by Bill Wyman (not the one you’re thinking of), of VULTURE.com
There shouldn’t be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The idea of a bunch of self-satisfied music-industry fat cats in tuxedos having rock stars assemble for a command performance in the Waldorf Astoria Ballroom once a year is precisely the sort of thing rock was created to be the antidote to. There is nothing less rock and roll than a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That said, it does exist. The question is, how well has the hall functioned? Has it done its job well, within its ridiculous premise? What follows is a list of all of the regular inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, listed in order from best to worst. Along the way we’ll look at the hall’s origins and how it has evolved, with comments from members of the selection committees past and present. (HBO is showing the ceremony Saturday night, May 5, starting at 8 p.m. ET; according to HBO’s website, you can watch it an hour earlier on HBO Go and HBO Now.)
The rankings are made on the basis of the appropriateness of each artist’s induction, not their baseline quality or my personal fondness for the artists in question. In other words, was the act influential? Were they the first? Are they simply brilliant at whatever it is they do? Those to me are considerations that make for a hall of fame band. (There are a few bands I personally like a lot on the bottom half of the list.) I have one further criterion, too: Was their career worthy of being in a hall of fame? There are some acts, a few fairly influential, whom I’ve downgraded, basically for being dinks. You may disagree, but it’s my list.
And, yeah, I know there aren’t enough women — the hall nominating committee is overwhelmingly men and always has been. That said, for the most part they’ve reached out to find worthy female acts.
The hall’s own stated standard goes like this: “Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.” I see what they are getting at, but I don’t think there’s much “musical excellence” in the Ramones, and I don’t think “preservation” should be a consideration at all. Isn’t that like gathering moss?
Individual inductees with previous careers in bands (Lou Reed, Paul McCartney, etc.) are ranked on the basis of their solo work alone. There are also some hall of fame side categories, for important country or blues progenitors, or for people like Dick Clark; I have not included those in this list. Let me know of any mistakes or grievous errors of opinion in the comments or on Twitter @hitsville. Also, remember that, in the real world, the difference between No. 20 and No. 30, or between Nos. 87 and 96, aren’t really significant.
Finally, let’s acknowledge that the nominating committee does have a difficult task. The hall execs I spoke to all made this point: Every music fan has his or her opinion when it comes to what makes a great or important artist. It’s all based on several sliding scales of relative worth or interest. Perhaps you weren’t the best at something … but you were the first. Maybe you weren’t about songs, per se, but as a sound. Some bands sold no records and were highly influential; others sell so many — and play the PR game in general and suck up to hall folks in particular so well — that they get inducted even though they are highly derivative and blandly attitudinal, don’t write their own songs, base their act almost entirely on the lead singer’s hair, and have not a thing to say.
But enough about Bon Jovi. Let’s go to the inductees!
1. Chuck Berry (1986)
He is one of the three or four people who laid out one of the original pieces of the rock puzzle. He decisively introduced real lyric writing to pop music. And he first articulated rock’s sense of itself, creating a foundation for the music — tied to a better world and the promise of America — that even rock and roll’s bleakest moments tacitly acknowledge. One of the most consequential American cultural figures of the 20th century.
Long before the plans for an actual rock museum in Cleveland were hatched, a group headed by Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner and Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun started off the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with two induction ceremonies-cum-concerts, in 1986 and 1987, bringing in a total of 25 blues-and-rock groundbreakers primarily from the ‘50s, including Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and so forth.
2. The Beatles — George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr (1988)
A joyous sound that turned ever inward, leading the way for just about everyone who followed — and, with Elvis, the epitome of pop stardom.
The third hall of fame induction numbered only five acts — the model the hall has followed since — and included ‘60s stars like the Beatles, Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, and the Drifters. (The Stones didn’t get in until the following year.)
3. Bob Dylan (1988)
Dylan took rock lyrics to places they hadn’t been before and haven’t been since. He remains the nonpareil avatar of pure artistry with all its peevish, unadulterated glory — and missteps, stumbles, and exasperations. Blood on the Tracks is the best rock album ever made. Not even the Beatles can compete with the sheer quantity of his essential songs
4. Elvis Presley (1986)
He is rock’s greatest presence, shaking a country with a single-handed nuclear reaction of country, gospel, and the blues. Limited only by not having been a songwriter and, whatever his psychic presence, lacking something — perhaps just the brains — to run his life, much less career, effectively.
5. James Brown (1986)
A coiled figure of impenetrable gravity. He invented funk, and performed with a blistering focus that had never been seen before and never would again.
