Who Needs the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

This past Monday, the new inductees for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame were announced. R.E.M., Van Halen, Patti Smith, Grandmaster Flash, and the Ronettes made this year’s cut.
Before I spend some time analyzing these choices, let’s take a look at the history of the institution, and the problems that have risen in recent years that will only get worse as time passes.
Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and his billionaire buddies had it pretty easy the first few years after the Hall of Fame was established. While they had yet to build a facility to house the memorabilia of the recipients, their choices couldn’t have been easier.
The first year of inductions awarded the pioneers – Elvis, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. Nobody could argue with these choices, just as there was little dissent with most of the second batch – Bo Diddley, Marvin Gaye, and Muddy Waters, among others.
The next three years were dominated by the mid-60’s British Invasion - The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, and the Who. They were joined by the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and a handful of blues and Motown acts.
It was during these years, though, that questionable choices started to creep in. Bobby Darin made some fine music over the years, but his association with rock ‘n’ roll was minimal outside of “Splish Splash”. Ricky Nelson may have been better than what one would expect from a teen idol, but he was no true artist. And over the years seemingly every Motown act that had more than a hit or two somehow were inducted. Please don’t get me started on the (lack of) merits of the Mamas and the Papas!
Still, as the years went on you couldn’t complain about too many of the choices. This was mainly due to the simple fact that there was little gulf between artistic and commercial success. The music business was still a relatively tiny industry, so any artist that earned critical raves also generally sold a few records.
This was no longer the case as rock entered the 70’s. There was now a clash between the acts that filled the seats and the experimental groups that sought new sounds. Sadly, the Hall of Fame has gradually leaned more to the blockbuster acts while completely ignoring those who have created art that resonates and influences to this day.
Even worse, the general method to gain entry is to just continue to exist, regardless of whether you have anything new to say. Aerosmith is a perfect example. While they were definitely a great band, particularly in their mid-70’s heyday, in my opinion they fall short of having the credentials to be enshrined…particularly since they have become complete whores to the industry in their post-heroin MTV glory. Their biggest hits of the last two decades have almost all been written or co-written by ghostwriters, making them no better than a harder-edged Britney or Christina.
Meanwhile a ton of bands that actually changed the music industry are ignored. The Hall of Fame should model itself after the NFL. They could very easily just induct the wide receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks. But they also recognize the unsung heroes – the linemen. In rock, the linemen should include the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the Seeds, the Jam, Kraftwerk, Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, Big Star, New York Dolls, Captain Beefheart, X, the MC5, and many other acts that set the stage for whatever tunes you listen to every day.
So let’s now take a look at this year’s inductees. I can’t argue with R.E.M. Although their recent releases may not have met the expectations of even their biggest fans, anybody who was a fan of indie rock in the mid-80’s remembers their impact. They almost single-handedly invented college radio, and for a three or four year period there were seemingly a million copycat bands begging for sales and airplay.
Patti Smith is another no-brainer. She’s the consummate female rock poet, and unlike the majority of artists still performing 25 years later she’s as good now as she was at her peak. There’s not a female artist performing today who isn’t benefiting from the groundwork she laid in the mid-to-late 70’s.
After these two acts, though, we start to have some problems. While I have no problem with Eddie Van Halen garnering a special nomination for his groundbreaking guitar style, I feel they’re a borderline case as a band. They had a fantastic debut that re-energized hard rock, but they never again lived up to that promise. Songwriting was always a problem for the band, which is why Diver Down has five cover songs, three noodling instrumentals, and four originals. I won’t even go into the disastrous Sammy Hagar years.
As for the Ronettes, I personally love early 60’s girl groups, and their sound greatly influenced everybody from the Ramones to No Doubt. But to be completely honest, they were really nothing more than puppets. Phil Spector wrote and/or arranged the songs, hired the musicians who created the backing track, and produced their records. Once they broke away from Spector, they basically disappeared. If they’re voted in, then the Monkees need to also be inducted…and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Finally, we get to the most controversial inductee – Grandmaster Flash. “The Message” and “White Lines” are great songs, but can anybody name anything else they’ve done? More importantly (and here’s the controversial point), they’re not rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, they’re considered the first rap group (although that’s not quite true), but it sets the stage for dozens of more questionable choices in the future.
Some may claim that any criticism of this choice is a form of racism. This is not a black and white issue. Nor is it a matter of accepting non-rock music as an influence. Country acts such as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, along with blues acts such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King, deserved their place in the Hall for their influence on almost everybody, including Dylan and Led Zeppelin, and rap artists that have influenced rock may deserve an induction (although the only one that comes to mind is Public Enemy).
Inducting Grandmaster Flash sets the standard for a slippery slope that leads to anybody with sustained chart success in any genre to gain entry. Madonna may have been a cultural icon but she was a pop star. The same with Janet Jackson, LL Cool J, and Will Smith. Really, do we need to see DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince reuniting in 2014? I think not.
Sadly, that’s exactly what we’re probably going to see in the coming years. The induction ceremonies have already “jumped the shark”. Once a private affair that allowed for loose jams that featuring rarely-seen one-off collaborations, everything is now staged for a VH-1 special that generally airs a week later. Nothing is left to chance; every speech and performance is rehearsed weeks in advance, and is designed to sell more product. Reunion tours are announced (look for a David Lee Roth-led Van Halen tour this summer) and record companies will have the “Hall of Fame” inductee stickers and new compilations ready to hit stores a week or two later.
Does any of this really matter, though? Should rock ‘n’ roll be immortalized in a museum? I think not. Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be edge-y and dangerous, traits that were pretty much lost around the time that the Eagles and Peter Frampton became superstars. Dirty, smoky clubs are where energizing, guitar-driven music is home, not in a sterile, overly-sponsored multi-million dollar piece of architecture. At least that’s where I enjoy celebrating the virtues of the music that rules my life.


