The nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced Wednesday night. That and the following fact are perhaps the only two things we'll all agree on over the coming few minutes. The nominees are: the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Deep Purple, Heart, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Albert King, Kraftwerk, the Marvelettes, the Meters, N.W.A, Randy Newman, Procol Harum, Public Enemy, Rush and Donna Summer.
Now let's get this straight. Joan Jett without the Runaways? One (amazing) hit wonder Procol Harum? Rush but not King Crimson? Summer but not her visionary producer Giorgio Moroder? What kind of random, weird history is this? And why aren't the Modern Lovers, the New York Dolls, or Pere Ubu in? Or hip-hop progenitors the Last Poets? Or Black Flag? Or X?
Oh, we could go on and on, but what's the point? As influential British punk band Gang of Four noted in a non-Rock Hall-celebrated classic of the same name, “History's Bunk!” The “official” version is always polished to make the power brokers seem more in touch than they really are. This is all an illusion, made up out of thin air, and contains as many truths and untruths as there are fans with opinions.
That said, if we play the “best” and “favorites” game, most can agree on the big names — the Beatles, Stones, Elvis, Little Richard, Dylan, Patti Smith, the Stooges, Run DMC, Aretha Franklin — those whose undeniable voices so obviously pushed rock 'n' roll and its many variations forward. And among this 2013 posse are artists who are as obviously worthy of inclusion. Four of these, in fact, are no-brainers from my point of view: Kraftwerk, N.W.A, Deep Purple and Public Enemy.
Each not only released transformational recordings from which a thousand ancillary ideas blossomed but created music that resonates today. Deep Purple's “Smoke on the Water” chord progression deserves its own wing on the Cleveland campus. N.W.A created a whole subgenre, gangsta rap, giving voice to simmering unrepresented legions. Kraftwerk built techno and inspired rap. Public Enemy is singular (even if Boogie Down Productions is arguably as important). The other 11? Cases could be made either way.
Yes, members of Paul Butterfield's Blues Band backed Bob Dylan during his 1965 electric moment at the Newport Folk Festival, and its debut album burns, but its influence has diminished over the years. Heart's music energized the dreams of an entire gender of feathered-hair rock fans — but did so while incorporating way too many of Led Zeppelin's ideas at the expense of its own.
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum is an undeniable gem, but just because it scores a pivotal scene in “The Big Chill” and is one of the most played songs in the history of English radio doesn't make its creators worthy of a spot in the Hall. Newman shouldn't be in because he doesn't want to be in — which he famously called the “Hall of Shame.” (Space constraints dictate I save my thoughts on the other nominees for my Twitter feed.)
So my fifth vote — were I a voting member, which I'm not — is something I've been torn on: Rush or Chic?
Chic is best known for its funky disco classics like “Good Times,” “Le Freak,” and “I Want Your Love,” and despite the floating grooves within each of these, those propellant songs, though special, are of an era. But put the spotlight on Chic's guitarist-mastermind Nile Rodgers, and he's ground zero on both the birth of hip-hop and the flourishing New York City post-disco movement.
The bass line for “Good Times” became one of the first samples when the Sugar Hill Gang used it to support the “Rapper's Delight” single in 1979. Rodgers went on to connect New York City's art and dance club worlds through his work with Talking Heads, Blondie and others.
And then there's Rush, one of the most prominent groups of the 1970s and '80s prog rock movement whose fans have been screaming at the proverbial windmills for the 13 years that the band has been eligible. Forty-four years after it formed, the band responsible for songs such as “Tom Sawyer,” “The Spirit of Radio,” the epic concept album “2112” and dozens of gold records has made the first cut on its way to the theoretically hallowed walls of the Cleveland historical institution.
It couldn't come too soon for the group's very vocal fan base, which has waged campaigns over the years to have Rush — singer-bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart — acknowledged. With each denial, Rush's fans had become more embittered. Petitions had been signed. Fans on Twitter raged nearly every day. The frustration is understandable.
The Hall of Fame's indifference to progressive rock is akin to the literary establishment's relationship to science fiction. With bands such as King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer unrecognized (Genesis is the exception, having been inducted in 2010), Rush's inclusion suggests a committee begrudgingly willing to acknowledge prog rock as creatively valid — but ultimately unimportant when discussing greatness and the “canon.”
Me? I respect Rush's vision way more than I actually like its music, and it's for a single inarguable reason, one that I suspect is true of many others: I can't stand Lee's voice. It's silly, annoying and detracts from the band's ideas and lyrics. “The Spirit of Radio,” the band's best pop song, would be perfect were it sung by someone singing in an octave (or four) less ridiculous.
And even though I realize I'm asking for a whole heap of blow back from a devoted fan base, the defining characteristic of any band is the quality of the lead singer's voice. When said voice works within such a cringe-worthy frequency range as Lee's, the question of aesthetic disqualification looms large.
For that reason alone Rush doesn't deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame. To say nothing of the lyrics to “The Trees.”
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit