Sunday, March 26, 2023

I Get Down on My Knees and Pray: New Order


The Dossier
Joy Division was a very young but innovative British New Wave band that was on the verge of making it in America when their lead singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself at the age of 23. The remaining members regrouped as New Order and made good on the promise of Joy Division by releasing some of the best dance music of the 1980s. They placed only two singles in the U.S Top Forty (“True Faith” and “Regret” but not, surprisingly, “Bizarre Love Triangle”) but a whopping 14 tracks in the Top Ten of the U.S. Dance Club chart. Robert Christgau called them "the greatest disco band of the 1980s except for Chic, and these guys outlasted Chic."

Why I Should Vote for Them They were distinctive, influential, and stormingly good. While synthesizers were dominating dance music in the 1980s, New Order stripped things down to primarily bass and guitar, with the keyboards there for color. It was as if Booker T and the MGs had moved to Manchester. All four members had a strong melodic sense – yes, somehow even drummer Stephen Morris – which made their songs multilayered and dense while remaining gorgeous and danceable.

I don’t really care about England, but New Order dominated the 1980s there, running 17 singles up to the No. 1 spot on the U.K.’s indie chart. In fact, they had 20 consecutive singles reach the top three on that chart. There were a lot of great post-New Wave dance one-shots in the 1980s  -- “If You Leave,” “A Little Respect” --  but New Order put out song after song at that level.

Don’t forget we are including Joy Division here too. They released two hugely influential albums and a handful of singles in their brief career and landed “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in a fairly high slot on every iteration of the Rolling Stone Greatest Singles of All Time list, despite its barely being heard in America. One wonders whether Joy Division would have had as much impact as New Order; Ian Curtis had a much more distinctive voice than Bernard Sumner, and was a better lyricist, so maybe so. But Sumner very effectively used his vocals as just another element of the mix, and he deserves credit for that.

Why I Shouldn’t Vote for Them New Order’s direct impact on American shores was fairly minimal. I wish they had more hit singles, not just because that would make it easier to vote for them, but because they’re great to hear on the radio.

Also, they did that nerdy thing where the titles of their songs generally did not appear in the lyrics. I suppose Led Zeppelin pioneered that, but that’s no reason to continue doing it. “Bizarre Love Triangle” has a perfectly memorable chorus from which you could choose a title phrase – but no, we’re stuck with “Bizarre Love Triangle.” I still have to remind myself which one is “Blue Monday.”

The Verdict The best thing about writing this essay was that I got to listen to New Order all weekend. I’ve been listening to their music since the 1980s, and I still hear new textures and melodies in there. The second best thing about writing this essay is that I get to say that I’m voting for New Order.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

No One Sings Like You Anymore: Soundgarden


The Dossier: The bands that emerged out of Seattle tended to get lumped under the rubric of “grunge,” but they all had their own sound. Nirvana didn’t sound all that much like Pearl Jam, who didn’t sound like Candlebox. Soundgarden emerged from that scene, but they weren’t nearly as melodic or dynamic as Nirvana. What they did have was a powerhouse vocalist and a mercurial guitar sound that separated from their peers. Their third album, Badmotorfinger, put them on the map, then their fourth, Superunknown, ruled 1994. Their next album, Down on the Upside, was almost as big, but it’s forgotten today, and it would mark the end of their run.  

Why I Should Vote for Them: Back when guitar bands were important, Soundgarden was one of the most important. Badmotorfinger was a favorite of the cognoscenti, spawning several MTV hits, then Superunknown catapulted the band into the stratosphere. The album debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts upon its release in March 1994. “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman” and “Fell on Black Days” were enduring hits with their own feel and sound, not like much else that was happening on MTV in those days. “Black Hole Sun” won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance while “Spoonman” won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance, and if you can explain the distinction between those two awards, you’re a better critic than I.

Chris Cornell, who wrote most of the band’s songs, had a voice that was both powerful and supple – he landed at No. 9 on one Rolling Stone Greatest Lead Singers poll. Kim Thayil never seemed content to get the same sound out of his guitar more than once. At their best, Soundgarden was totally on top of their game.

