This next installment of the 100 Greatest Rock Hall Prospects brings us to the halfway point in our exploration of the performers best poised to take their rightful place in Cleveland. This batch includes 2 previous nominees, and 2 potential members of the Clyde McPhatter Club. It’s also a good time to remember the loss of David Bowie, an artist in every sense of the word who showed all of us the limitless possibilities of rock and roll’s promise.
60. The Commodores: Someone- I think it was Dave Marsh, but I’ve forgotten- described The Commodores as funk music for guys who sit when they pee. It’s a cruel jibe, and like most cruel jibes, contains an element of truth. But certainly, it isn’t the whole truth. The Commodores started off as a surprisingly good funk outfit, though closer to the Bar-Kays than Parliament. It’s easy to forget that their first big hit, “Machine Gun,” was a fast-paced instrumental, not a ballad. For years, they produced top-notch funk that was forgotten as they transitioned to singers of smooth Lionel Richie-penned numbers later in their career. Listen to “The Bump,” “Too Hot Ta Trot,” “Slippery When Wet,” and other songs from that era, and you’ll see what I mean. But the slower songs were also of high quality: “Easy” is a brilliantly-crafted smooth love song, and even the schmaltzy “Three Times a Lady” is better understood as more of an aberration in their catalog. Most of their slower songs were more thoughtful; witness “Sail On,” a forgotten minor hit that even channels a bit of CSNY. Maybe some purists aren’t happy with the fact that the Commodores went in a more commercial direction instead of emphasizing the black nationalism of many other artists in their wheelhouse. But it wasn’t easy to find a sweet spot between the pop charts and groovy R&B, but they succeeded in a big way in joining these worlds. Lionel Richie also gives them a kind of ace in the hole in terms of induction, generating both name power and what I call the “fondness factor”. Remember that the only black R&B artist voted in during the last three years is the one with the greatest “fondness factor,” or nostalgia attached to his candidacy, Bill Withers. Partly through Richie’s enduring celebrity, the Commodores are broadly loved by the wider public in a way that Chic, War, and other, perhaps more technically artistic choices, are not. And these days, like it or not, that’s probably enough.
59. Smashing Pumpkins: At the risk of oversimplifying, they took alternative and made it beautiful and ethereal. Doesn’t their resume look Rock Hall-ish? They certainly pass the zeitgeist test, and they do so in an interesting way, by appealing to both those on the later side of Generation X and the older side of Millenials like myself. You couldn’t listen to music in 1995 and not be conversant in the Smashing Pumpkins. They brought back some things that grunge, for all of its authenticity, lacked: melody and listenable production instincts. Lots of different people could like them, which wasn’t true of many artists in the 1990s. The kids listening to pop could dig the Pumpkins, and so could the grunge and alternative people, without looking like sell-outs to their friends. When you consider how hopelessly balkanized that decade was from the standpoint of taste, how few common points of reference existed for the wider body of music listeners, that is a profound accomplishment. They recorded two albums that factor into “best of the decade” discussion, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Siamese Dream. Iconic songs deeply identifiable to their decade? Sure: “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” “1979,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Disarm,” “Today.” Enigmatic and erratic frontman? check. Not only that, but Billy Corgan has a long list of collaborations with other artists that lots of artists with Rock Hall level profiles tend to have and signal wide industry respect. Collaborators range from Courtney Love to Robert Smith of The Cure to Ray Davies. Oh, and he also inducted Pink Floyd in 1996, when hundreds of artists would have killed for that honor. Clearly, the Rock Hall went in a 70s classic rock direction for 2015, the first year they were eligible. But it will only be a matter of time until Smashing Pumpkins are on the ballot.
58. The Replacements: Last time around, I explained why Big Star deserves more serious attention, and one reason is because groups like The Replacements studied their work and brought their own personal sensibilities to it. Alex Parenne was right when he said that the band’s oeuvre was “a glorious, extended tribute to a particularly upper-Midwestern variety of failure.” Failure is about right: the band had only one top 100 hit, but many of its fans wear their lack of success as a badge of honor. Their music gave outcasts of the 1980s a place to ruminate, combining the morose elements of post-punk with the pulled-back power pop of Big Star often thrown in, as appropriately seen in “Alex Chilton.” As low-fi pioneers, they were instrumental in the creation of alternative music, never loud for the sake of being loud, thoughtful without being cerebral. Their temperament was bemused, even as Paul Westerberg’s vocals communicated anguish and hurt in his own inimitable way. If you like your music wry, ironic, and out of the mainstream, The Replacements are probably in your dojo. They were nominated once before, for the Class of 2014, but they were given a hopeless scenario of going up against Nirvana and a bunch of 70s and 80s classic rock favorites. They never had a chance, and unless Generation X exerts a greater control over Rock Hall affairs, they may have a long wait to get into the Hall.
