Last month, two seemingly unrelated things happened that got me thinking. The first was Christmas, and the second was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announcement of their class of 2016. I realize that for most people those two events do not intertwine in an obvious manner, but for me memories of Christmas always contain a connection to my love of music.
After a decade of listening to AM radio in the back of my Mom’s station wagon I was pretty sure that I had developed a fairly refined sense of what good music was. I first asked for the gift of music in 1973. I gave my mom a list of bands I liked and Santa came through in a big way. I am proud to say that the first album I ever received was The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s my claim to fame. “What was the first album you ever got” is a question that quickly gets asked among music loving friends. My answer wins every time. What I fail to mention in those conversations is that Santa brought two other albums that year- Chicago VI (It had “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday” on it) and Jim Croce’s “Life and Times” (It had Bad, Bad Leeroy Brown” on it.) Now, those aren’t bad albums, and in Chicago’s case, it could be argued to be one of their best. But, in terms of rock and roll history and musical legacy, they are lightweights. The Beatles were IT, and continued to be IT for a long, long time.
I found music under the tree every year that followed. Some of it was good and has remained on my turntable- Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and others. Some albums were enjoyed for a time, but eventually worked their way into the garage where they sit waiting to be rescued from the box they are in by someone with less discerning taste. I don’t think those John Denver or Barry Manilow records are being played by me any time soon.
Reading the list of this year’s group of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month brought me back to that initial gift of music I had received forty two years ago. It also got me thinking about other bands I liked and albums I asked for as I worked my way into junior high school. In those ensuing years, my musical tastes became more refined, but not much improved. In early December of my 8th grade year, I was overjoyed to sneak through my parent’s room and discover a copy of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” under the bed. Any white suburban American thirteen year old would have been overjoyed by that gift in 1976. My musical discernment was still questionable as I entered high school. In 1978, the album I desperately needed was “Cheap Trick at Budokon”. That album provided the soundtrack for my freshman year. Doesn’t every shy and awkward fifteen year old dream of yelling out to crowd of screaming fans, “I WANT YOU TO WANT ME!” Clearly, I was not cool. If I were cool, I would have discovered Bruce Springsteen. “Born to Run” would have made that year much more bearable. That discovery wouldn’t be made until much later. Instead, I was looking forward to the release of the next Cheap Trick album. I got” Dream Police” the following Christmas along with The Eagles, “The Long Run” (both on cassette).
Given the nostalgia, you’d think I would be very happy this year’s list of Hall of Fame. I’m not. This list sucks.
The hall has been controversial since it opened in 1986. Enshrining someone into a museum dedicated to music born out of teenage anger and rebellion seems a bit odd. What type of music is rock and roll anyway? At Its inception, it was a mixture of blues, country and gospel. Over the last six decades every other genre of music has been thrown into the mix as well. All of that is great, but it creates a group of musical styles and performers that often seem to have little in common. If anyone can draw me the connection between Chuck Berry and Abba, I’d love to see it. For the most part, this is all good. It has created a catalogue of music that is awesome, but it does create difficulties. The dilemma for the hall has always been trying to balance rock and roll as both an art form and a commodity. Speaking of Abba, they entered the hall in 1996 along with The Stooges. Both deserve to be there, but they were inducted for completely different and contradictory reasons. I’m okay with that. This year is different.
There were thirteen nominees this year. Of those, a good argument could be made for about half of them to get in. Most did not. A fan of disco I have never been, but as a musical style it is an under represented genre in the hall. The band Chic has been on the nomination list for years. They deserve to be inducted. They introduced the disco beat to the world and shaped the development of dance music as it moved forward. The Smiths are in the same boat. Was there a more influential band to come out of the 90’s? Every band that grew out of a garage during that decade owes everything to them. It is a crime that they aren’t there. The band Yes should also be there. So should Janet Jackson and the Spinners. They were all denied this year.
Instead of the aforementioned deserving artists, this is what we get-
Of those who made the cut, only NWA is clearly deserving. Again, I am not a fan, but their impact on music and most importantly, on our culture is unmatched over the last two decades. I have no argument with Chicago either. They have been a beacon for anyone who was ever a member of the junior high band who needed a rock and roll band to latch on to. They brought jazz into the mix in a way that was accessible to the teenagers of the 70’s. Their example led directly to the progressive rock of Yes and Kansas. I get it. But, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick and Steve Miller? No.
Let’s take them one at a time:
Deep Purple: Here are some questions- Does one guitar riff justify your election into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? No. What if it’s the greatest guitar riff in the history of guitar riffs? Still, no. Their influence spreads little further than the fact that every fourteen year old with a guitar can play, “Smoke on the Water”. So, no.
Cheap Trick: I cannot, for the life of me, figure this one out. A couple of good songs, a couple of albums that sold well, is there anything else? “Live at Budokan” wasn’t even really a live album. The screams of the Japanese audience were manipulated to the point that they are pretty much fake. Cheap Trick might be providing work for a cover band here or there, but has any band of substance ever pointed to them as the reason they play music? No. Should they be in the hall? No.
Steve Miller- I will concede that Steve Miller has a little more substance than the other two, but not enough to justify his induction. From a historical standpoint, he dates all the way back to the hippies of Haight Ashbury. He did help to bring Chicago blues to the San Francisco sound, but he was a minor player. His work in the 1970’s was poppy and a bit shallow. There are some good songs. Enough to fit a Greatest Hits album, but nothing lasting. He wasn’t breaking any new ground. His impact on the future of rock and roll was minimal at best. Should he be in? No.
Is my problem here a result of “old man bias”? “Back in my day, music was good. All the best bands are gone.” Well, I don’t deny that might be partially true but “back in my day” I listened to all these guys. I bought their albums and I enjoyed them as I cruised the strip in my ’68 Firebird. But, enshrining them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, waters down the quality of what it represents.
I am pulling for Chic and Janet Jackson to get in next year. If you know me, you know that is a very funny thing to hear me say.
Check out the Hall here: http://rockhall.com/inductees/