It’s in! The days when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announce their slate of nominees, and then their list of inductees from that list are two highlights of the year, like holy days of obligation in my own personal liturgical calendar. Some of the criticism thrown the Rock Hall’s way is at least partially valid (although a disturbing amount of it frames rock and roll in ways that suggest an exclusively white and male province). I still think that, in its own corporate, closed-door kind of way, it is a worthy institution trying its best to appraise a very populist and highly subjective form of music that defies- and indeed, urinates on- critical appraisal.
Today, we know who will be entering its 2015 class, now that the votes have been tabulated from the hundreds of eligible voters- a group that includes many critics, record company folk, and all previous inductees. Inducted as performers are: Green Day, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Bill Withers. In the Musical Excellence category is Ringo Starr, and as a rare Early Influence inductee, The 5 Royales.
My thoughts? Not bad! I like this class a lot out of the 15 nominees we had to work with. Even though two out of the three acts that I didn’t think deserved induction got in (PBBB and Lou Reed), I still don’t feel ripped off. Even if I don’t listen to them often, Reed and PBBB were consummate musicians who pushed boundaries and honed their craft. I’d much rather see them get in over, say, Def Leppard. I was worried about an all-male class. It didn’t happen, thanks to Joan Jett. I was worried about an all-white class. It didn’t happen, thanks to Withers and the multi-racial PBBB. My favorite artist in the bunch, Bill Withers got in. The 2014 class was a favorite of mine, with three artists I really like (Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel), and two I respect (Hall and Oates and Nirvana). I’m not quite as enamored with this group on a personal or autobiographical level, but it is still much better than the awful classes we had in 2009 and 2012. I would have liked to see Kraftwerk and the Spinners in lieu of Lou Reed and Paul Butterfield, but that’s life.
Green Day and Stevie Ray were givens; almost everybody who bothered to make predictions slated those two in. Lou Reed’s recent death gave him, perhaps, a sympathy vote that got him over the hump after his unsuccessful nominations in 2000 and 2001, as many expected. Joan Jett was helped not only by her strong credentials, and her workmanship, but also by a ballot lacking in guitar heroes and women. Once again, the trend for singer-songwriters to get in every year continues; this time it was Withers (and arguably Lou Reed, although Reed defies easy categorization.) The biggest surprise for me was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. In fact, the astute reader will remember I had them pegged as dead last, in both worthiness and in likelihood of induction. Shows you what I know. I am thoroughly puzzled as to how they managed to place in the top 6 in official voting- especially with a better, cooler blues act on the ballot in the form of Vaughan and Double Trouble. But then, they polled in the top 5 on the non-binding fan poll, and clearly, they have their advocates. I like them well enough, but they just don’t have enough fame to be in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’d suspect that voting was rigged, except that if it was, NWA and Chic- two other perennial candidates- would have gotten in a long time ago. Ah well- at least they won’t clog up valuable space on the ballot next year.
Surprised that NWA and Nine Inch Nails didn’t get in. NIN finished second in the Rock Hall’s fan poll. They have wider respectability and critical acclaim than Green Day and if the voting totals were made public, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had gotten more votes than Green Day, although that evidently didn’t happen. And of course, great TV would have been made from Ohioan Trent Reznor getting inducted on home turf. NWA had the table set for them- with no other rap acts, a Straight Outta Compton film on the way, and a set of domestic crises that pumped new blood in the manifesto “F— the Police”. And they still didn’t get in. Worse, the clock is ticking for them, because a veritable deluge of rap inductees is just a few years away, courtesy of Tupac, Biggie, Sean/Puffy Combs, and eventually Eminem. Poor Chic- they were rejected by voters for the NINTH time. War, The Spinners, and the Marvelettes join the ranks of twice-nominated, twice-declined nominees. And The Smiths continue the bizarre trend of alt-rock or ur-alternative or post-punk bands not getting in, keeping company with The Cure and The Replacements.
One final thought about the six performers. This class, while relatively strong, failed the “Mom Test”. I’m at home on break from teaching in Singapore, so when I told my mother who got in, she didn’t recognize a single.artist.inducted. Every other year, at least ~someone~ would have rung a bell. Not this time. She recognized some songs Bill Withers did, but never knew Withers by name. So it goes. This class has two artists who peaked in the 80s (Jett and Vaughan), one who peaked from the 90s to the early Naughts (Green Day), a semi-obscure 60s band (PBBB), a guy who wrote household songs without ever becoming a household name (Withers), and a guy whose music was often a little too weird for prime time (Reed.) A far cry from last year, a deeply 70s-centric class, where every performer inducted passed the Mom Test.