Why I Shouldn’t Vote for Them: Soundgarden’s 1996 followup, Down on the Upside, was almost as big as Superunknown in terms of sales and hit singles, but has been almost wholly forgotten. ("Pretty Noose" and "Burden in My Hand" were the first singles, and I don't remember a thing about them.)   Is it just me, or did this record – double platinum! – disappear in terms of its cultural movement? At any rate, after a frustrating tour, the band broke up in 1997.

So that last record made no lasting impact, and Badmotorfinger was more of a critic’s record than anything else. That leaves their legacy mostly reliant on Superunknown. That album was hugely popular and critically adored, but it’s also not exactly Revolver. If your reputation is based largely on a single album, it helps if it's Revolver.

Some might argue that the various Chris Cornell offshoots – Temple of the Dog before Soundgarden hit big, and Audioslave afterward – should accrue to Soundgarden’s benefit. I might be more inclined to pay attention to that argument, except that it’s not going to move the needle much for me, although I did like Temple of the Dog.

The Verdict: I fully expect Soundgarden to get in, if not this year then sometime soon. I’m not enthusiastic about this, although there are worse bands in. For now, though, I’m not voting for them.


Friday, March 17, 2023

Willie Nelson: I'm Crazy for Loving You


The Dossier One of the greatest Nashville songwriters of the early 1960s, writing hits like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young. By the 1970s he had become the leading progenitor of outlaw country with songs like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Bloody Mary Morning.” When his songwriting muse started to dry up, he became the country Frank Sinatra, covering classics old and new like “Always on My Mind” and “Blue Skies.” All told, 25 of his singles went to Number One on one chart or another, and he’s sold 40 million albums.

Any one of the three phases of Nelson’s career would have made him a legend; when you combine all three, it’s one of the most impressive and important bodies of work in American music.

Why I Should Vote for Him He has one of the most impressive and important bodies of work in American music. The history of country music is inconceivable without Willie Nelson. “Willie Nelson could, as they say, sing the phone book and make you weep,” Bob Dylan said. “He could also write the phone book.” He’s also a great guitarist: “You hear a Willie Nelson solo, he doesn’t play real fast, but it's so melodic and beautiful,” said John Densmore of the Doors. The Doors! “I don't have a favorite song that I've written,” said B.B. King. “But I do have a favorite song: 'Always on My Mind,' the Willie Nelson version. If I could sing it like he do, I would sing it every night.” B.B. King!

Snoop Dogg says the highest he has ever gotten was smoking with Willie Nelson, and I’m guessing there are a lot of instances in which Snoop Dogg has gotten high. Everybody loves Willie Nelson. Everybody.

I could list a lot more songs and albums, but you know all the high points. And he’s still out there, you know – there’s a massive 90th birthday celebration coming up in April, with everyone from Neil Young to Miranda Lambert to Beck. Beck, you know, is inconceivable without Willie Nelson.

Why I Shouldn’t Vote for Him
For many years, I have resisted voting for people whose career didn’t really have anything to do with rock & roll. I didn’t vote for Dolly Parton last year, even before she said she didn’t want the recognition. I didn’t vote for John Prine a few years back, a decision I now regret, because as great as John Prine was, he wasn’t a rock artist. And now he's dead. I didn’t vote for Joan Baez, which I still think was a good choice.

But the Rock Hall has clearly welcomed these people, and it’s time for me to give in. As an American musician, there is no way to withhold this recognition from Willie Nelson. The only reason not to vote for him is because he doesn’t have anything to do with rock & roll, and if that’s not a factor, the choice is clear.

The Verdict
I am voting for Willie Nelson.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

It Can't Be That Bad: Sheryl Crow

 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Balloting, Part I 

The Dossier
 Sheryl Crow started her professional career as a massively bewigged background singer on Michael Jackson’s Bad tour before launching her solo career with 1994’s Tuesday Night Music Club, which contained the hits “Leaving Las Vegas,” “All I Wanna Do,” and “Strong Enough.” She’d go on to have six more Top 20 hits, not counting the egregious “Picture” with Kid Rock, on which she was listed as a guest artist. She has won nine Grammys, including the dreaded Best New Artist in 1995, has released six Top Ten albums, and sold 50 million albums all told.

