The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is, as mentioned previously 1, a place that I find, as an institution, vexing. Located something like 10 miles from where I write this, it represents a tangible, physical embodiment of the things that I both love and hate about popular music.
Without retreading any more ground that necessary (see the link in the previous paragraph), the actual, physical hall of fame – the pyramidal building on the lake in Cleveland – is pretty cool. There’s a lot of great artifacts in there, their rotating exhibits tend to be at least interesting 2. As a museum it is, like most museums in Cleveland, world-class.
It is, however, spoken and thought of often as an intangible – as a sort of arbitrating body on the worthiness of the body of rock musicians. My thought, for many years upon surveying lists 3 and the like was to think that they have about a fifty percent success rate for getting it anything like right. The inductees owe something to the editorial body of Rolling Stone magazine, and specifically a close business connection to RS figurehead Jann Wenner, which makes me generally believe that it values popularity and credibility over any sort of contributive quality.
But what if it doesn’t? Previously I listened to and considered each of the best-selling albums of all time, and learned that they were considerably more of a mixed bag than I had thought 4. So what if the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the same sort of deal?
I mean, I’m comfortable saying I’m not going to come away with anything particularly revelatory here – I’m familiar with the work of nearly all of the acts represented, one way or the other, after all – and there are always going to be some authorial concerns where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is concerned. Primarily, when one deals with the R&RHOF one is dealing with a vestige of the old rock-focused, old-guard, “you had to be there” set, largely through the lense of having been the height of the record-sellingest part of the record-selling industry.
The foundation itself was founded by Ahmet Ertegun 5, in conjnction with the aforementioned Wenner, Jon Landau 6 , and others, in 1983, as the music industry itself was coming out of its late-seventies sales slump, and the building itself was dedicated in 1995, when it seemed everyone was going to be selling gazillions of records forever.
As the industry itself has contracted violently 7, and as the market share of the increasingly-dwindling record-selling industry that’s devoted to rock music has gotten ever-smaller, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has gotten somewhat sillier. It’s done a better job than I would have guessed at trying to keep on top of a shifting idea of the importance and impact of various and sundry rock outfits, although they still make decisions every year that make me question what, exactly, they are trying to do.
There are no answers forthcoming on that front: the nomination process is still a shrouded, closed-off proceeding with basically no way to figure out what’s going on. Nevertheless, every year there is a group of bands that are nominated, and every year the decision about who gets in, which is ostensibly open to voting by foundation members, seems to not make any goddamned sense.
And so, in light of how little we actually know about the powers that be in terms of why and how they make their decisions, it’s time to dive in and take a look at what those decisions actually are.
The Class of 1986
WHO IT IS: The duck-walking guitar-hero that started a bunch of this whole thing 8
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, as footnoted, he started a bunch of this whole thing. A lot of the part of the rock music DNA that the HOF is set up to appreciate starts with Berry – he was a guitar hero, a cult of personality, and he wrote and performed his own songs 9. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is also notoriously lenient on singers (or, in this case, singer-guitarists) who were unusually fluid about the bands they performed with, despite rock music clearly belonging to performances by bands instead of individuals. I’ll probably mention this a lot.
….AND: He was a great guitar player who helped make the template for rock and roll music, and he wrote some songs that hold up even today, six decades later. I’d say he’s a shoo-in.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED?: Yes
WHO HE IS: The Hardest Working Man in Show Business! The man who sings “I’ll Go Crazy!”, “Try Me,” “You’ve Got the Power,” “Think!”, “If You Don’t Want Me,” “I Don’t Mind,” “Bewildered,” the million-dollar seller “Lost Someone,” the very latest release “Night Train”! Everybody shout and shimmy! Mr. Dynamite, the amazing Mr. Please Please Please himself, the star of the show.
WHY HE’S HERE:Because that list of songs 10 doesn’t even cover the end of his time with the Famous Flames, let alone the JBs. Because he’s written songs that you knew even before you really knew who James Brown was. Because nobody did it better.
AND…?: Look, James Brown the person did some absolutely heinous shit. I wouldn’t want to sit down with him, even if he was still alive. He treated the people in his life awfully, and the closer you were to him the worse you got it. And so it’s hard to condone all of that. But his music is so far beyond the human concerns that ended in its production that he’s exhibit A in the idea of separating a person’s work from their life.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED?: Unquestionably
WHO HE IS: The blind guy from all those Pepsi commercials in the eighties, and the guy who Jamie Foxx got stuck in an impression of in the mid-aughts.
WHY HE’S HERE: He was a consummate performer, and made a bunch of hits. In this case I’m not sure what got him here, but my off-guess is it’s his way-ahead-of-its-time ability to smash together the various genres and influences that shaped him, and to make music that was, while probably not actually rock and roll 11, enormously influential to those that heard him.
