1. Chicago: As many of my friends know, Chicago’s exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been a longtime irritant to me. Forget George McGovern, to Hades with social justice, getting Chicago into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been the cause of my life. If Neil Diamond and ABBA can get in, why not Chicago whose credentials as rock artists are much more secure? “25 Or 6 To 4” is one of the heaviest tracks of the late 1960s, and its guitar solo just might verify Jimmy Hendrix’s belief that Chicago’s guitarist was more talented than he was. With unusual time signatures, avant-garde influences from the likes of Edgar Varese, and punchy horn lines, Chicago was strikingly ambitious, releasing three double-albums in as many years, from 1968 to 1970. The overall talent in this band is remarkable: Jimmy Pankow’s horn arrangements, Robert Lamm’s thoughtful songwriting, Terry Kath’s soulful voice, Peter Cetera’s strong tenor, Danny Seraphine’s jazz-rock chops as a drummer. It is also easy to forget just how anti-establishment that band was in its early years. Their second album is dedicated to “the revolution, and the revolution in all its forms”, and their first album includes a sound collage taken from Mayor Daley’s crackdown on the protestors in Chicago in 1968. While it is true that Chicago made a number of bad records in the 1980s, this charge can also be lobbed at any almost artist currently in the hall. If we don’t hold “This Note’s for You” against Neil Young, or “Gone Troppo” against George Harrison, we shouldn’t hold “You’re the Inspiration” against Chicago, just because the latter achieved more commercial success.
A second argument could be made that record sales should at least have some influence over a group’s induction. For years, critics’ pets like Elvis Costello, The Stooges, and Leonard Cohen have been inducted; although everyone knows who they are, almost nobody buys their records. Chicago, believe it or not, sold more singles than any other band in the 1970s, and enjoyed 39 Top 40 hits in their career. While “Call On Me”, “Beginnings”, and “Wishing You Were Here” may not be rock and roll anthems, the record-buying public liked them enough to make these and many other Chicago songs top ten hits. No other rock artist with this much success has been kept out of the hall. If the populist ethic that the public, rather than an elite coterie of critics, are the rightful arbiters of rock and roll merit, its time to undo a longstanding wrong and send Chicago to Cleveland.
2. Peter Gabriel: With the possible exception of Queen, nobody else has come close to making rock music more theatrical or visually engaging. This began with Gabriel’s tenure in Genesis with such concept albums and accompanying live performances of “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” Gabriel kept that ethic into his solo career, while Phil Collins led Genesis into Adult Contemporary territory after his departure. The inherent drama in songs like “In Your Eyes” or “Solsbury Hill” is a trait few artists, in any genre, have been able to capture quite so well. Moreover, Gabriel deserves some credit for successfully transplanting rock music into the medium of video, with such early groundbreaking efforts as “Sledgehammer”.
3. Plastic People of the Universe: One of the more easily-forgotten category of snubs from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is its exclusion of groups working largely outside the English lexicon. While certainly the most obscure band on this list, the Plastics have enjoyed a revival of a sort, featuring prominently in the plot of Tom Stoppard’s recent play “Rock and Roll.” The Plastic People of the Universe were a Czech rock band who gained popularity in the brutal aftermath of the Prague Spring in 1968. Full of theatrical performance pieces in the vein of Frank Zappa, they undercut the conformity and stagnation expected of the Czechs after the Soviets brought their tanks into the streets of Prague and deposed Alexander Dubcek. Reduced to doing covert concerts in abandoned houses, the Plastics have demonstrated that rock and roll is fundamentally, and at its core, an act of dissent. This is perhaps taken for granted in the United States, a country generally tolerant (perhaps too tolerant) of even the most extreme dissidents. The Plastics, in contrast, showed genuine courage, performing rock pieces when it imperiled their very lives. It’s possible that the Plastic People have played a role, however small, in keeping resistance to Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia alive throughout the late 60s, the 1970s, and into the era of Glasnost. As such, they put into stark relief just what a rock band is capable of accomplishing, and just what the purpose of rock music is.
4. The Guess Who: It’s time for Canada’s most revered rock band to enter into the hall. Hits like “No Time”, “Laughing”, “Share the Land”, “These Eyes”, and “No Sugar Tonight” are a delight to hear, and they are one of the only bands that fit comfortably on both Oldies radio and Classic Rock stations. Like Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, “American Woman” became a flag-waving anthem, despite the song’s lyrics being deeply critical of American social policy, a difficult trick to pull off. The fact that the Guess Who did so well from 1968-1972 is also instructive. It is easy to forget that they were successful during rock music’s most talent-heavy years: keep in mind, they dominated the charts while they were up against Abbey Road, “Stairway to Heaven,” Tommy, The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, Simon and Garfunkel, etc. etc. The Guess Who were, in every meaningful sense, cultural ambassadors who showed us that Canadians were more than just compulsive apologizers and bad drivers. They could also produce some of the most memorable rock music of its time. While rarely innovative, this band, fronted by Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings, was more consistently good than almost any of their more celebrated contemporaries.
