DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Pushing onward in full
farce and without shame.

 

BY CHRIS PARKER

 

Ed. note: With the
Rock Hall’s 25th Anniversary Concerts taking place this week at
Madison Square Garden in NYC, we thought it appropriate to revisit journalist
Chris Parker scrutiny of the Hall, previously published in BLURT #7. His “Hall
of Shame” roundup of the Hall’s notable sins of omissions and commission
follows the main story.

 

***

 

A priest, an imam and a rabbi walk into a bar, and the
bartender says, “What is this, a joke?”

 

The bartender had the same response when I told him about the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a once interesting idea that long ago lost its luster-or,
for that matter, its credibility. You’d have to visit post-war Iraq to find a
plan with a more muddled sense of purpose. Beset by cronyism, stylistic
blinders and a self-aggrandizing sense of entitlement, the Rock Hall’s become a
sad, little side show with less continuing relevance to the music world at
large than the Pet Rock.

 

In April the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Jeff Beck,
Little Anthony & the Imperials, Metallica, Run-DMC, Bobby Womack, Wanda
Jackson, Bill Black, DJ Fontana and Spooner Oldham. Meanwhile obviously
deserving and influential artists including The Stooges, Kraftwerk, Tom Waits,
and Joy Division wait on the sidelines. Entire genres such as Prog Rock, Power
Pop, and American Hardcore are all but ignored by the cloistered
self-congratulatory backslappers that comprise the nominating committee.
Shedding credibility like contestants on The Biggest Loser shed pounds, the
entire endeavor needs to be taken out back and put out of its misery. But what
went wrong?

 

Well, the concept of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is
problematic from the start-specifically, what qualifies as rock? While the term
easily encompasses any number of critic-spawned sub-denominations, most would
draw a distinction between rock and pop music. While the two are certainly not
mutually exclusive, they are entirely different domains, one populated by acts
like the Stones, Beatles and Ozzy Osbourne, the other by Wham!, New Kids on the
Block and Christopher Cross.

 

Popularity would seem to be one of the least effective
signifiers. While McDonald’s may have sold billions of Big Macs, it certainly isn’t
the world’s finest food. Indeed, rock ‘n’ roll’s very existence is an outgrowth
of youthful dissatisfaction with sentimental pop crooners such as Perry Como
and the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra. Otherwise, why isn’t Tom Jones in
the Hall? After all, he’s sold over a 100 million records worldwide.

 

Yet last year, Madonna was inducted into the Hall the first
year she was eligible. There’s more rock in Whitney Houston’s bloodstream than
Madonna’s entire catalog. Surely it has nothing to do with the fact that
Seymour Stein, who originally signed her to his label, Sire Records, helps head
the Hall Foundation board. Little coincidence that other Sire acts like the
Ramones, the Pretenders and the Talking Heads have also been inducted, ahead of
almost every one of their new wave/punk contemporaries. (Worth noting: Stein
received one of the four lifetime achievement awards the Hall handed out in
2005.)

 

But Madonna’s inclusion is more than cronyism; it’s
symptomatic of a larger sickness. A glimpse of this was provided by when Joel
Peresman took over as CEO and President of the foundation from his predecessor
Suzan Evans Hochberg.[1] Peresman went before the nominating committee, and according to one
report
, told them they should vote for who “would be the most commercial
and who’d be best on the TV show.” (The Hall has since lost its contract with
VH-1 and will broadcast this year’s festivities on lesser light Fuse.)

 

It’s no surprise that complaints about the nomination
process are legion. The 32-member nominating
committee
is populated by former Rolling Stone journalists, a handful of
musicians (Lenny Kaye, Robbie Robertson, Steve Van Zandt and Paul Shaffer), and
other industry insiders whose interconnections rival a Wall Street board of
directors. Most can trace a path of no more than two degrees of separation from
Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner
(another Lifetime Award recipient), who helped launch the Rock Hall, and has
chaired the board since Atlantic Records’ founder Ahmet Ertegun’s death.[2] (Before
that, Wenner was the vice chairman.)

