Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Last time, I listed 20 ideal recipients of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Musical Excellence Award. I am now going to pivot to Non-Performers. In doing so, I realize that there is a fine, sometimes arbitrary line between these categories. I suppose many of these individuals are performers in some aspect or another. But their work behind the scenes took priority. In no particular order, my 15 picks for Non-Performers for the Rock Hall’s consideration.

  1. Robert Moog: Um…he invented the electronic synthesizer. Even if EDM isn’t your bag, imagine Depeche Mode, or Van Halen’s “Jump”, or 70s art rock or Abbey Road without this remarkable instrument. He’s in the Inventors Hall of Fame– so why not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
  2. Rick Rubin: What a great career, what an eclectic mastery of production. He started Def Jam, an institutional pillar of hip-hop. He produced great albums for artists all over the map, ranging from Jay Z to The Black Keys to Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Tom Petty to…ah, you can look it up for yourself. Put this man in the hall.
  3. Sylvia Robinson: I’m shocked that her life hasn’t been made into a musical at this point. She started out as half of the Mickey & Sylvia duo that had a hit with “Love Is Strange” back in the 1950s. Flash forward 15 years, and a largely forgotten starlet has lightning strike a second time. She records some music with Al Green and scores an R&B #1 with “Pillow Talk,” one of the first true disco records. Using money from her recent success, she starts Sugarhill Records, and ends up producing the first rap song to break into the public consciousness, “Rapper’s Delight”– strapping on a bass herself to emulate the famous Chic bass line. Goes on to produce “The Message” for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Holy Crap.
  4. Alan Lomax: It’s the 1930s and America is in the midst of the Depression. One of the cleverer moves of the New Deal was to give artists and intelligentsia something to do in hopes the they wouldn’t foment a bloody revolution out of ennui and material deprivation. Accordingly, Alan Lomax and his father John, two ethnomusicologists, were dispatched down South to study the music of rural- and particularly black- America. His oral history projects allowed Jelly Roll Morton and other artists to record their thoughts in addition to their recordings. His radio shows broadcast folk music and so-called “race music’ to the rest of the country, the conduit by which many Americans became aware of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly.
  5. Burt Bacharach & Hal David: One reason this famous songwriting team hasn’t gotten in is because their compositions evoke cocktail hour, plastic on the furniture, and beehive hairdos on housewives. View them, if you like, as the progenitors of adult contemporary, music informed by rock and roll designed for older listeners. Hey, that’s how Journey got in. And Bacharach-David compositions hold up just as well: “Baby, It’s You,” “Walk On By,” “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” “Wishing and Hoping,” “I Say A Little Prayer for You.” Milquetoast songs, perhaps, but that’s partly because of who recorded them. Listen to Aretha’s “Little Prayer” and you’ll hear the power that’s dormant in these compositions.
  6. Joe Meek: When I was an 18-year-old studying in London, little did I know that every time I walked by Holloway Road on my way to the Highbury & Islington tube stop, I was passing by rock and roll’s holy ground. Using electronic wizardry with a  homemade control panel, Joe Meek is credited with the development of reverb, extensive multi-tracking, physically separating instruments during the recording process, and sampling in his nondescript studio on Holloway Road. Paranoid, drug-adled, and a gay man during a time when same-sex acts were still illegal in the UK, Meek did not live an easy or serene life. He ultimately killed his landlady before turning the trigger on himself. Strangely, Nick Moran’s film Telstar barely moved the dial on raising awareness of this singular visionary.
  7. Bob Geldof: One of the elements of rock and roll’s story that I most appreciate is its charitable and beneficent impulses. Live Aid and Band Aid were overblown, overhyped, and rightly mocked by Faith No More’s “We Care A Lot.” Most of the money didn’t get to the people it was intended for in Africa. Worse, much of the largesse ended up in the hands of the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu, who used much of  Live Aid’s beneficence to build the largest army in Africa. For better or worse, Geldof epitomizes the rock star as a saint, a patron, a champion of a good cause. As one Atlantic article notes, Geldof’s Live Aid efforts “raised questions about the efficacy of celebrities advocating for foreign aid, but it also undoubtedly changed the nature of fundraising by introducing the factor of high visibility thanks to celebrity philanthropists.” Did it matter? Consider the take of Chris Martin of Coldplay: ““It made my generation feel like caring for the world was part of the remit. Rock and roll doesn’t have to be detached from society.”
  8. Don Cornelius: Questlove has allegedly already got his sights on inducting this Soul Train maestro. For over two decades, Cornelius brought the best of R&B into American televisions. In so doing, he broadened Philadelphia soul, 80s R&B, and (reluctantly) hip-hop beyond black and urban environments. Over the years, EW&F, The Spinners, Mary J. Blige, Patti LaBelle, The O’Jays, Lenny Kravitz, Run-DMC…you name it, they were aboard the Soul Train at some point in their careers.
  9. Wolfman Jack: American Graffiti probably immortalized him as the very voice of rock and roll for a certain generation. His canus lupus schtick was always a reminder of rock and roll’s primal power and barely concealed camp. Deejays are an overlooked part of the rock and roll story, and honoring the Wolfman would be a powerful corrective.
  10. Butch Vig: If we’re going to run the board on producers, let’s get Vig in the hall, huh? If we’re going to induct the best 90s grunge bands, it’s sensible to include the dean of 90s grunge producers. That was Butch Vig behind the panel on Nevermind, Siamese Dream, and other classics of that era. When you consider grunge’s obsession with personal authenticity, producing for its darlings must have been one of the greatest challenges in the industry during the early 90s.
  11. Florence Greenberg: Imagine how challenging it must have been to start your own record label as a woman in the early 60s.  (It wasn’t easy.) But let’s say you go for it, and then your daughter finds a group of classmates to record for you who ultimately call themselves The Shirelles. You sell their record contract to Decca but stay on as their manager. (Do you know any other female managers for musicians during that era? I don’t.) But- surprise!- Decca has no idea how to market four black teenage girls. So, Decca lets the girls go, you start another record label, promote the hell out of them with the meager resources at your disposal, and get kickass songwriters like Luther Dixon and Carole King to write material for them. Group goes on to record “Baby, It’s You,” “Boys,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and one of the single best recordings of the early 60s, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”
  12. Joel Whitburn: Sometimes, a great hobby can turn into an incredible career. Whitburn collected the Billboard charts faithfully as a teen in the 1950s, charting the rise and fall of records with passion of a fanboy and the thoroughness of a Supreme Court clerk. In the decades since, Whitburn became perhaps the single biggest authority on music charts. I’ll bet that every time a radio station has noted a record’s peak position on the charts, or how long it’s been on the Hot 100, they are citing some research that had its origins with Whitburn.
  13. Bernie Taupin: Look, when I wrote my 100 Greatest Elton John songs series five years ago on this blog, I took a number of justifiable shots at Bernie. He invented the word “Turtlesque,” “Indian Sunset” is riddled with anachronisms, and the level of misogyny was shocking even for the mid-70s (“Dirty Little Girl,” “Island Girl,” “All the Girls Love Alice,” etc.) Nevertheless, you can’t induct Elton John without Bernie Taupin. At his best, Taupin was startlingly fresh, earnest, and daring. When you consider that lyrics about Elton’s temper (“The Bitch Is Back”), a gender-bending glam rock band (“Bennie and the Jets”), and a vengeance-driven Confederate (“My Father’s Gun”) all worked, it becomes clear that Taupin is a pop wordsmith of the highest quality.
  14. Norman Whitfield: Marvelettes fans notwithstanding, the Rock Hall has done right by Motown many times over. But if they still want to mine Hitsville, USA for more rock ‘n roll goodness, Norman Whitfield deserves some plaudits. He piloted The Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Marvin Gaye through the late 60s and early 70s, more or less inventing psychedelic, socially-conscious soul music in the process. So, in other words, he’s the guy who was responsible for the finished product of…let’s see…both Motown versions of “Grapevine,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (one of the best produced songs of all-time, imo), “Just My Imagination,” “War,” and (sigh…) “Car Wash.”
  15. Greil Marcus: Nobody likes a critic. More often than not, their reviews bring out the worst in musicians, the worst in readers, the worst in themselves. But Greil Marcus has consistently been one of the sharpest, most insightful, and least punchable of the rock and roll literati. His Mystery Train, written over 40 years ago, might well have been the first indispensable book on rock and roll. An excerpt from an interview he did not too long ago: “We’re driving back down the Peninsula to Menlo Park on Skyline, which is this two-lane mountain highway. It’s completely lonely; there aren’t any lights — it’s two or three in the morning. And this voice comes on the radio and seems to be coming from far away. “When I’m thirsty, some sparkling wine will do real fine, indeed. But right now, baby, it’s some of your loving I need.” It was so spooky. I had no idea what this was. I wrote about it in my first book, Rock and Roll Will Stand, in 1969 — I talked about it as something I heard once, would never hear again, would never know what it was. That’s part of what rock & roll is, part of what the radio is — hearing something once that will haunt you the rest of your life.”  That’s Greil Marcus. He doesn’t need to waste time convincing you he is smart because he actually is smart.

