November 18, 2022

The Super-Sized 2022 Rock Hall Ceremony

We're not at the Waldorf-Astoria anymore.

In light of the dazzling, genre-diverse spectacular that went down at the Microsoft Theater two weeks ago, it's worth reflecting back on the original location of the Rock Hall ceremony, held in New York City starting in 1986. 

Ah yes, the glitzy, champagne-drenched Waldorf-Astoria, home to a whopping 23 private inductions over the years. The event did escape from New York at times—it landed at L.A.'s Century Plaza in 1993 (still private), and in 1997, the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel had the distinction of hosting the first public ceremony. After a second public induction in Cleveland in 2009, the Waldorf-Astoria hosted two more closed-door ceremonies. Finally, in 2012, the walls came tumbling down, making this largely closed-off event open to everyday music fans. 

Ten years later, so much has happened. There's been Rock Hall Foundation leadership and committee turnover (most notably, John Sykes in for Jann Wenner), the pandemic (which herded the 2020 inductees into a pre-packaged, documentary-style HBO program), and an erratic three-city rotation. This year, inductions returned to La La Land (or, in Alex Lifeson parlance, "blah-blah land") for the first time in nine years. 

This was a big one. Super-sized. It will put the "Max" in HBO Max this weekend. In a first, there were even bleachers onstage packed with fans. This was Sykes' first Los Angeles ceremony, and the iHeartMedia President and co-founder of MTV (along with the foundation and production team) wasn't leaving anything to chance. "Delivering the goods" appears to be the key methodology of 2020s-era Rock Hall ceremonies. Cleveland next year? Or Brooklyn? No matter where this event lands on the map, it would appear that state-of-the-art production and God-tier rock star power will be on tap. Last year, McCartney. This year, Springsteen. 

The 37th annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is getting a 4-hour window for broadcast on HBO. At the Microsoft Theater, it spanned five and-a-half hours (7:15 p.m. to about 12:45 a.m.). Having been in the room for ceremonies that ran about that long, but felt longer due to speeches and near-comical staging delays (looking at you, 2015), it must be said that apart from Duran Duran's brief sound collapse early on, the show mostly cruised along, with just a few plodding segments along the way. The final edit will likely jettison some of that excess baggage. 

The baggage isn't limited to the show itself. The Rock Hall ceremony is an exhilarating bubble to be in, but it remains peculiar due to various tensions. Maybe it's the mixing of industry and commoners, and maybe it's the feeling that the Hall, with its obvious inductee backlog and well-documented failures of committee-think, has a lot to make right; the fans showing up are carrying both expectation and indignation. 

If the show runners understand this, and they hopefully do, they'll work harder to find a balance between crowd-pleasing musical nirvana (knockout performances, once-in-a-lifetime moments) and the manner in which they recognize amazing individuals such as Harry Belafonte, Sylvia Robinson and Elizabeth Cotten. Those three inductees received only video packages, with no one onstage to even briefly announce their induction. In the late Robinson's case, her son Leland and granddaughter were there, so to not have them quickly accept the award on their mother's behalf was a mistake. Time truly must be made in these instances. Yes, it's a long show, time is of the essence, but some judiciousness was needed here.

And that's the problem with "big." Small, nuanced things get trampled upon. It's a vexing problem with shows of this scale, and with the Hall specifically. Much is done well, and much seemingly gets ignored. But flawed as it may be, the institution appears to be steering this colossal ship in the right direction. Vocal, intelligent observers have raised their voices for more women, more metal, more inductees, etc., and it would be inaccurate to say the Hall isn't listening. That said, Cleveland truly needs its first female hip-hop honoree, and hopefully 2023 brings that and much more.

But back to the ceremony. iHeartMedia boss Sykes is a different captain than Wenner, and there is an ambitious, new-look Rock Hall era upon us. With its 14 honorees and top-shelf list of special guests, the highly-produced 2022 edition could be split in half, and two ceremonies could be made from it. Goodness gracious, there were even two all-star jams, for all intents and purposes. (It seems the days of 5-7 inductees are a thing of the past.)

