Another March brings another Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which brings with it another batch of disgruntled e-mails and confused calls from music fans, wondering how the Rock Hall defines “rock” and who is rocking enough to belong there.
In 2007, R&B/disco diva Donna Summer and disco kings Chic were nominees, and pioneering Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the controversial first hip-hop group inducted.
Artists become eligible 25 years after their first release, and since 1986—when the initial class included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers and Ray Charles—the rock hall had a solid decade’s run of obvious picks, classic rock legends and influential R&B and country artists that lasted well into the `90s. But once more contemporary artists such as 1999 inductee Billy Joel began to enter the fray, fans began crying foul and questioning the Rock Hall’s dedication to honoring “rock” and the artists who make the music.
Obviously, the traditional three power chords, a steady backbeat and a good hook are not enough to define rock. And, across its 50-plus years, rock music has influenced and absorbed bits and pieces of other styles (hence the many sub-genres with “rock” in their name). It has been such a dominant musical form for so long that in most music stores, “rock/pop” is still a common category.
So, how does the Rock Hall Foundation define “rock?”
“We define it fairly broadly,” said Jim Henke, the hall’s chief curator. “Rock `n’ roll has become the umbrella for popular music. ...When you go back to its roots of country and blues and R&B and gospel and start there, it basically developed out of all these things, and it’s evolved so much.”
Henke said music is so subjective that everyone has a different definition of what rock is, often directly influenced by what he or she likes, and thus visitors often leave comments questioning the inclusion of musicians who doesn’t easily fall into what could be called “traditional rock” forms. Perhaps more importantly, the artists simply don’t resonate with these visitors.
“A few years back when we had our U2 exhibit, we had people come in and say `Hey, that’s not rock `n’ roll.’ Some people think it ended with the Beatles or shortly after the Beatles, some people object to hip-hop and some people object to punk rock, so everyone has their own definition,” Henke said.
Moving forward, he said the umbrella will only get bigger: “It’s always interesting to hear the debates about these people, like Donna Summer.”
With artists from 1983 becoming eligible this year, the list of potential inductees will start to include artists from genres such as new wave (Devo anyone?), punk, early hip-hop (Run DMC, you’re up next), college/indie rock and heavy/hair metal. And other, more senior artists have yet to be inducted.
Henke added that while record sales are not a direct factor, longevity and musical/pop culture influence also play a big part in the voting body’s choices, and that the music and/or artists should have “some kind of edge to them.”
As with many concepts in music and pop culture, “edge” in relation to an artist’s image or their work is also debatable. While many of the early rock `n roll, tuxedo-wearing doo-wop and evening-gown-donning girl groups that have been inducted can be given a pass on the edge factor, there are plenty of contemporary artists—like Bonnie Raitt (2000), James Taylor (2000) and Jackson Browne (2004)—who don’t immediately conjure up “edgy” when compiling a list of adjectives to describe their music or sound. Nor do the names and works of The Bee Gees (1997) or Earth Wind & Fire (2000). It wouldn’t even be too difficult to find music lovers (including this writer) who find Billy Joel talented and sometimes interesting, but lacking any tangible musical or image-related “edge.”
For music fans who still care about the Rock Hall, who is welcomed and when, each year’s list of nominees is likely to confuse and/or infuriate them further. The debate will continue, which is a good thing, because it keeps folks talking about artists and music with passion, instead of just wondering which one of their favorite songs will turn up next in a television commercial.
The class of 2008 has a few controversial choices, beginning with a pop culture icon whose music seldom has much to do with traditional rock, but whose name still inspires an immediate and strong reaction in many music fans and will no doubt make for good television.
Here’s the list of inductees, their relative “traditional rock” factors, their inductors and a few suggestions for newbies interested in exploring their work without relying on compilations where possible.
A first-ballot inductee, 25 years after her debut she’s still polarizing music fans. If you’ve been paying attention to pop music since the early `80s, there’s a chance you already know (and have seen) more information about Madonna Louise Ciccone than you ever needed or wanted to know. Since 1982, the Material Girl has been a lightning rod of controversy for the sexual forthrightness in her music and image, her unapologetic ambition (she told Dick Clark on her first “American Bandstand” appearance she wanted to “take over the world”) and her ability to catch a trend, either moments before it hits the mainstream or (such in the case of Vogue) helping usher it into the mainstream.
Madonna is a prime example of influence, longevity and relevance trumping any “traditional rock.” The singer, who turns 50 this year, has always made pure pop music, even when she incorporates other genres into her sound. The singer/songwriter has a lengthy string of hits that total more than 200 million albums sold worldwide, and her 2006 Confessions Tour was the highest-grossing tour by a female artist ever. She is named the top-earning female singer in the world by both the Guinness Book of Records and Forbes, and the best-selling female rock artist of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Aside from all the cash she’s raked in, Madonna’s influence can be seen in many of today’s young pop tarts such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, both of whom famously kissed Madge at the 2003 MTV Awards. She even has a species of water bear named for her, Echiniscus madonnae.