And then we have our other two inductees in the auxiliary categories. Ringo Starr for Musical Excellence, eh? I love Ringo. The day I shook hands with him at a 1995 All-Starr concert and the day I got his autograph in the mail after writing a fan letter remain two of the best days of my entire life. It just seems a bit like a gimmick for higher ratings- and to make The Beatles the second band (after CSN) where every member is a double inductee. You can make a case for Ringo’s career as a sideman for people like Harry Nilsson, Peter Frampton, and various solo Beatles- or for him fundamentally challenging the role that a drummer played in a rock ensemble, or for inspiring lots of great drummers to begin playing. It might not be the strongest case, but it can be made. Still, I’m surprised that whoever decides these things didn’t just throw in the towel, and give this to Nile Rodgers.
The Early Influence category got dusted off this year for the “5” Royales. Now, in some corners of the web, pundits are irritated, because the 5 Royales were nominated as a performer before, and some of their best work came out in the mid-50s as contemporaries to actual inductees like The Flamingos or Ray Charles. So, calling them an ‘Early Influence’ seems like a confusing anachronism. It reminds people of similar ‘back-door’ Early Influence inductions for rock-contemporaries like Freddie King and Wanda Jackson a few years ago. Whatever. There aren’t very many 50s artists left who could succeed on a modern-day ballot which by necessity would include strong candidates like from the 70s, 80s, and now the 90s. Too many voters were born long after their star had come and gone. So, the Early Influence nod doesn’t bother me, and as a collaborator in what rock and roll became, the 5 Royales certainly deserve it.
Now, the only real drama left involves the ceremony in (I think) April. A few thoughts on that:
- As fellow Rock Hall guy Donnie noted, there’s lots of posthumous absences from the ceremony, especially for a class weighted so heavily on the 80s and 90s. Stevie Ray is gone, Lou Reed died last year, and Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield are gone, as are all of the original 5 Royales.
- Will Bill Withers show up? He damn well better. He’s 76 and hasn’t performed in decades; in a recent Rolling Stone interview conducted in the last couple days, he couldn’t even remember ~which~ decade he last performed in. He’s probably concerned about his singing voice, atrophied from disuse and age, and as Questlove has noted, he’s also concerned about having been forgotten, remembering a late 70s gig in a Chicago blizzard where only a handful of fans showed up. Hopefully, the 2015 ceremony will be an almost cinematic experience that shows Bill that he still most definitely has an audience. I’m hoping for a duet with John Legend on “Just the Two of Us.”
- Lots of other great moments could happen. Look for high-caliber names to sub for Lou Reed and Stevie Ray at the ceremony. Clapton and Buddy Guy have been floated as possibilities for Vaughan; I’d love to see SRV’s one-time collaborator Dick Dale deputize for him, which could lead to Dale’s own fully-deserved nomination next year.
- Will Ringo perform? I’m not sure if Musical Excellence nominees do.
Last year, the interminable, almost half-hour long acceptance speech by the various members of the E-Street Band meant that we didn’t get to see the traditional jam session at the end of the ceremony. If they bring it back, it would be great to see them end with either Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” or Starr’s calling-card with The Beatles, “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
A couple other considerations– who benefits from this group of inductees? Unbelievably, two blues-rock outfits got in this year, so that’s probably good news for the presumptive next guy in line, Johnny Winter. Imagine a Winter induction in 2016 with his brother Edgar paying tribute. Won’t be a dry eye in the house. Jett was the woman the Nom Com wanted inducted most, so who is next in that queue? Janet Jackson and Kate Bush are the first two names that come to mind, with maybe Pat Benatar further down the line. I also think Carole King deserves it, but her induction as a non-performer (ostensibly for her early 60s songwriting) probably means she isn’t a priority, since she’s already been honored in some form. Bill Withers and Lou Reed’s inductions further winnows the field of 70s singer-songwriters, leaving us maybe…Warren Zevon? Todd Rundgren? The aforementioned Harry Nilsson? Or is that category effectively dried out?