Every year I try to come up with a slightly different spin on the Hall. My basic objections/recommendations remain the same as they have been for at least twenty years:
A veteran’s committee is needed to address important acts from the fifties and sixties who have been overlooked.
A category for contemporary influence is needed so that performers who do not fit even the broadest definition of “rock and roll” (Joan Baez is the current poster child) can be acknowledged without knocking others out of a spot.
More transparency, please, for both the nominating and voting processes!
These simple fixes would go a long way towards keeping the Hall from being roiled in needless controversy year after year, and drifting ever further from what should be its meaningful mission of helping preserve the legacy of the rock and roll era which is now at least a generation behind us. Since these fixes are simple, logical and easily implemented, I expect them to happen on the other side of the Apocalypse.
Lowering my sights a bit, my new hope is that each year will not add to the personal list which was inagurated last year with Bon Jovi‘s induction: Acts who have never made a record I loved.
This year, add Radiohead to the club. To be fair, I’ve never listened to much of their music. To be even more fair, what I have listened to hasn’t left me with any desire to do a deep dive.
There were seven inductees this year, though (with possible non-performer additions to come), so I should probably be thankful there was only one. As for the rest:
From the “it only takes one” category:
From the “It only takes a few” category:
The Zombies (and can we please move on to the far more deserving Manfred Mann now?)
Janet Jackson (I liked a lot of her records, but only loved a few)
Def Leppard (ditto)
And the “maybe a little more than that” club:
Roxy Music (Mood music, and, I admit, an unusual mood for me. But when I’m there, nothing else works quite as well….Whether they should be forgiven for having such a mass influence on trance music is a close call. I tend to forgive them more readily than, say, Kraftwerk, who were also on the ballot this year.)
Stevie Nicks I’m not a fan of putting people in twice and some of the few who most deserve a double-induction (Smokey Robinson, Carole King) are only in once. Still, Stevie is the first woman to be inducted twice and, as the only woman to ever have a major solo career while remaining part of an important band, I’m happy this breakthrough went to her. As I always say, when there’s only one of something, there’s a reason.
How it was on at least one night of a tour that keeps getting extended. If it comes near you, see it if you possibly can.
1) The band comes on. Then McGuinn and Hillman walk in from the wings and launch into the opening chords of “My Back Pages,” which turn out to be as recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I’m not sure why this surprises me.
2) McGuinn turns out to be the (even) better story teller. First story of the night involves the first time he heard the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
“Sounded like bluegrass to me….”
3) Turns out he also does a killer Bob Dylan imitation. Anyone who hears him do it just before he demonstrates how he changed the dynamics of “Mr. Tambourine Man” completely (and made it a groundbreaking hit–and one of the most important records of the twentieth century–in the process) will no longer need to labor under the illusion that, in forging the Dylan/Beatles combination that came to be called folk rock (and which everyone thought was as natural as breathing the minute after it happened), the Byrds were somehow lesser.
4) Chris Hillman: “It is true that Gram Parsons and I met in a bank….” I don’t remember if that was before or after he explained how he wrote his first song when he came home from a jazz session with Hugh Masekela’s band. He does not explain why it came out a country song (“Time Between”) except to say that he does not know. This leads to other stories about actually going to Nashville with Gram in tow. The best involves McGuinn demonstrating a riff on the three-finger banjo to one of Nashville’s top session men.
You better let me do that, the fellow said.
5) Marty Stuart’s band is in support and Marty steps out in front a few times. His first memorable moment is just after the intermission when he comes out to warm up the crowd for the second half and plays something from his new album that incorporates the basic riffs from “Eight Miles High” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”
Which turn out to be as instantly recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” And “My Back Pages.”
6) Then it’s on to Sweetheart material proper and McGuinn’s complete intro to “I Like the Christian Life.”
“When we recorded this song, I didn’t know what it meant. I do now.”
7) And, of course, the umpteenth retelling of being given the cold shoulder by Ralph Emery. Still funny. Still painful. Still suggestive of lost possibilities for American music for generations to come. (He who shall remain nameless McGuinn says. Ralph! the crowd shouts.) Followed by a version of “Drug Store Truck Driving Man” that should be no more than a goof and instead, stings like a rattler. The record sounded like a petulant whine. The version I heard Sunday a week ago was tougher, meaner and funnier. By a factor of ten.
