ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES ARE IN!
Considering the names I was seeing on the preliminary fan voting, I was prepared for this year’s class to be an abject abomination. Turns out, this is a strong class with a lot to offer and has some interesting cases that could go either way.
As always, here is my three-pronged criteria: (1) Formal Innovation: did the artist do something new or different technically, formally, stylistically, etc; (2) Influence/Importance: did the artist change the direction of Rock/Pop, preferably for the better? Is that influence still felt?; and (3) Fame/Commercial Viability: not that “bigger is better” but simply that the artist must have attained a certain quantum of fame or success, either during his/her career or in the years since.
And the nominees are:
PAT BENATAR: In a Rock Hall with precious few women, this is a strong choice: undeniably powerful voice, several huge hits that are still recognizable, and, as Phoebe Cates pointed out to Jennifer Jason Leigh, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, many girls cultivated the “Pat Benatar look” in the early 80s. Breaking it down, Benatar was innovative, in her way, in that she brought the “tough chick” aesthetic to the Video Age. Early “tough chicks,” such as the Shangri-Las, may have been perceived as something of a novelty, while later artists, such as Patti Smith or Genya Ravan, worked in the fringier/artsier world of Punk and New Wave. Joan Jett was a “tough chick” contemporary of Pat’s. But her energy was decidedly more masculine. Pat was equally tough but retaining an undeniable femininity. While I have not conducted a scientific study, I perceive that Pat captured the imagination of more young women than Joan did, perhaps for that reason. But I’m totally speculating here. The main strike against her is that her guitarist-now-husband and other outside writers wrote most of her material. It’s also arguable how deep the quality of her catalog goes beyond the hits. But at least those hits are indelible. As for influence, yes, much of it was stylistic: the short cut, the stark cheekbone make-up, the fuck-you-and-fuck-me pursed lips and more attitude than a fleet of Camaros. But it wouldn’t have meant much without the powerhouse vocals. It was that voice that made the look and the songs so credible. Many other chicks tried this schtick but there was only one Pat Benatar. As for Fame/Commercial Viability, anyone with even a passing knowledge of the 80s recognizes her look and hits. Not a slam dunk, she should probably be in.
DAVE MATTHEWS BAND: Let’s go straight to the breakdown. Innovation: I have heard people point to their featured use of the violin. That is unusual, but far from unique. 60s/70s bands such as It’s a Beautiful Day, Curved Air, and the Flock all featured lead violin players. Fusion bands such as Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jean-Luc Ponty also featured some dazzling lead violin. Even some big arena-selling bands, such as Kansas and the Charlie Daniels Band also featured strong lead violin playing. Also, when we look at the music DMB makes with their slightly unusual instrumentation, it’s still largely middle-of-the-road Rock/Pop, even though it’s played at a very high level of musicianship (something similar could be said for Journey, though the latter also has the benefit of massive multi-generational hits). So, DMB gets a nod for being a bit different than its peers, but not much more than that. Influence: how many other bands have followed in DMB’s wake, stylistically or aesthetically? Have they changed the course of music in some fundamental way? Not sure I see it. Commercial impact: no doubt about it, they are one of the strongest touring ensembles of the last quarter century. Year after year, a strong live draw. But, in my framework, commercial strength (whether through record sales or ticket sales) is not dispositive. It’s more of a final gate, assuming the artist has already scored highly in the first two categories. That’s why I disagreed with the inductions of Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. If commercial success were sufficient, we’ll be inducting Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys pretty soon.
DEPECHE MODE: as I wrote two years ago, “DM were more synth-pop popularizers than pioneers, as compared to, say, New Order or even Human League. However, DM should get the nod for a couple of reasons. The first is that they continued to evolve from their lightweight and somewhat formulaic (if catchy) beginnings, into darker and richer forms—both musically and lyrically. Their lasting impact, influence, and popularity is massive and unquestionable.” They should be in though, frankly, Joy Division/New Order should precede them.