Why I Should Vote for Her The late 1990s were in some ways a fertile time for an  alternative-leaning female singer-songwriter to launch a mainstream rock career - Lilith Fair ran in 1998 and 1999 -  but Sheryl Crow and her rootsier sound were a bit out of step. Nevertheless, she was probably the most enduring of that generation of women singer-songwriters. 

Those early songs hold up pretty well, too - I still hear “Soak Up the Sun” and “If It Makes You Happy” all the time. They had a distinctive vibe, kind of a Stones-in-L.A.-in-the-Nineties thing. “All I Wanna Do” is probably the best of them, a ridiculously specific tour through a Hollywood bar in mid-morning with a collection of losers. She wrote (or at least co-wrote) all the familiar hits, too. Billboard named her the 5th Greatest Alternative Artist of all time, which, whatever, but it’s hard to argue with it.

Back in 2003, when she had just turned 40, Sheryl Crow posed for the cover of Stuff magazine in a pair of short shorts, with her heinie turned to the camera.  I had the privilege of working as an editor at Rolling Stone at that point, and in our year-end issue,

we ran a blip on how Sheryl’s year had gone, and I inserted a reference to “that embarrassing Stuff cover.” But I was just feeling competitive, and there was nothing wrong with that Stuff cover – she looked great! I’ve always regretted that comment, and this would be my chance to make it up to Sheryl. But hey, I’m still better than Lance Armstrong, right?

Bob Dylan originally cut “Mississippi” for Time Out of Mind, and when he didn’t like the results, he offered the song to Crow, who put it on her album The Globe Sessions. She said that Bob ended up being a mentor for her. If Bob’s that much of a fan of hers, who am I to argue?

Why I Shouldn’t Vote for Her The career was not especially long, lasting about a decade as a hitmaker, and there were only three Top Ten hits (again, not counting “Picture”). I’m also not getting the feeling that she had a whole lot of lasting artistic significance; are there any female singers or songwriters who claim to have been influenced by Sheryl Crow? I know the Dixie Chicks covered her cover of “Mississippi,” so if that influence exists, it’s probably with country singers that I’m not especially familiar with.

The Verdict I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Sheryl Crow get inducted – in fact, I expect her to – but given that it’s her first year on the ballot and the ballot is stacked this year, I’m going to reluctantly pass.


Sunday, May 1, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Vote '22: Pat Benatar

The nomination is technically for Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo. I'm not aware of any other credited solo acts who took someone else in with them, but Neil wasn't exactly riding Pat's coattails.

THE SONG: "Heartbreaker" was only the third single off Pat Benatar's debut album, In the Heat of the Night, but it was the first time most of us heard her. (The first single was her cover of John Cougar's "I Need a Lover.") Straddling the gap between hard rock and the incipient new wave, "Heartbreaker" stayed in the Hot 100 for four months despite peaking at just Number 23. There weren't a lot of women singing hard rock in 1979 aside from the Wilson sisters, so Benatar really stood out. That's Neil Giraldo wailing away on the guitar solo.


THE CASE FOR: With "Heartbreaker" in her back pocket, Pat Benatar was all over the radio in the early days of the MTV era, posting 15 Top Forty hits between 1980 and 1988, four of them reaching the Top Ten. Neil Giraldo joined her band in 1979, became her boyfriend shortly thereafter, broke up with her briefly, then married her in 1982. (When asked why they had gotten back together, Benatar answered simply, "Love, baby.") Giraldo eventually became her primary songwriter, although the only real hits he wrote were "Hell Is for Children" and "Promises in the Dark." 

There was an awful lot of talent on the charts in the first half of the 1980s: Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince. Pat Benatar held her own in this crowd, with her powerhouse voice and tough Jersey-girl looks. Again, other than Heart, who had considerably softened their sound by this time, there weren't a lot of female belters carrying on the hard rock tradition at this point. Is Pat Benatar an icon? She's at least iconic, or maybe icon-ish.

