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"These people really do love rock and roll, but there are personal and financial agendas as well — and even personal vendettas" ...

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— by Jem Aswad

Every year since 1986, a handful of artists have been inducted with great fanfare into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on the basis of the influence and significance of their music.

And every year, another list grows: The artists you'd think would be members, but aren't. The artists on that list — many of whom have been nominated but not voted in — include Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, Kiss, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Grandmaster Flash, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, the MC5 and many others.

Is that because the bar of influence and significance is set so high that even those legendary artists don't qualify? Well, take a look at who is in: James Taylor, the Dells, the Flamingos, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel, the Young Rascals, the Ink Spots, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Four Seasons, the Orioles and — just inducted this year — soul singer Percy Sledge, whose one major hit occurred in 1966.

  Black Sabbath

Without demeaning any of these artists, what the f---?

There's been no shortage of bellyaching on this subject, but there hasn't really been an examination of why it's happened.

We tried to find out what's up — and although we didn't get a definitive answer, we dug up a lot more dirt than we expected.

* * *
Let's start by taking a look at the rules.

Candidates for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are nominated by a committee of "music historians" — currently numbering 75 people, mostly executives and journalists — and are then voted upon by approximately 750 people (formerly around 1,000) from "across the spectrum of the music industry, including artists, broadcasters, writers, historians, producers and industry executives who are involved with making music," according to the hall's executive director, Suzan Evans.

Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record and are judged on the basis of "the influence and significance of the artist's contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll," according to the hall's Web site. (Categories include Performers, Non-Performers, Early Influences and Sidemen; we'll just examine Performers.) The performers who receive the highest number of votes, and more than 50 percent of the vote, are inducted.

So how have the Sex Pistols and Black Sabbath, whose "influence and significance" are beyond question, been denied induction several times?

After speaking with hall of fame executives and several members of the nominating committee, two theories emerge.

One generally blames it on the baffling results that democracy, combined with a lack of education, can produce. Dave Marsh, a pioneering music journalist and nominating committee member, subscribes to this notion. "There are 25, maybe 50 people in the world who have paid attention to all of this music from the beginning, and I would say the majority of those people are represented on the nominating committee. We come up with a pretty good list every year, and that list is then [voted upon] by an electorate that is not very knowledgeable.

"I don't think there's anything inherently bad about democracy," he continues, "but I do think there's something bad about asking a broad group of people to make judgments on something when they're not very well informed. The hall of fame is failing in not educating them."

Although the hall sends out a CD every year containing two songs by each of the nominees, you do wonder why these 750-odd people are voting members if they need to be educated.

The hall's flaws are readily admitted by President Seymour Stein, who co-founded the hall and was inducted in the Non-Performer category this year.

  The Sex Pistols

"We're not perfect. We try to be so fair by having such a big nominating committee," explains Stein, who co-founded Sire Records in 1966. "It infuriates me sometimes. I wonder why [some of the artists named above] aren't in. I get frustrated too."

Indeed, judging from the heated conversations one can get into with members of the nominating committee, the debates are refreshingly geeky. Lines like "So you're saying that the Sex Pistols were a better band than the Dells?" are stated with all the fury of a divorce hearing.

That passion can play as much of a role in keeping artists out as it can in getting them in.

"Kiss is not a great band, Kiss was never a great band, Kiss never will be a great band, and I have done my share to keep them off the ballot," Marsh says. "And there's your problem: There's a wide discrepancy in points of view about who should be in, and there's an enormous field of candidates. There's nothing you can do to change the fact that other people's taste is different."

However, there's a second theory. According to two members of the nominating committee who prefer to remain anonymous, there's more at work here than fanboyism.

The main players in the hall are its primary officers — Stein, hall Chairman/Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, Vice Chairman/Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, and Senior Vice President Jon Landau, who also manages Bruce Springsteen — and the list of inductees includes a strikingly large number of people they've worked with, people they've championed, and their personal friends. To a degree, this is inevitable — the world of multi-decade rock and roll veterans is pretty small — but one anonymous member says a line is being crossed.

"These people really do love rock and roll, and they want to push the things they like," nom-anon #1 says. "But there are also personal and financial agendas as well — and even personal vendettas.

"Let me give you an example," he continues. "[A major hall of fame officer] wanted me to get a favor from an artist, and it was above and beyond what this artist was willing to do, and rightfully so. I went back to this guy and said, 'Look, he doesn't wanna do it.' And he said, 'Well, you tell him he's never gonna get into the hall of fame.' To me, that's an example of how these guys run the hall."

  The Stooges

He also feels that the befuddling exclusion of the Sex Pistols may be due to a personal slight. "Whenever the Sex Pistols come up, the attitude is, 'No, we're not putting them in!' " he says. "Somewhere along the line, did John Lydon tell [one of the officers] that he's a big fat pig? I don't know if that happened, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did, because when the Sex Pistols are brought up, he goes ballistic."

"Why do you think Patti Smith isn't in?" nom-anon #2 says, alluding to an alleged beef between the legendary punk singer and one of the hall of fame's officers. "Don't you think that's odd?"

By the same token, he says the personal interests that have kept certain artists out have gotten others in.

"There are forces at work there which I hesitate to call political, but I will say are political or personal, that put voters on [the nominating committee]," says nom-anon #2. "When the Talking Heads and Ramones were inducted at the same time [in 2002] — my, my, there couldn't be any coincidence about Seymour Stein [who signed both artists] being the head of the hall of fame?"

"I did not nominate the Talking Heads, the Ramones or [Sire artists] the Pretenders," Stein says. "I voted for all of them. However, I have one vote in the nominating committee and one vote in the [voting committee]."

NEXT: 'I walk into this room and it's full of old men' ...
Illustration: Karl Heitmueller

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