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



Background: This hit-radio perennial was initially called the Chicago Transit Authority until the Windy City's transportation system began legal rumblings that forced the band to truncate the name to simply Chicago, an ideal parallel to how this "big band"-styled rock outfit with early pretensions to artistry—Chicago's first three albums were double LPs—learned to pare its arrangements to create radio-friendly soft-rock singles. Beginning in Chicagoland in the late 1960s, the band, which featured singer-bassist Peter Cetera, guitarist Terry Kath, and singer-keyboardist Robert Lamm at its core, relocated to Los Angeles to begin recording as a rock-based outfit augmented by a permanent horn section, an innovation also pursued by the Electric Flag and Blood, Sweat, and Tears, that incorporated elements of funk, jazz, and even classical into its ambitious approach.

Chicago indulged that ambition with various multi-part suites that showcased players such as Kath, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, trombonist James Pankow, and saxophonist Walter Parazaider; the band even flashed a social conscience with allusions to ecology ("Elegy") and the volatile, traumatic 1968 Democratic National Convention held in Chicago (side four of the 1969 Columbia debut Chicago Transit Authority), with the "It Better End Soon" suite from Chicago (Columbia, 1970) a forthright if simplistic political declaration. Following a sprawling live set, the four-LP Chicago at Carnegie Hall (Columbia, 1971), the band continued to flaunt its pretense—Chicago V (Columbia, 1972) tossed off "A Hit by Varèse," name-checking experimental composer Edgard Varèse as if the band were Frank Zappa—although the contents of the first greatest-hits album, Chicago IX: Chicago's Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1975), would prove prophetic: "25 or 6 to 4," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," and "Saturday in the Park" steered Chicago into the singles charts and to an easy-listening audience as if the band were the Rock and Soul Era equivalent of the Boston Pops.

The mewling ballad "If You Leave Me Now," which conquered much of the civilized world in 1976, had been written and sung by Cetera, responsible for another huge hit the following year, "Baby, What a Big Surprise." That success and the death of Kath from a self-inflicted gunshot in 1978 changed both the fortunes and direction of the band: By the 1980s, Chicago, behind Cetera's burgeoning stardom, had become a hit-making machine leaning on deliberately engineered melodrama and sentiment ("Hard to Say I'm Sorry," "You're the Inspiration"), and when Cetera split for a solo career, his replacement Jason Scheff and especially Bill Champlin, who filled Kath's guitar slot, stepped in for continued chart dominance ("Will You Still Love Me," "Look Away") as Chicago was firmly established as an MOR monolith with its corporate logo and marketing shtick—a string of albums titled either Chicago [Roman numeral] or Chicago [Arabic numeral]—trademarked long before its marginal creative ambition dissolved into professional if hollow craftsmanship.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? No. Probably not this year—Chicago has been eligible for the Hall since 1994 and has never been nominated until now, although that may be the residual critical disdain the band has endured almost since its beginning; Robert Lamm even wrote his rebuttal "Critics' Choice" back in 1973, well before the Eagles whined out "The Long Run" years later. But if the band makes a strong showing on this year's ballot, don't be surprised to see it back on the next ballot—and don't be surprised if Chicago finds itself in Cleveland one of these years. Like it or not, this aggregation became a chart fixture after proffering its musical bona fides with some early ambition before becoming the longest continually serving horn-based big rock band around, admittedly not a Hall-worthy accomplishment, but it's hard to ignore Chicago's pop dominance.

Would I vote for the artist? No. It is easy to deride Chicago for pandering to the lowest common denominator, but its grasp always exceeded its reach in its early years, meandering on in its various pseudo-profound suites, and when it realized that it could extract the overtly saccharine parts of the extended numbers ("Make Me Smile," "Colour My World," "Free") to make hit singles, Chicago narrowed its focus to shallow sentiment and trite appeal. Chicago is the Thomas Kincade of rock, pretty but vapid.

Deep Purple

Background: Formed in England around the same time as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Deep Purple began with an eclecticism that seemed like a kid in a candy store, covering Neil Diamond ("Kentucky Woman") and essaying progressive-rock touches that highlighted the counterpoint between guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and keyboardist John Lord (the instrumental "Hard Road [Wring That Neck]") while, pretentiously, aiming even higher—Lord composed a Concerto for Group and Orchestra (album deleted) that was not exactly a classical gas. But when singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover signed aboard, Purple concentrated on hard rock and released a trio of early-1970s albums that exemplified the band's robust early metal. In Rock (Warner Bros., 1970), with the burning rocker "Speed King" and the extended workout on "Child in Time," and Fireball (Warner Bros., 1971), featuring the compact title song and the wry heartbreak of "Strange Kind of Woman," honed an approach that culminated with Machine Head (Warner Bros., 1972), an essential hard-rock album that featured "Highway Star," "Never Before," the molten-metal "Space Truckin'," and the deathless anthem "Smoke on the Water," whose guitar riff became the rock equivalent of Beethoven's four-note opening to his Fifth Symphony. The superlative concert album Made in Japan (Warner Bros., 1973), drawing from these three albums but especially Machine Head, managed to improve upon the studio versions; for instance, the extended version of "Space Truckin'," far from being indulgent showboating, still maintains an impressive cinematic air that is not outside the realm of progressive rock.