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For the last few years, coverage of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been the Northumbrian Countdown’s bread and butter. Sure, I will comment on the state of Walt Disney World, or modern politics, or even religion from time to time, but the fact remains: a vast majority of the traffic that gets to this site arrives because of something I’ve written about rock and roll. So it might be surprising to know that I never visited the hallowed halls of Cleveland. And this is in spite of being a three hour drive from the museum during my grad school days in Buffalo, and a four hour drive from my current digs in Rochester.

Why did it take so long? For years, my absence was for petty reasons: I refused to visit until Chicago was inducted. Their induction in April, 2016 took care of that obstacle, however the best weekends for visiting were hampered by the Cavaliers’ victory parade, the RNC, and my perpetual difficulties traveling. But on July 1, I finally made it! And so did lots of other people. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was crowded…it was easily the most crowded I have ever seen any museum. At first I thought that it was because of the new Power of Rock exhibit, but the true factor quickly became clear: the Cleveland Browns’ stadium was a quarter mile away, and was hosting a U2 concert later that evening. As you can imagine, that would lead to some congestion in the Rock Hall earlier that day!

As far as my impressions go, the museum has a lot going for it. More than anything else, the museum makes you feel like rock and roll is a holy thing. The great glass pyramid keeps your eyes gazing toward the top, giving the visitor a sense of grandeur that reminds me of my visits to London’s Gothic cathedrals in terms of imparting majesty. The museum feels like an interactive journey through the sacred. It was affecting to see the handwritten lyrics for “London Calling,” or the piano that Jerry Lee Lewis abused to get the riveting pulse he needed for “Great Balls of Fire.” As a hopeless Beatles fan since I was 10, the Fab Four artifacts took my breath away- to see Ringo’s drums from the Shea Stadium era, or an actual outfit worn by one of The Beatles in a photo I’ve seen dozens of times felt to me as though a myth was becoming real and tangible.

Yet the museum was insistent on making sure we understood its narrative. There was really no way to proceed except by going through early influences, winding through thoughtful exhibition space on gospel, country, and blues influences on the genre. Unlike, say, the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, this isn’t a “choose your own adventure” kind of museum. There’s only so many ways you can get through it. After this introductory material- Elvis! Followed by rock’s early years, and eventually, the showcases take a geographic focus, with Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, and London all taking center stage. The Rock Hall even dedicates a great deal of space to justifying its Cleveland roots, with Alan Freed taking a key part in the narrative, and posters for the Moondog Coronation Ball. From there, space is dedicated to various keynote artists: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Bowie, Prince, and the like.  But one needs to get through the final stages- contemporary descendants of rock and roll- to complete the journey. The Rock Hall’s very design forces the visitor to confront hip-hop, Adele, Janelle Monae, and other modern standard-bearers. The message is clear: rock and roll headed off in many directions, and guitar-based acts are not the only, or even the most important, part of that legacy. In fact, the lack of 70s classic rock bands stood out baldly: Aerosmith, Chicago, Boston, Cheap Trick, — all of those were downplayed.