Anonymous said…
scott-I agree with your take on the Rock and Roll HOF, I recently read an interview with Johnny Rotten in which he said the Sex Pistols were nominated but the HOF wanted money from the group before their induction. WTF is that? Maybe I'll change my mind once the Pet Shop Boys get in.
Anonymous said…
It sure would be one weird jam at the end. Does Gary Cherone get to attend? Can't wait for the Ratt induction in 2024.
Anonymous said…
at the least the baseball writers left mark macguire out. and thank god journey, styx, reo speedwagon, styx, and any of the other crap bands that the sioux empire fair has brought to town in the last couple of years aren't in.
I agree with pretty much everything you wrote here. I can't take the whole HOF thing too seriously when you have, say, the Ronettes in there along side a band of the magnitude of U2... There are performers and then there are musical artists. Not the same thing.
Jacko said…
A man after my own heart...

I've felt like the only person carrying on this discussion for years. I live in Cleveland, right down the road from the Big Glass Triangle. I actually attended the only ceremony they bothered to conduct here at the actual location of the Hall in '97. I had to dress up and sneak in, of course, because neither Jan Wenner or Ahmut Ertegun are my father.

I was a little relieved that VU and Zappa got in, but when the Sabbath and Stooges snubs started to become an annual ritual, I was already forseeing problems once we approached the late 70s era.

I agree that for the most part, the first 10-12 years of inductions were hard to argue with, aside from a few obvious omissions. But I let that go, figuring they started this induction process so late, they were going to be playing catch up for awhile.

Once they gave us people like James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, I started to become annoyed. Both fine artists. But it begged the question. Why them and not Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, John Prine, Richard Thompson or Laura Nyro?

Many of us diehards knew they would be resistant on the glam/punk/new wave titans. But before we even got there, I noticed they were so busy with Raitt, Taylor and Rick Nelson, all secondary choices in their respective areas, that they were, and still are, overlooking the early-mid 70s art/prog rock. Sure, they gave us Steely Dan. But i've been surprised about Genesis, Yes, et al.

So I was asking myself why is Rick Nelson a Hall Of Famer, but not the father of surf guitar, Dick Dale? Why not Gram Parsons, the father of country rock? The founding fathers of entire genres. Surf-rock and Country-rock, for crying out loud! What's with these ignorant rock critics/voters anyway? Are they on dope?

After years and years of eligability, they've still skipped over several top quality 60s acts, even their beloved British ones. No Hollies, Zombies, Moody Blues, The Move, The Small Faces, Them, The Troggs...no Left Banke, Fugs, Love, Al Kooper's Blues Project/Blood, Sweat and Tears, Fairport Convention, etc. Sure, maybe some of them aren't necessarily first ballot, but certainly worthy of more than passing consideration. If Del Shannon and Gene Pitney (both of whom I really enjoy) are in, surely brilliant pop acts like The Left Banke and The Zombies belong.

