The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a place that I find, as an institution, vexing. The actual, physical hall of fame – the pyramidal building on the lake in Cleveland – is pretty cool, but it is 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 1 and the like was to think that they have about a fifty percent success rate for getting it anything like right.
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 2. So what if the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the same sort of deal?
And so it’s time to dive in and take a look at what the nominees and their enshrinement actually are.
Class of 1988
The Beach Boys
WHO THEY ARE: Those lovable lads from Los Angeles who wish they all could be California girls, and also wish that Rhonda would help them.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: 1988 is another of the years where most of the inductees seem pretty obligatory. The arguments for the Beach Boys are their popularity, and their pioneering use (on Pet Sounds) of the studio as a place to be self-indulgent, which some people call “innovative production” and I call “including fucking dog sounds on your dumb surf record.”
AND…?: Sigh. I get it, I do. They did stuff their way, and that’s fine. The fact that their music went from “relatively enjoyable pop music” to “insufferably self-indulgent pop nonsense” is certainly not because Brian Wilson’s vision failed him or anything – the records that exist 3 are clearly a part of his whole vision, and those records had an undeniable impact on the people that liked them.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Oh fine, sure. It’s not the “Things I Like” Hall of Fame, after all.
WHO THEY ARE: Four lovable lads from Liverpool. I’m sure if you’ve read this far, you’re at least passingly familiar with The Beatles
WHY THEY’RE HERE: True story: the Beatles are kiiiiiiiind of bending the rules by being inducted in 1988. Their first single actually came out in 1964, which the eagle-eyed among you will notice is 24 years before 1988, missing the 25-year cutoff. Whether this is just a nod to the inevitibability of their inclusion, or whether there’s a loophole I don’t know about is anyone’s guess. In any event, you know why they’re here. I don’t have to tell you this.
AND…?: Oh, sure. They made a bunch of great records. When they were terrible, they were terrible genuinely, in ways that reflected their desire to push their music to its furthest corners. They underwent two transformations, from gigging rock and roll combination to studio-bound construction back to live-room rock and roll outfit, and made good music in every form. There are a bunch of reasons why they’re overvalued, and why the constant comparison of other things to the Beatles is context-blind and kind of dumb, but that’s not a knock against their actual output and existence.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO THEY ARE: Four lovable lads from NYC. You may know them from their many hits, or from the several dozen people that have, at one point, been conscripted into singing under the Drifters name.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: See above w/r/t “many hits.” They also had a bunch of people in the group at various times that went on to be famous 4, which I guess must count in their favor? I don’t know, man.
AND…?: As assemblages of vocalists go, this was a pretty good one. As exercises in commercialism and recycling members all the time and all that go, it’s also a pretty effective one. Their artistic impact is basically nill 5, but they were popular and stuff.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.
WHO HE IS: The lovable lad from Hibbing, Minnesota. A nobel-prize winner, because the world is a strange, strange place.
WHY HE’S HERE: Because, to be as brief as possible, he’s Bob Dylan.
AND…?: I mean, he’s Bob Dylan. Much like the Beatles, there are ways in which his case might be somewhat overstated, but that doesn’t meant the case itself isn’t still immense. He always did his own thing 6, and he’s made a tremendous career out of being a unique, singular personality. He has, along the way, written a couple dozen of the best songs ever written, even if sometimes they’re few and far between.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Absolutely.
WHO THEY ARE: The four lovable lasses from Detroit. They would eventually be known as Diana Ross and the Supremes, and they would also go through latter-day Supremes at a rate that could be considered “alarming”.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Well, they have dick-all to do with rock and roll, as per usual, but they were hugely successful – 12 number ones is nothing to sneeze at – and they were a very effective mouthpiece for Holland-Dozier-Holland, the songwriting/production team that wrote most of the aforementioned number on hits.
AND…?: Eh. They’re fine. I have to allow a great deal of give when it comes to this stuff – the rock and roll hall of fame includes an enormous amount of this kind of music, despite it having very little to do with rock and roll. Under that rule, I guess the Supremes are deserving, but even grading on that particular curve, only just deserving. They were successful and Diana Ross is a good singer, but that’s about all they’ve got.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: This is a very slight yes.