Speaking of Sykes, the inductions these last two years seem to parallel, in subtle ways, the genre-diverse, mainstream tilt of iHeartRadio Music Awards shows. In line with Sykes' references to "the sound of youth culture," there are several household names crossing over, and back, between that event and the Rock Hall ceremony (J.Lo! LL Cool J! Ed Sheeran! Olivia Rodrigo!). It's fitting, too, that SiriusXM looms so large in this annual affair (from backstage interviews to broadcasting audio of the ceremony), because its panoramic music station menu echoes the genre-inclusive approach that, at its best, the Hall manifests with its inductee slate and ceremonies each year. Where there is Dolly Parton, there is also Rob Halford. Where there is Eminem, there is also Steven Tyler. 

Started at the Waldorf-Astoria and now we're here.  

November 3, 2022

The Rock Hall Triumph of Judas Priest

"We don't accept defeat, we never will retreat..." - "Freewheel Burning"

Tough as leather, armed with a steely resolve, and road warriors to this day, Judas Priest finally enters the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this Saturday, November 5. It's a triumph for these metal gods, and for the heavy metal faithful across the globe. 

It's also an exceptionally overdue honor, and one that unfortunately required special intervention by the Hall to even happen. Judas Priest, upon their third nomination this year, still didn't earn enough votes from the official Rock Hall votership to be counted among the Class of 2022's seven "Performer" honorees (Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo, Duran Duran, Eminem, Eurythmics, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, and Carly Simon). As a result, they are being given the Award for Musical Excellence.  

Ian Hill, Glenn Tipton, Rob Halford, K.K. Downing, Les Binks
Ultimately, the Hall arrived at a solution. Some observers are OK with it, some are not. But the institution had to take action. How could they continue to snub Judas Priest, arguably the second-most significant metal band after Black Sabbath? If Hall voters continue to reject this genre (Iron Maiden was on the ballot last year, another swing and a miss!), measures need to be taken. Maybe it's not perfect, but as Winston Churchill once said, perfection is the enemy of progress.

In many ways, this "other" honor is quite appropriate, and one truly hopes the Priest camp fully embraces and understands it. These guys wear their outsider status on their studded sleeves, and have soldiered through their career on their own terms. They are the embodiment of heavy metal, which is not a path for the faint of heart  these guys had to have wanted it. Officially formed in 1969, with their debut LP Rocka Rolla released in 1974, the group has overcome daunting challenges: label woes; personnel changes; world tours; a 1990 court trial where they were accused of putting subliminal messages in their music; and Rob Halford's difficult decision, as a gay man, to stay in the closet during Priest's most successful years (he came out in 1998). More recently, guitarist Glenn Tipton was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2018, leaving him unable to perform full shows, though he still performs encores with his mates, and will fortunately be present at this week's ceremony. Despite everything, Priest have delivered on their vision for over 50 years, making thunderous, exhilarating music for hardcore fans and mainstream rock audiences alike. 

Musical excellence? They've excelled indeed, from the sonorous vocals and haunting riffs of "Victim of Changes" to the revving, concussive "Hell Bent for Leather" to radio/MTV hits like "Breaking the Law" and "You've Got Another Thing Coming." On 1990's Painkiller album, they pushed the limits of speed and thrash metal to gloriously punishing effect. And these high points are just the tip of the iceberg — at 18 studio albums, the Priest discography is rewarding and vast, with 2018's Firepower earning rave reviews as a thrilling return to form. A new album is due in 2023.

Priest's induction feels rather special; there's a definite "triumph of the underdog" narrative here for both the band and its disciples. Suddenly, a worldwide community of marginalized metal believers, angry with the Hall for years about this snub, finally feel seen. For generations of lost souls and high school rebels, Priest has been a sanctuary. Their music is a rite of passage, sure, but it's also a lifelong companion. 

Judas Priest represents so much. They are the smoking kids on the corner outside your high school. They are every Eddie Munson with a Dio backpatch. They are the rowdy denizens of heavy metal parking lots where zebra-striped shirts get soaked with beer and sweat. They are the sound of a teenager's bedroom door slamming after a fight with a parent. They are a backwoods kegger, where bonfires rage and bad choices are made. They have been there, reliably, to offer their faithful catharsis, community, and the credo "One life, I'm gonna live it up." And that's why they belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by any means necessary.