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.
WHO THEY ARE: Our pre-eminent Swedish Disco-Pop group.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because people that were alive in the seventies like them. I have no idea why, or how, or for what reason. I do know that twenty or so years later 3 a bunch of people my age also decided to like them, for reasons that are equally elusive. Anyway, they sold a bunch of records and had a bunch of hits, like a bunch of the remaining seventies-holdovers we’re dealing with here.
AND…?: There’s lots of stuff I like about pop music, and lots of pop music that I like, and this contains pretty much zero elements of any of that. I don’t get it, and, frankly, I’m not even interested in it enough upon hearing it to try to get it.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No
WHO THEY ARE: Sort of the English prog-rock band, or at least the one most people think of first when you say the phrase “English prog-rock band”.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They did, in their original incarnation, make some terrific prog albums. Their popularity was such that they sold a bunch of records during a period where they were a weird band with a performance-artist frontman (Peter Gabriel, who went on to be a successful solo musician in his own right), the least-interesting drummer in prog rock (Phil Collins, who went on to be a successful solo artist in his own right), a wildly talented bassist who was also their secret rhythm guitarist 4 (Mike Rutherford, who went on to be….uh….Mike in Mike and the Mechanics), and one of the greatest rock keyboard players of all time (Tony Banks) 5, plus several pretty good guitar-players, all of whom played oddly and didn’t write, y’know, hook-y songs or whatever. It’s impressive that they got big enough to sell a bunch of records, is what I’m saying. And then they became the first of Phil Collins’s bands, and therefore beneath contempt. But those first half-dozen or so records are pretty top-flight.
AND…?: The Gabriel/Banks/Rutherford/Collins/Hackett lineup did the best work (Nursery Crymes/Foxtrot/Selling England by the Pound/The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). Everything after that is bad, and the two albums before it are much patchier.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure
WHO HE IS: If you can only name two reggae singers, he’s the other one.
WHY HE’S HERE: He managed a degree of success starting being the focus of the soundtrack (and, for that matter, the film) The Harder They Come and ending sometime before he’s on the soundtrack to Cool Runnings. He wrote a bunch of songs that were successful but largely forgotten in the meantime, and probably did a lot to let people in on reggae that was a bit more modernist or pop-inflected than Bob Marley’s roots-y variety.
AND…?: Oh, Jimmy Cliff is fine in his way, and I’m not opposed to reggae having more entrants into the HOF, since every other goddamn genre gets a bunch. My reggae tastes run way more toward the dub end of things, but I suppose he’s there for no worse reasons than anybody.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure
WHO THEY ARE: Graham Nash’s other band.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: I reckon it’s because Graham Nash was the only member of Crosby, Stills, Hash & Young to not be in the RRHOF twice and they wanted to be fair. That’s about all I can come up with.
AND…?: Oh, I actually like the Hollies more than any other non-Neil Young CSN endeavor, they just weren’t, like Hall of Fame material.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not actually, I’m afraid
WHO THEY ARE: Detroit, Michigan’s finest purveyors of rock and roll. Actually, they’re quite possibly the world’s finest purveyors of rock and roll (sort of, see below), but it’s funnier if it’s just the one city.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Well, their influence is basically incalculable. Everywhere they went they planted the seeds that would grow into any number of scenelets/subgenres. Most of the “screaming frontman” subgenres wouldn’t exist without the Stooges, as would a bunch of execreble cock-rock, but let’s not talk about that. They made most of their reputation while they were extant on their shows, which were easy to write about because Iggy Pop is a nutbar, but they also managed Rock and Roll’s finest thirty-six and a half minutes in the form of Fun House, the greatest rock record ever made. Their other records are pretty-good-to-great, but Fun House is a monolithic, life-changing masterpiece of a record, and even if it were the only thing they’d ever done, it would secure their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And that’s not even the one with “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on it, which probably deserves its own glowing, adjective-filled praise-up, but I’m trying ot keep the word count down.
