As we await the announcement for the Rock Hall’s Class of 2017, I’m going to spend some time looking at the most suspect inductions in the Rock Hall’s history. My friend Darin said that this wasn’t the kind of post that could end well, and he’s probably right. Everybody has their own ideas about who shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame- and many of them are genre-based. Some believe that pure pop acts, like Madonna or ABBA shouldn’t be in- that rock and roll is primarily guitar based. Others see rap, disco, country, and other genres as out of place in a pantheon commemorating the great rock and rollers. A study of rock’s history challenges all that, and none of my choices for the “least deserving” are premised on their not being “rock” enough. In fact, I think everybody in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame qualifies as being broadly in the rock and roll family tree- maybe with the exception of Miles Davis, but I’m willing to let that one go. I believe in a generous orthodoxy, to quote theologian Brian McLaren.
So here’s my picks for the ten least deserving. I realize, of course, that not everyone may agree, and some of these picks are provocative. In general, I looked at the quality of their body of work, and their ability to move the rock and roll narrative forward in some way. I also considered the “value over replacement player” theory from baseball stats- if someone got in when a better artist in their genre is not, I counted that against them. Also, please realize that, with maybe the exception of #10, these aren’t bad artists; they don’t “suck”- many of them had fine careers. But for me, they don’t pass the gossamer threshold of Hall of Fame greatness.
10. Sex Pistols: Okay, this one is going to generate some hate mail. I know how influential the Sex Pistols are. I understand their significance in the punk pantheon. I get how they were an act of dissent against pretentious and unaccessible rock musicianship during the age of prog. Nevertheless, I stand by this choice for the following reasons. 1) They didn’t want to be inducted, and if they are really so set against it, let’s kick ’em out and make room for someone who sees being in the Rock Hall as an honor. 2) An absurdly short lifespan 3) Poor musicianship- in fact arguably the worst musicianship of any Rock Hall inductee. I realize that was the point to a certain extent, but if we take rock and roll partly as an art form, it’s hard to imagine an act less interested in doing it well. 4) There is a certain Monkees-esque fakery to their act, and I am inclined toward the school of rock history that views the Sex Pistols as Malcolm McLaren’s band of little prefabricated dissidents. That’s especially problematic for punk, a movement based first and foremost on authenticity.
9. Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Make no mistake: this is a super-competent, extremely good blues act. The musicianship is top notch, but 1) unlike someone like Stevie Ray, it’s hard to see what they did that is particularly original; they were Chicago blues and that was that; 2) the lack of commercial success, although to an extent, that’s not the point of a blues band. I just don’t think they did enough for a hall of fame C.V. I can see why they might be a tempting choice- they were at Woodstock, and the legendary concert when Dylan went electric. But like some other artists I might name, if one or two prominent figures in the Rock Hall didn’t love them, they’d never get in. They are certainly a group every rock aficionado should be aware of, but they just don’t pass the “Hall of Fame” threshold for me.
8. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Another problematic pick from the Class of 2015. Longtime readers will know I’m a bleeding heart for more women in the Rock Hall. Joan Jett was a rockist’s idea of a “rock and roll woman:” she played guitar, she sneered, she wrecked hotels, and didn’t give a damn what anybody thought. Peel back that image, and there isn’t a whole lot of substance: the covers, the lackluster guitar work, the fairly limited body of work. Yet, because she stood at the nexus of rock and femininity, she was quickly given the fast track into the hall, especially after performing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with the Nirvana rhythm section. (Replay that video; Jett’s vocals are iffy and she’s clearly having trouble with the lyrics.) Given the better, more substantive female rock acts out there, it’s hard to see Jett as essential. Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, The Go-Gos, even her old band The Runaways have more going for them.
7. The Faces/Small Faces: Three years ago, I asked maybe half a dozen Rock Hall watchers which, say, 200 acts belonged in hall. Only three artists who were actually inducted appeared on zero lists. Two of them are at the end of this list. The third was The Faces/Small Faces. Even the tentative manner in which they framed this band, consisting of two distinct eras with two distinct lineups, signals the committee’s confusion on this artist. It seemed more like a cheap (and only half-successful) ploy to get Rod Stewart and Ron Wood to show up to a ceremony. I applaud picking a group that was more popular in England than in the USA- the Rock Hall almost never does that- but the Faces lack a signature hit that more casual listeners will remember, and if you think they should be in on the grounds of influence, why them and not Kraftwerk? Something doesn’t add up.
6. Del Shannon: Tom Lane and I had a short twitter discussion about this choice. He made the best possible case for Del Shannon, but ultimately I need to include him here. He isn’t without merit- his minor key ballads of longing presaged the way for groups like The Zombies. In the end, though, I need a canon of great material. While there are treasures to be mined in Shannon’s catalog (listen to “Keep Searchin'”), we’re talking about a guy whose third best song is called “Hats Off to Larry.”
