How Mediocre Bands Get Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

A former record executive explains why Dire Straits will be inducted next year, but not Radiohead.

December 19, 2017 5:00 am
Dire Straits
Dire Straits (Eric Robert/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Beyond good and evil, there is just banality. A dullness that dishonors every reason rock’n’roll was created, every intensive, pragmatic, romantic or aggressive reason people we were drawn to it, defined by it, inspired, balmed and elated by it. This banality also minimizes the great thrash of history, cruelty and social anxiety that spans, speeds, and scars the story of rock’n’roll.

That’s why I feel it’s necessary to complain about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The omissions, biases, and distortions of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are more predictable than tears at a pet’s grave. The Hall is, more than anything, an incomplete monument; it is an anthill pretending to be Everest. It tells only a fragment of the great story.

If you wonder why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is such a Towering Shitstack of Low/Mid Expectations, try citing a simple and convenient formula I’ve detected. You’ll find that the Hall applies this formula to virtually any and every act that has been inducted, or is being considered:

Did they sell a lot of records in the United States? + Did Rolling Stone like ‘em a lot? + Springsteen and Little Steven are okay with this, correct? + They’re not heavy metal, right? + Did they ever piss off Jann or diss the Hall in any significant or public way? + Will they play our Awards Show?

The 2018 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, Moody Blues, Nina Simone, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. From our Realpolitik point of view, this isn’t a bad class at all. There’s one very notable exception, however, so let’s discuss that first:

The idea of inducting Dire Straits, an FM mediocrity with no real traction beyond the approving nods of some uninventive rock critics and sloe-voiced FM radio DJ’s three or four decades ago, is a grave insult to the genuinely inventive and incendiary rock artists nominated this year, like, Rage Against the Machine or MC5.

There is truly no rational world where Dire Straits (who are a likable band in some ways, no doubt) deserve an honor that, say, the New York Dolls, Judas Priest, or Motörhead has been deprived of. My god, are you telling me Dire Straits impacted the world, creatively or commercially, more than Kraftwerk or New Order? Honestly, I could make a case, a damn good one, that Frankie Goes to Fucking Hollywood belong in the Hall more than Dire Straits.

Now, why would I say such a thing?

No one ever fled the suburbs and moved to the City because of Dire Straits. No one ever felt better after being mocked by a bully because of Dire Straits. No one ever saw Dire Straits on TV and thought, “My god, I am not alone.” No one ever wrote “Dire Straits” on the back of their notebook and made that one friend who saved their life.

Here’s what people think of when they consider Dire Straits:

“Ohhhh…I kinda like Dire Straits. I remember Rolling Stone used to talk about what a good guitarist that dude was. And I really liked that song with Sting on it! Wait…maybe I’m thinking of the Weird Al version – you know, I actually liked the Weird Al Version more.”

Friends, that is not a Hall of Fame type act. You know that and I know that.

Now, the truest thing we can say about rock’n’roll culturally is that it is the sound of America’s disenfranchised, made electric. At every level, the sound of American rock’n’pop can be traced back to the urban and rural poor, the sons and daughters of slaves, sharecroppers, coalminers and Pullman porters, and the integration of the musical and rhythmic heritage of old-world immigrants – willing and unwilling – into an American vernacular.

With this in mind, we should feel damn good about the induction of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who represents this spirit in a very real and direct fashion.

I don’t have any issue at all with the Bon Jovi induction. This is a band that worked hard, had an honest bond with their constituency, had legs, and sold gazillions of records. In terms of inducting people solely because of commercial performance – which, to a certain degree, is a totally reasonable criterion – you can do a lot worse than Bon Jovi. I only hope that when they give their induction speeches, they acknowledge the rather enormous influence non-HOF’ers Thin Lizzy had on their sound and songwriting.

Likewise, in our Realpolitik sense, the induction of the awful Cars makes sense. The Cars were a reasonably credible and influential band that racked up some impressive sales and have emerged as a prime caricature of the sound of a certain era. Oh, and I say ‘awful Cars’ only because Ric Ocasek is a grade-A prick; apart from that, I kind of like what they did, blending Roxy Music, Tommy James, and Modern Lovers into a finely-buffed pink and checkerboard leatherette.

Now, the Moody Blues definitely belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even one established outside the turgid, imagination-less Glen Frey-felching of Jann Wenner. Days of Future Passed and In Search of the Lost Chord are monstrously inventive, wondrous, influential, and pioneering albums – absolutely blue and chewy velvet fogs of orchestral and mellotronic wistful psychedelia, sitting somewhere between Pet Sounds and Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Night of the Proms – and they have dated exceptionally well. So bully on that.

Oh, and Nina Simone — this smacks a little of PC gerrymandering (and I suspect she may have landed in the top five only when another act was evicted), but only a misanthrope who did most of his grocery shopping in the food aisle at Rite Aid could complain about that induction (and as I note below, the Hall might actually benefit from some gerrymandering).

Now, a few words about the artists who were nominated for the Class of ‘18 but did not get inducted:

I am extremely surprised that Radiohead didn’t make the cut. They are universally beloved by rock critics and have an enormous commercial profile. I strongly believe (though I confess I have no evidence of this) that they were voted in, but were removed from the final five. At the time of their nomination, Radiohead announced that if they were inducted, they would not play at the Awards Ceremony. This is precisely the kind of f-ckery Wenner et al. does not take kindly to. There is a long tradition of lesser award shows (like the MTV VMAs or the American Music Awards) shifting winners around on the basis of who was willing to perform on the all-important and income generating TV broadcast, and there is absolutely zero reason to believe that the R’n’R HOF wouldn’t resort to the same tricks.

