Friday, March 26, 2010

ABBA Daba Doo: A Hard Look at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

So where has the great green ornithological wonder been hiding all this time? Flying north to avoid global warming? Apparently our Brooklyn parrots are smarter than the average bird. Of course there are a few other reasons, like building my own web sites, which will eventually house this and my other blogs, independent of Googleplex, which is looking more like the ("Don't-be") Evil Empire with every new privacy invasion and copyright issue. (Plus I hate their crappy editor, which manages to screw up font selections constantly; and the fact that I have to sign in with an email address I haven't used in years. On the other hand I give them some credit for standing up to the Chinese censors - a calculated business decision not without some moral weight.) I've also been writing a bit of fiction, with a view to not only becoming the new Hemingway (or should I say Flaubird - didn't he have a parrot anyway?) but possibly making some actual money from my enormous literary talents, though those two goals are to some degree in tension. But before I get into what brings me back to this fabled forum, let me just deal with one practical note.

Due to a rash of the most execrable spam directed at this and some of my other blogs, I have had to move them all to a "moderated comments" policy. I consider this less
obnoxious than the little box with the warped and partially obscured random words for you to attempt to decipher. But it may take some time for me to discover your comments and publish them. My policy here, as elsewhere, is to publish every relevant comment, regardless of point of view, unless it descends into vitriolic personal attacks, racist remarks, threats and the like. So please continue to contribute to discussions here, only try to be a little patient as I sort through the dross of autogenerated idiocy to get to your remarks.

So what am I doing fluttering around this blog again? Well, right now, I'm listening to a two-volume collection of ABBA's greatest hits. Does that give you a hint? Anyone who knows my taste in rock from previous PL posts might be a bit surprised. But don't worry - I didn't pay for it, at least. Nor did I pirate or bitstream it; it's all legit, thanks to, which I figure I'd better get the most out of before Apple sinks their claws into it. And why exactly would listening to these palindromatic popsters constitute getting the most out of anything? Because they're now one of the benighted members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that well-known bestower of historical significance in the realm of popular music, and I am (or thought I was) woefully ignorant of their artistic accomplishments. As you probably know, the fabled Swedish blondes and their ex-husbands have landed the high honor of a plaque on the wall, and a bio on the RRHOF web site. Worldwide recognition was not exctly something they lacked before (unlike some of this year's other inductees) having long since inundated every disco from Brooklyn to Byelorussia with their, um, infectious melodies. So it must be the plaque, the renewed publicity, the... approval of Jann Wenner? We'll get to that.

My first reaction to hearing of ABBA's induction was probably similar to yours: Squawck! I mean, Yauwnnn.... But feeling the mantle of responsibility land once again on my shoulders as I began to write, I thought to myself: what if these people are actually right? I mean, what if for all these years I have simply refused to recognize the importance of ABBA, their great contribution to Western popular music? Indeed, do I even know enough of their songs to pass a judgment? Just because they did "Dancing Queen" doesn't mean they're all bad! So I listened, and found to my surprise that I actually know many more of their songs than I knew I knew. I know "Waterloo", though I could not have named it if my avian life depended on it. I didn't know it won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest until I read it in the RRHOF bio; this, in the Parrot's pecking order,
is actually a more significant recommendation that inclusion in the infamous Hall. The chorus is more than a distant echo of the verses of The Foundations' 1968 hit "Build Me Up, Buttercup" (it's the harmony to it, basically) but let's not pretend it isn't catchy. I also know "Fernando", and can't even imagine where I might have been exposed to it so often as to remember it after all these years. I have to admit I actually kind of like it. I know "Take a Chance on Me" and a couple of other bits of trite dance hall trash. I know "The Winner Takes It All", or at least, it sounds a lot like three or four songs I know. In general, though, I must admit that I don't even know most of ABBA's numerous top five UK hits. Or I didn't. Now I do. And sad to say, my impression is now confirmed that in spite of a couple of decent early singles, they are a veritable demiurge of formulaic pop tunes, with vapid lyrics and minimal harmonic interest. Their singing seems to disdain real emotion, their production qualities come down to a guy with a sequencer and their instrumental capabilities are all but nonexistent.

So can 50 million ABBA fans be wrong? Oh, I think there are probably a lot more than that out there. (Including some very big ones over at
Rolling Stone magazine; but as I said, we'll get to that later.) So who am I to say they're wrong? They're right, after all; just as the Mozart freaks are right. If you want something to flow in one ear and out the other without requiring much processing inside, a steady diet of ABBA and Mozart is just what you should be taking. (Don't get me wrong, please - archaeologists exploring my desert island are going to dig up quite a few late Mozart CD's; but they'll be digging a long time before they find any ABBA.) But this is not mainly about ABBA; it's about what ABBA represents as an inductee into the Hall - the closest thing we have to a standard of significance for rock music.

To see what I men, compare the following news: just a few days after ABBA was iducted, who suddenly passed away at age 59? Alex Chilton, leader of The Boxtops and longtime vocalist, whose influence and artistry were attested to by many later and more famous rock stars. Chilton will never experience the belated recognition that Iggy Pop has just received. But he arguably should have been honored long before the idea of inducting ABBA had even entered anyone's head. Though well known for only two early hit singles - "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby" - those recordings are for many people much more what rock is about than all of ABBA's million-sellers put together. "The Letter" came out in 1967; Chilton was 16 years old, and had a number 1 hit in the greatest year ever for rock music. (The year of Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Surrealistic Pillow, Disraeli Gears, and a whole lot more.) The song must be one of the most memorable recordings in all of rock; endlessly covered by later artists, it seems to have lost little or nothing after 43 years on the rock circuit, and a good deal of the credit for that goes to Chilton's gripping vocals. Chilton went on to become an influential guitar player as well, and, with or without his later band Big Star, is usually counted as an important influence and early practitioner of both punk rock and alt-country. That looks to me like one guy who was a big force in three major developments in rock music; an accomplishment that has "hall of fame" written across it in gold letters.

Just weeks before "The Letter" started climbing the U.S. charts, across the Atlantic the new group Procol Harum had released "A Whiter Shade of Pale". How do you
capture the importance of a 4-minute single on pop radio that was #1 for six weeks on the UK charts in a year that was almost unbelievably loaded with brilliant examples of rock music? One fan has tracked down 900 cover versions of "Whiter Shade of Pale". A Procol Harum fan site cites an article stating that the song is the most played single ever in the UK. (The source for this is British "performing rights group" Phonographic Performance Ltd, which is actually an industry group, so I'm not sure how objective this claim is.) If Procol Harum had done nothing else, they would have earned a key place in the history of rock and roll for this song. Interestingly, though, the importance of the song is not merely in the sales it generated, but in other groundbreaking features: its Bach-like organ introduction, the interestingly obscure but poetic lyrics, the slow, dreamy, almost drunken vocals, and the fact that other than The Doors' "Light My Fire" it was about the longest single released at that time. These qualities can each be traced to important developments in rock. (To name one less obvious one, it was the first of a slew of extremely popular slow, moody tunes that topped the popularity charts in spite of more upbeat competitors - think "Color My World", "Let It Be", "Candle in the Wind", "Free Bird", many others). But Procol Harum, in the course of things, did much more than that: pioneering the use of a full orchestral sound, with Robin Trower taking the possibilities opened up by Hendrix's guitar style in new directions, they helped lay the foundations for the era of progressive rock that dominated the early 1970's. Procol Harum never achieved the level of popularity of groups like the Rolling Stones or even The Doors, but anyone who understands a bit about the history of rock and roll should know that their importance far surpasses their record sales. (For my two cents on the royalties dispute over AWSOP see my earlier post on this subject. In spite of the Parrot's loud squawking, this absurd decision has been upheld by the highest British court.)

Neither Alex Chilton nor Procol Harum have been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nothing in that fact says much about Chilton or Procol Harum. But it says everything about the RRHOF. The choices have not been made on the basis of influence or historical importance in any sense; or perhaps the better way of putting it is that to the extent that these factors have played a role, it has more often led to serious errors of judgment than to something that might help the public appreciate under-recognized figures, or less understood lines of development.

Take for example the inclusion of Jelly Roll Morton. He was an early jazz influence - but certainly not an early rock influence
. Every form of African-American music from the mid-19th century on was an influence to some extent in every form of popular music in the 20th century. But no rock artist was particularly influenced by Jelly Roll Morton, nor even the early urban blues artists. I have two histories of rock and roll (including the Rolling Stone history!) which do not so much as mention his name, and three histories of the blues, none of which considers him particularly important. He was an early transitional figure between blues and jazz and not particularly relevant to rock and roll. The
RRHOF bio even overstates the general consensus on his influence on jazz, and makes no attempt to link him directly to rock. There are quite a few other jazz figures in their list, on very lame logic. Billie Holiday's "exquisite phrasing and tough-tender persona influenced the likes of Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, among others". Excuse me? I find it a bit difficult to come up with one vocal quality in common between Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, but these folks are telling me that Billie Holiday influenced both of them? In any case, it doesn't really matter if she did or not: merely having an influence on someone's vocal style is not enough of a connection to put someone in the RRHOF, otherwise there could be hundreds of unrelated artists equally worthy of inclusion.

