Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Cheap Trick: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part XV

Today, in the final entry in this series, we deal with the case of Cheap Trick. I am sure I don't need to tell you guys about Cheap Trick - the magnetism of Robin Zander, the charisma of Rick Nielsen, and how about the tunes? "I want you to want me!" "The dream police, da da da da da da da!" "Your mama's all right, your daddy's all right, they just seem a little bit weird..."

Cheap Trick was the only one of these artists whose poster I had on my wall when I was a teenager, so I approach them with a little bit of bias. Cheap Trick basically invented power pop, which has probably been my favorite genre of music over the years. Without Cheap Trick, you don't get Weezer, do you? Do you get Husker Du or Fountains of Wayne without Cheap Trick? Do you get the Shoes? Well, we could probably live without the Shoes.

Everybody loves Cheap Trick. John Lennon asked Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos to work on Double Fantasy (although it was never used, and when they showed up at the studio, Yoko had no idea who they were). Musicians from Joey Ramone to Kurt Cobain professed their admiration for the boys from Rockford. And Apu as well:

I should probably look and see how they did on the charts, but really, I don't care. I'm entitled to one vote out of pure fandom. I love Cheap Trick, and I'm voting YES for them.

This concludes my series on my Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot. The most enjoyable part of this for me has been listening to the music of all these great artists while I was making my case for them. As they say in the Miss America pageant, they're all winners, and I wouldn't mind seeing nearly all of them in the Hall of Fame, although I still have trouble understanding the argument for Deep Purple. Thanks for reading. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Cars: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part XIV

The best evidence that the Cars were ahead of their time can be found on the back cover of the band's debut album. That album heralded the arrival of new wave as a force in pop music, yet keyboardist Greg Hawkes still has long stringy hair parted in the middle and a gross little mustache, as if he's in Yes or Heatwave. Hawkes had not only failed to realize that the new wave revolution had come; he had failed to realize that he was supposed to lead it.

If you weren't a teenager back then, it's hard to overstate how fresh and exciting those Cars songs sounded. In a rock world that had grown flaccid and undisciplined, they were taut and gleaming. I'm sure there were other bands that were playing music like that - where I was, in Louisiana, the Talking Heads didn't arrive till about 1983 - but the Cars brought them to the masses.

Looking back now, I'm surprised at how little chart success the Cars had back then. They didn't reach the pop Top Ten until 1981's "Shake It Up," off their fourth album. But those songs were all over AOR radio - "Just What I Needed," "Let's Go," "You're All I've Got Tonight." Somehow, it seemed like everyone knew every song on The Cars and Candy-O;  as guitarist Elliot Easton said, "We used to joke that the first album should have been called The Cars' Greatest Hits."

Meanwhile, they just got more popular, if anything, adapting well to the demands of the MTV culture and moving more forcefully into the Top Ten with "You Might Think," "Drive," and "Tonight She Comes." But after 1984's Heartbeat City (well, actually after 1985's Greatest Hits), they put out one more album, 1987's dud Door to Door, and it was over. The Cars had released just five meaningful albums

And those songs have never really gone away, which is in a way part of the problem. They eventually revealed themselves to be slick enough to be in heavy rotation in big-box-retailers' commercials. I'm not altogether certain how well they've held up. And their career was pretty short.

I could definitely see a vote for the Cars; at times, as I've been ruminating over my ballot, they've been a yes vote for me. This is their first year as a nominee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and if they're still on the ballot next year, I'll probably vote for them. But for the moment, I vote NO for the Cars.

I've been putting videos at the end of these things because I figure if you're like me, after reading about all these great artists, you're in the mood to listen to some of their stuff. My plan was to put the classic MTV video of my favorite Cars song, "Since You're Gone," down here, until I discovered that the Cars did that song on ABC's early-Eighties SNL knockoff Fridays. I don't know how funny it was, but Fridays had much better music than SNL at that point. This is from an episode hosted by Valerie Harper, and who doesn't love Valerie Harper - but for this song, they're introduced by none other than Larry David. Enjoy.


Chic: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part XIII

As I mentioned in the essay for Nine Inch Nails, we are given very little direction in how or why we should cast our ballots for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We're not asked to weigh cultural impact against chart success or anything like that, and neither are we asked to which parts of an artists' contributions we are to consider. If we were voting on, say, Johnny Rivers, should we account for the fact that he started his own label and discovered the Fifth Dimension? I honestly don't know, and can see both sides of that argument. If you're wondering whether to vote for the Drifters, do you include in your consideration Clyde McPhatter's solo career? Do the contributions made by Foxboro Hot Tubs add to the dossier of Green Day?

