We arrive at our penultimate installation of our Rock Hall Prospect series, looking at the 100 artists currently eligible for the Hall (Class of 2016 or earlier). I didn’t plan it this way intentionally, but one theme that stands out in this batch is its very distinct 1980s flavor. In fact, possibly 9 out of the 10 following artists (either clearly or arguably) peaked at some time in that decade. Again, this isn’t by design on my part, but nevertheless, it does show that the Rock Hall has neglected some of the most iconic artists from that time period, as it whittles away at the 1960s and 1970s C-lists. Although these are some of our most highly-ranked contenders, the Rock Hall isn’t quite in agreement: only 4 have been nominated previously.
I have also updated the links sidebar on my site, getting rid of defunct or dormant pages, and including some newer ones, including an excellent blog that serves as a digital archive of Horizons, my favorite Disney attraction.
20. Weird Al Yankovic: It’s quite likely that some readers think Weird Al is placed too high, or maybe should not be on the list at all. Let me explain my case as best I can. Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia takes place across several decades, and in every scene features a tortoise, the sole creature with the longevity to witness to the entire narrative as it unfolds. In a lot of ways, Weird Al was like that tortoise. As trend after trend unfolded, as political and cultural events marched through the landscape of history, as movies and television shows came and went, Weird Al was there, resiliently bursting their bubble and busting their balls. Some of the acts he lampooned were ushered into the rock and roll pantheon: Nirvana, Madonna, and Green Day are but a few of the artists whose legitimacy was validated by the fact that Weird Al made fun of them. Others fell by the wayside, as he parodied forgotten mooks like Men Without Hats and Gerardo. But the craziest thing of all was that Weird Al kept getting better. Eventually the songs about food and television gave way to funny, but slyly insightful material. “Party in the CIA” took on the national security state in a way no serious song could. “Whatever U Like” was the smartest take I heard on the 2008 economic collapse, and “Skipper Dan” was a strangely affecting meditation on broken dreams, where a Julliard-trained actor ends up as the guide on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise.” Way back in my intro to this series, I described one of my chief criteria as “zeitgeist,” the ineffable quality of representing one’s time. Almost every person who was a fourteen-year-old boy at some point between Al’s debut and the present remembers a time when he was the funniest person he knew. Watching the video for “Amish Paradise” for the first time was one of my ten most cherished music memories of all time. And other people can say the same for the first time they heard “Eat It” or the time they came across “White and Nerdy” on youtube. Last year, Al debuted his last conventional album from a brick-and-mortar record label, ending an over 30-year trajectory where he entered our homes through MTV, and concluded with Mandatory Fun. Al realized that he had even managed to outlive the record industry itself. Al is the tortoise, man. Al is the tortoise.
19. Duran Duran: What made the 1980s so memorable? I would argue that it’s partly the visual element brought about by MTV, but it is also the tension between mainstream rock and alternative rock- between bravado and vulnerability, between “rocking pretty hard” and reaching out to various outcasts, drifters, and slackers. Duran Duran didn’t always make a good impression, but they brought back the ethos of snotty rock star behavior to heights not seen since the Rolling Stones’ prime. (My favorite moment was when they sued their own fan club in 2014.) In spite of themselves, they helped construct the fabric of their decade more fully than almost any artist not yet in the Hall. I was searching for the right way to characterize them, and an article from the Guardian finally gave me the right framework: they were escapism. “Girls on Film” and other songs in their canon flaunt riches they didn’t yet have, and their videos used exotic locales most of their fans could only hope to visit one day, in the midst of dreary Thatcherism. It worked: “Hungry Like the Wolf” is vintage early 1980s, “Rio” is utterly classic, and “Ordinary World” as mature a pop ballad as any. But you need some quality beyond “having lots of hits” and “rocking pretty hard.” Ultimately, Duran Duran pointed toward the directions pop music would go: sarcastically earnest, assisted by electronics, and beholden to supplementing the music with videos.
18. Kate Bush: She did us all an immense favor by making art rock actually sound intimate. A wunderkind protege of David Gilmour, Bush developed into a consummate artist. She took the ambitious scope and artistry of prog and had the gall to make it sensual. “Wuthering Heights” is more than just another prog piece with literary pretensions; Bush injects both haunting spiritualism and carnal yearning into the mix. Or consider one of my favorite tracks- not just of hers, but of anyone’s- “The Man with the Child In His Eyes.” She wrote that when she was 13, but it’s one of the most natural, emotionally resonant pieces I’ve heard from any artist. Overall, her work kicked 80s British songwriting in directions it needed to go: the jaunty choruses (“Babushka”), the expressionism, the girl power (“Wuthering Heights” was the first song written and performed by a woman to be a UK #1.) Most female songwriters were of the slower, more introspective type. Bush made it possible for one to be innovative, techie, and smart as well; Lady Gaga probably owes Kate Bush far more than she will ever owe Madonna. Unfortunately, most of her hits were in Great Britain, and we all know what the Rock Hall thinks of acts that only made a big splash on the other side of the pond. Still, on the heels of a triumphant series of concert performances- her first in over thirty years, in fact- Kate Bush is back, and a Rock Hall nomination would be a great way to celebrate one of its great visionaries.
17. The Cars: When The Cars received a surprise nomination in October, many music fans were cheered by this accolade. The Cars, after all, managed to be both entirely presentist and fully backward-looking when they hit their peak as the 70s turned to the 80s. They mastered the new wave use of synth with the economy of punk. And yet, their simple, straightforward name for themselves hearkened back to rock’s earliest roots. The titles of their songs, like “My Best Friend’s Girl,” made rock and roll music about being a teenager again. From their rockabilly-throwback guitar solos to their reliance on catchy riffs, they were fun without being silly, good songwriters without fretting about authenticity, and embraced mainstream success without ever seeming to sell out. That’s a tough balance to strike, let alone doing so with lyrics that were, as Bob Stanley put it, “worthy of Buddy Holly” in their effective simplicity. This Boston band was one of rock and roll’s great success stories of its time, and a no-brainer for Rock Hall induction. I frankly wish they had gotten in this year instead of maybe Cheap Trick and Deep Purple, but that, as they say, is life.
16. L.L. Cool J.: L.L. Cool J is significant for, I think, two reasons. Firstly, his debut marked the moment where rap focused chiefly on the rapper, something that seems intuitive today, but in it’s earlier days was much more of a dynamic partnership between a rapper and the deejay (see, for example, Eric B. & Rakim). This doubled with the growing significance of the rapper as a solo artist, not as part of a posse- other than outliers like Wu-Tang Clan, we haven’t seen too many ensembles succeed for more than a brief moment in time. Ultimately, L.L. Cool J. brought more braggadocio and swagger to rap- listen to “Mama Said Knock You Out” one more time, and it’s words apart from the slower, chiller approach of the Furious Five or Rakim. In essence, he epitomized a moment where rap transitioned from “street CNN” to self-promotion mixed with personal introspection. (consider, for example, some of his 90s work, where he unpacks the trauma of seeing his father shoot his mother and grandfather.) This all actually leads to my second point, L.L. Cool J’s work to make rap mainstream. When Kanye or Jay-Z or Eminem records go multiple platinum rather than mere gold, that’s because people like Cool J. blazed the trail of mainstream acceptance. Sometimes it didn’t work- the ballads on 1989’s Walking with a Panther were toxic in hip-hop circles and almost killed his career in the cradle. More recently, he collaborated with Brad Paisley on “The Accidental Racist.” It was one of the most clueless tracks I had heard in a long time- it compared centuries of institutional racism and labor theft with Paisley’s…um…discomfiture with ghetto culture, I guess. I actually use that song to illustrate the concept of “false equivalency” in my classes. It singlehandedly torpedoed his candidacy for the Class of 2014. But when L.L. Cool J. connected, he really connected, and managed to turn rap and hip-hop into a part of the national vernacular.
15. Journey: I’ve been religiously following Rock Hall affairs for a little over two years now, and maybe one element that always bothers me at some level is the occasional contempt that I perceive for mainstream rock and roll and it’s fans. Everybody wants to be a Sonic Youth fan, nobody admits to liking Journey. I’ll be the first to grant you that much of more radio-oriented rock isn’t carefully crafted, or especially memorable. Yet, there is a denial of what these acts mean to their listeners. I spent four summers during college working in the assignment department at the phone company. (Back when people had landlines, these were the individuals who assigned you a phone number when you moved into the area, and programmed your account to have features such as 3-way calling or Caller ID.) My co-workers were almost all women in their 40s, born in the early 1960s, whose education did not go further than high school. Most were named Debbie or Tina. It’s distressingly easy for critics to dismiss their tastes as a lowbrow gumbo of NASCAR, Red Lobster, and above all, Journey. That would be deeply in error. For many in this category, Journey takes on an almost mythic significance. “Don’t Stop Believing'” is their Iliad, Steve Perry is their Homer. Journey made more household-name songs than perhaps anybody on my list of 100: “Lovin’, Touchin’ Squeezin’,” “Faithfully,” “Open Arms,” “Any Way You Want It.” Writing memorable songs with strong hooks isn’t as easy as it looks, and to do that a dozen times with songs that still resound on classic rock radio today is a remarkable accomplishment. After all, “Don’t Stop Believing,” a track over 30 years old, is the most downloaded song of all time. As I said in my earlier posts, “Zeitgeist” is one factor I take into consideration, and as far as influencing its time and place, Journey’s power ballads and arena rock had an impact as deep as it was wide.
14. Eurythmics: While we’re on the topic of major 80s hitmakers, you can’t discount Eurythmics. Somewhere in the meeting point of synth-pop and new wave, this duo harnessed the possibilities that were germinating in electronic popular music, but gave it a distinctive emotive feel and artistic flair. David Stewart’s arrangements and technical wizardry was part of that equation, but probably more of their success was due to the singular talent of Annie Lennox. Her ethereal, husky, and above all soulful voice, her sharp androgynous look, and the surprising vulnerability that she brought to songs like “Here Comes the Rain Again” made them perhaps the most successful new wave artist, even if Talking Heads was the most critically acclaimed. Lennox was exactly what top 40 needed at the time- a brassy, commanding voice and a strong visual presence to navigate the early MTV era, best seen in that immortal video for “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This.)” I almost feel like the duet with Aretha, “Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves” was a kind of passing of the torch, not just between generations, but between genres as well.
13. Chic: Who else could be at the unlucky #13 spot than Chic? Chic has now been nominated and rejected 10 times, more than any other artist. Some of those nominations were, in my opinion, foolish ones– what was the Nom Com thinking by putting two disco artists on the same ballot year after year, when Donna Summer and Chic took votes away from one another? Every year, we think something- Nile Rogers’s cancer scare, or Pharrell Williams’ success with the Rogers-produced “Get Lucky”- will push them over the top, but to no avail. That’s a shame, really. Chic, in their time, revolutionized dance music and the production of top 40 pop. They came together with a knowledge of how to build a compelling sonic palette (it’s not a coincidence that Rogers and Bernie Edwards met as musicians for a stage production of Sesame Street, which specialized in packaging soul and R&B songs for the masses. Witness “The Skin I’m In” or even the famous Philly-Soul pinball sequence.) In their time, they mattered: “Le Freak,” “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Good Times” were fundaments of 70s R&B-turned-disco, and we easily forget that the first purpose of rock and roll was music for dancing and movement, not music for listening alone with a fancy set of noise-canceling headphones. Since those halcyon disco days, the importance of Chic remains intact- Rogers-produced work, and even the recent “Uptown Funk” that was #1 for over ten weeks are linear descendants of the groove-based, non-linear sound devised by this ensemble. Make fun of disco all you want if it makes you feel like a big man, but know this: it was one of the only safe spaces for persons of color and gay, lesbian and gender-queer individuals during it’s time. Chic’s rhythmic emphasis, its inspiration of hundreds of hip-hop beats, and its ingenious banality that made all welcome on the dance floor are lasting contributions to the rock and roll story.
12. The Cure: The Cure is adamant that they are not a goth band, but their influence over other goth bands and emo bands, which often challenge traditional masculinity, cannot be overstated. Tracks like “Boys Don’t Cry” fundamentally rethought gender relationships in the rock and roll universe. With the wild-haired Robert Smith fronting the group, they embraced teenage melancholy and loss, the sadder side of what the Cars did at #17, as evinced in “Just Like Heaven” and “Lovesong.” For all their mopey reputation, they were also far more stylistically diverse than popular memory affords. Listen to the slightly jazzy “Lovecats,” or the poppy “Friday I’m In Love,” or the synth-heavy “Lullaby” that unexpectedly used some reggae rhythms for emphasis. These were genuinely great musicians, not a bunch of whiners in mascara. Given how their dark tones, dreary spirituality, and intense brooding had an impact on underground acts for decades since, The Cure is an essential non-mainstream choice for the Rock Hall. If, of course, we’re judging things by influence over a lifestyle or subculture, rather than total records sold. They were nominated in 2012, but they were up against Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Guns N Roses. (Absurdly, Laura Nyro and The Small Faces, only two of the Rock Hall’s worst choices, also got in that year.) Although the Nom Com has turned elsewhere in recent years, they’ll be back on the ballot before long.
11. Iron Maiden: My friend Dani works in New York State politics and has a mantra she recites to herself around Election Night: “signs don’t vote, but people do.” In other words, don’t confuse enthusiastic, outward professions of support with the overall atmosphere beneath the surface, where a candidate with quieter supporters may prevail. If Rock Hall inductions were determined by t-shirt sales, or raw fan devotion, Iron Maiden would have gotten in a long time ago. I’ll say this: Iron Maiden may be the most successful heavy metal band behind Metallica, in terms of records sold and in maintaining a devoted fan base. They didn’t invent metal, certainly, but they did refine it, figure out its aesthetic, and give it a manifesto that it lacked before. There isn’t much politics in Black Sabbath, except of the most nebulous kind. “Run to the Hills,” however, is a chilling track about the extermination of the American Indian, one that counters the stereotype of metal being thoughtless head-banging music. Through all this, Iron Maiden has clung on to relevance and longevity, still selling out stadiums decades after their prime. That they did this without much mainstream radio play or MTV exposure is a testament to word of mouth and the community- both real and virtual- that metal fans have created for one another. While some metal fans can cleave to a narrow, Eddie Trunk-like point of view that views metal as the culmination and fulfillment of rock and roll, metal-heads are right about one thing: Iron Maiden is a serious snub of the higher order. Now that Deep Purple is in, perhaps Iron Maiden will finally have their chance at a nomination.
And now- all that’s left is the top ten! Anybody want to take some guesses as to which artists made it, and in what order?