Speaking of which, Frank Sinatra is not in the Hall. He actually had several major hits on rock radio, and it's hard to believe his style didn't influence numerous later artists who are in it. He was still a force in popular music when rock was the music of the day, unlike Billie Holiday; and he was more revered by many rock fans than a host of lesser singers who were getting AM-radio play and were offered up as rock artists, from Englebert Humperdink to Burt Bachrach. Frank Sinatra is not in the RRHOF; but Louis Armstrong, Ma Rainey and Miles Davis are. Hmmmm... Maybe Chuck Berry belongs in the jazz HOF?
Chubby Checker, who popularized the dance most closely associated with R&R, is not in the HOF. The Weavers, The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Kingston Trio, The Lettermen - those folk groups were the immediate predecessors of the American rock group; not one of them is in. Yet Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers were admitted on their own. The idea seems to be: let's recognize every major American music trend in the first half of the 20th century, and then later on maybe we'll recognize the people who all those rock musicians actually knew and heard before they became rock musicians.

So where is the logic, oh tastemakers of the Great Hall? There is none. Though if we look the ABBA choice right in the face, along with others included for nothing more than having a lot of hit records (Billy Joel, Bob Seger, Madonna and AC/DC for instance) we may just have to admit that the one criterion that plays an outsized role is record sales. I can't honestly say that it is the only or even the main criterion. After all, Frank Sinatra did sell quite a few records. Celine Dion has sold about 200 million records, but she's not there. Oops, wait a few years please. She has technically been eligible for four years, since her first recording came out 29 years ago, in 1981. But she didn't release a record in English until 1990. There are no inductees in the RRHOF who did not record primarily in English. So give her a few years and I suspect she will be in like Flynn. ABBA, on the other hand, has been charting since the 70's, and occupies the noble position of being just behind The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson in total sales
. Now, I'm not saying that sales are not a legitimate criterion to consider. Sales indicate popularity; popularity is sometimes an indicator of quality; though often not. It does suggest a high level of exposure and recognition, which may indicate influence and importance. On the other hand, it may not. It's hard to know what ABBA's influence might be, but I suspect it is less than that of The 1910 Fruitgum Company, pioneers of bublegum rock. Along with The Archies (actually just a bunch of studio musicians), The Jackson Five, The Cowsills, The Osmonds and various other "family" groups who were knocking on ceilings in the late sixties and early seventies, these fruitie types offered a watered down version of what had mainly been gritty, black and white working class music. IMHO, ABBA, in spite of a few catchy tunes (or because they were nothing but catchy tunes) contributed very little other than to take this trend and offer it up as discotheque fare. Not that it was actually disco in its classic form, but it was danceable and bouncy even when the subject was not exactly uplifting ("The WInner Takes It All"). They did not start or significantly expand anything I consider to be of much value in rock, they merely plied the lighter side of pop tastes for a string of hits.

The artists who precede them on the album sales list clearly did something important; many of the artists who follow them clearly did. Queen is next, and though they may not be my favorite group (love Sheer Heart Attack, other than that they're not my taste), they obviously took rock vocals to a level that has rarely if ever been equaled, and they helped make the extended composition a standard of FM radio fare. Someone please tell me about ABBA's similar accomplishments. They were not exceptionally good singers, their instrumentals were forgettable, their songs not pathbreaking in any sense I can think of. For light rock I'll take The Carpenters or Hall and Oates any day. Neither of them have made it in, and I doubt it would look quite as bizarre if they did. ABBA simply represents the dumbing down of taste to the lowest common denominator, diminishing everything that was vibrant, experimental, original or challenging in 1970's rock. They were about as responsible for this as their RRHOF mates Fleetwood Mac, a group that at least had earlier (pre-Buckingham/Nicks) incarnations which would never have gotten in on the basis of album sales, but perhaps deserved to be there for one reason or another. But for ABBA, sales and Top 5 hits are the beginning and the end of what anyone can say about their place in the history of R&R.