 

Rumors abound of personal
grudges
, and flat-out animosity toward certain acts (KISS in Dave Marsh’s case, apparently),
not to mention the preponderance of old white men (there are but 3 women and 3
blacks, including journalist Claudia Perry, who fulfills two of those slots) on
the committee, including many who probably haven’t heard a lot of new music in
the last 20 years.

 

This doesn’t, of course, absolve them from dunderheaded
nominations like the disco act Chic (You think the committee’s showing its
age?), the Eurythmics (Really? I mean, why not Cyndi Lauper?), Herman’s Hermits
(Mrs. Brown does have a lovely
daughter…), the Sugarhill Gang (On the basis of “Rapper’s Delight”? Why not
Dexy’s Midnight Runners?), Manfred Mann (thanks to some well-chosen covers),
and Judy Collins (Send in the clowns, oh, wait, they’re already here….).[3] How many committee members must die before Sonic Youth or the Dead Kennedys get
nominated?

 

All of which brings us back to the difficulty of evaluating
history’s best and/or most influential rock acts. This isn’t sports, with its
abundance of statistics to base the decisions on. It’s a purely subjective
choice presided over by a tiny committee that’s generally so far removed from
what’s happening in music they might as well live in Beirut. That’s not even
mentioning the 500-600 anonymous individuals who vote on the nominations.

 

At its best, rock is something of populist movement whose
rebellious undercurrent is reflected by the musicians who generally struggle to
live hand-to-mouth, and rarely see any monies from the records they sell, yet
still persevere largely out of love for music. In this light, the travesty of
the Hall’s membership is blinding, and debases those deserving artists who have
been inducted. (We’re not even going to touch the $15,000-$25,000 the artists
or their label are expected to pay for a table, a
fact the Sex Pistols alluded to
in their refusal to participate. Neil Young
also opted out when Buffalo Springfield was inducted, citing the ridiculous
cost of tickets, which run artists $1500/apiece after the first two comps.)

 

But if you really want someone to feel sorry for, save your
sympathy for the residents of Cleveland,
who ponied up $65 million in public monies to build the Rock Hall, but before
this year have hosted the induction but once in 23 years, back in 1997 when the
museum first opened.

 

The excuse, according to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum
President and CEO Terry Stewart, is that it costs 20% more to hold the
extravaganza in Cleveland than New York. This stretches credulity more than
Roger Clemens protestations he thought he was getting a B-12 injection. One
doesn’t have to live in Cleveland to know Manhattan’s cost of
living is twice as high. So how does that work?[4] More likely the New York-centric board members don’t cotton to well to visiting
fly-over country. Instead, many of them were probably attending the Paul
McCartney-Ringo Starr benefit at Radio
City Music
Hall that same night. Some have suggested the only reason it wasn’t in Manhattan this year
is because Wenner’s already planning an all-star blow-out at Madison Square
Garden in the fall.

 

The induction ceremonies are supposed to return to Cleveland every few years
henceforth, but don’t hold your breath. The Hall’s leadership has demonstrated
a tone-deaf sensibility that rivals Wall Street’s bonus babies. Of course, this
is an industry whose captains have rarely failed to treat their artists like
chattel, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame upholds the tradition with a fubar
process presided over by a legion of old has-beens. That any decent acts make
it in at all is almost surprising.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Evans’
only apparent qualification for her post was as a former
litigator who hated her job
. When a client who was an independent producer
mentioned the idea of a Rock Hall, she seized upon it and sold it to the current
powers that be, earning her a cushy six-figure post for 23 years. In fact,
despite having retired, she was still earning her $150,000 salary as of last
year. Very Rock ‘n’ Roll.

[2] A true
rock ‘n’ roller to the end, Ertegun died at 83 after falling and hitting his
head backstage at the Rolling Stones concert documented in Martin Scorcese’s Shine A Light.

[3] According to a list
compiled at FutureRockLegends.com

[4] Stewart
attributes it to the stage, sound and lighting costs for the bigger stage at
Public Auditorium versus the usual site, the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom, as well
as the costs of flying in the crew. Apparently despite the fact Cleveland spends more per capita on annual operating
investment in the performing arts than any other metropolitan area other than San Francisco, and
boasting a world-class theatre complex at Playhouse Square with an annual budget of
$30 million, they couldn’t find lighting or sound techs locally. How is it
catering costs in Manhattan
don’t eat up the entire difference?

