Now that we know who will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016, this might be a good time to turn our attention to the acts that remain on the outside looking in. This project will explore 100 acts that I believe to be most deserving for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I write this knowing full well that the Rock Hall is something of a powder keg and any attempt to discuss it online often degenerates into acrimony and bedlam. The internet is littered with people expressing their opinions, some more well thought out than others, about bad choices the Hall made: both marginal artists that it let in and deserving visionaries who were left out. Everyone has their own beliefs and their own internal logic regarding who should be next. Here’s mine.
You may notice that I have called this list “Rock Hall Prospects” rather than “Rock Hall Snubs.” “Snub” is a loaded word, is it not? It implies that there is a bias, or a petty, arbitrary reason for the group’s omission from the Hall of Fame. The recent inductions of Rush, KISS, and Chicago suggest that there really isn’t a blackballing of certain artists, and commonly, solid acts are missing from the Rock Hall because of limited room (only 200 or so artists are in, a smaller number than it sounds), or the lack of a true advocate on the Nominating Committee. A group like T. Rex is widely liked by many critics, musicians, and experts, but doesn’t seem to have any diehard supporters where it counts. Compare that to Hall & Oates, who had Questlove in their corner, a man worked the room like a presidential candidate at the Iowa State Fair and through dogged persistence, got them on the ballot after 16 years of eligibility. Most of these acts have not been intentionally slighted because Jann Werner has been maliciously plotting against them. Rather, they end up patiently waiting their turn among dozens of genres and more than forty years’ worth of eligible acts. For example, there’s a bit of a disco pecking order: The Bee Gees and Donna Summer were logical first inductees in that genre, leaving Chic and Rufus/Chaka Khan waiting eagerly in the wings, and Kool & the Gang and Barry White twiddling their thumbs in the vestibule.
A few words, though, on my biases and my methods. My criteria include…
I. Originality and Innovation: Did the artist approach rock and roll in some new way? Did they refine or improve new techniques, or fuse heretofore different genres? Please don’t confuse “originality” with songwriting. There are lots of great artists who did not write their own material, but whose interpretations were just as trailblazing. There had to be something striking or unique about the artist that made them unmistakably different from their contemporaries. Ultimately, this standard cost groups like Bad Company, Badfinger, Foreigner, and Grand Funk Railroad. I mean, suppose you’re the poor sap who had to gave a speech inducting Badfinger. What would you even say? “This band existed, and for a brief time, was popular?” No; each artist on this list has to have a calling card, a claim to fame.
II. Musical Excellence: It’s one thing to be innovative; it’s another to be good. Did the artist have chops–vocally or instrumentally? Was their body of work well-crafted, the product of practice and skill? Did they work hard and pay their dues to produce good music, or were they just in it for fame, groupies, and a quick buck?
III. Creating a Substantive and Successful Body of Work: You’ll notice that I didn’t quite say “commercial success.” The public can be fooled into buying bad music (Bay City Rollers, Olivia Newton-John, etc.) but the converse side of this argument is that rock critics and rock literati are not the only gauge of who matters. Like it or not, rock and roll is not just an artistic enterprise, it is a commercial one as well, and acts that resonate with the masses over the long-term despite being toxic to the experts should be granted due consideration. Having a big hit and then building on it with more hits is much, much harder than it looks. More often, it comes down to strong musical instincts and talent, rather than solid promotion and good fortune. So for this list, I am prioritizing acts that had a good, long run making worthwhile music. If an artist was a quick flash in the pan, I’ll still consider them, but they’d better be really significant in some other way. Rock and roll is a marathon, not a sprint. Longevity matters.
IV. Zeitgeist: If an artist was undeniably evocative of a particular time and place, that redounds to their favor. The Zombies might fall a bit short on Criterium #3, but they excel at #4. They only had a few big songs, but if you hear any of them on the radio, they are unmistakably evocative of the mid and late-1960s. Being able to embody a genre’s best qualities, or personifying a political and social movement are intangible qualities that have to be taken into account.
So that’s what I’m looking for. I do need, though, to add some things I am not taking into consideration, or arguments for or against certain artists that I find fallacious.
Fallacy #1: That’s not Rock Enough: I grow weary of self-professed music experts complaining that Madonna or Public Enemy have made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before Blue Oyster Cult or Boston. How, they ask, can these acts be considered rock? Madonna is pop, and Public Enemy is rap, so the case must be closed to them. “This is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not the Music Hall of Fame,” they sneer, as they blare their Aerosmith and gaze admiringly at their “George Wallace for President, ’68” poster. Just in the list week, I’ve read depressing comments about #RockHall2016 saying “Is this the politically correct Hall of Fame?” or “Get rap it’s own hall of fame!!!”
