On March 14, 2005 the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame will induct The Pretenders, U2, the O’Jays, Buddy Guy, and Percy Sledge.
The very concept of a Hall of Fame for rock or any music is suspect; how can you quantify music? It’s like the Rolling Stone list of the top 500 songs. What makes “Hey Jude” necessarily better than “Soul Man”? What makes “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” a better song than “Once In A Lifetime”?
The same goes for musicians and singers. Are the Pretenders, who get the nod, really better than Patti Smith, who was nominated, but not voted in? The Pretenders sold more records, but Patti Smith gets more mentions in rock history books. One could argue they both belong in there, and Patti will get in sooner or later, or the whole thing is a farce.
Are the O’Jays (in) really that much better than the Ohio Players (out, not even nominated)? Grandmaster Flash locked out, but Percy Sledge in? And what to do about Randy Newman? Sure, he’s no more “rock” than the O’Jays or Percy Sledge albeit in a different way. But weren’t his 70’s albums supposed to be “seminal”? Don’t all those Oscar nominations count for something? And what’s up with Lynyrd Skynyrd? After all the times the 10-minute “Free Bird” has been sat through, often willingly, why can’t they finally get some recognition? What’ll it take, a plane crash to get the voters’ attention? And didn’t Gram Parsons, as vital to rock history as Patti Smith, just get a movie made about his short life, 30 years after it ended?
It’s all silly. It’s really just a fancy mausoleum, after all. But I won’t be a curmudgeon and insult the whole thing. Visitors to the Hall of Fame in Cleveland seem to enjoy it; if they learn something about rock from the experience, all the better. It might be a Rolling Stone vision of rock, with a 25-year time delay. But why shouldn’t Buddy Guy get a special day? Or the O’Jays, or the Pretenders? 100 years from now, people are going to need a little guidance. If the Hall can do that, well then, swell.
So congratulations to the inductees, better luck next time to those left out in front of the velvet rope.
Tonight’s playlist will be a special Hall of Fame edition. I’ve created a playlist from all titles in my library by the five inductees, and the 8 also-rans nominated, but not voted in (J. Geils Band, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Wanda Jackson, Randy Newman, Conway Twitty, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gram Parsons, Patti Smith), a pool of 217 titles.
First 10 tiles selected by randomplay are profiled. I’m going to enforce a strict no-artist-repetition rule this time, so that we’ll get to 10 of the 13. (3, alas, may wind up two-time losers tonight) Media Center rating tags, 1-5 stars, follow:
1. Lynyrd Skynyrd: That Smell *****
Quite possibly the most prophetic song ever written in rock history, “That Smell” is all about degeneration and death. In the case of Ronnie Van Zandt, new guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines, death came within days of this records release when the plane carrying the band crashed in Mississippi. Gaines’ guitar had helped to revitalize the band on this album, which is among their best. Survivors of the crash re-formed the band in the late 80’s and kept it going through the 90’s, but it was never the same.
2. The Pretenders: Private Life ****
One of the lesser tunes on the pretty great Pretenders debut. I’m not always sure of Chrissie Hynde’s lyrics: your sexual complications are not my fascinations is both funny and awkward at the same time. But the Pretenders had a helluva band for their first two albums, and they play well here in a claustrophobic little groove, with bassist Pete Farndon providing a fluid reggae-like line on bass, and James Honeyman-Scott supplying syncopated counter rhythm on acoustic guitar, and also getting an almost bluesy solo. In June 1982, Farndon was kicked out of the band for his drug use; two days later, Honeyman-Scott died from a heroin and cocaine overdose. Farndon died one year later, also from an overdose.
3. Patti Smith Group: Because The Night ****
Patti Smith struggled with the whole issue with art vs. commercial reward. After missing a year and a half of action after falling from a stage, she returned with this Bruce Springsteen tune, which netted her a top-20 hit, and helped keep her album on the charts for 5 months. On the other side of the coin, she closed side one with “Babelogue” one of her trademark rants, which leads into the provactively titled “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger” which almost belligerently pushed the envelope. Her provacative stuff is a lot better than the Springsteen tune, which is fairly conventional and faithful to the original. After this, she’d have no more stuggle; while her next album, Wave, briefly hit #18 before slipping off the charts quickly, none of her later releases ever broke the top-100 again.
