April 18, 2016

Here Today: McCartney "One on One" in Portland

Paul McCartney
Moda Center, Portland
April 15, 2016
In the hierarchy of living rock and roll legends, there's a strong argument that Paul McCartney sits at the top. Ample evidence of the ex-Beatle's primacy was on full display in Portland, as he delivered a spirited, 38-song extravaganza that not only did justice to his career, but also shined a light on the dustier, sometimes eccentric corners of his catalog. 

Channeling Jimi: Sir Paul on guitar (photos by  Mary Layton)
This latest jaunt, officially titled the "One on One" tour, could just be called "Paul Things to Paul People." The setlist was wide-ranging, and the structure of the show was enhanced by a seven-song acoustic segment. Suffice to say, there was something for everyone. Hardcore Beatles fanatic? Well, boom, here's "Hard Day's Night" to open the show, not played in 51 years and never during McCartney's solo era. Fab Four scholar? Here's a reading of The Quarrymen's "In Spite of All the Danger." Dig the weird stuff? How does McCartney II's electronic-pop bleeper "Temporary Secretary" work for you? Avid Wings fan? The bouncy piano escapade "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" has you covered. You once asked on social media, "Who's Paul McCartney?" Here's the Rihanna-Kanye-McCartney wildin'-out ditty, "FourFiveSeconds." You're just here to sing along to Beatles tunes? Here's 23 of those, from "We Can Work it Out" to "Back in the U.S.S.R." to "Love Me Do." Still want more? Here are three punchy selections from Macca's admirable 2013 album New.

As with the Beatles and Wings, McCartney doesn't do all this alone; he's got a stable foundation in his versatile touring band of the past 14 years, Brian Ray (guitar, bass), Rusty Anderson (guitar), Abe Laboriel Jr. (drums), and Paul "Wix" Wickens (keyboards). They've got it all covered: harmony vocals, switching to bass so Paul can peel off Hendrixian guitar squeals at the end of "Let Me Roll It," or just banging a tambourine. Laboriel Jr. cuts perhaps the most striking figure, perched atop his drum riser as a vortex of swinging arms and drumsticks. While Sir Paul is the default focal point, these other parts of his well-oiled machine also deserve attention, whether it's Anderson tearing up a solo, or Ray strumming the spectral acoustic transition of "Band on the Run." 

Rock icons can often get a pass for just showing up. And McCartney could somewhat phone it in, but there's never any sense of that; his professionalism, respect for his audience, and spare-no-expense production value tactics are irrefutable. And at 73, with a bit of sandpaper in his voice now and again, he has to realize that time is finite. He's out there playing every city he can, whether it's a major market like Seattle, or neglected, smaller locales like Fresno and Cleveland. As gratifying and emotionally impactful as this concert was, as much as it projected vitality, there was a nagging feeling that Portland, which hadn't welcomed Sir Paul in 11 years, was witnessing something akin to a comet. The rareness of this night, you know? The sheer ephemerality of it all. Mortality is tough to bear, yet was noticeably underlined by the moments where McCartney paid tribute to two departed Georges (Harrison and Martin), and dedicated the heartfelt "Here Today" to John Lennon.
"Something" for George
To live, though, is to carry that weight, persevere, and make the most of this thing called life. As Paul sang at the conclusion of this evening, "And in the end the love you take / Is equal to the love you make." On this night, the love felt incalculable.

Setlist (spoilers ahead...)

   A Hard Day's Night
   Save Us
   Can't Buy Me Love
   Letting Go
   Temporary Secretary
   Let Me Roll It
   I've Got a Feeling
   My Valentine
   Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
   Here, There and Everywhere
   Maybe I'm Amazed
Acoustic Set:
e Can Work It Out
  In Spite of All the Danger
  You Won't See Me
  Love Me Do
  And I Love Her
  Here Today
Queenie Eye
   The Fool on the Hill
   Lady Madonna
   Eleanor Rigby
   Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
   Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
   Band on the Run
   Back in the U.S.S.R.
   Let It Be
   Live and Let Die
   Hey Jude

