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 2000
WHO HE IS: God, as contemporaneous British graffiti would have it. He’d probably agree.
WHY HE’S HERE: Well, as far as white blues dudes go, he was the most popular and the most accomplished. He was an almost unbelievably mechanically talented guitar player – that dude could play notes.
AND…?: He’s like, the picture in the dictionary next to “not my cup of tea.” When he showed up and played songs instead of doing whatever ostentatious guitar masturbation was his usual metier, he was sometimes pretty ok. That didn’t happen very often though.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, as long as I don’t have to listen to him.
Earth Wind & Fire
WHO THEY ARE: An enormously popular R&B group
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They sold a bajillion records, and anyone with even a passing interest in R&B probably likes not only their records, but a bunch of records that sound very, very similar. Whether it counts as Rock and Roll is yet another argument, but I think I’ve hashed that one out enough in this space to call it a dead horse.
AND…?: The things that are the best about Earth Wind & Fire – the vocal interplay between the high-singing dude (Phillip Bailey) and the low-singing dude (Maurice White), and that unimpeachable horn section are somehow the only two elements that forty years of R&B didn’t take from EWF. That seems weird to me, although I suppose they’re also the hardest elements to duplicate.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
The Lovin’ Spoonful
WHO THEY ARE: A folk band who wanted to make sure everyone believed in magic. I’m also fairly certain that they were Les Moore’s favorite band in the comic strip Funky Winkerbean, which made some to-do out of some belonging (an autoharp?) of John Sebastian’s in a decades-old run of strips that I absolutely cannot find any evidence of. Ah, well.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Uh…because they had a couple of hits and the Hall of Fame voters have fond memories of falling asleep to these records? Because, like, I’m pretty sure that’s all you can do to a Lovin’ Spoonful record. Fall asleep, I mean.
AND…?: I dunno, guys. Usually I can recognize that something just isn’t for me while also being able to recognize what it is that makes people like them 3
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No
WHO THEY ARE: Cleveland’s pre-eminent rhythm and blues act!
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They should be an early influence, as most vocal groups from the fifties should. They were from Cleveland, where the HOF is located, and there are very few things people from Cleveland like more than other people that are from Cleveland 4. They were also managed by Alan Freed, so I guess maybe that?
AND…?: The Moonglows were fine, I’m just not seeing what would get them in, you know? They weren’t that good.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No, although because I am from Cleveland, I want very badly to say yes.
WHO SHE IS: The pre-eminent lady blues guitar player 5.
WHY SHE’S HERE: She’s the most popular lady blues guitar player.
AND…?: You know, I genuinely feel bad that I don’t have more to say here other than “lady blues guitar player,” but her music is pretty middle of the road. I’m sure she’s influenced a bunch of people to pick up guitars, but I don’t know who they are. She sold a bunch of records and stuff, and she was better than some of these people. Far be it from me to say that there should be fewer women in the HOF.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yeah sure, I just don’t have a very good argument for it.
WHO HE IS: Sort of the apotheosis of singer-songwriterism.
WHY HE’S HERE: If you believe in the power of non-rock-oriented singer-songwritering, then it’s probably James Taylor who did that for you. He actually did a lot to take the “rock” out of “folk rock,” and I would argue that his music is anti-rock, such as it is, in that any of the sonic signifiers of rock music (especially band interplay, dynamics and/or volume as a fundamental compositional element, and most especially a focus on the method of achieving the note over the note itself 6) are diminished or specifically reversed in the case of James Taylor’s music. I believe this even without taking into account my own feelings about rock music – there is no particular virtue in being a rock musician, in and of itself, but I think that James Taylor emphatically was not one.
AND…?: I also don’t think his songs were very good, but I appreciate that he approached them genuinely and performed them with authority,. I have no issue with him making his music, I just think that not only does it fail to serve the genre (which is very common, and about which see above and much of the material in the previous entries), but it is counter to the genre.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, no. I think he’s in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. That’s a good place for him.
Nat King Cole
WHO HE IS: A prominent vocal jazz dude. He also hosted a tv show.
WHY HE’S HERE: Because he was, in the manner of all “Early Influences” an influence on the folks that would influence rock and roll 7. But he was super-successful and was a big influence on the idea of music being personality and performer-driven.
AND…?: The year 2000 might be the year of inductions that are the least to my taste, and Nat King Cole is in keeping with the trend.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure
WHO SHE IS: Also a vocal jazz person. She was a much better singer than Nat King Cole and, indeed, just about everybody.
WHY SHE’S HERE: For all of the same reasons as Nat King Cole (except the tv show – she never had a tv show), only moreso.
AND…?: Billie Holiday was much better than Nat King Cole, even as vocal jazz remains my least favorite kind of jazz.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: Yet another record label owner, this one one that is almost constantly fellated seemingly all the time. He talked a bunch of bullshits last year also, which was pretty entertaining.
WHY HE’S HERE: Again, because people can’t shut up about his ability to spend his money really changed things for the blah blah blah.
AND…?: His “eye for talent” is overrated, and I’m not a fan of him as a person.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really, but I’m probably alone in that one.
READER BE ALERTED: this is the first year that sidemen are recognized by the HOF, so there’s a bunch of them to follow, and 1 or 2 will be in every year subsequent to this one.
WHO HE IS: He was the drummer for the Wrecking Crew, who played on a bunch of records in the sixties in California.
WHY HE’S HERE: Like all of the people inducted under the sidemen banner, he’s here for being a more-than-capable studio musician.
AND…?: He’s an excellent drummer, and an induction for the people that actually made the sounds that appear on the records is great, and he’s definitely worthy of one of those.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: A sax player. That’s him on “Respect”
WHY HE’S HERE: He was a very good sax player, played on a bunch of records that you’ve all probably heard.
AND…?: So I’m generally in favor of the sidemen category as an idea, but the fact remains that they’re all pretty much slam-dunk choices 8
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: Did you know Motown didn’t credit recording musicians until into the seventies? Doesn’t that seem insane? I think it seems insane. Anyway, the person who was not credited as playing the bass on most of the early Motown hits was this guy.
WHY HE’S HERE: He played bass on most of the early Motown hits
AND…?: Bass. He played it. He sure did play that bass. Bass bass bass.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure.
WHO HE IS: Elvis’s guitar player.
WHY HE’S HERE: He played guitar on Elvis records, and is genuinely (along with Hal Blaine) one of the people in the sidemen category that most people can recognize the playing of, and name without working too hard for it.
AND…?: He is very much one of the most influential guitar players of all time, and he was probably a large part of the reason why this category had to exist in the first place.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Unquestionably
WHO HE IS: A tasty combination of iced tea and lemonade, named for the alcoholic golfer who allegedly invented him.
WHY HE’S HERE: Because he is refreshing and delicious on a summer day, whether you’re on the golf course or not.
AND…?: I don’t know how a frosty beverage played on all those Little Richard albums, let alone ten years before he was invented, but he sure did.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
Class of 2001
WHO THEY ARE: The textbook example of how far it’s possible to sink, quality-wise, and still remain some version of yourself as a band.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Well, their seventies records were very popular, and did a lot to influence the image and sound (for better or for worse) of a lot of the hard rock that would come in the eighties. Sort of a de-homosexualized glam-image thing. Their sound was a little less influential, but that’s because they were never particularly sonically innovative.
AND…?: They’re fine. Their early records are very good, with somehow-increasingly-diminishing returns as they go, and presumably whatever their next somehow-deathless reunion record is going to sound like, it’s going to be really, really depressing. So it goes.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: This is one of those cases where I have to make a decision 9. Taken as a whole, they’ve got about five good years as a band and about forty as a terrible mockery of a band. But those five years are better than most bands managed, so I’m willing to say it’s enough to get them in.
WHO HE IS: Terrifically prolific R&B singer who had one foot firmly in classic-style R&B and another in old-style soul, and did both wonderfully.
WHY HE’S HERE: He had a real moment at the turn of the century, which I suppose led to the visibility he was granted that got him here. He was something like the Velvet Underground of R&B, although he had significantly more minor hits, making records that inspired people directly and immediately to start making other records, even if they didn’t sound exactly like him 10.
AND…?: I’m a little surprised, to be honest – he’s a fantastic singer and songwriter who made great records, but he’s a little outside even the purview of the RRHOF, but I’m super-happy to see him, especially after the deluge of “meh” that was the 2000 inductees.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes, if surprisingly
WHO THEY ARE: The bottom of the doo-wop barrel.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: I am not a doo-wop expert, or even what you’d call a doo-wop fan under the circumstances, so I am a little more in the dark than usual when it comes to this sort of thing, but The Flamingos were dishwater dull, and their big hit was probably the worst version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” I’ve ever heard 11. There may be some argument to be made by doo-wop folks for their importance to doo-wop, but I’m having a hard time translating it to Rock and Roll, y’know?
AND…?: Dishwater dull. Seriously. There is a limit to smoothness, and this is downright frictionless.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Nope
WHO HE IS: The King of Pop
WHY HE’S HERE: Because, regardless of any set of feelings or thoughts on the matter, he couldn’t not be, given the history and circumstances of HOF induction
AND…?: I like Michael Jackson fine, if mostly in small doses
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yeah
WHO THEY ARE: the patron saints of rock music at sporting events and crowded bars. The subject of the second-most-monetarily-successful music biopic ever made.
