Here is the first installment of my “100 Greatest Rock Hall Prospects” list, starting out at #100, and moving on to #1 in the coming weeks. (Chicago, fortunately, lost their spot at #1 by virtue of being inducted.) Hopefully, I’ll be able to imbed a Spotify playlist on this blog shortly, but please bear with me; I haven’t quite figured that trick out yet. This particular batch has some eclectic, but somewhat borderline, cases. Interestingly, five of these artists have already been nominated, but haven’t made it in yet. Let me know your thoughts as we journey through the epochs of rock and roll. Remember- this is just one guy’s opinion, so I hope you won’t take umbrage if your favorites aren’t on the list or are ranked too low for your liking.
100. Fela Kuti: For all we complain about certain “snubs” from the Rock Hall, there are some genres, and indeed, some geographical regions that are left out in the cold entirely. No artist who spent their career working from Africa, to give one less obvious example, has been inducted. If the Hall ever looks in that direction, they could do no better than Fela Kuti. Like Bob Marley before him, Kuti worked outside the Anglo-American axis, and pioneered a bold new synthesis while standing up to political oppression. And also like Marley, he is regarded as much as a prophet as a musician. Kuti’s contribution is Afrobeat, a dynamic synthesis of funk and traditional Nigerian rhythms, and a key progenitor to world music. Redbull Music Guide calls him “A complex man who was equal parts shaman, showman, and trickster,” a crafty thorn in the side of the violent regimes that Nigerians endured during his lifetime. If it weren’t for the horrific migrations out of Africa in the 1600s and 1700s, rock and roll could have never happened, so it is incumbent on us to recognize a figure who, more than anyone else, brought it all back home. If this seems like a far-fetched choice, remember that Kuti has plenty of admirers in high places, ranging from Jay-Z to his onetime collaborator, Ginger Baker.
99. Husker Du: I was a bit dismissive about Husker Du in my introduction to this project, but they still deserve serious consideration for a Rock Hall induction. They helped create alt-rock and set the table for Green Day and other latter-day acts that dominated radio when I was a teenager, except they did it years before it was cool. Ultimately, they were a musician’s band, more famous for influence than for record sales. Patrick Smith said it best: “To say that Hüsker Dü never cultivated any sort of image, in the usual manner of rock bands, is putting it mildly. These guys just didn’t look or carry themselves like musicians. And they didn’t care.” Their records rarely had a picture of the band, but they were workmanlike, touring relentlessly to break out of the underground scene they were beholden to. Husker Du bridged the gap between thrash and alternative, recording an essential album, Zen Arcade, with little time and a meager budget. Nirvana, Pixies, the Foo Fighters and countless other acts cite them as an important influence.
98. D.C. Talk: One important genre that the Rock Hall has heretofore neglected (and will probably neglect for a very long time) is Christian Contemporary. This is probably because its artists and its audience exist in a somewhat insular subculture in America far removed from anybody on the Nominating Committee. But if your daddy listened to James Dobson on the radio and your mama read Amish romance novels, chances are, D.C. Talk was a part of your life in the 1990s. D.C. Talk remains the most historically important Christian contemporary artist for the Rock Hall’s consideration, at least until Jars of Clay become eligible in 2020. They started out recording plenty of spiritually uplifiting secular songs like “Lean On Me” and “Jesus Is Just Alright” before 1995’s Jesus Freak came out like a bolt out of the blue. A lot of music that white evangelicals were listening to…well…let’s just say it was shoddily recorded and noticeably derivative. There were lots of earnest singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars and beards, or Styx-wannabes like Petra. D.C. Talk broke away from the evangelical tendency toward second-rate music, playing conscientious hip-hop-infused rock that didn’t sound like a pale imitation of existing artists. Wisely, they tapped into post-punk and alternative’s need for personal authenticity and its identification with society’s misfits and losers, balancing the introspective with a finely-developed social consciousness. Virtually every edgy Christian songwriter of a generation began his or her education with D.C. Talk.
