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While we wait for the Nominating Committee to have their annual meeting, I thought I might revise the list of 100 Rock Hall Prospects that I sketched out in January of last year. Since then, four acts on the list have been inducted (Joan Baez, Journey, Electric Light Orchestra, and Yes), lots of new acts became eligible, and my own tastes and judgment have changed (hopefully evolved).

So, here is the new list. Please bear in mind that these are all artists who have been passed over at least once, so Class of 2018 eligibles like Radiohead or Rage Against the Machine will not appear on the list.

  1. Kraftwerk
  2. Janet Jackson
  3. The Moody Blues
  4. Nina Simone
  5. Judas Priest
  6. The Smiths
  7. Carole King
  8. The Spinners
  9. Dire Straits
  10. The Cure
  11. The Cars
  12. Eurythmics
  13. L. L. Cool J.
  14. Kate Bush
  15. Mariah Carey
  16. Nine Inch Nails
  17. The Zombies
  18. T. Rex
  19. Tina Turner
  20. Sonic Youth
  21. Willie Nelson
  22. Dick Dale
  23. Brian Eno
  24. Jethro Tull
  25. Whitney Houston
  26. Depeche Mode
  27. Smashing Pumpkins
  28. Iron Maiden
  29. Weird Al Yankovic
  30. Pixies
  31. Dead Kennedys
  32. Pat Benatar
  33. Emmylou Harris
  34. Motorhead
  35. Big Mama Thornton
  36. War
  37. The Guess Who
  38. Roxy Music
  39. A Tribe Called Quest
  40. Jane’s Addiction
  41. Devo
  42. Salt N Pepa
  43. Phil Collins
  44. Sting
  45. The Monkees
  46. PJ Harvey
  47. Duran Duran
  48. Black Flag
  49. Warren Zevon
  50. Peter Tosh
  51. The Replacements
  52. The Commodores
  53. Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘N Roll Trio
  54. The B-52s
  55. Eric B. & Rakim
  56. Indigo Girls
  57. Big Star
  58. Three Dog Night
  59. Ozzy Osbourne
  60. Johnny Winter
  61. Link Wray
  62. The Doobie Brothers
  63. MC5
  64. Alice in Chains
  65. Phish
  66. Chic
  67. Billy Ward & His Dominoes
  68. Fugazi/Minor Threat
  69. Dionne Warwick
  70. Bjork
  71. The Flaming Lips
  72. Peter, Paul & Mary
  73. Rufus/Chaka Khan
  74. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  75. The Clovers
  76. De La Soul
  77. Blur
  78. Jimmy Buffett
  79. The Shadows
  80. Bad Brains
  81. Ben E. King
  82. Lucinda Williams
  83. Gram Parsons
  84. Soundgarden
  85. Moby
  86. Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  87. The Pogues
  88. The Jam
  89. Bon Jovi
  90. Megadeth
  91. Tori Amos
  92. Mary Wells
  93. Chuck Willis
  94. Kris Kristofferson
  95. Teddy Pendergrass/Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
  96. Toots and the Maytals
  97. The Shangri-Las
  98. New York Dolls
  99. Os Mutantes
  100. Fela Kuti

At this point, I might add that some artists on my original list were phased out. DC Talk, Husker Du, Dan Fogelberg, Slayer, Can, and Procol Harum. Afrika Bambaataa got removed in the light of pederasty charges. Los Lobos got kicked out because they didn’t do “La Bamba” when I saw them perform last year.

A couple similar artists switched places: Emmylou Harris, I think, should get the nod over Gram Parsons. I recently read Kill Your Idols, a collection of essays taking the piss out of allegedly classic albums, and their demolition of Grevious Angel won me over. I also switched A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, with ATCQ now being ranked higher.

Some artists trended downward since last time: Chic (due to Nile Rogers’s Excellence Award), Peter Paul & Mary (Baez’s induction accomplished the same point- acknowledging folk’s role in politicizing rock music), Iron Maiden (#11 was way, way too high) Duran Duran, and Ben E. King. Artists who moved up include Nina Simone (who breaks into the Top Ten), and Nine Inch Nails, among others. Kraftwerk has wrested the #1 spot from Moody Blues after some careful deliberation.

The sharp-eyed may notice several new additions: The Jam, Toots & the Maytals, Tori Amos, Lucinda Williams, Os Mutantes, The Shangri-Las, Kris Kristofferson, Bad Brains, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Blur, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and PJ Harvey have all debuted.

So, this is where things stand for the summer of 2017. As always, your commentary and your critiques are valued.

Our intrepid countdown continues as we mark down some of the less inspired Beatles efforts on our road to Fab Four greatness. This particular batch is heavy on one particular era and one particular Beatle. The era is late 1964, between some lackluster tracks on the otherwise solid A Hard Day’s Night,  as well as some of the problematic tracks on Beatles for Sale, perhaps the band’s least compelling and most enervated studio album. And then there are some subpar b-sides, and EP tracks as well. The Beatle at hand is George, who sings lead on four of these fifteen tracks, far above his usual output. When George was great, George was great, but he struggled to find his voice until Rubber Soul, as these tracks demonstrate.

180. “What You’re Doing,” (Beatles for Sale): There is a kernel of a good song here. Harrison is copping a bit of the early Byrds sound on guitar. But the effort is marred by the single most audible mistake- or rather series of mistakes- in the entire Beatles catalogue. The song requires the first word of each line in the verse to be shouted in unison by John and Paul. But more than once during the song, they sing the wrong word or goof up the pronoun. George Martin was a meticulous man, so I am very curious how such an error-ridden take was deemed acceptable for release.

