Making sense of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

We size up this year's contenders that range from Bon Jovi to Nina Simone

FILE PHOTO: Legendary British rock group "The Moody Blues," L-R, Ray Thomas, Justin Hayward, John Lodge and Graeme Edge, performs during the first of four shows at Le Theatre des Arts at the Paris Las Vegas hotel-casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on April 5, 2001.  REUTERS/Ethan Miller/File Photo
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The latest round of music icons set to be immortalised in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame mark a particularly polarising, yet disappointingly predictable, bunch – even for a notoriously cash-hungry institution renowned neither for its sense of holistic direction nor leftfield daring.

Standing shoulder to shoulder among the incongruous round of 2018 inductees, announced on December 13, are cheese-rock behemoths Bon Jovi and jazz/soul great Nina Simone, whose differing critical reputations and musical approaches say much about the muddled identity crisis the Hall appears to be suffering from, more than three decades after its inception, in 1983. 

epa06387482 (FILE) - US musician Jon Bon Jovi performs during his band's Bon Jovi Live! concert at the Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia, 11 September 2015. US band Bon Jovi, British bands Dire Straits and the Moody Blues, late US singer Nina Simone and US band The Cars will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as organizers said on 13 December 2017.  EPA/MAST IRHAM *** Local Caption *** 52203959

Also set to be honoured in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 14 are Dire Straits, The Moody Blues and The Cars – a sparkle and surprise-free roll-call few would describe as a vintage crop. A single healthy counterpoint is offered by the belated recognition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the 1930s and 1940s gospel pioneer nicknamed “The Godmother of Rock & Roll”, who will be the hall’s annual Early Influences honoree.

FILE- In this Nov. 21, 1957, file photo, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, guitar-playing American gospel singer, gives an inpromptu performance in a lounge at London Airport, following her arrival from New York. Tharpe, who died in 1973, will be inducted with the “Award for Early Influence" to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 14, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo, File)

Weighing heavy in the air will be the age-old tension between art and commerce – the buckling between dollar demands and lofty instructional meritocracy. One wonders how many of the million public voters who endorsed Bon Jovi’s commemoration are familiar with Tharpe’s work, or even her name.

Technically, winning this earlier fan poll – only introduced in 2012 to garner additional public interest – did not guarantee the New Jersey natives would be enshrined in the “Waxworks of Rock”, with the final cast of annual inductees elected by a distinctly opaque process weighing the votes of more than 900 industry members, historians and critics.

Such lack of transparency may feel stifling, but it’s instructive that of the 19 shortlisted acts, the fan poll’s top four all got called up – with Jon and co’s 1.16 million nods immediately trailed by The Moody Blues (with 947,795 votes), Dire Straits (613,749) and The Cars (552,733). One imagines this quartet might also rank highly on a list of the past three decade’s least influential bands.

Meanwhile, only the genuine trailblazer Simone, who finished 10th after clocking a comparatively tame 185,000 votes, was elevated to the plateau by the “expert” vote. So four all-white, all-male rock bands were called in by the public – while two dead, black female legends were only singled out by the establishment far too late in the game.

Indeed, the most baffling thing about Simone’s honour is that it comes some 15 years after her death.

The Class of 2018’s collective disappointment is confounded by the early promise found in the crop of 14 other “shortlisted” acts who did not make the final cut, news of which offered the bewitching promise that the crusty rock establishment was being shaken, if not subverted, from within.

Hip-hop icon LL Cool J was nominated alongside rap-rock antagonists Rage Against the Machine and metal icons Judas Priest, representing a genre the hall has long been accused of overlooking, with the likes of Motörhead and Iron Maiden thus far ignored. Also disappointingly passed over were critical favourites such as blues legend Link Wray, proto-punk protagonists MC5 and New Orleans funk forefathers The Meters – who, unsuccessfully shortlisted a fourth time, tragically finished last in the public vote – alongside less-surprising nods for smooth funk troupe Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, psych-rock agitators The Zombies and blues-rockers The J Geils Band.

The idea that Dire Straits did more to shape popular music than the bulk of the aforementioned acts might sound ludicrous.

