We’ve made it past the halfway point, and continue our upward trajectory to the very greatest Rock Hall prospects. This particular group is a bit more classic rock-heavy than other entries, but if this series has tried to convey anything, it’s that artists from all kinds of genres deserve serious consideration for the Hall of Fame, as long as their pedigree traces back in some form to those 1950s pioneers. There’s only one previous nominee in this batch, only one woman unfortunately, and just one potential member of the Clyde McPhatter Club.
Also, I want to add my voice to the chorus of those mourning the loss of Glenn Frey of The Eagles. As someone who loves 1970s AM-radio rock with lush harmonies, The Eagles were always a favorite of mine. The opening act of the first rock concert I attended was Jack Tempchin, who co-wrote “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Already Gone,” “You Belong to the City,” and other songs that Glenn made part of our lives. I remember seeing The Eagles in 2003, with a close friend who had just come out as gay and was afraid I would disapprove because I went to an evangelical college. It was an incredible show that ended up reinforcing our friendship. I remember being part of the Odyssey of the Mind program in high school, which involves a group of 7 or so students putting on ten-minute skits with bizarre requirements. Ours my senior year required, among other criteria, that the skit include a bird from a work of art. Naturally, we chose The Eagles, construing the rules broadly to include popular music. I played Don Henley and my buddy Nate played Glenn Frey, who we both portrayed as forgetful old men in a nursing home. Unfortunately, Frey won’t get to become an old man, and we are all the poorer for it.
Finally, I wanted to say that this may be the last time I’m able to post on this series for a few weeks. I’m flying to Singapore to start the Spring 2016 semester, I’m finishing a book manuscript for the University of Massachusetts Press, and I’m putting together a panel for the American Historical Association conference. As much as I love Rock Hall discussion, my attention needs to turn elsewhere for a short while. But I will be back.
50. Jane’s Addiction: Why is Jane’s Addiction in the Top 50, you ask? I can sum up the argument in their favor with one word: Lollapalooza. I can’t overstate how important the festival scene was to understanding how the music of the 90s worked, and Lollapolooza was, in its way, as important to Generation X as Woodstock was to Baby Boomers. It was a watershed moment of coming together, and Jane’s Addiction organized the festival and headlined its first itineration. Wry, ironic, and yet not without feeling, they perfectly embodied the cynicism and the rejection of mainstream ethos that personified their era and that particular concert scene. Their songs were engrossing and gripping, and almost trance-inducing, best seen in “Classic Girl” and “Jane Says.” They were present at the creation of alternative music, but were always within that segment of alternative that cleaved closer to metal than indie. Longevity is not in their favor: they only recorded two studio albums before their first break-up, but the Rock Hall is filled with influential groups that burned brightly for only a short time before going supernova: Velvet Underground, Cream, Guns N Roses. Although on the surface, Jane’s Addiction seems like a far-fetched choice, the Hall inducted a similar funk-metal band in Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they have iconic personalities in singer Perry Farrell and guitarist Dave Nararro which always seems to helps one’s induction prospects.
49. De La Soul: This ensemble represents hip-hop’s great road not taken. At a time when N.W.A. dominated the rap scene, De La Soul offered a very different worldview, as did others in the Native Tongues collective that we explored during A Tribe Called Quest’s section. The Daily Beast had a useful way to categorize De La Soul: alternative hip-hop. If you view alternative rock, like the aforementioned Jane’s Addiction, as a recourse against the dominant strand of rock represented by Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, with big hair and screeching guitars, De La Soul did something similar for hip-hop. If you were put off by the violent overtones of N.W.A. or the politicizing of Public Enemy, De La Soul emerged as a viable alternative to empty boasting and thug life. It’s vision was a kind of countercultural ethos that owed a lot to the 1960s, and was epitomized by the D.A.I.S.Y. (Da Inner Sound, Y’All) philosophy that effused their debut effort, 3 Feet High and Rising. “Me, Myself, and I” was idiosyncratic, self-deprecating, and ponderous. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if De La Soul was the guiding force of 90s hip-hop, rather than Tupac and Biggie. But De La Soul always struggled with its hippie reputation, and seemed to bristle against being a hip-hop group that white kids in suburbia could relate to. Their very next album was called De La Soul is Dead and featured a broken daisy pot on the cover. Although they’ve disbanded and reunited a couple times- and most notably resurfaced in Gorillaz’s “Feel Good, Inc.” about a decade ago- their excellence during their time and place can’t be forgotten. If Public Enemy was “Street CNN” then De La Soul was something like “Street Wavy Gravy,” not entirely serious but effusing an ethos of fraternal love. Oh, by the way, Questlove idolizes De La Soul and dedicated multiple pages to his memoir Mo’ Meta Blues to talking about how great they were. And Quest usually gets what he wants, so I wouldn’t shortchange their chances of a nomination.
48. Roxy Music: Bryan Ferry and the other denizens of Roxy Music took their art school training and treated the rock and roll community to something really special. Originally, their erratic stage act made them a natural fit for glam, but that puts them in a box more narrow than they deserve. Art-rock is often used more often to describe their sound, but with the rich synthesizers (played, at first, by Brian Eno), they also paved the way for new wave. Unlike many groups in their dojo, they had a strong sense of rhythm (listen to that bassline in “Love Is the Drug.”) With highbrow lyrical references, and a style of dress that hearkened back to the 1950s, they were utterly baffling, but no one can question their influence. Duran Duran, The Cars, and even Nile Rogers of Chic have all praised Roxy Music and credited them as an inspiration to their sound, as do more contemporary groups like Franz Ferdinand and Scissor Sisters. Their atonal synth solos influenced Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo. Second-generation art rockers like Talking Heads and Cabaret Voltaire (no relation to myself) praise them to high heavens. I’ll be honest, this is another group I just don’t care for personally, but I have no trouble seeing how influential they were to countless other artists, for combining glam sensibilities with a high artistic pedigree and making significant inroads for electronic-based sound. If you think Roxy Music is listed too low, I can offer you partial recompense: a prospect is coming up in a future installment that will make up for it.
47. Can: Occasionally, mistakes cancel each other out. I originally put the Spencer Davis Group in this spot before I replayed some of their stuff, and realized that “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m A Man” were their only good songs. I panicked. Then I realized that I could put a band that I just clean forgot about in their place: hence, Can. Starting out in psychedelia, they dabbled in funk, avant-garde, and experimental sounds, and are considered foundational to any serious discussion of krautrock. Almost jazz-like, they highly valued improvisation, getting into a groove and editing the best parts of their reveries into the final track. Their extended, even hypnotic approach to laying down tracks in some ways laid the groundwork for trance. Listen to a track like “Sing Swan Song” from Ege Bamyasi, an utterly captivating sonic soundscape that draws you in with its exotic touches and its sense of the moment. But alas, the Rock Hall is not kind to artists who fall out of the Anglophone axis, even though their influence is wide and deep like Roxy Music’s. One can name a boatload of Indie and post-punk artists who looked up to them: The Fall, Public Image, Ltd., The Stone Roses, Pavement, Joy Division, Spoon, and even heavy hitters like David Bowie and Talking Heads. Unfortunately for them, Can faces an Autobahn-sized hurdle for even getting nominated: they have zero chance until Kraftwerk gets in. And while the Nom Com has done right by Kraftwerk, the voting committee just isn’t having it. Can deserves to be on this list, and I was in the wrong for forgetting them in the first place. Sorry, Mr. Winwood.
46. Electric Light Orchestra: ELO has its advocates, with a corps of devoted fans who enjoy their radio-friendly singles from the 1970s. They wracked up a number of memorable hits that often had classical sensibilities and came from Jeff Lynne’s love of The Beatles, especially their production values. “Mr. Blue Sky,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “Evil Woman,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” the list goes on and on. What I respect about ELO is that they captured the one element of The Beatles that most of their admirers forgot: the ability to surprise with a striking change in tempo, a bridge when you least expect it, an instrumental solo from an instrument you weren’t expecting to hear. Lynne knew, and had a deep reverence for, rock’s beginnings, as suggested by his work alongside a number of now-deceased legends: Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Del Shannon. With a multitudinous membership, and longstanding acrimony stemming from Lynne’s heavy-handed tactics, the question of who shows up will cause Cleveland some headaches. Still, given the number of people Lynne has worked with over the years: McCartney, Starr, Petty, Duane Eddy, Brian Wilson, Joe Walsh– ELO shouldn’t have any trouble getting in once they make it to the ballot.
45. The Guess Who: Here’s the problem attendant to any discussion of Rock Hall prospects. Many of us are geared toward praising bands that were underground darlings, genre-crossers, or inspired a bevy of future musicians. The Guess Who, frankly, don’t fit any of those criteria. They were a solid, successful, utterly listenable band that wrote and performed great songs with remarkable consistency: “These Eyes,” “Laughing,” “No Time,” “Share the Land,” and one of my favorites, “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature.” And that’s to say nothing of their magnum opus, “American Woman,” rightly remembered as an iconic indictment of the military-industrial complex at a time when the U.S. had illegally invaded Cambodia. So, why is Guess Who on the list, and not, say, Bad Company? Because Guess Who are absolute legends- no, rock and roll gods– in Canada. Seriously. I could probably get anybody in Calgary to lend me $20 by lauding the excellence of Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings. As an act of international diplomacy, at the very least, their induction would secure good relations with our neighbor to the north for a generation or two. If we accept the premise that the Rock Hall exists not just to educate but to edify as well, let’s give these workmanlike Canucks a well-deserved enshrinement.
44. War: They’ve been nominated three times before, in three-year increments (2009, 2012, and 2015), although they’ve fallen short on each occasion. War was innovative, cool, urban, and found both commercial and critical plaudits. After a chance meeting with Jerry Goldstein (who was involved with the Angels, Strangeloves, and McCoys, a kind of lucky charm for 60’s second-stringers), he agreed to be their manager and crucially introduced them to Eric Burdon of the Animals. They recorded some great tracks including the legendary “Spill the Wine.” When Burdon left, most people assumed that War’s meal ticket had gone with it, but War persevered and became even greater in Burdon’s absence. With strong latin influences, with funk rhythms and jazz sensibilities, War defied genre categories. They recorded one of the better albums from the 1970s (The World is a Ghetto), which included some of the decade’s best “deep tracks”: “The Cisco Kid,” and “Four-Cornered Room.” And, of course, they are responsible for “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” and the most overplayed song in the history of television commercials: “Low Rider.” But “Low Rider’s” descent into cliche shouldn’t make us forget its original greatness, and it’s doubling of the harmonica and sax line was absolutely brilliant. War’s heyday was a watershed movement in the history of R&B, where genre lines and racial boundaries were blurred and easily traversed. You can complain about the Nom Com all you want, and you’ll probably be right, but they absolutely made the right choice by recognizing War with three nominations. Let’s hope the fourth time is the charm.
43. Big Mama Thornton: I’m about to break one of my own rules. My policy was “if you peaked before 1954, you’re an Early Influence, not a straight-up rock and roll performer.” There is one and exactly one exception I’m making: Big Mama Thornton. When you are recording a Leiber-Stoller song called “Hound Dog,” it doesn’t matter if it’s only 1953; you’ve crossed the boundary into rock and roll. Moreover, she was a witness to the first and perhaps most shocking death in the annals of rock and roll: Johnny Ace’s self-inflicted gunshot wound when playing Russian roulette. A blueswoman from way back, her songs were imbued with deep suffering and profound soul, but weren’t without some sly winks to the audience, and often a greater sense of joyousness. Kind of like B.B. King or Muddy Waters’ blues work, she adopts a persona that her songs of suffering are built around, often with more of a tinkling piano than a wailing guitar. Give “Rolling Stone,” and “Gonna Leave You” a spin, and you’ll see what I mean. She was brassy, powerful, and kick-ass in an age where female performers were expected to be demure. Are you a rockist who insists that you need to write your own songs and play an instrument to be a real rock and roller? Guess what: Big Mama played harmonica and drums and wrote many of her songs. One of them was “Ball and Chain,” obviously made even more famous by Janis Joplin down the road.
42. Warren Zevon: There are few figures in the legendarium of rock and roll with a catalog of songs as rich and distinctive as that of Warren Zevon. His body of work is typified by dark, morose, ironic, and sick humor, with flecks of rich characterization and surprising emotional authenticity that was never too far from the surface. For every comical satire of U.S. foreign policy (“Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”), there’s a sweet “Keep Me in your Heart” or a regretful “Accidentally Like a Martyr.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that he didn’t do anything beyond “Werewolves of London.” If there’s anything counting against him, it’s that much of his appeal is that of an insider. Rock and roll musicians, experts, and critics tend to love him, while even his best efforts were rarely better than mediocre in their chart performance. He also has a probable advocate in the form of Paul Shaffer, a close friend who might well honor his boss David Letterman’s wish that Zevon be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. In the same way that Randy Newman, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits cruised to relatively easy inductions, Zevon is very much in that vein. Assuming he isn’t up against 7 classic rock bands, he’d probably get in on his first ballot apperance.
41. Motorhead: Philip over at Rock Hall Monitors has a useful phrase for when a recent death increases someone’s likelihood of getting into the Rock Hall: the “Death Fairy.” Sometimes, the Death Fairy’s morbid magic works, as we saw in the cases of Lou Reed and Donna Summer, or to go back even further in Rock Hall history, George Harrison, Frank Zappa, and even Ricky Nelson. Arguably all of these figures got into the Rock Hall ahead of schedule because their untimely deaths reminded everyone why they were so important to the rock scene. So it may prove with Motorhead. Blessed with one of the great frontmen, the hard-living Lemmy Kilmister, they were one of the finest metal bands to have graced rock and roll. So much of their music, in “Ace of Spades,” in “Overkill,” in “Marching Off to War,” is foundational to their genre: the thrashing guitar style, partly borrowed from punk. Metal went in more ornate and elaborate directions in those years, but Motorhead kept their own body of work closer to stripped-down rock and roll, with a relentless drum beat keeping its songs in forward motion. They produced an enviable body of work, and earned wide industry respect that often belied the mainstream music press’s disdain of heavy metal. Dave Grohl told a story at Lemmy’s funeral about his daughter meeting the famous frontman. He talked glowingly about how the iconic rock star put out his cigarette, and authentically switched personas when addressing his daughter, unwilling to be a bad example to a small child. The outpouring of stories like this in the wake of Lemmy’s death- as well as equally great stories of Lemmy’s debauchery- make it a very real possibility that Motorhead might be the next metal artist in the Hall, now that Deep Purple is in.