Miles Davis? See, this is one of the RRHF's main problems -- this incessant need to get all multi-culti on everyone, and throw in politically-correct "kumbaya" picks that have fuck-all to do with either rock or roll. That's not a slam against Miles, but jazz is not rock, and rock is not jazz. You think the Jazz Hall Of Fame plans on inducting Van Halen any time soon? Me neither. I suppose one can give Miles the benefit of the doubt, given his frequent collaborations with quasi-rock guitarists like John McLaughlin, but still, this pick smacks of political correctness and institutional genuflection. Call me crazy, but that seems just a tad un-rock to me.
Now, Lynyrd Skynyrd, eh. I never thought much of 'em, I loathe Sweet Home Alabama and its redneck racism (though much to my chagrin, I did do it in my cover band days), but at least you can make an argument for them. They certainly spearheaded the southern boogie rock movement, lamentable as most of it is, and influence counts for something (indeed, it should be a key criterion for nomination, much less induction, and there is a section of nominees called "early influences", though I have no idea what modern musician demonstrates any influence of, say, the Staple Singers). So I can see where they merit induction.
Sabbath is about the only pick from this list I can really endorse, and it has more to do with taking a look around at the rock music trends of the last....oh, I don't know, 20 years or so, and hearing a great many of them directly or indirectly influenced by Tony Iommi's sinister tritone riffs and Ozzy's methodical chants of the perils of the modern age. Very few bands show the influence of, say, the Stones or the Beatles, even though they are constantly held up as the be-all end-all of the genre. Almost every hard-rock or metal band out there flaunts their Sabbath influences right up front.
(And frankly, even just in the narrower category of '60s rock, I think The Who and The Kinks were each superior bands to the Beatles and Stones. They were far more thematically and musically developed, and far more willing to push the conceptual boundaries of the genre without falling into the twee acid-tinged pastiches of For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite and the like.)
Then we come to the joke picks. I mean, The Sex Pistols? One album gets you in now? Well, sounds like they run quite a tight ship down there in Self-Referential Rock Critic Asshole Land. And Blondie, a cheesy disco band with two or three very minor pop gems and one dumb, campy "rap" thing about men from Mars eating cars or some weird cokehead shit. Nicely done, folks. Shall we induct Rick Dees next, for the timeless greatness that is Disco Duck?
I mean, you don't have to find five performers every year, now do you? If you just ran out of people you thought merited admission, say so. Don't further demean an already largely irrelevant concept by pretending a couple of trendy one-hit goofballs belong up there with Elvis and Led Zeppelin.
Here is the RRHF's list of 500 songs that shaped rock 'n' roll. There's a lot that's good about this list; there's some that's odd. If I were going to pick one song from ZZ Top to put in, that signified what that band was all about, it sure wouldn't have been Legs. But that was their biggest single, I suppose, which is what this is really all about.
Really? We can't? Why the hell not? Jesus Christ, have they noticed how heavily weighted the lists are to soul and R&B artists?
I note for the record that Public Enemy's Fight The Power is on the list of 500 songs, incidentally. Seriously, I like Chuck D and all, but this insistence that Grandmaster Flash had something to do with rock is just nuts. Certainly there were successful crossover rap and hip-hop artists, who will probably get their props in due time. Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and their peers will get recognized....or, they may just punt and give some love to MC Hammer and Tone Loc. You just never know.
Here is a complete list of RRHF inductees to date. And I, for one, am a better man for knowing that The Impressions are on that list. Whoever they are.
In other words, they had nothing. Which is astonishing to me. I mean, I'm not trying to engage some silly fanboy obscurantism and sing the manifold praises of Can or Aztec Camera. But shit, how about The Cars, a power-pop dynamo that ruled the early '80s with infectious hooks and the tastiest guitar solos this side of Jeff Beck? And Ric Ocasek still does fine work, producing albums for bands like Weezer, in between marathon sex romps with Paulina Porizkova (I assume).
How about Todd Rundgren, a fantastic multi-instrumentalist and a great American pop/rock songwriter? How about harder groups that are well overdue, like Motörhead or Rush? Both groups are still on top of their game after over a quarter-century, without all the unnecessary hype that accompanies every greasy dump or knocked-up Brazilian model associated with Mick Jagger. How about Frank Zappa, a true American original, the philosopher-king of some of the most unique and scathing musical satire/commentary of the last century. Are we still seriously thinking about Blondie and the fucking Sex Pistols?
It's best not to dig too much into the mentality of weird little clubs like the RRHF, because it's not really about the music. Like the commercials that pillage a few key phrases from the choruses of minor hits from 30 years ago, these things are meant to evoke a frisson of nostalgia, a wistful yearning for a time and place that never really existed, not in the framework that's being sold. Soundtracks for karaoke machines and shitty commercials, that's what it boils down to.
Robert Fripp, in commenting on the decisions about art vs. commerce that every serious musician must eventually make, helpfully offered the zen axiom that in commerce, the musician makes the music, while in art, the music makes the musician. We can extrapolate this idea quite easily to observe how music is consumed at large in the public arena. It is used most frequently in the advertising milieu, to encourage folks to buy shit they don't really want with money they don't really have. Or it can be used to roll out a "live concert tour", where chances are you will pay north of $100 to watch a band ape its hits to a backing track. The goal here is to use the thrill of a captive "event" as a vehicle to get you to pay $6 for a bottle of water, not realizing that you could just save yourself the trouble and pop their CD into your car stereo, drive to the 7-11, and pay $1.49 for the same bottle.