One area that surprised me with its spartan qualities were the plaques denoting who had been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during each year. That was it…just a name, with no explanation of who Percy Sledge was, or why Brenda Lee was significant. However, a sign nearby solicited ideas for #RockHallHonors to figure out a more suitable way to acknowledge those who climbed the mountain and got inducted.

But as I left, I noticed a few things that stood out by their absence. For one, the museum was wholly focused on artists and musicians. The effect rock and roll had on crowds, listeners, dancers, was never fully explored. That, to me, leaves the visitor wondering his or her own role in this story, and makes music something that is passively received- a notion that I am sure most rock and roll experts- including those on the museum board- would contest. One encouraging movement to rectify this came across in a series of interactive booths were your choice of rock icon (Mary Wilson, or Smokey Robinson or Michelle Phillips or Alice Cooper) elicited your favorite concert memories or who you think should be in the Hall of Fame. (I gave a pretty cogent case for Nina Simone, if I do say so myself.)

Moreover, why does rock and roll matter? Perhaps the museum treats this question as self-evident, nevertheless the question remains — why do we listen to rock? Why do we care about it? The museum didn’t offer any coherent answers, and perhaps there are none to be had. But if I ran this particular zoo, I’d have maybe spent more time on Dylan’s impact on, say, ’68 in America; the Plastic People of the Universe inspiring Prague Spring; Live Aid’s noble failure to combat poverty– or its relations to modern politics, racial identity, fashion, or attitudes toward sex. Aside from a strong section on censorship of rock and roll that touched on why the genre was seen as dangerous, the exhibitions chose not to engage with these issues.

In the end, though, these are just some rough sketches from a historian who reads too much and thinks too much. All told, I had a great time- especially once the crowds died down. Nevertheless, I encourage those in charge of this project to more overtly engage the question of “why rock and roll matters” beyond celebrating this pantheon of great figures and allowing these Midwestern pilgrims to glimpse at relics and curios. Even so, I didn’t get to see everything this time around- and I will gladly be back. Despite my critiques, this is a museum that Cleveland can be proud of. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Nina Simone get in. And The Zombies. And Kraftwerk. And Janet Jackson. And…

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Welcome to our second installment of our ranking of The Beatles’ canonical works. Looking back, it is remarkable how little bad music this band recorded over the seven or so years of their recording career. We handled the worst of the worst last time, and we slowly wind our way through tossers, and up to mediocrity, and finally rock and roll greatness. Truthfully, these early posts are the most difficult to write; I take no joy in dismissing any of the band’s work, but their lesser efforts are highlighted in this post.

195. Hold Me Tight (With the Beatles): The song captures of some the frantic teenage energy that drove so much of early Beatlemania. Yet for reasons never answered satisfactorily, a dreadfully out of tune version of this Lennon/McCartney number was committed to record and pressed for the album. Aside from a neat tempo change for the bridge, there is little evidence that this was treated as much more than hackwork.

194. Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby (Perkins- Beatles for Sale): This is a puzzling choice indeed to end Beatles for Sale. The band’s first two albums ended with a raucous rocker, and A Hard Day’s Night pulled off a pleasant surprise with the acoustic “I’ll Be Back.” Ending the album with this tongue-in-cheek Carl Perkins number, though, was a baffling choice. Drenched in a swampy echo, leaden with perfunctory guitar solos, this is far from the Beatles’ best effort. It’s a shame, really: it’s the only time they professionally recorded a Carl Perkins song sung by Harrison, who idolized the rockabilly legend.

193. You Like Me Too Much (Harrison- Help!): George was afforded two of his own compositions on Help!, but it only shows how behind the curve he was compared to his two more celebrated bandmates. Harrison wrote very few true love songs during his career; even “Something” includes the ambivalent “I don’t want to leave her now.” Similarly, this track is a sour admission of a half-hearted romance, dressed up with some incongruous barrelhouse piano.

192. Tell Me What You See (Help!): If not for the sterling “Yesterday” and the jaunty “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” the second side of Help! might have gone down as the worst side of any Beatles LP. Paul tries to create some atmosphere on this track with some unusual percussive rhythms and electric organ. Yet it just doesn’t come together, and the listener is distracted by odd turns of phrase like “I’ll make bright your day.” I’m puzzled as to why they didn’t try to improve “If You’ve Got Trouble” or “That Means a Lot”, two superior rejects from these sessions that didn’t surface (legally) until the Anthology series.

191. Why Don’t We Do It In the Road (White Album): I’ll admit that this track makes me laugh because of Paul’s pure commitment to it. It lets him belt and give his falsetto voice a workout, but it never should have been committed to record, even on the White Album. It just sounds like a track that would have been filler on Anthology Vol. 3.

190. Cry Baby Cry (White Album): The block-chord piano parts presage Lennon’s M.O. throughout his solo career, and Ringo does some fine drumming that’s very easy to overlook. Otherwise, there isn’t much to commend this bizarre fairy-tale Lennon concocts.

189. Dig It (Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr- Let It Be): There are definitely traces of a funky jam in the making here. Billy Preston finds a nice groove on keyboards, and Lennon is clearly enjoying himself as he ad-libs the vocals. As happened so often in the Get Back sessions, though, the band refused to take the time to polish this idea and turn it into something better developed- especially since the band wasn’t all that strong at improvising.

188. Her Majesty (Abbey Road): Left on the album by mistake, this cheeky ditty ruins the perfect conclusion for Abbey Road established by “The End.” A pity.

187. Your Mother Should Know (Magical Mystery Tour): As I said in my introduction to this project, I have a high tolerance for Paul’s throwback records, or “rooty-tooty” music as John sometimes called it. This effort just doesn’t work however, and even the elaborate dance number that accompanies this track at the end of Magical Mystery Tour can’t salvage it. The organ part makes it sound like baroque rock, rather than the 1940s-inspired tune it was; McCartney would later get the concept right with “You Gave Me the Answer” from the Wings’ Venus and Mars album.

