Welcome to our fourth chapter in the unfolding series, The 100 Greatest Rock Hall Prospects, looking at five score eligible artists most deserving of induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Last time, our ten prospects were heavily weighted toward the 90s and beyond. This group is a bit more eclectic, bookended by 1950s legends who are unjustly forgotten by the wider public. In between, there’s the customary mix of classic rock, blues, hip-hop and other important genres critical to the development and evolution of rock and roll. Also, out of my 100 Rock Hall prospects, I’m ashamed to say that I have only seen six of them perform in person. (Hey, as my blog shows, I also love Disney World too, and I can’t afford two expensive hobbies.) Two of those six- #66 and #64- are in this post.
70. Link Wray: How much do you weigh influence, how much do you weigh longevity, and how much do you weigh chart performance? At the center of these questions stands Link Wray. He had a total of one top 20 hit. But that hit was “Rumble,” a fierce instrumental evocative of street fights in an age where rockers had brass knuckles, not contract riders. Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page have all sung his praises. His records are probably the first ones to use power chords and intentional distortion. On the other hand, the Hall is a public institute, and his catalog- perhaps even “Rumble”- isn’t largely known to the wider public. So what you think about Link says a lot about what you want the Rock Hall to be: a museum to educate? A place to celebrate success? Whatever you believe, the Hall has taken notice of Wray: he has friends on the Nom Com, and his lone nomination for the Class of 2014 generated lots of positive buzz. But the last two years, not a single 50s act was on the ballot. Is the Hall giving up on these acts? We had a purging of early rock and roll experts from the Nominating Committee this year, which may give us one clue that the Hall wants to pivot out of the 1950s.
69. Johnny Winter: The last few years have been good ones for blues fans who follow the Rock Hall. Albert King snuck into the Class of 2013 as a performer, when everyone thought that his presence on the ballot was a stalking horse for an Early Influence induction. The Class of 2015 was even more auspicious, with two acts, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band getting in. One obstacle, though, is that a lot of great bluesmen are better candidates for Early Influence than as rock-era performers. Tom Lane has a terrific catalog of blues greats deserving of Rock Hall recognition, but almost all of them will get in as Early Influences, their careers having peaked before the beginning of the rock era. So- whither the bluesman? It seems to me that Johnny Winter would be the next great blues prospect for the Rock Hall as an era-appropriate performer. Although his death two summers ago did not result in a Rock Hall nomination, his record is sound. He was one of the great Texas blues guitarists, and an important trail-blazer for people like Stevie Ray. He did one of the more polished sets at Woodstock. He recorded three of the best blues albums of the period: Johnny Winter, Second Winter, as well as Johnny Winter And. In these albums, his voice, halfway between a snarl and a wail, blazed an influential trail. Bruce Conforth of the University of Michigan was only exaggerating by a modicum when he said, “any blues artist who picked up a guitar after 1968 was influenced by Johnny Winter.” Winter also wracked up a number of accolades without ever seeming a critic’s pet: he earned multiple Grammy nominations, was on the cover of the first issue of Guitar World, and was the first white (in his case, really white) musician inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
68. Ozzy Osbourne: F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that there are no second acts in American lives. That may be true, but there can be second acts for unhinged Englishmen who decapitate bats with their own teeth. Heaven knows that the Hall likes ushering people into the Clyde McPhatter Club for two-time inductees, so I guess Ozzy has that going for him. In some ways, solo Osbourne picked up where Black Sabbath left off, with dark themes and metallic ambiance. In other ways, he exceeded Sabbath, heretical as that might seem. Insofar as that’s true, much of the credit goes to his sideman Randy Rhoads, who was one of the greatest guitarists of his age, bringing classicist influence to the world of heavy metal. Rhoads and Osbourne made two great albums together Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman before Rhoads’ untimely death in a plane crash. He has an advocate too: Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello is on the Nominating Committee, and has expressed hope for getting Rhoads- in some fashion- into the Hall. And for perspective, Morello named his son Rhoads! Moreover, Ozzy played a role in keeping metal alive, using his name recognition to headline Ozzfest, which introduced the genre to new generations and brought dozens of bands a wider audience and recognition. Osbourne may come across like a sentence-slurring buffoon, but there is method in his madness.