However, the glory period was short-lived, as Purple couldn't maintain the inspiration. Who Do We Think We Are? (Warner Bros., 1973) contained the assured "Woman from Tokyo" and maybe one or two other memorable tracks ("Rat Bat Blue"), and then Gillan quit. His replacement David Coverdale (later of Whitesnake) gamely filled in for a few albums before Blackmore departed; the live Made in Europe (Warner Bros., 1976), featuring Blackmore and Coverdale, acutely demonstrated how the band did finally degenerate into onstage showboating. By the mid-1970s Deep Purple was done although the "Mark II" configuration, with Blackmore, Gillan, and Glover, did reform a decade later, to fans' delight but little else. At various times, high-powered American guitarists Tommy Bolin, Steve Morse, and Joe Satriani have stepped in (Satriani did not appear on any official recordings), lending the band a certain amount of cachet while suggesting Purple's stature, but except for Machine Head and Made in Japan, Deep Purple never delivered with demonstrable consistency on the promise it suggested, and it is hard not to see Purple as much more than a period relic even as they continue to chug away.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? Yes. If only because voters will finally bow to the pressure that is growing so strong that it will override the dire threats and imprecations of Jann Wenner.

Would I vote for the artist? No. Deep Purple lacks sufficient quantities of the Defining Factors I use for evaluation. Look, I was a teenage Deep Purple fanatic who snapped up every Purple album I could, but listening to those albums later, I realized that the average Deep Purple album (excluding best-of packages) hit on all cylinders at best three or four times. That does not count Machine Head or especially Made in Japan, but two outstanding albums are not enough on which to hang a Hall of Fame legacy.

Janet Jackson

Background: From overcoming the novelty of being Michael Jackson's kid sister (similar status plagued other Jackson siblings as well) to weathering the stigma of her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in 2004, Janet Jackson has had a tough hill to climb to become one of the top figures in pop music over the last few decades, not helped by the fact that although she is a dynamic performer she is not an exceptional singer. But by choosing effective musical collaborators, reinventing herself whenever necessary, and, following a phase of self-assertion and social consciousness, projecting an overtly sexual persona buttressed by independence and confidence, Jackson, like Madonna, has succeeded on her own terms. Moreover, her success, which stems initially from her trio of albums from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, has spawned a host of flashy pop thrushes gamely dancing (and by now twerking) in her considerable shadow.

As the youngest of the Jackson clan, Janet Jackson grew up in show business. She was still a pre-teen when she landed her first television role in the Norman Lear series Good Times before moving on to Diff'rent Strokes and Fame; Jackson has also appeared in feature films, notably 1993's Poetic Justice in which she starred with Tupac Shakur. Thus, her first two pop albums, Janet Jackson (1982) and Dream Street (1984), both recorded for A&M, seem like undistinguished vanity projects by a typical Hollywood hyphenate even—or perhaps especially—if said hyphenate had a brother then currently ruling the pop charts.

But then Jackson hooked up with Minneapolis writer-producers Jimmy Jam (Harris) and Terry Lewis for Control (A&M, 1986), whose strident beats and sharp execution, the precursor to New Jack Swing, pointed to the next wave in R&B and pop while Jackson defiantly threw off her past—check the title track—and asserted her independence both emotional ("What Have You Done for Me Lately?") and sexual ("Nasty"). Jackson's follow-up Rhythm Nation 1814 (A&M, 1989) flashed a social conscience, and while the various "Interludes" smacked of concept-album pretense, that didn't stop the power of "State of the World" and especially the funky slam of the anthemic "Rhythm Nation" while "Black Cat" may be a better union of hard rock and R&B than brother Michael's "Beat It" even if Eddie Van Halen wasn't available for the guitar solo. For her next release, janet. (1993), Jackson had moved to Virgin Records—ironic as the album flaunted Jackson's sex-temptress persona in tracks such as "If" and "You Want This," whose video, inspired by the Russ Meyers 1965 sexploitation classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, continued Jackson's influential expression as did the assured musical layers that propelled her songs, epitomized by the steamy languor of the irresistible ballad "That's the Way Loves Goes."