179. “Bad Boy” (Williams, Beatles VI): Lennon’s love of Larry Williams and his up-tempo rock and rollers manifests in this misbegotten track, which was not formally released in the U.K. until the 1966 compilation album A Collection of Beatles Oldies. Lennon’s singing style and the band’s accompaniment is pointlessly frantic; at a different point in their careers, I would have wondered if they were coked up. The biggest trouble with this track, in my judgment, is its incongruent Americanism. With references to hula hoops, putting tacks on the teacher’s chair, and general juvenile delinquency, an indelibly British act had little hope of translating this piece, despite their evident love of American culture.

178. “What Goes On” (Lennon/McCartney/Starkey, Rubber Soul): Rubber Soul is one of the band’s most forward-looking records, which makes a retread like this nearly tragic. One of Lennon’s earlier songwriting efforts, this was given a dust-up. But in the end, it sounds for all the world like a country-flavored reject from Beatles for Sale. Some solid background vocals from John and Paul are the song’s best quality, but the paint-by-numbers Chet Atkins guitar work by Harrison, and the song’s similarities to the last few Ringo vocal outings make this track expendable and skippable.

177. “Another Girl” (Help!): I read Rob Sheffield’s quasi-memoir Talking to Girls About Duran Duran yesterday, and in it, he goes on an extended riff about McCartney’s public persona. He wisely notes that this is McCartney’s only known attempt at a snide Dylanesque “It Ain’t Me Babe” kind of song. It doesn’t work because it cuts so incisively against the grain of who McCartney projects himself to be. The song’s callous rejection of one girlfriend for another breaks no meaningful thematic ground nor is its ponderous instrumental track very good either. A disappointment from a creative stage in the band’s career. It did inspire a fun sequence in the Help! film that I enjoy watching, though. Pure filler.

176. “Thank You Girl” (B-side): This early flip side of “From Me to You” isn’t terrible or anything, but it is a more careless throwaway, and an indictment of the slapdash nature of many B-sides throughout the record industry in the early 1960s.

175. “Baby’s In Black” (Beatles for Sale): The band clearly wanted to try out some country, and this song does have an appealing 3/4 swing (the first Lennon/McCartney song in waltz time?)  The experiment doesn’t wholly succeed. As a song grappling with loss, and perhaps even death, it is too direct whereas the superior “Yes It Is” is evocative and circumspect. Moreover, Harrison’s limp guitar solo shows that his proficiency in rockabilly didn’t necessarily translate to country and western. Inexplicably, this song remained in the band’s live setlist until their final performance in Candlestick Park.

174. “She’s A Woman” (b-side): Some have portrayed this song as a daring rhythm-and-blues outing. Others have called it proto-punk. Nah. The flip side to “I Feel Fine” is simplistic, repetitive, and ties the band to a more Stones-like sound that they don’t have the experience or the proper background to perform well. Also, it rhymes “presents” with “peasant.”

173. “Magical Mystery Tour” (Magical Mystery Tour): This song encapsulates a lot of what is wrong with the television movie to which it serves as our theme. Empty promises, lyrics that are merely coy salesmanship, and a failure to evoke either magic or mystery are just the beginning of its problems. I can’t think of a less inviting way to entice someone to psychedelic wonder than this track. You can hear Lennon rolling his eyes while he’s singing the background vocals.

172. “Anytime At All” (A Hard Day’s Night): There is a fair bit of anonymous phoned-in writing on the second half of the A Hard Day’s Night LP. This track kicks the side off, where Lennon repeats his trick of flipping between a sensitive verse and an urgent chorus used earlier in “It Won’t Be Long” and “All I’ve Got To Do”. An uncreative “I’m here if you need me” kind of song, it is further diminished by possibly the worst instrumental break on any Beatles song.

171. “I Call Your Name” (Long Tall Sally EP): Some cool rhythms can be found here which resemble almost a cro-magnon version of reggae. Although the band’s version flounders, it did at least inspire a worthwhile cover from The Mamas & The Papas.

170. “Chains” (King/Goffin; Please Please Me): This is George’s first lead vocal in the band’s professional recording career. As such, it comes across merely as a showcase, and it breaks the first rule of doing cover versions: don’t do them if you can’t add anything to the original. Even so, the band’s courage in defying strict Northern gender roles and doing songs by The Shirelles or, in this case, The Cookies, is noted. It gave the group a much wider repertoire of songs to use in their live set.

169. “I Need You” (Harrison; Help!): Sometimes less is more. Harrison’s second composition to land on a Beatles record, “I Need You” has a simple and earnest core to it. What could have been endearing merely becomes jarring, as the band experiments with too much wah-wah pedal, having become somewhat infatuated with the device during the Help! sessions. It’s an incongruous choice for a plaintive song that could have been much better without it.

168. “Devil in Her Heart” (Drapkin; With the Beatles): This was originally sung by The Donays, and its 45 single appears to have been the only thing they ever recorded. (This was the era where girl groups on small labels were paid in shampoo vouchers and bubblegum.) The Beatles make a go of it, with a wink and a smirk; its lyrics were clearly written as an exchange between girlfriends, despite the band’s change of pronouns. What I find interesting is how, for the band’s first three records, George seems to have been deliberately marketed as the younger brother of the band, given much more simplistic, juvenile material, while John and Paul handle songs dealing with more mature aspects of relationships.

167. “When I Get Home” (A Hard Day’s Night): This song comes in like a wrecking ball, with a relentless beat creating what Lennon called a “four-in-the-bar cowbell song” in the vein of Wilson Pickett. Yet it lacks Pickett’s easy soul and wan smile. Running on fumes during a busy schedule, the band resorts to cliches like “til the cows come home” and sounds nowhere more tired than in this attempt at a high-octane, uptempo track.

166. “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” (A Hard Day’s Night): Although three songs from the album appear on this post, I truly do believe that A Hard Day’s Night is the best of the four LPs from the height of Beatlemania. This is the only lackluster track on the otherwise sterling Side 1. The penchant for saddling Harrison with simplistic songs from a young teenager’s point of view is wearing a bit thin by now. While John and Paul sing of coming home to a woman (mercy!), Harrison remains stuck at the high school dances wearing uncomfortable loafers.

