I’ve been, at times, a relentless critic of the Hall in Cleveland. I have challenged them over poor decisions (Laura Nyro, Gene Pitney, Del Shannon, Percy Sledge, The Moonglows), but I am happy to give credit where credit is due, even to a mysterious corporate institution for commemorating something uncontrollable and critic-proof like rock music.
Let me start out by saying that this is an exceptionally strong ballot– the strongest, perhaps, since the the 90s, when The Allman Brothers and The Band were still waiting their turn to be inducted. 16 nominees, rather than the customary 15, were put forth, of which 5 or 6 are usually inducted into the Rock Hall in Cleveland. Let’s explore those 16:
Nirvana: Wow. Um…these guys were a bolt out of the blue in the late 80s and early 90s, are credited with inventing grunge music and single-handedly steering a credible course away from their dreadful contemporaries like New Kids on the Block and Bananarama. Angsty and desirous of success without commercial compromise, they burnt out quickly with Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but never faded away.
Paul Butterfield Blues Band: I frankly have no idea who they are or why they are being inducted. It looks like they are a pet favorite of Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Werner, but if you have to explain to anyone who these guys are, they probably don’t belong in the hall of fame. This is the second or third time they have been nominated.
KISS: With gaudy grease makeup, and pyrotechnics aplenty, KISS became rock’s most famous live act. They only had a couple of hits actually chart, but that was never really the point– they have a dedicated fan base that has stayed with them for decades. While Nirvana conscientiously eschewed selling out (Cobain even wore a “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” t-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone), KISS did this with shameless abandon. Lunch boxes, comic books– you name it, and KISS was willing to put their likeness on it. Critics hate them, but if Rush can get in, all bets are off on those grounds.
Yes: Progressive rock virtuosos will sing the praise of Yes. While their only big hit, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” came deep into the 80s, their 1970s albums are as complex as anything, with key changes and time signature changes along thick layers of solos. They are proficient, even virtuoso, musicians, but do they lack the soulful expression that the Rock Hall has historically valued?
Chic: Soul and funk infused disco impresarios, Chic’s songs “Le Freak” and “Good Times” gave some artistic and creative credibility to rock music’s unfairly maligned sub-genre.
The Meters: Not terribly familiar with them, but a funky African-American band from all accounts. Seriously, though, why them and not War?
L.L. Cool J: LL helped rap become socially acceptable in a way that NWA most certainly did not. He has been nominated before, but to no avail.
Linda Ronstadt: Her former backup musician Don Henley loudly complained that she had been excluded from the hall. And then she announced that because of her Parkinson’s Disease, she will likely never sing in public again. Although not great as a songwriter, her covers showed immense creativity in merging pop, rock, country, and soul. You can make a case that she was the most important woman in popular music in the 1970s.
Deep Purple: These guys were essential to the development of hard rock– but are best known for the 8-note riff that begins “Smoke on the Water”, nearly every guitarist’s first song.
Link Wray: An early rock and roll instrumentalist whose name, frankly, I had never heard until he was nominated.
Cat Stevens: One of the great singer-songwriters of the early 1970s, before leaving pop music for nearly 30 years after converting to Islam. Countless indie artists look to him as an inspiration, and his “First Cut is the Deepest” is one of the most covered songs of all time.
Peter Gabriel: The former Genesis frontman went on to a lucrative solo career, and was an acknowledged pioneer in both making world music commercially viable and making music videos into an art form, most notably in “Sledgehammer.”
NWA: Considered by some to be the progenitors of gangsta rap, Straight Outta Compton was a brickbat hurled at suburban ignorance of inner-city life. Their most well-known song, “F— da Police” resonated with many in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots, while earning public scorn from then-President George H. W. Bush. NWA was nominated last year for the first time, but their contemporaries, Public Enemy, ended up getting inducted instead.
The Zombies: One of the most underrated 1960s groups, you’ve probably nonetheless heard some of their radio staples: “Tell Her No”, “She’s Not There”, and “Time of the Season.” What you probably haven’t heard is their fantastic Odyssey and Oracle album, a piece that has aged remarkably well for a late 60s psychedelic record, and whose music wouldn’t sound out of place on a Belle & Sebastian record today.
