THE Rock and Roll Hall of Fame turns 22 this year, but the hall’s selection process is far from grown up.
It’s good to have some innocence and exuberance when honoring rock heroes, emotions that surely will be in evidence at the hall’s annual induction dinner Monday in New York City. But the Hall of Fame balloting suffers from an almost childish, “gee whiz” enthusiasm that results in many marginal artists being toasted rather than just the truly great.
Comparison point: The Baseball Hall of Fame has inducted more than 200 players in seven decades -- about three a year. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is past 150 -- at about seven a year. At this rate, the rock hall will have nearly 500 members by the time it turns 70.
To find that many acts, the hall is going to end up enshrining such limited artists as Duane Eddy, Brenda Lee and the Rascals.
Oops, they’re already in.
Who’s next? Meat Loaf and Mariah Carey?
There are several ways for voters to assess an act’s Hall of Fame worthiness, from creativity and influence (the right way) to simply counting the number of gold records (wrong).
Unlike baseball, you can’t accurately measure musicians just by statistics. But it is interesting to turn to the Rolling Stone Album Guide, whose ratings are more reliable than the magazine’s because the guide’s editors have the luxury of looking at the old albums with a historical perspective. The most striking thing about the book’s evaluation of the Hall of Fame inductees’ recordings is that more than one-fourth lack a five-star album or even a five-star “best of” collection.
The point isn’t that the guide should set the standard for membership, but it is useful in suggesting which artists might warrant a second look when assessing who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
After taking that second look, I’m ready to nominate the first class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Rejects -- artists who should be de-ducted from the hall.
It may seem cruel to downgrade these artists, but the real injustice is putting second- (or third-) tier artists into the hall while leaving out far more deserving figures such as Gram Parsons, one of the major influences on the Americana movement, and the Stooges, one of the most tenacious bands in rock history.
Here are my first five Hall of Fame de-ductees, two of whom, it turns out, are scheduled to be inducted Monday.
The vocal harmonizing of such doo-wop groups as the Dells, the Moonglows and the Flamingos did constitute a wonderfully stylish sub-current of the roots of rock, but Hall of Fame voters seemed to have been bitten in recent years by doo-wop fever. After repeatedly passing all three of those groups, the voters inducted them all. Bad move. As the least substantial, best known for the 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the Flamingos should be the first to go.
If this New Yorker had been around during the Tin Pan Alley era, he would be remembered as one of the greats because he is a formidable craftsman, with a spectacular sense of melody and a flashy sense of rhyme. But he’s not at his best when it comes to key rock benchmarks, including originality and insight. Almost every strain in his music can be traced elsewhere: “Piano Man,” Harry Chapin; “Just the Way You Are,” Elton John; “Uptown Girl,” the Four Seasons; and so forth. He has flirted with greatness at times, but he has too often settled for B-level imagination.
I’m sorry, but “Little Miss Dynamite” (she is under 5 feet) didn’t make a lasting enough mark on rock to be honored alongside Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Despite a voice powerful enough to be heard over an air siren, Lee dealt mostly in country and pop, and she didn’t show a particularly distinctive vision in either genre. She is often given credit for helping open a door for women in rock, but Patsy Cline and Ruth Brown did more to open that door, and Janis Joplin was the one to kick the barrier down for good.
“Be My Baby” was one of the most captivating pop records ever, but the 1963 single, a tour de force of teen emotions and desire, was the creation of record producer Phil Spector. Sure, Veronica Bennett sang superbly -- but she wouldn’t have begun to know how to make that record without Spector, and you know Spector could have made it with other singers. There’s something promising in the sweet allure of Bennett’s voice on her few, pre-Spector recordings, but nothing came close to casting a spell.
This pick is going to make a lot of Van Halen fans unhappy, but look at it my way: We’re doing the guys a favor. There is so much bad blood between Eddie Van Halen (yes, yes, he’s a fantastic guitar player) and showboat David Lee Roth that it would be awkward for them to be onstage together Monday. Besides, the band’s rock credentials are good, but there were other groups around L.A. in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that showed more character and/or raw power, including Black Flag, the Blasters, Los Lobos and X.
Looking to next year’s de-ductee possibilities, several high-profile acts are on the bubble. Among them: Eddy, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Ricky Nelson, the Platters, the Dells, Gene Pitney, the (Young) Rascals and Blondie. Remember the test isn’t whether they are good but whether they are great.
Hilburn is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s nominating committee, but the views are his own.