Although record sales are clearly a major consideration for entry into the Hallowed Hall, the bigger impression is that the criteria are just haphazard and arbitrary, putting in question whether there are any criteria at all. Consider the Hall's own description of their decision process: "Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll." So, that is about as vague as you can get, and gives the nominating committee the flexibility to pick just about anyone they like, and ignore anybody they don't like. As a result, you've got a lot of tangential "early influence" type inductees who really had very little to do with rock; lots of sidemen, blues players, impressarios, gospel singers, and country influences, and yawning gaps in actual rock and roll. Bill Monroe is considered a rock influence in this ever so vaguely delineated hagiography, whereas in fact it is not likely that bluegrass had very much influence even in country rock, as it was quite a while before it even had much influence in country music. Charles Brown was a great blues pianist; I was fortunate enough to see him perform live, a treat I picked for my 40th birthday; but he had almost nothing at all to do with rock and roll. On the other hand, the Rev. Gary Davis, a player who directly influenced numerous major R&R artists (a short list would include Jerry Garcia, David Bromberg, and Jorma Kaukonen) has unaccountably been overlooked. A less obvious, but extremely interesting early urban blues figure would be Tampa Red, who not only inspired some of the bluesmen who inspired rock (including Muddy Waters and Elmore James), but played a style that is oddly modern and upbeat in a way that clearly anticipates rock and roll. Yet he is missing.

So, for that matter, is Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, whose songs provided early material for Elvis Presley, as well as influencing a number of important urban blues artists. While we're on the subject of important early performers who also wrote hits for major rock artists, Arthur Alexander has not even gotten his due in the arbitrary and capricious Hall. Early pop/rock artists who did no more for the medium than 100 artists who are not in have apprently been inducted on no other grounds that that they happened to be early. Thus, I don't need to question the contributions of Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield or Ricky Nelson to raise an eyebrow that they, and quite a few others like them, are in the RRHOF, when a large number of later artists who were more influential are not in. Ricky Nelson, but not Lou Reed? (To pick a name out of a hat.) Be serious. Better yet, Dusty Springfield but not Neal Sedaka? He not only contributed to her career but had a major, lengthy career of his own, involving artists from The Monkees to 10CC and many more.

The early influences also seem to be more like obvious names to drop than interesting connections. Everyone who had one or two memorable early hits - Frankie Lyman, Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Richie Valens - has been duly voted in. Perhaps one or two memorable hits in the 50's is sufficient to claim importance. But if so, why not one or two hits in the 60's? That's when rock really took off and became a major cultural force. There were lots of two-hit wonders then, and some of their songs are as memorable as "Rock Around the Clock" and "Teenager in Love". I've already mentioned The Boxtops, but I could name dozens more. Rather than that, why not pick three: Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, The Left Banke, and The Foundations. Each, to my recollections had two major hits. Those hits were not just good songs but sounds that we will never forget; and I'll bet a whole lot of people a generation or more younger than me know the bands and would recognize the songs they are famous for. Why are they any less worthy of commemoration than the 50's groups?

Then again, there are groups that had a hell of a lot more hits than that, and were inlutential in some notable way, who are still not in RRHOF.
I mean, how can you not have Gerry and the Pacemakers in the RRHOF? They should have been among the first ones, one of the most important Mersey Beat groups, a movement that changed R&R history. Tommy James and the Shondells practically defined sixties acid pop, and to my mind did a lot to make new kinds of sounds acceptable to a wide audience, moving the whole mainstream forward. Almost every one of their hits contained prominent, interesting new uses of keyboards, reverb, rhythm, drums, etc. Where's The Association, with their harmonies second only to The Beach Boys in the 1960's, not to mention several of the most frequently played singles in the history of rock? The Monkees were the first group to use a Moog synthesizer on an album, among other things. Their history alone, from a manufactured t.v. pop group to an independent progressive pop quartet on Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, is enough to mark them as significant - at least since Ricky Nelson's trajectory seems to make him worthy of HOF immortality (read his bio on the RRHOF web site). Paul Revere and the Raiders wore outrageous costumes long before David Bowie or Kiss; they also had five Billboard Top 10 and thirteen Top 25 hits, and 4 Gold albums, and were Columbia's top selling artist for a while (I imagine Dylan has long since surpassed them). More interesting is that they were hard rock pioneers, spinning serious guitar solos as early as 1965 and later becoming a kind of retro icon for punk rockers. Next up: I'm not sure what's the best way to defend the view that Steppenwolf should be a first round pick for the rock HOF; maybe because "Born to Be Wild" is a strong contender for the anthem of a generation; because "Monster" was rock music's most powerful indictment of the political direction of the country; because they have one of the four or five best live albums ever; or because they too were a group whose style looked forward to the hard rock of the 70's. Whatever, it seems pretty obvious to me that Steppenwolf means every bit as much to rock history as many rock artists of the 50's, and much more than most of those "early influences".

