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 1996
WHO HE IS: Ziggy Stardust himself. Aladdin Sane himself. The ol’ Diamond Dog himself. The Thin White Duke himself. Liable to be the only David Jones in the HOF, unless something major changes.
WHY HE’S HERE: He had a restlessly-pliable artistic approach that led to him being the second person to do a large number of things. Every record he made from 1971 to 1983 basically provided a bedrock influence on a whole bunch of bands 3. He sold a tonne of records, and had an indelible aesthetic presence. He inspired a fanbase that is rabid beyond belief – there are people who are into David Bowie in a way that is almost unmatched by just about anybody. He was also a hell of a singer.
AND…?: I wrestled with my feelings about his music and its legacy in this space when he died, and I don’t have much to add to that, except that his music is largely fine, and also not something I engage with very much.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Inarguably.
Gladys Knight & The Pips
WHO THEY ARE: An extremely long-running soul act (they started in the fifties and had hits through the eighties) comprised mainly of family members. They are not, in fact, named “Pip,” which is something of a disappointment.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They had a bunch of hits for Motown 4, most notably “Midnight Train to Georgia.” That seems to be one of the magic buttons in terms of getting the HOF voters to agree on your place there. I dunno, man.
AND…?: I like Gladys Knight and the Pips, but I don’t know what specific thing made them deserve a place here. I can’t think of any specific influence they would have had, and while they did have a bunch of hits, only a couple of them are enduring in any real sense. It’s a mystery.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Probably not, unfortunately.
WHO THEY ARE: A bunch of San Francisco folks who played Woodstock. Best known for “White Rabbit.”
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because people can’t give up on a band that played Woodstock, I guess? Because there’s no floor on how few good songs a band can have and still be here? Jefferson Airplane’s major contribution to the world of rock music is codifying the template of “wailing big-voiced woman fronts otherwise-nonspectacular band” that you can still find on the charts today 5, but even that is just formalizing the Janis Joplin approach 6. The band also earns serious demerits for everything they did after they changed their name.
AND…?: They recorded an enduring pro-drug anthem, but other than that they were about as psychedelic as a glass of warm milk. They have high points, but not very many of them, and they aren’t very high. Their best song (the aforementioned “White Rabbit”) draws the “Lewis Carroll = drugs” connection that would provide pop culture and Hot Topic with some of their most irritating features for a long time. That’s not their fault as such, but it still colors the experience of evaluating them.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No
Little Willie John
WHO HE IS: A fifties R&B dude.
WHY HE’S HERE: He’s definitely another early-adopter of the major-asshole-drink-and-scream school of being a famous singer person. He recorded the first hit version of the song “Fever”, which has the distinction of being a song that I’m pretty sure I like every version of (including his). He was a good singer that had hits and stuff. I don’t know, guys.
AND…?: Again, he had nothing to do with rock music, except for providing a shitty behavior template and dying young, a thing a bunch of rock people would go on to do. But a bunch of non-rock people do that as well, so it’s not really a thing. He was fine, but we are clearly running out of major R&B figures.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.
WHO THEY ARE: Earth’s finest psychedelic band. Fight me.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were unbelievably enormous, which is pretty impressive given that even their unbelievably enormous records were weird as hell. They created the musical style that would morph into prog-rock, and then made better prog rock records than anybody else. They managed to survive their primary songwriting partnership consisting of the two biggest assholes in the world. They became the band’s primary songwriting partnership after their initial songwriter, who was the poster-child for an acid-casualty flake, wandered off, metaphorically speaking. Their sonic influence was multifaceted – you can go out right now and find a band that sounds more-or-less exactly like Syd-era Pink Floyd without even looking so hard, even if you live somewhere without much of a rock music presence. Their later, huger albums commit the sin of making it seem like a viable approach to slave over every single sound on the record and make crazy-ass piecemeal records that do not contain any actual band playing on them seem like a good idea 7. They made a great rock opera, a thing that has only been managed a bare handful of times since then.
AND…?: Obviously I love Pink Floyd more than is seemly, or more than is cool, or more than is even explicable. Their association with prog rock kept them out of the HOF for their first few years of eligibility, which is more evidence that the people in charge of this building have no idea what they’re doing.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO THEY WERE: Another in the ceaseless parade of vocal groups to be inaccurately called “rock and roll” for the sake of their induction here.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because somebody involved had a real hard-on for vocal groups.
AND…?: They sounded great, and some of those records are delightful. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is about as good as this stuff gets.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.
The Velvet Underground
WHO THEY WERE: The apotheosis of a cult band. The band about whom Brian Eno famoustly said that their first album “only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They existed almost entirely outside the mainstream for their actual existence. The fact that “Sweet Jane” has become something of a classic-rock standard 8 is more about how well they held up as both a subject for rock and roll discourse and as a thing that existed. They made phenomenal records that age extremely well. Lou Reed would go on to be an institution (and John Cale somewhat less so, unjustifiably). A million bands sound just like them, a few million more take superficial aspects of their music, and a whole bunch of great bands were inspired to be as weird and acommerical as they could be just because VU showed the way. If they also provided one of the bedrock influences for punk rock along the way (as Legs McNeil would have it), then hell, that’s the cherry on top.
