If I Had a Ballot for the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominations

If I Had a Ballot for the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominations
09 Dec
Not in Hall of Fame


This month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be announcing its 2016 inductees. Judas Priest, who gives a fat rat's ass any more, anyway?

I'm not kidding. No one is ever happy with the selections. There is no definition of what "rock and roll" is, which means that there is no consensus on which artists are appropriate candidates. Apart from the need to have released the first recording at least 25 years previously to qualify and a vague suggestion of "musical excellence," there are no criteria that can be universally applied. And with only fragmentary glimpses of the Hall's nominating committee and its selection and voting procedures, sustained mutterings about how the entire process is an industry charade stage-managed by driving force Jann Wenner and his cronies are approaching whispered revelations about the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and other occult conspiracies.

Ballot Overview

So, yes, it is that time again to evaluate the ballot. Let's see . . . Chic is on for the hundredth time. What cruel joke is this? Or is this part of Wenner's game-fixing? "Keep 'em on the ballot until they get enough votes, dammit!" Deep Purple and N.W.A. must have their adherents—both have appeared on the last few ballots. Like your dotty old grandfather visiting during the holidays, the Spinners are back at the table, eligible since 1986—their career began when John F. Kennedy was the president—but never on a ballot until 2012, and then returning in the last two years. Similarly, Nine Inch Nails, the Smiths, and Yes return to the delight of industrial, alt-pop, and progressive-rock fans, respectively.

What is encouraging are the eight acts that constitute this year's fresh blood, on the ballot for the first time: the Cars, Chicago, Cheap Trick, Janet Jackson, the JBs, Chaka Khan, Los Lobos, and Steve Miller. Chicago and Jackson are the big-ticket favorites long considered snubs by their supporters, while the Cars, Miller, and to a lesser extent Cheap Trick have been radio fixtures for decades. Khan and Los Lobos have been just off the mainstream throughout their careers, although Khan has been a constant in the soul-R&B market since her days fronting Rufus in the 1970s.

The most intriguing 2015 nominee, though, are the JBs, which began as James Brown's backing band as Brown was helping to codify funk in the early 1970s but quickly developed a recording career of their own although Brown was still often in the mix in some capacity. In 2012, Brown's backing-vocal group the Famous Flames were retrofitted into the Hall of Fame with him (Brown had been inducted in the Hall's inaugural class of 1986), a surgical incision that focused solely on the Famous Flames (and even then only on specific Flames) while leaving any instrumentalists untouched.

Ballot Criteria

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame states its eligibility requirements and criteria on its website, which are as follows:

To be eligible for induction as an artist (as a performer, composer, or musician) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the artist must have released a record, in the generally accepted sense of that phrase, at least 25 years prior to the year of induction; and have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence.

We shall consider factors such as an artist's musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction. [Emphases added.]

Note, however, that the Hall does not define what "musical excellence" is even though it is supposed to be the "essential qualification of induction." In case you ever wondered how the Dave Clark Five or Percy Sledge or [fill in the blank with your favorite undeserving artist] managed to sneak in through the door.

Regardless of what "musical excellence" may actually mean, I have developed what I call Defining Factors to assess whether an artist is worthy of inclusion into the Hall of Fame. These five Defining Factors are:

— Innovation. The artist has invented or refined one or more aspects of the music.

— Influence. The artist has made a demonstrable impact on the music of either contemporaries or succeeding artists.

— Popularity. The artist has achieved an appreciable measure of commercial or critical success.

— Crossover appeal. The artist is recognized and appreciated outside the artist's primary arena.

— Legacy. The artist's accomplishments have lasting impact and appeal.

To be considered a Hall of Fame act, I think that an artist must rate as highly as possible in as many Defining Factors as possible. I developed these Defining Factors during my series of "audits" of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's selections from 1986 to 2013 (the sixth and latest installment contains links to the previous five installments).

Unlike the Hall of Fame, though, I maintain that the "essential qualification of induction" is not "musical excellence"—again, whatever that might mean—but rather legacy. This is implied in the Hall's one unequivocal criterion for eligibility, which is that an artist is not eligible until twenty-five years have elapsed from the release of the artist's first recording. This enables historical perspective, to put the artist into context within the overall continuum of the Rock and Soul Era to assess whether the artist really has had an impact on the music and, to a greater extent, on the culture that fostered the music.

