A few weeks ago, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame released the slate of nominees for their Class of 2016. The list surprised many longtime hall watchers, including myself, with a number of classic rock favorites receiving their first nomination after years of being passed over. As I reckon it, this ballot’s biggest story is the tense competition between these six vintage classic rock acts: Deep Purple, Yes, Chicago, Steve Miller, Cheap Trick, and The Cars, all unconscionable snubs to many rock fans. Yet, this remains a diverse ballot, with rap, R&B, industrial, post-punk/alternative, funk, and even a fascinating Tex-Mex rock ensemble in the form of Los Lobos. Similar to my approach last year, I’d like to do a run-down on the nominees. In a slight modification of the method used at Rock Hall Monitors, I’ll conduct three rankings: 1) my personal preferences among the nominees (loosely defined as ‘if I had to listen to a half hour of music by one artist, which of these guys would I pick first’) 2) a hopefully objective ranking of their worthiness for the Rock Hall. Considerations I will explore are artistic skill, innovation, influence, zeitgeist (e.g. were any of these artists indispensable to a particular time and place) and having a strong canon of memorable songs that made the soundtrack of our lives. 3) I will finally explore what I believe to be the likelihood of these 15 being inducted as artists.
The “Worthiness” part was especially hard to rank: the top nine are all preeminent artists in their genre, whether it is soft rock, disco, hard rock, or dance pop.
Chaka Khan (Personal Rank: 12; Worthiness: 13; Likelihood of Induction: 9): So the Nominating Committee ditched Rufus. That’s okay, because so did Chaka Khan. This year, solo Chaka has an uphill battle: R&B diva competition from Janet Jackson, and disco competition from Chic. (How many Rock Hall voters will vote for two artists affiliated with disco? I mean, I know that Chaka Khan’s career is much more than that, but disco has a habit of dominating historical memory. Its sort of like how if you wore a “Members Only” jacket in the 1980s, nobody will ever let you forget it.) Still, industry respect counts for a great deal, and Chaka Khan has that in droves. She is also the best singer on this ballot by any fair measure, which can’t hurt. Besides, part of me would like to see Janet Jackson and Chaka Khan get in during the same year. Here’s why: when was the last time the Rock Hall inducted two different artists that included women of color in the same year? One would have to go back fully twenty years; it was 1996, when The Shirelles and Gladys Knight & the Pips were enshrined on the same night. So far, Questlove has shown a knack for getting his favorite R&B acts not only nominated but inducted, as Hall & Oates and Bill Withers can attest. We’ll see if the trend holds. At the same time, remember this: it took the death of Khan’s contemporary, Donna Summer, to trigger her induction. I’m not sure I like Chaka Khan’s chances absent a similar calamity.
Cheap Trick (Personal Rank: 9; Worthiness: 11; Likelihood of Induction: 4): Many observers thought Stevie Van Zandt would throw his weight behind the J. Geils Band, whose praises he has sung from the twitter-sphere many times. And maybe he did, but the Van Zandt project that actually bore fruit this year was Cheap Trick. The imminent power-pop combo is often discussed in reverential tones, and is one of the only artists on this list who successfully toggles between popular acclaim and critical respect. As one recent article put it, “The band’s music is poppy without being lightweight, aggressive without being overly indebted to hard rock, dangerous yet not threatening. Above all, their songs are empathetic, as they epitomize the universal teenage roller coaster of lust, longing, restlessness, disaffection and skepticism.” I see that point, but I’m not sure I agree. They are hardly my favorites on this list, and I’m not totally convinced that they aren’t just a more successful version of The Romantics. But regardless of what I think, “Live at Budokan” is among the most fondly remembered live albums in the rock pantheon. In terms of influence, they cast a wide net from Green Day to Nirvana to Guns N Roses. I ultimately think that these qualities make Cheap Trick the likeliest of the six classic rock ensembles to actually make it through.
