Wednesday, January 8, 2020

T. Rex: Dirty and Sweet, Oh, Yeah

Ah, T. Rex. T. Rex was one of the first and most influential of the glam-rock bands of the early 1970s. In 1972, "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" went to Number Ten in the U.S. and was arguably the first glam hit on this side of the ocean.

They were huge in the U.K., with ten Top Five hits from 1970 to 1974, but they never again hit in America. Head honcho Marc Bolan was killed in a car accident in 1977, and T. Rex was done. I don't mean to plant spoilers up here, but this is the Thin Lizzy story all over again. The T. Rex saga is not appreciably different from that of Badfinger, who actually had four hits before the band started dying off, and nobody's nominating Badfinger for anything. 

What Makes Them Different T. Rex's influence was substantial. The Smiths, R.E.M., Joy Division, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the Pixies, all cited T. Rex as an influence. They were name-checked in songs by the Who, David Bowie/Mott the Hoople, and My Chemical Romance. Slash's top hat seemed to be lifted straight from the cover of The Slider.

They were originally called Tyrannosaurus Rex, releasing four albums under that name. But their producer, Tony Visconti (who was also David Bowie's longtime producer), shortened it to T. Rex whenever he had to write it out, and the abbreviated version stuck.

Although they weren't together very long, T. Rex released eight albums in eight years. I admire that work ethic.

"Bang a Gong (Get It On)" was their only U.S. chart hit, but "Jeepster" also got some FM radio play, and "Debora" was heard in Baby Driver. They were a lot more than one song, despite what classic rock radio would tell you.

By the Numbers Four Number one singles in the U.K. In the U.S., they had two albums reach the Top Forty, Electric Warrior and The Slider, plus "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" in the Top Ten.

Will They Get In? As I said, T. Rex has a lot in common with Thin Lizzy, although my sense is that their cultural impact was more meaningful than that of the boys from Ireland. Another good comp for T. Rex is Nick Drake, who also put out some gorgeous, influential albums before dying way too young. Nick Drake never had a hit song, but his music still pops up on commercials and movies these days, and people LOVE him. Does that make him a Hall of Famer? Maybe, but the Hall hasn't seemed too kind to those types lately. Leonard Cohen, sure, but Leonard had a loo-o-o-o-ong career, and by the end of it, he was filling arenas. Does a rock band with a single hit and a short career but a noticeable footprint in the culture deserve to be inducted? I guess we'll find out.

Should They Get In? The Hall has seen fit to entrust me with a vote, so I guess I am the one who has to answer those questions. For now, I'm going to vote NO for T. Rex, but I could probably be persuaded otherwise. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Motorhead: Overkill

In the past few years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted the likes of Chicago, KISS, Cheap Trick, the Steve Miller Band, the Moody Blues, Yes, Journey, ELO... I mean, Deep Purple, really? They barely had any hits, or even a stable lineup. It seems as if any testosterone-heavy band with a modicum of artistic ambition that was popular in the 1970s is in danger of getting inducted.

That brings us to Motorhead, formed in 1975. They certainly weren't the worst band of their era, but their cultural impact here in the U.S. has been practically nil, aside from Freaks-like gaping at head honcho Lemmy Kilmister. Like Judas Priest, they were adored by Beavis and Butt-Head, and to be fair, they were better than the Priest. But not by much.

What Makes Them Different Lemmy was an enormous, mutton-chopped, multiple-warted frontman/bassist, and you were never going to mistake him for anyone else. "Kilmister" was his real last name, although "Lemmy" wasn't his real first name. He once said he didn't know how he got the nickname "Lemmy," and I believe him.

Lemmy was sort of a K-Mart version of Keith Richards - he claimed to have drunk a bottle of Jack Daniel's every day, was addicted to speed, and said he had slept with more than 1,000 women. He also collected (and repeatedly defended himself for collecting) Nazi memorabilia. His death, in 2015 at the age of 70, was the result of a combo platter of prostate cancer, diabetes, hypertension, cardiac arrhythmia, and congestive heart failure, making him also sort of a K-Mart version of Rasputin.