 

For the last few years, coverage of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been the Northumbrian Countdown’s bread and butter. Sure, I will comment on the state of Walt Disney World, or modern politics, or even religion from time to time, but the fact remains: a vast majority of the traffic that gets to this site arrives because of something I’ve written about rock and roll. So it might be surprising to know that I never visited the hallowed halls of Cleveland. And this is in spite of being a three hour drive from the museum during my grad school days in Buffalo, and a four hour drive from my current digs in Rochester.

Why did it take so long? For years, my absence was for petty reasons: I refused to visit until Chicago was inducted. Their induction in April, 2016 took care of that obstacle, however the best weekends for visiting were hampered by the Cavaliers’ victory parade, the RNC, and my perpetual difficulties traveling. But on July 1, I finally made it! And so did lots of other people. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was crowded…it was easily the most crowded I have ever seen any museum. At first I thought that it was because of the new Power of Rock exhibit, but the true factor quickly became clear: the Cleveland Browns’ stadium was a quarter mile away, and was hosting a U2 concert later that evening. As you can imagine, that would lead to some congestion in the Rock Hall earlier that day!

As far as my impressions go, the museum has a lot going for it. More than anything else, the museum makes you feel like rock and roll is a holy thing. The great glass pyramid keeps your eyes gazing toward the top, giving the visitor a sense of grandeur that reminds me of my visits to London’s Gothic cathedrals in terms of imparting majesty. The museum feels like an interactive journey through the sacred. It was affecting to see the handwritten lyrics for “London Calling,” or the piano that Jerry Lee Lewis abused to get the riveting pulse he needed for “Great Balls of Fire.” As a hopeless Beatles fan since I was 10, the Fab Four artifacts took my breath away- to see Ringo’s drums from the Shea Stadium era, or an actual outfit worn by one of The Beatles in a photo I’ve seen dozens of times felt to me as though a myth was becoming real and tangible.

Yet the museum was insistent on making sure we understood its narrative. There was really no way to proceed except by going through early influences, winding through thoughtful exhibition space on gospel, country, and blues influences on the genre. Unlike, say, the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, this isn’t a “choose your own adventure” kind of museum. There’s only so many ways you can get through it. After this introductory material- Elvis! Followed by rock’s early years, and eventually, the showcases take a geographic focus, with Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, and London all taking center stage. The Rock Hall even dedicates a great deal of space to justifying its Cleveland roots, with Alan Freed taking a key part in the narrative, and posters for the Moondog Coronation Ball. From there, space is dedicated to various keynote artists: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Bowie, Prince, and the like.  But one needs to get through the final stages- contemporary descendants of rock and roll- to complete the journey. The Rock Hall’s very design forces the visitor to confront hip-hop, Adele, Janelle Monae, and other modern standard-bearers. The message is clear: rock and roll headed off in many directions, and guitar-based acts are not the only, or even the most important, part of that legacy. In fact, the lack of 70s classic rock bands stood out baldly: Aerosmith, Chicago, Boston, Cheap Trick, — all of those were downplayed.

One area that surprised me with its spartan qualities were the plaques denoting who had been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during each year. That was it…just a name, with no explanation of who Percy Sledge was, or why Brenda Lee was significant. However, a sign nearby solicited ideas for #RockHallHonors to figure out a more suitable way to acknowledge those who climbed the mountain and got inducted.

But as I left, I noticed a few things that stood out by their absence. For one, the museum was wholly focused on artists and musicians. The effect rock and roll had on crowds, listeners, dancers, was never fully explored. That, to me, leaves the visitor wondering his or her own role in this story, and makes music something that is passively received- a notion that I am sure most rock and roll experts- including those on the museum board- would contest. One encouraging movement to rectify this came across in a series of interactive booths were your choice of rock icon (Mary Wilson, or Smokey Robinson or Michelle Phillips or Alice Cooper) elicited your favorite concert memories or who you think should be in the Hall of Fame. (I gave a pretty cogent case for Nina Simone, if I do say so myself.)

Moreover, why does rock and roll matter? Perhaps the museum treats this question as self-evident, nevertheless the question remains — why do we listen to rock? Why do we care about it? The museum didn’t offer any coherent answers, and perhaps there are none to be had. But if I ran this particular zoo, I’d have maybe spent more time on Dylan’s impact on, say, ’68 in America; the Plastic People of the Universe inspiring Prague Spring; Live Aid’s noble failure to combat poverty– or its relations to modern politics, racial identity, fashion, or attitudes toward sex. Aside from a strong section on censorship of rock and roll that touched on why the genre was seen as dangerous, the exhibitions chose not to engage with these issues.

In the end, though, these are just some rough sketches from a historian who reads too much and thinks too much. All told, I had a great time- especially once the crowds died down. Nevertheless, I encourage those in charge of this project to more overtly engage the question of “why rock and roll matters” beyond celebrating this pantheon of great figures and allowing these Midwestern pilgrims to glimpse at relics and curios. Even so, I didn’t get to see everything this time around- and I will gladly be back. Despite my critiques, this is a museum that Cleveland can be proud of. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Nina Simone get in. And The Zombies. And Kraftwerk. And Janet Jackson. And…

Welcome to our second installment of our ranking of The Beatles’ canonical works. Looking back, it is remarkable how little bad music this band recorded over the seven or so years of their recording career. We handled the worst of the worst last time, and we slowly wind our way through tossers, and up to mediocrity, and finally rock and roll greatness. Truthfully, these early posts are the most difficult to write; I take no joy in dismissing any of the band’s work, but their lesser efforts are highlighted in this post.

195. Hold Me Tight (With the Beatles): The song captures of some the frantic teenage energy that drove so much of early Beatlemania. Yet for reasons never answered satisfactorily, a dreadfully out of tune version of this Lennon/McCartney number was committed to record and pressed for the album. Aside from a neat tempo change for the bridge, there is little evidence that this was treated as much more than hackwork.

194. Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby (Perkins- Beatles for Sale): This is a puzzling choice indeed to end Beatles for Sale. The band’s first two albums ended with a raucous rocker, and A Hard Day’s Night pulled off a pleasant surprise with the acoustic “I’ll Be Back.” Ending the album with this tongue-in-cheek Carl Perkins number, though, was a baffling choice. Drenched in a swampy echo, leaden with perfunctory guitar solos, this is far from the Beatles’ best effort. It’s a shame, really: it’s the only time they professionally recorded a Carl Perkins song sung by Harrison, who idolized the rockabilly legend.

193. You Like Me Too Much (Harrison- Help!): George was afforded two of his own compositions on Help!, but it only shows how behind the curve he was compared to his two more celebrated bandmates. Harrison wrote very few true love songs during his career; even “Something” includes the ambivalent “I don’t want to leave her now.” Similarly, this track is a sour admission of a half-hearted romance, dressed up with some incongruous barrelhouse piano.

192. Tell Me What You See (Help!): If not for the sterling “Yesterday” and the jaunty “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” the second side of Help! might have gone down as the worst side of any Beatles LP. Paul tries to create some atmosphere on this track with some unusual percussive rhythms and electric organ. Yet it just doesn’t come together, and the listener is distracted by odd turns of phrase like “I’ll make bright your day.” I’m puzzled as to why they didn’t try to improve “If You’ve Got Trouble” or “That Means a Lot”, two superior rejects from these sessions that didn’t surface (legally) until the Anthology series.

191. Why Don’t We Do It In the Road (White Album): I’ll admit that this track makes me laugh because of Paul’s pure commitment to it. It lets him belt and give his falsetto voice a workout, but it never should have been committed to record, even on the White Album. It just sounds like a track that would have been filler on Anthology Vol. 3.

190. Cry Baby Cry (White Album): The block-chord piano parts presage Lennon’s M.O. throughout his solo career, and Ringo does some fine drumming that’s very easy to overlook. Otherwise, there isn’t much to commend this bizarre fairy-tale Lennon concocts.

189. Dig It (Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr- Let It Be): There are definitely traces of a funky jam in the making here. Billy Preston finds a nice groove on keyboards, and Lennon is clearly enjoying himself as he ad-libs the vocals. As happened so often in the Get Back sessions, though, the band refused to take the time to polish this idea and turn it into something better developed- especially since the band wasn’t all that strong at improvising.

188. Her Majesty (Abbey Road): Left on the album by mistake, this cheeky ditty ruins the perfect conclusion for Abbey Road established by “The End.” A pity.

187. Your Mother Should Know (Magical Mystery Tour): As I said in my introduction to this project, I have a high tolerance for Paul’s throwback records, or “rooty-tooty” music as John sometimes called it. This effort just doesn’t work however, and even the elaborate dance number that accompanies this track at the end of Magical Mystery Tour can’t salvage it. The organ part makes it sound like baroque rock, rather than the 1940s-inspired tune it was; McCartney would later get the concept right with “You Gave Me the Answer” from the Wings’ Venus and Mars album.

186. A Taste of Honey (Scott/Marlow- Please Please Me): The Beatles cast a wide net in their live sets from their Hamburg days onward. Paul would usually push the group to include some Tin Pan Alley numbers, or some Broadway tunes, indicative of his father’s music-hall penchant. “A Taste of Honey” is one of those tunes– pleasant, wistful, and saccharine. I didn’t know that eye rolls could be audible, but you can almost hear Lennon’s on this track.

185. Blue Jay Way (Harrison- Magical Mystery Tour): This track has its advocates, and I might get some blowback for ranking it this low.  While undoubtedly moody, hazy, and atmospheric, it’s a journey that doesn’t go much of anywhere. Harrison definitely gets points for centering this tune around an Indian drone style with limited modulation, but the final effect is dreary and repetitive. This is a major problem on the first side of Magical Mystery Tour, which lacks sustained effort as the band’s psychological impulses are running on fumes, soon to be supplanted by the return to basics exemplified by “Lady Madonna” and The White Album.

184. Revolution No. 9 (White Album): Some of my readers might wonder why this track isn’t lower. Isn’t this track the embodiment of narcissistic, failed experimentation? Isn’t this supposed to be the apogee of Yoko’s toxic influence on the band? To be sure, Lennon’s decision to submit one of his first attempts at avant-garde to such a wide public gaze was arrogant, indulgent, and ill-considered. But the seeds of a solid modern art piece are definitely present, and the influences of people like John Cage are certainly evident here. Lennon fails to understand, though, that less is more. If limited to two or three minutes, and more artistically designed to suggest the foment of an oncoming revolution- the piece’s message after all- something might have been made out of this track. It’s not corrosive, lazy, or hackwork–just a genuinely interesting concept that collapsed of its own weight.

183. Boys (Dixon/Farrell- Please Please Me): Maybe this track has aged the least well out of the entire Beatles canon. Even as late as the early 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon for men to sing songs written for women, and vice versa. Today, a track such as this is bound to elicit giggles and immature questions about Ringo’s sexuality. It still stands as a lesser effort from that first album, as seen in Ringo’s discomfiture in the studio, and an ineffectual translation from the girl-group sound to the Merseyside beat. Nevertheless, it stands out that four (!!) of the songs on the band’s first album were originally performed by female artists (along with “Baby, It’s You” and “Chains”) with a fourth, “Misery,” written by John and Paul for a female singer but ultimately taken up by the composers themselves.

182. You Know My Name (Look Up the Number) (b-side): At the very end of The Beatles’ career, so depleted was their catalog, and so convinced were they of their own genius, that “Let It Be” was backed by an absurdist lark recorded two years earlier. No Beatles track betrays the band’s Goon Show pedigree more than this one, as John and Paul- the only two Beatles appearing on this track- repeat the song’s title in a number of comedic voices.