Traditional Rock Factor: Not so much. Madonna makes pop music with nary a power chord or bluesy shout to be found. Longevity and influence are a large part of her candidacy.
Presenter: Justin Timberlake, who a few years ago inducted The O’Jays, none of whom had met him. Timberlake is young and hip and (surely coincidentally) is working with Madonna on her new album, dance-oriented album “Hard Candy” which will be released in April.
For Newbies (if they exist): “Like a Virgin” (1984),” Like a Prayer” (1989). The former contains the title track and quintessential `80s pop hits “Dress You Up” and “Into the Groove.” She still sang like a mouse that’s been kicked in the nethers, but the songs are catchy as hell. The latter also had a hit title track as well as “Express Yourself,” and finds Madonna working hard on improving her singing voice and attempting to make an artistic statement rather than just culling potential hit singles.
Musically, the 73-year-old erudite poet/songwriter/author/Canadian doesn’t do much traditional rocking. His mournful melodies, his gravitas-heavy baritone and usually minimalist musical backing seldom detract from his always interesting lyrics.
Cohen may not be a household name, but his influence within the music world looms huge, with his songs appearing in films and being covered by artists from a variety of genres and generations, occasionally becoming bigger hits for them than for Cohen.
According to http://leonardcohenfiles.com, his songs have been covered by more than 1,300 artists around the world in 40-plus years. Many were first introduced to his music through Judy Collins’ 1966 version of “Suzanne,” but other major artists who have recorded Cohen songs include “Bird On a Wire” by Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and others, “So Long Marianne” recorded by John Cale and Suzanne Vega, and the cynical “Everybody Knows,” a minor hit for `80s alt-rock band Concrete Blonde. “Hallelujah” became a signature song for deceased singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley and was performed last week on “American Idol” by dreadlocked contestant Jason Castro.
Traditional Rock Factor: Nearly nil, but Cohen’s longevity, influence as a songwriter and his dedicated cult following make it a moot point.
Presenter: Lou Reed is a good choice, as he is also a highly influential singer/songwriter/poet, as well as a peer/admirer/buddy of Cohen.
For Newbies: There really isn’t an “easy” entry into the world of Cohen but his debut, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (1968), has versions of some of his most well-known songs, including “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy.” Akron Beacon Journal pop culture writer and longtime Cohen devotee Rich Heldenfels also suggests “Ten New Songs” (2001). For the interested, the original version of “Hallelujah” appears on 1985’s “Various Positions.”
THE DAVE CLARK FIVE
Once the leading light of the mid-1960s British Invasion, for a time the DC5 were bigger than the Beatles, churning out chart-topping pop tunes such as “Glad All Over,” “I Like It Like That,” “Over and Over” and “You Got What It Takes,” several of which are staples on oldies stations.
Between 1964 and 1967 The DC5 reached the Billboard Top 40 20 times and “Glad All Over” knocked “I Want To Hold Your Hand” out of the number one spot in 1965.
With the Feb. 28 death of singer Mike Smith, already partially paralyzed from a 2006 accident in his home, the induction will no doubt have an added poignancy and melancholy. The other band members are Dave Clark, Lenny Davidson, Rick Huxley and Denis Payton.
The DC5, eligible since 1989, have been listed in past years as finalists but never made the cut. In 2007, they were finalists once again, but were at the heart of an alleged controversy—they reportedly received the required number of votes to be added to the `07 list but were denied entry by Rock Hall bigwig and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who wanted to usher in hip-hop and gave their spot to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Traditional Rock Factor: Though many of their hits may seem relatively quaint by today’s standards, during their heyday they were well known as a loud, powerful and truly rockin’ live band during their heyday where tracks such as “Bits and Pieces” would get some added heft.
Presenter: Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, who directed the 1996 movie “That Thing You Do,” about a fictional band that had a single hit during the British Invasion.
For Newbies: Finding a good entry CD for The DC5 is particularly tough, as most of their original albums are out of print and even many compilations found online are pricey. Don’t be surprised if that changes with their Rock Hall induction, but for now any “best of” or anthology you’re willing to pay for will likely have to do.
GAMBLE & HUFF
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are the legendary songwriting/production team whose Philadelphia International Records opened in 1971. They gave their trademark lush, smooth and slick “Philly Soul Sound” and songs to artists including the O’Jays (who recently sued the team), Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, Teddy Pendergrass, Wilson Pickett, Lou Rawls, Dusty Springfield and Billy Paul. They are receiving the Ahmet Ertegun Award for nonperformers.
Presenter: Jerry Butler. A soul survivor who has been around for four decades and worked with the team in the late 1970s.
