ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINEES ARE IN! A lot of repeats this time, and I can't say most of them are particularly more compelling candidates the second or third time. However, there are some very compelling newcomers.
As always, my criteria is three-pronged: (1) Formal Innovation: did the artist do something new or different technically, stylistically, etc; (2) Lasting Influence/Importance: did the artist change the direction of the Rock/Pop universe, preferably for the better? Is that influence still felt?; and (3) Commercial Viability: not that "more is better" but that the artist must have attained at least a certain quantum of commercial success, either during its active lifetime or in the years since.
And the nominees are:
THE CURE: Huge resounding YES! There was no band who did more to define both the “Alternative” look and sound of the 80s than the Cure. The Smiths were major (and should be inducted); New Order was huge (and should be inducted), but the Cure truly embodied it, from the black clothing, to the asymmetrical hair, to the deliberately misapplied makeup. But what makes it truly work is that the Cure’s music transcends their widely-copied (and parodied) style. Sometimes harrowingly dark and heavy, sometimes sprightly and optimistic, the Cure could cover a range of emotions while always retaining their essence throughout. Their catalog is deep with several albums that could reasonably considered any given fan’s favorite and excellent songs (and hits!) all through the course of their career. Innovative? Huge: they took Joy Division’s lead and essentially defined the Post-Punk/Goth/Alternative sound. Influential? Massive: from their look to their sound, they launched countless ships. Commercial success? Huge here, too! No-brainer slam dunk.
DEF LEPPARD: This is the Journey/Bon Jovi case all over again. All three were big Arena Rock bands that sold plenty of tickets and many albums. Def Leppard suffers in comparison with the other two in that they do not have a “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “Livin’ on a Prayer” to demonstrate lasting pop cultural impact. Indeed, if you look at Def Leppard’s Spotify page, the sum total listens of their entire catalog has generated a small fraction of what either of those two evergreen behemoths have generated. If you’re going to get in almost entirely on your pop success, you better have HUGE pop success. It’s not clear that Def Leppard has it. What Def Leppard can be credited for is translating the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, led by bands such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Saxon, and others, to a more pop-forward MTV audience. Credit can also be given to their album, Pyromania, as one of the archetypal pop-Metal album of the 80s. Most importantly, credit must be given for the menschy way in which they treated their drummer, Rick Allen, when he lost his arm in a car accident just as the band were on the brink of mega-stardom. Rather than dropping Allen, and filling his stool with some hired hand, the band gave him the time to recover and re-learn how to play a special kit modified to accomodate his disability. Many, if not most, up-and-coming bands would have likely placed their ambitions above their loyalty. Def Leppard did not. However, credit on the musical front must be limited. They were not a formally innovative band. They essentially simplified the British Metal sound of the time, turned out several well-crafted pop versions of the sound, and communicated it with sympathetic production, courtesy of Mutt Lange. That’s not an “easy” task to accomplish, but nor is it a Hall-worthy one. While one could argue that Def Leppard were influential, the nature of that influence is dubious: setting the stage for the commodification/commercialization of Metal culminating in the artistically suspect “Hair Metal” scene that dominated mid-late 80s MTV and which became the de facto definition of “Metal” for large swathes of the American public. My guess is that they get voted in, but I don’t think they should.
DEVO: Interesting nomination. With their high-concept philosophies of human “devo-lution,” d.i.y. pseudo-scientistic-futuristic attire, and off-kilter herky-jerky sound, they were one of the most idiosyncratic and identifiable bands of the American punk movement. Pretty high on the innovation scale. However, it’s not clear to me how deep their influence was. Contemporaries such as the Ramones defined the garage-style three chord high-energy punk-pop/punk sound for a zillion followers; The Talking Heads and Television lay the groundwork for the American “Alternative” scene that emerged in the 80s and exploded in the 90s; Blondie and the Pretenders showed what strong female leads could do; Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and the Circle Jerks pointed the way to hard-core. What did Devo lead to? Interesting band and odd historical footnote, but not RRHoF.
JANET JACKSON: As I said with Janet two years ago: “I don’t see it. Obviously, Janet has been massively successful across four decades. However, she seemed more to ride the popular trends throughout the years rather then really trailblazing anything. And while she always knew how to cut a hit, and she employed innovative producers such as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, her sound was never really that distinctive nor were her vocals ever particularly impressive. Lastly, I really don’t see her musical and cultural influence/importance (apart from her unfortunate involvement with a certain Superbowl halftime spectacle). [As a counter-argument, a friend explained to me that her cultural impact on suburban and Midwestern Black youth was comparable to Madonna’s].
JOHN PRINE: A proverbial songwriter’s songwriter. While the quality of his downbeat folk/blues/country songs is attested to by the many many artists who have covered his songs, very few have made their way into the popular consciousness. Maybe he has influence among a certain similar style of songwriter but I don’t think he was any more innovative or influential than his peers, such as Townes Van Zandt or Gram Parsons. Not RRHoF.
KRAFTWERK: I said it two years ago 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 influencial, 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.
LL COOL J: As I wrote last year: “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, in a style done much tougher and convincingly, 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: Another from last year: “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.”
RADIOHEAD: As was the case last year, this should be an absolute slam dunk. Yes, I know that some find their fans to be insufferable and I know that some cannot help but push-back against the band’s valorization, in some contrarian manner. But the truth is that they are, after Nirvana, probably the most influential Rock band of the 90s. This should have been obvious last year and it should be no less obvious now. Maybe it’s just too early, but they should most definitely be in.
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: From last year: “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-Hop 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, invigorating 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.”
ROXY MUSIC: Yes, just…yes. Their formulation was brilliantly bizarre and effective—experimental Rock wrapped in Glam, with an old world crooner frontman and “non-musician” noise-making foil—essentially situating themselves in the lineage of the Velvet Underground and David Bowie, while also filling “the space between” them. They smoothed-out their sound as time went on but very much laid the groundwork for Post-Punk and New Wave before the Punk movement even existed. They lasted long enough to transcend their own history and influence to end their recording career with the sublime AOR album, Avalon, one of the finest swan songs in Rock/Pop history.
RUFUS feat. CHAKA KHAN: 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.
STEVIE NICKS: Stevie represents a kind of flip-side to the Chaka case. While Chaka is an artist best appreciated over the course of her entire career, both within a band and solo, Stevie Nicks benefits from being seen primarily as a member of her band. Most all of Stevie’s important contributions—her distinctive voice, her lace-gypsy-enchantress style, and her most resonant songs (from “Dreams,” to “Rhiannon,” to “Landslide,” etc.) were all done in the context of Fleetwood Mac. The work she did as a solo artist, including the enduring “Edge of Seventeen,” is really just incremental to her work with Mac and, frankly, pales next to it.
TODD RUNDGREN: 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 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.
THE ZOMBIES: Two years running now and here’s what I said both times: “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 clear longer-term influence. It is possible that the Zombies lack of disciples is testament to the group’s inimitability (particularly Colin Blunstone’s vocals, whose breathy, melancholy romanticism might be the most enduring legacy of the group). They are a borderline choice, even questionable, but undeniably wonderful.”