WHY THEY’RE HERE: Practically, because they made the most popular glam rock ever made, and ignited a bunch of glam-esque musical passions. Bands inspired by Queen continue to happen all the time. Ideologically, Queen (along with Led Zeppelin and, to a considerably lesser extent, Kiss) are one of those “of the people” bands, with the standard line on them being that they were enormously popular without institutional approval 12, and thus were inaccessible to those brain types who just don’t “get” it. It’s a popular position among bands so enshrined, and it serves the band’s legacy well.
AND…?: I am on the record as being one of those brain types on whom the charms of Queen are almost entirely lost. I get what there is to like, but it pretty much entirely fails to connect with me, and I don’t really hear anything special about it beyond the mechanical talent of their singer.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I suppose they are, but there are a thousand rock bands I’d rather listen to at any given time.
WHO HE IS: Half of the only living boy in New York. The better half, to be fair.
WHY HE’S HERE: People really like Graceland 13, and he had plenty of hits besides, but mostly I think that this is probably mostly about making sure Art Garfunkel knows that he’s never the first banana.
AND…?: I don’t think I like any of Paul Simon’s non-Simon & Garfunkel music, but it’s undeniably successful and did a lot to bring “world” music to people’s attention, for whatever that’s worth.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure
WHO THEY ARE: A pair of jazz-rock weirdos
WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were sort of outside-prog enough to seem weird to people that didn’t like prog which, at this point, still includes the HOF selection committee. Anyway, they were enormously successful and made a couple of records that people really like. Maybe they got inducted this specific year along with Paul Simon because Chevy Chase was out there bribing people.
AND…?: I mean, they’re fine. I’m happy to admit that they made records that changed the way a lot of things on the radio sounded, and I like some of what they do, but they’re primary issue is that it really doesn’t age well at all.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I guess, but I could change my mind about that at any time.
WHO HE IS: Early rock and roll dude who died the same day the music did 14
WHY HE’S HERE: He had a surprising number of hits given the fact that his recording career both 1) lasted only two years and 2) began when he was fif-fucking-teen. “La Bamba” is nigh-unimpeachable, and “Donna” is almost as great.
AND…:?: He only made the one record during his lifetime, although he also sort of (unfortunately) pioneered the practice of every single recorded scrap of music being exploited by his record label/estate, and it’s a genuinely great record. Hard to argue with that, really.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
NB: There are no early influences from this year, and will not be any more until 2009
WHO HE IS: He started Island records.
WHY HE’S HERE: Because if you don’t fellate the record labels they might not give you stuff I guess.
AND…?: You cannot imagine to what extent I have nothing to say about the guy who founded Island records, despite liking plenty of Island Records’ output.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: As far as it goes, sure.
WHO HE IS: a truly dazzling rockabilly guitar guy.
WHY HE’S HERE: He’s inducted as a sideman, and played on a tonne of pre-/early- rock and roll songs. He also continued to play for a frightfully long time.
AND…?: Oh he was fantastic, no argument here.
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes
WHO HE IS: Chuck Berry’s piano player
WHY HE’S HERE: Leaving aside the HOF’s love of a piano man, he was pretty good, if generally overshadowed by Chuck Berry
AND…?: I think I have little to say but “Sure, why not?”
RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not?
- 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” ↩
- see above, as concerns Eric Clapton ↩
- NB that I have no idea how many HOF voters have any ties to Cleveland, it just seems like that would probably be a contributing factor. ↩
- meaning she’s a lady who plays blues guitar, not that she plays guitar because of her lady blues. Although who the hell knows, she might. ↩
- a functional definition of rock music is something that’s slippery, and every few posts in this series I need to highlight more aspects of them. I haven’t written the thing out yet because I don’t really know all the things that it would have to have in it in order to be a complete definition, and so I acknowledge that this argument in its current form remains somewhat undersupported and possibly even hard to understand. I assure you that it would not be any easier in person, but you’re welcome to give it a shot. ↩
- he died, in fact, the year that Help was released, so he didn’t really even live into the era we’d call “modern” rock music. ↩
- even looking down the line, I don’t really see anyone I don’t agree with, so it’s pretty clear sailing ↩
- for more about this decision, see previously. ↩
- nobody sounded exactly like him, though. ↩
- although it’s not like I’m kicking in doors to hear more version of it – I probably don’t think much more of the best version of it that I’ve ever heard, which is probably Peggy Lee’s, although, again, I’ve never done, like, a complete survey on it. ↩
- I’m not inclined to tie all of the rhetorical knots necessary to confront this argument w/r/t the HOF, but it’s a part of Queen’s “thing”, and it bears mentioning here. ↩
- and, y’know, appropriative post-colonialism in general. Big business, that. ↩
- He’s up to 33% of the reason for it, in fact! ↩