AND…?: I have said before, and will continue to say, that the Velvet Underground, and especially their first two records, are literally impossible to overrate. There is no positive thing you can say about them that isn’t as true when taken to an extreme as it is when spoken of passively. I came around eventually the latter half of their studio discography, but I like it more every time I listen to it. They were an incredible thing that existed on Earth, and they should be praised and rendered immortal as a result.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes.
WHO HE IS: The greatest folk singer that ever lived 9. He wrote “If I Had a Hammer”, “Turn! Turn! Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, among others.
WHY HE’S HERE: He wrote some real-deal major folk standards. He provided the definitive version of a couple more 10. He was an outspoken activist, and provided an excellent template for how to be as a popular musician. He had a great voice besides all that, as well. He’s inducted as an early influence, which is cool, but I must also point out that his recording career started at the same time as the Pips’, who are inducted as performers, and none of this makes any damn sense.
AND…?: I’m all-in for Pete Seeger, man.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The DJ that helped launch FM radio, and thus a lot of the conventional audience/beliefs about rock music 11.
WHY HE’S HERE: Basically just that. He was important to the rise of FM radio, which has also proven to be surprisingly slow to die.
AND…?: I dunno. Seems like it’s fine. If you’re going to let DJs in, he oughta be one of them.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure
Class of 1997
WHO THEY ARE: At this point they’re more-or-less synonymous with disco, even though they weren’t as good as Chic.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: There are a handful of disco acts in the RRHOF, which is either a weird contrarian leaning 12, or some kind of need to be “completists”, despite the fact that the HOF is for a specific non-disco genre. For whatever reason, they’re including disco 13, and the Bee Gees seem like a reasonable place to start there.
AND…?: I have nothing in particular to say about the Bee Gees. I don’t like them. I think it’s funny that they broke up in 1968, reformed a couple of years later and spent a decade turning into a completely different band and then got famous. That’s always a weird trajectory, and it’s probably the most entertaining thing about them.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t think so, no.
WHO THEY ARE: A Canadian folk-rock band from the sixties. You probably know “For What It’s Worth,” and if you don’t I’m jealous of you because I wish I didn’t.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because Stephen Stills and Neil Young were there, and they’re RRHOF royalty. Their popularity was significant, and I guess they were a fine-enough example of a form (folk rock) that had already been done better by a bunch of people when they were doing it, but those other bands didn’t have Stephen Stills and Neil Young in them.
AND…?: They were a band I don’t like that still contained Neil Young. That takes some doing.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No
Crosby, Stills & Nash
WHO THEY ARE: An American (Stills moved south, see) folk-rock band from the sixties.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Stephen Stills is largely RRHOF royalty because of his role in this band, who were much better. They played Woodstock, which seems to be a sort of “automatic inclusion,” but as far as folk-rock goes they were about as good as it gets. They’re praised universally for their harmonies, which were indeed spectacular. They were enormously influential, hugely popular and generally existed at the same level of quality the whole time.
AND…?: They were better with Neil Young, but even though none of their music is anything I find myself ever desiring to listen to, I can respect that they were out there doing it I suppose.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
The Jackson 5
WHO THEY ARE: The act that launched Tito Jackson.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were the most popular act on Motown. Michael Jackson is quite possibly the biggest pop star to ever exist. Being on Motown helps, as does them being the bridge between classic-style R&B and disco (see above). They sold more records than I can fathom, and everyone that performed music in their basic mien sounded like them for years.
AND…?: Some of their singles (especially “I Want You Back,” but there are a handful of others) are absolutely bulletproof. What’s amazing to me is how well they performed as a group, and how even though Michael was clearly the star, they still all made their own contributions significantly. I guess being relentlessly sculpted/stage-managed by a total psycho will do that.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure.
WHO SHE IS: Of all the California folkies, she’s the most impressive. Even though she’s also Canadian. I guess I strap the “Californian” label to people at my own discretion?
WHY SHE’S HERE: Her influence on people is absolutely incalculable 14. She was plenty popular, and continues to be among the sort of people that have always liked her. She is a genuinely phenomenal guitar player, and she had an even better voice. She also knew exactly when to quit, and has a remarkably high quality-control level.
AND…?: I mean, I don’t really ever listen to it, and when I do it doesn’t really connect up, but I’m glad she existed, and I like absolutely everything about her except for her actual records.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO THEY ARE: Sort of the prototypal funk band. The fact that it’s actually the amalgamation of two different funk bands seems beside the point – they did a lot as Parliament-Funkadelic, but all of their best material was as one or the other. I suppose it was easier to get them in in their monolithic single-band form. Weirdly they also didn’t really appear as a single fused unit until 1980, which is not 25 years from 1996, so clearly they’re being inducted on the strength of their separate material anyway.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: We’re at the point where they’re also letting disco in, which grew directly out of the family of musics performed most effectively by Parliament-Funkadelic, so it seems like it should have been time to do this. They were occasionally genuinely great 15, and they definitely had more direct influence than any funk act short of James Brown, who invented the stuff, and maybe Prince (who gave their induction speech). As Funkadelic they were more of a rock band than any other funk band, and “Maggot Brain” is sort of funk-rock’s defining masterpiece. They were decidedly weird, made a bunch of great records, and if they spent too long coasting on their own reputation, well, that’s a human impulse it’s got to be hard to avoid.
AND…?: I like Parliament-Funkadelic, especially as Funkadelic. It’s also worth griping, while I’m filling this write-up with gripes, that only the Famous Flames were inducted as James Brown’s band, and not the JBs, which means that Bootsy Collins is only in there once, despite being an enormously gifted and influential bassist.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
The (Young) Rascals
WHO THEY ARE: Very near the bottom of the barrel for the fifties rock and roll guys, although by no means the worst.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were pretty important to the field of blue-eyed soul. Rod Stewart was inducted a couple of years before them, as was Bruce Springsteen, but that’s kind of the idea. I suppose by influencing those two heavily they made their mark, and they had hits and stuff, so they would probably get a pass.
AND…?: They’re fine. I’m baffled that they got nominated in 1997, and not before then, and I’m even more baffled that they got in before Gene Vincent (whose induction is in 1998, and is therefore a part of the next installment).
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not.
WHO SHE IS: The Queen of Gospel. I’ll never stop being happy that there are so many of these folks with easy-to-grab nicknames.
WHY SHE’S HERE: She was an undeniable influence on nearly everyone that sang soul music after her, especially the women.
AND…?: I mean, sure. As early influences go as established by previous inductions, she’s a lock.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The Father of Bluegrass. (See what I mean about the nicknames?)
WHY HE’S HERE: The RRHOF sort of gets this one right in an ass-backward way. I would imagine 16 that he’s here because he had a big day in the sixties, when the folk revival was happening, and when many of the inductees of this year were coming around. But “Hillbilly” music really is an elemental source of a lot of the roots of rock and roll, and Bill Monroe was a big part of that.
AND..?: Oh, he was great.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Absolutely
WHO HE IS: A noble midwesterner! He founded King records.
WHY HE’S HERE: He gets credit for starting the label that James Brown first recorded for (actually Federal, a subsidiary of King). He loses all sorts of points for being an utter lunatic, and for hating Brown’s music, only keeping it going because it sold. So it goes.
AND…?: There’s plenty of record label people in here already. I get this dude was famous and there are a lot of good stories about him, but that only goes so far.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.
- 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”
- The covers album Pin-Ups is an atrocity, and nobody wants to sound like that, although I suppose given the amount of bands that are weird glam-bands playing at being psychedelia that existed (and continue to exist), even that record is not without its followers, even if unintentionally. ↩
- interestingly, they signed to Motown in 1966, after existing for fifteen years prior. This is pretty incredible. ↩
- there was a new Florence and Machine record, like, a month ago or whatever, you know? ↩
- or rather the approach of marketing Janis Joplin ↩
- they prefigured a lot of the dumb, overworked “in the box” rock recordings that are now frightfully common, but they did it before computers by having stupidly huge budgets and a slavish devotion to making their music sound as sterile and un-human as possible. This is, ordinarily, the sort of thing I complain about grumpily. On paper I should not like their enormous records, but the alchemy of the dudes in the band is such that I do, in fact, like them. ↩
- not to mention that the death of radio as a driving-force for music discovery has sort of retroactively made hits out of “Rock and Roll” and “Heroin,” and maybe “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. ↩
- turns out the RRHOF class of 1996 is real heavy on things I am over-the-top enthusiastic about. ↩
- I like Lead Belly fine, but Seeger’s version of “Goodnight Irene” beats it in a walk. ↩
- I think I’ve talked about this elsewhere here, but the idea is that the rise of FM radio also led to the album-centrism of rock sorts of attitude, among other things. ↩
- the crowd for the HOF being, naturally, the currently-extant extension of the same set of people that used to hold record burnings for disco records. ↩
- it’s probably the cousin of the reason they would begin including hip-hop a few years later. ↩
- Recently Collin Newman, currently as half of Immersion, and ultimately as 25% of Wire, one of the greatest rock bands ever to exist in the history of ever, did a survey of his favorite records for The Quietus, and pointed out that “everyone who does [this interview where a musician chooses their favorite records for The Quietus] chooses Joni Mitchell.” That’s a long reach. ↩
- pace the “two different bands” thing, above. ↩
- but of course this is conjecture, because the actual process for nomination and induction is as opaque as it can be. ↩