186. A Taste of Honey (Scott/Marlow- Please Please Me): The Beatles cast a wide net in their live sets from their Hamburg days onward. Paul would usually push the group to include some Tin Pan Alley numbers, or some Broadway tunes, indicative of his father’s music-hall penchant. “A Taste of Honey” is one of those tunes– pleasant, wistful, and saccharine. I didn’t know that eye rolls could be audible, but you can almost hear Lennon’s on this track.

185. Blue Jay Way (Harrison- Magical Mystery Tour): This track has its advocates, and I might get some blowback for ranking it this low.  While undoubtedly moody, hazy, and atmospheric, it’s a journey that doesn’t go much of anywhere. Harrison definitely gets points for centering this tune around an Indian drone style with limited modulation, but the final effect is dreary and repetitive. This is a major problem on the first side of Magical Mystery Tour, which lacks sustained effort as the band’s psychological impulses are running on fumes, soon to be supplanted by the return to basics exemplified by “Lady Madonna” and The White Album.

184. Revolution No. 9 (White Album): Some of my readers might wonder why this track isn’t lower. Isn’t this track the embodiment of narcissistic, failed experimentation? Isn’t this supposed to be the apogee of Yoko’s toxic influence on the band? To be sure, Lennon’s decision to submit one of his first attempts at avant-garde to such a wide public gaze was arrogant, indulgent, and ill-considered. But the seeds of a solid modern art piece are definitely present, and the influences of people like John Cage are certainly evident here. Lennon fails to understand, though, that less is more. If limited to two or three minutes, and more artistically designed to suggest the foment of an oncoming revolution- the piece’s message after all- something might have been made out of this track. It’s not corrosive, lazy, or hackwork–just a genuinely interesting concept that collapsed of its own weight.

183. Boys (Dixon/Farrell- Please Please Me): Maybe this track has aged the least well out of the entire Beatles canon. Even as late as the early 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon for men to sing songs written for women, and vice versa. Today, a track such as this is bound to elicit giggles and immature questions about Ringo’s sexuality. It still stands as a lesser effort from that first album, as seen in Ringo’s discomfiture in the studio, and an ineffectual translation from the girl-group sound to the Merseyside beat. Nevertheless, it stands out that four (!!) of the songs on the band’s first album were originally performed by female artists (along with “Baby, It’s You” and “Chains”) with a fourth, “Misery,” written by John and Paul for a female singer but ultimately taken up by the composers themselves.

182. You Know My Name (Look Up the Number) (b-side): At the very end of The Beatles’ career, so depleted was their catalog, and so convinced were they of their own genius, that “Let It Be” was backed by an absurdist lark recorded two years earlier. No Beatles track betrays the band’s Goon Show pedigree more than this one, as John and Paul- the only two Beatles appearing on this track- repeat the song’s title in a number of comedic voices.

181. Baby, You’re A Rich Man (Magical Mystery Tour): Flecks of Middle Eastern instrumentation give this song an exotic palette, yet ultimately mislead the listener into believing that this song will be interesting. An awkward amalgamation of a song by Lennon and a song by McCartney, it lacks the airiness of the song’s Summer of Love release, leaden as it is with overdubs.

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It’s time to begin our next big project on the Northumbrian Countdown: ranking the Beatles catalogue. As many long-time readers know, I am a huge, huge fan of this group, to the point of being considered obsessed as a teenager. I owned their entire catalogue by the time I was 15. My high school graduation speech was about The Beatles. During my senior year, my friends and I made (with a bit of help from our moms) Sgt. Pepper costumes to wear for Halloween. I’ve seen Paul once in concert and Ringo four times. I’ve probably read upwards of 50 or 60 books on them over the course of my life. While I try to be humble, I know my Beatles. Now it’s time to rank their output.

A few words about this. First of all, I am listening mostly as a fan and partly as a historian of the 1960s and 1970s, and this will impact what I look for. I don’t have much musical training beyond a basic proficiency in piano, so I’m not one to talk about pentatonic scales and aeolian cadences, and all that. In terms of what I am looking for, I suppose I am looking for how a song comes together as a whole. Does it highlight a crucial aspect of Beatlemania? Does it move the band’s oeuvre in a new direction, or perhaps even alter the trajectory of rock and roll itself? I also try and consider context as well- the Beatles generally wrote their music, at least at first, for dancing, not listening with headphones. I penalize lazy writing, hackwork, and malice. If I have a bias, I suppose it’s that unlike many Beatles writers, I slightly prefer Paul over John, or at the very least tolerate Paul’s music-hall diversions more than Lennon’s pretensions to literary genius.

Now we come to the problem of what, exactly, is ranked. Obviously, every track on every British studio album is accounted for, with the exception of the George Martin instrumentals on Yellow Submarine. Some rankings include the cover songs that showed up on their first five LPs, and others don’t. I will incorporate them. Similarly included are the hodgepodge of non-album singles, EPs, and other material collected in the two Past Masters volumes, with the exception of their two German-language remakes of their hits. Abbey Road was tricky (some people consider all of side two one long track), but I combined “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” and “Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” while considering the other tracks individually. I do not include the two reunion tracks from the 1990s.

So, let’s begin our magical mystery tour through the collected works of one of the most important musical artists of the twentieth century. All songs are Lennon-McCartney unless otherwise noted.

203. “Run For Your Life” (Rubber Soul): Tanking at the very bottom of our ranking is this closing track from one of the band’s finest albums. “Run For Your Life” is in some ways the single track that least caters to the band’s best qualities. It is malicious, with John Lennon dwelling on seeing a lover dead. It’s not ironic. It’s not winking. Lennon gives every indication that he’s serious. It’s also unoriginal, with it’s first line nicked from an early Elvis record, with bland, generically country and western instrumentation that could have just as easily come from Beatles for Sale, two albums earlier. I have no trouble writing this off as the nadir of the band’s recording career.