Meanwhile, electronic music enjoyed a surprising place centre-stage, with shortlist spots for Kate Bush, Eurythmics and Depeche Mode – all of whom surely did more to integrate the sound of the synthesiser into 1980s pop than The Cars.

The main nomination criterion is that the artist’s first release is at least 25 years old, a caveat which – as the board run out of bankable legends to hail – has prompted a recent gold rush of acts from the 1980s and 1990s inducted at the earliest opportunity, with the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Pearl Jam and Green Day profitably parachuted in at the earliest opportunity. Yet for every latter-day icon rush-inducted, there’s a telling omission, with invites for artier fare such as Pixies, The Smiths, The Cure and Roxy Music all currently outstanding.

This year’s most talked-about snub was Radiohead, who earned the dubious honour of being the only newly shortlisted act to meet the quarter-century landmark for the first time. Despite continuing to thrill critics with their genuinely groundbreaking innovation, the quintet finished a lowly 12 out of 19 in the fan poll, their outsider status earlier cemented when Fox News appeared to launch a smear campaign against the band – topped when comedian Kat Timpf cynically went viral dismissing their music as “elaborate moaning and whining over ringtone sounds”.

Perhaps understandably, Radiohead said they wouldn’t be coming to the ceremony even if they were inducted. “As a British band, it’s one of those things that it’s very lovely to be nominated, but we don’t quite culturally understand it,” said guitarist Ed O’Brien, in a recurring diagnosis of this distinctly United States-centric institution. “It’s just kind of a British person going, ‘OK, thanks, what does this mean?’.”

Controversy has haunted the Hall of Fame since before a single brick was laid. Cleveland was chosen as the monolith’s home following heavy civic lobbying and a pledge of US$65 million (Dh239m) – sidestepping the “Birthplace of Rock‘n’Roll”, Memphis, home to the iconic Sun Studio and Stax Records.

The investment paid off – since opening in 1995 the accompanying museum has attracted more than 10 million visitors and brought up to $2 billion into the city.

First among the hall’s moneymaking schemes is the week-long circus which surrounds the annual induction ceremony. Amid the VIP table guests and the millions watching the event from home, it certainly seems like the noble vision of founder Ahmet Ertegun got lost somewhere along the way.

The opening haul of inductees, in 1986, read like a genuine who’s who of musical innovation: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Everly Brothers. Subsequent years were dominated by equally undisputed icons – with Muddy Waters, Roy Orbison, BB King and Marvin Gaye called in a year later – while by 1988 the clocks rolled around to honour the 1960s rock revolution with slots for The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. For the hall’s first decade, it felt like the spring of worthy talent would never dry up, with many monumental figures such as David Bowie, Neil Young, Frank Zappa and Bruce Springsteen kept out until the mid-to-late-1990s.

From an early stage, the boundaries or rock‘n’roll were probed and bent, with deserving recognition for soul and R&B legends like Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and Booker T & the MG’s, while country icon Johnny Cash, bluesmen John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed and reggae icon Bob Marley all received early nods. Even Madonna squeezed in in 2008.

While the common criticism that the Hall’s core rock values are being watered down doesn’t quite hold, such diversification breeds searing inconsistency.

Opening the door to Miles Davis in 2006 prompted the worthy question why the likes of Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington and Count Basie – whose blues-influenced big band jazz did much to inspire early rock‘n’roll – are yet to be honoured.

If for nothing more than financial housekeeping, it was a mere matter of time before hip-hop was represented, with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five reportedly shoehorned in on a technicality in 2007, after receiving fewer votes than The Dave Clark Five. Run-DMC, Public Enemy and NWA soon followed, as did Tupac Shakur last year. In light of this year’s ongoing revelations and revulsions regarding the exploitative inner workings of the entertainment industry, the most pertinent criticism facing the Hall today is surely an implicit gender bias.

According to one count, of the 719 individuals inducted across all categories, as either a band member or solo artist, just 61 have been women – the equivalent of around one in 12.

The fact that worthy musical revolutionaries such as Sharpe and Simone are only now being called on, seems indicative of a wider problem: Both outsiders who fought prejudice in their own lives and careers, it is easy to fear it was more than mere oversight which kept them out of the establishment’s archetypal institution for so long.


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