    Hi, Hi, Hi
    Golden Slumbers
    Carry That Weight
    The End

April 8, 2016

Public Image, Damaged: The Rock Hall's Public Perception Problem

As the stars converge and the hype builds for the 31st Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Brooklyn tonight, it's important not to lose sight of an inescapable fact: By any measure, the Rock Hall is an American institution with a tarnished public image. Sad to say, but it's lost hearts and minds. When tickets for your annual watershed gala event are going on StubHub for $12, and the simulcast of said event at the museum isn't sold out, well, those are bad omens.
There's an acute public perception problem here, and the reasons go beyond why your favorite band isn't in the hall yet; in fact, let's please put those reflexive, tiresome, moody blues to rest for now. In considering the Rock Hall gestalt, there are two entities that feed off each other. First there's the museum in Cleveland, which opened in 1995 and is an exceptionally-curated music fan pilgrimage. Secondly and most significantly, there is the organization that spearheaded the museum, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, NYC-based and formed in 1983 by the late Ahmet Ertegun, Jann Wenner, Seymour Stein, Jon Landau, and others to recognize achievement in popular music.

That mission sounds simple enough. In fact, the early years, marked by the privately-held induction ceremonies at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, were a relatively non-controversial, celebratory breeze. Elvis! Chuck Berry! Bob Dylan! Aretha! The Beatles! But as decades have gone on, and as Wenner has dubiously claimed "all the no-brainers" are inducted, it seems that myriad issues have cropped up that threaten to irrevocably damage the very idea of "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." These issues include, but are not necessarily limited to, transparency, communication, gender equality, credibility, common sense, and conflicts of interest:

Transparency - Most people that follow the hall closely, as well as casual observers/everyday rock fans, get a sense that most major Rock Hall decisions are being made behind closed doors. This is a non-profit that is driven by donations, but the institution seems to act with impunity and zero accountability. Does anyone on the outside, let alone donors, know what's going on? Sure, financial numbers get disclosed.  But missing is the basic information that would actually matter to the populist masses the Hall is purportedly courting to buy memberships and tickets to the museum/induction ceremonies. The most corrective measure the Hall could take toward transparency would be to disclose the vote counts that decide who gets inducted. A press release is issued, and news outlets and social media are abuzz on announcement day, but it seems no one truly questions the results. (Does anyone truly believe that Steve Miller got more votes than Janet Jackson? That's not to take sides in support of either, but most fan polls outside the Rock Hall's bot-corrupted fan vote had Janet well ahead, and you'd think there would be at least some parallel).

Communication - The fact that most people believed that N.W.A. would perform at the induction ceremony tonight, only to be highly disappointed yesterday when they saw Ice Cube's interview in the New York Times saying they weren't performing due to disagreements with the organizers, is a prime example of the Rock Hall dropping the ball when it comes to communication. How long was this known? It certainly wasn't in the Hall's best interest to disclose that fact. Going broader in terms of the 2016 ceremony, why are there only five performer inductees this year? Previous years have had quite a few more. A sixth slot could have gone to a deserving artist like Yes. Again, there are no real answers from the Hall, just speculation across the board that maybe they're trying to shorten what have been admittedly long ceremonies.

Gender Equality - There's not a single female inductee this year, not even a single announced presenter tonight that is female. Furthermore, per the essential Rock Hall resource Future Rock Legends (futurerocklegends.com), "Of the 547 Rock Hall voters we have on our unofficial list, 9.3% are women." Expanding the voting body to include more women is urgent, crucial, and ridiculously overdue. 

Credibility - The Hall-run, official fan vote for the 2016 induction class was an abject disaster. Overtaken by bots and registering an inhuman 160,905,154 votes, it's exhibit A for the Hall to come up with a more secure, credible fan voting system. (And yes, Chicago fans, the point is taken that you are passionate, and that you voted a bunch. But you didn't vote 37 million times, as the official Rock Hall fan vote would have us believe.) This needs to be fixed before the next set of nominees is announced.

Common Sense - When choosing which band members to induct (or not induct at all, as in tonight's Steve Miller "sans Band" scenario), the committees apparently need to do more research, consult the bands, and use some common sense. In the case of Deep Purple, vocalist Rod Evans is being inducted, but bassist Nick Simper was excluded, which is confounding as they played on the same records and were in the band at the same time. Yet every drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was inducted? Inconsistency at best.

Conflicts of Interest - The late Bert Berns is being given the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement tonight, an honor that is apparently determined not by voting but via the unilateral decision of a nomination committee. Steven Van Zandt and Paul Shaffer are producing a Broadway musical about Bert Berns, and they are both on such a committee. The red flags being raised here, justifiably so, are conflicts of interest, and the overarching sense that the Rock Hall insiders are just going to do whatever they want. Berts, a storied '60s producer, record man and songwriter, has accomplishments that have more than earned him this honor, but it's too bad his induction has this shadow of impropriety over it. 