But at least quite a few 60's bands are duly represented: just look at the "B" list - The Band, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Bee Gees, Buffalo Springfied. Entire trends, however, are barely represented if at all. It's nice that Iggy Pop and the Stooges finally got in; they were a key source for the punk movement. But even before them there were historically important artists who deserve recognition in this regard, e.g., The Troggs, Marc Bolan (T Rex), and Père Ubu. Early eighties post-punk groups are eligible, but all I see in the Hall are a few of the big hitmakers (The Police, U2). The highly influential Joy Division is MIA, and so are The Alarm, The Jam, Joe Jackson, The Psychedeic Furs, The Cars, The Knack - not to mention all the 2 Tone and Ska bands (The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, The Beat), Rock Against Racism (TRB and others)... the point is, this is a very important era, a turning point in the history of rock with a variety of manifestations, none of which are represented, just the hitmakers. British folk-rock - Donovan, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Renaissance, etc - is not represented at all, in spite of influencing so many major 70's bands, including Led Zep and Yes. Does this make any sense? Influential guitarists like Roy Harper and Bert Jansch have been passed over, but Leadbelly and John Lee Hooker are there. I think the Hall managers have their priorities completely skewed; you should recognize the people who directly influenced and played rock first, then go and collect the distant cousins who neither knew or cared much about R&R.

I could go on. In fact I will. Let's talk about some of the most influential trends in the history of rock - trends which I will quite frankly say that I don't personally like very much, but whose importance is hard to deny (a hell of a lot harder than that of ABBA). No one person ever invented any form of music, but Barry White came darn close to inventing disco. In any case his influence is undeniable. But as another hugely influential unrecognized group once sang, "he's not there". You won't find Gloria Gaynor, The Hues Corporation, or Diana Ross (as a solo act) in the RRHOF. The Jacksons are in there only insofar as they extend the biography of The Jackson Five. Donna Summer has been denied entry several times. No sunshine for KC and his band either. Forget about The Tavares or the Pointer Sisters. Funk, somehow, is worthy of respect - not only James Brown but Parliament-Funkadelic squeezed in. Marvin Gaye was thankfully worthy of admission. So it is clearly not a matter of excluding artists on the notion that later R&B is not rock. I was never a big disco fan, but to deny that it was a major force in the broader concept of rock music that includes soul, funk, and hip hop is just nuts. I thought I was an ideologue, but if I were in charge of a public-facing institution like the RRHOF I like to think I'd try to be objective. The razor-like excision of disco is just vindictive, whether you were ever a fan or not.

On the other end of the spectrum, let's talk "heavy metal". AC/DC happens to be in the Hall; by no surprise, they are something like 7th or 8th in the list of best selling groups of all time. But they have no other business in the HOF. They were not one of the pioneers of heavy metal, and I doubt anyone could show that they influenced other heavy metal bands more than Kiss or Aerosmith, both of whom were founded the same time as AC/DC but released albums earlier. (AC/DC did not release any notable albums until several years after they were founded.) Iron Butterfly, Deep Purple, MC5, Grand Funk - they belong in the HOF as the early explorers of what became heavy metal. Of course Led Zeppelin is in; who would pay any attention to this museum if they weren't? But they should not be there for their illustrious place in album sales, nor for the popularity of "Stairway to Heaven", but for their virtually reinventing hard rock in 1969 and leading the way into the next decade; for expanding the instrumental sound and introducing radical new techniques on both guitar and drums; and for many other qualities. What similar contributions has AC/DC made? I know - they pioneered a new vocal sound in which the human voice is made to sound like a parrot struggling to escape the talons of a hawk? Sorry, that doesn't strike me as a significant accomplishment. The RRHOF bio of Metallica has one thing more or less right: Black Sabbath "invented" heavy metal (not quite, but close) and Metallica "redefined it in the Eighties". So what exactly did AC/DC do besides sell a lot of records? Probably less than Ozzy did in his solo career. "Huh?" you say, Ozzy's not there? Sacrilege, to an awful lot of rock fans. But neither are Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, or Motley Crue (sorry, metalheads, for dropping the cute little umlauts over some of those names) - all of them eligible for many years. Guns 'N Roses? You'll have to wait a couple of years, their first album came out in 1987. But I wouldn't be surprised to see them get in: they're just behind AC/DC and Metallica in heavy metal album sales. (Discounting Zep and Deep Purple as not "pure" metal.) So what will that prove; that the rulers of HOF have carefully considered the merits of any of these bands? Doesn't look that way to me.