AND…?: Great band. It’s embarrassing that it took this long to get them in, and hard to imagine what anyone thought a rock and roll hall of fame without the Stooges was meant to be.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: More than almost any other band that was ever inducted, yes.
WHO HE IS: The guy who founded Geffen records, among other things.
WHY HE’S HERE: OK, so for whatever reason in 2010 there’s a bunch of here receiving the Ahmet Ertegun award, after giving it out once (in 2008) since 2003. I don’t know what this is, but David Geffen is here becuase he was the A&R guy for a lot of people, and he started a record label that sold a bunch of records, and that’s the worst part of the HOF represents, and here he is.
AND…?: I have no opinion about David Geffen.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I am of the longstanding opinion that I do not care about A&R people or corporate-label-people. So no.
WHO HE IS: Not an industry dude this time, but a songwriter. He wrote “Fever” and “Great Balls of Fire,” for example.
WHY HE’S HERE: In addition to those two songs, he also wrote a boxcar full of Elvis songs, including a bunch of huge hits.
AND…?: I’m a fan. I also like his recordings, which tend to be a lot less overblown, vocally.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich
WHO THEY ARE: They were the husband-and-wife songwriting team that wrote a bunch of Phil-Spector-abetted Motown hits.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: You know, for some of these there don’t need to be two of these entires, right? I mean, they’re here because they were the husband-and-wife songwriting team that wrote a bunch of Phil Spector-abetted Motown hits. I’m really constraining myself by my form here.
AND…?: They’re good songs.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure
WHO HE IS: A pre-rock and roll singer who was huge in France.
WHY HE’S HERE: I guess because the glut of non-performers in this year needed a dude who wrote songs for, say, Bobby Darin.
AND…?: I dunno, man, seems specious.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No
WHO HE IS: Mainly he was Chuck Calhoun, the guy that wrote “Shake, Rattle and Roll”
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, according to Ahmet Ertegun, he “did more to develop the basic rock ‘n’ roll sound than anybody else”, which I guess is why he’s here winning the Ahmet Ertegun award.
AND…?: I pulled that last bit from Wikipedia because I only know a couple of Chuck Calhoun songs, and don’t have much of an opinion about them.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not.
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill
WHO THEY ARE: Wildly prolific (and also married) songwriters.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They wrote tonnes and tonnes of songs that were huge hits that everyone knows.
AND…?: I think I just about like one of those songs 6, although I admire that they went out of their way to be socially conscious, which is relatively rare among pop songwriters. Good for them.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I mean, I guess so, but I’m not going to be happy about it.
WHO THEY ARE: A band who is named for their singer, the first (and best) 7 shock rocker.
WHY HE’S HERE: There’s always been a heavy dose of the theatrical in rock music, but Alice Cooper were out there making the theatre the point. Because they had to make their point by first getting people into the music (a thing that later theatre-based rock dudes would not have to worry about), the music, for the first handful of albums anyway, is also top-notch heavy garage rock. They were great musicians and it’s hard to deny the influence of things like the guillotine on the presentation of rock music for a couple of decades, at least.
AND…?: If you stop at, say, 1972 or so, you’ve got a hell of a body of work and you don’t even need the guillotine.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: A man with a voice as powerful and velvety as his luxurious chest hair.
WHY HE’S HERE: That’s a real head-scratcher! Neil Diamond was a pretty good songwriter who had a bunch of success writing stuff that people liked and that was sometimes rock music, and he sang the absolute hell out of everything he ever sang, but what that has to do with rock and roll is pretty well beyond me.
AND….?: Oh if you want to hear somebody lead a band in a non-rock-oriented context, and really feel a singer go to town, you can’t do much better than Hot August Night. I don’t know much of the rest of it beyond the singles, but it’s a great record.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I do not actually think so.
WHO HE IS: The dude most people think of when they think of musicians from New Orleans, probably.
