[The title of this post is something my father once said about the city of London.]
Chris Molanphy (the Nate Silver of pop music criticism—not just because of his ability to parse stats, but because of his ability to upturn conventional wisdom in the process) has written an excellent piece on how, and why, bands/acts get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or don't. Go read it if you want some insight into the mindset of the Nominating Committee, and how it diverges from the tastes of the voters, of whom there are many more.
I don't care who's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not anymore. The execution has been so flawed virtually from Day One that it's pretty much a pointless joke, albeit one that keeps getting re-told every year. Yes, my beef with it boils down to who's in it and who's not, but from a stricter definitional standpoint than most complainers, who just want to see their favorite bands inducted and bands they don't like shut out. (Over on Facebook, some maniac is kicking up a storm about the snubbing of Chicago. No, really.) What this boils down to, for me, is whether you believe rock 'n' roll is a style of music, or a marketing buzzword. And I believe a lot of music writers (who are the people I see getting all wee-wee'd up over the annual list of nominations) are in the latter category.
To me, rock 'n' roll is a form of music, and it has boundaries and prerequisites. For one thing, it is primarily a small group form, though strings and other embellishments can be brought into play as needed. The foundation is more or less the same as Chicago blues: guitar, bass, drums, piano, maybe a horn or two. It's blues-based, though the degree to which that's true is highly elastic. To pick an obvious example, Elvis Presley sang ballads, country songs, show tunes and hunks of indescribable weirdness, but remained a rock 'n' roll singer. It's a song form—there's room for improvisation, but it cannot be totally improvised unless that improvisation takes the form of variations on existing tunes (an extended blues jam, for example). It's also the result of organic interaction between musicians, meaning it should be reproducible onstage and more or less "live" in the studio. Having a band with a steady lineup goes a long way toward making this latter condition possible.
So given my definition of rock 'n' roll, here's how the nominees for the Class of 2014 shake out:
• The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: The name says it all, really. They were an electric blues band who, because of the era in which they operated, incorporated other sounds—funk, rock, Indian music—into their music. Because, as I say above, Chicago blues is one of the foundations of rock 'n' roll, and because rock fans were the ones buying their albums, they merit nomination, if not necessarily inclusion.
• Chic: Chic were not a rock 'n' roll band. Chic were a funk/disco band, and a very good one. They should not be nominated, and they should not be voted in.
• Deep Purple: Deep Purple definitely merit inclusion. They were a highly successful (commercially and artistically), musically assured band that, despite going through multiple lineup changes, maintained a signature sound rooted in blues and hard rock but with room for extended instrumental soloing. Unlike the Butterfield Blues Band, who shifted members in and out on every album, Deep Purple had a strong core roster that lasted several years, during which time the band did its best and most revered work. They deserve nomination, and inclusion.
• Peter Gabriel: The band Genesis, for whom Gabriel sang, is already in the Hall of Fame; as a solo artist, he's never made music I would call rock 'n' roll. He's a kind of theatrical art-pop performer, and shouldn't be nominated or included.
• Hall and Oates: Again, not rock 'n' roll—Hall and Oates were a pop/R&B/soul vocal duo.
• Kiss: Kiss are a rock 'n' roll band. I don't like their music—most of their songs, including their big hits, are melodically weak, and the production on their records is frequently underpowered (Destroyer is the major exception here)—but mine is a minority opinion. They've sold millions of records, their tours do absurdly well, and their merchandising empire is legendary for a reason. This being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they should absolutely be in it.
• LL Cool J: LL Cool J should not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No rappers should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. People who say that rap/hip-hop is "rock and roll" mean it in the sense that an advertising executive uses the term: to signify generic rebellion. (Also, people who say this are mostly 40 and older, and, I suspect, never understood what rock 'n' roll is.)
• The Meters: The Meters played funk, and were amazing at it. They should not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
• Nirvana: Nirvana were a terrible band. Sloppy, and self-conscious to the point of self-sabotage (personal and musical), they were nevertheless commercially successful and served as a bridge between the underground and the mainstream—literally; their best-known song pushed the riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling" through an arrangement based on earlier work by the Pixies—and, most importantly of all, they were a guitar-bass-drums power trio. Definitely rock 'n' roll, and Hall of Fame-worthy, despite my own feelings about their meager artistic achievements.
• N.W.A.: See LL Cool J.
• The Replacements: Like Nirvana, the Replacements were not a very good band; they were basically the Georgia Satellites of the Upper Midwest. There are several dozen bands like this active at all times, in all corners of the country—the Gaslight Anthem are their present-day equivalent. But they knew their history (as they proved every time one of their shows devolved into a round of drunken covers), and quite self-consciously sought to place themselves in rock history. They played by the rules, maintaining a fairly steady lineup (only one change during their recording years) and growing artistically from album to album. They didn't sell very many records, but a lot of music critics like them. They were a rock 'n' roll band, so from that standpoint if no other they're justifiable nominees, but I don't think they should be in the Hall of Fame.
• Linda Ronstadt: Linda Ronstadt was a pop singer who covered rock 'n' roll songs at times. She didn't maintain a working band for studio albums, which sets her apart from, say, Pat Benatar, who I would say absolutely merits Hall of Fame inclusion.
• Cat Stevens: See Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, and/or Linda Ronstadt.
• Link Wray: As a pioneer of the guitar sound and style that defined early rock 'n' roll, Link Wray is not only a worthy but necessary inclusion into the Hall of Fame.
• Yes: Despite their extended, occasionally meandering compositions, Yes were absolutely a rock band, maintaining a simple five-piece lineup (vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass, drums) and significantly cranking up the power of their music live—check Yessongs out sometime, if you haven't. Massively successful and influential, they are absolutely Hall of Fame material.
• The Zombies: While they only had a few hits, they maintained the same lineup for their original creative lifespan, and as far as 1960s pop goes, they're OK. Like many other bands, their critical reputation is inflated relative to their status in the memory of the general public. I wouldn't nominate them, or vote for them, for the Hall of Fame, though they are undeniably a rock 'n' roll band.
The reason the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is so fucked up is that in many ways it's the only game in town. Sure, there's a Country Music Hall of Fame, but country knows how to patrol its borders—they're never gonna induct Nelly just 'cause he had Tim McGraw sing on a track. What's really needed is 1) a Pop Music Hall of Fame, which would enable all the hip-hop, disco, and other non-rock 'n' roll acts currently in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to have a home they could be proud of; and 2) a better understanding, culturally, of what rock 'n' roll really is. Acceptance of the idea that it is a fairly specific thing—an organic, small group music made with guitars, bass, and drums, sometimes keyboards, occasionally horns, even less frequently other instruments—would quiet down a lot of bullshit cultural debate. Because musicians know the score. People who are actually in rock 'n' roll bands know exactly who they are and what they're doing. It's critics who fuck everything up by trying to shoehorn their favorite songs and performers into categories where they don't belong—something even the performers in question would cheerfully admit. Go ahead and ask LL Cool J, on or off the record, if he thinks of himself as a rock 'n' roll artist.
Of course, it should be obvious that saying that a given band (or, more likely, solo performer) should not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not the same thing as saying that band or artist makes bad music. It's just saying that categories matter. Pop music is music that's popular, whatever that happens to be in a given year. Rock 'n' roll, though, is a traditional form of music—a folk form. It should be celebrated as such.
Of course, it's too late now. Mine is a minority opinion, and has been for decades: most people have long since subscribed to the ad-exec definition of "rock and roll." So fuck it. Thanks for reading.