8) The musical highlight of the evening…out of nowhere: “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with McGuinn, Hillman and Stuart in three-part harmony. I’ve only been to the one show so I don’t know if they capture this every time out, but for one night in Atlanta, at least, it was beyond even the Everly Brothers. If Brian Wilson had been there he wouldn’t have needed LSD to see God again.
I wasn’t alone in thinking so. The crowd consisted largely of aging hippies. I think it’s safe to say they had, on average, a minimum of three beers apiece in them by then. And if anyone had dropped a pin between first note and last, it would have sounded like an atom bomb. (Avoid the versions available on YouTube which have spotty sound and barely hint at the quality of what I heard.)
9) For an encore: Proof that, on the right stage with the right sound system, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” rocks as hard as anything that has ever hit the air. Then the inevitable Now people tell us we sure do a great version of that Tom Petty song…which segues nicely into a tribute to Petty, the highlight of which is Stuart and his band doing a bluegrass version of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” that builds and builds and lays to rest any question of whether Tom Petty was a genius.
10) A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late….
Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman have lost none of their formidable musical skills and they both sing far better than they did in any clips from the sixties I’ve come across.
These days they’re master showmen as well, but, better than that, they’re Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the surviving core of the greatest band assembled on American shores after Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Just to be in a hall with them was a life-defining experience for me. That there would be so much real magic was almost too much to hope for.
Brother, I’d do it again.
And I confess I didn’t realize this was as close as they would get to either Waycross (Gram Parsons’ principal childhood home) or South Carolina (of the many tall pines)….but, looking back, there might have been a ghost or two wandering about.
There are no true oldies stations in my market anymore. The last one changed formats more than a decade ago. What’s left is the Hank format and a Classic Rock Formula which has been reshaped from hard-rock-all-the-time (white except for Jimi Hendrix) to a mix of hard rock (white….except for Jimi Hendrix), hard pop rock (all white), a little easy listening (ditto), plus, for the sake of diversity, “Superstition” and “Low Rider.”
It’s not exactly a true re-creation of how hit-oriented radio worked in the sixties and seventies, but it is an accurate reflection of these focus-grouped times.
Usually, I just listen to the gasbags on talk radio who at least keep me up with the news. (And represent the last, best hope Never Trumpers have of taking their nemesis down, even if they don’t know it and would never admit it if they did. Believe me, when you’re in the Byzantine spot Robert Mueller’s in, a place where so many corrupt riddles are wrapped inside so many diseased enigmas your own best hope of staying out of jail is the pubic’s inability to keep up, you couldn’t hope for better than to have Sean Hannity and Mark Levin representing the other side).
But, now and again, when the gasbags either overwhelm me or go to commercial once too often, I still pull up the Classic Hits station in my car.
I had missed a promo-promised Go-Go’s/Queen segue earlier in the day, but now I hit the button just as this one started…and, once it starts, I never change the station…
Strange thing, though. This time, all I could think about while the song was playing (and I was shouting every word–have I ever mentioned that I harmonize with Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham like a long lost sibling who shared a mother with one and a father with the other?…Or that I can’t be the first person to have considered the possibility that everyone can do this?)–was how, when the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign adopted “Don’t Stop” as the theme song and wanted Fleetwood Mac to re-unite and play it for some big occasion (the Convention? Election Night? the Inaugural?…the memory hazes, but, for my purposes here, it only matters that they said yes), Buckingham at first refused.
He gave in only when Stevie Nicks called him up and said If you take this away from me, I’ll never speak to you again.)
Don’t mind me. I get peculiar thoughts some times.
Because while all that was running through my head (without my thrush-like throat fluffing a note) I also started wondering if Oo-o-o-hh, don’t you look back might be a sentiment tantamount to civilizational suicide. Didn’t somebody say something once about those who don’t learn from the past being doomed to, etc., etc., etc.?