 

 

***

 

HALL OF SHAME

 

The Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame once held great promise. Once. Here’s a roundup of its sins of omission
AND commission.

 

The list of deserving artists is indeed a long one, casting
a disparaging light on some of the lesser lights that have even been
considered, let alone inducted. How does one even suggest The Gap Band or Chaka
Kahn when John Coltrane or Stevie Ray Vaughn hasn’t been inducted? My reasoning
was based and the act’s musical imprint and its lasting impact on music. I have
also leaned toward representation – covering a variety of styles, something the
Rock Hall’s too often failed to address with their Boomer-centric vision.
(NOTE: I’m unwilling to even dig into the morass of great sidemen. The Rock
Hall also opted out until last year, after they rightly took up the issue and
inducted 11 backing musicians, including Hal Blaine and James Burton, from
2000-2004, just another example of their disjointed vision.)

 

 

Who’s Missing?

 

Gram Parsons. It
would be difficult to understate his influence. Without Parsons there would be
no Eagles (inducted ’98), as he helped create country rock with the Byrds
(inducted ’91) on their seminal ’68 release Sweetheart
of the Rodeo
, then honed the sound with the Flying Burrito Brothers. His
close friendship with Keith Richards probably influenced the Stones’ early ‘70s
country bent, and he gave Emmylou Harris her first break. Where it not for his
1973 O.D., he’d have become even huger. In light of Americana’s recent rise in profile, he claims
my top spot. Nominated in ’02, ’04, and ’05.

 

The Stooges. Is
this even a discussion? They’re singularly responsible for as much post-‘80s
music as the Velvet Underground (inducted ’96). Their loud, primal animalistic
grind and Iggy Pop’s atavistic lyrics didn’t just open the door for punk, they
designed the door frame. “Search and Destroy” off 1973’s Raw Power remains one of the most powerful blasts of white-hot
aggression in history. Despite releasing only three albums from ’69-’73, their
influence on the vast majority of underground rock has been inestimable, and
Pop’s spastic fury has become the standard by which many frontman are measured.
Nominated ’97, ’98, ’04, ’05, ’06, ’07, ’09. (Their recent re-nomination might make them seem a shoo-in for ’10, but don’t count on it.)

 

Kraftwerk. Arguably even more influential than the acts above them on the list, it’s
difficult to imagine what electronic music would sound like with this German
duo, who got their start in ‘70s. Their minimalist, experimental industrialized
pop would inspire everything from techno to new wave to modern day electro-pop.
It’s arguably not the most accessible music, though 1974’s Autobahn and 1977’s Trans-Europe
Express
(whose title track provided the beat for Afrika Bambaata’s “Planet
Rock”) are masterpieces of the canon. Nominated ’03.

 

DJ Premier. Hip-hop has posed a special problem for the Hall, which they’ve been trying to
rectify for the past few years. In another Rock Hall controversy, Jann Wenner
allegedly squeezed the Dave Clark Five out in favor of Grandmaster Flash and
the Furious Five in ’07, despite the fact DC5 had a handful more votes. (They’d
wait until ’08 for their induction.) While Premier, or Primo, as he’s often
referred, cites Juice Crew DJ Marley Marl as one of his primary influences,
it’s Premier’s beats – noted for the raw, aggressive interplay of loops and scratching
— that have endured. While most MCs have been unable to sustain, Premier’s
brand remains strong. Never Nominated.

 

Cheap Trick. It
seems strange that AC/DC (inducted ’03) should be in, but not their American
cousins, especially since they continue to release good music (check out 2006’s
Rockford)
while AC/DC output for the last 25 years has been mediocre at best. They
brought a hard rock edge to über-catchy melodies, beefing up power pop to arena
size, a blend which college and indie rock have generally appropriated to some
extent. They’re hurt by a lot of pretty “meh” albums during the late-‘80s and
‘90s, but bolstered by a handful of songs that have lodged themselves in the
pop culture consciousness. Never Nominated.

 

Stevie Ray Vaughn. I’m not a huge fan, but there’s no discounting his influence. The man almost single-handedly
rescued the blues from irrelevancy and spurred an entire nation of blues clubs
to open their doors, a legacy that remains, now long after his death. His
playing reunited rock and the blues, and brought attention a passel of
under-recognized artists like Albert King and Buddy Guy. He wasn’t really an
innovator, which slides him down the list a bit, but his cultural impact was
large and his legacy is still felt, and given that he was cut down in his
prime, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Only became eligible in 2008.

 

King Crimson. If
this were based solely on technical ability, they’d rate higher. Robert Fripp
is clearly a mad genius, and his protégé Adrian Belew an equally innovative
player, that with Fripp pioneered the idea of melding electronic effects to a
guitar. Their sound is the best exemplar of the much-maligned art-rock
movement, with the band’s several incarnations staking out a wider, more
intriguing expanse than similarly minded acts like Emerson, Lake
and Palmer or Yes. Indeed, their playing has touched everyone from jam bands to
math rockers, whose angularity owes a significant debt to Crimson’s knotty
arrangements. As experimental iconoclasts, their music seems even more likely
to be appreciated and inspirational 20 years from now, which is more than we
can say about the Velvets, after a couple decades of heavy plundering. Never
Nominated.

 

Tom Waits. He
edges out Randy Newman, in my mind, on the basis of his pop culture
infiltration. Like Newman, his audience seems peculiarly cultish. He’s not a
clever lyrically as Newman, but his music is uniquely his own, and in that way
has made a strong imprint. I’d not be surprised to see an upswing in dark
cabaret rock, though, obviously that gravelly rasp is inimitable. His
adventurous, theatrical style and uncompromising stance toward commercial use
of his music tips the scale for me. Never Nominated.

 

Joy Division. Were it not for Ian Curtis we might know new wave as a much peppier,
light-hearted endeavor. Their stark atmospheric sound would provide the
template for legions of gloomy, dyspeptic, synth-driven malingerers, clearing
the way for Bauhaus, Depeche Mode and the Cure. While the Cure in particular
have some claim to induction, they need to queue up behind Joy Division,
without whom the bleached white pallor and black lipstick of goth teens might
never have existed. (Okay, small loss, but still…) Never Nominated.

 

Sonic Youth. While
there are other influential experimental noise-rock acts such Throbbing Gristle
and The Fall, it took Americans Sonic Youth to make it popular (sorta).
Inspired in part by the New York no wave scene, their dissonant,
feedback-ridden symphonies not only sparked a plethora of followers but found
more acceptance and popularity than they probably had a right to, given that no
one in the band can really sing, they generally avoid conventional structures,
and the melodies are bathed in a wall-razing roar. Their success as much as
anyone’s made the possibility of a career in rock seem possible to a generation
of noise-addled slackers. (Okay that’s as much a demerit as a credit.) Never
Nominated.

 

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Big Star, John
Coltrane, Dead Kennedys, Electric Light Orchestra, Eric B. & Rakim, KISS,
Randy Newman, New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Leon Russell.

 

 

Least Deserving

 

Madonna (’08). Blame the Rock Hall’s craven desire to suck up to VH-1. (Then she didn’t
perform, allegedly
because the Rock Hall refused to give
to her Raising Malawi charity –
itself probably an ultimately unsuccessful gambit to smooth her recent adoption
attempt.) Honestly, her choice demeans the entire process, and on her first
year of eligibility, no less. There’s never been anything remotely rock about
her, despite the fact she’s changed her image enough to suggest someone on the
lam. I’d laugh if my throat weren’t clogged with puke.

 

Jackson Browne (’04). He’s not a bad singer/songwriter but how do you justify electing him to the
Hall ahead of Randy Newman? Mark this down to a cadre of former Rolling Stone
contributors led by the junta chief, Jan Wenner, who are all clearly “Running on
Empty” when it comes to shame, especially given his particularly spotty catalog for THE LAST THIRTY YEARS. This guy got
in ahead of the Stooges? Only positive was to make Bob Seger seem more
palatable.