67. Bjork: Although her best work was deep in the 90s, Bjork is eligible for the Rock Hall through a glaring technicality. Her first album was recorded when she was an 11-year-old Icelandic wunderkind in 1977, easily clearing the Rock Hall’s 25-year requirement. Once into adulthood, Bjork became the toast of the art pop world: enigmatic, elfin, and always pushing boundaries. Bjork is, in her own words, a “communicator between all sorts of different worlds:” a kind of emissary or intermediary connecting the avant garde, academics, and culture vultures to the wider public. When I listen to “Unravel” or “Army of Me,” I have the same “my mind has been seriously messed with,” feeling from the last time I was at the Tate Modern in London. There was nobody like her: her work was danceable (4 #1 hits on the US Dance Chart, btw), thoughtful, engaging, and not nearly as pretentious as it could have been. Out of all the Rock Hall prospects on my list, maybe nobody embodies the ideal of the artist as well as Bjork. Will the Hall agree? I avant garde a clue.
66. Three Dog Night: When was the last time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame successfully inducted a white, male artist who did not largely write his own material? Believe it or not, it was in 2002, 14 years ago, with the Righteous Brothers. For a plethora of reasons that have a lot to do with our cultural conditioning, we accept African-Americans and women who interpret songs as artists, but we dismiss white guys who do the same as inauthentic and hackish, even if we acknowledge their vocal talent. Here, we arrive at Three Dog Night, a group that was repeatedly successful, even dominant, during some of rock and roll’s most competitive years. I remember them fondly; a solid 8 or 9 of their songs were on regular rotation on the Oldies station when I grew up: “Celebration,” “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “Easy to Be Hard,” and on it goes. Any band would have coveted one top-shelf soul singer; 3DN had a trio of them: Chuck Negron, Danny Hutton, and the late Cory Wells, each with a distinctive style. Is there a more iconic moment from 1971 than Negron wailing, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog?” with such conviction that the line actually made sense? They often arranged the songs themselves, and found a kind of top 40 nirvana that was tailor-made for their easy harmonies, and smart production. A lot of critics are contemptuous of success, but earning a Top 20 song isn’t easy, and Three Dog Night had over a dozen in just five years. In doing this, they provided necessary ballast for some important singer-songwriters whose careers were shaky at the time: Laura Nyro, Paul Williams, Harry Nilsson, Hoyt Axton, Randy Newman, and more. Maybe your favorite bands rocked harder, or wrote their own stuff, but I see no reason to punish Three Dog Night for being roundly successful interpretive singers. That’s the worst kind of rockist snobbery.
65. Big Star: Let’s explore where rock and roll was in 1972. In some quarters, rock was getting soft, sensitive and introspective, courtesy of James Taylor, Jim Croce, Loggins and Messina and others. In other quarters, metal was coming into its own, courtesy of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. And in still other sectors, solo artists coming out of the 60s were still trying to establish their own solo careers after their first band imploded. Wings, Argent, EL&P, CSNY, Blind Faith, War, BTO, and countless other bands began as flotsam from the great sinking galleons of the Age of Aquarius. In a way, Big Star could be counted among them too; its frontman was Alex Chilton, late of The Box Tops. That’s him doing the impassioned lead vocal on “The Letter” at the tender age of 17. Anyway, Big Star intuited that maybe the best direction to go isn’t louder or softer, but back. Not in the sense of being backward-looking or reactionary, but to pull your punches, aiming for a hypnotically droll sound, as if everything is in the back of the mix. Even the upbeat rockers in their catalog have a strange lulling effect. They created some great songs along the way: “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Way Out West,” “In the Street,” but you probably haven’t heard them very often on classic rock radio. While the group tanked commercially, it was their fellow musicians who took note of their sound. R.E.M., Pixies, Wilco, Counting Crows, and the Gin Blossoms all borrowed from their almost alt-country, power-pop sound. As I said last year, the band is like a secret handshake among musicians, to see who really knows their history. Big Star has so many fans in so many quarters of influence and power that I can’t see them not getting a nomination sometime soon. Holly George-Warren, who is on the Nom Com, actually wrote a book on Chilton a couple years ago, which is a good omen.