202. “Taxman” (Harrison- Revolver): I’ve always found it fascinating that George Harrison was both the most spiritual of the Beatles, yet also the most miserly. Some consider “Taxman” to be the first sign of greatness from the Quiet Beatle, but I disagree strongly. This song fits one of the most loathsome rock archetypes: rich people complaining about problems only rich people can understand. At the time this song was written, income taxes on the very top earners in the U.K. topped 90%. My problem is that this kind of taxation rate was necessary to sustain the U.K. welfare state, and Harrison, of all the Beatles, benefitted most from that welfare state. His father enjoyed a municipal job driving buses. The Harrisons dwelled in government-subsidized council flats, housing that was far superior to that enjoyed by any previous generation of the English working class. What’s more, The Beatles, and most British rockers, collected welfare payments between gigs, a practice Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn calls “rock and dole.” This social democracy gave Harrison the material comforts as a youngster and financial stability as a young adult to help him realize his potential. So for Harrison to whine about the tax rate now that he was finally among the top earners strikes me as deeply hypocritical.

201. “Wild Honey Pie” (White Album): The question of whether the White Album should have been cut down to one lean, trim album or left in its sprawling 90-minute state remains a contentious debate among Beatles aficionados. Few, however, would disagree about this song’s reputation as filler, barely a minute of acoustic guitar, and funny voices warbling “honey pie.”

200. “Maggie Mae” (trad. arranged by Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-Starr- Let It Be): The “Get Back” sessions of early 1969 often got derailed into jam sessions and impromptu cover songs. Led by Lennon, the band tries their hand at this ribald Merseyside ditty about a neer-do-well prostitute. It has neither the joy of true spontaneity, nor any of the polish that would come from actively working on the song. Instead, the four Beatles try to soldier their way through a song none of them can remember, and none of them look back on especially fondly. The track cuts off mid-verse, 40 seconds in.

199. “Matchbox” (Perkins- EP): Although George Harrison was the group’s resident Carl Perkins devotee, the band’s first of three Perkins covers went to Ringo, probably because the song’s doleful lyrics matched his public persona. Unfortunately, the result is paint-by-numbers rockabilly, and Ringo hasn’t learned the art of double-tracking yet, as he can be heard changing the cadence of the lyrics throughout between tracks.

198. “Mr. Moonlight” (Johnson- Beatles for Sale): I’m going to come out and say it- Beatles for Sale is easily my least favorite album by the band. It’s problems include the band’s burnout from constant touring and Beatlemania, and with limited time and limited energy, the group resorted to quick, easy covers of familiar material. This obscurity bespeaks Lennon’s deep interest in black rhythm & blues, an interest shared by many Merseyside artists. But the recording of this song is dreadful, with Lennon’s bite removing much of the soul and plaintiveness of the original. The gimmicky organ part sinks the already troubled track. George Martin made a rare mistake putting this on the album rather than the frantic “Leave My Kitten Alone.”

197. “Little Child” (With the Beatles): This is the band at their most pedestrian and least inventive, as they recorded this forgettable track for their sophomore album. It exposes Lennon’s tenuous harmonica abilities and it’s patronizing tones haven’t aged well.

196. “Misery” (Please Please Me): I’m grading the first album on a bit of a curve, since the band hadn’t logged much studio time, and only had a day to record ten tracks. Nevertheless, “Misery” is a marked step down from the album’s stellar opening track, “I Saw Her Standing There.” Written for British pop act Helen Shapiro, some amateurism is on display. Between the silly falsetto during the fade-out, and the band’s shaky incorporation of a piano into their sound, it’s clear that the band still had a bit of a learning curve to navigate.

And here we are…just a few songs to start out the first post. Stay tuned as we count down to Beatles greatness!


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One of the hobbies I’ve revisited from an earlier time in my life is NBA fandom. I have never been a hardcore sports person, and certainly not as an athlete myself. But as a historian, the deep cultural histories of franchises, the interpersonal dynamics on the court, and the layers of strategy and skill make basketball a captivating hobby. And this is particularly so with the playoffs underway! Although this is a departure from the Countdown’s usual political and rock & roll historical commentary, I think it’s high time to start a new project: the top 100 nba players of all time!

Here are a few considerations guiding my ranking:

  1. Peak performance vs. longevity: there are no easy answers, but one needs to be carefully weigh brief periods of sublime performance (let’s say Bill Walton in the late 1970s or Bernard King in the mid-80s) against long, sustained, but sometimes less overtly brilliant production (let’s say someone like Robert Parish or Hal Greer).
  2. Contingency: Not all situations are created equal. Some players get fantastic teammates whose skill set complements their own. Others are saddled with incompetent coaches, selfish teammates, clueless GMs and owners, and other misfortunes. Did a player do the best they possibly could have in the situation given them?
  3. Stats and “Fruit Salad”: Things like MVPs, Finals MVPs, rings, All-Star appearances, All-NBA and Defense team appearances, season performance, and being a league leader in a statistical category will all matter here.
  4. The Things the Stats Don’t Tell You: Did the player make their teammates better and encourage a positive culture in their club? Did they innovate and alter the game in some way? Were they willing to do the little things that don’t end up in the stat sheet?
  5. Era: It’s really difficult to rank players from the early years of professional basketball. The game was slow, earthbound, provincial, and thuggish before the 24-second shot clock, and only gradually became airborne, uptempo, electric, and international. Frankly, most players from the 1950s and 1960s would get eaten alive in today’s league. To what extent should that count against them?
  6. Team Favoritism: one thing we have to remember is that sportswriters are generally big-city dudes, and the accolades they hand out and the subjects they deign to write about tend to focus on historically great teams and media meccas. Generally, this has meant favorable press for New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and perhaps more recently, the Bay Area. Something to keep in mind: players who toiled in unattractive cities for unsexy teams tend to get passed over, both in their heyday and by posterity. As a result, I have a lot of sympathy for denizens of Milwaukee, San Antonio, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and other relatively provincial locales.

With these considerations established, let’s begin our countdown!

