June 13, 2017

'Left of the Dial' Acts Left Behind by Rock Hall

In 2004, Rhino Records released Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the 80s Underground, a four-CD compendium of artists featured on 1980s college radio. "College rock" is the label often slapped on this music, but that's just a rubric floating above such genres as punk, post-punk, goth, synth-pop, folk-rock, and whatever it is the Hoodoo Gurus do.

Rhino Records' Left of the Dial
Left of the Dial was an ambitious if slightly imperfect collection, but it almost had to be flawed; this was music forged by fringe types, for fringe types. Still, it's a useful reference point to weigh against the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's degree of recognition (or lack thereof) where these important artists and genres are concerned. Here are some telling numbers regarding this box set:

82 acts
3 inducted (R.E.M., The Pretenders, Red Hot Chili Peppers)
6 nominated (The Cure, the Replacements, Depeche Mode, the Smiths, Bad Brains, Jane's Addiction)

That leaves a whopping 73 acts in the lurch, many with decent odds of a Rock Hall nomination (Pixies, Kate Bush, Joy Division, the Pogues), others longer shots (Dinosaur Jr., Bauhaus, Minor Threat) and others, well, don't hold your breath (Ultravox, Throbbing Gristle, or Lyres, anyone?). But that's not a qualitative judgment, as the majority of the artists on Left of the Dial are, at minimum, notable, and at maximum, iconic. And every last one could trigger an acute nostalgia response for Gen Xers that tuned in to a college radio station in the Reagan era.

Siouxsie and the Banshees
To contemplate the presumably tumultuous groupthink that occurred at Rhino when piecing together this 4-disc package is to see a parallel in the Rock Hall Nomination Committee meetings that come up with 15 or 19 nominees annually. So many options, so little clarity. (Ever try to order a pizza with more than 3 people? It's like that.) 

It's unsurprising that 73 out of 82 acts on a box set meant to highlight groundbreaking, generationally-significant musical artists have been completely snubbed by the Rock Hall. To be sure, not all of them belong in that museum on Lake Erie, but there's little question that some of them do. So what's the matter here?

It may be as simple as this: The freaks and geeks making a racket on Left of the Dial represent the outsiders, and the Rock Hall, at this point, has no time for the edgy, the cultish, the Lux Interiors, the rabid underdogs that should be thrown a bone. They might nominate the Smiths, the Replacements, and Bad Brains, but inducting them is quite another story. These acts, as influential and musically excellent as they may be, represent risk. And the Rock Hall, like any growing business, is intentionally risk-averse as its aggressive monetization agenda plods on, from its "Long Live Rock" sloganeering to its museum's structural improvements (a new cafe! a new theater!) to its annual, Klipsch-sponsored HBO telecasts of induction ceremonies. Indeed, with its run of populist-leaning inductees in recent years (Steve Miller, Journey, etc.) the Rock Hall nomination/induction dynamic feels akin to a jock stuffing the kid wearing an Echo & the Bunnymen t-shirt into a locker.

The Smiths
The Rock Hall brass might counter this argument by saying "Hey, we've inducted R.E.M." or "We just nominated Depeche Mode and Bad Brains!" Those are facts, but the perpetual exclusion of massively impactful "college rock" acts from actual induction such as Kraftwerk, the Smiths, and even the nearly-mainstream group the Cure points to a calcified, baby boomer-centric voting body, not to mention a tacit refusal to occasionally call the "screw it, get them in this year" audibles that you just know get called behind closed doors when it's time to choose the inductees. 

In essence, the Rock Hall is doing a disservice to a wide swath of Generation X—adults whose formative years would have been unbearable without that Smiths, Hüsker Dü, Cramps, or Siouxsie and the Banshees cassette in their Walkman. Isn't that what music is all about? And where is the harm in honoring that in Cleveland, at least some of the time? It could even be considered as outreach to a targeted demographic.

Will all these Left of the Dial musical heroes continue to be left behind? For many, "...It says nothing to me about my life" is a Smiths lyric that undoubtedly applies to the Rock Hall.

3 comments:

  1. I think you're being a bit too... I don't wanna say glib, but the Rock Hall being risk-averse? That it has no place for the edgy or cultish? Granted it took Rush a long time to get in, but they have been inducted and that's a following that almost redefines cultish. And no love for edgy? That's actually kind of funny, because on FRL, in the discussion about representing soft-rock, I posited that the primary reason soft-rock acts like the Carpenters or Bread have received no honors is because the Hall prefers acts/music that has an edge to it, be it lyrical or instrumental.

    I don't think the Hall has an agenda against Gen-X indie/underground acts (except maybe Little Steven). They just haven't finished pigging out on classic rock nostalgia yet.

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    1. Actually judging by Steven's underground garage - he likes a lot of indie/underground bands - he tends to be part of the group that doesn't really like prog-rock.

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  2. Yeah, there's no doubt this recent trend of classic rock 'validation' by the Rock HoF has gotten way out of hand (Steve Miller? WHY???), and worse yet, at the expense of more deserving acts that both pre-date the hideous Lee Abrams era and esp. those that followed (like those already mentioned here). Really, how is it that NO rock act that formed/had its heyday in the 80's has gotten in the last two years, yet SEVEN 'classic rock' staples from the late 60's/70's (out of 11 inducted acts) have all of a sudden been inducted (though some, like Cheap Trick, ELO, Deep Purple, and Yes were admittedly deserving & long overdue) after so many years of eligibility? #moveonalready

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