DOOBIE BROTHERS: On the one hand, the Doobies were a capable but fairly basic, straightforward 70s Rock band with some big Classic Rock radio hits. Likeable, but not particularly epochal or mind-blowing. On the other hand, the Doobies created the template for every early-70s bar band with dreams of making it huge. Not only that, they were able to make a massive mid-career personnel change and emerge to create the new template for every late-70s bar band with dreams of making it huge. Breaking it down, it’s hard to say the Doobies were particularly innovative. Their early incarnation brought together various mainstream strains of groovy rock, soul, and folk that were already floating around while their later incarnation upped the r&b, cut down on some of the boogie, and added bits of jazziness to the mix. While not changing the world the Doobies, in each incarnation, brought great craft and appeal to everything they did. As for influence, if you spend any time sifting through used record stores and you spin random records from the 70s, it’s pretty amazing how many bands were trying to sound something like the Doobies. On top of that, as WestCoast AOR (now called “Yacht Rock”) is being given both popular and critical reappraisal, the Doobies later material still holds relevance. Commercial viability? If you listen to any hour of any Classic Rock station, you WILL hear a Doobies track. Not an overwhelming induction, but a deserving one.
WHITNEY HOUSTON: Never got it. Still don’t. An overwrought vocalist with little style, little soul, and little taste. Her hits were largely saccharine and derivative (with her breakthrough, “Saving All My Love For You” being a straight-out rip-off of Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” They even rhyme, for crying out loud). So, not so much on the innovation front. Influence? Possibly, just as Mariah Carey has influence…on badly singing weak material. I don’t see it. This is another artist who contributes little beyond the broad and basic popularity of her hits. The standard should be higher than that.
JUDAS PRIEST: Fuckin’-A! Finally. Judas Priest were one of the top-5 most important bands in Metal history, maybe higher than that. Priest built upon the heavy, doomy riff-based style pioneered by Black Sabbath and made it tighter, harder, faster, and more aggressive, bridging the way to Iron Maiden and modern Metal beyond. To my ears, their song, “Dissident Aggressor,” from 1977, may very well be the first modern Metal track. Even Slayer couldn’t touch it when they tried to cover it. Priest’s steel-streamlining of Metal was new and changed the game, as did Rob Halford’s operatically piercing vocals. Priest has multiple Gold and Platinum records and continues to play for stadiums around the world. Hands-down no-brainer.
KRAFTWERK: I’ve said this multiple times now and I’ll say it again. This should be a no-brainer. Simply, Kraftwerk established the use of electronic instrumentation as a fully valid approach to making Rock/Pop. Moreover, they distilled the insight of fellow German innovators, Can (developed in parallel with artists such as James Brown, Sly Stone, Miles Davis, and the Weather Report), that extended grooves—as opposed to traditional song structures or even classical composition—can make for equally engaging music. And it was THIS insight that facilitated the development of other, longer-form, extended groove-based music, from Disco, to House, to Techno, and all electronics-based Pop music. Massively innovative, massively influential, and, with hits such as “The Model,” “Autobahn,” and “Trance Europe Express,” they have just the level of commercial success that should make them a strong inductee.
MC5: Another repeat from the last few years: “A huge cult fave with tons of cred. They were a monster live band and are now often credited as being a precursor of Punk. The influence is there. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the same could be said for their recorded output. They never really translated their blitzing live show to vinyl and most of their recorded live output leaves a lot to be desired on the sound quality front. They deserve ongoing respect and reverence, but I’m not sure that the RRHoF is the most appropriate forum for their legacy.”
MOTORHEAD: The ROCK band that both Punks and Metalheads could dig at a time when those distinctions had real world implications. Make no mistake, despite the band’s iconography, they were a ROCK & ROLL band: sex, drugs, booze and blues-based all the way. Think AC/DC on speed. However, every now and then, a track might get a bit more aggressive and the double bass drums would kick and all-of-a-sudden, sparks of Metal became grindingly visible. Their Rock power, plus their Punk rawness, and their dash of Metal aggression all came together to form the foundation of what became Thrash. This Rock/Punk/Metal menage had not really been done like this before, making it innovative, if also extremely primitive. Their influence on both Thrash and high octane Rock is profound and ongoing. As for fame, other than the Ramones, is there any Rock band whose t-shirts are more ubiquitous?
NINE INCH NAILS: Can’t say I was particularly impressed when I first heard them in 1991. I preferred the more crunching Ministry and the noisier, more chaotic Skinny Puppy. But NIN has won in the long run. While still retaining the abrasiveness of their Industrial Rock roots, NIN brought memorable songs and engaging electronic composition to their ever-deepening sound. While they weren’t trailblazers, they weren’t far behind and were among the earlier Industrial Rock artists (not to mention their slot on the very first Lollapalooza tour). When it comes to influence, however, this is where NIN surpasses its peers. Through longevity and consistently creative work that flows between songs and soundscapes, compositions and material made for remixing, NIN is most likely the definitive band to emerge from the Industrial Rock scene and one of the more identifiable artists of the entire “Alternative” movement of the early 90s. That Johnny Cash could have one of the biggest and most resonant hits of his career while covering an NIN song only attests to NIN’s craft and enduring legacy. They should be in.
NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: Here’s one where I’m just going to demur. I know him for a couple of huge hits and his ongoing mythology, often expressed as a duality with Tupac. No opinions on his innovations, though his influence (whether musical or mythological) is obviously…big, and the numbers speak for themselves.
RUFUS feat. CHAKA KHAN: I’ve said this several times now and i’ll say it again, “The way this nomination is structured continues to frustrate me. Why is Chaka being limited here to her time with Rufus? Rufus was an excellent funk/soul/pop band, but probably not Hall-worthy on its own. Chaka, on the other hand, with her Jazz and Gospel-influenced, raspy, soaring, sassy and sophisticated voice, was arguably the best Black female vocalist of the late 70s/early 80s. Moreover, as I said last year and the year before, she compares more than favorably to her contemporary and RRHoF member, Donna Summer. While Donna has a few bigger hits, Chaka has plenty of her own and is, to my ears, superior and richer both vocally and artistically. Restricting Chaka to Rufus removes her often superb solo work. Chaka, taken as a whole, over the course of her entire career—with Rufus and solo—should be a shoo-in. Taken only with Rufus, her candidacy is much more limited.”
SOUNDGARDEN: I wouldn’t be the first to say that “grunge” essentially reinterpreted Classic Rock for a new generation. That’s true, as far as it goes. But Nirvana was noisier and messier than most of the Classic Rock canon. Pearl Jam was solid, if perhaps a bit bland. But in Soundgarden, I could really hear Led Zeppelin as filtered through a grimier, recessionary, heroin-addled Alternative lens. First and foremost was Chris Cornell’s high wailing vocals, clearly reminiscent of Robert Plant’s, but thicker, less flowery, and more anguished. The guitars followed with their own rifferama, reminiscent of Zep stompers such as “The Ocean.” Behind it all, driving the machine, was a powerhouse drummer focused primarily on the dynamics of rhythm. Soundgarden, circa Louder than Love, was one of the first contemporary Rock bands that showed me there was more beyond the music of the late 60s and 70s and it was largely because they made so much sense to my Zep/Sabbath-inundated mind. Over time, Soundgarden expanded their sound in brighter, rousing, and anthemic ways, bringing in more people in the process. In the end, were they innovative? Yes and no. All of the building blocks of their sound were already out there. However, putting them together in a way that resonated with new audiences counts for something. That they recognized the Ohio Players’ song, “Fopp,” was always already a hard rock song showed how well they knew their stuff. Influence: they were clearly one of the driving forces of the so-called “grunge” movement of the early to mid-90s. While it’s not clear to me that their musical influence is so pervasive these days, we can certainly say, judging by the outpouring of feeling in the wake of Chris Cornell’s death, that their inspiration lives on. As for fame, several multi-Platinum records and evergreen anthems attest that they were plenty big enough for induction. Not a total slam dunk but a strong nominee, all the same.