181. Baby, You’re A Rich Man (Magical Mystery Tour): Flecks of Middle Eastern instrumentation give this song an exotic palette, yet ultimately mislead the listener into believing that this song will be interesting. An awkward amalgamation of a song by Lennon and a song by McCartney, it lacks the airiness of the song’s Summer of Love release, leaden as it is with overdubs.

It’s time to begin our next big project on the Northumbrian Countdown: ranking the Beatles catalogue. As many long-time readers know, I am a huge, huge fan of this group, to the point of being considered obsessed as a teenager. I owned their entire catalogue by the time I was 15. My high school graduation speech was about The Beatles. During my senior year, my friends and I made (with a bit of help from our moms) Sgt. Pepper costumes to wear for Halloween. I’ve seen Paul once in concert and Ringo four times. I’ve probably read upwards of 50 or 60 books on them over the course of my life. While I try to be humble, I know my Beatles. Now it’s time to rank their output.

A few words about this. First of all, I am listening mostly as a fan and partly as a historian of the 1960s and 1970s, and this will impact what I look for. I don’t have much musical training beyond a basic proficiency in piano, so I’m not one to talk about pentatonic scales and aeolian cadences, and all that. In terms of what I am looking for, I suppose I am looking for how a song comes together as a whole. Does it highlight a crucial aspect of Beatlemania? Does it move the band’s oeuvre in a new direction, or perhaps even alter the trajectory of rock and roll itself? I also try and consider context as well- the Beatles generally wrote their music, at least at first, for dancing, not listening with headphones. I penalize lazy writing, hackwork, and malice. If I have a bias, I suppose it’s that unlike many Beatles writers, I slightly prefer Paul over John, or at the very least tolerate Paul’s music-hall diversions more than Lennon’s pretensions to literary genius.

Now we come to the problem of what, exactly, is ranked. Obviously, every track on every British studio album is accounted for, with the exception of the George Martin instrumentals on Yellow Submarine. Some rankings include the cover songs that showed up on their first five LPs, and others don’t. I will incorporate them. Similarly included are the hodgepodge of non-album singles, EPs, and other material collected in the two Past Masters volumes, with the exception of their two German-language remakes of their hits. Abbey Road was tricky (some people consider all of side two one long track), but I combined “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” and “Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” while considering the other tracks individually. I do not include the two reunion tracks from the 1990s.

So, let’s begin our magical mystery tour through the collected works of one of the most important musical artists of the twentieth century. All songs are Lennon-McCartney unless otherwise noted.

203. “Run For Your Life” (Rubber Soul): Tanking at the very bottom of our ranking is this closing track from one of the band’s finest albums. “Run For Your Life” is in some ways the single track that least caters to the band’s best qualities. It is malicious, with John Lennon dwelling on seeing a lover dead. It’s not ironic. It’s not winking. Lennon gives every indication that he’s serious. It’s also unoriginal, with it’s first line nicked from an early Elvis record, with bland, generically country and western instrumentation that could have just as easily come from Beatles for Sale, two albums earlier. I have no trouble writing this off as the nadir of the band’s recording career.

202. “Taxman” (Harrison- Revolver): I’ve always found it fascinating that George Harrison was both the most spiritual of the Beatles, yet also the most miserly. Some consider “Taxman” to be the first sign of greatness from the Quiet Beatle, but I disagree strongly. This song fits one of the most loathsome rock archetypes: rich people complaining about problems only rich people can understand. At the time this song was written, income taxes on the very top earners in the U.K. topped 90%. My problem is that this kind of taxation rate was necessary to sustain the U.K. welfare state, and Harrison, of all the Beatles, benefitted most from that welfare state. His father enjoyed a municipal job driving buses. The Harrisons dwelled in government-subsidized council flats, housing that was far superior to that enjoyed by any previous generation of the English working class. What’s more, The Beatles, and most British rockers, collected welfare payments between gigs, a practice Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn calls “rock and dole.” This social democracy gave Harrison the material comforts as a youngster and financial stability as a young adult to help him realize his potential. So for Harrison to whine about the tax rate now that he was finally among the top earners strikes me as deeply hypocritical.

201. “Wild Honey Pie” (White Album): The question of whether the White Album should have been cut down to one lean, trim album or left in its sprawling 90-minute state remains a contentious debate among Beatles aficionados. Few, however, would disagree about this song’s reputation as filler, barely a minute of acoustic guitar, and funny voices warbling “honey pie.”

200. “Maggie Mae” (trad. arranged by Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-Starr- Let It Be): The “Get Back” sessions of early 1969 often got derailed into jam sessions and impromptu cover songs. Led by Lennon, the band tries their hand at this ribald Merseyside ditty about a neer-do-well prostitute. It has neither the joy of true spontaneity, nor any of the polish that would come from actively working on the song. Instead, the four Beatles try to soldier their way through a song none of them can remember, and none of them look back on especially fondly. The track cuts off mid-verse, 40 seconds in.

199. “Matchbox” (Perkins- EP): Although George Harrison was the group’s resident Carl Perkins devotee, the band’s first of three Perkins covers went to Ringo, probably because the song’s doleful lyrics matched his public persona. Unfortunately, the result is paint-by-numbers rockabilly, and Ringo hasn’t learned the art of double-tracking yet, as he can be heard changing the cadence of the lyrics throughout between tracks.

198. “Mr. Moonlight” (Johnson- Beatles for Sale): I’m going to come out and say it- Beatles for Sale is easily my least favorite album by the band. It’s problems include the band’s burnout from constant touring and Beatlemania, and with limited time and limited energy, the group resorted to quick, easy covers of familiar material. This obscurity bespeaks Lennon’s deep interest in black rhythm & blues, an interest shared by many Merseyside artists. But the recording of this song is dreadful, with Lennon’s bite removing much of the soul and plaintiveness of the original. The gimmicky organ part sinks the already troubled track. George Martin made a rare mistake putting this on the album rather than the frantic “Leave My Kitten Alone.”