These questions weighed heavily on my mind when I was considering the candidacy of Chic. Chic had a fairly short but hugely successful career: Between December 1977 and July 1979, they had four Top Ten hits, including the Number Ones "Le Freak" and "Good Times." Along with the work of the Bee Gees, those were the preeminent disco hits of the era, with tougher and more memorable instrumentation on the Chic hits.

This hits dried up after that, and Chic broke up (albeit temporarily) after 1983's album Believer. But at the same time, under the name the Chic Organization, the key members of the band wrote and produced some of the most prominent dance hits of the late 1970s, including "We Are Family" for Sister Sledge and "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" for Diana Ross. Those credits, I believe, definitely should be part of Chic's claim on the Hall of Fame.

Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers went on to be one of the most important producers of the 1980s: David Bowie's Let's Dance, Madonna's Like a Virgin, the B-52's Cosmic Thing, Duran Duran's Notorious. The group's bassist Bernard Edwards, produced Robert Palmer's Riptide and The Power Station, and ABC's Alphabet City, which spawned the hit "When Smokey Sings."

Does Chic deserve credit for that work? I don't honestly know, but I can't quite get it out of my mind when I'm evaluating their candidacy. If nothing else, it represents how important Chic's influence was on the pop music of that entire generation. For another thing, I think that Chic would have carried on longer if Rodgers and Edwards hadn't been so busy producing other people's records. (Their own last few albums might have had more hits, too, if they had been more focused on them.)

In addition to their production work, Edwards' bassline for "Good Times" may be the most influential ever, leading directly to both Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight."  As it was, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the heart of Chic, basically owned dance-pop music for a decade.  Much of that was because of their own records as Chic, much of it was because of their production work as the Chic Organization, and much of it was their individual solo work.

I see a continuum there that I think the Hall of Fame is getting at as well; their bio in the Hall of Fame voting guide mentions their "careers as top-flight producers for A-list megastars." (The bio doesn't mention this, but Edwards and Rodgers met while they were touring with a Sesame Street stage show, which I find adorable.) The work done by Chic as Chic puts them into the conversation, and the remainder of their resume puts them over the top. I vote YES for Chic.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Los Lobos: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part XII

Los Lobos is one of the greatest stories in the history of American popular music. They started out as a freaking wedding band, playing for their friends and clients in East L.A., building a following that led them to record an EP in 1983, ...And a Time to Dance. The sales of that EP led them to buy a van, which enabled them to start touring beyond Southern California for the first time in their career. I think it was drummer Louie Perez who, reflecting on this time of playing small halls and ballrooms around the country, later got off one of the all-time great quotes (in a magazine I have since lost, so I apologize if I have it slightly wrong): "We discovered America through the service entrance."

They were grown-ass men by this time, around 30 years old and with families, before they could really even make a living with Los Lobos. Eventually, their norteno roots-rock intersected with a popular biopic of Ritchie Valens, and they topped the charts with "La Bamba." They shrugged it off with characteristic modesty, saying they were just glad they could get Ritchie Valens a Number One hit.

"La Bamba" was also pretty much the end of Los Lobos' commercial success (after the soundtrack hits, they literally never had another single on the Hot 100), because they were more interested in doing what they wanted than in expanding their audience. They made experimental stuff, relasing new albums sporadically, to the point that they got dropped by Warner Brothers in 1996.

The weird thing about Los Lobos is that they sparked a revolution that never happened. The songs from the La Bamba soundtrack and especially the ones from 1984's How Will the Wolf Survive were full-on Chicano rock, an unmistakable blend of Mexican-American influences and classic Chuck Berry-derived rock & roll. How Will the Wolf Survive? was named to Number 30 on Rolling Stone's top albums of the 1980s, and No. 461 on that august magazine's list of the Top 500 albums of all time. In other words, it's real good.

With that album, Los Lobos managed to sound both original and comfortable at the same time, and seemed to herald a new genre that never quite arrived. Who followed Los Lobos - Cypress Hill? Los Lonely Boys? Alien Ant Farm? I'm sure I'm missing something here, and feel free to help me out in the comments, but I can't see where the Los Lobos influence ended up.

I would be totally fine with having Los Lobos in the Hall of Fame, and strongly considered voting for them. I like pretty much everything about Los Lobos - their attitude, their career path, their modesty, and most of all their music. But given their lack of hits, and the fact that I have a hard time seeing their footprints, for now I am going to vote NO for Los Lobos.

Friday, December 11, 2015

N.W.A: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part XI

When I began thinking about the five names I would tick on my Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot, I wrote off N.W.A pretty quickly. There were two primary reasons for this: First of all, I am not much of a fan of N.W.A and hardly ever listen to this kind of music. It's not that I hate it; I just don't have much interest in it.