More than anything, I am shocked at the total lack of respect for progressive rock in the inductee list. Sure Pink Floyd is there, but not for Atom Heart Mother, I suspect. Genesis has just been admitted; again, I suspect that Phil Collins's contributions have more to do with that than Peter Gabriel's. Just guessing. But to me, a Rock Hall of Fame without the Moody Blues, Yes, King Crimson or Jethro Tull is a complete joke - and all of them have been eligible for more than 15 years. (I could shorten that and say that a Rock Hall of Fame without Jethro Tull is a complete joke, even if progressive rock never existed - since I consider Tull to be far from a pure prog band. But I digress.) That says to me that there is an ideology keeping these bands out. And I can go a bit deeper, because I think prog is so important that I'm not sure some lesser-known prog groups shouldn't be in there. If popularity and album sales are the criteria, then perhaps a group like Gentle Giant does not belong in the Hallowed Hall. But there's a long list of prog rock artists doing highly technical, rhythmically and harmonically complex songs, and I'll bet nearly all of them have been influenced to one degree or another by GG, who did it before any of them. (Not that I'm ignoring Zappa's role here.) I'm not so sure that even groups like Rush didn't get something from them. Can't prove it without a lot of research but my ears tell me so.

Last and certainly least, I hate to mention this, but there's a slew of late 70's groups that I can't stand, and I'd be happy to hear that the guardians of rock's kingdom can't stand them either. But again, if there's a reason for keeping out the likes of Rush, Styx, Journey, Toto, Foreigner, Boston, Kansas, Steve Miller and a crapload of other late 70's/early 80's pseudo-progressive pop, I'd like to see the criteria. Arguably, those groups defined everything in rock and roll in that era that was not punk or "new wave". There are some dim signs that taste has at least some influence in the choice of inductees, e.g., the fact that Steely Dan has been inducted and Rush has not. Then again, Bob Seger has been inducted and 10CC has not; there goes that theory. Anyway, I'm not in favor of a rushed journey down the Styx, but if we're talking about impact, we will be forced to admit that those groups more or less absconded with the FM airwaves for a decade or so.

I'm going to stop, eventually. In fact, I'm not even going to mention several other important trends in rock, all pre-1985 and therefore eligible, which are pretty much unrepresented in the RRHOF, such as glam (Roxy, Bolan, Dolls) or jazz rock (BS&T, Chicago, Soft Machine) or fusion (McLaughlin, Corea, Coryell) or euro (Kraftwerk, Focus, The Fixx) or... Well, either I'm going to stop, or perhaps the RRHOF team should start - recognizing that they have managed to ignore most of what is really significant in rock, while compiling a list of distant predecessors and pop stars. No, they have not ignored history altogether; they have made their motions in the directions of The Clash, David Bowie, and other artists who are not simply popular but seminal. But they have turned their backs on so much else, while digging into the jazz and blues archives and the interesting sidemen and the gurus of one sort or another, then adding numerous artists whose contributions are little more than a list of hits.

Now why is all this? A friend of mine has a simple answer: "Jann's club", he calls it - a short way of saying that Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, controls the Hall's membership list according to his own personal taste. Is it true? Hmmmm.... Take a look at Roger Friedman's critique of the 2007 nominee list, if you have the patience to read any more HOF critiques after my longwinded diatribe. (Okay, it's on Fox. If it makes you feel any better, Friedman was fired soon afterward for reviewing a pirated copy of the film Wolverine, and pointing out to readers how easy it was to get hold of. Wonder why Fox might have cared so much about this...) If you don't like that, take a look at some of the comments about Wenner to the same effect on his Wikipedia page.