197. “Little Child” (With the Beatles): This is the band at their most pedestrian and least inventive, as they recorded this forgettable track for their sophomore album. It exposes Lennon’s tenuous harmonica abilities and it’s patronizing tones haven’t aged well.

196. “Misery” (Please Please Me): I’m grading the first album on a bit of a curve, since the band hadn’t logged much studio time, and only had a day to record ten tracks. Nevertheless, “Misery” is a marked step down from the album’s stellar opening track, “I Saw Her Standing There.” Written for British pop act Helen Shapiro, some amateurism is on display. Between the silly falsetto during the fade-out, and the band’s shaky incorporation of a piano into their sound, it’s clear that the band still had a bit of a learning curve to navigate.

And here we are…just a few songs to start out the first post. Stay tuned as we count down to Beatles greatness!

 

If it seems as though we just got through inducting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2017, that’s because we did. With the ceremony in Brooklyn less than two months in the rear view mirror, we’re not even close to the Nominating Committee’s late summer meeting, let alone the announcement of the nominees. In general, the other Rock Hall watchers and I will be making our official predictions for the Class of 2018 nominees around Labor Day. So please understand the tentative and exploratory nature of this post.

The last few years of Rock Hall inductees have certainly been interesting ones. Game-changing first-ballot inductees have gotten in, and the list of classic rock snubs is continually whittled down. In the last four years alone, Yes, Chicago, Deep Purple, Steve Miller, Cheap Trick, Hall & Oates, Peter Gabriel, ELO, and Journey have all gotten in. But as a recent interview with Boston’s Tom Scholz has demonstrated, it’s never enough for some people. Get those acts in, and those same voices will clamor for Def Leppard, Judas Priest, The Cars, Dire Straits, and so on. And while a case can be made for any of these (well, maybe not Def Leppard…), the backlog continues to grow for 80s alternative, soul, country-rock, and other genres.

There will be a few wrinkles that will complicate this year’s predictions. One of them is the fluctuating number of nominees, ranging from a low of 15 to a peak of 19. Another is the unusually high number of quality acts that are eligible for the first time this year. Yet another is how the Rock Hall will respond to public pressure– in particular, a strong online movement has made known its displeasure of the lack of female inductees, voters, and committee members. So I’m going to simply list 25 acts that I’m considering for my predictions, acts that I believe have a strong chance of being nominees, in no particular order.

  1. Janet Jackson: I feel comfortable enough to say this: now that Nile Rogers is in, I think we’re through with Chic nominations. We can debate whether or not this was the correct move until we’re blue in the face, but realistically, I don’t think we’ll see Chic on the ballot again. I believe that Janet Jackson will take their place as the act that gets nominated every year until induction. Questlove supports her, she’d guarantee a large audience for the HBO viewing, and she’d correct the recent drought of black and female artists. Embarrassingly, a living black woman has not been inducted into the Hall since Claudette Robinson back in 2012.
  2. War: War seems to get nominated every three years, and it seems to coincide with when the ceremony is held in Cleveland. War is neither fair nor foul, and seems to have few hardcore advocates or vocal opponents, making this pick a difficult one to gauge.
  3. Radiohead: For the last 20 years, Rolling Stone has drilled through our heads that it thinks OK Computer is the best album since Nevermind. An almost guaranteed choice for their first year eligible.
  4. Rage Against the Machine: Conflicts of interest abound. Bassist Tom Morello is on the committee, and given his antiestablishment attitudes, he might very well recuse himself or ask that his band not be inducted until its main influences, such as MC5, are in. But I suspect the rest of the committee will overrule him.
  5. Nine Inch Nails: Almost everyone expected this band to be nominated last year, and we were surprised when they were not. I think they’ll be back, partly because of Trent Reznor’s connections to the Cleveland area.
  6. Devo: Speaking of Cleveland connections, this electronic act, presaging humanity’s decline into stupidity, violence, and chaos, turned out to be remarkably prescient.
  7. Moody Blues: At this point, they’re the most notable absence among the 60s and 70s classic rock crowd. Most ballots have a populist choice, and it might well be these guys.
  8. L.L. Cool J.:  After a few years, the tumult over “The Accidental Racist” is over. (I still, though, continue to use it in my classes as a textbook example of false equivalency.) L.L. Cool J., who was once rumored to be the top vote-getter among the Nom Com, is poised to return to the ballot. Especially now that 2pac broke the “solo rapper” barrier.
  9. Eurythmics: Journey’s nomination and induction shows that 80s nostalgia runs high. It’s hard to think of many 80s moments more iconic than a gender-bending Annie Lennox with a pointer and a globe in the “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” video. Lennox has been feted with award show appearances and a successful standards album as of late, and she and David Stewart are probably game for a brief reunion.
  10. Joe Cocker: His name has been batted around for a while, most notably by Billy Joel and Maureen Van Zandt, as a Rock Hall snub. Admittedly, he ticks a lot of marks we usually see: Baby Boomer nostalgia, bluesy styles, and a knockout performance at Woodstock.
  11. Soundgarden: The tragic death of Chris Cornell has made 90s guys recognize how great Soundgarden was. They were a band that was often overshadowed by other 90s alternative acts, even though they presaged many of them. I’d be surprised if Tom Morello and Dave Grohl didn’t use their leverage to nominate this act.
  12. The Spinners: Questlove and Cliff Bernstein are still on the committee. That means there’s always a chance we’ll see the iconic 70s soul group return.
  13. The Cure: Although this spot may well go to The Smiths, or The Replacements, or even Sonic Youth, we might also see The Cure return after several years’ absence. The growing importance of the HBO special makes it imperative that the band in question actually show up intact and willing to perform. And The Cure just completed a highly successful tour last year.
  14. Warren Zevon: After David Letterman gave the best speech of the night this year, how can the Nom Com deny him his wish to see his old friend and favorite guest Warren Zevon in the Hall?
  15. Roxy Music: It’s got to happen one of these years, right?
  16. Nina Simone: I’ve predicted her for the last couple years, and I know I’ve got to be right eventually. The Rock Hall tends to like acts that challenged the war machine and/or the Jim Crow system– look at the Baez and MC5 nominations last year. Simone took on both- and her record’s cameo in Lemonade underscored how influential she has been in R&B’s development.
  17. Willie Nelson: Some have said that he’s a better fit for Musical Excellence, and maybe they are right. But it seems silly to honor Nelson that way when he’d probably breeze through the regular ballot. Willie Nelson may be primarily a country act, but his career had significant crossover with- and influence over- the development of rock and roll.
  18. Patsy Cline: Or they might go in this direction. If you want more women in the Rock Hall, you might as well pick someone who would almost certainly get in, right? Like Nelson, there may be other ways of getting her in the Hall- maybe Early Influence, given that her connections to rock and roll in life were much more tenuous than Nelson’s?
  19. The Zombies: They’ve been cruising across the U.S., performing Odessey and Oracle in its entirety and getting rave reviews. Everyone who frequents the Countdown knows I’m a huge advocate of The Zombies. Let’s get them in while Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone are still out there performing. This will be their year. Took a long time to come.
  20. Link Wray: Rock historians and top-shelf 60s guitarists can’t say enough good things about him. He made the ballot once, for the Class of 2014, so there is always the chance he will resurface. But every passing year makes it less likely we’ll see 50s artists show up.
  21. J. Geils Band: I honestly don’t see the appeal, although their backers say they were one of the best live acts ever. Given that they are already in the Nom Com’s favor, the recent death of the titular Mr. Geils makes me think that the Nom Com will honor him with another- possibly final- nomination.
  22. Foreigner: Jann Werner loves them, to the point of allegedly shoehorning “I Want To Know What Love Is” onto Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest songs. While I wouldn’t vote for them, I’d appreciate their induction; as a loyal Rochestafarian, I know well that Lou Gramm has deep roots in my adopted hometown. Anyway, with lots of hits and plenty of nostalgia, this is the kind of act that HBO is hoping gets inducted, especially if they can pull off an elusive reunion.
  23. Chaka Khan: On the other hand, maybe Chaka Khan is the new Chic. She’s been nominated two years in a row, and acts are rarely nominated for three (one reason why The Cars and Kraftwerk didn’t make it on my list this year). But given that the Nom Com loves funky disco stuff, it would be foolish to write her off.
  24. Carole King: So, last year she performed Tapestry in its entirety in front of tens of thousands of people in Hyde Park. There is a musical out on her life. And a documentary. I have an unprovable theory that there was a Baez vs. King logjam that finally broke last year. Now that Baez is in, let’s do the right thing and induct Carole King as a performer, and not just for her Brill Building songwriting.
  25. Toots & the Maytals: Every year there’s a WTF nomination along the lines of Bad Brains or Los Lobos- not unjustifiable, per se, but certainly a big surprise. I think it’s going to be these guys this year.