WHY HE’S HERE: You know, I suppose the guiding principle of this class of performer inductees is that they’re all very theatrical, – I mentioned it with Alice Cooper, but it definitely includes Neil Diamond and now Dr. John. He sold a bunch of records as a boogie-woogie piano player, which I do genuinely love, even though nobody thinks of him as being one of those. I don’t know that I could say much about his influence (other than on, say, Tom Waits, who was inducted the same year), either, but everybody seemed to like him.
AND….?: Obviously I’m kind of all over the place here. I like Dr. John’s music just fine, but it isn’t rock and roll, and it is probably the least interesting thing about Dr. John himself, or his performances.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: On the one hand, probably not , for the reasons outline above. On the other hand, there are tonnes of single representatives of styles and subgenres and all that all over the HOF, and Dr. John is no less deserving than any of them. So yes, after all that.
WHO SHE IS: She’s the woman who sang that Christmas song you’ve probably still got in your head.
WHY SHE’S HERE: Well, she’s probably here as an apology for being mistreated by Phil Spector. This induction happened a few years before 20 Feet From Stardom, which makes it seem more genuine than it might otherwise. She was an accomplished singer, and did a lot of intersting stuff on a lot of recordings.
AND…?: She should be inducted as a sideman, given that she was primarily a secondary vocalist, except on that godawful Christmas song.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not as a performer, no.
WHO HE IS: A gravelly-voiced faux-hobo (fauxbo!)
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, he made several of the finest records ever made. He’s also in on the theatricality theme of 2011, since he’s playing a character (conveniently named “Tom Waits”) pretty much every time he does anything in public. He’s a terrific songwriter, a great performer, and while he didn’t sell very much, he did manage to carve out a really interesting sonic/genre space for himself in a way that I would believe was influential.
AND…?: I’m serious about that “several of the finest records ever made” business.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: He founded Elektra Records.
WHY HE’S HERE: At least he got in after Elektra Records’s greatest band (The Stooges) got in. Pity he beat Love. Also: Love should be in the HOF.
AND…?: Most of the stuff that was on Elektra until 1980 or so 7 represents the absolute worst of possible avenues to be a rock band, and I’m sad that he got in at all. Also, I have never once, not even one time, ever, seen his name and not, for some span of half a second or whatever, thought that it said “Jaz Coleman”, which would be much cooler.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Nah. Somebody else would’ve picked up the Stooges, and nobody else should have picked up Bread or The Incredible String Band.
WHO HE IS: He started Specialty Records in the forites.
WHY HE’S HERE: Specialty Records did big business in “race” records in the fifties, and turned out to be a terrifically important labe.
AND…?: Art Rupe is still alive, and turns 102 next week. That’s fantastic, good for him.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, I’ll put aside my usual label-guy screed in this case. I mean, I still don’t care about label guys, but 102!
WHO HE IS: The first person to be inducted for “Musical Excellence,” the category that replaced “Sideman” 8. He was a piano player.
WHY HE’S HERE: He played piano on a whole bunch of records by folks who are inducted here, he wrote a bunch of songs that a bunch of people went on to cover, and he looked cool.
AND…?: That sounds like plenty of reasons to me to get him in there.
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 believe it was pinned to the release of a greatest hits album, but I’m not going to do the research necessary to be sure, because that would involve thinking about ABBA for longer than necessary. ↩
- generally he was the other guitar, they had several lead guitar players. He played a lot of 12-string parts. ↩
- Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson are invited to lick ‘em. ↩
- that would be The Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place” ↩
- It was a corporate label, so it always had more clunkers than hits, but at least in the eighties they signed The Cure and Billy Bragg and Bjork. You see what I mean. Stuff like that. ↩ ↩
- Which, I guess, means that when I said earlier that I thought Darlene Love should be inducted as a sideman, I really meant she should be inducted for “Musical Excellence”. ↩