One comment there, cited from a
New York Post interview with Peter Tork, is worth noting: Tork says explicitly that Wenner has personally kept The Monkees out of the RRHOF over the worn-out criticism that they didn't play the instruments on their first two albums. On the first album, that was by understanding with producer Don Kirshner. The second, however, was released without The Monkees' prior consent to this arrangement. In any case, the criticism is not only unfair but ignorant. It's unfair because any number of Motown groups and quite a few rock bands who are in the RRHOF (e.g., The Beach Boys) did not play many (or in some cases any) of the instruments on some of their albums; the use of anonymous studio musicians backing major rock groups on albums was extremely common in those days. And it's ignorant because in fact, The Monkees did play their own instruments in concert, on Headquarters, and to a large extent on Pisces Aquarius Capricorn & Jones and their later albums; because Peter Tork is widely known to be a top notch musician who could have played any instrument in the band and then some (and in fact did play a guitar part on their first album, alongside James Burton); and because Nesmith was not only a competent guitarist but an excellent songwriter with a career that dated from before The Monkees existed. What Dolenz lacked in drumming ability he made up in unique vocal qualities that created the sound of some of the most memorable hits of the 60's. The Monkees may have suffered from the discrepancy between their t.v. show personas as rock stars and their early acceptance of studio backing on the albums; certainly to hold this against them at a time when we have a much broader perspective on the whole era is ridiculous and vindictive.

Wenner's Wikipedia page contains another paragraph with a list of groups he is said to be responsible for keeping out on the basis of personal taste. According to Friedman, "
Wenner’s nominating committee consists largely of his current and former employees from Rolling Stone (Nathan Brackett, David Fricke, Jim Henke, Joe Levy, Brian Keizer, Toure, and Anthony DeCurtis). But they have little say over who really is inducted." There are lots of people questioning the objectivity of the Hall's criteria. The Hall's Wikipedia page has more examples of the criticism of Wenner et al., and this Rush fan site has a page of quotes from a variety of rock legends doubting the value of its choices. When The Sex Pistols were inducted, Johnny Rotten wrote a letter calling the Hall "a piss stain" and "urine in wine" and refusing to attend the ceremony. Complaints about RRHOF are usually paired with complaints about Wenner, and often target the overdependence on record sales as a criterion; here's another example. Dig around, you'll find comments like this for most bands that have been snubbed, with especially heavy emphasis from progressive rock and heavy metal fans, who know from the pages of Rolling Stone how much Wenner dislikes those trends. It's hard to find an authoritative source to confirm Wenner's autocratic control of the nominating process, and there certainly are counterexamples to the influence of record sales (another: Chicago has never gotten in) but I have not been able to find anything, by Wenner or anyone else, providing evidence of the diversity or objectivity of opinion among the RRHOF crowd.

And what none of the comments about Wenner point out (which it is therefore my duty as a blogger to do) is that if he has any influence there, much less controlling influence, it is a depressing comment on this personality cult that he has managed to have himself elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Yes, shocking though it may seem after what we have just said, the ever opportunistic Wenner, with the help of colleagues who "have little say over who really is inducted", has granted himself not only rock immortality but a glowing biography, in which the only thing that is understated is his role in the RRHOF itself: "
He was in on the ground floor with a small group - which would become its board of directors - that began planning the institution back in 1983, and he remains vitally active in its operation to this day." Vitally active indeed!

In short, the RRHOF is not really the generally recognized standard of excellence, influence, or importance in rock. Though it may have begun with a variety of industry heavyweights counterbalancing each other (Ahmet Ertegun was part of the lineup at first, and one source says that his departure was the beginning of Wenner's total reign) it is widely believed to have long since become a personal playground for one outsized personality and a number of his sycophants. And that is a shame, because so many of us believe that rock is one of the most important musical art forms in history, with tremendous variety and vitality, and no sign of its diminishing after half a century (indeed I see signs that it is once again in a phase of expansion and new forms of expression). It deserves a serious institutional standard for its history and iconography, not a cabal of self-indulgent arbiters whose criteria for admission are fuzzy at best and seriously flawed at worst.

So, how could we fix the Hall of Errors? Well, clearly I think there are certain inductees who should not be there at all right now: virtually all the jazz artists, some of the blues, folk and country artists, all rock stars whose sole contribution is a lot of hit singles, possibly some of the less important divas and crooners from the 50's and early 60's. The problem in a nutshell is that there are certain artists whose absence virtually leaps out at you, having been eligible in some cases for as long as 15 years or more, and without any rational explanation of why ABBA or Bob Seger should be there and not them, it puts the whole project in question.