5. The B-52s: One of the early progenitors of New Wave music, The B-52s were a merging of punk and progressive rock. A postmodern Mamas and Papas for the age of the microchip, The B-52s have incorporated electronic music with the unimposing idiom of the party song, with the cut and bite of their incisive punk predecessors. If you look beyond “Love Shack”, a strikingly talented band lurks underneath. I’ve given serious thought to delivering entire lectures in Fred Schneider’s voice.
6. Pat Benetar: Even without taking into account Benetar’s success as one of the first female rock artists to play guitar and write her own material, Benetar was instrumental in rock music’s revival in the early 1980s. The genre had fragmented into disco rock, and singer-songwriter rock, and jazz rock, and country rock, and progressive rock, and a thousand other permutations. Benetar’s brand of rock and roll was refreshingly not hyphenated. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, “Heartbreaker”, “We Belong”, and “Love is a Battlefield” are still strong essays in straight-up rock and roll. Benetar is rock and roll’s chiropractor, realigning, refashioning, and straightening out some of the misplaced excesses it took on during the 1970s.
7. The Moody Blues: In 2010, a minor earthquake in the Rock Hall’s selection process took place, when Genesis was finally admitted after years of being passed over. The first unalloyed progressive rock outfit to enter, this theoretically opens the doors for other groups within this genre, which are often given to lengthy suites, complex instrumentals, and deeply theoretical and allusive concepts, at the expense of three-minute hit singles. Few progressive rock groups deserve inclusion to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame more than the Moody Blues. When Days of the Future Passed was released in 1968, it fundamentally changed perceptions of what a rock album was capable of doing. It was an attempt to combine the ambitiousness of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” with the literary qualities of Ulysses, describing a set of events in a number of different styles which take place in a single day. Traces of this are most evident in the band’s most famous hit, “Nights in White Satin.” With a few lineup changes over the years, the Moodies have pushed the envelope of form and function in rock music while maintaining a cadre of devoted fans, who still come to hear their songs in concert, fully orchestrated.
8. Jimmy Buffett: “Margaritaville” alone should justify this decision, but for those still unconvinced about Buffett’s credentials as a rock artist, I recommend “Fins”, “Volcano”, “Lage Nom Ai”, and the sundry live versions of “Great Heart.” Buffett’s Gulf Coast sound has effortlessly merged the rock music of his childhood with obvious reggae influences from the Caribbean, but also New Orleans blues and country and western. His success in merging these divergent forms into a convincing synthesis has rarely been recognized. While Buffett is a beach bum-cum-businessman who only knows four chords, he is also a beach bum with undeniable skill at synthesizing the music around him into a fascinating hybrid. Beyond this, Buffett created something that no other rock artist besides the Grateful Dead has successfully accomplished. He has fostered a vibrant subculture in American society, full of Buffett devotees who drink frozen margaritas, wear straw hats, and slur the lyrics to “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.” What, I ask you, are Parrotheads, but Deadheads who shower and prefer alcoholism to marijuana addiction?
9. The Raspberries: This is less because of the Raspberries’ own merit (which is negligible) than to bolster the credibility of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself. Few halls of fame in this country are situated in a place quite so counter-intuitive and puzzling as the Rock Hall’s home at the Mistake on the Lake. There is no outward reason why this vaunted hall should be located in Cleveland, a city with no particularly strong rock tradition, home of lukewarm sports teams, and the buckle of the Rust Belt. In order to make at least some tentative claim that this is not absurd, they really ought to induct perhaps the best eligible band to come from Cleveland, The Raspberries. Fronted by classically-trained guitarist and pianist Eric Carmen, they ran a short but respectable string of hits in the early 1970s, most notably “Go All the Way.” Carmen later wrote and had hits as a solo artist with “All By Myself”, “Change of Heart”, “Hungry Eyes”, and “Make Me Lose Control”, but this should not be held against the Raspberries.