One of the hobbies I’ve revisited from an earlier time in my life is NBA fandom. I have never been a hardcore sports person, and certainly not as an athlete myself. But as a historian, the deep cultural histories of franchises, the interpersonal dynamics on the court, and the layers of strategy and skill make basketball a captivating hobby. And this is particularly so with the playoffs underway! Although this is a departure from the Countdown’s usual political and rock & roll historical commentary, I think it’s high time to start a new project: the top 100 nba players of all time!

Here are a few considerations guiding my ranking:

  1. Peak performance vs. longevity: there are no easy answers, but one needs to be carefully weigh brief periods of sublime performance (let’s say Bill Walton in the late 1970s or Bernard King in the mid-80s) against long, sustained, but sometimes less overtly brilliant production (let’s say someone like Robert Parish or Hal Greer).
  2. Contingency: Not all situations are created equal. Some players get fantastic teammates whose skill set complements their own. Others are saddled with incompetent coaches, selfish teammates, clueless GMs and owners, and other misfortunes. Did a player do the best they possibly could have in the situation given them?
  3. Stats and “Fruit Salad”: Things like MVPs, Finals MVPs, rings, All-Star appearances, All-NBA and Defense team appearances, season performance, and being a league leader in a statistical category will all matter here.
  4. The Things the Stats Don’t Tell You: Did the player make their teammates better and encourage a positive culture in their club? Did they innovate and alter the game in some way? Were they willing to do the little things that don’t end up in the stat sheet?
  5. Era: It’s really difficult to rank players from the early years of professional basketball. The game was slow, earthbound, provincial, and thuggish before the 24-second shot clock, and only gradually became airborne, uptempo, electric, and international. Frankly, most players from the 1950s and 1960s would get eaten alive in today’s league. To what extent should that count against them?
  6. Team Favoritism: one thing we have to remember is that sportswriters are generally big-city dudes, and the accolades they hand out and the subjects they deign to write about tend to focus on historically great teams and media meccas. Generally, this has meant favorable press for New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and perhaps more recently, the Bay Area. Something to keep in mind: players who toiled in unattractive cities for unsexy teams tend to get passed over, both in their heyday and by posterity. As a result, I have a lot of sympathy for denizens of Milwaukee, San Antonio, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and other relatively provincial locales.

With these considerations established, let’s begin our countdown!

100. Yao Ming: There were exactly 99 players I felt comfortable putting on this list. I struggled with the final selection, considering about a half dozen individuals before landing on Yao. His career was short- only 8 seasons- and he was injured for some big pieces of it. (The human foot is just not designed to support 7’6″ of flesh and bone). But when he was healthy, Ming could devastate: he could rebound, block, and pass unexpectedly well. Always more of a finesse center than a powerhouse, he posed major problems for defenses: his low-post moves could usually outmaneuver opponents, and if you fouled him, you were facing one of the best free-throw shooting centers of all time. Moreover, Yao Ming is probably one of the dozen most important NBA players ever (along with MJ, Bird, Magic, Russell, Wilt, Mikan, Earl the Pearl, Iverson, Dr. J, Shaq, and Cousy.) His arrival underscored just how international the game had become, as Asian fans voted him into All-Star game after All-Star game.