100. Yao Ming: There were exactly 99 players I felt comfortable putting on this list. I struggled with the final selection, considering about a half dozen individuals before landing on Yao. His career was short- only 8 seasons- and he was injured for some big pieces of it. (The human foot is just not designed to support 7’6″ of flesh and bone). But when he was healthy, Ming could devastate: he could rebound, block, and pass unexpectedly well. Always more of a finesse center than a powerhouse, he posed major problems for defenses: his low-post moves could usually outmaneuver opponents, and if you fouled him, you were facing one of the best free-throw shooting centers of all time. Moreover, Yao Ming is probably one of the dozen most important NBA players ever (along with MJ, Bird, Magic, Russell, Wilt, Mikan, Earl the Pearl, Iverson, Dr. J, Shaq, and Cousy.) His arrival underscored just how international the game had become, as Asian fans voted him into All-Star game after All-Star game.

99. Draymond Green: Maybe this is a bit premature, but Green has been the runner-up for two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and is the favorite to win for the 2016-17 season. He was the defensive anchor for the best regular season in NBA history, the 15-16 Warriors. That’s not inconsiderable; remove Draymond and Andrew Bogut, and the team is in danger of becoming another 1980s run-and-gun team destined for a first-round playoff exit, like the Doug Moe Nuggets or Run TMC. Green gave the team tenacity, and took pressure off of Curry and Thompson in the playmaking stakes. He joins Bird, Lebron, Webber, and Barry in the ranks of the best passing forward in league history. He is perhaps the best perimeter defender in the league today, and is willing to sacrifice his stats to win. While he is by far the team’s most volatile member, and his propensity for technical fouls may have cost the team the 2016 finals, Green’s best days are ahead of him, and I feel comfortable putting him in the top 100 of all time at this early juncture.

98. Maurice Cheeks: When we talk about the great NBA teams, the 1983 76ers are often left out of the conversation, and even then, much of the attention accrues to Moses Malone and Julius Erving. But Cheeks was the engine driving one of the most dominant NBA teams of the decade. His stats aren’t always eye-popping, but he could lock down the opposing team’s best guard with ease (to that effect, he made five All-Defense teams). Offensively, he shot well over 50% from the field doing mostly mid-range shots. Oh, and for a guy who isn’t remembered all that much today, he ranks #5 all-time in steals, and #13 all-time in assists. He was the floor general for one of the best teams in one of the league’s most memorable decades.

97. Tracy McGrady: I don’t especially like McGrady or his game, but with his recent induction announcement for the Basketball Hall of Fame, I kind of feel like I have to include him. His lack of playoff success and his reputation as a locker room problem are major negatives against him. Seriously- the man never won a playoff series until he came off the bench in San Antonio. To be sure, he never had much luck with teammates and never found a coach who could guide him, but at a certain point that lays with the player himself. Nevertheless, he won two scoring titles, led an okay-ish Rockets squad to 22 straight wins, and once scored 13 points in 35 seconds.

96. David Bing: And here’s another player who never had much playoff success and was chronically stuck on bad teams. Toiling away thanklessly in Detroit, Bing nevertheless carved out a workmanlike career, wracking up 7 All-Stars, winning a scoring title while Wilt was in his prime, and even sneaking onto a couple All-NBA First Teams while Jerry West and Oscar Robertson were active. He also won a Citizenship Award, one of those accolades nobody pays attention to, but I consider a mark of good character and team spirit. In fact, he later demonstrated his strong sense of civic activism by serving as mayor of Detroit.

95. Marques Johnson: Working-class Milwaukee doesn’t get very much love from the NBA beat writers. It’s a shame, because we are led to forget how solid the Milwaukee Bucks were for much of the 1980s. Coached by the great Don Nelson, he embarked on a characteristically crazy experiment: delegating the playmaking duties to a forward, Marques Johnson. Perhaps the first “point forward” in the game’s history, he influenced new strategies and was part of the trend toward bigger men with high basketball IQ. I’ll bet that you forgot he had 5 all-star appearances (putting him in the same league as Chris Mullin, Sam Jones, and Pete Maravich) and made it onto an All-NBA team thrice. Like Cheeks, there’s a great argument for Johnson as the best forgotten player of the 1980s.

94. Neil Johnston: As I said earlier, it’s always dicey to bring out the pre-shot clock guys. But this hardy Philadelphia Warrior- who lasted only eight seasons- made the most out of them. I mean, three scoring titles, six All-Star appearances, a championship–that’s nothing to sneeze at, even if a white, hook-shot-making 6’8″ center is very clearly a product of his time. As a point of trivia, he was also the first professional coach that both Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins had.

93. Jack Twyman: Twyman gets the nod because he was the best teammate in Big 4 history. When fellow Royals forward Maurice Stokes was stricken by a brain injury that left him virtually immobile, Twyman stepped up big time. With the rest of the team out of Cincinnati for the summer, Twyman and his wife personally took care of Stokes and managed his affairs until the end of his life. There’s a reason why the Teammate of the Year Award is named after him. But even if he hadn’t done this profoundly unselfish act, there would still be a case for Twyman. He was the first player in league history to average more than thirty points in one season, made six All-Star teams, and only missed 24 games in his entire career. Yet, either paired with Stokes or Oscar, Twyman and the Royals never seemed to enjoy very much playoff success.

92. Mark Price: Like those mid-80s Bucks teams, the early 90s Cavaliers were also a force to be reckoned with. If they didn’t have the singular bad luck of sharing not just a conference but a division with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, it’s more than likely that this scrappy team would have made it into a Finals at some point. Mark Price had a spectacular shooting touch, although never the Cavs’ first scoring option. He was also as close to automatic from the line as humanly possible: he is one of only two players with a career FT% over .900. Injuries hurt his career, however, but he left the league with four All-Star appearances, and even an All-NBA First Team in 1993, one of the most competitive years in its history.

