with the leaden instrumental throb of Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop. Beck's more recent stylistic forays have been hit-or-miss as he has now entered elder-statesman status. None of it adds up to an exceptional recording career; Beck really should have been inducted as a sideman, superseded in 2010 by the Award for Musical Excellence, because his output as a full-fledged performer is fundamentally lacking musical excellence.
Little Anthony and the Imperials: There are two strong reasons why doo-wop group Little Anthony and the Imperials deserves to be considered for the Hall of Fame. One is the pair of hits the group issued in the 1960s, "Goin' out of My Head" and "Hurt So Bad," that became pop standards covered by countless acts. The other is the fact that both of those songs exemplified the band's longevity, from 1950s street-corner singers helping to lead the transition to 1960s ensemble soul singing as had the Moonglows and several others. But being considered for the Hall is very different from being inducted into the Hall, and Little Anthony and the Imperials do not measure up as Hall-worthy candidates.
The Imperials were never more than a generic backing unit, but Anthony Gourdine's melodramatic falsetto etched the wails of adolescent heartbreak into the early tearjerkers "Tears on My Pillow," "Wishful Thinking," and "The Diary," although the group did lighten up a bit on "I'm Alright" and the delightful "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop," which crossed "Louie Louie" with "Stranded in the Jungle" for its tropical flavor—and which underscores the problem with Little Anthony and the Imperials: Although they were able to sustain their career through the 1960s, it was through a reactive strategy of adapting to current trends rather than forging their own. Thus, the mid-1960s sides "I'm on the Outside Looking In," "Gonna Fix You Good (Every Time You're Bad)," and even the gorgeous "Goin' out of My Head"—a genuine pop classic—use Motown-inspired arrangements to couch the group's vocals in contemporary ambiance; by the end of the decade, they even began sounding like the Association on "I'm Hypnotized" and the thinly disguised hippie anthem "Yesterday Has Gone" even as they recycled the Moonglows' "Ten Commandments of Love," whose portentousness is ideal for Gourdine's emoting. Doo-wop might have been an overlooked genre, but despite some sterling moments, Little Anthony and the Imperials did not distinguish themselves sufficiently to merit inclusion into the Hall.
Bobby Womack: Critic Joe McEwen once likened Bobby Womack to baseball slugger Dick Allen, claiming that, like Allen, Womack's "statistics have never kept pace with his abilities." Womack has indeed delivered a number of clutch hits: His "It's All over Now" was an early Rolling Stones touchstone while George Benson parlayed Womack's instrumental "Breezin'" into a smooth-jazz hit, and Womack's own "Across 110th Street" is the third-best blaxploitation-film theme song after Isaac Hayes's "Theme from Shaft" and Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly." But Womack's actual track record suggests as much his baseball namesake Tony Womack's, a journeyman infielder who could be in the right place at the right time—namely, with the Arizona Diamondbacks for the 2001 World Series—as it does Allen's.
With the 1960s outfit the Valentinos, Womack wrote "It's All over Now" and "Lookin' for a Love" (covered, respectively, by the Rolling Stones and the J. Geils Band) before going into session work and a solo career in the early 1970s. Along with a flair for writing, Womack used his gravelly baritone voice and dexterous guitar playing to fine effect on the funk-rockers "Communication," "I Can Understand It," and the Wilson Pickett-like growler "I'm a Midnight Mover," while the ballads "That's the Way I Feel about You" and "Woman's Gotta Have It" let him flash his lover-man charm. So far, so good—Womack had several tools in his bag just as Allen wasn't a one-dimensional player (he could get on base, hit for average and power, and drive in runs). But just as Allen's weakness was defense, Womack essayed a series of well-intentioned but misguided covers, from "California Dreamin'" to "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" to "Fly Me to the Moon," that found him spreading his abilities too thinly, as did the flimsy social comment in "Harry Hippie," which still paled in comparison to Womack's jive spoken intros to songs such as "He'll Be There When the Sun Goes Down"—that's bush league stuff, like Tony Womack's abilities. Like Dick Allen, Bobby Womack is on the bubble for his Hall, but just as Allen didn't compile the big numbers to push him into Cooperstown, Womack, a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none, shouldn't have gone into Cleveland.
