I recently discussed the 19 artists nominated to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I want to say a few more words about the rotten ground the Hall is built on: Namely, the rather staggering list of musicians, pioneers, and innovators who aren’t in the Hall.
Listen! Shattering, monumental days are ahead, days when the continent will move beneath our feet and beyond our imagination, days that will be written about centuries from now, days that will only make sense when we are bent with age, when our children (who speak ominously and excitedly of the high, white skies of Iceland and the steep, green slopes of British Columbia) are themselves parents, dyed and cynical.
But rock ’n’ roll gives me hope, or at least it mutes the foul breath of hopelessness.
Rock ’n’ roll is the beat that emerged from the beaten-down bellies of America’s poor and politically disenfranchised. The hollers and stomps and sighs and lullabies of the Cajuns, slaves, Celtics, rednecks, Slavs and Sicilians evolved, quickly and beautifully, into rock ’n’ roll. There is a direct line from the soft-lit parlors of Storyville to the endless startime of Spotify, from the down-bound blues of Parchman Prison to the red-lit stage of the Ryman Auditorium, from the clog dancing of Mount Airy to the digital spotlight of Saturday Night Live. Breath it in, babies!
No other art form was born of more suffering, and brought us more pleasure. So: I do not have fucking time to mince words. Rock ’n roll matters to me.
A few weeks ago, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced their nominations for the class of 2017. Here are some of the names those biased, corrupted, ignorant idiots left out.
Thin Lizzy are the bodhisattvas of hard pop. They took memorable, fist-pumping butter-churned guitar riffs and blended them with a deep and constant melodicism.
One of the first “hard” bands who weren’t based in the blues, old-school rock forms, or pyrotechnics and who favored compact, listener-friendly song forms, they profoundly influenced U2, the Sex Pistols, and Bon Jovi; even Green Day echoes their mix of riff, melody, and attitude.
Bassist/vocalist Phil Lynott was one of the great stars of the 1970s, and on top of all that, Thin Lizzy also invented the modern power ballad (“The Cowboy Song” is the prototype for every hair-band slow-dance prom song ever written).
Mott the Hoople were the great British rock band of the pre-punk 1970s (their Dylan-fronting-the-Kinks act has dated better than Zeppelin’s DADGAD-in-Mordor pomposity). For chrissakes, at least induct Ian Hunter, who is one of the very best rock songwriters of all time; I have zero hesitation in stating that “Irene Wilde” is the best rock ballad of all time, and Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother” is in the top five.
In fact, aside from Pete Townshend (and occasionally Chris Bailey of the Saints when he is really on point), I’m not sure there’s anyone in history who writes better Rock Band songs than Ian Hunter (note: I am making an important distinction between great “songwriters”—McCartney, Neil Diamond, Carol King, Brian Wilson, etcetera—and those who write great songs for rock bands; in the latter category, Townshend and Hunter are in a class of their own).
How about Marc Bolan and T. Rex?
T.Rex recorded some of the most durable hits in the history of British rock, sassy, rumbling and rhythmic metallic bubblegum kisses like “Bang A Gong,” “Jeepster,” “Telegram Sam,” and “Solid Gold Easy Action.” And Tim says that the first chord of “20th Century Boy” is the greatest single chord in the long history of rock ’n’ roll.
All of this (and a few others I shall shortly discuss) point to an Anglophobia on the part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that is so pronounced and obvious as to be downright bizarre.
My God, we are but a mote of dust floating in an incomprehensibly vast universe; sometimes we float in the light, but just as often we hover in the dark. Our lives and the problems that make our guts shiver cast no shadow whatsoever on time’s ceiling-less sky.
On this cruel and beautiful inkblot of impermanence, music provides a flare of distraction and pleasure. If we are kind and if we danced, how can we complain that the future has no walls, no mirror to reflect us, no book where our name is written? So obviously this is a good time to talk about Big Star.
I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t say that Big Star are one of the most important and influential artists of the last 45 years. Not one. Even weed-wacked 20-somethings who listen endlessly to Elliott Smith will nod at you and profess their love for Big Star.