91. Kyrie Irving: Irving is becoming an engine of a burgeoning Cavs dynasty. Although he is unlucky to be playing in a golden age of point guards (hence the dearth of All-NBA appearances), he has found a niche on a Cavs team that is one conference finals away from three straight finals appearances. Irving can do just about anything- defend, pass, whatever- but it is his clutchness that seals the deal for me. His shot in the 2016 finals took victory out of the hands of the Warriors, denying a championship to the most successful regular season team of all time. Expect more 50+ point games, All-Star berths, and highlights from this man in the years to come.

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Until my students hand in their final projects tomorrow, I’m in a little oasis with not much to do. I have a new book out. I can’t do much research on my next project until I’m back in the United States. So, as often happens in situations like this, I take to making lists and rankings. In this one, I tried to identify the 100 songs in a broad rock and roll idiom that have meant the most to me. This ranges from songs whose melodies have moved me, or whose message has inspired me, to songs that I simply found amusing when I was a teenager (hence the Weird Al songs.) And so, my list:

1. America- Don’t Cross the River
2. America- Sister Golden Hair
3. Annie Lennox- Walking on Broken Glass
4. Aretha Franklin- I Say A Little Prayer
5. Billy Joel- And So It Goes
6. Billy Joel- Summer, Highland Falls
7. Bob Marley & the Wailers- No Woman, No Cry
8. Bob Marley & the Wailers- Stir It Up
9. Bonnie Raitt- I Can’t Make You Love Me
10. Brandi Carlile- Dying Day
11. Brandi Carlile- The Eye
12. Bruce Springsteen- The Rising
13. Carole King- I Feel the Earth Move
14. Cat Stevens- Wild World
15. Chicago- Just You’N’Me
16. Chicago- Questions 67 & 68
17. Crosby & Nash- Lay Me Down
18. Crosby, Stills & Nash- Cathedral
19. Crosby, Stills & Nash- Southern Cross
20. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young- Carry On/Questions
21. Dan Fogelberg- In the Passage
22. Dire Straits- Romeo and Juliet
23. Edgar Winter Group- Alta Mira
24. Elton John- Ballad of a Well Known Gun
25. Elton John- I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues
26. Elton John- Latitude
27. Elton John- Tiny Dancer
28. Elvis Presley- Burnin’ Love
29. Enter the Haggis- Donald, Where’s Yer Troosers
30. Foster the People- Coming of Age
31. Freebo- Trouble
32. George Harrison- Any Road
33. George Harrison- My Sweet Lord
34. Gin Blossoms- Follow You Down
35. Gnarls Barkley- Crazy
36. Great Big Sea- Donkey Ridin’
37. Howard Jones- Everlasting Love
38. Indigo Girls- Closer to Fine
39. Indigo Girls- Galileo
40. Indigo Girls- Shame on You
41. Kate Bush- The Man with the Child in His Eyes
42. Janelle Monae- Q.U.E.E.N.
43. Jars of Clay- Fade to Grey
44. Jars of Clay- Worlds Apart
45. Jefferson Airplane- Embryonic Journey
46. Jethro Tull- Cross-Eyed Mary
47. Jimmy Buffett- Great Heart
48. Led Zeppelin- Stairway to Heaven
49. Linda Ronstadt- Willin’
50. Marillion- Beautiful
51. Martin Page- In the House of Stone and Light
52. Melissa Ethridge- Come to my Window
53. Nina Simone- Feelin’ Good
54. Paul McCartney- Another Day
55. Paul McCartney- Calico Skies
56. Paul McCartney- This One
57. Peter Gabriel- Solsbury Hill
58. Peter Gabriel- In Your Eyes
59. Peter, Paul & Mary- If I Had a Hammer
60. Peter, Paul & Mary- When the Ship Comes In
61. Pure Prairie League- Amie
62. Queen- ’39
63. Queen- I Want It All
64. Real McCoy- Another Night
65. Rick Derringer- Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo
66. Ringo Starr- It Don’t Come Easy
67. Rufus Wainwright- Hallelujah
68. Sam Cooke- A Change is Gonna Come
69. Sara Bareilles- Many the Miles
70. Simon & Garfunkel- Hazy Shade of Winter
71. Simon & Garfunkel- The Boxer
72. Take That- Back For Good
73. The Band- The Weight
74. The Beach Boys- God Only Knows
75. The Beach Boys- Sail On Sailor
76. The Beatles- Come Together
77. The Beatles- Eleanor Rigby
78. The Beatles- Here Comes the Sun
79. The Beatles- Penny Lane
80. The Beatles- We Can Work It Out
81. The Bellamy Brothers- Let Your Love Flow
82. The Eagles- Bitter Creek
83. The Four Seasons- Oh What A Night (December, 1963)
84. The Four Tops- Reach Out (I’ll Be There)
85. The Grass Roots- Temptation Eyes
86. The Jackson 5- I Want You Back
87. The Left Banke- Barterers and Their Wives
88. The Monkees- Daydream Believer
89. The Moody Blues- Nights in White Satin
90. The Pogues- Fairytale of New York
91. The Spinners- Rubber Band Man
92. The Tremeloes- Here Comes My Baby
93. The Wailin’ Jennys- Heaven When We’re Home
94. The Zombies- She’s Not There
95. Tom Lehrer- The Vatican Rag
96. Toto- Africa
97. Warren Zevon- Accidentally Like a Martyr
98. Ween- Bananas and Blow
99. Weird Al Yankovic- Amish Paradise
100. Weird Al Yankovic- Yoda

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Well, the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is now in the history books. Since I was in Singapore, rather than Brooklyn, I had to rely on a generous periscoper to see what was going on. Although I had to step out during Pearl Jam’s speeches to buy some quesadilla supplies for a party that afternoon, I was able to catch most of the ceremony.