In closing, the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten, upon learning of his band's induction, fired off a burning missive to the Hall in 1996, calling it a "piss stain." He added, "Your anonymous as judges but your still music industry people (sic)." Maybe Rotten's was among the first hearts and minds lost.

That doesn't mean the Rock Hall can't course-correct and win back those that still believe in a credible, well-executed, and balanced recognition of musical achievement. Fixing these issues isn't just the right thing to do; it may even secure the Rock Hall's long-term future.

April 7, 2016

Predictions: Song Performances at the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

Whatever your feelings on the Rock Hall, there's no denying the musical performances are always the highlight. The inducted artists, fresh from coronation and playing in front of peers and rock legends, always bring their "A" game. 

Typically each act gets about 3 songs to perform, but some acts get less. So which tunes will blow the roof off Barclays Center on Friday, April 8? Here are a some predictions (admittedly, many are kind of obvious), assuming 3 numbers per inducted act:

N.W.A. - Not performing, and wow, what a huge letdown. Per Ice Cube in the New York Times: "I guess we really didn't feel like we were supported enough to do the best show we could put on... We wanted to do it on a whole other level, and that just couldn't happen."

Chicago - "25 or 6 to 4" is rumored to be the climactic end of night all-star jam (according to Matt Wardlaw and his interview with Chicago's Robert Lamm - http://ultimateclassicrock.com/robert-lamm-chicago-interview-2016/ ) so if that's true, expect the balance to be 2 out of these 3:

"Saturday in the Park" / "If You Leave Me Now" / "You're the Inspiration"

Cheap TrickDamn, wouldn't "Surrender" make a terrific end of night jam though? (I am saying this out loud in Mike Damone's voice.) Expect that song in any case, along with "I Want You to Want Me." Then it's probably going to be "Dream Police" but that could be swapped out for "The Flame."

Deep Purple"Highway Star" / "Hush" / "Smoke on the Water"; however, if there's a shocking change of events and David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes miraculously get to perform, expect "Burn" as a swap-out with "Hush".

Steve Miller - "The Joker" / "Fly Like an Eagle" / "Rock'n Me" or "Abracadabra."

Bert Berns - Probably none for this late record man, unless his co-written 1961 classic "Twist and Shout" (he was credited as "Bert Russell") ends up being the end of night jam. But since that already was part of an all-star jam during 1988's gala, another song he had a hand in could simply be performed after his induction presentation, such as "Piece of My Heart."

April 5, 2016

Where Do We Go Now? '80s Hard Rock and Metal's Future in the Rock Hall

Is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ready to rock?! Well, that will be decided by committee. But with British hard rock legends Deep Purple about to be inducted this week in Brooklyn, it certainly opens the door for others in the genre. Who's next in the hard rock/metal world to get a Rock Hall nod, specifically acts that hit it big in the '80s? Call it hard rock, call it heavy metal, call it hair metal, call it pop metal... to quote Tesla, call it what you want. There are tons of acts carrying these labels that should now be a loud-and-proud part of the Rock Hall conversation, and justifiably so.

Bon Jovi is a major act that is in this mix. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're relevant to this discussion as they've actually been nominated (in 2010, but not inducted yet), so their chances are better than most. But hey, there are a lot of other artists that Warrant (sorry...) consideration as well. Guns N' Roses is the rare hard-edged band of the '80s era that has enjoyed an induction, and a first ballot one, at that. KISS got in 3 years ago, Deep Purple gets in last year: It's all good news for '80s hard rock and metal acts as far as their Rock Hall chances are concerned, as their predecessors are getting out of the way. But what are the odds? Who's likely to go in?
If you'll forgive the conceit, Bon Jovi songs are being used below as categories to forecast the likelihood of Rock Hall induction for a sampling of acts that either emerged or found great success in the '80s. The scale is most likely ("Wanted Dead or Alive"), somewhat likely ("Keep the Faith") and least likely ("Livin' on a Prayer"). 

Wanted Dead or Alive

Bon Jovi - Previously nominated, a truckload of hits. Just a matter of time. But will Jon and Richie mend fences before then for a proper induction performance? Come on guys, don't Cetera out on us.