99. Draymond Green: Maybe this is a bit premature, but Green has been the runner-up for two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and is the favorite to win for the 2016-17 season. He was the defensive anchor for the best regular season in NBA history, the 15-16 Warriors. That’s not inconsiderable; remove Draymond and Andrew Bogut, and the team is in danger of becoming another 1980s run-and-gun team destined for a first-round playoff exit, like the Doug Moe Nuggets or Run TMC. Green gave the team tenacity, and took pressure off of Curry and Thompson in the playmaking stakes. He joins Bird, Lebron, Webber, and Barry in the ranks of the best passing forward in league history. He is perhaps the best perimeter defender in the league today, and is willing to sacrifice his stats to win. While he is by far the team’s most volatile member, and his propensity for technical fouls may have cost the team the 2016 finals, Green’s best days are ahead of him, and I feel comfortable putting him in the top 100 of all time at this early juncture.

98. Maurice Cheeks: When we talk about the great NBA teams, the 1983 76ers are often left out of the conversation, and even then, much of the attention accrues to Moses Malone and Julius Erving. But Cheeks was the engine driving one of the most dominant NBA teams of the decade. His stats aren’t always eye-popping, but he could lock down the opposing team’s best guard with ease (to that effect, he made five All-Defense teams). Offensively, he shot well over 50% from the field doing mostly mid-range shots. Oh, and for a guy who isn’t remembered all that much today, he ranks #5 all-time in steals, and #13 all-time in assists. He was the floor general for one of the best teams in one of the league’s most memorable decades.

97. Tracy McGrady: I don’t especially like McGrady or his game, but with his recent induction announcement for the Basketball Hall of Fame, I kind of feel like I have to include him. His lack of playoff success and his reputation as a locker room problem are major negatives against him. Seriously- the man never won a playoff series until he came off the bench in San Antonio. To be sure, he never had much luck with teammates and never found a coach who could guide him, but at a certain point that lays with the player himself. Nevertheless, he won two scoring titles, led an okay-ish Rockets squad to 22 straight wins, and once scored 13 points in 35 seconds.

96. David Bing: And here’s another player who never had much playoff success and was chronically stuck on bad teams. Toiling away thanklessly in Detroit, Bing nevertheless carved out a workmanlike career, wracking up 7 All-Stars, winning a scoring title while Wilt was in his prime, and even sneaking onto a couple All-NBA First Teams while Jerry West and Oscar Robertson were active. He also won a Citizenship Award, one of those accolades nobody pays attention to, but I consider a mark of good character and team spirit. In fact, he later demonstrated his strong sense of civic activism by serving as mayor of Detroit.

95. Marques Johnson: Working-class Milwaukee doesn’t get very much love from the NBA beat writers. It’s a shame, because we are led to forget how solid the Milwaukee Bucks were for much of the 1980s. Coached by the great Don Nelson, he embarked on a characteristically crazy experiment: delegating the playmaking duties to a forward, Marques Johnson. Perhaps the first “point forward” in the game’s history, he influenced new strategies and was part of the trend toward bigger men with high basketball IQ. I’ll bet that you forgot he had 5 all-star appearances (putting him in the same league as Chris Mullin, Sam Jones, and Pete Maravich) and made it onto an All-NBA team thrice. Like Cheeks, there’s a great argument for Johnson as the best forgotten player of the 1980s.

94. Neil Johnston: As I said earlier, it’s always dicey to bring out the pre-shot clock guys. But this hardy Philadelphia Warrior- who lasted only eight seasons- made the most out of them. I mean, three scoring titles, six All-Star appearances, a championship–that’s nothing to sneeze at, even if a white, hook-shot-making 6’8″ center is very clearly a product of his time. As a point of trivia, he was also the first professional coach that both Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins had.

93. Jack Twyman: Twyman gets the nod because he was the best teammate in Big 4 history. When fellow Royals forward Maurice Stokes was stricken by a brain injury that left him virtually immobile, Twyman stepped up big time. With the rest of the team out of Cincinnati for the summer, Twyman and his wife personally took care of Stokes and managed his affairs until the end of his life. There’s a reason why the Teammate of the Year Award is named after him. But even if he hadn’t done this profoundly unselfish act, there would still be a case for Twyman. He was the first player in league history to average more than thirty points in one season, made six All-Star teams, and only missed 24 games in his entire career. Yet, either paired with Stokes or Oscar, Twyman and the Royals never seemed to enjoy very much playoff success.

92. Mark Price: Like those mid-80s Bucks teams, the early 90s Cavaliers were also a force to be reckoned with. If they didn’t have the singular bad luck of sharing not just a conference but a division with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, it’s more than likely that this scrappy team would have made it into a Finals at some point. Mark Price had a spectacular shooting touch, although never the Cavs’ first scoring option. He was also as close to automatic from the line as humanly possible: he is one of only two players with a career FT% over .900. Injuries hurt his career, however, but he left the league with four All-Star appearances, and even an All-NBA First Team in 1993, one of the most competitive years in its history.

91. Kyrie Irving: Irving is becoming an engine of a burgeoning Cavs dynasty. Although he is unlucky to be playing in a golden age of point guards (hence the dearth of All-NBA appearances), he has found a niche on a Cavs team that is one conference finals away from three straight finals appearances. Irving can do just about anything- defend, pass, whatever- but it is his clutchness that seals the deal for me. His shot in the 2016 finals took victory out of the hands of the Warriors, denying a championship to the most successful regular season team of all time. Expect more 50+ point games, All-Star berths, and highlights from this man in the years to come.