2010: International Overtures5 Inductees: ABBA, Jimmy Cliff, Genesis, the Hollies, the Stooges
Yes: The Stooges
Borderline Yes: ABBA, Genesis
No: Jimmy Cliff, the Hollies
With very few exceptions, popular and influential artists of the Rock Era, particularly those recognized by the Hall of Fame, have been from English-speaking North America and the United Kingdom. However, the five inductees in 2010 featured Swedish pop phenomenon ABBA and Jamaican reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff along with Americans the Stooges and Brits Genesis and the Hollies. Not that cultural diversity should be an automatic entrée into the Hall: As an exemplar of its era, ABBA has the credibility to belong but Cliff, despite his groundbreaking effort, ultimately doesn't have the credentials. And while the Stooges, as seminal punk godfathers, are long-overdue entrants, and the welcome to Genesis similarly recognizes often-ignored progressive rock, including the Hollies, a pleasant if lightweight 1960s pop act, is yet more indulgent backfilling.
Triumph of the ID: The StoogesYou can't blame Elektra for thinking it had another Doors (who also recorded for Elektra) on its hands, no doubt explaining the Doors-like cover photography on the Stooges' debut album. The lengthy Eastern drone of "We Will Fall" certainly had a Jim Morrison-esque flavor, while "Ann" exhibited the Lizard King's gently menacing poetic come-ons. And guitarist Ron Asheton's fuzz- and wah-wah pedals anchor The Stooges' sound in "1969," to borrow the title of the lead-off track. But that track's punchiness signals the band's reputation as punk godfathers, exemplars of rock's Noble Savage theory, with the outrageous on-stage shenanigans of lead singer Iggy Stooge (later Iggy Pop) personifying the genre's primal thrust. This was heady stuff for its time—too heady, as much of the rock audience wasn't quite ready for the pounding declarations of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" or "No Fun." Their follow-up, Fun House, was even better, the unrestrained snarl of the first half ("Down on the Street," "Loose," the inchoate paranoia of "TV Eye," and the strangled blues of "Dirt") giving way to the full-throated roar of the second half: the Chuck Berry-into-Them slam of "1970" and the frenetic avant-jazz, courtesy of saxophonist Steve Mackay, of "Fun House" and "L.A. Blues."
If their fellow Michiganders, the politically conscious MC5, were proto-punk's superego, then the Stooges were its pure id, hurtling toward hedonism with barely coherent lusts and desires. (To complete the Freudian analogy, I suppose that makes the New York Dolls the ego.) And as with the case of the MC5 (and of the Dolls), hardly anyone noticed the Stooges at the time. However, one who did notice was David Bowie, who oversaw the Stooges' third effort (for Columbia this time), 1973's Raw Power. With James Williamson now on guitar—Asheton moved to bass—and co-writing with Iggy, Raw Power brandished a metallic sheen and razor-blade lyrics that didn't let up from start ("Search and Destroy") to finish ("Death Trip"); even the album's two ballads, "Gimme Danger" and "I Need Somebody," were hardly respites from the fury epitomized by the scorching title song and "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell," an archetypal punk sentiment. Again, though, pop audiences ignored the Stooges, and they soon folded. But enough young musicians did hear the Stooges, from the Sex Pistols to Guns 'N Roses to Nirvana, and the band became a seminal influence on punk and hardcore. That unmistakable stamp on modern rock makes the Stooges genuine Hall of Famers.
As Different as Chalk and Cheese? ABBA, GenesisThese two artists would seem to come from opposite ends of the 1970s musical spectrum: The Swedish group ABBA was a joyously pure pop phenomenon while the English group Genesis epitomized the intense ambition of progressive rock. And while each might be as different as chalk and cheese, both are worthy of the Hall. However, there is an amusing irony that links these two disparate artists: ABBA's carefree pop singles eventually went theatrical—they inspired the stage musical Mamma Mia!, which later became a film; meanwhile, early Genesis staged theatrical enactments of its material, with original singer Peter Gabriel portraying various roles, and when Gabriel left, Genesis stripped away the theatrics to become a power-pop act under singer Phil Collins.
ABBA: There is no denying that ABBA is a synthetic creation deliberately designed for world domination. Veterans of the notorious Eurovision Song Contest, this Swedish pop quartet consciously chose to sing in English specifically to appeal to American and British markets. And it succeeded as easily as melting marshmallows into your hot chocolate. For much of the 1970s, ABBA appeared like clockwork on the singles charts with its bouncy, polished arrangements, engineered by multi-instrumentalists Benny Anderssen and Björn Ulvaeus, and topped by the scrubbed, cheerful voices of Agnetha Fältskog (the blonde) and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (the redhead). ABBA's first worldwide hit, "Waterloo," might not have had much to do with Napoleon or the Duke of Wellington—although the wistful "Fernando" was indeed inspired by the Mexican revolution (take that, Al Stewart!)—but it was a driving pop pastiche, kicking off a string of exquisitely crafted singles, some, like "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do," recalling bygone pop styles with others, like "S.O.S.," mimicking operatic conventions. The ascendancy of disco also gave rise to arguably the quintessential ABBA track, "Dancing Queen," which topped charts around the world as it surged with adolescent hormones that encapsulated the Me Decade perfectly. "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and "The Name of the Game" aimed for more adult sentiments, although the inviting "Take a Chance on Me" tried to recapture earlier coquettish pleading as "Chiquitita" tried to recapture the Latin flavor of "Fernando." By the early 1980s New Wave had left ABBA's lavish productions by the wayside, although ABBA's songs inspired the late-1990s musical Mamma Mia!, the title taken from the band's 1975 hit, with a film adaptation following in 2008. (As ABBA drew to a close, Lyngstad, under her nickname Frida, released the fine pop-rock album Something Going On featuring the tasty hit "I Know There's Something Going On.") As one of the highlights of the international pop landscape in the 1970s, ABBA has earned its spot in the Hall of Fame.