Was it successful? Well, the Rock Hall wouldn’t be the Rock Hall if there weren’t at least a few screw-ups and indefensible choices, but at the very least, it was better than the near-shit-show we saw last year. Nobody publicly berated the Rock Hall a la Steve Miller; the closest we got was some fairly gentle statements of regret about non-inducted bandmates. (And there were a lot of them this year- from longtime members of Yes, to Nile Rodgers’ Chic bandmates, to a litany of Pearl Jam drummers.)  Nothing happened that was as puzzling as NWA not performing or as regrettable as Peter Cetera not showing up. We learned a fair bit about rock and roll, too- which for me is the #1 outcome of any ceremony.  Strong cases were made for the importance of folk music in giving rock and roll a social conscience. Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys made a great case for 2pac’s musicianship and artistic vision. I hope at least some of the mostly-classic rock and grunge-oriented crowd in Brooklyn got something to think about. And I, in turn, gained renewed respect for ELO, which I had largely written off as something of a very listenable guilty pleasure.

If I had to pick out a few great performances, I’d say Lenny Kravitz and a full choir performing “When Doves Cry” was the best of the night. But seeing a reconstructed Yes pull off “Roundabout” and Pearl Jam’s tight “Better Man” were also contenders.

Some random observations from the show:

  • Dhani Harrison gave a warm, funny, and heartfelt speech for ELO. His enthusiasm and almost fanboy demeanor made him a good choice for inducting the night’s first act. We now have all five Wilburys in the Hall!
  • Really great segue from the Chuck Berry tribute to ELO. It made perfect sense, in hindsight, to start the show by paying respects to one of rock and roll’s most important founders.
  • In sharp contrast to earlier years, it seemed like the ceremony ran smoothly and people respected time limits in their speeches. Joan Baez was a bit long, but I’m willing to excuse it because 1) her speech was so damn good; 2) there was only one of her; and 3) she’s waited longer than the rest to get in the Hall. She was eligible, actually, for the Rock Hall’s first class, and should have been inducted twenty years earlier.
  • People know that I’m a big advocate of folk music and women in the Rock Hall. So my appreciation for the Joan Baez segment shouldn’t surprise my longtime readers. Both Jackson Browne and Baez herself made a strong case for how important folk music was in encouraging rock and roll to more directly engage with the big issues of the 1960s. And I was struck by how powerful it was to see a woman in her mid-70s, alone with a guitar, on the Rock Hall stage. And what a great choice it was to bring her tour-mates, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Indigo Girls onstage with her. My wife, who watched the first hour of the show with me, ended up buying us tickets to see them all at Tanglewood this summer.
  • The order of the show was wisely considered, staggering the three 70s classic rock acts with the others: Chuck Berry tribute/ELO, Joan Baez, Yes, 2pac, Journey, Nile Rodgers, the Prince tribute, and finally Pearl Jam and the jam session.
  • They (mostly) reunited Yes! Rick Wakeman’s speech was rude and boorish, but I couldn’t stop laughing. When I’m in my 70s, I want to be an overweight guy with a beard, telling bad jokes, wearing a cape, and playing keyboards in a progressive rock band.
  • My God, Jon Anderson is a short little fellow.
  • The 2pac tribute was lovely, with Snoop Dogg giving a heartfelt speech, and Alicia Keys doing some great R&B renditions of some of his songs.
  • Well, they got all the guys from Journey on stage, they just couldn’t get them all to play together. Although Gregg Rollie and Aynsley Dunbar joined the band on “Lights,” they couldn’t cajole Steve Perry into joining the group for a performance. That’s a great shame; if they can’t make it work here, it probably means it will never happen. Perry did give a great speech though, and I did learn that Journey’s keyboardist survived a massive Catholic school fire when he was a boy.
  • Nile Rodgers’s speech was fairly short, but a bit self-promoting. I’m happy to give him a pass, though. He has every reason to be pissed about Chic not getting in as a group, and given how often Rock Hall voters rejected him, he’s entitled to make a case for his legacy. Still- shocking that he didn’t perform. With Pharrell Williams in the house, doing a quick version of “Get Lucky” seemed like a no-brainer.
  • Having David Letterman sub for Neil Young to induct Pearl Jam was probably a net positive. I actually don’t like Young as a speechmaker; his speech for Paul McCartney is the single worst Rock Hall induction that I can remember off the top of my head. Letterman’s was, by turns, funny and endearing, talking about Eddie Vedder giving his son a guitar, and poking fun at their feud with Ticketmaster.
  • The All White Guys finale- featuring Geddy Lee and members of Pearl Jam and Journey defeated the purpose of the entire evening.  I am judging this based on periscope coverage and couldn’t see the whole stage clearly- but Kravitz, Baez, Jeff Lynne, Pharrell, Niles, the Indigo Girls, Alicia Keys, and others should definitely have been on that stage.
  • If I were in charge, the finale would have been either Rodgers leading a song he produced- “We Are Family”- or else Baez bringing everybody on stage for “We Shall Overcome”- maybe a more poignant message in these troubling times than “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.”

If I had to rate the show in comparison to recent years, it was significantly better than the 2016 ceremony. And it was slightly better than the 2014 ceremony (some great Hervana performances tempered by KISS not playing, Ronstadt not being able to attend, and the E-Street Band clogging the running time). The 2015 ceremony, however, stands as the recent gold standard. A mini-Beatles reunion, a speech by Patti Smith that made me finally “get” Lou Reed, and two virtuoso blues performances via Jimmy Vaughan and the survivors of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. That year, the performances were great, the speeches were mostly in good taste, and one learned a great deal about the breadth and significance of rock and roll. This ceremony, even at its best moments, just didn’t come close to those heights. Maybe they need to hold this thing in Cleveland every year.

So now, we enter kind of a fallow and seemingly dormant season in the Rock Hall calendar. It won’t be until early fall that we start to hear some buzz about how next year’s ballot will shape up. There are lots of potential first-year nominees like Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, and Letterman’s earnest support tips the scales further toward Warren Zevon. Between now and then, I hope to make my first ever visit to the Hall of Fame in Cleveland this summer and continue a project researching the Rock Hall- and why we argue about it. Stay tuned, as always, for my annual predictions for the Rock Hall nomination ballot and ceremony.

In the meantime, if I can set aside my Alex Voltaire persona for a moment, and talk as my true self, my book is out! University of Massachusetts Press has published My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity. If the 1970s, social justice, and the role of religion in public affairs are of interest to you, I hope you’ll check it out!

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