The second reason was that N.W.A had a very short career. They were a supernova that were briefly a major cause celebre; then their most important member left, the remaining group released an EP and second album that didn't live up to the first, then they blew apart in several different directions. The original group with Ice Cube released a single album, while N.W.A in all its guises released two and a half.

Which Hall of Fame member released the least amount of product in his or her career? It's gotta be Ritchie Valens, who put out two studio albums and one live album, none of them released during his lifetime. N.W.A would arguably beat that record, without the excuse of having died at age 17.

But I have been convinced that N.W.A's place in history is worthy of induction. They weren't exactly the first gangsta rappers - Ice-T's Rhyme Pays came out a year before Straight Outta Compton - but they were far and away the most popular and enduring. Compton went triple platinum with virtually no airplay. They also virtually invented West Coast rap; aside from Ice-T, until N.W.A, hip-hop was predominantly a New York phenomenon.

And after N.W.A? They paved the way for Tupac, for Eminem, for Too $hort, for Snoop Dogg, for 50 Cent, for Kendrick Lamar, who just released what the president of the United States called his favorite song of the year. The President of the United States.

That's not to mention the legacy of the members themselves. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were two of the most important hip-hop figures of the 1990s, and Eazy-E and MC Ren both had solo platinum releases. They would be the Beatles of hip-hop, if the Beatles had broken up after A Hard Day's Night. The only rap group that measures up with N.W.A in influence would be Run-DMC, and they're already in.

Look at it this way: How many musical groups get a biopic made about them? It's not uncommon for solo artist to get their own movie, like the aforementioned Ritchie Valens, but I can't think of any other groups that have done so except for the Beatles, and those were primarily squirrely European art films. (Plus, major props to Ice Cube for having Ice Cube Jr. portray him in the movie, which is awesome.)

I'm also pretty sure they invented that whole "Straight Outta" trope. Was that phrase used anywhere prior to Straight Outta Compton? Not that I can find, but I'm not exactly a lexicographer. Not a professional one, anyway.

So in the end, I've decided that their cultural influence and impact on the world of music for the past two decades is impossible to ignore. I vote YES for N.W.A.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Yes: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part X

When I was 15, I listened to a lot of Yes. I mean a lot of Yes - I swear to God, I even had a copy of Tormato, although it didn't spend very much time on my turntable. But I did a lot of unwise and not particularly noble things when I was 15, and I can't make my decision now based on how I felt back then.

Having said that, there's an awful lot of Hall of Fame-type things you can say about Yes. They had a long and productive career, with Fragile placing in the Top Five on the album charts in 1971, and "Rhythm of Love" landing as their last Top Forty hit in 1987. They didn't really invent prog rock, but for a while there, they were certainly the most popular prog group, them or ELP, and served as somewhat of a trailblazer in that regard. They could churn out multi-part ten-minute suites as well as the Number One pop hit "Owner of a Lonely Heart." That Chris Squire sure could play some bass.

Like Deep Purple, Yes went through a lot of personnel, but the core was pretty solid: Squire, singer-composer Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe. With his omnipresent cape, Rick Wakeman was self-parodic on keyboards, and before joining Yes, he was a much in-demand session musician, playing piano on both David Bowie's "Changes" and Cat Stevens'  "Morning Has Broken." But I never thought he was all that critical to the Yes sound; I couldn't tell you which albums he played on as opposed to Tony Kaye, or whatever other keysmen they roped in.

One cool thing that Yes did was after the release of Relayer in 1974, they took some time off so each member could record a solo album. You can bet that Kiss was watching that move. Plus, they were one of the first bands to be more recognizable by their logo than by their faces, as I was discussing in the Steve Miller entry the other day. I'm not crazy about that strategy, but I have to give them some credit for being influential like that.

My concern about Yes is a rather quaint one: The music isn't all that good. A year or so ago I dumped The Yes Album onto my iPod, and it just hasn't held up that well. Whenever "I've Seen All Good People" comes up, it is distinguished by the flatness of its composition compared to the other songs I'm generally listening to. (It doesn't help that these days, I'm generally listening to Cole Porter songs, sort of the mathematical inverse of Yessongs.) The musicians are virtuosic and the arrangements fascinating, but the tunes themselves don't really work. Well, "Roundabout" is pretty good, but maybe they should have done more covers, like they did on their first couple of albums.

