Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Is Moving Closer to Parody than Relevance

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Let’s start this with a disclaimer.

From my youth, I’ve loved music. I can remember saving up my money when my age was yet in single digits to buy records to play at home. As I got into high school, me and my best friend DJ (his real name was Dennis, but DJ was the ONLY name he went by) would go on field trips to nearby Champaign and religiously make a pilgrimage to the University of Illinois’ campus record store, Mabel’s (yes, back then it was a record store and had a small performance area). We’d emerge after hours of scanning over the racks with armfuls of albums, with my stack normally leaning towards things like the Bus Boys, Elvis Costello and the Motels, among literally hundreds of others.

After high school, I delved into the world of music even more. While in college I started working as a radio DJ, something that would be a career over the next 20-plus years of my life. From that small college station until I was a Music Director at an AOR (Album Oriented Rock) station in a Top 75 market (and even afterwards when I went into news/talk), music – and rock music in particular – was a staple in my life. As I have gotten older, music still resonates with me and, with age, I’ve expanded my listening interests into many diverse styles of music including two that I previously despised, rap and country.

Thus, it pains me when I say the following:  After looking at the list of the nominees for induction into the Class of 2017 for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which was released a couple of weeks ago, I’ve now come to the realization that enshrinement in this group is moving closer to a parody along the lines of This is Spinal Tap than being the venerable Valhalla of rock music that it should be.

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Yes, there’s been these rumblings before. None were louder, perhaps, than the commentary from one of last year inductees, Steve Miller, regarding what the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has become. In various areas, Miller railed over pretty much every aspect of the Hall (“I think it’s time for the people running this to turn it over to new people…you don’t need to insult every artist that comes along,” was one of his calmer comments), signifying his displeasure with the outfit. “You tell me what the hell is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and what does it do besides talk about itself and sell postcards?” he asked.

Miller was the embodiment of what many had said of late regarding the Hall. Thought of originally as the pinnacle of rock music royalty, of late the Hall has been inducting what many would consider “non-rock” artists and bands, stating that their contributions “to rock music history and music overall” warranted their induction into rock music’s biggest honor. I’ve always contended that, in 9.9 of 10 of those cases where the artist wasn’t “rock” (a very wide ranging scope, to be honest), then their contribution to the actual evolution of rock was pertinent (this is why I don’t have a problem with Johnny Cash being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).

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In looking at the crop of nominees for the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there are some very qualified candidates on the list. One of the “first time” nominees for the hall is Pearl Jam and they should be a virtual lock for entry because of their contributions to the “Seattle sound” that was pioneered by Nirvana and their group. Another first-time nominee – and this one surprised me quite a bit – was Electric Light Orchestra, who should also find their way into the Hall for their innovative usage of electronics, keyboards and production (all in the masterful hands of Jeff Lynne) and their contributions to the music.

Whereas in year’s past I didn’t get bugged by some of the “non-rock” nominees – hell, I agree that rap acts like the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and N.W.A. and other “non-rock” acts like Donna Summer, Darlene Love and Bob Marley SHOULD be in the Hall – this year’s list of nominees left me wondering why they were being nominated when they shouldn’t have even been considered. Besides Pearl Jam and ELO, here’s the list of other nominations (asterisk means it is a first-time nomination):

Kraftwerk
Yes
The Cars
The Zombies
Joe Tex
J. Geils Band
The MC5
Bad Brains*
Depeche Mode*
Jane’s Addiction*
Joan Baez*
Journey*
Steppenwolf*
Janet Jackson
Chaka Khan
Chic
Tupac Shakur*

Now, you could give me viable reasons for any of the artists down to Steppenwolf being nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Personally, why Journey and Steppenwolf have never been considered previously is gross misconduct by Hall voters. Over the remainder of the list, I personally would question the inclusion of Joe Tex (yes, a hard-working individual who overcame a great deal of adversity to become a rival of Hall of Famer James Brown), the J. Geils Band (solid group, not “Hall of Fame” outstanding) and Bad Brains and maybe Jane’s Addiction (reasoning ditto to J. Geils’ nomination). Where it goes off the rails for me – repeat, for the first time ever – is in some of the “non-rock” nominations.

