The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? by Steven Rosen
Some see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an arbiter meting and measuring out what is important and what needs to be singled out. Don’t be fooled. Since 1986, the museum/memorial has held ceremonies in which artists falling into one of four categories – Performers, Non-Performers, Early Influences and - since 2000, Sidemen – are voted on and inducted into these less than hallowed halls. In many cases the nominees are undeserving and under whelming and those left off the ballots are conspicuous by their absence.
On March 13th of this year, the 21st annual induction ceremony takes place at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. It is yet the latest example of this foundation’s self-aggrandizing, pat-us-on-the-back because we are hipper than God attitude. The current crop includes: Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sex Pistols and Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss (the A&M respectively of A&M Records). A band is eligible 25 years after the release of their debut album.
For starters, both Sabbath and Skynyrd had to go through seven consecutive nominating rituals to finally make the cut. And yet Miles Davis and the Alpert/Moss tandem find success on their maiden voyage. The trumpeter was a trend setting jazzman who married together a potpourri of sounds on his 1970 Bitches Brew album. But who on this earth would define his music as rock and roll? And this is what makes the Hall of Fame's choices so dubious – the inclusion of jazz and non-rock oriented bands. Start another museum. The Hall of Jazz. The Hall of Rhythm & Blues. But don’t include the likes of Davis, and in earlier roll calls, such far-flung names as James Brown, Big Joe Turner, the Supremes, and dozens of others with tried and true rock artists.
Which brings us to another ripple of contention – the dismissal of many artists because they do pump up the volume and don’t necessarily fall into the domain of what the Hall deems important. Black Sabbath has influenced more bands than the other four inductees combined (omitting Alpert/Moss), and yet they had to fail seven previous times before being allowed to enter these gates. The group’s eponymous debut was a nightmarish blend of Ozzy’s warlock-like warbling and Tony Iommi’s electric guitars thumping out the doom laden threnodies of dirge like monster riffs. The album scared you at the same time it beckoned you closer, squeezing you against the mottled flesh of their wonderfully wicked songs. Osbourne was hatched here in 1970 and three and a half decades later continues to shout out his tenebrous and ululating stream of mournful vocals.
Sabbath, then, was first eligible for induction in 1995 but they didn’t make it. How in the hell do you overlook this band’s monumental place in the rock hierarchy? But let’s look at who did make the grade in ’95. That year’s graduates included the Allman Brothers, Al Green, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Martha and the Vandellas, Neil Young, and Frank Zappa. These are all superb artists who have contributed much to the world of music. But we’re talking about the Rock Hall of Fame here. Al Green? The Vandellas? Frank Zappa for sweet Pete’s sake! Zappa’s Mothers of Invention were nothing more than a spit in the ocean historically speaking – they never sold records, they never had hits, and the bandleader’s sphere of influence was limited to hardcore music geeks drawn to his sophist-like instrumental renderings. Black Sabbath didn’t shape the lives of more people than Al Green? The entire Hall of Fame deserves to be beaten with a stick dipped in the own muck of their bad taste.
Another part of the problem is that the organization itself somehow considers itself more important than the artists they’re ostensibly endorsing. That is, the artist should somehow be thankful for being nominated. Looking in from the outside, it certainly appears that way.
Each voting round brings busloads of tourists and wanna-be rockers to the Cleveland site where t-shirts, hats, gewgaws, and overpriced merchandise is peddled. Tourists and gawkers and the curious come looking for souvenirs in hopes of seeing Ozzy walking about the premises or to catch Debby Harry during some mid-afternoon stroll.
Unlike the Grammies and American Music Awards, being nominated and accepted here does nothing for the artist. He/she/they receive no bump to their career (musicians walking away with a Grammy find record sales increasing and visibility exploding) and in fact the only individuals who seem to benefit from this exercise in self-indulgence is the museum itself. T-shirts, posters, booklets, et al, are marketed and promoted around these elections and the ka-chink of coin in coffer is audible only in Ohio.
Fame is defined as “public estimation of a person or thing” and “general recognition for outstanding achievement.” If we accept these characteristics as true, then the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be acting as the heart and soul for everyone not voting. They need to understand who is important on a visceral level – who puts the bomp in your stomp – and not dwell so much on who they think should be included. The public bestows fame on an artist; it is not an arbitrary assignation to be bestowed upon someone by the sheer whim and whimsy of editors and music journalists. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a responsibility they have not met – they have operated in a vacuum and not listened to the heartbeats of the public around them.
What’s truly pathetic are the bands that have not made the grade and probably never will. Where is Spirit and all their sublimely psychedelic jazzrock? And Jethro Tull commandeered by Ian Anderson and his Long John Silver sucking flute? The technical artistry of Yes and Rush? Not with this keeper of the Fame on guard.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has failed to live up to its name. We do need to celebrate those who came before but those artists need to be recognized on simple artistic and musical terms and not because of the political zap their nomination might induce.