NEW YORK — As Elton John said at one point, it was a very good night to be British.
The 18th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Monday night, brought some nonpareil musicians into the pantheon. Among them were the Righteous Brothers, the '60s blue-eyed-soul duo; and such celebrated studio stars as Steve Douglas (a tenor-sax honkmaster who played with everybody from the Beach Boys to Bob Dylan), the influential Nashville pianist Floyd Cramer (who backed Hank Williams and Elvis Presley and scored instrumental pop hits of his own), and groove-king drummer Benny Benjamin, who powered some of the greatest Motown classics of that great label's golden age.
But, maybe because most of them also performed, the night belonged in large part to the English punk and New Wave class of 1977: the Clash, and Elvis Costello and his band, the Attractions (whose first albums were released that year), and the Police (who got together in '77, and released their debut LP in 1978).
Costello and the Attractions came out and tore into "Pump It Up" with all the angry-young-men aggression they'd poured into it 25 years earlier. It was pretty thrilling — and, as always, a little strange to see people in tuxedoes boogying down at their expensively reserved tables.
Elvis and company were inducted into the Hall of Fame by big-time fan Elton John — wearing an especially sassy wig — who saluted Costello's ambitious work over the years in a wide range of musical styles, from country to neo-classical. "He's never chosen the commercial route," Elton noted. "Which is more than can be said of me. But hey, somebody's got to pay for this hair."
Costello also led the Attractions through a long and clearly heartfelt rendition of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," the 1962 Motown hit by the Miracles (later covered by the Beatles). And he signed off with "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," a reverberant song off his 1979 Armed Forces album. It may have been the first anti-war statement of the evening, and it wasn't the last. ("We're havin' a good time tonight," Neil Young said, a little later. "But we're gonna kill a lotta people next week.")
Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello inducted the Clash. He said the band's pugnacious idealism lived on "wherever people take to the streets to protest an unjust war."
The Clash didn't perform, of course — their iconic frontman, Joe Strummer, died last December (see "The Clash: Ducking Bottles, Asking Questions, By Kurt Loder"). But most of the surviving members were on hand. (Drummer Topper Headon, who was fired from the group because of his heavy drug problem, was supposed to fly in, but in the end didn't show.) Guitarist Mick Jones made quick mention of a friend "who's in Baghdad at the moment as a human shield," then gave a shout-out to the Sex Pistols, who he hopes will be inducted into the Hall next year.
And then, all of a sudden, like a truck bomb in a brickyard, AC/DC happened. There they were, with guitarist Angus Young duck-walking across the stage, ripping out the chords to "Highway to Hell," while singer Brian Johnson launched his power-drill shriek up toward the (relatively) cheap seats. Having formed in 1973, AC/DC aren't technically punks, I guess. But any band that still features a guitar player in a short-pants schoolboy suit qualifies in my book.
There's a tiresome sense of decorum that's built into most award shows, and it tends to mute all things rude and unruly. AC/DC are apparently unaware of this. They may be unaware of anything apart from what Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, who inducted them, called "the majesty of the power chord." Tyler ran out to join the unstoppable Aussies for a wall-shuddering run-through of "You Shook Me All Night Long," and you could almost hear brains hemorrhaging around the room. We need to hear this sound more often.
Gwen Stefani inducted the Police into the Hall of Fame — dunno why, exactly, but hey, why not?
Grumpy pop scholars sometimes denigrate the Police as a non-stop, money-Hoovering hit machine — "Message in a Bottle," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." This is true but unfair, not to mention stupid. These guys are electrifying musicians. It would be enough that Sting, with his distinctive, sinuous delivery, is a great singer; or that he is one of the most harmonically sophisticated of all post-Paul McCartney bassists. The fact that he is both of these things at once remains something of a marvel. Guitarist Andy Summers' gorgeous phrasing and inventive use of electronic effects place him pretty much in an instrumental category of his own, at least in a pop context. And Stewart Copeland — I mean, what a drummer. The man plays with unrelenting power and snap, but with deep rhythmic complexity, too. He finds beats in places most other percussionists wouldn't think to look, and he does it about every 30 seconds.
The Police broke up 18 years ago — they apparently didn't like each other all that much — but they immediately re-gelled for this occasion. You might think that "Roxanne," their 1979 hit, could never be brought back from the Valley of Overplayed Singles. But they kicked it to life as if they'd just thought it up the week before. And their 1983 über-smash, "Every Breath You Take" — later a big hit with Puffy Combs' name somehow attached to it — was an equally neat feat of exhumation. The Police really were — still are — a uniquely impressive band.
Toward the end of "Every Breath You Take," Steven Tyler and Gwen Stefani jumped up and joined in. So did, uh, John Mayer. Then, before Dick Cheney and the L.A. Lakers could prance out to take part, the song crested and came to an end.
Word had it that the show was supposed to conclude with an "all-star jam" on the Clash's 1979 cover of the old Bobby Fuller Four hit, "I Fought the Law." This didn't happen, and probably just as well. These "jams" — intended as a display of heart-warming pop-star commonality — are most often a mess. Spared such a sodden wrap-up, this Hall of Fame show — spirited in its performances, generally sleek in its pacing — seemed otherwise unimprovable.