Chic has been nominated several times and, on first view, they would be a viable contender. The real drivers of that group, however, were Nile Rodgers, the late Bernard Edwards and the late drummer Tony Thompson. Inducting a “group” requires that all the members were great and that’s where Chic falls short. I can see nominating and even inducting Rodgers and Thompson (I remember his powerful work with Robert Palmer and The Power Station – outstanding music), but to put every person in Chic (usually featuring a rotating cast of female vocalists that joined Rodgers and Edwards) isn’t Hall worthy.

Jackson and Khan, while fine vocalists who were charting gold during their careers, didn’t exactly do anything that would have separated them away and make them Hall worthy, either. Being the sister of the members of the Jackson 5 isn’t an immediate pass (and, really, what did she do that was notable?). Khan, if you include her time with Rufus, has a bit more credibility as to Hall-worthiness, but there’s not enough of it on the resume to push her over the top.

My biggest criticism would be with Shakur, however. Yes, Tupac was one of the first voices for “gangsta rap,” but we’ve already inducted the originator of that field in N.W.A. Additionally, if you induct Shakur, why aren’t you inducting Biggie Smalls (just as powerful a performer and rapper) or Sean “Puff Daddy/P-Diddy (or whatever the hell he calls himself these days)” Combs for their work? Shakur is one of those performers that, in many people’s eyes, an early (and violent) death made them a musical martyr. As such, he must be revered in their opinion…reverence because of near-deification is not what I would call Hall worthy.

When it comes to “non-rock” entities, you’ve got to have blown the doors off things to be considered for entry inside the gates. A Madonna, a Johnny Cash, a Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five…THESE are the types of performers who, by their music and by their styles, personified the “rock attitude” despite the fact they weren’t performing traditional “rock” music. Every one of the persons or bands nominated this year don’t fit that category for enshrinement.

Of course, I couldn’t end this without my own “WHY AREN’T THESE GUYS NOMINATED” choices, and this is just a sample of those that should have already been in the Hall. Pat Benatar, Warren Zevon, Jimmy Buffett, Dolly Parton (one hell of a songwriter who has had an impact on music overall, what the Hall is supposed to venerate), Kate Bush, Roxy Music, Iron Maiden, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, X, Duran Duran and Kool and the Gang (all never nominated) and the New York Dolls, the Wailers and Afrika Bambaataa all should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame RIGHT NOW as they have arguably done more for “rock” music than those under consideration for 2017.

But I digress, at least for now. We’ve got the list of nominees and, for this year, we’ll have to deal with them. But if the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t want to continue down that road of becoming a joke of itself, a parody of what it is supposed to represent, it would behoove them to start considering the actual ROCK artists (and those “non-rock” performers who truly had an impact) that they are bypassing.

2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominations: Who Gets In?

It seems that there is a “Hall of Fame” for virtually every aspect of human existence. If you are into clowns, there is the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee, WI, that is in actuality a serious look at a funny industry. On the lighter side, there is a Recreational Vehicle and Manufactured Housing Hall of Fame in Elkhart, IN, the “Pig Hill Hall of Fame” in East Elijay, GA and the International Hamburger Hall of Fame in Daytona Beach, FL (look these up, you’ll enjoy the laugh). Whereas some of these exist with their tongue firmly planted in cheek, there are those that have the gravitas deserving of a memorial to excellence.

Where the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH, lands is something that is debatable among Halls of Fame and music aficionados. In my opinion, it does honor, cherish and memorialize the greatest musicians and performers that have come through the genre. On the other hand you have my friend Mark, who believes that the Hall “is a totally lost cause and deserves to be burned to the ground…then the ground itself sewn with salt and dumped into Lake Erie.” As you can tell, just a little difference of opinion there.

Created in 1983 by a contingent of music biggest names (then-Atlantic Records founder and chairman Ahmet Ertegun, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner and several other prominent music executives), the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame didn’t get around to inducting members until 1986, when the inaugural class consisting of such luminaries as Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, DJ Alan Freed, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others (here’s the list) were voted in as the inaugural class. Even after they started inducting members into the “Hall,” they lacked a physical location to properly acknowledge the inductees.

Although several cities with extensive ties to U. S. music history and the foundations of rock music, including Memphis, Detroit, Cincinnati and New York City were considered for the location, it was Cleveland that came up as the big winner in being named the home city of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 (Wenner was disappointed that New York didn’t get the Hall). Why did Cleveland, of all places, get the Hall? As it is with most things, it was money; Cleveland ponied up $65 million in public funding and more than 600,000 residents demonstrated their desire in signing a petition to bring the Hall to “America’s North Coast.”

