The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Trade Machine: Let’s Kick Out James Taylor, and Seven More Ways to Improve Music’s Crock of a MuseumElias Stein
On Saturday, the following artists will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Lou Reed, Green Day, Bill Withers, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Ringo Starr, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and the “5” Royales. On behalf of mankind, I offer my congratulations to these luminaries on what is truly a momentous honor.
Now, let’s talk once again about how the Rock Hall is a crock and desperately needs to be reformed.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame typically elicits three kinds of negative responses. The first kind — indifference — doesn’t concern us, so let’s skip ahead to the next two: anger over an inductee who is deemed undeserving, and anger over an artist who is deserving but isn’t inducted. Pretty much every argument about the Rock Hall revolves around one of those scenarios. People either get pissed about Green Day entering the pantheon, or they get pissed about Chic being excluded. But nobody ever suggests using one injustice to correct another.
Instead of complaining that such and such band doesn’t deserve Rock Hall immortality, or that a different such and such band should’ve been immortalized a long time ago, why don’t we simply trade one for the other? The Rock Hall needs a GM, and I’m volunteering my services. After analyzing the market for snubs vs. overrated inductees, I’ve come up with eight trades that will restore some legitimacy to this maligned institution.
Before we begin, let me be clear: I’m not necessarily suggesting that the artists being traded out don’t deserve to be in the Rock Hall. The crux of every Rock Hall controversy comes down to priorities — who needs to be inducted in order for the Hall of Fame to adequately represent the breadth of popular music? These trades are about clearing out some of the deadwood and replacing it with more solid foundations.
Nearly every discussion about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is inevitably derailed by semantics. What exactly do we mean by “rock and roll”? In the context of the Rock Hall, rock and roll is understood to denote all forms of popular music. But “rock and roll” no longer has that ecumenical connotation anywhere else in our culture. Nobody says, “The youth of today are in love with rock-and-roll artists like Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars,” just as “jazz” is no longer cultural shorthand for horniness and shooting heroin. In 2015, “rock and roll” is practically synonymous with folk music. All forms of pop wind up in that zone eventually. In 2045, it’s going to require an NPR fundraising drive in order to keep EDM on the radio.
The only people who still use the term “rock and roll” in regular conversation tend to look at it more narrowly as strictly guitar-based, rock and roll rock and roll music. This naturally causes confusion with regard to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and prompts some of the most annoying music debates ever. How is Rock Hall inductee Madonna more “rock and roll” than non–Rock Hall inductee Deep Purple, the band responsible for “Smoke on the Water,” the anthem of Guitar Center stores from coast to coast? Why is Donna Summer in the Rock Hall but not Thin Lizzy? How in the world does ABBA out-rock T. Rex?
I’m not interested in rehashing any of those arguments, because I think they’re dumb. I will argue, however, that James Taylor should be kicked out of the Rock Hall, and Judas Priest should be put in.
James Taylor is one of the most successful and emblematic artists of the ’70s singer-songwriter era. His most popular songs — “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina in My Mind,” “You’ve Got a Friend” — are still mainstays of whatever the “good times, great oldies” station is in your town. When Taylor heads out on tour later this year, he’ll be filling arenas all over the country. But James Taylor does not rock, nor does he roll. His music isn’t even in the same ballpark as rock and roll — it’s more like “nod and nap.” Just listen to Taylor’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You),” the single least rockin’ recording ever released by a major so-called rock artist.
Now consider the legacy of Judas Priest, who sound like this:
Judas Priest are second only to fellow Birmingham natives Black Sabbath as a primary influence on the sound and iconography of heavy metal. They popularized black leather, backward masking, and gay lead singers who arrive onstage riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, among other important innovations.
Taylor wrote and recorded songs that have been enjoyed by millions of people, but he didn’t invent anything. He’s not elemental to the history of modern music — he’s not even among the greatest or most important singer-songwriters of his time. He is the 13th-best boomer-era singer-songwriter in the Hall, after Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Elton John, Carole King, Elvis Costello, and Billy Joel. Meanwhile, Judas Priest is easily a top-five band in the history of metal. You can hear it in pretty much every hard-rock and metal band that came after, just by virtue of Priest having established this music as a viable genre.
The Rock Hall is lousy with people who play Taylor’s position, and woefully deficient in the metal category. Therefore, Sweet Baby James should be put on the bench.