AND…?: Ray Charles is not generally my cup of tea. He made records that I like, but his commercial and artistic influence is pretty much unimpeachable, and there are a whole lot of people who will come later that absolutely owe much of what they accomplished to Ray Charles.His place is pretty hard to argue with.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED?: Yup
WHO HE IS: Y’know, for a lot of these early ones, the question of “who they are” is “an R&B singer that made a bunch of records that people love.” Sam Cooke is the best of them, but it’s still a pretty common answer.
WHY HE’S HERE: Because he might actually have the greatest human singing voice ever committed to tape. He is another one (like James Brown) who wrote songs that you probably knew before you knew who Sam Cooke even was. His songs are in the DNA of pop music everywhere, whether or not it’s rock and roll.
AND…?: There’s a place for people who are the best at what they did. Even if his entire career had only ever included “Cupid,” “A Change is Gonna Come” and the absolutely-flawless 2.5 minutes that is “Bring it On Home to Me”, he’d still be the best.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED?: Absolutely
WHO HE IS: A rollicking piano man who made a career seemingly out of amiability.
WHY HE’S HERE: He was very amiable. There’s a lot of good-times music in the early going, and Fats Domino was one of its proudest purveyors. He certainly wrote and performed ballads, but they’re really not the reason he’s here.
AND…?: He’s fine. I like “Blueberry Hill” fine, and “Ain’t That a Shame” made a pretty great Cheap Trick song. He, like Ray Charles 12 isn’t really anything I go reaching for, but I’m never sad to be hearing him, and he really did have a nearly-incalculable influence on the music that came after him.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED?: He’s the weakest induction in the gimme class of 86, but he still deserves it.
The Everly Brothers
WHO THEY ARE: Rock and Roll as it was created was largely a bastardization of rhythm and blues (see every artist heretofore on the list), and country music. The Everly Brothers (along with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis in this class, among others) represented the country end of things.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Once again, the reasons are: a lot of hits, a lot of influence, a lot of name recognition.
AND…?: Oh, the Everly Brothers were just great. I have no qualms with their presence here at all, even if I can’t really specifically quantify what it was they contributed, other than some great songs and generally “being a real good band” stuff.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED?: Sure.
WHO HE IS: Rock and Roll’s first major casualty. One third the primary inspiration for that terrible Don McLean song.
WHY HE’S HERE: Most of the other class of ‘86 inductees are deeply tied to either the “race” or “hillbilly” 13 end of things. Buddy Holly was rock and roll’s first real hybrid – his meshing of the disparate influences that came together as rock and roll was pretty seamless, and while it was Chuck Berry, or Elvis, or Little Richard that had the most direct impact on the way things sounded, Buddy Holly seemed to be of rock and roll in a way they didn’t quite.
AND…?: I mean, I’d take the music of just about anybody in this induction year over Buddy Holly’s, but he damn sure was important.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED?: Yes
Jerry Lee Lewis
WHO HE IS: Another evil bastard that made great music.
WHY HE’S HERE: What Jerry Lee Lewis brought to the table was the kind of spirited, high-intensity playing that’s difficult to imagine even now. James Brown and Little Richard (see below) were also mighty intense performers, but Jerry Lee Lewis’ early material is so kinetic, and so destructive-sounding, that it almost makes it seem a reasonable response to hearing it to want all the records destroyed and everyone listening to it locked up. He’s also well-served by the R&RHOF video (or any video, really), where you can see him playing his piano like he’s trying to destroy it. He sort of embodied the early notion that whatever you lacked in mechanical ability, you could make up for by really meaning it 14 and still get over.
AND…?: The records pretty well stand for himself. Of this set of people, only James Browns’s records aged any better.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED?: Yes
WHO HE IS: Another piano-destroying wildman.
WHY HE’S HERE: For many of the same reasons as Jerry Lee Lewis, with less moral misgivings, better songs, and slightly-less-good performances, honestly. He’s more on the “r&b” side than Jerry Lee Lewis’s “country” roots, for obvious reasons, but they’re mining similar territory, at the end of the day.
AND…?: He made good records that make people want to dance. Can’t ask much more than that.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED?: Yes
WHO HE IS: You know who Elvis is. He’s The King.
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, he wasn’t called The King for no reason. I suppose the other interesting thing about Elvis, historically, is that he aged exceedingly ungracefully. I mean his musical career went deep into the toilet there toward the end 15, which would become a frightfully common career trajectory for people who got rich and famous very young, and then had to figure out how to stay that way.
AND…?: The pre-embarrassment records are as good as you could want them to be, and his impact and place in the firmament are inarguable.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The singing brakeman himself!
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, the reason there’s so much mention of country music above is that about half of the early rock and roll adopters came from that world, and Jimmie Rodgers is right there at the forefront of country music. He is to country as Chuck Berry is to rock and roll.