Even with the money and the people in place, it would take another decade before the physical Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was built. In 1995, the I. M. Pei-designed building opened amid the fanfare of a huge concert that featured such rock luminaries as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and Iggy Pop. Since then, it is estimated that more than 9 million visitors have made the trek to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to pay their respects to the legends of the industry.

Now in its 33rd year of existence, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has caused its share of controversy as well as celebration. For every rock legend like a Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry ensconced in rock music’s Mount Olympus, there are those such as Dinah Washington (1993), Earth, Wind and Fire (2000), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (2007) and many others who aren’t exactly what you would think of when mentioning “rock music.” In particular, there is the Rock Hall’s recent moves toward recognizing “pop” music in its rolls (Madonna in 2008 and ABBA in 2010, to be precise) that seems to have angered rock “purists” beyond belief.

In my opinion, “rock music” is a wide encompassing umbrella. While some may not believe that the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson (an original inductee in 1986) had an influence on the genre, his exclusion from the Hall would be laughable for an organization looking to honor those who created “rock music.” Even such artists as Grandmaster Flash, one of the groundbreaking musicians in the rap genre, deserves induction into the Hall for his contributions to, yes, “rock music.” While I might have some personal preference issues with some of those in the Hall (especially Madonna), I’m more of the line that they are worthy of their inclusion in the institution due to their overall contributions to music in general and sometimes even rock music.

The list of nominees for induction in 2016 to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame once again reach across the decades and the genres. So who will have the best chance to get in this year? I’ve broken it down into three categories:  Shouldn’t Even Be Considered, Borderline Excellence and Sure Shot Legends.

Shouldn’t Even Be Considered

Chaka Khan – A long career in the industry best identified by her work with the seminal R&B group Rufus, but not exactly what I would call an indispensable musical artist. Without the ability to actually cite someone that she has had an extreme influence on – perhaps Nora Jones, maybe Alicia Keys? – Khan loses points on the “legend” scale. Add in the lack of longevity to her career and I’d have to say Khan shouldn’t be considered.

Chic – If this were a question as to voting in two of the members of the band – guitarist/producer Nile Rodgers and drummer Tony Thompson – then I’d be more than willing to welcome them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The problems are that Chic didn’t last all that long – they were one of the powerhouses of the Disco Era – but both Rodgers and Thompson’s greatest work came outside of their Chic days. Rodgers has been an outstanding producer across the entirety of the musical spectrum and Thompson laid down some of his best work with the rock super group Power Station. To put the entire band in when it was really Rodgers and Thompson who are deserving of the honor is a bit much.

Los Lobos – There is more than enough room in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to look at how different cultures had an impact on the formation of the genre. For their part, Los Lobos is one of those artists or groups that would have to be considered. Unfortunately, they fall short on several aspects, including influence on later artists and general impact in the history of rock. Their only #1 song in the U. S. was a remake of “La Bamba,” for crying out loud. Los Lobos, unfortunately, shouldn’t have even made this list.

Steve Miller – The thing about ANY “Hall of Fame” is that it isn’t a “Hall of the Pretty Good.” That same “level” of excellence needs to be used here with Steve Miller. Although Fly Like an Eagle was a legendary album and certain songs he created are very memorable, I don’t hear any artist over the past 20 years or so admitting how much of an influence Miller was on their careers. I can’t put someone in the Hall that was simply good at doing their job, as Miller was, thus he falls into this category.

The Spinners – Once again, a case of pretty good but not legendary. The Spinners actually should be praising those legendary R&B groups before them (The Temptations, The Four Tops, etc.) as there aren’t many that note them as a seminal influence in their formation. Also not very long-lived as a group.

The Smiths – This is one of those that is on the border between getting out of this ranking and into the “Borderline Excellence” grouping. The group has had a huge influence on many other rock acts following it, but to say it had a huge degree of success might be stretching the term. Morrissey probably had more of an effect as a solo artist than the band did as a whole and longevity has to be called into question.

