- Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five are among the nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — the first rap artists to get that distinction — joining U2, Randy Newman and the O’Jays on the ballot.
Getting his start as a DJ at Bronx parties in the late 1970s, Grandmaster Flash later joined with the Furious Five for the social commentary of “The Message” and “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It”).
Other nominees include blues guitarist Buddy Guy, rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson, rock band the Pretenders, soul singer Percy Sledge, “Centerfold” singers the J. Geils Band and the late country singer Conway Twitty.
Previous nominees on the ballot: the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, the Stooges, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Gram Parsons.
Singers of “Back Stabbers” and a string of other soulful hits, the O’Jays had their chart heyday in the 1970s. A singer of satirical songs like “Short People,” Newman is now one of the Hollywood’s most successful composers of movie music. [AP]
I picked U2 as the third most important band in rock history here:
Ireland’s U2 is the most important and influential band of the post-punk era, joining ringing guitar rock, punkish independence, Celtic spirituality, innovative production techniques and electronic experimentalism — all held together by singer/lyricist Bono’s transcendent vision and charisma.
U2 — Bono (Paul Hewson), guitarist the Edge (Dave Evans), bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen — formed in Dublin in 1976 as a Beatles and Stones cover band while the players were all still in high school. In 1980 they were signed to Island Records and released their spectacular first album, “Boy,” produced by Steve Lillywhite.
The band’s sparkling, radiant sound jumped from the grooves from the first note of “I Will Follow” and rode Mullen’s massive drums and the Edge’s angular, careening guitar into history. Neither “Boy” nor its follow-up “October” (with the glorious “Gloria”) tore up the charts at the time (though both are now platinum), but “War” — passionate, martial “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” melodic wailing “New Year’s Day,” and the fierce, new wavy love song “Two Hearts Beat As One”—turned U2 into a worldwide phenomenon in 1983.
In preparation for 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire,” producer Brian Eno had a long conversation with Bono, as he later told Q Magazine. “I said, ‘Look, if I work with you, I will want to change lots of things you do, because I’m not interested in records as a document of a rock band playing on stage, I’m more interested in painting pictures. I want to create a landscape within which this music happens.’ And Bono said, ‘Exactly, that’s what we want too.’”
The results of this fateful change of direction were Eno productions of U2 standards “The Unforgettable Fire” (including “Bad,” “Pride In the Name of Love”); Grammy’s 1987 Album of the Year, the personal yet universal “The Joshua Tree,” which made the band superstars (with “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With Or Without You” and “One Tree Hill”); 1991’s “Achtung Baby,” a brilliant and emotionally dark move toward electronica (“Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “One,” “Until the End of the World,” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and “Mysterious Ways”); and “Zooropa,” deeper still into Euro-dance music and electronics (‘93, with the title track, “Numb,” “Lemon,” “Stay”). Wow, what a journey.
U2 was the leading rock band of the ’80s because its members, like perhaps only Bruce Springsteen in the U.S., still believed that rock ‘n’ roll could save the world, and they had the talent to make that notion not seem hopelessly naive.
This earnestness and willingness to shoulder the heaviest of responsibilities led to soaring heights of achievement and escalating psychic and artistic demands that eventually led the band to adopt irony as its basic means of expression for a time in the ’90s.
All bands want to be cool, and in the ’80s U2 almost single-handedly made earnestness cool, but it was hard, relentless work. After the gritty, chunky guitars-and-idealism of the ’80s, the ’90s saw the diaphanous chill of electronics-and-irony, which was literally and metaphorically cool, but ultimately not what the band is about.
“All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (‘00) returned to what the band is about, and is the sonic and spiritual follow up to the “The Joshua Tree,” the band’s most idealistic, spiritual and melodically consistent album.
Remnants of the band’s forays into electronics seasoned the album (especially the impressionistic “New York”), but the Edge’s guitar returned to center stage where his unique, chiming style belongs, though it never upstages the songs, every one of which is blessed with a memorable tune.
Following the ecstatic release of the opening track “Beautiful Day,” the second song “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” states a seemingly modest but deeply profound, earnest and idealistic notion:
“I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song I can sing in my own company”
They have found it and then some. U2 is now a mature, confident, still amazing band that knows it doesn’t have all the answers, but isn’t afraid to keep asking the right questions.
The O’Jays are one of small handful of the greatest soul groups of all-time and certainly deserve induction. I wrote about them here last year:
- Cleveland’s own O’Jays just wrapped up a 20-city tour, and they acted in the upcoming film The Fighting Temptations with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyonce Knowles. JoAnne Allen interviewed them for Reuters:
- It is not the first time the O’Jays have appeared in a movie, but it is the first one that matters to them.
“It’s the first time we’ve done one where we’ve had speaking lines (and) that we were playing characters,” Levert said. He thinks everyone will want to see this movie “because we’re in it and we sang some great songs.”
“And it’s a family movie,” Williams chimes in.
It also takes them back to their musical roots.
“Gospel is our background,” Williams said. “My father was the choir director at St. Mark’s Baptist Church. He had Eddie and I (in the choir) at very young ages so that’s pretty much where our soul started.”
Doing the movie was part of the trio’s ongoing effort to stay current and in the public eye. All three say they would like to do more films.