97. New York Dolls: This pick goes against everything I stand for in terms of my personal taste, but it is tough to deny their longstanding influence. The New York Dolls were gender-bending to a striking, and apparently persuasive, degree (just this semester, one of my students foolishly included them in a diorama on “women in rock.”) There was this sorta Jagger-knock-off feel to their sound and their sneering and pouting temperament, but they were an important piece of what became punk music. Even if they got there by way of glam. I love that their first gig was in a homeless shelter; it’s the perfect encapsulation of the New York underground scene that embraced all kinds of people who were rejected elsewhere. They challenged convention (particularly gender convention) with their wardrobe choices and became heroes to Patti Smith, The Ramones, and other top-shelf acts that became massively big later on. (Then again, they also influenced KISS. This isn’t something to be proud of; it’s more like remembering Lee Harvey Oswald for influencing Mark David Chapman.) At a time when popular music was getting more complex and ethereal, New York Dolls not only brought it back down to earth, but into the gutter. They lived fast, some of them died hard, and they enjoyed only a short career before disbanding, but everyone who was there at the time vouches for their importance. The band was nominated once in 2001, but it may be a long time before they see the inside of the Rock Hall. If it took the Sex Pistols five tries and the Stooges eight tries, they may have quite a wait ahead of them.
96. Teddy Pendergrass/Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes: Every genre in the rock and roll family tree moves the listener in a different way. The deep soul branch touches the most plaintive notes of our conscious selves, and speaks to our deepest hurts and our most aching longings. I can think of no outfit that did this quite so well as Pendergrass- either with or without Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Their most important (and most widely covered) hit, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is a track of profound emotional depth, and that’s just one of a small armada of hits that tore up the R&B charts through the 70s. Pendergrass kept this going in his solo career, which was cut short by a freak accident that paralyzed him and shortened his life (eerie parallels to Curtis Mayfield, no?) Actually, like Mayfield, Pendergrass and the Blue Notes also threaded a careful line between love songs and socially conscious numbers in tune with their times (give a listen to “Wake Up Everybody” for a fine essay in this genre.) While figures like Barry White had a more conspicuous calling card in his spoken-word seduction, Pendergrass had chops that weren’t overshadowed by deceptive production. Philadelphia artists have a habit of being ignored by the Rock Hall, as Daryl Hall pointed out at his own induction, and the Blue Notes would be a worthy addition given the absence of Philly soul from the Cleveland halls. Classic rockers will have a fit, but I’d rather have a first rate soul outfit than a group of second-rate rockers.
95. Procol Harum: For a few years, it seemed like Cleveland was letting every British invasion act it could remember into its halls. When Procol Harum was nominated for the Class of 2013, it sure looked like a front-runner on a ballot filled with dicey blues and rap prospects. Yet, they failed to get the votes, and I wonder why. Inductees Dave Clark Five and The Hollies certainly had more hits, I’ll grant you that, but Procol Harum had significantly more vision behind it, and was a better fit for the Hall’s own agenda. With a full-time lyricist at their disposal, they challenged rock and roll’s artistic boundaries, using greater classical influences, and a broader array of instruments- with the organ at the front of the mix- to create baroque pop. The result of this technique was the glorious “Whiter Shade of Pale,” a track that serves as the exemplar of ambitious (if somewhat obtuse) psychedelia. But don’t stop there, because “The Devil Came From Kansas,” “Conquistador,” and “A Salty Dog” were all ambitious and masterfully composed, rich gems waiting for those who are willing to delve further into their catalog. All these factors make them important antecedents to progressive rock sensibilities. Today, every artist records with a full orchestra as a fun lark. But Procol Harum was perhaps the first band to do so with a 1972 album with the Edmonton Symphonic Orchestra, exploring how classical and rock and roll might be genres in collaboration rather than competition. Procol Harum is still on tour today with its frontman Gary Brooker, and despite recurring lawsuits over “Whiter,” the band would be able to perform, and even skip the light fandango, if called upon.
94. Chuck Willis: The Rock Hall has, traditionally, been very mindful of 50s R&B legends- people who didn’t have tons of hits that are played on Oldies radio today, but were indispensable to the foundations of rock and roll. But a few of them never quite made it past the hurdles of induction. Joe Tex is one of them. Esther Phillips is another. But arguably the turban-wearing Chuck Willis is the most influential of the figures in this category. He was nominated on each of the Hall’s first five ballots, and once again in 2011, without success. As the voting body becomes younger and perhaps less historically astute, Willis’s window is probably gone unless he gets a backdoor “early influence” nod. It’s a shame, because he deserves induction without any asterisks. He wrote his own material in a genre where that rarely happened, popularized “C. C. Rider” and The Stroll, one of Rock’s first dance crazes, and toggled easily between sincere ballads and riveting rockers. His blend of crooning and wailing established the template for every number of R&B vocalists to come. Unfortunately, he was felled by peritonitis in his prime, and died at the age of 30, one of rock and roll’s first big casualties, even predeceasing Buddy, Richie, and the Bopper.