The impact of Big Star on the formation of a new kind of sensitive, simple, weepy and wise guitar-based pop in the 1970s and ‘80s is enormous; it is unlikely that any artist, with the possible exception of the Velvet Underground, did more to shape the R.E.M./Replacements college radio era of the 1980s.
There are huge, shameful gaps in the Hall’s acknowledgement of the influential but lower-selling artists of the 1970s and ‘80s. That leads me to the fact that the New York Dolls aren’t in the Hall, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to admit Syd Barrett as a solo artist.
Although his work with Pink Floyd is thrilling and essential, his simple, scathing, sweet and deeply affecting solo work was way ahead of his time, and profoundly influential on the same crowd who listened to the Velvets and Big Star. Oh, and literally everyone I know who made records in the 1980s and ‘90s spent a significant amount of time listening to Nick Drake. How freaking hard would it be to put Nick Drake and Syd Barrett in the Hall?
There are plenty of other artists who created the building blocks of our era’s rock’n’roll, and who will likely get nowhere near the Hall.
Neu! re-shaped the parameters of rock ’n’ roll and made everything from Sonic Youth to Stereolab to Arcade Fire possible, yet there’s as much chance of them getting into the Hall as there is of me turning on PBS tonight and seeing Mr. Humphries going down on Mrs. Slocombe. Seriously, there is exactly that much of a chance.
Likewise, if you’re going to open up something called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and not acknowledge the impact that Black Flag, the Replacements, Motörhead and Slayer had on a wide and varied group of musicians and listeners, you shouldn’t freaking call your establishment The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Sonic Youth will get into the Hall one day, so no need to dwell on them).
The Hall also regularly inducts producers, managers, and label executives, but here’s a small selection of those they haven’t inducted:
Brian Eno isn’t in the Hall, which seems like a grotesque oversight; was he rude to Dave Marsh on an airplane once, or something?
Two of the most famous and successful managers in music history aren’t in the Hall: Albert Grossman (who is responsible for the careers of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, amongst others) and Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant (who changed the artist/label and artist/promoter relationship perhaps more than any single person). And if I was in charge of these things, I’d acknowledge Stiff Records’ Jake Riviera, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, and I’d definitely induct (as record producers) Nick Lowe and Steve Lillywhite. But I’m not in charge of these things. Heck, I’m not even a voter.
Oh, and now is a good time to mention yet freaking again that Alan Lomax, the music archivist who is, essentially, solely responsible for spreading the gospel of pre-rock ’n roll American blues and folk music and whose recordings directly influenced everyone from Led Zeppelin to Bob Dylan (and many, many others), is still not in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. This remains the Hall’s single most acute oversight (I’m stepping off of the Kraftwerk soapbox for a little while, at least until the inductees are announced; you’ll recall they were nominated this year).
Oh. Wynonie Harris. Wynonie Harris is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How about that. That’s a little like finding out that your kid’s middle school omits Thomas Jefferson from its list of presidents. Seriously.
Really, this deserves an article entirely of its own, but Wynonie Harris is, with very, very little doubt, one of the greatest and most influential rock ‘n’ roll singers of all time, perhaps the first human to sing high-energy r&b music with the clear, powerful, smooth but tense and emotionally engaged, French Horn-meets-Klaxon Horn voice we have come to identify as modern rock ‘n’ roll singing.
If you had an evolutionary chart of rock ‘n roll with those little silhouettes on it, Wynonie would be the guy between Robert Johnson and Elvis (a grotesque oversimplification, but as I said, this omission is so profound that it deserves an article unto itself).
Today, 65 and 70 years after his best-known work, Harris’ voice still cuts through the fog of time and kicks in Robert Plant’s door and says, “Um, Mrs. Plant, Robert and I are going to Adam Lambert’s house where we are going to shit in his mouth. Can you call a cab for us, please?” Because, you see, if anyone was going to have a patent on rock ‘n roll singing, it would be Wynonie Harris. Just listen to his version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” if you don’t believe me.
Leaving Wynonie Harris out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame underlines, as perhaps no other omission does, that the Hall is run by idiots who really, truly don’t know nearly as much about music as they ought to.