Genesis: The obvious question that arises here is this: Which Genesis was actually inducted into the Hall—the ornate, intricate art-rockers under singer and drummer Peter Gabriel, or the spare, melodic pop-rockers under singer and drummer Phil Collins? The answer is of course both, but given the Hall's disinclination toward progressive rock, the band's latter-day commercial success must be seen as the Defining Factor that pushed Genesis past its contemporaries King Crimson and Yes, to pick only two examples. Not that the Collins-led Genesis is any less worthy than the Gabriel-led version because the pop songs had more appeal than did many of the grandiose earlier epics. Those epics, reflecting Gabriel's theatricality underpinned by the band's classically inspired arrangements, ranged from the martial melodrama "The Knife" to the mythological allegory "Supper's Ready" to the full-blown concept album The Lamb Lies down on Broadway, another allegory led by the surging title track, with the portentous science fiction of "Watcher of the Skies" and the class whimsy of "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" falling in between them.
Then Gabriel left and Collins, brought in as drummer as Gabriel's on-stage acting role blossomed, became the voice of Genesis. "Squonk" might have displayed vestiges of the orchestral approach, but "Your Own Special Way" and especially "Follow You Follow Me" previewed the simpler melodies and emotions that emerged unapologetically on 1980's Duke ("Behind the Lines," "Misunderstanding") although the percolating "Turn It on Again" was part of a thematic song cycle. Throughout the 1980s Genesis used its prog-rock education to flavor its muscular modern pop ("Abacab," "No Reply at All," "That's All," "Land of Confusion") although the band's awkward attempt at social comment, "Illegal Alien," backfired while "Mama" contained puzzling Oedipal overtones. The Genesis odyssey mirrors that of Fleetwood Mac's: the original band is hardly recognizable to its later editions, yet a continuous thread—in this case, keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford—connects them all. And like the Mac, all versions of Genesis are Hall of Famers.
Not Enough Substance: Jimmy Cliff, the HolliesBecause of his pioneering status, it is tempting to consider reggae singer Jimmy Cliff to be a Hall of Famer. After all, his star turn in the film The Harder They Come also featured prominently his songs on the soundtrack album, which was one of the first reggae albums to warrant international attention. Yet Cliff's career output rarely matched that effort, and although reggae (and ska) has informed key genres of rock and soul, its impact isn't broad enough to usher Cliff into the Hall on its coattails. The Hollies were a second-level British Invasion band that did manage to sustain their career through the mid-1970s—unlike, for example, the Dave Clark Five—but their material, the best of it admittedly well-crafted, is the filigree of its era, not the benchmark. Neither Cliff nor the Hollies have the substance for the Hall.
Jimmy Cliff: As the star of the 1972 Jamaican crime drama The Harder They Come, Jimmy Cliff portrayed a struggling reggae singer from the sticks who finds himself embroiled in the drug trade on his way to stardom. And although Cliff acquits himself fairly well in that enterprising if ultimately uneven film, it was the film's soundtrack that proved to be the revelation: The Harder They Come was the first reggae heard by many non-Antilles ears, and with Cliff featured prominently, he seemed set to be the real-life reggae star he had portrayed on camera (and, ironically, Cliff is a Muslim, not a Rastafarian). Certainly, Cliff's songs on the soundtrack—including the lively "You Can Get It If You Really Want," the yearning ballad "Many Rivers to Cross," and the brilliant summation "The Harder They Come"—belong rightly in the reggae canon. In fact, Cliff had been recording since the 1960s, and his 1969 album Jimmy Cliff was a commercial and critical success; it was re-titled Wonderful World, Beautiful People when the song of that name became a hit, as did the involving "Vietnam," which reinforced reggae's overt political thrust. But these are the highlights of Cliff's long career—he never matched this level of excellence again—and they are not substantial enough to merit inclusion in the Hall of Fame. What about the landmark The Harder They Come? Cliff's were not the only highlights; the soundtrack collects a number of seminal reggae classics including Desmond Dekker's "Shanty Town," the Melodians' beautiful "Rivers of Babylon," the Slickers' outlaw anthem "Johnny Too Bad," and a pair of gems, "Sweet and Dandy" and the urgent "Pressure Drop," from the criminally overlooked Toots and the Maytals, forcing Cliff to share his spotlight.