You knew there was going to be an issue with Lou Reed, John Cale, Brian Eno, MC5, New York Dolls, Captain Beefheart, Big Star, The Stooges, The Residents, Jonathan Richman/The Modern Lovers, T.Rex, Patti Smith...but no Roxy Music? No Todd Rundgren? No Cheap Trick? They had enough hits, didn't they? lol

I don't know that it's a racism issue, but there was bound to be a racial divide with voting at some point. FM radio created it. In the 60s, everyone was listening to the same stuff. A typical station was playing Dean Martin, the Beatles, Motown, Aretha and Otis, Bacharach, The 101 Strings, Louis Armstrong all together. Once FM formats picked up steam in the 70s, 'R&B' became segregated from 'Rock' once again. Whereas a teen in 1965 might be listening to both the Beatles and the Temptations and vice versa, in 1975 a teen listening to Led Zeppelin was probably not following the O'Jays very closely. They were in completely different worlds.

It was the birth of the radio format/niche playlist that did it, and led us to the solemn state of commercial radio today. It's not 'our' music anymore, as it was for the boomers. You have yours, I have mine, the neighbor has his. 30-40 years later, the only universal music for everyone seems to be the older stuff. But even that is fading away, as the new generation of teens grow up only faintly familiar with who Sinatra or Mayfield were, if at all.

Black popular music post-1970 is in trouble with the Rock Hall voters, and has an image problem with the average white record buyer of the time. Marvin, Stevie, Smokey, Diana, Isaac, Dionne, Aretha and Curtis had a built-in audience at that point from (relatively) mass exposure to white audiences, and got the favorable attention of the white rock press. But many others were never so blessed, and were usually looked upon as second-class citizens in the rock world.

The official storyline goes that rock became stagnant during the mid-70s, at least on the radio. But those in the know always knew the revolution had merely gone underground for awhile, waiting to sprout forth and blossom again in a new guise.

This 'recession' didn't happen in the R&B/Soul/Funk world in the 70s, though. 1973-1976 were banner years in black popular music, and it continued to thrive and evolve throughout the decade. And this was the great irony and hypocracy of it's diminishing stature in mainstream critical review.

We gripe about the snubs to real pioneers like Dick Dale, New York Dolls and Eno, and rightfully so. But an entire generation of black titans hasn't even entered the conversation, for the most part.

They gave us Parliament-Funkadelic (as one entity, not as two distinct recording groups), The Jacksons, The O'Jays, Earth Wind and Fire and maybe a few others. I'm hard pressed to even think of any others from the 70s on who've been honored. Prince and Michael-solo were obvious and painless for them.

But little or no mention or consideration of The JBs, The Meters, Kool and The Gang, Ann Peebles, Spinners, Delfonics, Blue Notes/Teddy Pendergrass, Bill Withers, Labelle, Commodores, Ohio Players, Stylistics, Ashford and Simpson, Fifth Dimension, Linda Lewis, Willie Hutch, Leroy Hutson, Marlena Shaw, Aaron Neville, War, Tower Of Power, The Moments, Cameo, Heatwave, Slave, Rufus/Chaka Khan, Gap Band...no Roberta Flack or Donny Hathaway? The failure to place Bobby Womack in his rightful place alongside his peers Gaye, Wonder and Mayfield is criminal.

There was a whole new generation of visionary, though lesser known artists in those fields as well. Gil Scott-Heron, Roy Ayers, Eugene McDaniels, Weldon Irvine, Swamp Dogg, Baby Huey, The Last Poets, Lonnie Liston Smith, Donald Byrd/The Blackbyrds, Cymande, Maxayn/Mandre. Mandrill was right there on that acid-funk rock trip with Funkadelic from the earliest days, and just as brilliant.

Artists like Barry White, Donna Summer, Crown Heights Affair, Chic, KC and The Sunshine Band, Sylvester broke new ground every bit the way George Clinton, Sly Stone, VU or Beatles did in theirs. Donna Summer was as great an all-around soul and rock vocalist as Gladys Knight, Tina Turner or anyone else, wrote much of her own material and her music was more groundbreaking. The Chic sound really did transform popular music overnight, and it hasn't been the same since.

None of these people have even entered the collective conversation, save for an odd Kool and The Gang or Donna Summer nomination. The Platters or Smokey Robinson are Hall of Famers, but Kool and The Gang and Roberta Flack are not? This is why we've seemingly gone from inducting Stevie Wonder to Grandmaster Flash overnight and people are wondering what's going on.

The continuity of musical progression has been broken by their ignorance and politics. A Hall of Fame is supposed to represent the best of the best, and be an educational tool. But it's obvious that the appointed 'experts' were the same schmucks who were glued to the dial in '78, accepting whatever second-rate Styx/Foreigner/Journey product was fed to them as the gospel, and probably to this day have never even listened to a recording by Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno, The Buzzcocks, Love or Richard Thompson (shouldn't you have to have some kind of license to practice musicology?)...and think that Barry White, Donna Summer and Harry Wayne Kasey are frivolous and worthless because Rolling Stone told them so.

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