Let’s get back to this for a moment: In the post-Beatles era, our rock’n’pop culture is as much British as it is American. The Hall needs to change this absurd tic it has, this unwillingness to deal equitably with the British contribution to rock ’n roll, or it needs to just start calling itself the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and be done with it.
True, I covered the Hall’s British Problem fairly sufficiently in the last piece, but I’d like to underline that Kate Bush, likely the most original and influential female vocalist and songwriter of her generation, isn’t in the Hall; although she is virtually worshipped as a deity in the U.K., somehow she’s not fit to enter the Hall.
And why not mention again that the Cure and the Smiths aren’t in the Hall?
I mean, only an organization run by homophobes or assholes with an agenda would keep the Smiths out of The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and let’s just say I don’t necessarily think the Hall is run by homophobes.
And, oh dear god, there’s New Order, Joy Division, Roxy Freaking Music, and many others you will surely come up with.
The secret to happiness is coming to terms with the absurdly tiny temporary shadow we cast against the permanence of limitless space. Our place in the universe, in the endless mirror-hall of chiliocosms that make up the sky above the sky and the sky below the sky, is so utterly insignificant that every now and then we need to micro-focus on that brilliant neon red/fugue-migraine yellow leaf that sits on that tree eight yards in front of us (stop and look at it now, and watch time stop) and we must think, if only for two and one-eighths of a second, “ah, that is now, and that is enough!”
And we must cling by our chipped and bitten fingernails to all of that beautiful, sloppy, sad, under-thought and overwrought rock ’n’ roll that makes us smile, and reminds us to grin and love and share.
Music touches each and every one of us, and it is inside of us on a whole higher level, one that brings us fools precisely to the instant, to the now. So, actually, I forgive those idiots at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because I don’t need them to love or understand rock ’n roll the way I do; each one of us can love rock ’n roll just fine without them.
Still, why do they even bother when they get it so wrong? How hard would it be to get it right?
Some of our most original, most passionate, and most lasting music isn’t in the Hall.
Paul Revere & the Raiders translated high-flying New Orleans rock ’n roll into driving, sliding, slurring sexy pre-punk ecstasy; they are one of the greatest “singles” bands our country ever produced, and I have to imagine that the only reason they’re not in the Hall is because the Hall voters are too busy jacking off over pictures of Santana and Donald Fagen to get past the corny uniforms that the Raiders dressed their proto-punk in. The Raiders’ close musical relatives, the Dave Clark Five, are in the Hall, so why the eff aren’t the Raiders in?
The Sonics created the template for American garage punk, not to mention crafting the prototype for every punk rock band that thought that three chords and a horny shriek was enough to move a nation.
Let’s also note that personally I’d put both Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and ? and the Mysterians in “a” Hall of Fame before I’d even think of admitting the Talking Heads or Donovan (both artists I like, by the way). The music created by Sam the Sham and Question Mark is so distinctly and beautifully American, such a wild and original alternative to the arched, smug psych of the Beatles, that we really ought to be going out of our way to celebrate these artists, and that’s exactly what “the” Hall of Fame is not doing.
Oh, and I’m no great fan of Whitney Houston, but clearly she peed on Jann’s brie after Bon Jovi finished sneezing on it, because, wait for it, Donna Summer is in the Hall of Fame and Whitney Houston isn’t?
Whitney is one of the 15 biggest-selling artists of all time in the U.S., and since the Hall consistently honors quantity over quality, this one’s just baffling.
There are many, many other artists who surely deserve inclusion in “a” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even if they continue to be overlooked by “the” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If I’ve neglected one of your favorites, please forgive. And anyway, the most important Hall of Fame is the one in your heart.
Finally, there’s this supernaturally inorganic hallucinogenic and hyper-caloric godhead of a donut made by Stan’s Donuts in Westwood Village in Los Angeles. It’s a donut with a whole peanut butter cup inside of it, uh-huh, you heard me right, and that should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because a donut with a peanut butter cup freaking inside of it is the most rock ’n’ roll thing in the entire English-speaking world, except maybe for Dexter Romweber and Wilko Johnson.