I’m also slightly surprised that the Eurythmics, who had one of the genuinely compelling frontwomen of the era, didn’t make the cut. See, when it comes to an act like Eurythmics, I apply the always-useful H&O SOM© (the Hall & Oates Standard of Measure). The H&O SOM© works like this: Hall & Oates are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (wait, are you telling me Hall & Oates are in the Hall of Fame, and Brian Eno, The Cure, and Def Leppard aren’t? Uh-huh, that’s right). Is this particular act we’re considering more interesting, more popular, or more influential then Hall & Oates?

Eurythmics – Definitely yes.

Let’s apply the H&O SOM© to some other acts who were nominated for the 2018 class but didn’t make the cut: The MC5, oh god yes; The Zombies, yes (but I would venture that the Troggs, who will never sniff the Hall, are considerably more important and interesting than the Zombies); Rufus featuring Chakha Khan – maybe, but I think, when push comes to shove, that’s not a Hall of Fame level act; the Meters, definitely; and Link Wray, definitely. Oh, and the J. Geils Band are likable, heck, even lovable, but they’re not a Hall of Fame band. They were an act that boosted our souls and spirits while we were waiting for punk rock to happen, and they were refreshing and honest, but is the Hall of Fame just a collection of bands that amused us, or should it honor pioneers and artists who actually moved and changed us?

In the coming years, whatever is wrong with the Hall will probably just get worse. Wenner is likely to lose his Rolling Stone soapbox (he and his family have put the magazine up for sale), which will mean that he will see the Hall as his living memorial and seat of power, both things he will guard zealously. Likewise, other Hall poo-bahs (like John Landau and Dave Marsh) are aging, and very unlikely to change their colors.

What does this mean for the future?

Look for more awards to be created for Bruce Springsteen. You know how Scientology keeps on inventing new titles for Tom Cruise? That’s the relationship the Hall has with Springsteen. And expect all the abnormal and now comical biases against heavy metal, 1980s British alt-pop powerhouses, ‘70s British rock that sold better in the UK than the States, and independent/alternative pathfinders to continue.

Can it be changed? First, you have to assume there’s a willingness to change, and there’s no evidence that’s the case. It’s also possible that any changes may actually make things worse since they would very likely come from HBO, who certainly want younger and hotter acts on the Awards telecast, and therefore may push for some juggling of the entry criteria. In all seriousness, I bet you that right now an HBO exec is writing a memo that says, “If we lower the entry criteria from 25 years from the first release to ten years, does that mean we can get Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran on the damn TV show?”

But let’s pretend they did want to change.

Roy Traikin, an excellent veteran music journalist, has proposed that each year the Hall should target one sub-genre to honor – punk, post-punk, British Invasion, heavy metal, etcetera – and ensure that one act from these severely under-represented groups gets their day in the sun. This is a very decent idea (and might allow for some of the most egregious omissions, like Kraftwerk, New York Dolls, or Iron Maiden, to be amended). However, this would only be a Band-Aid, and would not alter the fact that there is something deeply flawed with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fames’ nominating process and voter’s rolls.

This defect is revealed, again and again, by the following factors:

The consistent absence in the Hall of any but the most obvious heavy metal acts, even if some of these bands are commercially massive and artistically respected (Maiden, Priest), or as profoundly influential and merch-ubiquitous as any act of the of the last forty years (Motörhead, Slayer). Clearly, This is a problem with the nominating process and the voter rolls.

The consistent absence of a meaningful selection of the commercially massive and artistically respected British artists of the 1970s and ‘80s (Depeche Mode, for one, still make the kind of concert money and generate a level of interest in their new recordings that most aging Hall of Famers would probably literally kill for, and Duran Duran, Morrissey, and New Order are not far behind). Likewise, we can only shake our heads in repeated disbelief at the absence of Mott the Hoople, Kate Bush, Roxy Music, T Rex, Slade, and Thin Lizzy. Clearly, This is a problem with the nominating process and the voter rolls.

The consistent absence of any acts that emerged from the American indie label underground in the late 1970s and ‘80s, despite the fact that some of these artists are the most impactful and respected of our era. Sonic Youth are inarguably one of the five most influential rocks acts of the last four decades (even bands who have never heard them imitate their musical tics); Black Flag essentially created the template for American independent touring and promotion; the Misfits, are, well, the rock upon which the entire freaking Hot Topic generation was built, and could probably outsell, on a concert tour, three-quarters of the still-extant bands in the Hall; and so on. These issues, never changing, clearly reflect a problem with the nominating process and the voter rolls.

Until something is done to address this — why do these problems keep on happening – any Band-Aid is a drop in the bucket and any criticism is just spilling cold urine on a warm MacBook.

Finally, for the record (even though it is, I admit, a tired old record), here’s my list of the 10 biggest omissions from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

Kraftwerk; Alan Lomax; Kate Bush; Iron Maiden; The Smiths; Judas Priest; Motörhead; Joy Division/New Order; Madness; and the Kingston Trio (and right behind this, Harry Nilsson and Slayer). Why Madness, you ask? In their homeland, Madness are possibly the most ubiquitous and loved English pop act since Queen, as much a part of the English Way of Life as any non-Beatles act in history. As for The Kingston Trio, In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, they dominated pop as very, very few acts ever have: they had fourteen top ten albums, in November and December of 1959 alone they had four albums in the top ten, and they were an enormous part of creating the folk boom that led directly to the shape of the 1960s.

Tim Sommer is an avant-garde musician, a record producer and former Atlantic Records A&R executive. He has also worked as a radio and club DJ and an MTV and VH1 News VJ.

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