And wouldn’t not learning from the past you never look back to just about define Bill Clinton’s life and legacy? (Be sure you read Thomas Frank’s blind-squirrel-finds-a-nut article at the link, especially if you’ve forgotten, or never admitted, how much damage Clinton did to liberalism, damage that is likely to remain irreparable…..And, like I said, don’t mind me.)
Boy was I depressed.
Not even remembering how the ghost version of “Don’t Stop” had long since forced me to ponder whether Christine McVie having just possibly conceived the song as pure irony should be one of my heart-of-the-universe questions–how, with the slightest shift of timbre, she transformed don’t look back from the proverbial fear that something might be gaining on you to an anthem worthy of an American presidential campaign, where never a discouraging word must be heard–allowed me to shake the feeling the whole world has been had all over again every time this song plays on the radio and one of us sings along in perfect harmony without missing a note or a nuance.
Then the radio went straight into this…
…which was so much about nothing (a Curfew Riot–which sounds like the title of a Monty Python skit) it ended up being about everything. Including now.
Paranoia strikes deep….
And even though it had been too long since I heard it (and though nothing could ever match the impact of singing it, in perfect harmony–with five kids who weren’t conversant with English, or even born, when it was released–under the eaves of the library at Kent State in 1998) for me to get every note, or even every word, right, I thought…well this radio still speaks in mysterious ways some times, its wonders to perform.
After that, Tom Petty reminding me I don’t have the live like a refugee, usually the highlight of any paranoiac’s day, felt as comfortable as an old shoe.
Then “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” came on and I remembered how talk radio came to be an option in the first place.
Because the Empire planned it that way….That’s how.
Now go back to bed and leave me alone you damned ol’ Politics.
I said most of what I could say about Tom Petty–and the effect he had on those of us who thought Rock and Roll was still worth living for as the Frozen Silence (1980–2016…whatever the Godforsaken future holds, it won’t be Frozen or Silent) set in–here.
I’ll just add that he’s been strangely on my mind this past year though I couldn’t quite figure out how to approach writing about him at length. There were too many things to say that I couldn’t get my head around with the Frozen Silence being melted by a Fire Next Time that certainly shows no signs of burning out on the day I have to get my head around Tom Petty dying.
The one thing I knew I wanted to say, never mind the angle of approach, was that every single artist I listen to regularly has a place they take me to when I’m sitting in my den with the headphones on–a place that’s better suited to their music than any other on the American Highway.
Some folks sound just a little more perfect on real or imagined back country roads in the Southland, some on L.A. Freeways, some while running between the rusted out towns of the Upper Midwest, some in the Smoky Mountain Rain, some in the Philly Ghetto and so forth. I drove or rode through all those places and more back when I traveled around for the fun of it, and one thing I found is that a place’s perfect voice is not always who you think it will be.
The other thing I found was that Tom Petty and his band were the only ones who sounded perfect everywhere. Maybe being a Gainesville redneck who dreamed of L.A. because that’s where the Byrds were–and then ended up making it there–had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, nobody else operating in the middle of the Frozen Silence made as many records that rejected its terrifying, life-sapping assumptions so completely.
Robert Christgau once sneered that Petty’s “one great virtue” was “his total immersion in rock and roll.”
Sorry, but if you have to spend your life immersed in the idea of shouting into a Frozen Silence the Crit-Illuminati did every bit as much as the mere politicians to create and sustain (not least by remaining immersed in the fakery of pretending there were still sides worth choosing), what other virtue do you need?
Hope you’ve got that room at the top of the world tonight brother. Because you’re sure as hell the only damn Gator I want to see when I get there….
Though he was most famous for his Oscar bait from the early nineties (The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), Jonathan Demme did his best work in the eighties. He made two of that dreary, trend-setting decade’s best films (Melvin and Howard and Something Wild), both notable for their fluid, easy use of popular music. He had a knack for scoring small visual moments that worked to enlarge both the song and the scene, none more so than this one…
…though his use of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in the much more pedestrian (fi still frightening) The Silence of the Lambs was just as revelatory. The music Demme’s characters listened to in his films was the music his characters actually would have listened to if they’d been real people. That’s been such a rare gift in American cinema, that his losing it was as much a tragedy as us losing him.