They are also writing a book about their lives, which is due out in about a year, and Williams reveals that he is working on a solo project that he has long dreamed of.
“I want to sing Nat Cole. I want to do an album singing Nat Cole. ‘Walt sings Nat Cole,”‘ said Williams. I’d like to do it real soon.”
The one thing they are not thinking about doing any time soon is retire.
“Should I retire at 59?” Williams asks. “I don’t think so.”
He explains that despite the frustrations of competing with younger artists who have huge radio audiences and having to hunt for their music “in the back, undercover” in record stores, “overall, it’s still a joy.”
Levert adds that for him performing is therapeutic and that he’s not about to give it up. “I’m 61 and I’ve been doing this 43 years, so the legs are probably the first thing that start going on you and your back,” he said, making clear that there are days when he doesn’t feel up to going on stage.
“But you make yourself get up… and you get in the limo and you go to the venue and the man says ‘The O’Jays’ and all of a sudden all of that goes away,” Levert said. “You’ve been healed by this music.”
I spoke with legendary songwriter Leon Huff, of Gamble and Huff, about their salad days in the ’70s with the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.
By ’71 G&H were tired of moving their tent from label to label and approached CBS president Clive Davis about a deal for an imprint of their own, to be distributed by CBS.
Recalls Huff, “Clive was blown away by our talent, and it was a great move for us and them. Our company (Philadelphia International) really took off after we signed the O’Jays.
“I remember flying into Cleveland – a disc jockey had called to say ‘Man there’s a group in Cleveland that’s raising hell’ – so we took a flight out to Cleveland and went to see them at a club. They had lines around the corner. Those guys were tearing that club up. We stayed in Cleveland until we signed them. We took them back to Philadelphia and recorded and recorded and recorded.”
With the O’Jays, and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, the world of Gamble and Huff came together. In the ’70s G&H scored ten No. 1 R&B and nine Top 40 pop hits with the O’Jays; four No. 1 R&B and four Top 20 hits with Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.
But more importantly, all the disparate elements of the G&H sound coalesced into something new: music with rhythmic muscle, melodic sophistication and orchestral leavening, combined with a newfound social and interpersonal awareness, all funneled through the great pipes of the O’Jays’ Eddie Levert and the Bluesnotes’ Teddy Pendergrass.
Recorded at G&H’s Sigma Sound with engineer Joe Tarsia, the roll began with the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers,” a remarkable combination of shimmering strings, Latin percussion, post-modern paranoia and a palpable sense of “this is it – there is nothing any of us could or should be doing other than making this music.”
G&H weren’t following Motown (where Norman Whitfield was making parallel strides) or anyone else (Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes were independently exploring some of the same terrain) – G&B were leading.
In addition to making hits, G&H allowed house band MFSB to stretch out in the grooves of the songs, laying a funky foundation for the extended disco remixes of the later-’70s. Album cuts of such uptempo masterworks as the Bluenotes’ “Bad Luck” and “The Love I Lost”; MFSB’s “TSOP” (The Soul Train theme song) and “Love Is the Message”; and the O’Jays’ “992 Arguments,” “I Love Music” and (best) “For the Love of Money” reached lengths of up to 10-minutes of dance floor ecstasy.
“Money” is Huff’s all-time favorite “for the [anti-greed] message and for the song. I used to go the O’Jays concerts and they would drive people insane when they would close the show with that song.”
Randy Newman has never been an actual rocker, but his brilliant early songwriting combined the profound empathy with the most scathing cynicism. Al Barger reviewed Newman’s classic Good Old Boys here. I interviewed Newman for the school paper in the late-’70s when he performed solo at Wittenberg – I’ll try to dig that up by announcement time – I think he’ll get in.
I think Grandmaster Flash will also get in a real real hip-hop pioneer, with two classic socially conscious smash hits in “The Message” and “White Lines,” and as the first to be eligible according to the Rock Hall’s 25-years-since-first-recording rule.
Of the other first-time nominees incendiary electic blues guitarist Buddy Guy, and the Pretenders should definitely make the grade.
Chrissie Hynde, leader of the Pretenders, is from Akron, so the nomination news was big in this area – the Plain Dealer talked to her about it:
- “Personally, I hope it doesn’t happen, because I don’t like awards,” she said.
Hynde put together the Pretenders after she relocated to London in the mid- ’70s. The pop-rock group released its first single, “Stop Your Sobbing,” in 1979, followed by such hits as “Brass in Pocket (I’m Special)” and “Back on the Chain Gang.”
The band performed at the Concert for the Hall of Fame at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1995.
“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” Hynde said. “I’m glad the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. . . . It’s nice if people like that sort of thing, they can go and see, you know, the trousers that Jimmy Page wore in 1910.
“But as far as the awards part of it and being inducted, I could give that a miss.”
The Pretenders have gone through numerous lineup changes through the years. Founding members James Honeyman-Scott (guitar) and Pete Farndon (bass) died of drug overdoses in 1982 and 1983, respectively.
I looked at last year’s nominees, including the holdovers to this year, here.
More on J. Geils, Wanda Jackson, Percy Sledge, and Conway Twitty later.