Motorhead's tribute record "R.A.M.O.N.E.S." cements the key connection between roaring heavy metal and speedy, pogo-able punk. It's also a really good single (and in true Ramones fashion, only 87 seconds long).

They weren't the first band to have an umlaut in their name - near as I can tell, that would be Blue Oyster Cult - but they were one of the first. No, I'm not going to use it here.

Lemmy also wrote the lyrics to Ozzy Osbourne's biggest pop hit, "Mama, I'm Coming Home," if you go for that sort of thing.

By the Numbers Motorhead never had a single reach even the U.S. Hot 100, much less the Top Forty. Prior to the last decade, when albums could chart while selling 5,000 copies, their highest-charting LP on the U.S. charts was 1916 (featuring "R.A.M.O.N.E.S."), which went to No. 142 in 1991.

Will They Get In? Motorhead is almost the definition of a cult band, although Lemmy's notoriety extends beyond the band's actual cultural footprint. I can't see that their cult has enough members to get them in.

Should They Get In? I have been listening to Motorhead while writing this entry. Remember when I said they were better than Judas Priest? I may have been wrong. I vote NO for Motorhead.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The MC5: Total Destroy

The MC5 was featured in a very early cover story, by Eric Ehrmann, that helped put Rolling Stone on the map; when the magazine collected articles for a 25th anniversary issue, the MC5 profile was the earliest feature selected. I worked for the magazine at that point, and what struck me about that feature was how retrograde the band was. They lived together in a house in Detroit Big Pink-style, where they were attended to by their old ladies, who I don’t believe were even granted names in the article. Their entire function was to serve the men, although the article did praise the “total destroy barbecue” they prepared for the boys.

The MC5's debut album, the live Kick Out the Jams, hadn’t been released yet, but their reputation preceded them. They were at the crossroads of the hippie movement and what would come to be called punk, all roaring guitars and political anger, propelled by the anthemic title single.

That was probably the high point for the MC5, when they were all promise and no delivery. Shortly after that article appeared, Lester Bangs reviewed Kick Out the Jams for Rolling Stone, and he was not impressed, calling it “this ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious album.”

What Makes Them Different The MC5 really were an important band. Their saga kicks off the indispensable punk chronicle Please Kill Me, and their mix of heavy metal thunder and political broadsides showed a new way for rock music to go. All the White Panther Party rhetoric that surrounded the band at the time seems silly now, but hey, it meant something back then.

Lester Bangs notwithstanding, Kick Out the Jams has regained some luster in the ensuing years, being named to Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith went on to marry Patti Smith, and Patti Smith has really good taste. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that her involvement with the MC5 lends them credence in my eyes.
They covered Sun Ra on Kick Out the Jams. How cool is that?

By the Numbers Kick Out the Jams reached a rather wan Number 30 on the album charts, with the title single going to Number 87. Their second album, Back in the USA, produced by future Springsteen honcho Jon Landau, peaked at Number 137.

Will They Get In?  When was the last time you heard an MC5 song? Their music hasn’t aged well, and their career was really short. I'm not feeling any sort of groundswell for the MC5.

Should They Get In? The MC5 had a certain amount of cultural significance, but let's face it, it wasn't that much cultural significance.  And the music has mostly been forgotten. I vote no for the MC5.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Kraftwerk: Fun Fun Fun

Kraftwerk has always been as much an art project as a band. In their native Dusseldorf back in the 1960s, when Florian Schneider was playing the electronic flute rather than the synthesizers that came to define the group’s music, they were more likely to play in art galleries than in conventional music clubs.

They reached their apotheosis with an eight-nine stand at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in April 2012. Calling the show the Catalogue, Kraftwerk performed songs from one of its eight studio albums each night - one more trend they started - along with a futuristic stage show featuring glowing costumes, light shows and 3-D projections of robots in red shirts and black ties. The band had become literally a museum piece.

