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 1994
WHO THEY ARE:Vietnam-era British song interpreters, performers of a few songs that seemingly everyone breathing air with even a passing knowledge of rock music in the knows.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They’d probably have a fighting chance for even just “House of the Rising Sun” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, but I would argue that their finest contribution is one that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be unlikely to actually honor – they were a performing-only band, and wrote very few of their own songs, and still managed to be a great band with a great body of work. Rock music is a performance-based enterprise, and it’s noteworthy to be good enough at it that you can re-shape, say, a standard like “House of the Rising Sun” around yourselves so effectively that it’s hard to think of it many other ways.
AND…?: Oh I like the Animals a lot. Hard not to, really. I’m sure I would have liked them more had I heard them through their mien and not just absorbed their music osmotically, but they’re still plenty good.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO THEY ARE: Canada’s finest gift to Americana 3. They were great on their own, they were great backing Bob Dylan, and they were great (allegedly) as the band The Barbarians on that band’s hit “Moulty” 4
WHY THEY’RE HERE: If nothing else, they backed Bob Dylan and were the subject of a fantastic Martin Scorsese movie 5. But also, during their initial run, they made a handful of very good records on their own, and their first two records are as good an opening salvo as one could hope for.
AND…?: They were decidedly their own thing the whole time also, even though from the vantage of 2018 what they’re doing sounds considerably more conventional. They blended together a lot of things that weren’t that commonly found in the same band at the time and, if you listen closely, really still aren’t. And all of this is written and until this moment I didn’t mention “The Weight,” which is one of rock music’s finest hours no matter how slice it.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: Well, he played guitar on a bunch of songs associated with Lee Hazelwood 6, but people still pretty much think of either the theme from “Peter Gunn” or just, like, twang in general.
WHY HE’S HERE: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame loves a guitar player, and he sure was one of those. He’s instantly recognizable, and I suppose if you want to include someone for their ability to play through spring reverb then he’s the one.
AND…?: Oh, I like Duane Eddy just fine, but come on.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.
WHO THEY ARE: The progenitors of the jam-band, the leaders of the idea that music is to be enjoyed with only the parts that you would normally request be specifically kept out of your music, and the band responsible for one of the most inexplicably-rabid fanbases of all time.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were around in the sixties San Francisco scene that is oft-feted in the traditional rock historical narrative. People went crazy for them. They seem like nice enough guys, I guess.
AND…?: They are basically the apotheosis of “you had to be there” thinking. You have to have seen them live, and if you did and didn’t enjoy it then there was something else you were doing wrong, and on and on and on. This is my official opinion on the matter 7: if something only works in its own time and milieu, then it doesn’t belong in a hall of fame, the idea of which is enshrinement forever. If it doesn’t work forever, then it doesn’t go in. If you “had to be there” then why would future folk who want some idea about the shape of rock and roll care about it? I applaud that they managed to be super-extra famous without actually having, y’know, hits or record sales 8, but stop short of praising them, because they did so on the back of a bunch of dumb drug associations and godawful music.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.
WHO HE IS: The guy from The Lion King.
WHY HE’S HERE: Elton John sold ten bajillion records, wrote a bunch of songs that are all over the radio or whatever, and basically carried on in the Little Richard vein for several decades 9, only, y’know, whiter. He was tremendously popular and successful, and surely somebody set out to do things like Elton John, right?
AND…?: I have a hard time with this one. Elton John’s music is tremendously not my thing. He’s a good enough singer, and there’s plenty going on with his music that is good, but it’s largely by-the-numbers, and I can’t think of any real musical impact he had on music beyond his own sales impacts. I don’t know, folks.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t actually think so.
WHO HE IS: The first Beatle to die.
WHY HE’S HERE: He was a Beatle, for starters. But also John Lennon did manage to construct a career in which he was responsible for some fantastic, direct raw-singer/songwriter stuff 10 and still managing to explore some deeply out-there furthest-corners experimental stuff 11, and was pretty good at all of it.
AND…?: He made some really tremendous music on both sides of the normal/abnormal coin. The fact that he also made some tremendously awful music in both areas is beside the point: his good stuff is so very good, and even when he failed, he failed full-on and honestly.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The one reggae guy everyone can name.
WHY HE’S HERE: Even though reggae has very little do with rock music, Bob Marley did manage to have a pretty big influence on it anyway. He was an incredible singer and songwriter, who largely conducted his career at a high degree of integrity 12. He wrote great songs that have often been covered by rock dudes.
AND…?: It is fairly rare that the person who is agreed upon by consensus as being the best at something is actually the best 13, and Bob Marley is one of them. He was great.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not.