As a white person born in the ’70s, I am intimately familiar with Sting’s pre-lute period. And I consider myself a fan. I respect the brilliance of Stewart Copeland’s drumming. I appreciate the underrated tastefulness of Andy Summers’s guitar playing. I can tell Outlandos d’Amour from Zenyatta Mondatta. But in the words of a wise (though admittedly crazy) motherfucker named Ice Cube, fuck the Police.
Let’s look at the facts: For a brief period in the early ’80s, around when Synchronicity was the go-to soundtrack for pretentious teenaged Jungian devotees everywhere, the Police were the biggest band in the world. But in retrospect, the Police are overshadowed historically by the punk and new wave groups that preceded them (like the Clash and Talking Heads) and the arena-ready alternative bands that came right after (namely, U2 and R.E.M.).
More than a quarter-century after Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A is still one of the three best rap groups ever, along with Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan. At least two of the members — Dr. Dre and Ice Cube — have solo careers more than worthy of HOF consideration.1 A band like the Police warrant induction before a group like N.W.A only if you believe that mainstream rock is the center of popular music and every other genre is ancillary. That belief simply doesn’t reflect reality.
Think of it this way: If you transfer N.W.A to a rock paradigm, they’re the Sex Pistols, a quintessential shooting star fueled by insolence and spit. If you transfer the Police to a rap paradigm, they’re Digable Planets — really good, but not essential. N.W.A wins.
Last week, Billboard ran a fascinating story about the inner workings of the Rock Hall that basically confirmed what everybody already assumed. The board membership is overwhelmingly white, male, and old. Music that rose to prominence after 1981 is regarded with deep suspicion. Artists who don’t play straight-down-the-line classic rock will continue to face a hard road to induction.
To quote one of the dozen anonymous insiders interviewed by Rob Tannenbaum: “Like anything boomer-centric, people are going to hold on to it as if their lives depend on it. You’ll have to pry the Hall of Fame from their cold, dead fingers.”
Now, I don’t bring this up just to implicate Bonnie Raitt. I’m a person with two ears and a heart, so I recognize that “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is the most beautiful passive-aggressive love song ever recorded. Raitt is totally fine — a fine singer, a fine guitarist, and a fine career overall. But she’s in the Rock Hall because she had the right kind of career at the right time. Raitt was associated with the L.A. rock scene of the ’70s, and then reemerged in the late ’80s to win a bunch of Grammys. She was famous when boomers cared about new music, and she came back just in time to remind those same people of her existence when they started building a formal pop canon.
Whitney Houston falls into that problematic “post-1981 music” category, which likely explains why she’s not yet in the Rock Hall despite having been eligible since 2010. Not even Houston’s untimely death in 2012 moved voters to grant a posthumous induction. And yet, by most significant measures, Houston had a more extraordinary career than all but a handful of Rock Hall members. Her influence on popular music from the past 30 years is obvious and absolute. She has sold in the neighborhood of 200 million records worldwide. There isn’t a major female pop star who came out after Whitney — whether it’s Mariah, Xtina, or Beyoncé — who hasn’t tried in some way to be her. You can’t spend 10 minutes in a karaoke bar without hearing one of her songs. Without Whitney Houston, the diva-industrial complex as we know it wouldn’t exist.
Let me put this in terms that the people who vote for the Rock Hall will understand: Imagine if Meat Loaf, Bryan Adams, and Tom “Life Is a Highway” Cochrane were in, but not Bruce Springsteen. OK, you can stop now. Breathe deeply into a paper bag. Repeat after me: Bruce is safe and sound. Bruce is safe and sound. Bruce is safe and sound.
This is roughly analogous to putting in the Eagles and leaving out Gram Parsons, the person most associated with forging L.A. country rock. Back when Don Henley and Glenn Frey were doing pickup gigs with Linda Ronstadt at the Troubadour, Parsons was writing “Hickory Wind” and shooting horse with Keith Richards in the south of France. Then he died, and his body was stolen by his manager and set on fire. What is rock and roll? That is rock and roll. The Eagles wrote “Hotel California,” but Gram Parsons lived it.
Eric Clapton is the only person to be inducted into the Rock Hall three times, for the Yardbirds, Cream, and his solo career. I have no problem with the first two inductions — even though Clapton famously wrote “Sunshine of Your Love” while on acid, the Rock Hall has no prohibition against PEDs.
What doesn’t need honoring is this portion of Clapton’s career:
Eno should be inducted three times — as a member of Roxy Music; as a producer of current inductees David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2; and for his singular solo output, which bridged glam, punk, funk, world music, and pop. But just once for any of Eno’s illustrious careers would be fine.