Judas Priest - Yes, their first album dropped in 1974, but their major album successes came in the Reagan era with British Steel (1980) and especially Screaming for Vengeance (1982), and MTV videos were a factor in their visibility. Consistently mentioned alongside of Iron Maiden as a glaring Rock Hall snub, but the smart bet has them going in first, when they do go.

Iron Maiden - Try to imagine '80s heavy metal without them; it's tough. A heroic howler of a singer in Bruce Dickinson, undeniable musicianship, striking iconography, and they're still at it, putting out their latest album The Book of Souls in 2015. I think I speak for most metal fans when I say that seeing their mascot "Eddie" (no, not Trunk) sauntering onstage during a Rock Hall induction ceremony performance would be beyond killer. 
Mötley CrüeTheir flaming pentagram looms large over the '80s; deny their impact at your peril. People often forget that in the conservative, PMRC-scourged early-'80s, they once embodied darkness and danger, arguably as much so as the already-inducted Gun N' Roses. Shout at the Devil alone should get them into the Hall. 

Keep the Faith

ScorpionsNo question their legacy extends well before and after the 80s, as their debut came out in 1972. However, as with Priest, theres's no denying the '80s/MTV era and the Scorpions' place in it, as they had massive success with the albums Blackout (featuring the hit single "No One Like You") and especially Love at First Sting, featuring "Rock You Like a Hurricane". There were also the hits "Still Loving You" and the politically-conscious "Winds of Change." Finally, any band that can sell the lyric "An exploding shot of pleasure / Is what I have for you..." deserves at least a Spinal Tap award of some sort, if not a Rock Hall induction, both of which I would wholeheartedly support. The Scorpions are a worthy dark horse that should be looked at for the Hall; it's a shame they aren't talked about more, given their longevity, amazing live shows, and work ethic. This is the sting that belongs in the Rock Hall.

Def LeppardAmong the crop of bands in the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" that even influenced Lars and Metallica, people often forget how raw and vital Def Leppard's early stuff was. High and Dry (1981) features knockout tracks like "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" and "Lady Strange." They went on to churn out an endless string of Mutt Lange-produced hits from their blockbuster efforts Pyromania and Hysteria, all of which seemingly had an accompanying MTV video. Bon Jovi, another juggernaut of this time period, will get in before them, but Def Leppard feels worthy of consideration too. Their drummer has one arm and still plays, for god's sake.

MotörheadThere's a hesitation to include these guys as they are timeless and transcend the '80s. Also, Lemmy was averse to labels, insisting they were not a heavy metal band, but just a "rock and roll band." Nevertheless, we're talking about the '80s, and Ace of Spades came out in 1980, and its title track is their signature song. They belong in the Hall, but one wonders if Lemmy's passing last December will now somehow delay their consideration. Being dead may help an artist's chances in the Hall, but at this point it would sort of seem cruel and insulting for the Rock Hall to induct them anytime soon, especially when they could have nominated them starting in 2002. 

Slayer Among the "Big 4 of Heavy Metal" (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax), Slayer, blood-soaked and ever mighty, would be the next logical act to stomp into the Hall, as Metallica is already in. They're legendary, uncompromising and are masters of the pummel-you-to-death thrash universe. Their fringe status, something that ideally the Rock Hall would value, is making them feel like a long shot at this point, but hopefully that won't be the case.

Dio - The fact that the late Ronnie James Dio was not inducted as part of Black Sabbath really puts weight behind the induction argument for his namesake band. Dio delivered some huge metal hits, landmark albums like Holy Diver and was possessed of a signature, highly influential voice that has been both celebrated and satirized. Metal is unthinkable without his contributions. Worst case, give him a Musical Excellence award for all of his career. And speaking of the Musical Excellence award...
Randy RhoadsTom Morello, a Rock Hall Nomination Committee member, is evidently pushing for the late Ozzy Osbourne guitar wizard to get the Musical Excellence Award. Rhoads is rightly revered as a guitarist, and played on such key Ozzy solo records as Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. This induction actually happening will be a key litmus test for two things: Morello's sway within the nomination process, and heavy metal's future in the Hall. 

Livin' on a Prayer

PoisonBret Michaels, C.C. DeVille, Rikki Rockett and Bobby Dall were hair metal (an eye-rolling pejorative as soon as Nirvana came around), wading neck-deep into the excesses of their genre aesthetically, musically, and lifestyle-wise. They had catchy songs, a "Behind the Music"-worthy history, and a number one hit, the power ballad "Every Rose Has its Thorn." They just won't ever be taken seriously by the Rock Hall. And maybe that's OK.