5. The Dells: Two of my blog’s most loyal followers, Tom L. and Philip, are going to be irritated by this pick. Nevertheless, out of all the four or five 50s vocal groups who are borderline Rock Hall cases, The Dells have the least going for them. I honestly can’t tell what made them stand out from their peers, or what their distinctive calling card might have been. “Oh, What a Night” (not the December, 1963 one) isn’t iconic enough for the “they had lots of memorable songs that form our public consciousness card” that Bill Withers or someone can play. Again- not a bad group, and they had a long and successful touring career they can be proud of. But if they were never inducted, nobody would have noticed their absence.
4. George Harrison: Look, I love The Beatles. My high school graduation speech was about life lessons gleaned from their catalog. George’s death in 2001 was a traumatizing moment during my first semester of college. Nevertheless, the Nom Com got carried away in nominating him for his solo career as a posthumous gesture. Go back into George’s solo career, and you’ll find that a lot of it just isn’t very good. One struggles in vain to look for a Harrison effort that isn’t at least partly tedious, preachy (“The Lord Loves the One Who Loves the Lord,” “Try Some Buy Some”), and overly amused with itself (“Crackerbox Palace,” “This Song.”) Consider Harrison’s languid cover of “Bye Bye Love” with new lyrics to reflect his wife leaving him for Eric Clapton. Even supposed masterpieces like All Things Must Pass are overlong, drenched in echo, and unpleasant to listen to- worse, Harrison just wasn’t committed to being a good artist. He toured twice in 31 years, he failed to improve much as a musician, and when he recorded, it was just an excuse to fart around with his friends in the studio. Harrison’s contributions to The Beatles are deeply underrated, and his work from ’65-’68 to fuse Indian music with the Western Top 40 is maybe the single most interesting facet of The Beatles’ canon during those years for me. But his solo career was a long, dreary, retread of his finest work. I’m not sure how anyone could make Hindu spirituality sound tedious and puritanical, but George found a way.
3. Gene Pitney: As with choice #6, we’re dealing with rock and roll’s supposed “Dark Age” between Buddy Holly’s death and the British Invasion. And with #6, we’re dealing with someone most famous for torch songs about teen angst. Someone had to save us from the “Theme from a Summer Place” and “Pink Shoe Laces,” but Pitney just wasn’t up the task. His songs are a cut above some of the dreadful top 40 material of those years, and “It Hurts To Be in Love” has real promise. I’m fine with more obscure artists getting into the Hall, but Pitney is still a baffling choice given that some real innovators of that era- Dick Dale anyone?- are still waiting for a nomination. Nevertheless, the Nom Com put him on the ballot a Chic-esque 8 times (!) before he finally got through in 2002.
2. Laura Nyro: Many Rock Hall watchers love ragging on the Nom Com. I’m no different, although as the years have passed, I’ve given them a growing benefit of the doubt. This pick, though, is about as clear a case of Nom Com favoritism that you can find. Nyro has historically been a “critic’s pet” and is well-liked by some committee fixtures such as Holly Robinson. It took three nominations, but they finally got Nyro in for the Class of 2012. To put this in perspective, Nyro somehow got more votes that year than Heart, Donna Summer, The Spinners, War, AND The Cure. W.T.F.? To be sure, New York Tendaberry is a great early example of where singer-songwriters were heading in the 1970s, but Nyro was nearly hitless for her own career. The fact that many of her songs- “Eli’s Coming,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “And When I Die”- delivered for other people underscores how misplaced she was. I’d have had no problem with Nyro inducted as a non-performer/songwriter. But for her to get in as an artist when Carole King, Carly Simon, Nina Simone, and Emmylou Harris are not is a crying shame.
1. Percy Sledge: If there’s one thing that most Rock Hall specialists agree on, it’s that Sledge is the single fishiest Rock Hall inductee. It’s a classic mixture of 1) favoritism- Little Stevie Van Zandt had Sledge perform “When a Man Loves a Woman” at his wedding and wanted to do him a solid. Dave Marsh is also a huge fan. 2) insider clubbiness- during those years, Ahmet Ertegum was still on the Nom Com, and Sledge recorded for Atlantic Records. And so, a guy with one top ten hit- a guy whose other material is forgettable to everyone except hardcore record collectors- a guy who wasn’t even an especially great performer- a guy whose only hit has an inexplicably out-of-tune horn section- got in on his first nomination.
Other artists I considered were: Brenda Lee, Clyde McPhatter, The Moonglows, Buffalo Springfield, Lavern Baker, Little Willie John, Richie Valens, Traffic, KISS (they’re a QVC broadcast more than a functioning band) and the Dave Clark Five.
What do you think? Is Alex Voltaire off his rocker? Let me know (gently, I would prefer) in the comments below.