THE CASE AGAINST: One knock against Benatar is the same as with a lot of female stars - she rarely wrote her own songs. Including Giraldo on the nomination adds a bit more of that credit to her dossier, and Giraldo is also responsible for much of the toughness of her sound. 

More importantly, those records haven't really held up that well, aside from Benatar's opera-trained soprano and Giraldo's guitar solos. People are still listening to Journey and Toto, but I couldn't tell you the last time I heard "Fire and Ice." 

THE VERDICT: The whole reason I began writing these essays a few years ago was because I wanted to systematically evaluate each candidate, including reading up on their careers and listening to their music, before I made a decision on them. Then this year I started running out of time, which isn't uncommon for these essays, and was forced to send in my ballot for I had reached a final verdict on Pat Benatar.

I wanted to vote for her for two primary reasons: She was a huge star from an era when the Hall of Fame hasn't inducted a lot of people, and she was a female star and the Hall hasn't inducted enough of those either. As I dug into my research, though, I wondered if she was really worthy. On the bright side, 15 pop hits is a lot for someone more closely identified as a rock artist, and nine years is a long time to last on a rapidly changing music scene. 

On the other hand, the music's not that great. One reason that artists rely on outside writers is to have top-quality material, and hardly any of Pat's songs have much substance to them; it's the voice and the guitar that make them work. Going through that body of work, there isn't a single hit that lingers in the culture the way "Africa" or even "Lovin Touchin Squeezin" does.

In the end, I voted YES for Pat Benatar. I don't really regret that vote, but it is, at this stage of the game, with less enthusiasm than I would have liked.  

Monday, April 18, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame '22: Carly Simon

The first issue of Rolling Stone I ever bought was dated December 10, 1981, and featured Carly Simon on the cover. I'm trying not to let that influence my vote.

THE SONG: “You’re So Vain” may not be the greatest pop single ever, but you’d be hard-pressed to definitively claim that anything was better. For one thing, the whole meta concept of having Mick Jagger – anonymously – contribute backing vocals to a song celebrating vanity never fails to slay me. It was also a fluke: There was already a male singer harmonizing with Carly Simon on the choruses as she recorded "You're So Vain" that night in London in 1972, before Jagger dropped by the studio. But once Jagger started singing too, Harry Nilsson realized he was a third wheel and gracefully bowed out.

In addition, the greatest single employment of a word in an American pop song may well be the word "apricot": "Your hat strategically dipped below one eye/Your scarf it was apricot." Never has a single world so quickly defined its subject; the song could have ended right there, and we'd have gotten the point. "Apricot" is as pungent and distinctive a word as "gavotte," with which it is rhymed, but apricot has the virtue of being immediately understandable, whereas most people probably still don't know what "gavotte" means, and think they are mishearing that lyric.

It's not just that Carly is singing about a man who would wear a scarf that is the color apricot --which is some kind of mixture of salmon and orange, I guess, although I haven't seen the inside of a lot of apricots lately -- but that the gentleman in question would describe said scarf as being apricot. If I had a scarf that was apricot, and someone asked me what color it was, I'd probably say, "I dunno, something halfway between salmon and orange." This scarf was certainly bought from some ultra-chic boutique on Madison Avenue, and cost upwards of three figures, no doubt. 

THE CASE FOR: Is writing and recording "You're So Vain" enough to qualify you for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe, maybe not. Carly has a track record beyond that, though, with 12 other Top Ten hits and a serious resurrection in the 1980s with her soundtrack work for Heartburn and Working Girl, which won her a Best Song Oscar for "Let the River Run." To my ears, "Nobody Does It Better" is also the best James Bond theme - I love the way she works the movie title in there. Gotta keep pushing that product! 

Carly has been a huge influence on so many young female singer-songwriters - Janet Jackson, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tori Amos, Olivia Rodrigo. "I was a poetry-obsessed preteen the first time I heard that incredibly genius kiss-off, ‘You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you,’" Taylor Swift said. "After hearing that, it was like a key had just unlocked this forbidden area of storytelling for me. You can say exactly what you feel, even if it’s bitter and brazen!”