But just as superstardom had affected brother Michael, Janet seemed overwhelmed by the pressure at her now-rarified level of success—fittingly, the pair collaborated on the 1995 single "Scream," a retort to unrelenting media scrutiny. Thus, it was four years before The Velvet Rope (Virgin, 1997), an allusion to the cordon between star and public, appeared, and despite more murky concept-album framing, its rich production and arrangements supported an array of dark, even risqué topics from the scathing self-recrimination of "You" and the exposure of domestic abuse in "What About" to the slinky eroticism of "Got 'til It's Gone" (sampling, of all things, Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi") and the purring kinkiness of "Rope Burn" (certainly Rihanna took notice) while the bouncy disco of "Together Again" belied its elegiac air. But as subsequent albums concentrated on Jackson's portraying herself as a sex goddess, with the panting, grinding Damita Jo (Virgin, 2004) released in the wake of her Super Bowl exposure, Jackson began to see her moment pass—Damita Jo was her last album to sell one million US copies—as the next generation of pop divas, clearly inspired by Jackson musically and visually, began to supplant her. But by now, Janet Jackson, who had supplanted her "King of Pop" brother Michael by the 1990s, had already established her legacy.

Janet jackson
Pop superstar Janet Jackson hopes to cut through the Hall's Velvet Rope on her first ballot appearance.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? Yes. Although this is Janet Jackson's first ballot appearance since becoming eligible in 2007, voters are likely to have recognized this oversight and stand ready to rectify it. And even for those dissenters who might claim that Jackson isn't "rock and roll"—although Janet rocked harder than brother Michael ever did—the Hall has already recognized the looming pop titans from past decades from Elton John and Billy Joel to Madonna and Michael Jackson. It is hardly about to stop now.

Would I vote for the artist? Yes. Janet Jackson did more than merely step out from Michael Jackson's gigantic shadow to establish herself as another Jackson sibling with genuine musical talent—an even more remarkable feat when you consider that she lacks the raw singing ability of her late brother. She became a musical innovator who spawned a host of imitators while thriving in the notoriously fickle and chimerical environment of top-tier popular music. It is difficult, if not impossible, to document the impact of pop music in the 1980s and 1990s without Janet Jackson.

The JBs

Background: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has nominated some odd acts as performers, from the collective coverage of Faces/Small Faces and Parliament/Funkadelic to the insistence that Laura Nyro was a performer rather than a non-performer (now eligible for the Ahmet Ertegun Award) best-known for her songwriting. The Hall had also, in 2012, retrofitted a half-dozen backing bands (such as the Crickets and the Famous Flames) to join their more famous lead performers, but this year the Hall is sending the JBs, best-known as the backing band for James Brown during Brown's groundbreaking funk days of the 1970s, onto the ballot as a solo act.

The JBs did record a number of albums as a standalone act, although Brown was usually involved in some capacity, and the band did release a number of singles, largely instrumental unless you want to count recitations of the titles "Pass the Peas" and "Gimme Some More" as lyrics; the best-known single was the definitive 1970 track "The Grunt," which has been sampled numerous times by hip-hop artists including Public Enemy on its landmark 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam/Columbia). True, 1974's "You Can Have Watergate, Just Gimme Some Bucks and I'll Be Straight" did express a position although the eloquence came from the spare, loping funk the band had perfected, often with alto saxophonist Maceo Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley in the mix; other notable JBs include bassist Bootsy Collins, an original member who soon left for George Clinton's Parliafunkadelicment stable and was inducted into the Hall with them in 1997, and pianist Bobby Byrd, who had been inducted into the Hall in 2012 as a singing member of the Famous Flames.

The aggregation later incorporated disco into its sound before splintering, with Parker and Wesley leading various incarnations in subsequent years. The JBs' instant appeal can sustain extended vamps such as "Doing It to Death," but they are ultimately an adjunct to James Brown's overall operations even if they did have a separate recording career.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? No. Even if the conspiratorial-minded may think that the JBs were brought onto the ballot simply to put Chic into bold relief, the band's career, despite its association with James Brown, is simply too marginal for the Hall despite your still hearing these swinging licks sampled on hip-hop tracks today.

Would I vote for the artist? No. The JBs did create an influential sound that fueled the development of funk in the 1970s and survives as an inspiration today, but stripping them apart from the boss, James Brown, only pinpoints how the band was simply one component of an overall sound and attitude. Besides, and although this might smack of contingency, it is hard to justify including the JBs in the Hall of Fame when Kool and the Gang has yet to be inducted—let alone the Spinners, to whom we shall turn shortly.

Last modified on Thursday, 10 December 2015 17:52

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