WHO HE IS: The lovable lad from Okemah. You definitely know “This Land is Your Land.”
WHY HE’S HERE: Woody Guthrie was more or less the formative influence on the Greenwich Village folk scene 7, and indeed on folk music all over America in the second half of the twentieth century. He is that rare bird of folk musician who wrote at least one song that became – in the traditional sense – a folk song. He was a tireless representative of his causes, and he did more or less everything in his career guided by his own compass.
AND…?: He was great. He’s here in the “influencers” category, which is appropriate, and he’s up the same year as Bob Dylan, which is thematic and perhaps inevitable.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Of course
WHO HE IS: The lovable lad from Mooringsport. His best-known compilation proclaims him the “King of the 12 String Guitar,” and who am I to argue with that?
WHY HE’S HERE: He introduced the world to what would become the definitive version of a tonne of standards – “Good Night Irene”, “Midnight Special,” “In the Pines,” “Gallows Pole”, “Good Morning” and “John Hardy” among them 8. He really was a virtuosic twelve-string guitar player. He’s also an underrated singer.
AND…?: He’s also here in the “influencers,” which is undeniable for the number of people that have covered his version of the songs listed above alone, even if you leave aside the skill and talent on display in his performances.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The lovable lad from Waukesha. He has his own year-round exhibit in the HOF, and it’s pretty cool.
WHY HE’S HERE: He invented the solid-body electric guitar 9. More importantly even than that, he invented multitrack recording.
AND…?: Without Les Paul’s inventions, you literally do not have Rock and Roll as it actually exists.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
Berry Gordy, Jr
WHO HE IS: Berry Gordy Sr.’s son. Weirdly, he is actually Berry Gordy III, but he goes by Junior. Why not?
WHY HE’S HERE: He’s the founder of Motown records.
AND…?: The last few classes there’s been a record label founder. Might as well keep the streak alive.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Oh, whatever.
Class of 1989
WHO HE IS: The wanderer himself. He’s one of the guys who was basically knocked off the charts by the Beatles et al.
WHY HE’S HERE: He performed a mod blend of R&B styles pre-British Invasion, which was pretty influential. Also, I don’t know how much it matters, but he took the falling of his star in stride, and has not stopped making music, recently recording as a blues traditionalist.
AND…?: It’s admirable that he’s worked so hard at his thing, and his early hits are pretty good and undeniably influential, so I suppose we’re fine here.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure
WHO HE IS: A soul singer, responsible for “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, the first posthumous number 1 10.
WHY HE’S HERE: Much like his fellow dead-too-young soul singers from earlier classes 11, he’s here because he led his bands through the kind of performances that would be associated with rock and roll – small band, backbeat-forward, etc. He wrote some great songs, had some hits, had a great voice, and died tragically young, which gives him an easy hook in the rock and roll enshrinement world.
AND…?: Oh, Otis Redding was great. He’s not rock and roll, but as I’ve previously stated, I’m not fighting that fight here.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
The Rolling Stones
WHO THEY ARE: The other half of the British Invasion Diumverate. The one that still, inexplicably, exists in some form or another.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They sold a lot of records, they had a lot of hits, they did a lot of different things, and during all that they also occasionally managed some great music. I mean, more in the early going than in the late, but you know how it is.
AND…?: Their period of 64-73 was as good as you could want, if a little overloaded with some chaff. Their story overwhelms the actual music a lot of the time 12, but the music more than stands up on its own, even if they are, like Dylan and The Beatles, a bit overpraised.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO THEY ARE: Another Motown-based vocal group. Editorially speaking, Motown is entirely over-represented in this Hall of Fame.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because the Hall of Fame was bound and determined to get every single person who recorded so much as a hiccup in the damn building.
AND…?: Look, the Temptations aren’t bad. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” is often “well actually”’d as not being where the Rolling Stones got their name, if you choose to believe that, but it’s a great song nonetheless. I just think that the case for their specific induction is pretty thin.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No
WHO HE IS: He’s another Motown signee, technically, but since he was much, much better than The Temptations, I’m not going to rant about him here.
