An eager Tom Morello stood with guitar at the ready as the final minutes ticked down Monday at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 18th annual induction dinner, but the big moment fizzled.
Morello, the former Rage Against the Machine member who joined U2 guitarist the Edge in inducting the Clash, was looking forward to performing "I Fought the Law" in another of the gala's well-known closing jam sessions. The song would have served as a nod to the Clash's version of the tune.
"Believe me, I know how to play it on guitar," the longtime and dejected Clash fan said. But the spontaneous finale didn't materialize.
The omission cost the event the opportunity to put Elvis Costello, the Police, Elton John and the Edge on stage at once. It also provided a fitting non-ending to the night for Clash fans.
An edited version of the ceremony will air at 9 p.m. Sunday on VH1 and although it will have its moments -- the performance of new inductees Elvis Costello and the Attractions and political comments of Neil Young among them -- it will not have the Clash playing.
The quartet lost its colorful co-founder and chief lyricist Joe Strummer in December to a heart attack at age 50, and on this night Mick Jones and the rest of the band opted not to play without him.
"He played as if the world could be changed by a three-minute song," said Morello, now guitarist with the band Audioslave. The songbook of the Clash is part political manifesto, which would have added even more to an evening peppered with antiwar statements from the stage, most forcefully by Young, who among other things compared the U.S. government to a careening SUV driven by a drunk driver.
Several speakers turned to lyrics to announce their sentiments, citing the work of John Lennon, Edwin Starr, Costello and others.
There was also a now-common haze at the industry event at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel: The business is in a malaise and many executives sitting in the dinner's expensive seats probably breathed a resigned sigh when Costello chided the corporate nature of the day.
They also heard from new inductee Mo Ostin, the celebrated Warner Bros. Records chief whose group of labels was home to Paul Simon, the Ramones, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, the Kinks and scores more through the years but who was sent packing in the mid-'90s from the label he shaped so profoundly for some three decades. "In the struggle between artist and commerce," Ostin, who was inducted by Young, pointedly told the crowd, "the artist must prevail."
There was also the grim matter of Phil Spector's absence. The heralded record producer, who was mentioned half a dozen times from the stage, has been a fixture at the event in recent years but was not present this year. He is free on bail after having been arrested in February on a murder charge following the shooting death of an actress at his Alhambra home.
His long resume includes shaping the biggest hits of the Righteous Brothers, the blue-eyed duo also inducted Monday, and one of his studio collaborators, the late saxophonist Steve Douglas, was inducted in the sidemen category, along with pianist Floyd Cramer and drummer Benny Benjamin.
"He is rock 'n' roll, and I wish he could have been here," Bill Medley, one-half of the Righteous Brothers, said of Spector as he left the ballroom for the night.
The evening was hardly morose throughout, though, and no one was more responsible for that then John. In a rollicking speech that will present TV censors with much bleeping work, John inducted Costello and hailed him as a bold and gifted musical innovator. He also suggested that Costello spent time in the 1970s making porn film music and committed a historic act of hubris by claiming the stage name Elvis.
John also charmingly quipped that when he was dismissed as boring by Costello's punk-era ilk, they may have had a point. Costello in turn thanked John for his "very eloquent, very complimentary and deeply profane" comments.
Aerosmith's Steven Tyler gave the induction speech for the hard-rock band AC/DC, which delighted the crowd with its versions of "Highway to Hell" and "You Shook Me All Night Long."
The program closed with the Police, the trio that rose from London in the 1970s and went on to become one of the biggest bands in the world before splitting in the mid-'80s. The personalities of the group -- their internal acrimony was legend and Sting himself seems now to enjoy his reputation for haughtiness -- was a big part of the night's tribute to them.
Sting chided drummer Stewart Copeland for resisting the band's plan to perform "Every Breath You Take" because the song didn't have enough drumming highlights. Guitarist Andy Summers, meanwhile, sarcastically told the crowd, "There's absolutely no ego involved in this band."
The Police played for the first time together since the break and did their first hit, "Roxanne," in an expanded, jazzy version.
They also performed "Message in a Bottle" before closing with "Every Breath You Take," which had Tyler, No Doubt's Gwen Stefani and John Mayer lending a hand.
Then, as it became apparent that no Clash song would be sung, the crowd began to filter out toward parties upstairs or the cold Manhattan night.
Morello lingered long after, talking about the Clash of the past and the antiwar movement of the present. "I sure wish that Joe was here."
To see it
What: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 18th annual induction ceremony
When: Sunday, 9 p.m.
Running time: 2 hours