AND…?: His music dates really poorly, but some of his songs are pretty good, and it’s more rock and rollish than you might think.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yeah. He’s in the “early influences” category, so it’s a little easier to give him the space.
WHO HE IS: A crazy-ass blues piano player. If you’re familiar with the idea of “boogie woogie” music, you’re almost certainly thinking of the way Jimmy Yancey played, even if it’s filtered through somebody else.
WHY HE’S HERE: There were, as you can see, a lot of early rock and roll piano men, and they all owe something to Jimmy Yancey.
AND…?: Well, it’s still not my exact cup of tea. He has a much lighter touch even than Little Richard, but it’s an interesting sound, and it clearly made its impact
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Oh, sure.
WHO HE IS: Earth’s first guitar hero. He sold his soul and all that 16 , and recorded music that continues to reverberate to this day.
WHY HE’S HERE: In 30 recordings of 17 songs, Robert Johnson established a great deal about what would come to signify “rock musician” – he sang his own songs, he valued the performance ove the songwriting, he played the shit out of his instrument, and he even died at the age of 27. So even superficially there’s a clear set of influences. That some of his songs are enduring classics of the form, and have been given life by countless covers is an equally-powerful bonus reason.
AND…?: I suppose it’s not fair to hold him responsible for what happened to the blues as they moved North, so I won’t. I have nothing new to say about Robert Johnson, but nothing bad, either.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The radio Cleveland-area DJ that coined the term “rock and roll”
WHY HE’S HERE: Because he coined the term “rock and roll”
AND…?: I mean, Cleveland is home to the building because it’s where Alan Freed coined the term. It stands to reason that he’d be in there, right?
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure.
WHY HE’S HERE: He assembled the “million dollar quartet,” half of which was inducted in 1986, and founded Sun records, whose output is basically synonymous with early rock and roll, albeit largely because of the aforementioned quartet 17
AND…?: Not much else to say, really. Got together a bunch of really popular, really influential people. Started a really popular, really influential record label. That’s pretty much the long and short of it.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not?
- and previously. and previously. and previously. and previously. and previously. and previously. ↩
- I have a particular fondness for the ones that are in celebration of a photographer or producer – the people who create the documentation that these bands existed in whatever form – as they tend to be a really useful look at the time and circumstances of the creation of some of the music. ↩
- also the centerpiece of the museum itself, for those that have never been there, is a very long video encapsulating each inducted class, with clips of performances by most of them and things like that, and is generally a pretty cool thing to behold. ↩
- although they did, as you can read here and going back from there, skew toward “pretty bad” ↩
- He also founded, among other things (like one of the first American professional soccer teams), Atlantic records. The non-performer portion of the Hall of Fame is named for him. ↩
- who famously was so inspired by seeing Bruce Springsteen perform that he quit his job as a journalist to be Springsteen’s manager ↩
- see previously. and previously. and previously. and previously. and previously. ↩
- questions of “invention” and “first” are thorny to the point of being unanswerable, and certainly there are precedents for what Berry was doing, but I’m pretty comfortable saying that of all the people that were “first,” he’s the closest to the actual beginning that everyone agrees on. For what it’s worth, I’ve always taken Nick Tosches’ stance, which is that Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats’ “Rocket ‘88” was the first rock and roll song, but there’s enough to cover here without wading into that quagmire. ↩
- he was also an icky weirdo with a legal history that includes engaging in certain behaviors that are also celebrated in rock songs, even though they’re not the sorts of things you’d want to celebrate, exactly. ↩
- which is taken, verbatim, out of my own memory of listening to the introduction on Live at the Apollo, one of the very, very best albums ever made by humans. ↩
- we’re still early enough that the actual distinctions between “rock and roll” and “rhythm and blues” are pretty shaky. ↩
- and, honestly, most piano-men in general ↩
- these are the terms that were used on the charts at the time, see ↩
- and, once again, for being pretty vile as a human being ↩
- there’s no reason not to attribute this to anything other than the popular assumption, which is the greedy mismanagement of Tom Parker, who got his client drug-addicted and then pimped him out to anything with a large number of zeroes on the check. Nevertheless, it means that there’s a huge whack of Elvis’s career that’s pretty embarrassing. ↩
- besides in practical historical terms prefiguring the association with rock and roll musicians and the dang ol’ devil, this is the excuse generally given for the fact that when Johnson first tried to make his way through the world as a blues musician, he was a terrible one. He went away somewhere for awhile, and when he came back, he could play guitar like nobody had ever heard. While there are also reasonable explanations like “woodshedding” and “a bunch of practice,” it’s not a very rock and roll thing to attribute one’s newfound skills to that sort of thing, so we must talk about Satan. ↩
- which included Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, who were inducted in ‘86, Carl Perkins, who’ll come up in 1987, and Johnny Cash, who doesn’t get in until 1992 ↩