THE CASE AGAINST: Simon has faced a surprising amount of critical nastiness in her career, most notably from Robert Christgau, who grudgingly allows that "You're So Vain" is "so wondrously good-bad" and a "schlock masterpiece." Thanks, Bob! She has had trouble hitting notes almost from the beginning of her career, and her Sarah Lawrence-dropout lyrics can be a little precious. 

Plus, it's always bugged me that when Simon agreed to appear on Saturday Night Live, she would do so only in a prerecorded segment that looked a lot to me like a standard music video. But I guess I should stop holding that grudge. It isn't healthy.

THE VERDICT: I started this essay leaning toward a yes vote, but the more research I did (yes, I research these things), the more it became obvious that Carly Simon belongs.  Half the acts in the Hall don't have a song as good as "You're So Vain,"  and that's not her only credential. Plus, she doesn't have one of the common strikes that are held against women artists, since she wrote most of these songs. Carly Simon is an obvious YES for the Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Vote '22: Lionel Richie

It's hard to believe that the first Top Forty hit that bathetic balladeer Lionel Richie ever appeared on was an instrumental, 1974's "Machine Gun" by the Commodores. Y'all know what his voice sounds like by now, right?

THE SONG: "It was plain to see/That a small town boy like me/Just wasn't your cup of tea/I was/Wishful thinking." I love how Lionel, who grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, learns hard on his country-boy diction in that last word, making it "thanking." "Sail On" is of course a Commodores song rather than a Lionel Richie song, which will become significant later on. 

THE CASE FOR: Lionel Richie was inescapable in the early 1980s: Every last single he released between 1981 and 1987 made the Billboard Top Ten, and he placed nine hits in the Top Five. (The string was broken when he released a single with the country-pop group Alabama, which still made the Top Ten on the country charts.)

This was after he had spent the back half of the 1970s putting out a series of tasty records with the Commodores that ranged from danceable funk to quiet storm. The fulcrum between the two halves of his career was his first "solo" single, the duet of "Endless Love" with Diana Ross, which stayed at Number One for nine weeks in the second half of 1981, surpassing the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie" to become the biggest duet of the rock era. Lionel wrote and produced that one.

THE CASE AGAINST: The Commodores had several songwriters in the group; at first, Lionel Richie was just the one who was responsible for a couple of ballads per album. Eventually, those ballads came to define the band, with "Three Times a Lady" and "Still" both reaching Number One, and eventually pushing Richie into a solo career. There was a snap and a rhythm - not to mention a lyrical detail - to even easy-listening songs like "Easy" and "Sail On," records that were unmistakably recorded by a band. "Easy" even had a honest-to-God guitar solo.

After "Endless Love" blew up, and Richie went out on his own, he left the band behind and began making records that floated on a bed of pillowy strings, with lyrics that were almost self-consciously banal: "You are the sun/You are the rain/That makes my life this foolish game/You need to know/I love you so/And I'll do it all again and again."  No more would anyone wonder what exactly it meant to be easy like a Sunday morning.

I mean, just look at these song titles: "Truly," "You Are," "My Love," "All Night Long," "Hello," "Stuck on You." It takes a real sense of purpose to be that generic. 

In general, I think we are intended to include the work of his signature band when we consider the nomination of a solo artist like Richie. But the Commodores, with hits like "Brick House" and "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" and other songs that he didn't write, had an identity apart from Lionel Richie's work. It wasn't until his very last single with the Commodores, "Oh No," that his work got as anonymous and as easily digestible as his entire solo career would prove to be. That's why I am disinclined to give him full credit for the Commodores material on this ballot.  The Commodores made Lionel Richie so much better than he was as a solo artist. 

THE VERDICT: Lionel Richie's solo work reminds me of Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Everything that might possibly offend anyone has been carefully scrubbed away, so that there isn't the slightest reason for anyone to object to it. But there isn't the slightest reason for anyone to remember it, either. I vote NO for Lionel Richie. I always liked In the Heat of the Night better anyway.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Vote '22: Dionne Warwick


I voted for Dionne Warwick last year, and since she hasn't bet on baseball or slapped Chris Rock in the interim, one would have to assume I'd vote for her again. But I like to be systematic about these things, so let's take a closer look. 