Chic (Personal Rank: 11; Worthiness: 4; Likelihood of Induction: 6): It’s a dubious distinction for sure, but Chic is now on its 10th nomination. The Nom Com spent years pitting Chic and Donna Summer against one another, each dooming the other’s chances (lots of people might vote for one disco act. Few would vote for two.) This year, they are up against Chaka Khan– that’s less formidable competition, but if they couldn’t get in during the competitive but R&B-light Class of 2014 ballot, at a time when a Nile Rodgers song was riding high on the charts, what makes this scenario any different? It’s possible that pity for Chic, or a desire to no longer see them on the ballot each year, might factor in. The Rock Hall might throw in the towel and give Nile Rodgers a Musical Excellence Award. Who knows? But I seriously doubt that Chic would be nominated over and over again if they were perennially tanking in actual votes. I’m putting their chances at #6, fully cognizant that it is very risky to place their chances this high. As my Geometry teacher once told me, “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” If you keep nominating Chic, they’ll keep getting shot down. But clearly, the Nom Com disagrees with this Euclidian truism, and thinks that Chic can make it this year, despite being rejected nine times before. And the only other person who has been nominated as often as Chic, soul legend Solomon Burke, got in on his tenth try. We’ll see who is right.
Chicago (Personal Rank: 1; Worthiness: 1; Likelihood of Induction: 7): This is the point where my objectivity might fail me. It was a rewarding moment to see that Chicago was nominated for the first time. Personally, I think they should have been inducted 15 years ago. I’ve written on my blog before about how Chicago is more than a soft rock outfit. Their first six studio albums (four of which were double albums) were filled with bold and commercially successful experiments in free-form jazz, classical-influenced suites, and Terry Kath’s prodigious guitar chops. If you dismiss Chicago as dentist’s office music, go read a post I wrote on this blog a few years ago recommending Chicago songs for people who hate Chicago, and listen to the tracks I’ve selected. However, I need to say something that might shock the systems of other Chicago fans reading this: Chicago’s. Induction. This. Year. Isn’t. Inevitable. Their trajectory has precedents for and against their induction. Let’s look at other famous, chart-busting Rock Hall snubs who were nominated years behind schedule. Hall & Oates and Neil Diamond got in the first time around. KISS and Bon Jovi didn’t. Which track will they take? On one hand, Chicago falls rather short on one major criterion, that of influence; aside from a few latter-day soundalike records like “Vehicle” and “Brandy, You’re A Fine Girl,” nobody really emulated their sound in the long term. Very few people who have made a career out of writing about music like them, with Rolling Stone magazine being a particularly free-flowing fountain of enmity. In short, as self-evident as their induction seems to me, I am not convinced that the votes are there. Nevertheless, one thing in their favor is that they simply have more songs known by the general public than anybody else on this list– by a country mile, in fact. “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is”, “If You Leave Me Now,” etc, etc. They are, by some measures, the second best selling American rock group ever, and have charted almost forty Top 40 hits. Moreover, a possible reunion with Peter Cetera- who hasn’t performed with Chicago in over thirty years- is exactly the kind of scenario whoever is planning the HBO special wants to see, and I’m sure some people vote with this in mind. I have them pegged as the 7th most likely to get in– the Rock Hall’s biggest snub will probably continue to be snubbed, but I hope to be proven wrong.
Deep Purple (Personal Rank: 7; Worthiness: 9; Likelihood of Induction: 8): While nobody knows for sure, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that if Deep Purple were nominated last year, they would have gotten in easily, with no real hard rock competition. Instead, they seem to only be on the ballot when facing off against compelling alternatives: they were up against Heart for the Class of 2013, and KISS in 2014. Nevertheless, many people consider Deep Purple to be one of the great snubs of Rock Hall lore; in fact, Notinhalloffame.com and Northumbrian Countdown friend Donnie Durham both list Deep Purple as their #1 Rock Hall prospect. And Deep Purple seems to be the hard rock choice the Nom Com is “stuck” on. That is, we may not see Judas Priest or Iron Maiden get their shot until Ian Gillan & Co. get in. Still, history is against them. If it took Black Sabbath 8 tries and it took Lynyrd Skynyrd 7 tries, will it really take Deep Purple only 3? Moreover, Deep Purple’s personnel conflicts and cantankerous relationship with the Rock Hall may work against them. Still, while facing off against many classic rock artists, they are still the only hard rock act on the list this time. We’ll see if that’s enough.