TODD RUNDGREN: As I said last year, “All I have to say is, ‘Finally!’ One of the few people of the Rock era that deserve to be spoken of in the same (if only slightly smaller) breath as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Todd was the kind of guy who, while already a shredding Rock guitarist, could play virtually any instrument, and often did! He was one of the first major artists to play all of the instruments on many of his recordings. But he was also a sensitive and wide-ranging songwriter, with influences ranging from the Beatles, to Laura Nyro and the Philly Soul sound, to Gilbert & Sullivan. His albums could contain piano ballads and hard rockers, soul covers, and synthesizer experiments. After his first three (fantastic) albums, virtually no two albums were alike. And this doesn’t even touch on his Prog-Pop group project, Utopia. He would be a Hall-worthy artist purely on the basis of his recorded output. However, his work as a producer might be even more impressive. What’s most remarkable about his production credits is not merely the list of artists he’s produced but that, for each artist, Todd helped them to accomplish something critical, such as completing an abandoned album under tight time pressure (Badfinger), enabling career revivals at crucial points (Grand Funk, XTC), translating underground sensibilities for mainstream release (New York Dolls, Tubes, Psychedelic Furs), giving mainstream sensibilities more progressive space (Hall & Oates), creating a Wagnerian Pop Opera that no one wanted to touch with a ten foot pole (Meatloaf), or simply helping a friend say goodbye (Patti Smith). A wizard, a true star and a more-than-worthy and way-past-due RRHoF artist.”
T.REX: If we were in the UK, this wouldn’t even be a question. T.Rex (more specifically, Marc Bolan) pretty much invented Glam Rock and charted much of the course of 70s British Rock. He’s less well-known here, but he’s too important of an artist to ignore. On the innovation front, the band’s signature sound is stripped-down chugging guitar playing fat retro-early Rock chords over a minimal stomping beat. But on top of that base, Bolan added a breathy, elvin, purr of voice that injected the Rock with all sorts of sexual ambiguity. This was the foundation of Glam that everyone from Bowie, to the Dolls, to the Sweet picked-up on. While not many people in the States might be familiar with T.Rex as a name, everyone’s heard “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” and some combination of “Cosmic Dancer,” “Jeepster,” “Mambo Sun,” and/or “20th Century Boy.” Too important (and just famous enough) to not be in.
THIN LIZZY: This is the hardest one of the lot for me. Simply, they are one of my favorite bands and I consider them to be the finest Hard Rock band of the 70s, after Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple. But I’m not sure it’s enough. And because they are one of my favorites, I feel the need to be extra critical. Let’s break it down. Innovation: we have to start with the twin lead guitars. Bands ranging from the Allman Brothers, to Jefferson Airplane, and especially Wishbone Ash, featured twin lead guitar line-ups before Lizzy did. And Lizzy didn’t even go to the twin lead line-up until their fourth album. So, it wasn’t truly “new.” Lizzy also featured a fabulously charismatic Black man fronting a White three- or four-piece band. Not a big deal, maybe, but Hendrix already did that. Lizzy blended tight, often funky hard rock with folk melodies and poetic lyrics. Zep was kind of already doing a lot of that, too. So, I don’t know how truly “innovative” Lizzy were (though they were undoubtedly as musically stylish as any band of the time). When it comes to influence, again, we have to start with the twin lead guitars. Despite the earlier examples, when we look at the great twin-lead bands that followed (e.g. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, etc), the style they drew from most was that of Thin Lizzy. It was the way Lizzy did the fully-harmonized choruses and hooks using certain intervals that influenced later artists looking to do their own twin-lead thing. As an added influence bonus, Lizzy is inadvertently recognized for contributing to the foundations of Hip-Hop. It wasn’t for their proto-Rap-Rock, “It’s Only Money,” but for the funky introductory drum break to “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed” that Grandmaster Flash used as a fixture of his live DJ sets. As for fame, “The Boys Are Back In Town” is only a step down from “Smoke On The Water” for best-known classic hard rock song. Throw in “Jailbreak,” and their version of the traditional “Whiskey in the Jar” (which Metallica completely bolloxed-up), and several Gold and Platinum records—including one of the greatest live albums of all-time—and you probably have met the threshold. I would love to see them inducted but also recognize that it probably won’t happen.