Of course, in that same decade, he also made Stop Making Sense, one of the most acclaimed rock and roll concert films. Not being much of a Talking Heads’ fan, I’ve never seen the whole thing, but the clips I’ve caught over the years look astounding, so that’s an oversight I’ll have to rectify someday.
Something seemed to go out of him when he tried to remake Charade (as The Trouble With Charlie) and produced both a bloody mess and one of the worst films ever made. Coming on the heels of the eighties, the nineties were like that. They sucked the life out of everybody.
There was a key hiding in a line of a music video Demme directed. It’s of the only good record ever made by one of the ad hoc charity organizations that sprang up as we went about the world with our “terrible notions of duty.”** Turns out “Why are we always on the wrong side?” had an easy answer. In South Africa as elsewhere (where we’ve “helped” them into increasing their murder rate by a factor of a thousand, the victims being no longer worthy of any “charity” recordings by hot shot western superstars….or reporting by western media), there was no “right” side. Now there’s a tragedy for you.
But the power of seduction–of Pornographic Idealism–remains. We will insist on doing good until it hurts. And we will keep on insisting, no matter who it hurts. The Christian conscience nags, it seems, even when the Christ part is discarded.
And, therefore, “Sun City” is as good an epitaph for the unfulfilled promise of that very representative modern American, Jonathan Demme, as any.
**“We’re so prone to these things, with our terrible notions of duty.” (A.H. Clough)…from the famous epigram that begins Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American, from which we could have learned a thing or two, had we been less inclined to gag on our own hype.)
Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):
“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**
It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of Tom Petty or Prince.
And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.
But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.
The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.
But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.
Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.
That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.
For a while anyway.
Long enough to become iconic.
Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.
That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.
The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.
I’d love to hear it.
I won’t hold my breath.
**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)
10) Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt) The Complete Trio Collection (1987-1999) (2016)
This collects the two albums the superstar “trio” made in the eighties and nineties, plus an extra disc of unreleased and alternate takes.
The released albums were always a little too pristine for my taste. Hearing the tracks all at once didn’t exactly reverse that judgment, though it did allow me to fully appreciate the sheer craft-work driven improbability of it all.
Given the restrictive natures of both Harris’s and Ronstadt’s art–we’re talking about two people who always had a hard time loosening up–it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the real keepers are on the throwaway disc. The women who were never all that comfortable with the spotlight light up when it’s off, while Dolly just keeps on being Dolly. In that context, it seems no more than natural that “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a great song that’s been searching for a home for decades, would finally get the definitive take it deserves.
2) Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersEcho (1999)
A modern blues, filled with all the hit-maker’s recognizable touches and a lot of things too many people assumed he couldn’t do besides.
Maybe that assumption was rooted in not paying enough attention. If so, I certainly do not exempt myself.
One effect of getting to know this album in recent years has been a better understanding of just how deep those hits had to strike–again and again, back when it seemed they lived entirely on the surface–in order to reach one generation after another in a way that was almost unheard of for any other rocker of his generation. Singling out the first cut is a little obvious, but first cuts are for leading you in. This leads you in.
8) The OrlonsBest of(1961-1966) (2005)
Auteurs of the Watusi and, you might think, the most faceless of the handful of girl groups who sustained even a modest string of hits.
While I wouldn’t say personality was their strong suit, this still sustains easily over half a decade and twenty sides. “Wah-Watusi” aside, they may never have been trend-setters (even that was a cover). But they kept up, no small thing when the Pop World was moving as past as it did during the years in question.
And, as often happens with these “obscure” artists, there’s a knockout hidden in the shadows that will lay you flat if you have your back turned.
I always loved the English spelling. Made it seem like it should be some kind of genteel sequel to a Cat Stevens album.
I know it’s sold a bajillion copies (thirty, forty million, like that) and been played to death…but it never wears out. Certainly not in 2016, when it sounded more contemporary than ever and stayed at the top of my playlist for the year. Another thing I like about it is that it broke contemporaneously with Punk Rock, which it buried then and buries now, not least because it’s a lot more “punk” than “God Save the Queen”…if by “punk” we mean “alive.”
