Recap: Back in October, 16 different acts were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Nirvana, Deep Purple, the Meters, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, the Replacements, Cat Stevens, NWA, L.L. Cool J., Hall & Oates, KISS, Link Wray, Yes, and the Zombies. It was an amazing class that included one of the last non-inducted rock pioneers (Wray), British invasion acts (Zombies), 80s hit makers (Hall & Oates, Gabriel), hard rock legends (KISS and Deep Purple), a disco outfit (Chic), two rap artists (NWA and Cool J) and two acts (Replacements, Nirvana), that helped make grunge. Versatile in the extreme, it was a very commendable mix of critic’s favorites, musician’s favorites, and popular favorites. I blogged about it earlier, but by the eve of the announcement, if I had to have guessed, Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, Chic, KISS, Yes, and the Zombies would have made the cut.
I batted .500. Instead, we got: Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, KISS, Hall & Oates, Peter Gabriel, and Cat Stevens. That is a pretty astonishing class, and one that I like, personally, a great deal on the feeble grounds of my own musical preferences. Ronstadt’s Hearts Like a Wheel and Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman are probably the two albums I have fallen most in love with over the past year. While I don’t listen to Nirvana much, there is no question that they deserved it. And I am very fond of Hall & Oates and Peter Gabriel’s string of late 70s and early 80s hits. Predictably, most people who followed the news were very critical. The KISS army was satiated (much like the Rush fans last year, an equally committed bunch), but die-hard rockers, especially, were upset that Deep Purple and Yes were snubbed.
I understand. I was rooting for Yes (mostly because their induction would pave the way for other progressive rock acts I like more), and I love the Zombies (Odyssey and Oracle might be the third album I’ve most grown to appreciate this year). Link Wray had one really influential hit, “Rumble”, more than a career, but I wouldn’t have been upset to see him get in. After Nile Rodgers’ banner year, his band Chic arguably deserved a berth among the inductees. You could also make the argument that the six artists inducted are collectively too white (Ronstadt sorta identifies as Hispanic, but still, I don’t think there’s ever been a ballot with no soul, R&B, Motown, funk OR rap), and too male (Ronstadt, again, is the exception.) I think this is semi-defensible, at least this year; of the six artists inducted last year, three of them were African-American: Donna Summer, Public Enemy, and Albert King. Others might disagree, and that’s fine.
But go to futurerocklegends.com, and you’ll see the outcry has already begun, the predictable whining about the “Rock and Roll Hall of Shame” continues. It is irritating, but it is at the heart of a deep question: who owns rock and roll? Is it shameful to include soft, introspective singer-songwriters like Cat and country-influenced cover artists like Ronstadt, and give Deep Purple the what-for? Much of the confusion comes from the distinction between “Rock” and “Rock and Roll.” “Rock” is actually the narrower term: it is heavier, more guitar-influenced, with simple chord progressions, and a heavy backbeat. KISS qualifies, but so might, say, Grand Funk Railroad, T. Rex, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and a myriad of other outfits. “Rock and Roll”, though, that’s difficult. By the original definition of rock and roll set out in the 1950s- cheaply-made, unpretentious heavy-beat music derived in equal measure from blues, country, and gospel- you’d be hard-pressed to find very many records in that vein made after 1965. In the fulness of time, however, “rock and roll” has become a pantheon, a multi-generational inheritance, an evolutionary common ancestor to “Rock”, but also to singer-songwriters, the British Invasion, country-rock, soft-rock, progressive rock, Philly soul, grunge, and disco. Maybe that also includes rap, and maybe it doesn’t. That’s part of the beauty of the genre: the debate that it engenders.
So, who owns rock and roll then? My chief problem with the Hall and many of its critics is this: the Hall thinks it belongs to critics and record executives. How else does one explain the explosion of critic’s pets (Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Velvet Underground)? The detractors, though, make an equally bad mistake: thinking rock and roll belongs to musicians. These are the sorts of people who pulled for Yes, but scoffed at counter-arguments that “you can’t dance to Yes” and they didn’t have many hits. You know what? I think that is a valid criticism! Others wanted the Replacements, a band with zero top 20 hits, in. Absurd.
Rock and roll is a populist force, anti-elitism personified. Being a rock and roll snob is like being a grog aficionado, or a Big Mac connoisseur; it is self-defeating. To a certain extent, I think what should matter is not influence. (How do you quantify influence? and isn’t that another way of saying musicians determine who is great but fans do not?). Rather, it should be success: how many top 10 hits? Sold-out concerts? Best-selling albums? One way I knew this was a good Rock Hall class was that my parents recognized everyone. And so it should be. Although it is somewhat essentialist, the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” should reflect rock and roll’s diversity, but its members should also be, well, famous. You should, at the very least, be able to recognize all the acts inducted from your generation, even if you rarely ventured from Top 40 radio (which disqualifies, say, Laura Nyro or Percy Sledge). This comes with hazards- obviously, some stinkers will get in.
Which leads us to KISS, the one inductee on which I have not yet spoken. I do not like KISS. I do not like their crass commercialism. I do not like their mindless lyrics. I do not like their make-up. I do not like their commitment to pyrotechnics over honing their musicianship. I do not like their forays into reality television. I do not like Gene Simmons’ political views. Three years ago on Facebook, they were on my “Four Acts That Should Never Be Inducted” list with Rush (their fans are jackasses), the Monkees (too fabricated, but I’ve since changed my mind), Pat Boone (all he did was make Little Richard songs more palatable to white audiences). The Mormon Iconoclast hits it on the head when he says of KISS: “Everything about their approach seems cynical to me. “You wanna like some music your parents will HATE? Right?” Despite all of this, I’m willing to live with this as part of the risks of the trade. If you are committed to acknowledging bands who actual fans liked and bought records for, there’s always the chance that tossers like KISS will squeak through. But I hope they pave the way for all kinds of bands that critics hate, but were well-loved in their time by those who were there in the 60s or 70s or 80s. It is suitably populist, but also a good commercial decision: lots of foot soldiers in the KISS Army will make the pilgrimage to Cleveland and visit the Hall, and Ronstadt and Stevens are probably enough to make me want to follow the KISS fans in (preferably from upwind.) KISS and Hall & Oates were a good start, but let’s try and get in Chicago, Whitney Houston, America, and Three Dog Night. Maybe it is time to change the voting procedure. Having a nominating committee of music insiders to provide one level of filter can work. But an online poll is a bad idea– it is too easy to rig the ballot and vote over and over and over again. I would suggest a kind of Willy Wonka approach: give ballots of 15 or 16 nominees to, say, 5,000 Rolling Stone magazine subscribers at random, number them individually, and invalidate those that are sold on Ebay.
Like presidential elections, the result is hardly in before we start talking about next time. What about the 2015 inductees, announced in 2014? With such a strong class this year, it is very likely that many of the nominees who did not get in this year will be up for consideration next year. Some genres (British Invasion, Singer-Songwriter, Rap, and now Grunge and post-punk) have deep reservoirs of worthy artists. KISS and Nirvana means that the Hall wants headliners for the induction ceremony, which will also affect things. If I had to guess who gets nominated next year, I would venture to say:
Green Day, Janet Jackson, Bon Jovi, Chicago, Public Enemy, Mary Wells, the Zombies, Yes, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Carly Simon, The B-52s, Deep Purple, Warren Zevon, the Replacements, the Cure, and War.