WhitesnakeIt's a total bummer that David Coverdale, inducted this week with Deep Purple, is apparently not going to be given a chance to sing his DP-era songs alongside bassist Glenn Hughes; this is most likely Coverdale's only dance at the Hall. As mega-popular as Whitesnake was in the 80s, they embodied hair metal and all the video vixen/power ballad fluff that went with it. They certainly don't have critics on their side, despite some well-produced, full-throttle records in their discography. (Also, if you look at the chart on Wikipedia as to the dozens of cats who have actually been members of Whitesnake, it's enough to make an entire Rock Hall Nomination Committee run screaming.)

MegadethAn important band in their genre, and Mustaine is a gifted guitarist and lyricist that's still putting out dazzling, whiplash-inducing albums. But Metallica, from whence Mustaine was sprung, is already inducted, and that's one reason it's difficult to see a path to a nomination. I'd love to be wrong.

AnthraxThrash done with style, virtuosity, and humor. They even teamed up with Public Enemy on a cover of "Bring the Noise." But in the larger picture of metal, their commercial success is spotty, and unfortunately, it doesn't feel like they'll get serious consideration.
Quiet RiotSome huge anthems in "Metal Health" and "Cum on Feel the Noize," and Rhandy Rhoads was an original member. Also, they sort of ushered in the whole hair metal era as their videos were a staple of MTV in 1983. But they're a bit heavy on the Slade covers, and success of Quiet Riot's ilk really doesn't translate to Rock Hall consideration; they simply lack the type of career that fits the Rock Hall paradigm.

Cinderella/Tesla/Skid RowAll far better groups than they have ever been given credit for, but the Rock Hall's acceptance of bands in this realm as inductee candidates looks very limited indeed. That's taking nothing away from all three's formidable hits, nor the notion that their albums have aged way better than anyone might have predicted. Not getting into the Rock Hall? Don't sweat it. You guys are in good company. 

February 11, 2016

The Rock Hall and Solo Artists: Who's Worthy?

"Going solo." The concept comes off as self-serving, even egotistical. A self-important singer ditches his band, because he doesn't need those other guys (see: David Lee Roth). But sometimes, a performer legitimately outgrows their original group, spreads their wings, and soars even higher artistically and commercially (i.e. Michael Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Joan Jett, George Michael, Beyoncé). 

For the purposes of this piece, let's define "solo artist" strictly as a person that separated, either permanently or temporarily, from the existing group that made them famous in the first place. So, Sting (The Police) and Phil Collins (Genesis) would fit this bill, but someone like Janet Jackson would not; Janet is a solo act of course, but her career was not preceded by involvement in another successful musical group. 
As far as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and solo artists, the question is this: Who's worthy enough to be inducted as a solo entity, especially if they've already gotten into the Rock Hall with their original group? The institution's history shows that each Beatle, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Paul Simon, Gabriel, and Lou Reed fit the bill, to name a few. However, "demonstrating musical excellence," the oft-repeated Rock Hall induction criteria, is evidently tough for voters to quantify in this subset. Ben E. King, inducted with the Drifters in 1988, has been nominated three times, but has not yet entered the Hall as a solo artist. Sting was nominated for 2015, didn't get in, and then disappeared from the nominee pool for the 2016 ceremony. (Maybe that lute album torpedoed his chances?)
So what does a solo artist have to do to make the Rock Hall cut? Being in a popular band and doing a solo album is hardly enough. Rock history has seen so many go it alone, with various results. There are wildly successful solo acts, middling successes, and solo forays that went over like a lead balloon. All four Beatles had largely terrific solo careers, but let's face it, no one is persuasively touting the replay value of Mick Jagger's She's the Boss at this point. Tina Turner raked in the Grammys after Ike, King had "Stand by Me," and Gabriel and Collins pulled an exodus from Genesis and became huge '80s icons... but have you been bumping much Mike & The Mechanics lately? Then there's the lesser-appreciated solo work that's neither a failure nor a triumph; it was laudable, but just met with less fanfare. The solo careers of Pete Townshend, David Byrne, and Lindsey Buckingham come to mind; later examples might be the work of Thom Yorke (Radiohead) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket). Finally, is anyone (unironically at least) still playing Andrew Ridgeley's 1990 LP Son of Albert, or late Ramone Dee Dee's rap album under the name Dee Dee King? 
Clearly, there exists a bumper crop of solo artists as they are defined here. And in the busy realm of the Rock Hall-related blogosphere and Twitter, the following individuals have been broached as potential inductees:

  • Björk (group: Sugarcubes, who are not inducted)
  • Phil Collins (group: Genesis, inducted)
  • Ice Cube (group: N.W.A., inducted in 2016)
  • Ronnie James Dio (groups: Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath; Black Sabbath only one inducted, but Dio was actually not inducted as a member)
  • Mick Jagger (Rolling Stones, inducted)
  • George Michael (Wham, not inducted)
  • Morrissey (The Smiths, not inducted)
  • Chaka Khan (Rufus, not inducted)
  • Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac, inducted)
  • Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath, inducted)
  • Teddy Pendergrass (Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, not inducted) 
  • Keith Richards (Rolling Stones, inducted)
  • Tina Turner (Ike and Tina Turner, inducted)
  • Steve Winwood (Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith; Traffic only one inducted)

It's an entertaining/infuriating list, and in some cases, their original bands aren't even enshrined yet in Cleveland, muddling the argument. No need to expound on every one of them, but perhaps just a few. One could predict that the Sugarcubes will never be inducted, but Björk is a relatively likely future nominee. The Smiths have been nominated twice to no avail, so to suggest Morrissey is a swell idea, but as unlikely as the Pope of Mope actually showing up to a ceremony in either case. Chaka Khan was just nominated, so it's reasonable to think she could appear on the ballot once again. But with N.W.A. going in this year, Ice Cube being considered for his solo work could unfortunately take decades, if it ever happens.

All things considered, there are numerous solo artists that genuinely deserve Rock Hall consideration. But maybe the conversation should really start with individuals that have never been honored. The thing is, the Rock Hall is having a math problem as of late. 15 nominees in 2015 (for the 2016 ceremony), but only 5 got in; that's brutal. Considering the increasing exclusivity of this club, how logical is it for the nomination committees to submit previously-inducted people as solo acts when only five or six inductees might get in each year? Sting is in with the Police; is it truly vital to induct him for his solo work, as accomplished as it may be? All due respect, but Reed was in with the Velvet Underground and had passed away before he was even nominated as a solo act, anyway; could it have waited? Should it be "3 nominations and you're out" for Ben E. King so they can move onto others? Also, there are legions of deserving groups that have been snubbed or have never seen a nomination. While the Hall has been doing some clean-up the past few years, inducting such long-overlooked fan favorites as Rush and KISS—and this coming April, Chicago, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick—they might want to prioritize acts that have never had a seat at the table.

January 28, 2016

Rock Hall 2016: Feelin' the Berns

So... Bert Berns is receiving the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement. Rock Hall followers might be scratching their heads today, but it's fair to look at the basic facts. From the Rock Hall website: 

"Bert Berns was one of the great record men of the New York rhythm and blues scene of the 60s. Berns produced 51 chart records in seven years, most of which he also wrote. His songs have been recorded by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. Janis Joplin made her career with her version of his “Piece Of My Heart,” a song he wrote and produced for Erma Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s sister, only weeks before his death on December 30, 1967 at age 38."

Also a fact, and blowing up up the Rock Hall social media channels today is that Steven Van Zandt and Paul Shaffer are producing a Broadway musical about Bert Berns. And per the Future Rock Legends Twitter (@futurerocklgnds), Van Zandt and Shaffer are both on the committee that picked Berns for this honor, raising the issue of a conflict of interest. Wow.

But let's take one step back here. One positive to extract is that a rock n' roll luminary from the '60s is being inducted, giving hope to many a snubbed artist of that era and maybe earlier. Despite recent Nomination Committee purges, the door is evidently still open, in theory, to worthy artists such as Mary Wells, Link Wray, Joe Tex, the Zombies, Chuck Willis, Dick Dale, and Captain Beefheart. Berns deserves the honor, but the timing feels suspect now. He could have been honored previously, maybe even in an inductee-heavy year like 2012, where producers Glyn Johns, Tom Dowd, and Cosima Matassa got the Award for Musical Excellence, and Don Kirschner was given the Ahmet Ertegun Award. What's another Ahmet Ertegun Award when there were multiple "Musical Excellence" honorees? 