For Newbies: The O’Jays’ “Ship Ahoy” (1973) and “Family Reunion” will give you insights to the duo’s songwriting and production talents, with hits such as “For the Love of Money,” “Put Your Hands Together” and “Livin’ for the Weekend.”
The artist formerly known as John/Johnny Cougar (a name he didn’t pick) and then John Cougar Mellencamp has been purveying his rootsy, Americana-flavored heartland rock for more than 30 years, beginning with 1975’s “Chestnut Street Incident.”
That record was a major flop, and it wasn’t until 1979 that “I Need a Lover” became his first hit. It was 1983’s “American Fool,” that turned the Seymour, Ind., native into a star with basic rock hits “Hurt So Good” and “Jack and Diane.” It was followed by “Uh-Huh,” which contained Crumblin’ Down, “The Authority Song” and “Pink Houses.”
On “Scarecrow,” Mellencamp began to wow critics with his social conscience and solidified his evolving rootsy folk-rock sound with more pronounced strains of country, acoustic instrumentation such as rollicking fiddle and accordion, which found their way into “Small Town” and “Lonely Ol’ Night.”
His popularity peaked in the late `80s but he had hits well into the `90s, and his Midwestern rasp and plainspoken blue-collar songs about plainspoken blue-collar folks are surely one reason Chevy picked his song “Our Country” to replace another heartland rock legend (and inductee) Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.”
Traditional Rock Factor: Pretty high, Mellencamp music may not inspire much air guitar but it’s a basic and familiar American rock `n’ roll sound.
Presenter: Billy Joel, a contemporary of Mellencamp’s, and a fellow singer/songwriter and inductee who isn’t afraid of an accordion.
For Newbies: “Scarecrow” (1985) will not only give listeners a few of his biggest hits (“Small Town,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”) but also has the foundation of the rootsy, acoustic back-porch sound. His most recent album, “Freedom’s Road,” has been well received and been called his best in a decade by Rolling Stone, despite the inclusion of the already annoying “Our Country.”
Sometimes called the Jimi Hendrix of the blues harmonica, Marion Walter Jacobs (1930-1968) was one of the artists who turned the harmonica into a staple of the blues with his highly expressive, rhythmic wailing that used amplification not just for volume, but for added tonal qualities and sounds.
Walter had success as a solo artist, recording 14 Top Ten R&B hits such as the chugging 1952 R&B instrumental “Juke,” “Mean Old World,” “My Babe” and “Teenage Beat,” featuring Robert Lockwood Jr.
But Walter is being inducted for his work as a sideman, particularly his run in the 1950s, recording and touring with Muddy Waters and other artists on legendary Chicago blues label Chess Records. Walter can be heard on albums by Waters, Jimmy Rodgers, Bo Diddley, Shel Silverstein and Otis Rush, to name a few.
Presenter: Ben Harper. An interesting choice, as Harper is a younger artist whose music has a strong blues current, but he isn’t among the obvious names.
For Newbies: He’s being inducted for his work as a sideman, and his solo discography is neither long nor for the most part in print. We suggest picking up a compilation of his solo tracks, such as “His Best,” or any Chess Records Compilation focusing on the `50s, or Muddy Waters album/compilations such as “The Real Folk Blues” and its follow-up “More Real Folk Blues.”
This is another band like The DC5 that was huge during its halcyon days of the 1960, but hasn’t really received the late career renaissance or hip cachet that some other longtime artists achieve.
Often reduced to being called just a “surf band,” the Ventures are the most successful instrumental rock band ever, with hits that include “Walk, Don’t Run” (in 1960 and 1964), “Hawaii 5-0” and “Secret Agent Man.”
Formed by the duo of then Tacoma construction workers and part-time musicians Bob Bogle and Don Wilson around 1958, like many artists of the day they churned out records at an alarming pace, releasing as many as five a year. That led to their unique distinction of having five albums on the charts at the same time in 1963.
Though the band had a good run, the advent of the musical and social upheaval of the late 1960s made them less relevant, and after their 1969 hit with “Hawaii 5-0” the band basically fell off the American pop radar. But what American listeners had grown tired of was perfect for Japan and Europe, where the band continued to tour and reportedly sold 40 million records in Japan alone.
Traditional Rock Factor: Are you kidding? Their basic two-guitar, bass and drums setup is still a standard of rock, and guitarists Nokie Edwards, Bogle and Gerry McGee’s early use of guitar effects such as flanging, fuzz and distortion added a new dimension to the rock guitar library.
Presenter: John Fogerty, fellow inductee and one of many `60s-era guitarists influenced by the band.
For Newbies: With so many, many albums and so many styles they’ve tried over the decades, its tempting to go with a compilation—of which there are many—and call it a day. But if you looking for a good snapshot,” The Ventures Play Tel-star” and “The Lonely Bull” (1962) and “The Ventures in Space” don’t have their biggest hits but they are packed with familiar tunes, and the latter album has a lot of fun and futuristic sound effects.