WHO HE IS: Former singer for the Faces, he was removed from school by Maggie May, who then turned out to be old. Quelle horreur.
WHY HE’S HERE: He had a tonne of hits, and was a fantastic singer. The Faces were a legitimately great rock band, and he had moments of brilliance in his later career, almost none of which were giant radio hits.
AND…?: The person he is most similar to that I have discussed here is Elton John: his talent and popularity are unquestionable. He’s a satisfying song-interpreter who wrote (probably) too many of his own songs 14. Since he, himself, is a sort of simulacrum of his own influences, it’s hard to call out where he is having influence on others directly, or where it just sort of happened to coincide.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t think so, no.
WHO HE IS: A blues guy most famous 15 for suing Led Zeppelin for songwriting credit, and receiving it in the eighties.
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, the Led Zeppelin thing probably. He was, however, also an extremely prodigious songwriter and an excellent singer.
AND…?: Sometimes he sang and played the upright bass at the same time, which is pretty cool. Beyond that, I don’t much care for it, but, y’know. He was clearly an early influence – Led Zeppelin stole his songs 16, and then a bunch of other people stole their songs.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, it’s in the early influence category, and that seems reasonable to me.
WHO HE IS: “The Godfather of R&B”
WHY HE’S HERE: He had an enormous influence on R&B, which in turn had an enormous influence on rock and roll, but of course in the R&RHOF, R&B is rock and roll, which is annoying, so he’s an architect thereof.
AND…?: He’s here as a nonperformer, which is even more confusing, since he had a bunch of hits as a bandleader and stuff. I don’t know, man.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I guess?
Class of 1995
The Allman Brothers Band
WHO THEY ARE: The archetypal southern rock band, complete with the archetypal rock tragedies and everything.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Southern rock was a going concern for awhile in the seventies – after The Band and CCR made the connections they made, the Allman Brothers reified it into the commercial juggernaut it would become. They also pioneered the “the best album is the live album” existence that many great bands would go on to be a part of. Oh and they had two drummers. I don’t know if that’s good or bad on balance, but they did.
AND…?: A lot of Southern Rock takes the most obvious elements from the Allman Brothers and runs with it, which is, I guess, fair, but one of the things that the Allman Brothers did is occasionally get really weird, especially Duane. Part of the reason that their live albums are the best surviving documents of the band’s work are because that’s when the band would stretch out and abandoned their usual approach, resulting in some pretty interesting stuff. Unfortunately, nobody takes on that part of it.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Oh sure.
WHO HE IS: The Reverend himself, the second-greatest singer in popular music history 17
WHY HE’S HERE: He had a bunch of great songs, and he sang them extraordinarily well. A whole lot of R&B folks took off from his vocal style, perhaps more than anyone else’s (even Sam Cooke’s). He might be second only to Marvin Gaye in “dudes from the seventies whose vocal stylings were widely copied.”
AND…?: Al Green was a great singer and an occasionally-great songwriter, with considerable influence, and while I don’t know how much of that influence was actually on rock music, that is, again, not the thing we’re arguing about here anymore I suppose.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure
WHO SHE IS: Perhaps the only person that rivals the Grateful Dead in terms of being the avatar of the Woodstock-type sixties musician.
WHY SHE’S HERE: Well, she’s also sort of the dictionary definition of “nonstandard vocal approach that is nevertheless effective,” which is something that rock music deals pretty heavily in. She also died tragically and young, which is another thing that seems to wonders for your legacy.
AND…?: Her band was an unbelievable snore 18. I will say that if there’s anything endemic to this mid-nineties batch of inductees, it’s that we are the in “extremely competent at a thing, but not much more than that” era. The era of the specialist, as it were. Janis Joplin was an ok interpreter and a real banshee wailer of a singer (in a good way), and as a result her music is effective when she is effective, and pretty much a sodden mess the rest of the time.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I suppose since she’s inducted without her band, it probably stands to reason that she does belong here. So yes.
WHO THEY ARE: The world’s premiere and foremost hard rock band. Basically the Beatles of being really loud.
WHY THEY ARE HERE: Because they were basically the Beatles of being really loud. Because the four of them were as good at doing what they did as any assemblage of players ever has been, and at least three of them invented new ways of doing their thing. They had an absolutely bulletproof run of albums, and even when their consistency died off their records still had moments of absolutely transcendent greatness.
AND…?: Oh I think Led Zeppelin are just the best. Even when they were preposterous and ridiculous, they were still pretty great. And on the rare occasions they were awful, they were awful genuinely, for their own reasons.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Without a doubt.