What Makes Them Different Is there anything about Kraftwerk that isn't different? They invented electronic dance music, about three decades before anyone else got around to it. Their work still sounds relevant today; it’s so much removed from its own time that it will never sound old. Despite relying on the bleeps and bloops of the pocket calculator, it was never bloodless, and was always fun.

They influenced the synth-pop of the 1980s, the hip-hop that followed that, the electronica that followed that, Bowie and Bjork and Afrika Bambaataa and Blondie all the way down to Daft Punk and Max Martin.

Other musicians have always loved Kraftwerk’s oddly funky electronica: Their work was used on Soul Sonic Force's “Planet Rock,” one of the earliest hip-hop hits, from 1982, and U2 covered Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights" in 2004. “A great soul group, Kraftwerk,” Bono said in 2009. “Really an enormous influence on me as a 16-year-old.”

“I was reading a book about Leonardo da Vinci, and it said he was like a man who had woken up in the dark before everyone else got up hours later,” Chris Martin of Coldplay once said. “That's like Kraftwerk.”

Ralf Hutter says that the Beach Boys were an influence on Kraftwerk, and I believe him. In "Autobahn," though, they're not singing "Fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn," but rather  "Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn," which is like German or something.

By the Numbers  Their only hit in the U.S. was "Autobahn," which went to Number 25 on the Hot 100 back in 1975. Even in Germany, only two of their singles ("Autobahn" and "The Model") went Top Ten, and God only knows what West Germans were listening to in 1974.

Will They Get In? Probably not. They seem pretty diametrically opposed to the people the Hall has been inducting, aside from having their glory days in the 1970s.

Should They Get In? In addition to being hugely influential - literally one of the most important bands in the history of rock & roll - Kraftwerk's music is still tons of fun to listen to. I vote JA on Kraftwerk.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Pat Benatar: Another Notch in Her Lipstick Case

When Pat Benatar first came on the scene in the late 1970s, it was common for her to be described as “classically trained.” She certainly had a big voice, but I suspect this was more marketing gimmick than truism; her higher education consisted of one year at SUNY Stony Brook, studying health education.

Benatar sang in nightclubs, stage musicals and commercials for several years before releasing her first album, In the Heat of the Night, at the relatively advanced age (for a pop starlet) of 26 in 1979. The second single, “Heartbreaker,” was a MOR hit, and Pat Benatar has been a star ever since.

What Makes Her Different There weren’t a lot of women singing hard rock in the late 1970s and 1980s, but Benatar seemed to wear the responsibility easily. "For every day since I was old enough to think, I've considered myself a feminist," she said. "It's empowering to watch and to know that, perhaps in some way, I made the hard path we have to walk just a little bit easier."

The Hall of Fame should recognize more women, but my first response to Benatar is: Where are the Go-Go’s? They were hitmakers from the same era who arguably had a larger cultural impact (plus they wrote their own songs). The Go-Go’s had a jukebox musical on Broadway, Head Over Heels, which is an honor that seems unlikely to befall Pat Benatar. There’s even a Go-Go’s documentary film that will be at Sundance next month. Where’s your documentary, Pat?

"You Better Run" was the second video ever shown on MTV, after "Video Killed the Radio Star."

“Pat Benatar” the act is really Pat Benatar the band, since she has been with guitarist/songwriter/producer Neil Giraldo since her very first album. They’ve also been together in real life as a married couple since 1982, and that’s kinda sweet, isn’t it?

The turn of the decade from the 1970s into the 1980s was not a very auspicious time for pop metal, as anyone who has listened to Survivor or Asia lately can attest to. With their full-throated vocals and knotty guitar parts, Benatar’s early hits still sound pretty fresh, especially “Heartbreaker” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

By the Numbers Six triple platinum albums, including the Number One Precious Time, 15 Top Forty hits, including four Top Tens ("Hit Me With Your Best Shot," "Love Is a Battlefield," "We Belong," "Invincible")

Will She Get In? I mean, the Go-Go's were the first all-female band to make a real splash on the charts, and those songs still sound great. They snuck some surf-punk into pop melodies and harmonies - oh yeah, Pat Benatar. The Rock Hall has inducted an awful lot of people from Pat's era and genre, so I assume they'll do the same here.

