Here’s the thing. I have no idea what the criteria are for being chosen. Most people think the reality is that Jann Wenner’s taste preferences are the primary influence on who gets in. OK, I don’t want to indulge in possible slander … I made up the part about “most people”. But at the least, there are tendencies … some genres are preferred over others, some eras are preferred over others.
Six artists are inducted as performers this year. One group gets in as “early influences”, and one artist falls into the “musical excellence” category. Eight artists in all, and the only woman is Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Eight artists in all, and only two are African-American: performer Bill Withers and early influencers The “5” Royales. There are two blues-based artists among the inductees … they are both mostly white. Essentialist arguments only get you so far, but patterns do develop.
All eight artists have a lot to offer, which is part of the reason why it’s hard to figure out which artists are “Hall of Famers” (ignoring for a moment the obvious point that the definition of a “Hall of Famer” is “someone who is in the Hall of Fame”).
The “5” Royales are a good example of “early influences”. Steve Cropper, himself an influential guitar player, recorded an entire album of songs associated with the group. Cropper calls the group’s chief songwriter and guitarist, Lowman Pauling, as his greatest influence. Pauling wrote several songs that became rock and roll classics, most notably “Dedicated to the One I Love”. I don’t know how anyone could deny that The “5” Royales were important influencers on the music.
The inductee in “musical excellence” is Ringo Starr. Now, Ringo’s drumming has been unfairly maligned for so long he has gone from underrated to, arguably, overrated. But does he fit the requirements the Hall sets for musical excellence? The Hall states, “This award honors musicians, songwriters and producers who have spent their life creating important and memorable music. Their originality, impact and influence have changed the course of music history. These artists have achieved the highest level of distinction that transcends time.” In his life, Ringo Starr has helped create an enormous body of important and memorable music. The vast majority of it came with The Beatles. The Beatles, including Ringo, are already in the Hall of Fame. Does anyone really believe Ringo’s non-Beatles work is so monumental it deserves a place in the Hall? Well, obviously, someone believes it, because he’s going to be inducted, for the second time (the other Beatles have already gotten their second inductions). But this smacks of “the other Beatles got a second, we better give one to Ringo … maybe he and Paul can have a mini-reunion at the induction concert”.
What about the six artists in as performers? The Paul Butterfield Blues Band is a favorite of mine. They headlined the second rock concert I ever attended. Butterfield is one of the great harmonica players of all time. From their earliest days in Chicago, the interracial band were invaluable in bringing the blues and rock cultures together. Their first guitar player, Elvin Bishop, has had a long career, a fine career. Their second guitar player, Mike Bloomfield, was one of rock’s very best, innovative yet rooted in the blues. “East-West”, the highlight track from the album of the same name, can lay claim to being the best long-form rock instrumental. OK, I’m allowing my own taste preferences to step in … some years ago, a CD was released that featured just three tracks, all live versions of “East-West” … I grabbed it right away. But what does it add up to? The entire band is being inducted, not Butterfield alone, so the evidence relies on the six albums that band recorded. The first two remain highly regarded (significantly, those are the ones with Bloomfield). The other four showed a gradual decline … at first, Butterfield was attempting some interesting moves away from the pure blues, but by the end, the quality wasn’t there. Their reputation rests on those first two albums, on their historical importance in blues-rock, and on “East-West”. That’s a pretty good band. But the standards for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are impossible to pin down. Perhaps that is for the best … you can’t reduce art to systems of analysis. Me, I’d want a couple more great albums, maybe more than one essential track, before I’d elevate a band to the level of a Hall of Famer.
Next up is Green Day, and I think they are an easy choice. I suppose there are people who can’t imagine the brats who made Dookie belonging in the Hall of Fame. I might wish that The Mr. T Experience got more recognition. But Green Day was/is the biggest band in their genre, pop punk. They sold a gazillion albums, they won Grammys, they adapted one of their albums into a Broadway musical that won Tonys. And yes, they were a Berkeley band, and their bass player co-owns Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café, which matters mostly to my wife and I, since we eat there frequently.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Those of us who love both rock and roll and baseball can’t help but compare the respective Halls of Fame of our favorites. This usually takes the following form: you think of a rocker, then you try to figure out which baseball player best matches the career of the rocker. I don’t like to keep telling the same story, and I don’t like completely relying on the words of another, but Christgau nailed this one. He had given a grade of B+ to four straight albums by Jett in the 80s, and when it came time to review Up Your Alley, he wrote, “Jesus I wish she was just a little bit better than she actually is … But though nobody else male or female puts out such a reliable brand of hard rock, lean and mean and pretension-free, and though being female gives her an edge in a quintessentially male subgenre, not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea. B+”. Joan Jett is the ballplayer who put together a long career, made the occasional all-star team, was a member of a World Series champion, and while they were never the best player on their team, they were always one of the best, and they were “good in the clubhouse”. She was Gene Tenace. Tenace was a good player, underrated, I suspect. He was not a Hall of Famer. Whether Joan Jett belongs depends on how much value you place on her status as a role model. I think that in this case, that status is very important, and I don’t think her induction is an embarrassment to the Hall.
Lou Reed. I love the Velvet Underground, and I spent a good portion of my life intensely following Lou’s career. I don’t know that multiple inductions are a good idea, but Reed’s solo career was separate enough from the Velvets to make it right that he has a second chance. His solo career was erratic, but the highs were very high. I think he belongs.
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. I don’t feel qualified to speak on Vaughan. He was an immensely talented guitar player, people who like his kind of music put Vaughan at the top of the heap, and he had a lot to do with a revival of interest in the blues. I liked his music whenever I heard it, never really sought it out.
Bill Withers. Baseball’s Hall of Fame has procedures for returning to the past, looking for valuable players who were overlooked before. Some of those players end up in the Hall. Bill Withers would seem to be one of those kinds of players. He was an excellent soul man in a singer/songwriter mode who had several hits, including the unforgettable “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me,” and “Lean on Me”. As late as 1981, he had a top-five single. His work fell off a few years after his big hits, but that’s a pretty common occurrence with rock and pop stars. Here’s the thing: Withers has recorded only one album in the last 35 years, and that was back in 1985. If Withers was Hall-worthy, what took them so long to induct him? Nothing about his work has changed in the last thirty years. Would I vote for him? I think he made the kind of music that doesn’t get a lot of respect, and it’s nice that he’s being recognized when he’s still alive to accept it.
So, who is missing? The most obvious choice is Chic. There was no better band in the history of disco. They had numerous hits, along with albums that were as good as the singles. Guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards were as important to the sound of Chic as the Funk Brothers were to Motown. Their influence spread far beyond disco, with Edwards’ bass lines in particular being regularly sampled by hip-hop artists. Chic is a monumental band in the history of rock and roll, and they have been nominated for the Hall ten times. Yet they have yet to be inducted. There is no sensible reason for this.
The Smiths were nominated this year. I’m not a big fan, but there’s no denying their legacy. They are #26 on the artists rankings at Acclaimed Music, which collates critical opinion. Other notables who were nominated but not inducted this year include Kraftwerk, War, N.W.A., and the Spinners.
I guess this group isn’t an embarrassment. Ringo as a solo artist is a stretch, and Chic belongs.