2008 / Music / Previews

Preview: Rock Hall Hitting Rock Bottom?

Annual Ceremony Held To Honor Rock, Blues Legends

Back when it was founded in the mid-1980s, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame probably seemed like a great idea to the cigar-chomping moguls who dreamt it up.

Photo: Debbie R

Photo: Debbie R

They thought the giants of rock ‘n’ roll’s golden era were elderly or rapidly becoming so and the music’s primary delivery mechanisms — record labels, rock radio, Rolling Stone magazine and MTV — were arguably at the very pinnacle of their power and influence in defining what this music was. They had the money to honor their personal heroes and the clout to decide who would make it past the gates.

Twenty-two years later, however, the world is a very different place. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and its annual induction of successive waves of supposedly legendary artists are now more renown for the struggle to attract an audience in a crowded media landscape as well as the controversies and criticisms that the Hall of Fame has been increasingly forced to weather.

This honor has become just another shameless scramble for publicity and one that too often appears to have an invisible hand guiding the process.

Those problems notwithstanding, perhaps the biggest challenge for this year’s ceremony, set for Monday at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, is the rather dull lineup of inductees. Boasting only one bona fide superstar — Madonna — the rest of this year’s class reads like it was culled from a random playlist swiped from the “Charlie” or “Jack” radio station format: John Mellencamp, Leonard Cohen, the Dave Clark Five and the Ventures.

Cohen remains one of rock’s most underappreciated songwriters and Madonna was an iconic figure in the ’80s and early ’90s pop scene, but the rest seem like filler. Furthermore, none promise either the intra-band drama of last year’s induction of Van Halen or the performance fireworks of say Led Zeppelin or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band reuniting.

Like any other award show, the ceremony wants to create a splash, which remains the chief focus each time artists are inducted. Indicative of the public’s apathy for the event, which is hosted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, is how weak ratings have forced the ceremony to slowly fade off TV.

The show continued to slide from being broadcast in its entirety on VH1, to airing as a condensed, highlight-heavy version broadcast days later on VH1 and then bumped to the expanded cable Twilight Zone of VH1 Classics. This year’s ceremony will also be livestreaming in its entirety on Best Buy’s Web site.

Not helping matters are the continual snipes about who is in and who isn’t in the hall and how the whole selection process is conducted. Early on, it was usually a no-brainer. Who’s going to argue that Chuck Berry or Bob Marley or the Rolling Stones belong there?

But, examining the full roster of past inductees, we certainly see that they certainly conform to a commercial-oriented, classic-rock-slanted vision of history. The selection process is the key point of contention because it appears as suspiciously undemocratic as the superdelegates battle being waged in the Democratic presidential primary.

Those artists inducted are selected by several hundred music industry elites (musicians, journalists, business figures) from a list of approved nominees. The top five acts are then inducted. The roster of this year’s nominees who apparently didn’t make the cut included the Beastie Boys, Donna Summer, Chic and Afrika Bambaataa.

The fact that neither the nominating process nor the voting are open to the public — and even what people are identified as worthy of voting — continue to mire the Hall of Fame.

Add to this the hubbub that erupted last year when a Fox News article alleged that 2008 inductee, the Dave Clark Five, actually had enough votes to win last year, but Rolling Stone founder and Hall of Fame bigwig Jann Wehner interceded so that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were allowed ahead of the Dave Clark Five because he felt a hip-hop act needed to be represented. Hall of Fame officials denied these charges.

There were no such accusations this year, but then, this might be because no one really cares. In fairness, each act did impact the rock world in a particular time and place. Whether their contributions merit a spot when compared to past inductees or in place of many who still aren’t in the hall are questions for debate.

This year’s inductees include:

Madonna

In the 1980s, Madonna was pop music’s Castor to Michael Jackson’s Pollux. She became perhaps decade’s most preeminent performer and star who’s influence extended beyond music into fashion, film and politics.