93. Mary Wells: Has the Rock Hall milked Motown dry? It seems like every significant Motown artist is enshrined in the Hall, although the Nom Com seems on the lookout for more of them. The Marvelettes have been nominated a couple times, most recently for the Class of 2015, but I think a stronger case can be made for Mary Wells if you’re going to close the book on Hitsville, USA. Go back and listen to her old 45s, and you’ll hear a remarkable self-possession and personality shine through. Sultry but sweet, emotive but confident, she should have had a much bigger career than she enjoyed. It must have been tough as a female artist in the 60s, with the virgin/whore dichotomy at full bore. Your output had to be demure enough to be respectable but sensuous enough to be interesting. There aren’t many songs that are simultaneously both seductive and innocent as her vocal work on the coda of “My Guy.” Unfortunately, she violated Rock and Roll Rule #3: Don’t Cross Berry Gordy. (Rule #1 is “Don’t bite the head off a bat” and Rule #2 is “don’t marry your 13-year-old cousin.”) Rumors persist that Gordy sabotaged her career after she left Motown, irritated by The Supremes getting more attention, better promotion, and more quality material. But any way you slice it, the hits dried up prematurely for one of soul’s most talented vocalists.
92. Megadeth: there are probably metal bands that deserve to be in before Megadeth, but they are certainly in the queue. Founded by Metallica castaway Dave Muscatine, Megadeth presided over the creation of thrash-metal: angry, focused, intentional, and intense. The band has danced with the devil for decades, with lyrics that explore death and destruction, but never wholly endorsing a violent worldview. In terms of zeitgeist, it’s remarkable how well Megadeth directed their ire at the bloodlust of the 1980s, with a revived Cold War and a lot of unnecessary, phallus-waggling American incursions into Latin America and the Caribbean. Nobody, as it turns out, was buying peace. Although Muscatine has expressed interest in induction, it’s probably a long way off. The Nom Com just isn’t interested in thrash metal, and their rivals, Metallica, belong to the Rock Hall’s “in-club” and these guys most definitely do not.
91. Bon Jovi: If you really stop and think about it, one of Cleveland’s more insidious biases is against artists that women tend to like more than men- perhaps a reflection of the male super-duper-majority on the Nom Com. How many artists in the Hall of Fame today have a decisively female fan base? Bobby Darin? Ricky Nelson? Neil Diamond? I can’t think of too many more. Teen idols tend to get passed over as long on image and short on chops. Every once in a while, an exception like Peter Frampton- a surprisingly good guitarist- challenges that stereotype, but otherwise, good luck waiting for Bobby Vinton, Frankie Avalon, Lief Garrett, and Neil Sedaka to come to Cleveland. But in the mid-to-late 1980s, Bon Jovi were not only teen idols, but the most well-remembered emblems of hair bands. With long mullets, screechy guitar solos, and ear-worm hooks, bands like Bon Jovi tore up the charts in the mid-to-late 80s. They wracked up a number of big hits made for stadium sing-alongs and Jon holding out the microphone to the audience (every song they’ve done seems to have a “wuhhh-oh” or an “aaah-ah” in the chorus crafted for this kind of moment.) It was listener friendly, but almost factory-designed to vex the serious listener or critic, ever searching for technique and nuance. But technique and nuance were never part of Bon Jovi’s appeal. I had just started listening to Top 40 radio when “Always” was out, inaugurating Bon Jovi 2.0, and several years later, they did it again with “It’s My Life” and later remade themselves into John Mellencamp-style heartland rockers in the new millennium. In a crazy way, a Bon Jovi comeback seemed more far-fetched and anachronistic than its contemporary Santana and Cher comebacks, partly because it was so tough to disassociate them from the mullet-infested, Dollar Store Springsteen side of the 80s. After all, didn’t Nirvana exist to save us from bands like Bon Jovi? Nevertheless, as a cultural artifact, as hitmakers of astonishing resilience, and as contributors to the rock and roll milieu, Bon Jovi deserves a place in the Hall. “Tommy used to work on the docks” is one of the great opening lines in all of rock history. Bon Jovi has been nominated once before- for the Class of 2011- but didn’t get in. With the recent exception of Janet Jackson, that’s probably the most shocking non-induction in the last decade of Rock Hall history. I’d expect them to get a second chance sooner rather than later- especially under the aggressive new management of Irving Azoff.