Or you could stay home, crank up the stereo, and drink from the tap. It's a world of possibilities.
I am overly cynical about the uses of music, paradoxically, because I am overly idealistic about the transformational power of truly excellent music. I am currently looking over my new DVD of Rush's 30th anniversary tour last year. (Why yes, I did play Dungeons & Dragons when I was in high school. How did you guess?) To be sure, it is flawed, in the way all great bands are flawed -- there is simply too much to draw from to please everyone. There are worse flaws to have.
Now, what a band like Rush (and there are many others, but they were the first to demonstrate this principle to me as a young aspiring musician) brings to the table is not just their instrumental virtuosity. They were really the antithesis of a shithead prefab band like the Sex Pistols in so many ways. There were bands with a punk ethos that I liked quite a bit back in the day, but the Pistols were not one of them. They were stuck in a contradiction -- either they were fake, or they were cheating their fans with non-existent effort and notoriously awful performances.
But Rush did not worry about the confines of the four-minute radio single, nor did they confine themselves to the usual lyrical tropes of getting some action and driving in my car, looking for some more of said action. They have been content to let the music do the talking, and the work ethic back it up. And I defy you to find a good rock drummer who does not claim at least some influence from Neil Peart. The guy has been the undisputed dean of rock drumming for a couple decades now. The other two guys aren't half bad either.
Motörhead, believe it or not, has a very similar approach to the craft. Pound for pound, they may be the all-around best straight-ahead rock band on the planet. I say this having seen them play a pissant 300-seat club in a cow town out in the middle of nowhere, and bring it like it was Madison Square Garden. That is the quintessence of kicking ass, which is really what rock and roll is supposed to be about.
Yet bands like these get ignored year after year by the "mainstream" "music" press, because most of them are little putzes who just read each others' screeds and try desperately to spot the new trend before it jumps the shark. Some of it is the bands' own fault; they do not fall into the usual "rock star" paradigm. Big-titted groupies are not anxiously waiting to blow Geddy Lee in the stadium parking lot.
But to get back to my point, a lot of it has to do with the way music is perceived as a product, with the accompanying consumption rituals. Used to be that the album or tour was the product in itself; now it's just something to sell something else. This is reflected in the vertiginous A&R corporate structure that has the conventional record industry on the verge of collapse. Though the music industry has never been a bastion of ethical conduct, at least back in the day major record companies tended to be run by people like Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic, who wanted to make money, but also genuinely liked being part of a creative process. Thus innovative bands like Led Zeppelin and Yes were given plenty of time to develop a following and a cohesive sound.
Since the mid-'80s, the corporatization of the music industry has sent the creative process into something of a tailspin. Don't get me wrong; there's still good music out there. But bands are no longer given much time to get it together. If the first album stiffs (or just doesn't quite perform as well as expected), a band can easily find itself out.
Using Atlantic as an example once again, consider some of the truly innovative rock bands they had on their roster in the late-'80s -- King's X, Saigon Kick, Enuff Z'Nuff, Mr. Big. (Yes, I know, right now you're saying "Mr. Big?" as if they were Poison or something. But aside from the two power ballads that made them money and got them lumped in with hair bands like Warrant, they were actually an excellent straight-ahead rock band, with arguably the most talented guitar-bass tandem ever, in Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan.)
What did Atlantic do with all those bands? Well, they never knew what to do with the first two in terms of marketing, so they just sent them out on the road together with no promo and no radio support. The other two were more pop-metal in style, but aside from the aforementioned Mr. Big power ballads, neither band got near their due. (Though Mr. Big did get an opportunity as the opening act for Rush on their Presto tour.) Because that was the age of the blockbuster album, and every A&R weasel was expected to find the next Guns 'n' Roses. So bands no longer got cultivated properly by the record companies. They'd just send an A&R guy to hang out on the Sunset Strip, check a couple shows, throw some money at a few spandex bands with a weedly-weedly style guitar player, and see if anyone bought it. When they stopped buying it, the companies were at a loss.
The trend accelerated in the '90s, hitting its low point with the advent of the boy bands. By this time the majors had decided that the smart financial move was to just dump all the promo money into the rollout for one favored artist on their roster, to turn it into that blockbuster. Meanwhile everyone else on the label got short shrift.
Thankfully, the steadily-declining prices of digital equipment, coupled with the development of the internet, have all but rendered record companies obsolete, by democratizing the tools of production and distribution. They're still with us; the dinosaurs didn't die off overnight either. But their time is up, and as the CD itself is rendered obsolete by innovations in portable hard-drive technology (iPods, etc.), even the need for physical distribution channels is gone, and that was the sole remaning strength of the corporate music entity.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is part of that bloated, wasteful entity, as are the loathsome Grammies and the rest of the masturbatory award shows. It's all corporate weasels slapping each others' backs, grateful for yet another holiday season that consumers got bamboozled into shelling out $20 for a Britney Spears CD with one hit and the rest filler. Occasionally they get it right with Green Day or System of a Down, but more often they get it way wrong.
So maybe it's better to let the RRHF have the Sex Pistols and Blondie and such. Maybe it'd be an insult to a band with integrity to get recognized by the kewl kidz, who really peaked in high school when you get right down to it. (And yes, I realize that there are plenty of bands with integrity in there, like Aerosmith, Queen, and U2. Even a stopped corporate clock is right twice a day, provided that the committee signs off on it at the board meeting.)
But just for the hell of it, feel free to throw in your own vicarious nominations in comments.