Monday, March 10, 2003

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is tonight. Time to reflect on the inductees, the induction and the process as a whole.

The Ramones redistilled rock and roll to three chords and three-minute songs. The Sex Pistols were all about theatrics and staged outrage. But the Clash gave punk both the heart and the brains. They were politically and musically aware. Their music was visceral but lyrically substantive - it had a good beat and you could think to it. They stood up for social injustice in ways that many modern-day musicians won't out of fear of alienating their audience. And it'll be bittersweet to see them honored after Joe Strummer's death. At least, unlike the Ramones, it didn't take the sentimentality of someone's untimely death for them to get the nod.

Elvis Costello's even brainier than the Sex Pistols. I've already enthused about his career in Best of 2002 entry on December 20. What can you say about the man who has written the best pop song ever about senility, and that its popularity became an albatross?

The Police hold a unique place in music history as probably the only popular trio in which the guitarist was the least interesting member. Like Elvis Costello, like had a sharp lyricist in Sting. Like the Clash, they built their musical foundation on the brashness and exuberance of punk and the syncopated rhythms of reggae. But they moved beyond such basics, especially with the help of Stewart Copeland's complex drumming. No wonder guitarist Andy Summers was overshadowed.

I'll have to admit that I've come around somewhat on AC/DC. They were at their commercial peak when I was in high school, and they were among the groups banned from my car radio along with Ozzy Osbourne and Journey. About 20 years on, Journey still suck and Ozzy's entertainment value has very little to do with his music. And maybe AC/DC aren't so bad after all. They've been influential, and they're certainly better than the hair metal that arrived later in the '80s. I reviewed one of their concerts in 1990 as a favor to a friend, and they exceeded my low expectations.

The degree of commercial and musical impact comes into question with both the Righteous Brothers and others who have yet to make it past the nomination stage. The Righteous Brothers are well past their initial eligibility year of 25 years from the first recording. The fact that it took this long for them to be inducted shows the balance of factors needed to make the cut. The Righteous Brothers were very popular and very talented, but the never revolutionized rock, and they left no obvious wake of influence on later musicians. By contrast, the Stooges were revolutionary and had a massive impact on followers but were never popular, so they still haven't been tapped for induction. Looking down the line, does this mean that someone like Bon Jovi deserves recognition? They aren't revolutionary, but they are very popular. They were the biggest of the hair metal bands, clearly an inspiration for many others, but does that mean that they should be awarded for both creating crap and inspiring more of it?

There's also the question of who makes the presentations of the individual artists. Last year it made sense to have Anthony Kiedis and Eddie Vedder as presenters since they are likely to be inducted with their own bands eventually. But the Talking Heads' and Ramones' influence on the two musicians wasn't obvious until they made their heartfelt speeches. It is premature to call Alicia Keys a shoo-in for later induction, but her speech for Isaac Hayes showed that she grasped his musical and larger social impact and that his music is part of her life. Jakob Dylan has yet to match his father's talent, but his recalling his envy of Tom Petty's kids for having Tom as a father was a unique perspective. Then there was Jewel, a pleasant singer of little consequence who read her induction speech about Brenda Lee like a high school student who had just done her research the night before. I haven't heard who will be making the presentations tonight, but I can only hope they find people who are worthy and articulate.

The ceremony will air on VH-1 on Sunday, March 16 at 9 and 11 p.m. ET.

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