The Hollies: The sweet harmonies of Allan Clarke, Tony Hicks, and Graham Nash make any of this 1960s British Invasion band's hits "as pleasurable as an ice cream cone on a blistering day," as critic John Milward so vividly once put it. The problem is that even the cream of the Hollies' hits is about as substantial as ice cream and its empty calories—a moment in the ear, but not a lifetime or a career. The Hollies' early hits comprised covers ("Just One Look," "Searchin'") or songs tailor-made for the band by tunesmiths such as Graham Gouldman (the Beatles-esque "Look through Any Window," the winsome gem "Bus Stop"), all of which evinced the Hollies' considerable if lightweight appeal. Then Clarke, Hicks, and Nash began to write the band's songs, and their collective personality became stronger with the banjo-driven delight "Stop Stop Stop," "On a Carousel," the dark undertones of "Pay You Back with Interest," and the veiled bitterness of the otherwise-sprightly "Carrie Ann." The seeming complexity of the last two songs prompted the attempted artistry of "King Midas in Reverse," and its relative failure led to Nash's departure, while a post-Nash album of Bob Dylan songs proved conclusively that the Hollies were not the Byrds. The Hollies persevered to the end of the decade, though, with singles ("Dear Eloise," "Jennifer Eccles") that culminated with "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," which neatly (if tritely) encapsulated the zeitgeist sentiment. Clarke assumed a frontman role as the Hollies entered the 1970s; the bluesy swagger of his 1972 smash hit "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" revived their fortunes in the United States, leading to another huge hit in 1974, the often-covered soft-rocker "The Air That I Breathe." In that respect, the Hollies fared better than other second-tier British Invasion acts such as the Dave Clark Five, but the band's inclusion into the Hall of Fame is yet more unwarranted backfilling.
2006 – 2010: CodaIn its fifth five years of selecting inductees, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted 25 artists. The table below shows those 25 categorized as noted previously: Yes, Borderline Yes, and No.
|Breakdown of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees, 2006 – 2010
|Pct. of Total
In the expansive scenario, that the Borderline Yeses are justified, the Hall falls just short of a passing grade of 65 percent (in the American school system): only 64 percent of its inductees are worthy of induction, with more than a third, or 9 of 25 total inductees, not worthy of the Hall. While 2007 was the strongest year—each of the five inductees are valid Hall of Famers—both 2008 and 2009 found the majority of inductees not worthy of the Hall.
In the exclusive scenario, that the Borderline Yeses are not justified, the Hall fails even more impressively because those Borderline Yeses, at 28 percent of the total, make the truly worthy inductees to be just over one-third of the total inductees.
This five-year period featured a number of strong candidates for the Hall, including Black Sabbath, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Metallica, R.E.M., Run-D.M.C., the Sex Pistols, and the Stooges, all of whom exerted an influence on the development of the music of the Rock Era. So did Madonna, who in terms of popularity eclipses them all although the prejudice still persists that purely "pop" artists do not belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which stems from the Hall's inability to define what exactly is meant by "rock and roll."
The borderline choices include the controversial Miles Davis, the jazz titan whose inclusion has generated considerable outcry; Leonard Cohen, considered to be a marginal choice despite an enduring influence; Patti Smith, another so-called marginal choice with a comparable influence as Cohen's; ABBA, which like Madonna is not considered to be "real" rock and roll although it was a fixture of its era; and a trio—Genesis, the Ronettes, and Van Halen—that exemplify their respective genres. The Borderline Yeses are always worthy of examination because there can be such contention over their inclusion.
However, the Nos run the gamut of acts that had substance and influence that ultimately miss being worthy of the Hall (Blondie and Bobby Womack) to acts that seemed to be substantial but fail to be convincing under scrutiny (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Cliff, John Mellecamp, and the Ventures) to unnecessary backfilling (the Hollies and Little Anthony and the Imperials) to an act that, as with Percy Sledge, epitomizes the essential weaknesses of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's entire nomination and voting processes: the Dave Clark Five.
There are just two years left to audit, 2011 and 2012, while, at the time of this part's publication, the Hall of Fame will shortly announce its nominees for 2013. Were there any artists from 2011 and 2012 who deserve to be in the Hall? And what does the future hold for the Hall, including its nominees for 2013? Tune in to the next installment to find out!
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