Janet Jackson (Personal Rank: 8; Worthiness: 2; Likelihood of Induction: 2): It might surprise you that for all my advocacy of a Janet nomination, I am actually not that big a fan of her music. For better or worse, Jackson peaked during one of my least favorite eras of Top 40 music, the turn from the late 80s to the early 90s when she shared air time with the New Kids on the Block and Tiffany. However, I do know a worthy cause when I see one, and on the merits, there is no denying that Janet Jackson is Rock and Roll Hall of Fame material. After intense lobbying from the Induct Janet team, Ms. Jackson is one of the nominees, after almost a decade of eligibility. She has lots of the qualities that ultimately make for successful inductees: influence, relevance, name recognition, and a canon of hits. Rock and roll purists will turn up their noses at Jackson, but very few of these individuals have access to a ballot. The Rock Hall has a way of making sure that the Voting Committee is committed to an ecumenical and diverse understanding of rock and roll. I think we can rest in confidence that one nomination will be enough for Janet. And if she gets in, she really should pay for #InductJanet founder Mike Litherland to sit at the table with her; she probably owes her induction to him.
Los Lobos (Personal Rank: 6; Worthiness: 14; Likelihood of Induction: 12): Los Lobos was a surprise for many Rock Hall Watchers this year. The more I explore their catalog, though, the more respect I have for them. They did plenty of interesting work combining rock and roll with Chicano influences, and it would be a grave mistake to think that their catalog was limited to Richie Valens covers for the La Bamba soundtrack. They have my respect, even though they wouldn’t necessarily have my vote. It is easy to look at the nominees, and see Los Lobos and the JBs as the two whose candidacies are the most far-fetched. I urge you not to make that mistake! The Voting Committee loves artists who flit between genres, and who have contributed to the world music oeuvre in some way, and Los Lobos fits that profile quite nicely. I don’t expect them to get in, but I would not be bowled over in surprise if it were to happen. They are definitely the sleeper pick that every wise Rock Hall Watcher should keep a sharp eye on.
Nine Inch Nails (Personal Rank: 14; Worthiness: 7; Likelihood of Induction: 3): The Nom Com gave Nine Inch Nails an almost ideal ballot. They stand out like a sommelier in Utah amidst this collection of radio-friendly, top 40 nostalgia hitmakers. Last year, they were up against first-year-eligible Green Day, which may have hurt their chances. This year, they will probably inherit much of Green Day’s coalition of voters. They are the only purely post-1990 act on the ballot, and face no 90s alternative competition from Smashing Pumpkins or Soundgarden or any of their contemporaries. Rock critics and Rolling Stone magazine folk love them; they are among the very few of the magazine’s “100 Immortals” who are not in the Hall yet. While the classic rock vote is balkanized six ways, Nine Inch Nails probably has enough respect from admiring musicians and sharp critics wary of commercial success. Consider David Bowie’s sage words: “Trent [Reznor’]s music, built as it is on the history of industrial and mechanical sound experiments, contains a beauty that attracts and repels in equal measure: Nietzsche’s “God is dead” to a nightclubbing beat. And always lifted, at the most needy moment, by a tantalizing melody.” They experimented with sound as few artists have done, helping to create the genre of industrial. (By the way, although NIN broke out during my early teenage years, alternative and industrial just weren’t my scene. In fact, the first time I heard NIN, Green Day, or Smashing Pumpkins songs were through “The Alternative Polka” on Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day.)
N.W.A. (Personal Rank: 15; Worthiness: 3; Likelihood of Induction: 1): I’m not saying the vote is rigged or anything, but I have a feeling that the Rock Hall will find a way to get N.W.A. in this year. With the Straight Outta Compton film becoming an unlikely summer blockbuster, and with #BlackLivesMatter still keeping on, N.W.A. has proven prescient and relevant. And with Tupac becoming eligible next year, they need to address their backlog of rap acts. It’s a shame that the ceremony was unexpectedly moved from Los Angeles to New York; it would have been fitting for N.W.A. to be enshrined so close to Compton. N.W.A. more or less invented gangsta rap and all that entails. They still fall under my broad definition of rock and roll’s family tree, and in terms of genre, they deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as much as anybody on this list. What makes them stand out is their influence on rap in the 1990s, and giving popular music a long dormant edge that made it seem truly menacing and revolutionary. On a purely intellectual level, of course they deserve to be in the Hall. But in terms of structural justice, I can’t support them and wouldn’t vote for them if I could. While they are absolutely right in identifying the systemic problem of law enforcement’s assumption of black guilt, I have a difficult time squaring this aspect of their work with their routine violence against women, and for that matter, their routine violence against anyone they didn’t like. There’s a world of difference between the harmless braggadocio of L.L. Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” and the N.W.A. canon. This toxic worldview isn’t unique to gangsta rap, of course, and too many people criticize violent black artists while giving violent white artists (Ted Nugent?) a pass, but for all their importance to the rock and roll milieu, I can’t get very excited about their fourth nomination. But what I think ultimately doesn’t matter. Out of all the acts on here, I am by far the most certain about N.W.A.’s chances.