 

Bob Seger (’04). Part of an absolutely apocalyptic year, Seger helps make the case that the
committee basically stopped listening to music around 1982. Maybe some heard
his ’86 album Like a Rock before it turned into a Chevy commercial, but I doubt
it. The only thing he paved the way for was John Cougar Mellencamp, another
notable car salesman. This is what happens when you base membership on about a
stretch of 7-8 years and a handful of albums. Maybe they thought it was a sop
to the heartland, or maybe it’s just Jann Gone Wild. This is also the year he
took, er, was given the Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

LaVern Baker (’91). One of several ‘50s R&B artists who got in mainly because she signed to
Atlantic, the label founded by late Foundation board chairman Ahmet Ertegun. Baker was brash-voiced jump blues diva who had a
handful of hits in the late ‘50s, but petered out within 7 years after her
final hit, the title track from 1963’s See
See Rider
. A pretty sizable reach given her thin catalog.

 

Percy Sledge (’05). Speaking of short careers, Sledge built a cultish deep soul following after his
breakthrough ’66 single “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It went steadily downhill
from there. While he kept touring for many years, but so did Toto, and nobody’s
nominating them, despite the fact that they had a nice big hit in “Hold The
Line.” So, yes Virginia,
one-hit wonders also have a chance for Rock Hall fame. Here’s hoping EMF
finally get their due.

 

The Dells (’04). Okay, maybe I don’t have enough appreciation for smooth soul and doo-wop, but
whatever I think of “Oh, What a Night” or their 34 year career, it’s not enough
to merit the Rock Hall, in my estimation. Hell, they didn’t even begin until
the mid ‘60s, by which time rock wasn’t taking a lot of new input, and funk was
already getting started. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that the
committee threw them on there to counter-balance the bland Wonder bread
whiteness of 20-year has-beens Browne and Seger.

 

Bobby Darin (’90). When’s Dion getting his invitation? This is another example of how the Hall
doesn’t really know what “rock” is, and can’t resist the temptation to water it
down with pop singers. While Darin, admittedly, explored some folk and rock,
most of his pedigree was earned as a swinging Vegas hipster in the Rat Pack
mold, and as a pop-minded teen idol. While he’s had an interesting,
multifaceted career, so has Pat Boone, but no one’s in any rush to induct him.

 

John (Cougar)
Mellencamp (’08).
Nobody’s denying this guy’s had more hits than Cheech
& Chong’s bong, but so has Eddie Money, and last I heard he was playing
state fairs. While Mellencamp’s fortunes haven’t declined that much, the
erstwhile car shuckster isn’t exactly a beacon of inspiration and creativity.
Jack and Diane my ass, KISS have 24 gold records and are actually fun to listen
to, even equally as dumb. The John Cougar Concentration Camp is a heartland
answer to Bruce Springsteen, with kids ride tractors instead of fast cars.
(Sounds good already, right?) While an artist in the best sense, it’s hard to
imagine this watery roots rock lasting as long as Gram Parson’s work. Hell,
it’s not even better than the Wallflowers. My feeling is, without payola, this
guy wouldn’t exist. I know my life would have been much fuller had I never
heard “Hurts So Good.” Another compromise for VH-1 attention.

 

Blondie (’06). Hey, who doesn’t still find Deborah Harry sexy? But after a 6-year run of hit
albums, poof, they disappeared like the money in Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scam.
They were pretty influential as new wave goes, being the most successful
commercial act to emerge from the movement, but are they even one of the
greatest 500 bands? 1000 bands? Certainly contemporaries The Police (’03) and
Tom Petty (’02) made a greater impact on their peers. This is what happens when
the choices are made by industry people whose judgment of great music is
incumbent on chart positions.

 

Earth, Wind &
Fire (’00).
They’re a tough act to pick a fight with. They’ve sold
gajillions of albums, have maintained their profile, inspired other acts, and
kept the funk flowing for 40 years. Indeed, someday they might deserve entry,
but their best moments are circumscribed around a small stretch of time in the
mid-70s, and beyond that have been no more workman-like solid, and hardly
revolutionary. Isn’t funk already pretty well represented (certainly better
than prog), and wouldn’t the Meters be a better token funk act? But they’re
certainly more deserving than Chic, lord save us, who’ve been nominated four
years running.

 

 

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