4. J. Geils Band: Southside Shuffle (live)
Good workout of one of the bands signature tunes, originally form 1973’s Bloodshot. Peter Wolf engages in some energetic call-and-response with the audience as the band vamps, before kicking into the song, a good rocker featuring Geil’s sharp piano playing and sweaty professionalism from the rest. For those only familiar with their late hits, like “Centerfold” and “Love Stinks” which were pop moves, the original sound of the band was a bluesy party band, a cross between the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison.
5. Randy Newman: My Life Is Good ***
Randy Newman is a character; you either love him or hate him. He had a knack for being non-PC in his lyrics; whether he was a wry spoofer of wrong headed attitudes, or just a guy with wrong headed attitudes is open to debate, there is evidence on both sides. This one is a portrait of an obnoxious, narcissistic, egocentric plutocrat which may or may not be how Randy sees himself. Either way, this album featured Newman’s most radio-friendly producing and arranging, and the tune has a typical off-kilter Newman melody, a plus. I sit on the fence, and cop out with three stars.
6. The O’Jays: Back Stabbers *****
The O’Jays started their Philadelphia International career at a peak with this label debut, which featured this #3 hit, and the #1 “Love Train”. Eddie Levert was one of the most soulful of the 70’s soul singers, the back up harmonies are equally good, the lyrics are topical and tough-minded, and Gamble and Huff provide then state-of-the-art Philly Soul production. A lot of people might not realize how long the band was at it; the O’Jays were formed in 1958 by five high-school students in Canton, Ohio. Original members Levert and Walter Williams are still at it, 47 years later.
7. Percy Sledge: When A Man Loves A Woman *****
Sledge only hit the top 10 three times in his career, but the shadow cast by this one recording makes his name as well known as any of his contemporaries who scored more hits on the charts. An anguished, pleading, heart-rending vocal, it remains one of the all time soul classics, frequently turning up in movies and TV advertisements. Sledge (a former nurse, incidentally) never was really able to follow this up, but his career kept momentum into the mid 1970’s, and he toured and recorded sporadically into the 90’s.
8. Gram Parsons: Codine ****
This album unearths eighteen tracks recorded by a 19-year-old Parsons, who had already developed a sturdy guitar style, and was coming along vocally. While he sounds young and unpolished, there’s no doubt he had something special even at this stage; he gives Buffy St. Marie’s harrowing lyric of addiction and degredation a credible treatment. What’s interesting about this and the other titles on this disc is that they reveal Parsons the folk singer; there’s nary a hint of the country influences he’d later bring to rock, earning him the “father of country-rock” title he’d eventually merit. A little raw and shaky, but indispensible to fans or collectors, and worth it for anyone else. Parsons died in 1973.
9. Buddy Guy: Shame Shame Shame ****
This late (1994) Buddy Guy recording, a cover of a Jimmy Reed number, gets a sprightly treatment. A brash showman when he was young, Guy still sounds energetic here, and serves up generous slabs of reverb laden guitar runs, the kind of stuff Eric Clapton has praised when he’s called Guy his favorite guitarist of all time. For most of the 80’s Guy was without a contract at all, but since resuming recording in the 90’s he’s notched three Grammies.
10. Grandmaster Flash: White Lines (Don’t Do It) *****
While it would be stretching things to say there would be no hip hop without Grandmaster Flash and “The Message”, it would be safe to say that it wouldn’t quite be the same as it is now. “The Message”, upon its 1982 release, was one of the first raps to acutually bear a message; prior to that, the early rap efforts by Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow were party affairs. “White Lines” was the followup. While it lacks both the shock of the new and the urgency of the prior hit, it does pack more of an instrumental wallop. Shortly after this was released in 1984, rapper Melle Mel left the group.
Well, U2 didn’t come up in the playlist, but they hardly need any more publicity. Apologies to Conway Twitty and Wanda Jackson; see you next year.
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