Steve Miller (Personal Rank: 2; Worthiness: 12; Likelihood of Induction: 14): The Steve Miller Band is my second favorite artist on this list, if we are using personal preference as our metric. There’s no accounting for taste, and frankly, Miller is almost a guilty pleasure, not far removed from my love of America and Jimmy Buffett. I dig his dreamy and bluesy psychedelic soundscapes, and “Swingtown” and “The Joker” are two of my favorite songs from the 1970s. At the same time, I acknowledge the cretin-like quality of some of his music, from inventing the word “pompatus” to rhyming “he won’t let those two escape justice” with “he makes his living off other people’s taxes.” Of the six classic rock outfits on the ballot, Steve Miller appears to be the longest shot. He just doesn’t stand out as a snub like the others from that genre, and isn’t as commercially successful as Chicago or the Spinners, nor as critically revered as Cheap Trick, nor as influential as Deep Purple or The Cars. Miller is stuck behind the 8-ball like War was last year, amidst more distinctive R&B acts. The only possible route to success is his understated blues pedigree; he’s the closest thing this ballot has to a bluesman this year, and the Voting Committee saw fit to induct two artists in that genre last year: Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Stevie Ray Vaughan + Double Trouble.
The Cars (Personal Rank: 4; Worthiness: 10; Likelihood of Induction: 10): Remember the 2008 Democratic primary, where Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, two men with long senatorial careers and distinguished public records, both ran and essentially cancelled each other out amidst a field of younger, more exciting candidates? That’s basically what happened here with Cheap Trick and The Cars. They were near-contemporaries who both peaked around 1980, even as they belonged to slightly different genres: Cheap Trick to power pop, and The Cars to more synthesizer-heavy new-wave pop. (Kind of like how Biden was the foreign policy guy and Dodd was the finance guy.) In short, either of these two bands would have a much clearer shot if the other wasn’t on the same ballot. And ultimately, this works against The Cars more than Cheap Trick. The Cars might have more hits that are well-remembered today, but they don’t quite match Cheap Trick’s reputation among other musicians and music experts. I wouldn’t count them out, but if my hunch that 2- maybe 3- of the classic rock bands will get in is correct, I don’t think The Cars will be one of them.
The JBs (Personal Rank: 10; Worthiness: 15; Likelihood of Induction: 15): Although the Nominating Committee had apparently considered them before, The JBs were the one pick that absolutely nobody saw coming. In fact, I had to quickly google them when the nominees were announced. I can see a kind of logic behind the pick. They were, after all, James Brown’s backing band at the time he transitioned from the godfather of soul to the Prometheus of funk, delivering a dangerous fire to the likes of us mere mortals. Still, I wonder if their chances are doomed because nobody expects them to realistically win. Or to be more specific, most experts think they will be inducted in a roundabout fashion as a Musical Excellence Award winner. Call it the Wanda Jackson Precedent, if you will: in 2009, Jackson was nominated, failed to get enough votes on the ballot, and was awarded a dubious Early Influence award instead. (Dubious because she was a contemporary of Elvis and other first-generation rockers.) It happened to Freddie King two years later, and expectations that a Early Influence award was in the cards anyway may have sunk poor Link Wray’s nomination for the Class of 2014. (Unfortunately, Wray didn’t even get the Early Influence consolation prize.) Occasionally, there is an exception: Albert King was unexpectedly inducted after his first nomination for the Class of 2013. Anyway, now that the JBs are on the Nom Com’s radar, they will get in the Hall one way or another eventually. Although talented, funky, and influential, they don’t have Albert King’s renown, so expect them to be inducted for Musical Excellence or a resuscitated Sideman award.