In any case, the Rock Hall, true to form, continues to confound. Not only with inductees vs. snubs, and the worsening inductee gender gap that people are really starting to pay attention to, but also with the relatively meager count of inductees they're putting in this year (now 6 total). Speculation that ceremony length is an issue seems legitimate, but ultimately, the HBO broadcast will be edited. So if say, the J.B.'s were announced alongside of Berns last night in the "Musical Excellence" category, at least we would have gotten Bootsy Collins out of the deal, bringing some bass magic to the end-of-night jam.

Berns, with all due respect, isn't bringing viewers to HBO nor is his name selling tickets to the ceremony. So the question becomes, "Why Bert Berns, and why now?" Honoring someone overdue? Well, there's a long list of those. Yet another head-scratcher is waiting until January 27 to "officially" announce this decidedly non-flashy inductee choice, especially when as of January 12, Bert Berns' Facebook page had already announced it. Couldn't they have determined last month that Berns was going in, and then rolled his name out on December 17 alongside of Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple, Steve Miller, and N.W.A.? There's some unprecedented stuff happening, and it raises legitimate questions.

But, here we are. Six inductees, five of them mostly mainstream and crowd-pleasing, and this last one controversial out of the gate. 

December 17, 2015

The FM Radio Class: 2016's Rock Hall Inductees

Five is an odd number. Even odder in some ways, perhaps, is the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class: Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple, Steve Miller, and N.W.A.

Look, justice is being served in some quarters here. Most definitely with Deep Purple, Cheap Trick, and Chicago: all forever-snubbed, still-touring artists that deserve at place at Cleveland's table. N.W.A., the only inductee to form after the 70s, is the welcome wild card. This transgressive yet sociopolitically significant Compton rap group took no prisoners, gave no fucks, and exposed an American reality too many were ignorant of, to funky, multiplatinum effect.

Still, this is a small class and it's not entirely diverse; you could almost dub it the "FM Radio Class." Janet, Nine Inch Nails, or even Los Lobos would have made this group feel a bit more well-rounded and cross-generational. And what's the deal with Steve Miller (sans "Band")? Considering the 15 nominees as a whole, he seems unexpected. Miller is likable, and much like Chicago, Cheap Trick, and Deep Purple, radio airplay has endlessly woven his music into the American fabric. But I would have predicted the voters to go for Yes or even the Cars over the Space Cowboy/Maurice. Miller just seemed like one of those first-time nominees that would need 2-3 nominations before being inducted. I also felt the same way about Cheap Trick somewhat, though I can understand how they made the final cut as they are so beloved:

(Side note, induction ceremony producers: If this Damone clip doesn't kick off the Cheap Trick induction film, you're doing it wrong. Call Universal Pictures and get the rights now.)

In any case, here we are, the Class of 2016. Fifteen worthy artists entered the ballot Thunderdome, just five are left standing. But damn, this is far too many nominees if only five acts get in. For 2017, the Hall should offer up 10-12 nominees maximum. Ditch Chic, forget Sting, stop nominating The Smiths (a proper English bummer, but the voting body isn't checking a box for them at this point) and serve up a ballot with 10 worthy nominees, with the intent of inducting at least six. Janet Jackson, a stunning omission this year, likely would have made the cut if there were six or more.

If the five-performer-inductees-only thing is because the ceremonies are excruciatingly long (and, if you're in the room and not watching the HBO edit in May, they are), throw more solo artists into the mix, and/or limit the speech length by playing people off, as they do at the Oscars. And no, don't do that to Paul or Ringo, but if the seventh speaker from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band is going long or, horrors, stepping to the mic to a forehead-slapping second time, nudge them along. If speeches of an enforced length equal another inductee, it's absolutely worth offending an errant windbag or two.

Coming in late January, apparently, is the held-back announcement of various "Non-Performer" or "Musical Excellence" honorees. Since the inductee list was low on the surprise meter, the real Rock Hall shocks may come here. Nile Rodgers, Musical Excellence? Heck, even Janet under Musical Excellence? Anything could happen; they folded Ringo Starr in last year under that category and he wasn't even on the ballot.

Finally, what is April 8, 2016's end of night all-star jam? "Smoke on the Water" might be a bit obvious, but there are a lot of graying Baby Boomers with guitars in this class that could send that riff into the stratosphere. I credit my wife for the idea of N.W.A.'s "Express Yourself" with Chicago's horn section (brilliant, really).

Congratulations, Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple, N.W.A., and Steve Miller. This club seems to get more exclusive all the time.