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 2002
WHO HE IS: The world’s foremost rhythm and blues scientologist, and the chef on South Park.
WHY HE’S HERE: He was instrumental in changing R&B, albeit not always in great ways. He also deserves full credit for being weird as hell, and inventing the cocaine-inflected long-jam-style R&B number.
AND…?: Despite all of that sounding pretty dire, I do actually like Isaac Hayes. I think most of what he influenced is lamentable, but his music itself is pretty good, and while it’s true that there are a few too many tinny, high-end-heavy long-ass songs in his middle career, he did lots of good work generally.
THE VERDICT: Yes
WHO SHE IS: An influence on rock and roll who’s up here with the performers because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a somehow-ahistorical museum. I know, I think it’s weird too.
WHY SHE’S HERE: She had a tonne of hits, it’s true, although it’s also kind of surreal that the one that has survived the most is “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”. She was a good singer, and had been very popular. She also has an absolutely crazy backstory about a singing career that started when she was, like, nine.
AND…?: Eh. She’s not the worst choice.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
WHO THEY ARE: Gainesville, Florida’s premiere rock band.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They sold an unfathomable number of records, and inspired the kind of cultish devotion among their fans that most bands can only dream of. They existed as a band for several decades with no significant drop in quality – they had hits for a very long time, and their fans (as far as I can tell) liked each of their albums. They were a touring and sales juggernaut, and they probably managed to inspire a bunch of people to pick up instruments and do some extremely-likable rocking.
AND…?: Extremely-likable they may have been, but I actually don’t like them. I mean, they’re fine. I’m not mad about it. I just don’t hear any of that stuff I mentioned in the other paragraph, and I’m not sure how other people do. To be honest, I find the rapturous reception of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ music to be utterly baffling.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Oh sure. I just don’t get it, that’s all.
WHO HE IS: A singer who became a songwriter, a multi-instrumentalist, and by no means a rock and roll dude.
WHY HE’S HERE: He was an influence on a bunch of rock and roll dudes, but recorded after the period that the HOF decides influencer must be in, and I’m tired of harping on this. Anyway, he wrote a bunch of hits, sang and played on a bunch of hits, and was generally responsible for a bunch of hits.
AND…?: Oh, whatever. He was fine. His songs are fine. It’s all fine. I dunno. I just don’t see it.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.
WHO THEY ARE: Probably the first punk band 3, definitely the best New York punk band, probably the best punk band.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Punk was, one way or another, an enormously influential development to the sound and approach of rock music. While the Ramones didn’t do this, it’s the set of venues/labels/allies that formed around post-Ramones punk rock that enabled the independent music scene to develop, and to continue to be present now. In a less-nebulous, more-immediate sense, they were responsible for injecting an appreciation for simplicity and for prizing communicative intention for musicianship (that is to say, making “what you mean” more important than “how you mean it”) into the rock discourse, and also for writing a bunch of super-great songs.
AND…?: Oh, I love the Ramones unreservedly and think they should be in every Hall of Fame that will have them.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO THEY ARE: The most famous of the artier end of the original set of punk bands, and the subject of one of the most beloved concert films ever made.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were instrumental in fusing a bunch of things to what would eventually be known as new wave – the uptown disco scene that sort of mutated out of the punk scene [^4], the eventual infusion of “World” music, and a level of easily-grasped musicianship and songwriting that meant they could have actual for-real hits and stuff, thus making them one of the most successful of the New York punk and post-punk bands.
AND…?: I have a somewhat complicated relationship to the Talking Heads. They were a singular, interesting, motivated band of talented artists and at least one genuine actual visionary, not to mention an absolute stone-cold killer rhythm section. They passed a bunch of different styles and ideas through their band in a way that made it seem coherent, and did so organically, without it ever seeming like they were just gluing parts onto their original conception. They deserve to be lauded for a high level of consistency across their entire run, even after having interpolated being rock stars into that, which is admirable. All of these things, on paper, mean that I admire the Talking Heads a great deal, and have thus listened to (as far as I’m aware) their entire recorded ouvre more than once in an attempt to find something about it to like, and I really don’t. There are songs that I like (although not that many), and I have said many times that I wish I could hear the things about the band that their fans hear, but I can’t, and I find their records to be sterile and kind of boring. I’m willing to admit this is my failing or whatever, I just have never been able to hang anything on their music.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Certainly, but with no real pleasure on my part.
WHO HE IS: The founder of Stax records
WHY HE’S HERE: Because he founded Stax records with this sister 4, which means he helped the world hear Booker T & the MGs (Stax’s house band), not to mention Otis Redding. Also early albums by Richard Pryor, for that matter, but that has less to do with Rock and Roll.
AND…?: It’s weird that his sister wasn’t inducted also, but I suppose that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his place as a non-performer.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure.
WHO HE IS: The country gentleman! Mr. Guitar!
WHY HE’S HERE: He was an inveterate sideman (he’s inducted in the sideman category) who played on a bunch of country songs you probably know. He also made a bunch of records of his guitar playing, some of which are quite good 5.
AND…?: I like Chet Atkins. He has exactly zero to do with rock and roll, and he’s inducted as a sideman for acts that have not themselves been inducted, which seems weird to me, but hey, he did great work and he’s not the weirdest choice.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Why not?