Should She Get In? Probably, but this is only her first nomination. I think I'll wait for a different year, and for the moment, vote NO for Pat Benatar.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Whitney Houston: Learning to Love Yourself

I can remember, in the autumn of 1985, hearing a swooningly romantic song on the radio called "Saving All My Love for You," which swung without losing any of its yearning, and erupted into lust at the end. It was by a fresh young singer named Whitney Houston - her first hit, the relatively generic "You Give Good Love," had escaped my notice - who was clearly headed for a substantial career.

Her string of hit singles may not have lived up to the promise of her voice, but her hitmaking career was long and fertile, and that voice was always a wonder.

What Makes Her Different Whitney Houston simply had one of the greatest voices anyone had ever heard. "When I first heard her," Tony Bennett said, "I called Clive Davis and said, 'You finally found the greatest singer I've ever heard in my life.'"

Whitney opened her Number One cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" with 45 seconds of pure a cappella vocalizing. "I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance she did on my song," Dolly said. That single stayed at Number One for 14 weeks.

Whitney had a knack for encapsulating a moment. Her "One Moment in Time" became the theme song for the 1988 Olympics (and was yet another Top Ten hit). In 2001, she went to the Top Ten with the freaking "Star-Spangled Banner."

With all her personal and drug issues, you might have expected Whitney to become a waiflike, self-pitying Judy Garland figure, but her vocal performances never stopped projecting toughness. "Learning to love yourself," from "Greatest Love of All," appears to be a lesson she could never fully accept, but she sure could sell it.

By the Numbers According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Whitney was the most awarded female musical artist of all time, with two Emmy Awards, six Grammy Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, and 22 American Music Awards, for a total of 415 career awards.

She had 31 Top Forty hits, an amazing 24 of which reached the Top Ten. She had ten Number Ones, and let's name them:

  • Saving All My Love for You
  • How Will I Know
  • Greatest Love of All
  • I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)
  • Didn't We Almost Have It All
  • So Emotional
  • Where Do Broken Hearts Go
  • I'm Your Baby Tonight
  • All the Man That I Need
  • I Will Always Love You
  • Exhale (Shoop Shoop)

Will She Go In? The only question about Whitney is whether she is "rock & roll" enough for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She is arguably less rock & roll than Janet Jackson, who is more of an R&B singer. But hey, they put Joan Baez in, and Joan didn't have ten Number One hits.

Should She Go In? C'mon, it's Whitney Houston. I vote YES.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Thin Lizzy: Them Wild-Eyed Boys

As seen in the hit movie Once, there's a statue of Phil Lynott, the mastermind behind Thin Lizzy, in downtown Dublin. I've heard Lynott described as the Irish Bruce Springsteen, as he spun out a string of hits in Ireland and personified that underdog Irish attitude.

For me, Lynott and Thin Lizzy are more like Status Quo, best known here in the States for the 1969 hit "Pictures of Matchstick Men." In their home nation of the United Kingdom, Status Quo stayed on the charts into the 1990s. If we were voting for the British Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Status Quo would already be in, and if we were voting for the Irish Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Thin Lizzy would be an easy yes. But we're not.

What Makes Them Different Phil Lynott's mother was a Dubliner, and his father was from British Guiana, allowing him to epitomize the postmodern Irish mutt. Lynott played bass and sang, and eventually enlisted two guitarists to support him in Thin Lizzy. That twin-guitar attack went on to be pretty influential, but it's not like they invented it, going back at least to "And Your Bird Can Sing."

That was the lineup that concocted "The Boys Are Back in Town," which went to No. 12 in the States in 1976 and has never really gone away. Rolling Stone put it at 499 on its list of the Greatest Singles of All Time, one spot ahead of "More Than a Feeling."

Thin Lizzy broke up in 1983, and Lynott died in 1986, of various diseases brought on by years of drug abuse. He was 36. The inevitable sporadic reunion tours and albums started up in 1996.