The Replacements: Although they did not have very many hit songs, they are a favorite among the musically-literate for pointing the way toward grunge and alternative music.
Hall & Oates: You would be hard-pressed to find more consistent hit-makers in the early 1980s. Finally, their fans have penetrated the nominating committee, including Jimmy Fallon’s bandleader Questlove, who conspicuously wore a Hall & Oates t-shirt to the nominating meeting. Will their radio-friendly blue-eyed soul hits like “Kiss on My List” and “Sara Smile” get them inducted? Only three eligible artists with more top ten hits than these guys aren’t in (Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and…wait for it…Chicago.)
First of all, let me say again that this is a remarkably strong ballot, and much more praiseworthy than I anticipated. There are plenty of acts who have been nominated before, several terrific first-time nominees, and, well, it wouldn’t be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if there weren’t some pet projects and head-scratchers in there too. So, who gets in, or who should get in? Well, if I were just picking my five favorite artists from the above, that’s easy: Cat Stevens, The Zombies, Hall & Oates, Linda Ronstadt, and Peter Gabriel.
If I were able to vote for the nominees (each voter gets to pick five), on the grounds of historicity, quality, and longstanding influence, I would have to go with: Nirvana, Yes, Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, and Peter Gabriel.
-But if I were to pick the five or six who will actually get voted in? Well, there is a calculus here, and to help us figure this out, it is instructive to look at the last several lists of inductees to guide our choices. There are permeable patterns which suggest who will get in– if you explore the past few years, several patterns and groupings emerge.
i. The last two hall of fame ballots have seen rap artists get in- Beastie Boys in 2012, and Public Enemy in 2013. Now, this has raised hackles, and numerous critics have voiced, not without reason, their opinion that rap has no place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the same way that, say, Bobby Darin or the Pretenders have no place in a theoretical Rap Hall of Fame. The trouble, though, is that nobody can quite decide what rock music encompasses, and every person’s definition of what is or is not rock and roll can be likened to Potter Stewart’s famously subjective definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” And once you set the precedent, you are stuck with it. Putting in Johnny Cash opens the door for more country artists. Letting Miles Davis in opens the jazz floodgates, and so on. Like it or not, we have not seen the last of inductees from the rap genres, and you can probably expect Queen Latifah, Salt N Pepa, Dr. Dre (as a solo artist or producer), and Eminem to all be inducted when they become eligible.
ii. The Rock Hall has made an honest to goodness attempt to include more women recently. Not necessarily the women I would have chosen (i.e.: Laura Nyro), but the last four years have seen Heart, Donna Summer, Nyro, ABBA, and Darlene Love (who provided the vocals for many records credited to The Crystals in the early 60s). It is likely that at least one female artist or predominately female group will get in.
iii. Along similar lines, we can expect at least one, probably two, black artists. To its credit, there has never been, in the history of the Rock Hall, a whitewash class, with the odd exception of 2012. (And even this can be explained, since that was the year a number of backup groups, such as Smokey Robinson’s Miracles, and James Brown’s Famous Flames, were retroactively inducted with their respective bandleaders.) The Hall has been diligent, even over-diligent, about acknowledging the importance of more African-American-heavy elements of rock: early blues greats, the doo-wop groups, Motown, and to a certain extent disco. (I wish more Philly soul groups like the Chi-Lites and the Spinners were in, but oh well…). Consider this– in 2013, black artists were 3 of the 6, 1 of 5 in 2011, 1 of 5 in 2010, and 3 of 5 in 2009.
iv. The Hall has also realized the immense popular animus against them, and is slowly making its peace with the greater public and with armchair rock critics who complain about The Cure or Bachman-Turner Overdrive getting snubbed (and I have surely been among them). The internet has succeeded, generally, in calling out lots of terrible choices they made in the past. Consider, for example, the truly dreadful 2009 inductees: Little Anthony & The Imperials, Jeff Beck, Bobby Womack, Metallica, and Run-DMC. Um…what? Out of the whole lot, Metallica was the only one who seemed like a mortal lock. Since then, we’ve seen the hall include long-time snubs (Neil Diamond, Genesis, and most importantly for net-roots activists, Rush, with its massive internet fan base.) Everyone has some artist they love that isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but slowly, some of the more egregious snubs are getting in, or at least receiving nominations.