57. Peter Tosh: With the exception of Jimmy Cliff’s surprise nomination and induction in 2010, it’s like the Rock Hall forgot that reggae existed apart from Bob Marley. While I’m still not entirely sold on the merits of Cliff’s induction, Peter Tosh is clearly the next man up in the reggae queue. His music was decidedly different from his contemporary Marley. There were stronger R&B influences, frequent collaborations with Anglo-American artists, and a greater swagger to his music (“Walking Razor”) that contrasted to Marley’s universal bonhomie. With his early work with the Wailers (who weren’t inducted with Bob, I might add), he was present at the birth of reggae which adapted rocksteady beats, infusing politics and social concerns, and playing a ragged guitar during the offbeats. Like many of the great rock legends, Tosh’s music was of a piece with his activism. He strongly supported marijuana legalization, like many a rastaman before him, but also spoke out for human rights (“Equal Rights”) and against nuclear proliferation. His death in 1987 (a home robbery gone wrong which may or may not have had ties to the Jamaican government) brought a prolific career and a singular life to an end.
56. Black Flag: In some ways, this choice is my attempt at something close to objectivity: out of all 100 prospects, I probably dread listening to Black Flag the most. “T.V. Party” is the worst track I’ve ever heard. I’m not saying that in a twee “‘T.V. Party’ is the worst track I’ve ever heard, but it’s great” sense. Don’t misunderstand me. It is actually the worst track I’ve ever heard by a major artist. If you thought the Ramones were a little too polished and played their instruments a little too proficiently, Black Flag was there for you. They were a crucial part of the 1970s and 1980s punk scene in L.A. and contributed to the creation of hardcore as its own legitimate field of punk music. In terms of their worldview and aesthetic, they also helped pioneer the D-I-Y culture that thrived in punk, and that included their own record label. More than anything else, a band like this is emblematic of the deep distrust in institutions- any institutions- that Americans felt toward the end of the 1970s. Listen to the hopelessness of “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, the disillusionment of “My War,” and there’s that raw, visceral quality that clearly spoke to people in an L.A. soaked in materialism and the military-industrial complex during an age of limits. As a historian of that era, I find them fascinating, if only because they help explain the jaundiced worldview that caused so many people to buy Pet Rocks as gag gifts. As a Rock Hall watcher, I allow that they are clearly one of the most significant punk acts that isn’t in the Hall yet. (Not that there are very many punk acts there to begin with.) As a listener, I still think they’re terrible. But that was probably the point all along.
55. The Monkees: Last year, an article on Buzzfeed went viral that purported to debunk every reason that’s ever been used to keep the Monkees out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some of their arguments are quite sound. Object to them not playing their own instruments? Well, then you must object to Motown as well. Do you think they were just television stars? Well, they were the progenitors of MTV too. But the article misses one crucial counter-argument. The Temptations and The Supremes might not have written their own stuff or played any instruments on their records. But David Ruffin never sat behind a drum set on national television to give the public the impression that he did! Oh, and the Motown groups all paid their dues thanklessly for at least a few years, and weren’t just told to sing into a microphone like Mickey Dolenz or Davy Jones (ironically, the two Monkees with no prior musical training) for instant, guaranteed success. So the Monkees remain divisive among rock experts, although a consensus is slowly forming in their favor. They were a studio creation designed to capitalize on The Beatles’ success, but over time, the band found their voice, learned to play instruments acceptably, eventually wrote some of their own material, and slowly degenerated into terrible artistic choices (Head) before petering out. And it’s hard to dismiss those great early records. Don Kirshner used the best Brill Building songwriters and a crack team of musicians to create a signature sound indebted to The Beatles and The Byrds but with a joyousness all its own. “I’m a Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “Daydream Believer” are all rightfully iconic. And their records are immensely more listenable than any other teen idol from the 60s. Go ahead, listen to some early Sedaka, or Frankie Avalon, or Bobby Sherman and see if any of them hold up nearly as well. As a group that followed Pinnochio’s trajectory and started out a creation before slowly earning personhood, the Monkees were an inseparable part of the Sixties sound, and introduced countless pre-teens to the world of rock and roll.
54. Sting: #54 and #53 are of a piece. Both are Englishmen who struck out on solo careers after success in a legendary band. Both played unconventional instruments for a lead singer. Both have recorded soundtracks for a Disney animated feature. First, let’s discuss Sting. When Sting was nominated for the Class of 2015, a lot of people were horrified and thought he was undeserving. I don’t think that’s true, but I wonder if a lot of that reaction was an optical illusion. Peter Gabriel had just gotten in the year before, so for Sting, who was manifestly not as important as Gabriel, to possibly get in just one year later seemed a miscarriage of justice. Honestly, it’s not that Sting was inducted too soon, it’s that Gabriel was inducted far later than he should have been. At any rate, here’s my case for Sting. He was an important contributor to world music, and his albums, including Dream of the Blue Turtles, Nothing Like the Sun, Ten Summoners’ Tales, and Brand New Day found ways to incorporate jazz, reggae, folk, and in BND’s case, trance in ways that rarely succeeded in a top 40 format. A lot of people dismiss that and they shouldn’t. If, say, receptionists at dentist’s offices and middle-school English teachers like Sting, why does the critical community treat this as a bad thing? It’s a genuine breakthrough when that happens. And if Sting is a gateway drug to exploring, say, Tosh at #57, or Fela Kuti at #100, so much the better. Oh, and he recorded one of the few really good Christmas albums in the entire rock canon: the evocative If On a Winter’s Night, which cleverly incorporated medieval hymnody and folk songs, when most artists would have done “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow.” Sting’s musicology, his eclectic style, his ability to use music from anywhere in the world without seeming derivative or appropriating, is unparalleled.
