Kurt Loder Weighs In On The Rock Hall Of Fame: Still No Sabbath, AC/DC

Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Captain Beefheart, Dick Dale still left shivering outside the gates.

It’s understandable why a chorus of critical bellyaching sometimes
accompanies the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I
occasionally bellyache myself. After all, any self-appointed music-biz
organization that’s decreed James Taylor and (this year) ’50s teen-pop
muffin Brenda Lee to be worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of rock
immortals, while the likes of Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Captain Beefheart and
Dick Dale — the father of surf music! — shiver outside the gates, is begging
for argument.

Actually, there’s still some debate about whether there should even be a Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame, if only because the induction ceremonies, with their
tuxedoed herds of industry denizens chowing down on bad steam-table food in a
classically cheesy hotel ballroom, seem so fundamentally out of tune with the
music’s original, animating spirit. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards
has famously suggested that, since most of the true gods of rock and roll —
Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and of course, Elvis
Presley, to skim just the cream — have already been inducted, the most
dignified thing to do at this point would be to lock up the place and lose
the key.

But that’s not going to happen. For one thing, the Hall of Fame facility —
very expensively designed by the celebrated architect I.M. Pei — is now a
major tourist attraction in Cleveland, the city where it’s kind of curiously
located. (A few years back, Hall of Fame executives, who like to do their
nominating and inducting in New York City, where so many of them are based,
finally gave in to complaints from their provincial partners and agreed to
actually hold an induction ceremony in Cleveland. The resulting experience
proved so alien to all the record-company poobahs who had to fly in from New
York and L.A. that this scenario has never again been seriously entertained.)

So the Hall isn’t going away. Well, then can’t it at least induct
the right people, you ask? This, as it happens, raises a key issue: What
exactly is rock and roll? Having spent many years as a member of the Hall of
Fame nominating committee (a position I no longer hold), I can tell you that
endless hours have been devoted to this question, and it has never been
definitively answered. Some critics — most notably the English writer Charlie
Gillett, in his groundbreaking 1970 book, “The Sound of the City” — have
argued that rock and roll is, if not “dead,” at least historically complete,
and now a part of the past. (Gillett traced the original wave of rock and roll
from its roots in black rhythm & blues in the late 1940s up to the worldwide
breakthrough of the Beatles in 1964; after that, he argued, the music
developed self-consciousness, an awareness of its own traditions — it became,
in short, “rock.”)

No one can really say what “rock” is. Or rock and roll, for that
matter. A purist might deny the possibility of, say, a smooth,
supper-club-style vocal group being classified as a “rock” act; but the
Platters — who superficially fit that description — were so luminously
unique, and so much an ambient part of the original rock and roll era of the
1950s, that there’s no way they could possibly be disqualified from the
canon. The late Ricky Nelson may have started out in the early ’50s as a
white-bread teen TV star, but the hit singles he later recorded (backed by a
hot band that included the fabled rockabilly guitarist James Burton) were
inarguably a species of rock and roll. Acts like Elton John, Frank Zappa and
Pink Floyd may not have much in common, but in their upstart spirit, and the
ways in which their music related to and interacted with their times, they
have to make the grade: they rocked.

Looking back over the roster of musicians who have been inducted
into the Hall of Fame over the last 16 years, I think a reasonable person
would have to admit that there’ve been few, if any, outright clinkers. James
Taylor (despite his Beatles connection) is not my idea of a rock act, but
that’s just me; and I realize there are valid arguments to be made even for
Brenda Lee.

And I’ll admit it’s nice to see the Ramones and Talking Heads going into the
Hall this year. But as long as Black Sabbath and AC/DC remain uninducted
(along with who? Deep Purple? Richard Thompson? Screamin’ Jay Hawkins?), rock
partisans of various tribes will continue to have plenty to bellyache about.
Which should keep us happy.

Kurt Loder