Of course, these days it’s become even stronger. This edition restores Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Springs” to its original running order (the 3-Disc version released subsequently puts it at the end for some reason) and includes a disc of outtakes that, for once, deepens and contextualizes the finished product. You can click on the link above for my full take on all that. But in case you don’t make it over there, this little killer should still not be missed.
6) Mark ChesnuttThe Ultimate Collection (Complete MCA Singles: 1990-2000) (2011)
Playing next to Patty Loveless or even George Strait on the radio in his golden decade, Chesnutt seemed like a real if modest talent who reached an epic high now and then.
From this distance, across thirty tracks and a quarter of a century, he seems more like a minor miracle. He certainly wasn’t afraid of competition. He doesn’t embarrass himself on Don Gibson’s “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” or John Anderson’s “Down in Tennessee,” and bests Waylon on “Broken Promise Land,” which is one of those epic highs I mentioned.
It’s not like I didn’t know he had a solid best of in him. “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” “It Sure is Monday”–the titles alone always could bring a smile. But this sustains, in part, because his most epic high point of all–as great a song ever written about the intricacies of not breaking up–came early and two long discs gives the listener time to develop some perspective.
If you click the link, be sure to crank the volume.
5) The Easybeats The Definitive Anthology (1965-1969) (1996)
Speaking of cranking the volume.
Here’s fifty-six tracks that make a case for the boys who built the bones of Australia’s not-exactly-inconsequential rock and roll legacy by being the greatest garage band this side of Paul Revere and the Raiders.
I’m not gonna say they ever quite got up to “Friday On My Mind” again but not many got there once and, of those who did, few outside the legends sustained anything like this level of interest. Of course, they should never have taken on “River Deep, Mountain High,” but it brought a smile to think they had the nerve to try. And smile was what just about every other one of these fifty-six tracks made me do as I listened to them chase every trend of the era and catch one after another for the briefest, most transient, most exhilarating moment. Pick to Click: “Good Times” (which sure sounds like it cops at least one of its riffs from the Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up”).
4) The PlattersThe Ballads (1953-1959) (2013)
Shelter from the storm.
If ballad singing is ever given its proper place in the Rock and Roll Narrative, the Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams, will be as celebrated as Chuck Berry. Until then, you can search around for ways to hear him: this is the best I’ve found.
Great as any individual cut–or any short compilation–may be, you can’t really feel the weight of Williams’ accomplishment until you dig into something like this: thirty-three slices of heaven right here on earth.
A sly turn of the cards: Here, the Isleys cover mostly white acts, though not necessarily the ones who had spent the previous decade so profitably covering them.
It might have been conceived as a gimmick, but they dug in too deep for it to come across that way on record. “Ohio” meant more in their hands than any other, not just because they cross-bred it with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun’,” but because they were from Ohio. Unlike say, Kent State survivor, Chrissie Hynde, who grew up being persecuted by the white middle class in Akron and got out as soon as possible, they never left home spiritually, no matter how far their feet roamed.
I wonder if that’s why I–who always heard “Fire and Rain” as a great record even in its callow original–find their cover illuminating far beyond the usual “black people are deeper” shuck and jive? I’ve stated it before, but this is the sound of some lost soul looking for his people over the next hill. Pick to click: “Cold Bologna” (the only cut besides “Machine Gun” that doesn’t “give back” to a white boy).
2) Dwight YoakumGuitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)
Thus began the odd, often glorious career of Dwight Yoakum, slick traditionalist.
Right there at the beginning–too clever title and all–I don’t hear the concept quite working. Pleasant enough but not as inspired as its rep. So when I put this one on it’s mostly for background music.
1) Martha & the VandellasLive Wire: The Singles 1962-1972 (1993)
Martha Reeves might be due a Vocalist of the Month essay pretty soon, so I’ll leave any deep thoughts for later. This beautiful thing was part of a three-artist series released in conjunction with similarly glorious 2-Disc sets on the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. There’s not a weak track on any of them.
What I hadn’t realized before was that if Dwight’s “South of Cincinnati” ever needs a sister record, it’s right here, in Martha’s finest vocal, equal to anything the powerhouses at Motown ever managed and, unlike most of the theirs and most of hers–which were only “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run,” “In My Lonely Room”– half-hidden by time.