These people are called “rockists,” known for their somewhat narrow view of rock and roll as the province of guitar-based, almost always white and male, musicians who write their own songs. Go listen to Eddie Trunk’s brigade to get a taste of this jaundiced worldview. Many of these people are quite smart, in their way. Many of these people have impressive talents. But a broad knowledge of music history that extends beyond their 10 favorite bands is not one of them. Read basically any online article on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever written, and in the comments section, you’ll see them come out of the woodwork. They are very indignant about this slight against the Doobie Brothers’ honor and tend to write half the words of any given sentence in all caps and use descriptors like “SHAM” and “TRAVESTY!!1!!” For an example of this line of reasoning, look at this list of 40 snubs from UltimateClassicRock. It’s filled with deserving acts to be sure, but the jackwagons who compiled it didn’t think that it was problematic that none of the 40 acts included any black guys or women, and any genre beyond classic rock and proto-alternative is left out.
Rock and roll’s legacy is bigger and broader than these voices would have it. In fact, very little true “rock and roll” was made after 1959 with a few exceptions. Almost all music made afterwards, beyond that first generation of rock and roll that was inaugurated by Elvis, Jerry Lee, Fats, Chuck, Little Richard and crew, is a descendant of rock and roll, rather than rock and roll itself. This goes for British invasion bands, metal, prog, Motown, disco, soul, alternative, synth-pop, Krautrock, shoegazing, art rock, you name it. None of these genres are illegitimate; quite the contrary, they can each trace their origins to those early 50s records, some taking after more of the rock side, some favoring the roll. So, think of that first generation of rock and roll as Abraham, sometimes called the founder of monotheism. Catholicism, Methodism, Baptists, Hassidic Jews, Reformed Jews, Shia Muslims, Sufis, and others trace their spiritual lineage back to Abraham- some more directly than others- but all of these faiths can claim to be “Abrahamic.” In the same way, rap, industrial, funk, and all those genres I just listed earlier can claim to be rock and roll: they have a lineage, direct or circuitous, to those 1950s pioneers who combined the twang of country, the rhythm and sensuality of the jump blues, and unbridled joy of gospel. The point is, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has to be shared between different sub-genres, and there should be room for everyone who produced quality music in this medium.
Fallacy #2: Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: If your Latin is a bit rusty, this simply means, “Because A happened before B, A is a direct cause of B.” I am skeptical of arguments along the lines of “How can Husker Du be in before Green Day? Without Husker Du, Green Day would never have even existed!” Maybe you’re right on that point, but Green Day achieved greater success, was more culturally relevant, and released a couple of albums that are indispensable toward understanding popular music in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s. Perhaps they were too commercial for your liking, but they were, by any fair measure, more impactful even if they stood on Husker Du’s shoulders. Lonnie Donegan and The Shadows and Chet Atkins all inspired The Beatles, but that doesn’t mean they should have been in before the Fab Four. For this reason, I’m a bit less inclined toward 50s and early 60s artists than some other Rock Hall watchers I admire very much, especially Philip (at Rock Hall Monitors) and Charles Crossley. The Rock Hall can and should educate the public on rock and roll’s historical foundation, including those R&B-oriented artists who don’t get included in Dick Clarks’ 20-CD retrospectives, but we also can’t deny that a lot of great artists thrived in the 1980s and 1990s.
I tried to be fair in my ranking, but I’m only human. A few of my personal favorites who were sitting on the edge made it in, although a couple artists I really like didn’t (America, Edgar Winter Group.) And I’m only human; a couple longtime vendettas may have influenced my picks. This hindered Ted Nugent (his case was dubious anyway, but he’s spent the last several years threatening the president and questioning the patriotism of left-leaning people like myself, so I’m certainly not going to include him), and Todd Rundgren (no personal animus, but the Buffalo classic rock station overplayed “Hello It’s Me” so often that I just can’t get into his music) among others. So my list is totally objective. Except when it isn’t.
So sit back, because in the next several weeks, we’re going to explore 100 top-notch artists who deserve enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We’ll look at neglected artists of historical significance from the 1950s, a few remaining holdouts from the 1960s, overlooked artists from the embarrassment of riches that was the 1970s music scene, as well as important standouts from the 1980s and 1990s, several of which remain significant to this day. You’ll see plenty of classic rock and oldies favorites, but you’ll also read cases for Philly soul artists, rappers, indie, folk, alternative, and punk.
A couple clarifying points before I wrap up: by eligible artists, I mean those who could have conceivably been inducted in 2016, or whose first record was issued in 1991 or earlier. So, no Pearl Jam, Tupac, Radiohead, or Lady Gaga.
As always, a big thank-you goes out to Future Rock Legends and Not In The Hall of Fame, great journalists like Troy Smith and Chris Molanphy, and fellow Rock Hall watchers like Tom Lane, Philip at Rock Hall Monitors, and Donnie Durham. I learned a great deal from all of you, and each of you influenced my countdown in some way.
Last 15 cuts from my list? It was tough, but in the end, I had to let go of: Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Boston; Junior Walker & the All-Stars; The Stylistics; Mahavishnu Orchestra; Tommy James and the Shondells; Cyndi Lauper; Joe Cocker; Carly Simon; Patti LaBelle; Supertramp; Lenny Kravitz; Fairport Convention; Jim Croce; and Sade. Sorry, guys.
Okay, I think I covered everything. In a few days, I’ll post the first ten reveals for the Top 100 Rock Hall prospects.