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 LoderKurt Loder