WHY HE’S HERE: Stevie Wonder was one of the people who demanded and received unprecedented amounts of creative control for his musical output. That alone is influential enough to get him in there. He had hits for several straight decades, and still is out there, albeit at this point as a nostalgia act, but still performing like Stevie.
AND…?: All of that is leaving aside the run of albums from 1972-1976 13, which are an artistic high water mark, and which came a full decade into his career. It also doesn’t touch on the sheer outright impressiveness of making records by setting all the instruments up in a circle and going from one to another, recording parts.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Absolutely
The Ink Spots
WHO THEY ARE: The first doo-wop group.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: I guess there’s some value in being first, and doo-wop is the thing that predates both rhythm and blues and rock and roll, but, like, I think that’s also reaching too far back here.
AND…?: I guess they’re alright? It’s early doo-wop, it’s pretty far removed from anything I’m able to evaluate. Of all the doo-wop groups I’ve spent time listening to, they sure are one of them.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Nah
WHO SHE IS: A massively influential, hugely popular singer…of jazz music.
WHY SHE’S HERE: ??????? I mean, it is impossible to overstate her effect on jazz singers. But this is the same problem as the Ink Spots – once you’re at “twice removed” it’s a little bit harder to figure out what’s going on. I guess by the time you filter her jazz singing down through all the stuff and get to the bottom, there’s some influence from Bessie Smith in there, but it’s certainly not direct.
AND…?: I’m not a vocal jazz dude. She had a nice voice, and a lot of people sang like she did. Sang jazz like she did. Because that’s what she did. She sang jazz.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Nope
The Soul Stirrers
WHO THEY ARE: The world’s most famous gospel group
WHY THEY ARE HERE: I think at this point, once we’ve had to deal with The Ink Spots and Bessie Smith, then we’re officially in “they felt obligated to include somebody” territory. A gospel group.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Obviously becase The Lord willed it.
AND…?: This is nonsense. Obviously nonsense.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No
WHO HE IS: Tyrannical superproducer and murderer who conceptualized the “Wall of Sound” [^14], although also did plenty of regular-old traditional producing.
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, he’s a right bastard, if not an outright monster, but he sure did know how to produce records that sound great and that people like. He presents a masterclass in trying to separate the art from the artist.
AND…?: It’s really hard to separate the art from the artist in this case, because so much o his working method was directly related to the monstrous behavior itself. I suppose he did have his impact, and denying that is denying the good things he did actually do for the world in favor of only considering the bad, which I guess I’m against, but man. What a dick.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, albeit reluctantly.
- 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” ↩
- one of the things not being addressed by this piece is the existence – or several-decade-long lack thereof – of Smile, but it should be mentioned that this record is disproportionately huge in the band’s backstory. First of all, we love an unfinished “masterpiece,” and second of all, we love stories about figures descending tragically into (drug-induced) madness. Smile for a very long time provided both. The fact that it eventually existed in a form that was cosigned by Brian Wilson sort of diminishes that aspect of it somewhat, but it was there, and it was real, for a long, long time. ↩
- former head Drifter Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Jimmy Lewis, Johnny Moore, probably a couple of other people I’m forgetting. ↩
- that’s not to say all of their music is bad – some of it is quite good – just that the things that are good about it are also present, to a greater extent, in the form of acts who weren’t just “whoever happened to accept a check from George Treadwell to back Clyde McPhatter this week” ↩
- I mean, his “thing” eventually included gospel albums. And, most recently, recordings of standards, despite the fact that he sings like Bob Dylan. That’s a dude that absolutely does not care what you think of his output. ↩
- see Bob Dylan, above, and Joan Baez, several installments from now. ↩
he didn’t write them, generally, but almost always when you hear someone else playing one of those songs, they’re playing it his way.
- although Leo Fender was the first one to mass-produce them. ↩
- He died in a plane crash after it was recorded, but before it was released. ↩
- Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, et al ↩
- the famous girlfriends, the tax evasion, the drug use, the famous feuding ↩
- Music of My Mind/Talking Book/Innervisions/Fulfillingness’ First Finale/Songs in the Key of Life ↩