In essence and in fact, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a museum, an institution designed to evaluate and recognize how the past has shaped our present and how it may suggest our future. Simply put, seeing an artist in the Hall of Fame means that the artist had some significant bearing on the music.

In that light, I have used my Defining Factors to assess the fifteen nominees for the 2016 ballot.

The Cars

Background: Roaring off the starting line with a sleek debut album that soon sped into popular culture—can anyone listen to the hypnotic "Moving in Stereo" without thinking of Fast Times at Ridgemont High?—the Cars assembled a showroom-ready sound from post-punk attitudes, a stripped-down and tuned-up musical strategy, and ironic nods to pop music in the witty, self-aware but coolly distanced songcraft of the band's driver, singer-guitarist Ric Ocasek. The Cars (Elektra) seemed to announce the future when it arrived in 1978 (did Quarterflash later filch for "Harden My Heart" the saxophone lick from "All Mixed Up"?), with "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," and especially "Bye Bye Love" executing the sharp, spare, electro-mechanical musical attack as Ocasek and singer-bassist (and resident heartthrob) Benjamin Orr sang with detached, winking amusement about the girls they had, wished they had, or didn't want to have.

It's easy to dismiss Candy-O (Elektra, 1979) as coming off the same assembly line as the debut although the band's sound still had a bit of variety as the title song and "Dangerous Type" demonstrate while the compulsively propulsive "Let's Go" may be the definitive Cars song—how could it not be when it stars a risqué-mouthed 17-year-old who's beautiful when she doesn't wear her shoes? On the other hand, Panorama (Elektra, 1980), despite the disembodied anxiety of "Touch and Go," found the band realizing that it now had a career to support, with Shake It Up (Elektra, 1981) sounding like a retread. However, 1984's Heartbeat City (Elektra) sees the Cars boldly embracing exuberance ("Magic") and even puckishness ("You Might Think") in a pop triumph although the pensive ballad "Drive," sung by Orr, flashed impressive maturity. Alas, the belated follow-up Door to Door (Elektra, 1987) turned out to be—can you guess the automotive reference?—a lemon, and with that the Cars went the way of the Studebaker. But it was a fun ride while it lasted.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? No. The Cars certainly deserve more consideration than, say, the Fixx, and certainly as much consideration as Duran Duran or INXS—if not more so for helping to popularize the New Wave that enabled them all to flourish in the first place. But despite that popularity, on which they have continued to coast, the Cars' triumphs are stretched too thinly across their relatively short career to stand out to voters as a Hall of Fame act.

Would I vote for the artist? No. I'm tempted for the debut album and for a handful of songs ("Let's Go," "Drive") that followed although it is hard to justify that The Cars was an innovative album that influenced a genre when it was an excellent album that highlighted, but did not define, a period in pop history. Overall, the band's legacy is not distinctive enough to merit inclusion in the Hall.

Cheap Trick

Background: You have to admire Cheap Trick, aesthetically and musically, for having their cake and eating it too. Aesthetically, singer-bassist Tom Petersson and particularly blonde singer-guitarist Robin Zander were long-haired rock-heartthrob types, but drummer Bun E. Carlos (Brad Carlson) seemed more like a tax accountant with dubious deduction schemes while lead guitarist Rick Neilsen looked like the bastard spawn of Don Knotts and the Bride of Frankenstein. Musically, Cheap Trick combined a winking albeit off-kilter pop sensibility (has anyone ever figured out why "Big Eyes" is such a "losing cause"?) with a ringing, sometimes brutal, hard-rock kick—Schedule A's be damned, Carlos could drive a beat while Neilsen brought down Victor Frankenstein's thunder and lightning through his bewildering array of monstrous guitars. And the band's aesthetics and music gelled in sublime harmony with "Surrender," one of the greatest-ever rock and roll songs about the power of rock and roll—if waking up to find your parents stoned and making out while listening to your Kiss records isn't your idea of rock and roll emancipation, you deserve to be enslaved in eternal Quiet Storm hell.