In contrast to Jackson, however, Madonna had little musical skills. She used her dancing abilities, her charisma, her business savvy and her willingness to be a lightning rod in the culture wars to propel her career to the very heights in the music world. Musically, Madonna is a creative vampire who has relied on pop and dance’s hottest producers to craft singles that she can then front.

Her biggest albums — “Like A Prayer,” “True Blue” and “Like A Virgin” — became multi-platinum smashes and her singles were ubiquitous on radio and especially MTV. So powerful was her pop persona that she was continually allowed to make a string of horrific movie appearances despite proving that she was box-office poison.

Given her astuteness for harnessing publicity, it shouldn’t be surprise then that Madonn has a new album slated for release next month with contributions from members of pop music’s ruling Politburo Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and Pharrell Williams. Look for her performance to be the most high-energy of the night. Timberlake will be inducting the former Material Girl.

John Mellencamp

Indiana boy John Mellencamp had a less ever-present run as Madonna did in the ’80s, but he did have a gift for crafting anthemic, feel-good rockers.

Mellencamp had no problem pretending to be a character from a ’50s teen rebellion movie. Cigarette in his mouth, white T-shirt on, sitting astride a motorcycle, Mellencamp embodied the myth and hope fans would too. Many did. His monster albums, particularly “Scarecrow,” briefly threatened to make him the Heartland’s answer to Bruce Springsteen.

His “Jack And Diane” might merit in spot on the list of the greatest rock songs of all time. Mellencamp in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does not.

Billy Joel will be doing the honors for Mellencamp.

Leonard Cohen

Canadian Leonard Cohen was one of the luminaries of the ’70s singer-songwriter period, but one whose dark, romantic and literary style continues to be largely unheralded by the public at large. Songs like “Suzanne,” “So Long Marianne,” “Bird On A Wire” and the Jeff Buckley-covered “Hallelujah” became overlooked treasures of the pop music lexicon.

Thirty years on, Cohen’s career continues to operate much as it has — below the radar. A 2006 documentary, “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” introduced him to a wider audience no doubt because of the appearance of U2 and other better-known fans.

While Cohen has continued to release albums, it’s chiefly his ’70s output that has positioned him to be inducted. Like Madonna, Cohen is using his induction as part of an effort to boost his career. He’s launching a world tour in the spring. Fellow gloom-aphile Lou Reed will be inducting Cohen on Monday night.

The Dave Clark Five

Only superfans would really argue that the Dave Clark Five rivaled the Beatles when both British groups shared a lust in the early ’60s for pop-chart dominance. In a few short years, the Beatles became figures in Western culture and morphed into album-focused artistes, the Five were still striving to be a better singles band.

The Dave Clark Five certainly had an impressive run of singles. Cuts like “Glad All Over,” “Catch Us If You Can” and “Over and Over” were hits on both sides of the Atlantic, but they their popularity nosedived as music tastes became more sophisticated as the ’60s came to an end.

Like Mellencamp, the band’s induction is questionable. It certainly puts them on par with other questionable Hall of Famers like the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Jefferson Airplane and the Animals.

It’s likely that the ceremony’s most touching moments will stem from the band’s induction as the group’s singer, Mike Smith, died only a few days ago. The 64-year-old, who was paralyzed from the ribs down after a spinal cord injury suffered in 2003, died on pneumonia, according to press reports. Tom Hanks is expected to induct the band.

The Ventures

You can be sure those seeking to get the Hall of Fame ceremony back on TV are tepid about the inclusion of the Ventures this year.

Like Cohen, the group, best known as one of the progenitors of California surf music, is mostly being honored for being an influence on other artists. Members of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and other Baby Boomer bands have pointed to the band and their instrumental as keys in their musical development. Fan John Fogerty will be inducting the group.

Beyond the performers, the Hall has two other categories to recognize others’ contributions.

In the non-performer category, ’70s songwriters/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are being inducted this year for their dozens of hits with non-Motown R&B/soul music acts, including Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and the O’Jays. In the condescendingly named sideman category, blues harp master Little Walter is being inducted for his contributions on seminal albums by Muddy Waters.

If we look at this year’s class as a harbinger, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a bleak future in recognizing the past.

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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