Borderline Excellence

Cheap Trick – As a longtime fan of the band – they were a constant on radio stations and at parties when I was growing up – I’d like to give Cheap Trick more love than I believe the Hall voters are going to give them. The band was a regional act – highly successful in the Midwest – but didn’t exactly have the staying power as the 80s closed. They are also hugely overrated by VH1, who put them in at #25 of the Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. In fact, Cheap Trick has the potential to go from this category down to the previous one.

The Cars – Another one of those “great, but not immortal” bands that came out of the 1980s. Unless you count singer Ric Ocasek’s ability to pick up a stunning bride (model Paulina Porizkova), The Cars weren’t outstanding in any area. They showed up, they did the job and they took home the supermodels. There are many other people who are more deserving of a seat in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame over this band.

Janet Jackson – This was a problematic one for me. Ask three different people where she should be, according to the rankings that we have here, and each of those three different people would probably put her in each category. She didn’t exactly blaze a trail – her brothers did that for her – and her music wasn’t exactly groundbreaking or influential. For a period there in the 80s, however, it was either her or Madonna reigning as the dominant female artist on the charts. For me, she falls into this category and perhaps one day might sway me to having her in the Hall.

Nine Inch Nails – Here we have another band that is thisclose to ticking over into the “Sure Shot Legends” group. Trent Reznor’s pet project for well over two decades, the band pushed the “industrial” rock movement forward and was the catalyst for a band such as Rammstein and much of the EDM movement today. Reznor is a talented musician who has won an Oscar for his score of the film The Social Network and is the recipient of other major awards; a couple more achievements like that and Nine Inch Nails will get in if not Reznor by himself.

Sure Shot Legends

Chicago – One of those bands that you say to yourself, “You mean they aren’t already in?” Chicago pioneered the jazz fusion rock that seemed to come out of the late 60s/early 70s, something that is still heard today in some of the music (Michael Buble or Adele comes to mind). For much of the 1970s and even the early 1980s, Chicago was a dominant force on the music scene. We’ll have to cut them some slack for the Peter Cetera Years, but it is high time that Chicago was a part of the biggest club in rock music.

Deep Purple – One of the most egregious errors ever committed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has been the omission of this band from its rolls. The originators of “hard rock” or “heavy metal,” the band lasted from the late 60s into the 21st century, churning out bombastic rock all the way to the end. They also inspired many hard rock and metal bands that came out of the latter half of the 20th century. The only problem with putting Deep Purple in the Hall is which “Mark” do you put in? My vote goes to Deep Purple Mark II, which featured Ian Gillan, Jon Lord, Roger Glover, Ian Paice and Ritchie Blackmore as the members of the band and originators of such classics as “Smoke on the Water” and “Highway Star.”

The J.B.’s – If you’re going to have the singer for the group – legendary R&B performer James Brown – in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you’ve got to have the band that backed him up. While Brown was renowned for the incendiary performances that he would leave on stage, somebody had to keep up with him on the musical side of the equation. The J.B.’s did exactly that, with saxophonist Maceo Parker and the Collins BrothersWilliam “Bootsy” and Phelps “Catfish” – eventually moving on to another landmark group, Parliament/Funkadelic in later years.

N.W.A. – This is probably my most controversial selection for election into the Hall. The originators of “gangsta rap,” N.W.A. still has their imprints on the music scene today. When they came out in the late 80s, their fist-to-the-face depiction of life in the inner city served as a reminder of what music can do when used as a tool for social change. It may be arguable whether “gangsta rap” effected that change at all, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying from N.W.A. and others. Add in the influence that the group had on other artists and N.W.A. should have been in the Hall long ago; they’ll probably get in this year on the steam generated from the film Straight Outta Compton.

Yes – Much like Chicago, “They aren’t in already?” The two bands are quite similar in that Yes was one of the first bands to push the “progressive rock” (or “prog rock”) sound that incorporated a great deal of keyboards and operatic flourishes. Yes was a “jam band” before jam bands were cool, often putting out individual songs that seemed as long as some artists’ albums. “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout,” “Owner of a Lonely Heart” – the band was a critical and commercial success across the ages and, as such, deserves to be in the Hall.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will allow for fans to vote on their website and that “fan vote” will be tabulated alongside ballots from other musical dignitaries to determine the final five or six who will walk through the doors in Cleveland to further rock immortality come April next year. Who will earn the honors? We’ll find out at the beginning of 2016.

Who should have been nominated? That, my friends, is a subject for another time…