At first, though, the pride of Rockford, Illinois, tried the edgier route as its eponymous 1977 Epic debut used arena hard rock to disguise its slyly barbed songs, most written by Neilsen, about serial killers, pedophiles, and suicides, with "He's a Whore" and a tribute to a friend who killed himself thrown into the mix as well; Cheap Trick straddled both rock convention and the incipient punk and New Wave challenge. In Color (Epic, 1977) may have glossed up the musical attack but that only let the melodic hooks shine through—"Big Eyes," "Clock Strikes Ten," "Hello There," and especially "I Want You to Want Me" became power-pop touchstones. Cheap Trick regained its hard and dark edge while retaining its melodic appeal with Heaven Tonight (Epic, 1978), which, apart from "Surrender," featured the ultimate ode to cock-rock, "Stiff Competition," and a heartfelt cover of the Move's "California Man" before unleashing not one but two more suicide songs, "Auf Wiedersehen" and the title song. Capping Cheap Trick's early glory was At Budokan (Epic, 1979), the greatest live album recorded in Japan by a Western hard-rock band not named Deep Purple, which drew primarily from In Color while Carlos powered a high-octane version of the Fats Domino chestnut "Ain't That a Shame."

Cheap Trick then pulled out the stops for Dream Police (Epic, 1979), which lavished production on the paranoiac's nightmare "The Dream Police" and the faux-Beatles faux-idyll "Voices" while the lengthy stomper "Gonna Raise Hell" quickly became an anthem. But the continuing gloss couldn't disguise the increasing recycling of ideas and attitudes. As the band stumbled through the 1980s, aping the Beatles with "If You Want My Love," it succumbed to pop trends instead of subverting them as "She's Tight" pandered to New Wave while with the monster power ballad "The Flame," Cheap Trick parodied only themselves with what it had become. Speaking of monsters, "Woke up with a Monster" delivered the laughs without any wit (unless you want to count the "Cold Turkey"-like anguish at the end as homage to John Lennon), and by then Cheap Trick's moment had long since passed.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? No. With Alice Cooper and now even Kiss in the Hall, voters will think that 1970s rockers who sent up the very music they loved are already well-represented. And "Surrender" was never the anthem that "School's Out" and "Rock 'n' Roll All Nite" were, even if it is much smarter than the latter (though more diffuse than the former).

Would I vote for the artist? No. Cheap Trick was a terrific rock and roll funhouse attraction—when it landed properly, the early, cockeyed, yet sometimes dark stuff packed a musical and lyrical wallop—but the band's glory period was a few years in the late 1970s, and its influence was oblique; you could argue that as it was concurrent with punk and New Wave, it was channeling the same zeitgeist everyone else was (cf. the Cars). A thin legacy keeps the band out of the Hall.


Background: Blending rock and R&B influences into its bouncy disco strategy, Chic offered a grittier, funkier take on dance music, and in the process provided inspiration for hip-hop and rock artists—the hit "Good Times," and particularly Bernard Edwards's rubbery bass line, provided the bedrock for, among others, the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and for Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust." Edwards also provided another signature low-register classic for the risqué smash "Le Freak" as he and guitarist Nile Rodgers, both veteran session men, crafted the earthy foundation of Edwards's thick bottom and Rodgers's chicken-scratch guitar—funk elements dating back to James Brown's JBs—that supported the washes of strings and the airy voices of the female singers whose words carried an undertone of social unease even as the overt message was to "Dance Dance Dance," another key hit for the collective.

Chic offered a durable approach for disco, but by the 1980s the genre was getting buffeted, and the band had often been unfairly cast as relics of that period, exemplified by the seeming vacuity of tracks such as "I Want Your Love" and "Everybody Dance." Yet Chic developed a hybrid sound that proved accessible not only to dance styles—Chic's contemporary Sister Sledge bore a literal relationship to Chic's sound—but also to urban, hip-hop, and rock styles, while the rich yet economical production work of Edwards and Rodgers, the hallmark of Chic's success, quickly became in-demand, thus perpetuating Chic's influence. As any number of the anonymous disco bands from that period fade into nostalgia, the impact and influence of Chic becomes more salient.

Chic Pose
Will dapper disco dudes and dudettes Chic be hung out to dry on yet another ballot in 2016?

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? Yes. If only because voters are tired of seeing the name on the ballot year after year. True, voters may refuse just out of spite, but somebody seems to be pounding the table on Chic's behalf, and as in Twelve Angry Men maybe enough voters have been convinced this year.

Would I vote for the artist? Yes. Admittedly a borderline pick, Chic nevertheless transcends its primary genre, disco, while influencing various styles. Its impact on hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang alone is an indication of Chic's impact on the development of music of the Rock and Soul Era, even crossing over into hard rock (cf. Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust").

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Last modified on Thursday, 10 December 2015 17:52

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