THE SONG: "Alfie" is pretty much a miracle, a pure pop song with no chorus or refrain and Burt Bacharach as usual refusing to pay the slightest attention to his tonics, but perfect nonetheless. Hal David wrote the lyrics before the music,  which was unusual for the Bacharach/David team, and forced Bacharach to come up with a tune that makes this unorthodox structure sound radio-friendly, which he did.  And then Dionne Warwick sang it as if the lyrics and the melody were the most normal but meaningful thing in the world.

THE CASE FOR: Dionne Warwick's run of hits through the Sixties remain some of the crown jewels of pop music: "Don't Make Me Over," "Walk On By," "Alfie," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," etc., etc. Sophisticated gemstones that Dionne delivered with taste and grace, these Bacharach/David songs have never grown old, nor will they. “She had a specialness in her voice, that she could sing very softly, intimately, and then could explode," said Bacharach. "But always with a certain bit of restraint so it never overwhelmed you.”

After moving on from Bacharach/David, Dionne had her first Number One hit in 1975's "Then Came You," a collaboration with the Spinners. Her second Number One came in 1984 with the all-star "That's What Friends Are For,"  the rare charity-oriented single that you don't get tired of hearing after the charitable impulses have faded.

“What she did just pierced me to the core. To the DNA,” Luther Vandross once said about  “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” “I decided right then and there that that is what I wanted to do. That is what I wanted to do with my life.” It's no surprise that people like Vandross and Philip Bailey would claim Warwick as a critical influence - but even Carlos Santana said his guitar style developed from trying to imitate Warwick's voice.

THE CASE AGAINST: It's possible that  Dionne was the least important of the triumvirate that produced all those great Sixties hits, even though her name was on the records. After all, Herb Alpert, who can't sing, had a Number One hit with a Bacharach/David tune from this incredibly prolific period. But it's also true that Bacharach never had any sort of comparable success with other singers after the split with Dionne.

Her later life got kind of messy, what with the Psychic Friends Network and appearing on "The Celebrity Apprentice" and "The Masked Singer." But we don't hold that kind of stuff against her. You can't play your way out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

THE VERDICT: She had 18 Top 20 hits, many of them stone-cold classics that people are still listening to. That ought to be enough. Also, consider this: not only is Dionne still around at age 81, but Burt Bacharach is also still with us at age 93. (We lost Hal David back in 2012 at the ripe old age of 91.) Let's honor these titans while they can enjoy it. I vote YES on Dionne Warwick.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Vote '22: Beck

Joining the ballot for the first time this year is Beck, the son of a Warhol superstar. Like all of the original Replacements, Beck does not have a high school diploma. Hey, do you know which of Beck's album won a Grammy for Album of the Year? I'll tell you later.

THE SONG: I think Beck's secret weapon has always been his sincerity. He does all this ridiculous stuff in his po-faced manner, but he really believes, for example, that guys with big belt buckles ought to be line-dancing to "Where It's At," as this video shows. I can't find the quote now, but someone asked him if he was being serious with his outrageous love-man album Midnite Vultures, and Beck complained that nobody ever asked R. Kelly if he was being serious. Anyway, in addition to the line-dancing, "Where It's At" has a sweet tribute to the William Shatner cover of "Rocket Man."

THE CASE FOR: Beck was living in a tool shed when he burst on the scene in 1993 with the remarkable "Loser," a mix of hip-hop and slide guitar that somehow came out sounding like a modern-day Bob Dylan song. Nothing has ever come across more like a one-hit wonder than "Loser," but Beck followed that up in 1997 with Odelay, a multi-platinum smash and critical fave that still sounds more like the Nineties than anything this side of Spacehog's "In the Meantime."

