Last night, the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame published its annual list of nominees. Here's my 1.5 cents on the 19 nominees:
BAD BRAINS: Deep cred faves. But, honestly, I’m not sure that they have wide-ranging enough influence to be a RRHoF band. Sure, they influenced the Beasties, but not in a way that was pervasive throughout the Beasties’ sound (except maybe a bit on “Check Your Head”). Yes, they obviously influenced Living Colour, but that latter band was a much clearer influence on the Black Rock of the late 80s and early 90s. In the end, BB may have been the most blazing American punk/hard core band ever. They influenced bands who likely had more influence than they did. Love 'em, worship 'em, but not RRHoF.
THE CARS: Their debut album is one of the best “Greatest Hits” albums ever released. Unfortunately, their subsequent albums suffered from increasingly diminished returns. So, their body of work is not very deep (though their best is of very high quality) and much of it kinda sucks. Nor were they particularly innovative (they came late to the New Wave scene). Nor have they necessarily had a major influence on future bands, as far as I can tell. A quality band but not one that rises to the level of HoF.
CHAKA KHAN: Perhaps not as famous or quite as commercially successful as her contemporary and RRHoF member, Donna Summer, Chaka nonetheless compares more than favorably. Chaka was superior to Donna both vocally as well as in the richness of her jazz-soul-funk-disco catalog (including her work with Rufus and solo). A strong argument could be made that, in terms of all-around talent, success, and musical quality, Chaka was the best Black female vocalist of the late 70s and early 80s.
CHIC: This should be a no-brainer. Not only were Chic likely the finest disco ensemble of the era, not only was their production definitive for the era, but “Good Times” is one of the most deeply and widely running rivers in all of popular music since the late 70s, whether in Rock (Queen), New Wave (Blondie), or hip-hop (Grandmaster Flash, etc). An essential band who really must be in.
DEPECHE MODE: As major popularizers, rather than originators of rock/pop sub-genre (in this case, synth-pop), Depeche Mode maybe strikes a parallel with another nominee, Pearl Jam. If Depeche Mode is to be considered, we have to wonder why New Order is not. What makes me give DM the benefit of the doubt is the way they evolved beyond their somewhat formulaic and lightweight beginnings to incorporate darker themes, both musically as well as lyrically. And, influence-wise, their impact and influence is unquestionable.
ELO: Delightful band with a deep well of good material (if sometimes buried among less distinguished material). Maybe we could say that their baroque pop bridged certain elements of the Beatles with certain elements of the Bee Gees and they definitely have their adherents. But I have a tough time seeing their impact, as a whole, being HoF level.
J. GEILS BAND: A tip of the hat to a great live band who also had some mainstream success in the MTV era. But, no way. Sorry.
JANE'S ADDICTION: Tough one. While their two proper alternative-era albums are two of the most original and exciting of the time, it is a relatively small body of work and that work has not really proven to be particularly influential. How many bands can you think of that sound anything like Jane’s or even point to Jane's as a major influence? Maybe that’s testimony to the inimitability of their style but it also raises questions about their “importance,” if not about their quality (their involvement in the credits of Entourage doesn’t help). While borderline for the RRHoF, they always have my devotion, for whatever that’s worth.
JANET JACKSON: I don’t see it. Obviously, Janet has been massively successful across four decades. However, she seemed more to ride the popular trends through the years rather than really trailblazing anything. And while she always knew how to cut a hit, her sound was never really that distinctive not were her vocals ever particularly impressive. Lastly, I really don’t see her musical and cultural influence (apart from her unfortunate involvement in a certain Superbowl halftime spectacle).
JOAN BAEZ: If the RRHoF existed in 1969, Baez would have been a top-tier no-brainer. Now, with her brand of folk not particularly pervasive and considering that she was known primarily an interpreter in an era of singer-songwriters (though all Metal fans will eternally salute her for “Diamonds and Rust”), it is getting harder to make the case for her. That said, if Linda Ronstadt can get in…
JOE TEX: At least he made it into the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. But, as my friend, DJ Duane, explains: “Tex was the bridge between Little Willie John (who's in the Hall) and James Brown. It's been said and confirmed that Brown lifted a lot of Tex's dance moves from him...he was George Clinton's fave singer and you can hear a lot of borrowed riffs in a TON of early-mid funkadelic tunes. Even Clinton's song-rap narrative is a direct descendant of Tex's unique style. He's an important unsung yet integral part of Funk's history....he's a foundation of hip hop that's for sure.” “Important” and “unsung,” then, but still not RRHoF.