The BusBoys, an African-American rock & roll band from L.A., had an MTV hit in 1982 with their own song called "The Boys Are Back in Town," from the movie 48 HRS. I'm not sure what to make of that.

By the Numbers "The Boys Are Back in Town" was Thin Lizzy's only Top Forty hit in the U.S., but it's been heard in more than 20 movies and TV shows, including the Aubrey Plaza starrer Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. In their native Ireland, the band had seven Top Ten hits, with both "Boys" and "Whiskey in the Jar" going to Number One.

Will They Get In? Irish voters would definitely elect them. I don't think American voters will, but people sure do love "The Boys Are Back in Town."

Should They Get In? Let's face it: Thin Lizzy's American legacy consists of one song. It's a great song, but still. Hanson and the New Radicals and Beverly Bremer each recorded one great song, too. I vote NO for Thin Lizzy.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Judas Priest: This Is Spinal Tap

You guys know that Judas Priest was widely considered a joke, right? I mean, you don’t need me to tell you this, but when Beavis was singing “Breakin’ the LAW, breakin’ the LAW,” that was a Judas Priest song. That’s who the band was thought to appeal to: degenerate Arizona high-school truants.

Somebody must have liked them, because the Priest was allowed to release a dozen albums by the time Beavis and Butt-Head rolled around. Then in 1998 lead singer Rob Halford, a pioneer of the leather-and-studs look, came out, and rendered the entire band’s career retroactively more deserving of attention. Unfortunately, it didn’t make their music any better.

What Makes Them Different: Obviously, Halford’s sexuality is the most culturally impactful thing about the band at this point, and I don’t mean to downplay that. The band always had a streak of barely contained violence about it – their 1978 album Killing Machine was renamed Hell Bent for Leather in the U.S., which I suppose is a little better – which becomes much more interesting when you know the songs are being sung by a closeted gay man.

That violent streak got them noticed by Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Research Center in the mid-1980s, notably for the lyric “I’m gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive.” “In a uniquely British way,” guitarist K.K. Downing later explained, “Rob’s S&M lyrics were intended to be tongue in cheek.”

When he was preparing to make This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner went to a Judas Priest concert as part of his research.

By the Numbers: Four platinum albums, although they never had a Top Ten album in the U.S. until the inevitable sporadic reunion albums started coming out in the last few years. No Top Forty hits; the Priest’s biggest single, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” peaked at Number Four on the U.S. Mainstream Rock charts in 1981.

Will They Go In? This is the Priest’s second nomination, but if they didn’t get in the first time, I don’t know what’s going to be different this time. If you like 1970s-style metal, there are better choices on the ballot.

Should They Go In? Judas Priest is extremely not my cup of tea, but even given that, I don’t see the case here. Being a poor man’s Black Sabbath is not something to write home about. Ordinarily, my top priority for a band is their cultural influence, and Halford has certainly made their career – and the fans they drew in through the late 1970s and 1980s -  more fascinating to think about. But he hasn’t made the music fun to listen to. If Judas Priest gets in, the door is wide open for Uriah Heep. I vote NO.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Soundgarden: In Disguises No One Knows

Soundgarden was arguably the first of the Seattle grunge bands that emerged into national prominence the early 1990s. The late Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil, the core members, were making music together as early as 1984, and put out their first recordings in 1986. They will be forever compared - unfavorably - to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but they predated both those bands. They were also the most metal-ish of the major grunge bands, once touring as the opening act for Skid Row.

Like most things grunge, Soundgarden didn’t show a lot of staying power. Their heyday consisted of five studio albums before the band combusted in 1997. Cornell, weirdly, blamed the fans: “You feel like fans have paid their money and they expect you to come out and play them your songs like the first time you ever played them,” he said. “That's the point where we hate touring.” As with every band ever, they did regroup for the inevitable sporadic reunion albums and tours, before disbanding for good following Cornell’s death in 2017.

What Makes Them Different: Soundgarden’s music was melodic enough that my son’s high school marching band once interpolated part of “Black Hole Sun” into their halftime show. Given that, it’s a little surprising that they didn’t have more success on the pop charts, but “Black Hole Sun” didn’t even make the Hot 100, although it was a No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 2 on the Alternative charts.