Class of 2003
WHO THEY ARE: Radio monsters and surprisingly durable karaoke favorites. The world’s most rockingest Australians.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They did a lot of rocking. They sold a bajillion copies and have a bunch of songs that continue to prop up rock radio stations as we speak. They’ve managed to achieve a sort of consensus status – no matter what flavor of rock music it is you’re after, you probably like AC/DC at least a little bit. They also managed to weather changing singers in midstream, which is no mean feat.
AND…?: I don’t love AC/DC – I can’t remember the last time I put them on recreationally – but if i’m somewhere where AC/DC is playing, then it’s probably the best thing that’s playing (i.e. because I’m listening to the radio or someone else’s bar jukebox picks), and I’m probably happy that they’re there.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO THEY ARE: The British punk band with the most radio hits.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: The radio hits thing, probably. Although it’s worth noting that the Clash also sort of started the eventually drifting together of punk and country by pretending to be cowboys 6, and they were also pretty happy to bring the commingling of punk and reggae that was already peppered through British punk rock to the mass audience.
AND…?: I used to love The Clash. Like, deeply love them. I haven’t listened to them seriously in awhile, although I can happily listen to “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” just about any time.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yeah
Elvis Costello & The Attractions
WHO HE IS: British punk’s first New Dylan. He was in a loose collective with frequent collaborator Nick Lowe and I think Joe Jackson who were described as “angry young men” in some official capacity, and despite the fact that I have no idea why.
WHY HE’S HERE: He sold a bunch of records and wrote a bunch of songs that people like, and has been more or less the same him for four decades. That’s pretty cool.
AND…?: Elvis Costello is fine, even if the things I like about his music are not things that other people like about his music. I suppose it says something about the degree of depth therein or whatever. Good job, Elvis Costello.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure
WHO THEY ARE: The band that unleashed Sting upon an unsuspecting, undeserving world.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because people love them. They were the “new wave” band most willing to play ball, and thus got to be very successful. I suppose, musically, it’s something to have injected the already-suspect corpse of major-label post-punk 6 with all of the worst ideas from prog rock. It’s like…whatever the exact opposite of chocolate and peanut butter is. They did that, and I suppose that’s a thing.
AND…?: I do not like The Police, although I will say this: every once in awhile I will hear a Police song, and they generally have about a thirty-second section where I can kind of hear what they were going for and even admire aspects of it. And then the song goes back to being a Police song and I hate it again. I do think Stewart Copeland was one hell of a drummer, though.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Gosh no.
The Righteous Brothers
WHO THEY ARE: The sixties vocal duo responsible for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, which, in turn, is sort of the avatar of the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” thing.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They had a bunch of hits and sang real purdy. Plus the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” thing.
AND…?: I dunno, man. I guess. I always have a hard time with acts that are fine, and that made most of their reputation on their mechanical talent 7. I’m inclined to call this one in favor of the Righteous Brothers, but only barely.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED Yes, but only barely.
WHO HE IS: A record label dude.
WHY HE’S HERE: He worked for a bunch of record labels. He didn’t start any of them or own any of them, but he managed (?) or ran (?) or, you know, did stuff for a bunch of them.
AND…?: I do not think that the rock and roll hall of fame needs to be in the business of touting the importance of people who are, at best, completely tangential to the music. The people that founded important labels, I can sort of get behind, since the sale of this stuff is a part of the whole general RRHOF mien, but I think I draw the line there.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No
WHO HE IS: The drummer for The Funk Brothers, and thus for a bunch of songs released by Motown.
WHY HE’S HERE: You know, I’m not sure. He was a fine drummer until he wasn’t, but Funk Brothers songs are generally marked by having a bunch of drummers on them – “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” for example, had three – and even then he was replaced by the end (i.e. by the time his drug problem incapacitated him) as often as he wasn’t.
AND…?: Oh, I think the Funk Brothers were underheralded geniuses, and his part in that probably can’t be understated, but I don’t know.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t believe so, no. Maybe ask James Jamerson. He was there.
WHO HE IS: A prolific and remarkable session piano player in Nashville.
WHY HE’S HERE: He was part of the Nashville A-Team and popularized (if not invented) that thing where piano hits the wrong note and then slips into the correct note. This is hard to picture, except that if you picture someone playing “country” piano it’s probably the sound you’re thinking of.
AND…?: Floyd Cramer was great, and he certainly had an impressive body of work. Still not Rock and Roll, though.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: The saxophone player from End of the Century
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, Phil Spector called him in to play on a bunch of records that weren’t Ramones albums, but that’s not important.
AND…?: I think he’s our first saxophonist? I’d have to look this up.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
- 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” ↩
- I’m no longer having this argument, so please feel free not to, unless you can bump into me ten or fifteen years ago. ↩
- who is not inducted, despite conributing two letters to the record label’s name – STewart and AXton ↩
- he made a wonderful collaborative record with Les Paul called Chester and Lester and a supremely weird record with Boots “Yakety Sax” Randolph and Floyd Cramer, for example. ↩
- I keep putting “new wave” in quotes because it’s a useful term to separate the bands that stopped being punk by sanding all the edges off and doing videos and stuff for their shiny label-abetted records, like The Police, from other post-punk bands that were merely helping punk evolve, like The Fall. ↩ ↩
- see also: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and, for that matter, The Police ↩