JOURNEY: If entry to a RRHoF ought to be based on some algorithm involving importance/influence, success/popularity, and innovation, Journey strains that algorithm by making its case overwhelmingly off of only the most déclassé of those factors. On this basis, should ‘Nsync eventually be voted in? Justin Bieber? However, there are a couple of things that make Journey more than a mere pop star vote. First, the band’s musicianship was of an extremely high caliber (if not particularly imaginative). Second, the presence of an exceedingly identifiable vocalist in Steve Perry, gave them a trademark sound far beyond and more affecting than peers such as Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. Lastly, the argument could be made that Journey has actually been influential in the larger culture simply due to the fact that so many outlets (from The Sopranos to Glee) have found their music to be resonant in numerous contexts. In short, many people still really love their stuff. That counts.
KRAFTWERK: Another no-brainer. While pop artists from Perrey & Kingsley to the Silver Apples, to Tangerine Dream, to Sly Stone had been experimenting with drum-machines, synthesizers, and other electronics for years, no single artist was more responsible for developing electronic music into pop music than Kraftwerk. While I would not claim, as others have, that all electronic pop music, from electro-hip hop to synth-pop to techno would have been unthinkable without Kraftwerk, no one was more important or, um, instrumental in growing that branch of the Rock tree.
MC5: Like Bad Brains, deep cred here (Jennifer Aniston notwithstanding). MC5 were a jams kicking live band and, now, widely seen as a precursor to punk. It would be great to vote them in. The influence is there. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure the same could be said for their recorded output. They never really translated their blitzing live show to record and, of the many live recordings that exist, most are of bootleg sound quality. The MC5 deserve to be remembered and revered, but I’m not so sure that the RRHoF is really the most appropriate forum for their legacy.
PEARL JAM: Like Depeche Mode, PJ were more popularizers than innovators. However, they have maintained their status as one of the biggest American stadium bands for over three decades. If they deserve to get in (and they do), it would be primarily on the basis of their enduring size (with a nod to the straight-forward integrity with which they carry themselves). As for importance, they certainly deserve much credit for shaping the mainstream alternative sound of the 90s. However, as that page is written, there is no question that it was Nirvana who really marked that decade more than any other, even if Pearl Jam outsold them.
STEPPENWOLF: Give me a break. This would be like voting a pitcher into the baseball Hall of Fame for pitching a single no-hitter and a two-hitter.
TUPAC SHAKUR: I generally believe that hip hop is part of the larger “rock & roll” universe. However, that argument is easier to sustain with artists such as Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and NWA who all had strong elements of Rock within their sonic frameworks. With Tupac (and, soon, Biggie and most of the hip hop to follow), that interior Rock element is not as present (and, frankly, I was never much of a fan of his schtick). Still, if we are to take the shared Hip Hop and Rock universe seriously, we must also take seriously the apparent and wide-spread influence that hip hop culture claims for Tupac, but it’s borderline for me.
YES: An absolute no-brainer. In terms of success and influence, Yes are probably the most important Prog Rock band of all-time. They did not necessarily invent Prog Rock nor were they necessarily the most avant-garde, but they did more to define the sound and likely inspired more bands to make Prog Rock than any other band. Their five-album peak body of work is magnificent (only Genesis from that same time can challenge it) and their magnum opus, 1973’s Close to the Edge, is arguably the finest Prog Rock album ever recorded (and is also a worthy entry as one of the all-time greatest albums, of any genre). If we were to completely disregard all of their other recorded output (including the massive—and better than you might think—90125 i.e. the one with “Owner of a Lonely Heart”), on the basis of their deep peak, the heights of their finest work, and their profound influence, Yes should be a top-tier RRHoF selection.
THE ZOMBIES: Just as Depeche Mode parallels Pearl Jam, as successful popularizers rather than innovators, the Zombies maybe parallel Jane’s Addiction, as the writers of an exquisite—though relatively meagre—body of work that stands as among the greatest of its era, but which lacks longer-term influence. As with Jane’s, maybe the lack of Zombies disciples is testament to the group’s inimitability (particularly vocalist, Colin Blunstone’s, breathy romanticism). Borderline, even questionable, but undeniably wonderful.