10. Weird Al Yankovic: I’m serious. Although known mostly for food-based parodies like “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch”, and “My Bologna,” Yankovic has a deeper significance. In a twisted way, Al is also a chronicler for our time. Just as Alexander Pope and Gottfried Leibniz live on partly through satirical takes on their work in Voltaire’s Candide. many of the most significant artists of the past 30 years owe some of their cultural staying power to Al. Now that a number of people Al has parodied over the years, Michael Jackson, the Police, Madonna, Queen, and REM, have been inducted, Al ought to be given the same honor. One of the reasons we have earmarked these artists as significant is because Yankovic deigned to make fun of their material in “Eat It”, “Like a Surgeon” or “Another One Rides the Bus.” (And similarly, Nirvana and the grunge movement will owe “Smells Like Nirvana” a similar debt when Cobain’s band becomes eligible for nomination.) A small part of these artists’ status as legends, in other words, comes from the jibes they’ve endured at Al’s hand. At the same time, his works record and immortalize trends and fads which are popular at a given time, but we might have otherwise forgotten. In this vein, Weird Al has tapped into “Velvet Elvis”, yuppie life (“I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead”), and hipster culture (“My Baby’s In Love with Eddie Vedder”) among many other efforts. Think of Weird Al not as rock and roll’s clown prince, but as its time capsule, and his inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame becomes much more sensible.
Honorable Mentions: Doobie Brothers, America, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Boston, Electric Light Orchestra, Hall & Oates, Cat Stevens, Joan Baez, Loggins and Messina, Carole King, Spinal Tap, Indigo Girls, Edgar Winter Group, Kansas, Bon Jovi, Blood Sweat & Tears. If I listened to Stevie Ray Vaughn, I’d probably include him here as well.
Four Artists Rightfully Excluded:
1. Pat Boone: Difficult as it may be to believe, Pat Boone was once seen as one of the top rock acts in the country during its early days. Always aware of his niche, Boone quickly moved in on the demographic that would later watch “Gomer Pyle” and “Highway to Heaven” on television faithfully. He made a career of doing white-bread, de-sexualized, family-friendly versions of early rock hits for the teenyboppers in Wichita and Duluth. A classic example of this is “Long Tall Sally’s got a lot on the ball, and nobody cares if she is long and tall”, a cleaner version of Richard’s original, sexually charged “Long Tall Sally, she’s built for speed, she’s got everything Uncle John needs.” To make this all even worse, Boone published a book of advice for teenagers in 1958 called Twixt Twelve and Twenty, imploring his fans to listen to and obey their parents. Automatic exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame right there. To add insult to injury, he sired Debbie Boone, the songstress behind “You Light Up My Life”. (Pat later sang this song, from the rostrum, to Ronald Reagan at the 1980 RNC, one of the weirdest and most homoerotic moments in both modern pop music and conservative politics.) Despite one redeeming moment, (the chorus to his song “Speedy Gonzalez” was later cribbed by Elton John on “Crocodile Rock”), his recent efforts, which have included an ill-advised rap album and spewing John Birch Society conspiracy theories, have done little to help his credibility.
2. KISS: KISS is a joke. Hiding a weak back catalog behind an elaborate veneer of grease makeup and pyrotechnics, KISS fools hundreds of thousands annually into believing that they are seeing a rock and roll show. In fact, their audiences are seeing little more than a $80 infomercial. Spitting fire and blood, the band has made a stock and trade of being offensive, not for the sake of making a badly needed point or drawing attention to some philosophy or cause, but for the sake of selling concert tickets. Closer to QVC than the Rolling Stones, KISS has produced a prodigious number of lunchboxes, comic books, action figures, beach towels and t-shirts, but only about two or three songs that have entered the public consciousness. When Family Guy ridiculed this tendency by showing clips of the (fictional) “KISS Saves Santa” Christmas special, they were all too close to this uncomfortable truth. Riddle me this: if KISS is so great, why has almost nobody, in the past 35 years, simply sat down and listened to a KISS album all the way through? Unlike Peter Gabriel, when you remove the visuals and gimmicks and the trinkets, the band’s music just doesn’t hold up.
3. The Monkees: I shouldn’t even have to explain this. Now, I like The Monkees, don’t get me wrong. They had a delightful television show, even if it was a corporate attempt to water down the instinctual wit and cheek that The Beatles demonstrated in “A Hard Day’s Night”. Their songs remain a treat to listen to; “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and especially “Daydream Believer” enhance any radio playlist. But the old raps against the Monkees remain valid: they didn’t write their own songs, they didn’t play their own instruments, and when they finally revolted against their record company and did so, the result was unmitigated failure.
4. Rush: When I was 19, one of my second cousins from outside Detroit called my family, trying to re-establish contact. The man was a creeper who wouldn’t shut up, and treated me to a long, confusing, badly articulated, crypto-libertarian half-hour rant on how great Rush was. This gave me an impression of Rush’s fan base that future encounters with their supporters did little to dispel. They tend to be a surly and argumentative lot, convinced of their own genius and insight despite their permanent residence in their parents’ basement. They consistently fail to acknowledge that the band’s lack of mainstream success was not due to some government conspiracy, but was a logical outcome of Rush’s marginal talent. (On second thought, maybe this does explain why progressive rock groups are usually kept out of the hall.) As Christ tells us in the gospels, a good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and Rush has done this in spades. If a band should ever be disqualified by virtue of their fans, Rush is that band.