64. Indigo Girls: What’s the point of blogging if you aren’t going to try and influence people? Every time I blog about the Rock Hall, I get about 300 extra visitors from retweets and other publicity. I want to use that limited, but very real, exposure to make perhaps the first credible case for the Indigo Girls in the Rock Hall. Did they light up the charts? No, but quite a few Rock Hall prospects didn’t either. Their importance is in one of the only criteria that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame explicitly states: excellence. Their songwriting is sublime and thoughtfully mature. “Galileo” talks about how we make the same mistakes over and over again in our lives. “Closer to Fine” is about self-realization. “Ship of Hope” is about abandoning optimism. “Shame on You” challenges white privilege, including their own. (I love the line “You know me and Jesus, we’re of the same heart; the only thing that keeps us distant is that I keep fucking up.”) They managed to be relevant and even political without ever being shrill. Amy Ray and Emily Sailers couldn’t have come at a better time. In an age where electronics dominated music (not always a bad thing, of course), they offered a badly-needed acoustic alternative. They resuscitated folk rock, mentored dozens of other fledgling female singer-songwriters, earned a handful of Grammy nominations (and absolutely should have won Best New Artist in 1990, which went to Milli Vanilli.) Oh, and they were among the leading lights of Lilith Fair, an absolutely crucial component of women finding their own voices as artists in an industry dominated by men in the 1990s. Our culture does extremely poorly by women of medium build over the age of 50. If you aren’t conventionally sexy, nobody wants anything to do with you. I take great comfort and hope in Ray and Sailers kicking ass in concert, proudly playing their own instruments and writing their own material, as talented, self-possessed middle aged women. We really need to see more of that.
63. Eric B. & Rakim: The name of the duo itself reflects the priority’s of rap’s early days: the DJ (Eric in this case) got first billing over the rapper (Rakim), in much the same way that Grandmaster Flash got billing over the Furious Five. As such, they set the template for much of rap that would follow; as Stetasonic would later rap, “James Brown was old until Eric and Ra came out.” It turns out that the decision to sample the Godfather of Soul in “Eric B. is President” was a portentous one that built the mold for funk-indebted rap for years to come. I described Big Star as being in the back of the mix, but the same could be said of Rakim’s raps. His style is slow, contemplative, and reflective, maybe best seen in “I Know You Got Soul,” a sharp contrast to the aggressive, combative style of many of his contemporaries who attacked the mic ferociously. And the samplers ended up being sampled themselves: Eric B. and Rakim remain hip-hop and rap staples to this day, and Jay-Z, Nas, and countless others stand on their shoulders.
62. The B-52s: Do you think this is a silly choice? You shouldn’t. The essence of rock and roll is partying, and with their call-and-response lyrics, firm grasp of rock and roll bop, and Fred Schneider’s staccato vocals, there aren’t many bands that make people smile quite so readily. They knew their history, too: listen to that organ riff from “Rock Lobster,” and there’s an artist who owes a debt to ? and the Mysterians. Much of their appeal was in their backwards-looking nature: the bouffant wigs, the beach party thematics, and their unironic desire to have a good time embodied the sunniest aspects of 1960s pop. But they were hardly reactionaries. Although they never took themselves too seriously, they were in some respects important innovators. They helped bring new wave music into the mainstream, but in a far different direction from Blondie and Talking Heads (both of whom got in years ago, by the way), embracing what new wave actually sounded like (campy sci-fi) and running with it. What else? Few acts had so many openly gay band members, and The B-52s helped create a safe space in the aftermath of the death of disco where sexuality could be expressed honestly and celebratorily.
61. Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘N Roll Trio: If you haven’t listened to “Train Kept A-Rollin,'” do me a favor and listen to it before reading any further. It’s okay. I’ll wait. (Twiddles thumbs. Whistles.) Wasn’t that amazing? It’s only a bit over two minutes, but it’s powerful and it’s relentless. You won’t hear the Rock ‘N Roll Trio much on the radio, and for whatever reason, they aren’t remembered as nostalgically as their contemporaries. But in terms of influence, and above all, quality, they stand apart. The Rock ‘N Roll Trio were important pioneers of the sound that was eventually called rockabilly- rock and roll music with country-and-western and hillbilly twang emphasized. You can hear elements of Buddy Holly with Burnette’s hiccuping vocals (although Burnette largely predated him.) And you can hear elements of Carl Perkins in the twang. But while Holly affected innocence and Perkins oozed a rough-hewn but genteel warmth, the Trio were threatening, tough, and sexual. Their admiration by their peers and descendants is also very solid. Aerosmith and the Yardbirds idolized them, and The Beatles played “Lonesome Tears In My Eyes” as part of their Cavern-era repertoire. And they were doing more or less the same thing as Elvis at the same time Elvis started. As their biggest advocate, Charles Crossley, points out, Elvis’s very first radio appearance was in 1953, performing alongside the Rock ‘N Roll Trio. Burnette also probably gets some cred for his solo career as well, which includes “You’re Sixteen,” which was turned into a #1 hit by Ringo Starr of all people. At any rate, the era of the 1950s shouldn’t be over for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a shame that the voting body just won’t have it.