After that, like David Bowie or Joe Jackson, Beck continued reinventing his sound with each album - sex-drenched R&B with Midnite Vultures, introspective folk on Sea Change, radio-friendly pop on Guero. The sales were variable, but the accolades were consistent; Beck in the 2000s became one of Grammy's favorite artists. Six of his albums have gotten nods for Best Alternative Music Album (Mutations and Odelay were both nominated as Best Alternative Music Performance, which may or may not be the same thing). His album Morning Phase won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2014, and I couldn't tell you a single thing about Morning Phase

THE CASE AGAINST: For all that acclaim, Beck has had a marginal at best influence in the culture. He hasn't had a Top Forty hit since "Loser," and hasn't even cracked the Hot 100 since "Girl" peaked at No. 100 in 2005. Sea Change was hailed as the new Blood on the Tracks, but hardly anyone actually listened to it. 

Simply put, his career feels a little thin since Odelay. A lot of original and fun work that doesn't necessarily leave a mark, except with Grammy voters. Are there a lot of artists who claim to be influenced by Beck? I could be wrong but I'm not aware of any. 

Plus, I have it on good authority that Beck rarely showers.

THE VERDICT: Beck is to the 1990s roughly what Warren Zevon was to the 1970s, and Zevon hasn't even made it to the ballot yet. I'd probably vote for Zevon if the ballot was right, but for now, I'm voting NO for Back.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame '22: Devo


The bad boys from Akron are not only back on this year's ballot, they're still out there flailing around, with three original members, which is more than you'll get from, say, .38 Special. If you're in New York on May 18, go see them at Pier 17. That concludes this blog's breaking news for this year.

THE SONG: Devo initially catapulted to whatever level of fame it reached with the release of its 1977 deconstruction of "Satisfaction," which the band later performed on Saturday Night Live. Rendering an overly familiar hit in Devo's signature spasticity really laid bare what the band was all about, and was also a lot of fun. Plus, it was a lot easier to imagine that these mopes can't get no satisfaction, as opposed to Mick Jagger. 

THE CASE FOR: Say what you want about Devo, but there was nobody else like them. Given what was about to follow them, it seem remarkable that, at least at first, they were doing all of this with guitars, without a synthesizer or any other kind of keyboard in sight. (The keytars would arrive soon enough, alas.) Most of the artists that followed in Devo's footsteps were far more reliant on keyboards, like the Cars and the B-52s and Gary Numan. 

But I've always been fascinated by Devo's relationship to Neil Young. Even before they recorded an album, Young asked them to appear in his 1977 movie Human Highway as "nuclear garbagepersons." Neil recorded a bangin' version of "Hey Hey My My" with Devo as his backing band. For ten minutes! If you're a big fan of "Sample and Hold," you have Devo to thank. Unfortunately, the film didn't see the light of day until 1983, by which time Devo had not only ceased to be from the future, the bulk of their significance was already in the past. 

They had also had their lone Top Forty hit, "Whip It," by that point. A mainstay of early MTV, the video featured Devo mastermind Mark Mothersbaugh whipping the clothes off some kind of cowgirl. The idea for this came from a 1962 article in a magazine called The Dude, about a former rodeo performer who had taught himself to do just that to his poor, poor wife.  "That's the kind of stuff that fed us creatively," Mothersbaugh said. "It was just so stupid and so low, and yet so great."

THE CASE AGAINST: That sounds like a Hall of Fame resume, doesn't it? Groundbreaking music that influences several of the hot bands of the day plus a reinvigorated longtime legend, as well as a hit song that has never really gone away. My problem with Devo is that the bulk of their catalog just doesn't excite me very much. For one thing, their lack of a decent vocalist really hurts them on anything that ventures beyond the realm of the novelty hit. 

But more than that, their originals never sound as good as their covers, which is surprising since Mothersbaugh went onto a successful career as a film composer. They really should have kept doing the covers. Don't you want to hear Devo do "You Really Got Me"? "Horse With No Name"? "I've Never Been to Me"? 

THE VERDICT: I certainly wouldn't mind a Hall of Fame that had Devo in it. They were an important band, and a fun band, and those are two really great things to be. I have seriously considered voting for them in the past. But it's a fairly crowded ballot this year, and they only let us vote for five nominees. With a little bit of regret, I vote NO for Devo.