So here, then, is a LIST: call it the NPRRHOFM! (For the acronmyically challenged among you, that would be "Neglected Potential RRHOF Members".) Now, please note: this is not a list of my personal favorites. Far from it: anybody who knows my tastes knows that I can't even listen to half the groups on the following list. Never particularly liked The Strawbs, Roxy Music, or Mott the Hoople. Hate Kiss; not a Sabbath fan. Grand Funk and Queen each have one great album (Closer to Home and Sheer Heart Attack), the rest of both is almost unbearable.
Chicago, Alice Cooper - a few songs here and there that I can get into, that's all. I could also offer you a list of favorites who I would not include at this point: Nektar, The Fixx, The Parachute Club and the Gang of Four, for instance. In short, I'm wearing my objectivity hat here (clearly an unknown piece of haberdashery at Rolling Stone) and trying to identify groups I think are important enough in some way to be clear choices for the Hall. My choices are all made on mainly historical grounds, which I would define as:

(a) Influence: artists who were widely admired, imitated or looked to for inspiration among other important artists who came later. (Examples: Alex Chilton, Iron Butterfly, Laura Nyro, The Flying Burrito Brothers)
(b) Defining role for an era, sound or trend: artists whose overall style or sound, or some aspect thereof, is a touchstone for what became a recognized rock trend or genre. (Examples: Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Moody Blues, Blood Sweat and Tears)
(c) Important representative of sub-genre: artists who may not have been the first or only examples of their particular form of rock, but who are widely considered one of the most important representatives of that form (Examples: The Replacements, Tommy James and the Shondells, Boston)
(d) Originality: artists who stood out as unique in some generally admired way. (Examples: Tim Buckley, Jimmy Buffet, XTC, The Smiths)
(e) Key contributions: artists who don't fall into any of the first four categories, but who either took some critical step that expanded the horizons of rock, or created tracks of extraordinary quality (whether or not recognized in popularity or sales), or made very admirable technical innovations, or some similar important contribution. (Examples: King Crimson, 10CC)

I think most of the groups on my list actually have a foot in more than one of these categories. If this or some similar list of criteria were used, I suspect that a lot of the members of RRHOF would not be there, and a lot of others would. But let me say this, by way of charity: I am not against adding a category "(f): Major hitmakers", and bringing in some of those groups at a later time. It is the vindictive excising of really obvious choices like Jethro Tull and the casual inclusion of popular but otherwise unremarkable groups that exercises me. After due recognition has been given to the people who are actually important to the history of rock, let us open the gates to the people who merely wrote some catchy tunes with good hooks and made million$ from them.

Here, then, is the list. I could entertain the thought of removing some of them after hearing arguments from the field, but I'm putting in bold the artists I think it is really bordering on the absurd to keep out at this point.
Add your own in the Comments section, and try to observe the criterion of 25 years since their first released recording, as I have:

A - Arthur Alexander, The Association
B - The Boxtops, Blood Sweat and Tears, Tim Buckley, Bad Company, Blue Oyster Cult, Jimmy Buffet, B-52's, Boston
C - Alex Chilton, Chicago, Canned Heat, Alice Cooper

D - Rev. Gary Davis, Neil Diamond, Donovan (Leitch), Deep Purple
E - (Empty for now)
F - The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Foundations
G - Grand Funk,
Gentle Giant, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Guess Who
H - Roy Harper, Herman's Hermits
I - Iron Butterfly

J -
Jethro Tull, Joe Jackson, Judas Priest
K -
King Crimson, Kiss
L - Love

M -
The Monkees, The Moody Blues, John McLaughlin, Mott the Hoople, Motorhead
N - Laura Nyro
O - (Oops, can't think of any)
P -
Procol Harum, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Psychedelic Furs
Q - (?)
R -
Tampa Red, Mitch Ryder, Todd Rundgren, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, The Replacements
S - Neal Sedaka, Steppenwolf, Sonny and Cher, The Strawbs, The Specials, The Smiths, Donna Summer
T - Tommy James and the Shondells, The Turtles, 10CC, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

U - UB40

V - (Vote for your favorite)

W - Johnny Winter
, Barry White
X -
Y - Yes
Z - The Zombies, Warren Zevon

1 comment:

Ian said...

Don't mince words, Mr. Parrot, tell us what you REALLY think! LOL.

Seriously, though, your passion comes through loudly, and the piece is quite cogent. Still, in one sense you seem to be trying to have it both ways.

On the one hand, you make a good case for the complete ILLEGITIMACY of the RRHOF. And you may well be correct. However, you then seem to want to "legitimize" it by essentially "re-starting" it with new rules and parameters. And this, too, may well be correct. But both cannot be correct at the same time.

If we accept the latter, then we encounter other issues: although some suggestions are nearly unarguable (tell JW to take a hike, replace the current "board" with a combination of historians, musicians, ethnomusicologists, etc.), the question of what "qualifications" one needs to be inducted are almost certain to create controversy, since it will be near impossible to get everyone to agree what those qualifications should be.

Still, a good piece, nicely written and, as noted, tangibly passionate.