But Wenner and Ertegun weren’t the ones who came up with the idea for the hall originally. In Sticky Fingers, his recent delectably dirt-filled biography of Wenner, Joe Hagan says the hall of fame was first conceived by a cable entrepreneur, Bruce Brandwen, who outlined the basic structure of the hall, proposed an annual TV show, and enlisted Ertegun. Ertegun, if you don’t know, at his romanticized best was the epitome of rock cool. Beginning in the 1940s, his label, Atlantic, recorded Ray Charles, the Coasters, the Drifters, Joe Turner, and Ruth Brown; and in the ‘60s everyone from Aretha to Cream. Ertegun later signed the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and CSN, and in the ‘80s Atlantic still had hits with everyone from AC/DC to INXS to Debbie Gibson. Ertegun moved through these decades like the son of the Turkish diplomat he was; he lived, as Hagan notes in his book, at a sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-drenched apogee of suavity, wealth, and power that a certain rock-magazine publisher yearned to be a part of.
6. Prince (2004)
Prince has to come after Brown, but it should be noticed that he could do virtually everything Brown did — and also wrote cosmic songs, and also played guitar just about as well as anyone on this list, and also sang like both an angel and devil, and also was a venturesome and sure-footed rock, pop, and soul producer and songwriter. Prince kidnapped rock’s pretensions to perversion, skinned them and fashioned them into a frock coat he pulled out on special occasions or just because. “Mick Jagger,” Robert Christgau once wrote, “should just fold up his penis and go home.” At the induction, Prince said, soberly, “Too much freedom can lead to the soul’s decay.”
7. Ramones — Dee Dee Ramone, Joey Ramone, Johnny Ramone, Marky Ramone, and Tommy Ramone (2002)
Among other things, these guys were rock critics — meaning that they thought the rock of the day sucked. They thought a good song should be fast, ironic, witty, ideally evocative of the girl-group sound, and have the vocals mixed way up high. And one more thing: You didn’t know have to know how to play your instrument to be in a rock-and-roll band. The Ramones showed us that every once in a while rock needed to be rebuilt from scratch. And — not passing judgment either way, just making the observation — they pretty much removed the blues from a strain of rock. Johnny gave George Bush a shout-out at the induction. Now that’s punk-rock.
8. Nirvana — Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic (2014)
With the Sex Pistols the most influential and consequential band since the 1960s; with Public Enemy the most powerful and uncompromising ditto. Leader Kurt Cobain is an iconic a figure as rock has produced, painfully and tragically seeking honesty and authenticity — and, to hear him tell it, fruitlessly. Finally convincing himself that he didn’t have a future, he committed suicide in 1993. The psychological honesty of Cobain’s songs were groundbreaking; sonically, they blew a hole in the radio and wrenched the entire recording industry sideways, roiling radio playlists, MTV and, as a consequence, the sales charts, making the 1990s a colorful and unexpected musical decade indeed.
9. Buddy Holly (1986)
A gentle soul who died far too soon. His lyrics were nowhere near Berry’s, but there was a power and logic undergirding his songs that everyone from the Beatles to Springsteen recognized and would build on. Look at film of his band and you notice something else that is elemental, at this point nearly archetypal: four figures — two guitars, bass, and drums — playing the singer’s songs, a picture of a rock band that would stand for half a century. And his evolving growth makes his heartbreakingly early death (at 21!) hard to think about. (He, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Cobain are rock’s greatest tragedies.)
Jann Wenner started Rolling Stone in 1967; within a few years, it had placed itself at the center of the counterculture. Much to Wenner’s credit, in fits and starts he gave critics a lot of freedom and he paid writers to do extraordinary reporting. That’s what we saw on the outside. The inside, as Hagan tells it, was less pretty. His book is a damning tale of a striver of almost infantile ambition who, while he did encourage (and pay for) reams of honest journalism, had so many moral screws loose that he left decades of wounded and bitter friends, employees, and artists in his wake. For example: Rolling Stone has so heavily identified itself with John Lennon over the years it’s surprising to read that Lennon was so pissed off by an early Wenner betrayal that he never spoke to him again after a 1970 interview; after Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono somewhat cynically let the grudge slide to keep Lennon’s Rolling Stone stock high. And stories abound of Wenner letting his rock- and movie-star buddies vet their profiles. The magazine went through several financial crises in the 1970s, but during the booms of the ‘80s and ‘90s started making Wenner annual profits in the seven and eight figures. With that money and the mechanisms of his magazine’s PR power, he was able to insinuate himself into the world of rock-star hyperprivilege.
10. Muddy Waters (1987)
Waters is probably the greatest of the Chess Records stable, and indeed, all urban blues artists, and was an avatar for early rockers like Chuck Berry. His authorship of a song called “Rollin’ Stone,” stinging guitar work, and molten presence looms over all of rock. The hall, incidentally, has a few ancillary induction tiers, which for the record make no sense. But for what it’s worth, Waters’s labelmates Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, a key songwriter and producer at Chess Records, are in the hall as “Influencers.” Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a sensational performer, was inducted this year in this category.
There’s your Top Ten! and I think John Lennon would have agreed that Chuck Berry would place above The Beatles….maybe even Elvis! For the rest of the article, click here