There’s a wonderful anecdote in Mark Yarm’s book Everybody Loves Our Town where Cornell talks about Susan Silver, who would later become his wife but who was at the time managing several of the bands on the Seattle scene. The guys in Soundgarden were acting like regular rock & roll louts, peeing against a wall in some rock club, when Silver admonished them that someone very much like the boys’ mother was eventually going to have to clean that up, so they should cut that right out. I read this a long time ago, so if I have some details wrong, please correct me, but this struck me as the grunge version of the famed Motown charm school. That should have been their motto: Soundgarden – we won’t pee on the wall.

At first, the band was a real Rainbow Coalition: Thayil’s parents both emigrated from India, and original bassist Hiro Yamamoto was Japanese-American. Cornell was mostly a boring white guy, but at least he was half-Jewish.

By the Numbers: Three platinum albums, six Number One hits on the U.S. Alternative rock charts, two Grammys (for “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun”)

Will They Go In? Without the cultural impact of Nirvana or the staying power of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden will always be a distant third in the grunge sweepstakes. I’m guessing they don’t go in, at least not yet.

Should They Go In? Their moment passed very quickly, and I haven’t felt a lot of reverberations from their legacy. They wouldn’t lower the standards of the Hall, but for the moment, I’m voting NO on Soundgarden.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Doobie Brothers: Ain't Got No Worries, Cuz I Ain't In No Hurry

Come on, admit it: You thought the Doobie Brothers were already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How could Chicago and the Steve Miller Band be in there and not the Doobies? Their own brand of 70s pop/classic rock has survived as strongly as those other bands, not to mention that of nonentities like Deep Purple and Kiss.

But the Doobies haven’t even been nominated before this year, which seems more like an oversight than anything else, not because they were so innovative or memorable but because they belong to a genre and generation that has been overly rewarded by the R&R HoF. So here, at last, they are.

What Makes Them Different: Maybe one reason the Doobies haven’t been recognized till now is that they were really two different bands, turning their personnel (and sound) almost entirely over between 1971’s Doobie Brothers, with its NorCal choogling boogie, and the yacht rock of 1980’s Minute by Minute (their last real album before the inevitable sporadic reunion records).  Ponytailed guitarist Patrick Simmons was the only connective tissue between the two. There aren’t a lot of bands that can survive turning over their frontman and lead songwriter, but the Doobies actually got stronger, at least in terms of the pop charts, when Michael McDonald took the helm.

McDonald, by the way, initially joined the band as a temporary touring member when original lead singer Tom Johnston took sick with an ulcer. McDonald was recommended by guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who had worked with him in Steely Dan. Baxter, of course, is the former chair of the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense.

The most singular record in the Doobies’ career is Simmons’ “Black Water,” which went to Number One in 1974. With its use of wind chimes and viola as lead instruments, and an a cappellla bridge that producer Ted Templeman later claimed he stole from his old vocal group Harper’s Bizarre, “Black Water” didn’t sound like anything else on the radio in 1974. It still doesn't sound like anything else on the radio. The Doobies really didn’t know what to do with it: “Black Water” initially surfaced as the B-side to the lead single from What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits; after the album seemed to have stiffed, “Black Water” was the third single released, and the Doobies had their first Number One hit.

By the Numbers: Six platinum studio albums, including one Number One (Minute by Minute); 16 Top Forty hits, five top Tens, including two number Ones (“Black Water,”  “What a Fool Believes”)

Will They Get In? This is maybe the biggest no-brainer on the ballot. The Hall of Fame has been exceptionally kind to bands like the Doobie Brothers.

Should They Get In? Not a lot of bands encapsulate two little eras of rock music, but the Doobies were one of the best of the post-hippie bands of the early 1970s and one of the best of the yacht rock acts of the late 1970s. And “Black Water” still sounds like magic. What the heck, I’m in a good mood: I’ll vote YES for the Doobie Brothers.