The Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame nominees have just been released. Of course, there is no objective, definitive, statistical means of evaluating musicians, the way there is for baseball players (and even that is highly controversial). But the way I like to keep myself grounded is by applying three major criteria: (1) formal innovation (2) importance/influence (3) enduring success/popularity, as these seem to me to get at the most essential facets of a musician’s legacy. On to my one cent…
BON JOVI: A similar case as Journey had last year, but weaker. As with Journey, Bon Jovi were a big, popular, mainstream, arena rock band. Their songs were pretty standard pop/rock of the era and not particular innovative. Apart from their period fashions, I don’t see much lasting musical influence. In their favor, they do have one song, “Living on a Prayer,” that continues to have pop cultural currency. But, at each point, they fall short of Journey: their musicianship was OK, but not of Journey’s caliber (most of whom had jazz-fusion backgrounds); Jon was an identifiable vocalist but not in the same league as Steve Perry; and, while Bon Jovi has some enduring hits, Journey has more and bigger ones. Ultimately, pop success alone cannot be sufficient for induction. Journey barely crossed the line on the back of their commercial success; Bon Jovi comes in below that line.
KATE BUSH: No brainer. That she has not been inducted ages ago is a major travesty of the RRHoF voting process. Along with Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush might be the greatest solo female artist of the rock/pop era. Her vocals are both distinctive and virtuosic; her compositions are dazzling and sophisticated in melody, structure, and rhythm; her production is consistently surprising, challenging, and individual; her influence flows through virtually every boldly artistic female artist that followed her, from Tori Amos to Bjork to St. Vincent. While her commercial success in the US is not nearly what it is in the UK, there is little doubt that, if she were to announce a US tour, she would sell out 20,000 person arenas from coast to coast. She is so ridiculously overqualified for this institution that it doesn’t merit further discussion.
THE CARS: All-time great debut. Excellent follow-up and significantly decreasing returns since then. They were a tight and stylish band, with cool, disaffected vocals, economic and intelligent lead guitar, a tight rhythm section, and effectively deployed keyboards. However, it would be hard to call them “innovative,” as they were a bit late to the New Wave rock scene. It would also be hard to call them particularly “influential,” with contemporaries such as the Talking Heads, Blondie, and even Gang of Four having their sounds appear more in contemporary bands. Borderline for me.
DEPECHE MODE: 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 and influence is massive and unquestionable.
DIRE STRAITS: As with the Cars, DS were a talented and musically stylish band. Their stripped-down, yet open and jazzy, blues-based rock was original and unlike their peers. Mark Knopfler’s restrained telecaster was often incisive and evocative. Better yet, they had solid success with their early sound even before their mainstream, Big Rock, MTV-fueled mega hit album. Unfortunately, they did little to follow-up on that blockbuster and I don’t see much lasting impact or influence. Ultimately, borderline for me.
EURYTHMICS: Along with Yaz and Erasure, Eurythmics were major proponents of the 80s vocalist-and-producer format. Annie Lennox cut an iconic frontwoman figure and the duo definitely had their share of hits. Unfortunately, their sound wasn’t that different from many of their peers, nor was their commercial peak that deep or that long. To their credit, they moved away from their early synth-pop sound and into more rock/r&b-based material but, again, their new successes were not particularly deep or long-lasting. Maybe some people look back longingly to Annie’s early imagery for inspiration, but I’m not sure their influence is particularly vigorous or any stronger than, say, Yaz', whose Upstairs at Eric’s album the Eurythmics never matched artistically.
J. GEILS BAND: The “Jewish Rolling Stones” were a helluva live band, with their high energy r&b/blues-based rocka rolla “house party” vibe. They even enjoyed some mainstream pop success via significant MTV play. But that’s really about as far as it goes.
JUDAS PRIEST: Hands down yes. Priest were critical to the evolution of Metal by bridging the heavy, swinging, blues-based sound of Black Sabbath to the leaner, meaner, tighter and more technical sound of Iron Maiden, essentially pioneering the modern Metal sound in the process. While I personally discount the more commercial and, frankly, dumbed-down style they performed in the 80s, the era of their biggest commercial success, their 70s work, from Sad Wings of Destiny through Stained Class, is some of the most influential work in Metal history. “Dissident Aggressor” is, for my money, one of the top-5 greatest Metal tracks of all-time. Innovation: Priest rates very high as the architects of modern Metal. Influence: from the shredding twin-lead guitar line up (shared with Thin Lizzy), to the operatic frontman, to the leather/s&m-influenced attire, to the lean tight sound with the Blues being de-emphasized, Judas Priest were one of the most influential bands in Metal history. That they not only had many charting hits and continue to sell-out arenas and headline festivals is testimony to their lasting popularity. They should be in and Maiden should be next.
LL COOL J: I don’t see it. Maybe someone else has more insight to LL’s history, but all I see is a by-the-numbers, mid- to late-80s commercial rapper, with fairly trite rhymes about his own sexiness, done in a style done much tougher and convincingly, and more technically, and more intelligently by any number of his contemporaries, from Run-DMC, to Eric B & Rakim, to the Beastie Boys. LL deserves credit for a fierce, live “unplugged” version of “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and for becoming a successful actor/celebrity.
MC5: 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.