The Smiths (Personal Rank: 13; Worthiness: 6; Likelihood of Induction: 11): The Hall has not been kind to alternative acts from the 1980s. Aside from a super-headliner like R.E.M., acts from this time and place flounder, whether its The Cure, The Replacements, or in the case of last year, The Smiths. I don’t quite see how their prospects have changed any. This ballot is less 80 and 90s-heavy than last year, but the Voting Committee just hasn’t shown the interest or gumption in this particular corner of rock and roll’s legacy. But make no mistake: they are as important to their genre as Yes is to prog, as Deep Purple is to hard rock, and as Chic is to disco. I will say, though, that they have grown on me a bit more since last year (when they were my 14th favorite act of 15!) and they probably meant more to their fans than anyone else on this list. To disillusioned Gen X’ers trying to find their way in the world without losing their soul or their social conscience, The Smiths were stalwart companions on the journey. If they do manage to get in this year, it will be interesting to see if a reunion with Morrissey and his fellows is a love-fest or full of Guns N Roses-style acrimony.
The Spinners (Personal Rank: 3; Worthiness: 8; Likelihood of Induction: 13): Philly soul was an essential part of the 1970s sound, and although the Spinners hailed from Detroit, their records, particularly under Thom Bell’s production, are some of the best examples of that genre. They earned a small armada of hits after evolving from a somewhat generic 60s soul outfit into an exciting, entertaining, heavily-orchestrated ensemble that was ideal for the Soul Train era. I love them, too; in fact, I will probably request “Rubberband Man” at every wedding reception I attend for the rest of my life. Aside from Chicago and maybe Janet, they were the most bankable hitmakers on this list. “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love?” “Then Came You”? “I’ll Be Around”? Entertainers more than artists, they should still be no-brainers for the Rock Hall. But with so many long-awaited first-timers, and the historic problems that 70s R&B artists have had in the last few years, they’ll probably have to keep waiting. It just doesn’t make sense to me. The O’Jays, with a similar resume, had a fairly painless induction process. And I just don’t see how The Faces and Laura Nyro- two of the Rock Hall’s worst choices ever- got more votes than The Spinners did when they were first nominated for the Class of 2012. Curiouser and curiouser.
Yes (Personal Rank: 5; Worthiness: 5; Likelihood of Induction: 5): Yes was first nominated for the Class of 2014, a ridiculously stacked group that included Nirvana, Deep Purple, KISS, Peter Gabriel, Joan Jett, Link Wray, and other heavy hitters. Allegedly, they came within 20 votes or so of induction. (Although with recent rumors that only 200-300 ballots are generally returned, this number seems less impressive than it once did.) Prog rockers have generally done well once the Nom Com deigned to put their names forward, and Rush and Genesis got in with no real problems. Yes- with a less rabid fan base than Rush and fewer memorable hits than Genesis- might be a trickier nut to crack. The death of bassist Chris Squire reminded many people that Yes should have gotten in years ago. Yes deserves it; their ambitious songwriting and their musical proficiency is rarely matched anywhere else in rock’s pantheon. Like Deep Purple, they are also at the front of a very long backlog of acts in their genre. It seems like Yes may need to get in for the Moody Blues or Jethro Tull to have much of a prayer. And a reunion of the surviving members of classic Yes could be ratings magic, even as Paul Shaffer begs the band not to play any 12-minute suites with 4-minute synth solos.
A few random thoughts to wrap things up:
- This is, again, a very, very strong ballot. Assuming the JBs are in there as a stalking horse for a Sideman or Musical Excellence Award, any other combination of artists would constitute one of the strongest induction classes of the new millennium. Even the artists I don’t especially like, such as Nine Inch Nails and N.W.A., are worthy candidates in terms of importance in the rock pantheon.
- No matter who gets in- I can’t tell what song they would play for the final jam. Last year’s class had lots of potential candidates for a feel-good or poignant finale: “Lean On Me,” “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “I Love Rock and Roll,” even “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life.)” While “Smoke on the Water,” or “25 or 6 to 4,” or “I Want You To Want Me” are all good songs, they lack that kind of wallop.
So, if rumors are correct that only 5 artists are nominated, I predict N.W.A., Janet Jackson, Nine Inch Nails, Cheap Trick and Yes. If a sixth artist gets in, add Chic. If seven artists are enshrined against all hope, then you can include Chicago. Right now, the online fan poll at rockhall.com is a mess, overtaken by classic rock-loving robots, without any security measures to protect the integrity of the vote. But if I could vote, I would go with Chicago, Yes, Janet Jackson, and The Spinners consistently, alternating the fifth vote between beleaguered Chic, the stalwart Cars, and guilty pleasure Steve Miller.
What do you think? Who will get in? Who deserves to get in? Let me know in the comments below.