As an added bonus, inducting Eno is a good way to get Bono to show up. Bono is to the Rock Hall what Tom Cruise is to Scientology — part benefactor, part mascot, all platonic ideal. One day there will be a separate hall of fame just for Bono’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speeches.
Here’s Bono inducting the Who in 1990 and meditating on the profundity of Pete Townshend’s nose:
And here’s Bono doing the honors for Bob Marley in 1994, giving his famous “show-mon, sha-mon, hu-mon, JAMAICAN!” speech. Bono’s patois was incendiary!
And here’s Bono in 1999 talking about how the Boss went about savin’ leather jackets from the Fonz.
Can you imagine the rhetorical magic this man could conjure to honor Eno, one of his most trusted collaborators? I imagine it going something like this:
When I was a boy growin’ up in Dublin, among the sinners and dreamers trawling for some sort of meaning amid the dirt and the blood of their ancestors, I yearned for a sound that existed between the possible and impossible. I wanted the grit of blues, the deliverance of gospel, the anger of rock and roll, and the sexual ecstasy of soul. I sought a guide to the mountaintop, a sainted man with the vision of a prophet, the mind of a learned oracle, and the heart of a lion. A cross between Elvis, Nelson Mandela, Bob Dylan, and the baby Jesus. No man can live up to that, you say? Not “no man,” E-no man!
Yes, you could say I imagine this all the time.
While the Rock Hall claims to privilege art over commerce, nearly all of the inductees have had some measure of mainstream success. Punk, indie, and alternative acts are still largely shut out — as Billboard confirmed, even groups that did platinum business once, like the Cure and Depeche Mode, are considered too weird or fringe to warrant serious consideration.
This explains why the Red Hot Chili Peppers are in the Rock Hall and not Bad Brains, the Minutemen, or Fishbone, all of whom did approximately the same thing as the Chili Peppers at approximately the same time but much, much better.
Fishbone was superior at the “shirtless guys who are seriously wackadoo but in a fun way” shtick.
The Minutemen were like the Chili Peppers except that their frontman, D. Boon, was twice as big as and 20 times more likable than Anthony Kiedis.
And Bad Brains were just impeccably skilled when it came to murdering the stage.
Bad Brains and the Minutemen created the punk-funk template on which the Chili Peppers based their whole career. And Fishbone perfected it in the Chili Peppers’ shadow in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But for all of their innovations, Bad Brains, the Minutemen, and Fishbone aren’t famous. They should be, and the Rock Hall ought to be an instrument for that.
The top three worst guests of all time:
3. Michael Keaton in Pacific Heights, for driving Matthew Modine to the brink.
2.Dan Stevens in The Guest, for driving everybody past the point of still being alive.
1. Mike Love of the Beach Boys at the 1988 Rock Hall induction ceremony.
In the video above, you can feel the instant regret in the room over inviting Mike Love to the Rock Hall. If this were the Apollo, he would’ve gotten the broom as soon as he said “Yoko.” So, let’s take him out and put in Dave Mustaine, who was upset in 2009 when he wasn’t inducted with Metallica as a former member. He has a solid case: While Mustaine was fired right before Metallica recorded its 1983 debut Kill ’Em All, he cowrote several songs and played a pivotal role in shaping the band’s early sound.
Now, Mustaine is also kind of a jerk, but inducting him will irritate Lars Ulrich, who’s also kind of a jerk. In terms of the jerk algebra, trading Love for Mustaine makes sense.
The Smiths are the Doors of the ’80s and the Doors are the Smiths of the ’60s. You can love the Doors/Smiths for the brooding songs, the romantic imagery, the literary lyrics, the potent angst, or the nostalgia they conjure for your 15-year-old self. But if you hate the Doors/Smiths, it probably comes down to the lead singer.
In my view, the most appropriate response to Jim Morrison and Morrissey is simultaneous like and dislike. They are insightful/insufferable lyricists, amazing/annoying showmen, and masters of self-actualization/self-indulgence. Therefore, the only appropriate honor for these guys is to leave them out of the Rock Hall, but put all of their bandmates in. They’re way too good/terrible to put be in a museum, even in a museum as good/terrible as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Filed Under: Music, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Green Day, chic, Judas Priest, James Taylor, Whitney Houston, Dave mustaine, Bad Brains, Red Hot Chili Peppers, N.W.A, The Police, The Doors, The Smiths, Morissey