THE METERS: Taking the wildly syncopated “second line” rhythms of Mardi Gras marching bands, the Meters stripped things down into a tough, tight, idiosyncratic, off-kilter, slinky, and inimitably funky groove. Basically, they translated New Orleans style for the rising funk and r&b of the 60s and 70s and ended up being one of the founders of Funk in the process. Incredibly innovative and influential (their playing appears on hundreds of recordings, not only by funk/r&b artists but also by rock & pop artists). Outside of music fans, I’m not sure how well-known they are and I doubt they ever sold millions of copies. I’d love to see them voted in, but I have doubts that’ll actually happen.
MOODY BLUES: An intriguing nominee. They were an important and influential band BUT their importance and and influence was not particularly enduring and is not particularly visible any more. They were also very successful in their day but are not widely listened to in the present. By building on the compositional innovations of Revolver/Sgt Pepper/Magical Mystery-era Beatles and working them into increasingly extended compositions based not only in psychedelia but also Classical music, the Moody Blues (with nods to Procol Harum and the Nice) have a strong claim to inventing Prog Rock. Unfortunately for them, thanks to bands such as Yes and King Crimson, the sound of Prog Rock evolved fast and far from what the Moody Blues first innovated. That their music still sounds very much of its vintage and has not made its way into contemporary aesthetics does not help their case. Ultimately, their importance should be revisited and appreciated—and credited—but their lack of direct, ongoing influence and limited listenership among newer generations renders them a “no” vote.
RADIOHEAD: I can hardly think of a bigger slam dunk. Other than Nirvana, Radiohead is probably the most influential and important Rock band of the past 30 years. Just an obvious yes.
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: Tough call. On the one hand, they were one of the biggest Rock bands of the 90s. They forged what is probably the most effective fusion of Rock and Hip Hop to date (Public Enemy is up there, too, with RatM falling more on the Rock side and PE falling more on the Hip Hop side). On the other hand, not many bands of consequence followed their lead. To the extent we saw further Rock/Hip hybrids, it was in the artistically dubious “Nu Metal” genre. Nor do we hear much of their influence either in contemporary Rock or Hip Hop. A recently rebooted offshoot, Prophets of Rage, released an album to mixed reviews. While they were a vital, envigorating band, it seems that their importance is largely limited to their era. Great to rock out to but ultimately a “no,” for now, at least.
RUFUS FEATURING CHAKA KHAN: This is a change, I believe, from last year when Chaka was nominated on her own. Unfortunately, I think limiting Chaka to Rufus makes this a weaker candidacy. I wrote last year that Chaka was likely, in terms of all-around talent, success, and musical quality, the best Black female vocalist of the late 70s and early 80s. Moreover, I said then and still hold, that she compares more than favorably to her contemporary and RRHoF member, Donna Summer, with Chaka being superior vocally and in the richness of her jazz-funk-soul-disco catalog. Restricting Chaka to Rufus removes her often-superb early solo work. By herself, Chaka should be a shoo-in. With Rufus, as good as they were, and she with them, the candidacy is much more limited.
NINA SIMONE: An even bigger slam dunk than Radiohead. I was gobsmacked, flabbergasted, and dumbstruck that she was not in already. The only reason I can think of is that she might not be considered “Rock ’n Roll,” in the technical sense. As with our earlier discussion on Hip Hop, I think most of us recognize that Rock ’n Roll does not still refer only to music strictly having the characteristics of traditional rock and roll, but encompasses all contemporary (primarily Anglophone) popular music. She should be in…decades ago.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE: Another intriguing nomination. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is widely acknowledged as a Rock precursor for bridging Gospel with secular r&b while wielding an electric guitar. She was successful in the 1940s but is not widely known today (though that is being remedied via the wonders of YouTube) and it is not clear she was well-known to the generation of Rock musicians following Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. Innovation: huge. Influence: in some ways, massive; in some ways, perhaps, limited. Success/popularity: significant but largely reserved to her era (though that may change as more people discover her, after the fact). Drawing and understanding roots and origins is critical to understanding development and evolution. But that can be covered in history books. On the other hand, the RRHoF functions, in many ways, as a big, public history book. It could go either way, but I’d probably err on the side of completion and richness.
LINK WRAY: A similar nomination to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s. Like Sister Rosetta, Link is not widely known, outside of music fans. He doesn’t have many big hits, (his instrumental, “Rumble,” comes closest, but still isn’t as recognizable as his contemporary, Dick Dale’s “Miserlou”) and, were he still alive, he would not sell-out large venues. However, his influence on the sound of Rock ’n Roll is enormous. When you listen to early Rock guitarists, like Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley, they rock, but there is a rootsiness that is almost quaint to contemporary ears. What Link Wray did was take that rocking sound and made it nasty. With huge chords and snarling distortion, Wray brought a sense of menace to Rock, which later rockers (from the Who and Stones, on down) would increasingly draw upon. An argument could be made that Link Wray did more to influence the way the electric guitar sounded until Hendrix. A sentimental, archival choice for me. But I can see how the voting will probably not work out that way.
THE ZOMBIES: As I wrote last year, the Zombies were the writers of an exceptional, exquisite, body of work that stands as among the greatest of its era, but which is relatively meagre and lacks longer-term influence. It is possible that the Zombies lack of disciples is testament to the group’s inimitability (particularly Colin Blunstone’s breathy, melancholy romanticism). They are a borderline choice, even questionable, but undeniably wonderful.