Keeping all this in mind, I would venture to guess (in rough order of likelihood) that the following will be inducted:
1. Nirvana: This could very well be the last group that unquestionably deserves to get in during their first year of eligibility. Nirvana started the grunge movement, and set the direction for rock music for the rest of the 1990s. I just don’t see any outcome where Nirvana does not get in.
2. Linda Ronstadt: Did you notice that of the 16 nominees, only one of them was principally female? (Yes, I know Chic had some female singers, but come on, so did Lynyrd Skynyrd). The Hall has, understandably, come under scrutiny for being a sausage fest sometimes, and a number of its early induction classes, including the inaugural 1987 class, were all male. As noted above, this has changed in recent years, and this trend will continue. Ronstadt’s illness will help, but her fantastic career, sterling voice, and genre-hopping albums will secure her a place in the Hall.
3. Chic: The band’s principal member, Nile Rodgers, has had a few banner years recently, with high-profile collaborations with Daft Punk and Adam Lambert. Moreover, the group has been nominated 7 or 8 times, I think. And once in a great while, an artist who is perennially nominated will be voted in, just to shut their advocates up and make some room for new blood next year. That, after all, is how we got Solomon Burke and Laura Nyro in– voters just got sick of seeing them. Between these two factors, Chic is in.
4. NWA: For reasons stated above, rap is not going away. With few voting members likely to take umbrage with their anti-law enforcement past, the band’s historical importance in bringing about gangsta rap will likely make their nomination happen. I suspect, though, that the Rock Hall will take a year or two after before nominating another rapper. At this point, the A-list of historic rap acts remotely connected to rock and roll is exhausted. Make no mistake, however: rap will continue to play a part in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
5. KISS: With a deal in the works to broadcast from HBO, the Rock Hall will be under pressure to bring out the big guns, and KISS can do that– and their induction will quiet some complaints about the Rock Hall’s bias. For another year anyway. The powers that be cannot avoid the chance to end a ratings-killing induction ceremony with “I Want to Rock and Roll All Night.” But I am a little nervous here– many professional musicians and rock critics, who make up most of the voters, hate KISS with a great passion.
6.* Hall & Oates: With a list of nominees this good, I think it is very likely we will see six, rather than the customary five, inductees. If that is the case, I suspect that choice #6 will be these guys. Questlove’s advocacy, and even the parody group Garfunkel & Oates, have made this duo visible again. There’s no good reason for keeping them out unless you are opposed to commercial success.
A few more words– a couple of these nominees are clearly pet projects of one guy, whether it is E-Street Band alum Steve Van Zandt, or late-night emcee Paul Schaffer, or Jann Werner– and I think the Meters, Wray, and Paul Butterfield all fall into those categories. I doubt very much they will be chosen. LL Cool J is also unlikely– if one rap act gets in, its NWA, and Cool J just made a fool of himself with the self-fulfillng prophecy that was “The Accidental Racist.” I’d love to see The Zombies get in, but if the votes weren’t there when Procol Harum was nominated last year, I just don’t foresee it. If KISS doesn’t make it, Deep Purple will probably take their slot, and if Hall & Oates doesn’t get in, my guess is Cat Stevens. We usually get one singer-songwriter per year (Donovan, Randy Newman, and Tom Waits, the last three years), so it might be Yusuf’s turn. The others? I suspect Yes and Peter Gabriel will get in eventually, but this is not their year on a crowded ballot. And Gabriel is already inducted with Genesis, so there’s no urgency there. The Replacements? Why put in the guys who led to Nirvana when you can just induct Nirvana instead?