Martha and the Vandellas
WHO THEY ARE: A Motown girl-group most famous either for having a heat wave or dancing in the streets, depending on who you ask.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: I guess because everyone who ever recorded a note of music for Motown was under consideration, and someone was really plugging for every single Motown act to be inducted? I have no idea, here
AND…?: I mean, they’re good enough. I certainly like them. Their songs were welcome on the Hitsville: USA box set, which I suppose shows my age. I just don’t see what they’ve done that elevates them uniquely among other such folk.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.
WHO HE IS: He’s one of the only genuine actual bona-fide certifiable geniuses in the whole building.
WHY HE’S HERE: He’s a phenomenal songwriter, it’s true, but he’s an absolutely inhuman guitar player. Unlike a bunch of other guitar players here, he pretty much destroys whatever he’s playing ever time he plays it. His consistency is way high. He’s also managed to make interesting music 19 over the course of six decades of working. He’s only ever done what he wanted, and every single iteration of doing it has yielded devotees that have copied it. He’s sold a bajillion records, he’s influenced a bajillion bands, he’s done everything you could want. If he’s made some bizarre business decisions over the years, well, that’s not his music.
AND…?: I like Neil Young. He was great. I have very little else to say about it.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Absolutely
WHO HE IS: Guitar-wielding smart-ass and general progenitor of a lot of “comedy”-based rock music.
WHY HE’S HERE: He did a lot to be conceptual and weird while never actually being prog 20. He was also a tireless supporter of popular music’s right to be vulgar, testifying before congress about it and everything. He did have a lot of technical skill at the guitar, and he did bring a classically-trained musicians eye to his rock music, which is something, I guess, and which a lot of people took off from for their own careers. So he had considerable influence.
AND…?: You know, I wouldn’t have juxtaposed them like this, but I believe that Frank Zappa has gotten the reputation that Neil Young rightfully deserves. Frank Zappa made intermittently brilliant music, but wasn’t half the guitar player he gets credit for being, and generally wasn’t as clever as he thought he was. Still and all, there’s little denying his considerable influence, and in the field of dudes I’m ambivalent toward, there’s a lot worse.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: A soft yes.
WHO THEY WERE: Yet another forties R&B group.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: I think it’s probably fair to say that they are the Martha and the Vandellas of the forties: they did have some hits, and somebody clearly had a real hard-on for getting them in there.
AND…?: Oh they were fine. I mean, again, it’s not that they were bad, it’s that I don’t understand why they were special, and I damn sure don’t think they had very much influence over rock and roll.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No
WHO HE IS: A journalist who edited Billboard magazine for thirty years.
WHY HE’S HERE: I suppose since popularity is clearly part of the metric here, the folks that make the charts are a part of that.
AND…?: I actually have no opinion here. I know basically nothing about Paul Ackerman.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I guess?
- 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” ↩
- at least until The Sadies, I suppose. ↩
- more accurately, they were (allegedly) the backing band for the vocal performance by the regular Barbarians’ actual drummer, Moulty. ↩
- possibly the greatest concert film ever made. ↩
- I’ve never thought to be ticked off about it, but Lee Hazelwood is also not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s pretty dumb. He should be. Especially since Duane Eddy is. ↩
- which I may actually be restating, I can’t remember. ↩
- that’s not fair, they had “A Touch of Grey”. And occasionally one must sit through “Casey Jones” or “Truckin’,” but you see what I mean. ↩
- while, in fact, Little Richard was also carrying on in the Little Richard vein. ↩
- See the John Lennon Plastic Ono Band ↩
- See the Yoko Ono version of Plastic Ono Band ↩
- his personal life somewhat less so, but that’s about par for the course for HOF inductees at this point. ↩
- Willie Nelson, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and John Bonham are the other ones that come straight to mind, I could maybe come up with one more if I thought real hard about it. ↩
- I mean, for all that I don’t care for it, at least Elton John knew he needed help with the lyrics. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your limitations, guys. ↩
- justly or unjustly ↩
- My actual opinion on the matter is to take Led Zeppelin at their word: they were taking off from blues songs the way that other blues musicians were doing – blues people would bite bits of songs (much like rock musicians still do to this day) all the time, and it was just part of the blues economy. That Led Zeppelin didn’t think their thing was contextually different is a position that could be argued with, but I believe they were acting in good faith, and they never missed an opportunity to champion any of the blues music they took their influence from anyway. ↩
- behind Sam Cooke ↩
- it is worth noting that I used to believe the opposite, and as of this writing, I have no idea what I was hearing. ↩
- albeit not every time – his songwriting isn’t nearly as consistent as his guitar player, is what I’m saying here. ↩
- the R&R HOF hates progressive rock ↩