53. Phil Collins: This pick is going to seriously piss some people off, but hear me out. Collins was one of the voices that dominated the 1980s, whether you like it or not. His songs formed, in some ways, the spine of the burgeoning adult contemporary format which was, by 1980, trying to distance itself from its earlier reputation as the “Easy Listening” format. Rock and roll is often contemptuous of the old, and Collins found a way to remain in the conversation and keep aging, balding baby boomers engaged in the sphere of the rock tradition as well. Fundamentally, his music spoke to people who were not teenagers and may not have even been young adults anymore, people whose first marriage turned out to be a mistake, and struggled to make sense of their lives between driving their eight-year-old to karate practice and fulfilling their alimony payments. “Take a Look at Me Now,” “One More Night,” and “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” became self-suffering torch songs for that demographic. His songs live on in pop culture infamy: “what the hell is Sussudio”? “Is the drowning from ‘In the Air Tonight’ literal or metaphorical?” “Who is Billy, and why might he lose that number?” And show me anyone who says that they haven’t air-drummed to “Take Me Home,” and I’ll show you a liar. Although the charts don’t make any definitive case, it’s worth remembering that he had 16 top 20 hits, and a few important tracks like “You’ll Be in My Heart” that just missed that goal. Why is Collins higher than his contemporary from The Police? Because “In the Air Tonight” is in the debate for “Best Song of the 1980s” and has one of the most iconic drum parts ever recorded, that’s why. Beat that, Sting!
52. Salt N Pepa: The Hall needs to get around to nominating their first female rap artist eventually. Some people might think that honor should go to Queen Latifah, but I’d advocate for Salt N Pepa. Here’s why. Making it as a female rapper in an industry with rampant, egregious misogyny could not possibly have been easy. They refused to be objectified, demanded respect, and set the terms for themselves- both in their lyrics and in real life. While Madonna was frankly sexual largely to attract attention to herself and generate water-cooler buzz, Salt N Pepa were frankly sexual with a larger purpose in mind. “Let’s Talk About Sex” made lots of parents nervous, but it was a plea for honest communication that abstained from abstinence and talked about sex as a wonderful thing, but warned their fans not to be taken advantage of. In an age of bad PSAs that we all had to watch in Health class in high school, “Let’s Talk About Sex” was funny, daring, and honest. And, of course, their catalog goes even further. “Push It” and “Shoop” found Salt N Pepa (along with DJ Spinderella) reveling in their sexuality in ways girls were not encouraged to do, oggling boys in ways that male rock artists had been oggling women since time immemorial. “None of Your Business” challenged slut-shaming before anybody was even talking about slut-shaming. “Whatta Man,” their collaboration with En Vogue, was the master stroke in all this, a celebration of healthy relationships that never crossed the line into mawkishness. Salt N Pepa were sharp, self-possessed pioneers who took risks, and managed to succeed in the hip-hop world and the pop universe at the same time. It’s time the Hall recognized them as such.
51. Devo: One traumatic moment can change a life. Or two. That’s what happened to Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, two undergraduates at Kent State in 1970. In Casale’s case, he witnessed with his own eyes the moment when the Ohio National Guard turned their rifles on their fellow citizens in a spray of gunfire that killed four and injured many more. Both knew some of the victims. It’s effect on them was profound, imparting on them a sense that humanity was de-evolving into a primative, ersatz state, a philosophy that guided their musical output. Consider “Whip It”: harmless fun, but with sinister hints of violence and fascism (Whip it, after all, is a command, not a request.) Elie Attie of the Washington Post nails it when he says this about their bloodless, synthetic, almost intentionally bad cover of the teenage anthem “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: “it can be seen as a turning point in rock: the moment earnestness melted into irony, the moment that swagger turned to self-consciousness and scrutiny.” Yes! That’s it exactly. And Devo did this by incorporating a rich, though often disturbing, visual element that implied a nuclear holocaust that somehow resulted in everybody wearing the same yellow jumpsuits and stupid red hats. The lyrics were never the point; they were intentionally banal. Go ahead, read the lyrics to “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Mongoloid.” As such, they represented perhaps rock’s most decisive break with the ethos of love and New Left idealism that reigned in the 60s, in favor of cynicism and deconstruction. The only question is: would anyone vote for them? As we’ve seen, a certain amount of nostalgia and sentimentality is behind nearly any Rock Hall induction, and frankly, nobody feels nostalgic for Devo. Unless, of course, your stock portfolio includes hefty investments in yellow jumpsuits and stupid red hats.