I can definitely see a Yes vote here, and it wouldn't bother me at all if they were in the Hall of Fame. But personally, I'm just not feeling it; I feel like my support can be put to better use elsewhere. I vote NO on Yes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Spinners: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part IX

The Spinners, best known for their string of smooth R&B hits throughout the early 1970s, were actually a Motown act for the entire decade of the 1960s. The group dates back to 1954, when Henry Fambrough and four other dudes began singing together just outside Detroit; Fambrough, incredibly enough, is still with the touring Spinners today. He's 77, and has been a Spinner for more than 50 years.

The Spinners reached the Top Forty just twice in the 1960s: with "That's What Girls Are Made Of" in 1961, and "I'll Always Love You" in 1966. They had a bit of a breakthrough in 1970, when the Stevie Wonder-written and -produced "It's a Shame" became their first Top Twenty hit (funny how Stevie keeps coming up in these essays).

Three things changed for the Spinners in 1972:  Obviously not a priority for Motown, they jumped to Atlantic at the recommendation of Aretha Franklin. At Atlantic, they were paired with the producer Thom Bell. And Philippe Wynne joined the group, becoming the de facto lead singer.

For the next five years, the Spinners were the most successful R&B vocal group in the nation, both in terms of hits and in terms of cultural impact. Ironically, for a former Motown group that had its roots in Detroit, they helped define the Philly Soul sound, and they had five Top Ten hits, including the Number One smash "Then Came You," with Dionne Warwick.

Wynne left the group in 1977 for a solo career (to be managed by Alan Thicke!), and with the Philly sound fading in popularity, that was pretty much it for the Spinners. They did manage a couple of Top Five hits in 1980 with medleys of older R&B songs, and they have continued as a touring act to this very day. But for all intents and purposes, the Spinners' Hall of Fame case rests on that 1972-76 peak.

It was an impressive stretch, but not really Hall-worthy, in my opinion. For one thing, the Spinners weren't all that involved in creating their own records: They didn't write or produce at all, at least not any of their hits. When that's the case, you need more of a catalog than what the Spinners had. With all due respect to Henry Fambrough, I vote NO for the Spinners. I was always more of a Stylistics man, anyway.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Janet Jackson: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part VIII

There really isn't any coherent argument for keeping Janet Jackson out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Every single marker is positive. She had a staggering number of hits, songs that defined an era of pop R&B, was an icon to millions of fans with her own distinctive style, and was a lasting influence on a generation of singers. Beyonce adores Janet Jackson and has called her "one of my biggest inspirations," and Beyonce, as you probably know, currently rules the world.

Probably the most impressive thing about Janet Jackson's career is the sheer bulk of it. Billboard rates her the seventh biggest pop star of the Hot 100 era, ahead of even her brother. (Michael, that is, not Jermaine, although she's ahead of Jermaine, too.) She's had ten Number One hits; only eight other artists have had more. She's had 27 Top Ten hits; only five other artists have had more (Madonna, Elvis, the Beatles, Michael and Stevie, all of them not just Hall of Famers but obvious Hall of Famers). Rhythm Nation 1814 is the only album in history with seven Top Five hits.

But what I admire the most about Janet Jackson is the way she has survived in the public eye for four decades, while her brother went crazy and Justin Timberlake exposed her nipple and she had to play a poet named Justice in a movie called Poetic Justice, and has continued to not just do whatever she wants but stay defiantly sane as well. Although she mostly avoided the hellscape that was the family singing group, she appeared on The Jacksons variety TV show at the age of 10, then became a full-fledged star at the age of 11 when she became a regular on Good Times, playing the abused child (!) Penny. She has said she made Control at the age of 19 outside of the family auspices just to get away from her father.

She's been a superstar and an icon ever since, but has never seemed like anything other than a normal person. She even made Michael's twisted angst relatable in the video for "Scream." If you can humanize Michael Jackson, you're really something special.

You do occasionally hear the argument that Janet was a product of her producers, that the brilliant team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were responsible for making her a star, starting with her 1986 breakthrough album Control. But Jackson herself took a producer's credit on that record, as well as a songwriting credit on all that album's Jam-Lewis songs. She got a solo writing credit on the Number One hit "Black Cat." The Jam-Lewis-Jackson team soldiered on through 2006's 20 Y.O., but Janet has always seemed the most important and irreplaceable part of that triumvirate.

Do I really have to convince you people? This is an obvious choice. I vote YES for Janet Jackson.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Deep Purple: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part VII

Do you know how many people have been members of Deep Purple? Fourteen. Some of those are guys who latched onto the band in its latter stages to fill out a touring lineup, but even in its heyday, Deep Purple had a continually revolving membership. By 1976, Deep Purple was already on what its fans to refer to its Mark IV lineup, with even founding guitarist Ritchie Blackmore having departed. Ian Gillan, the vocalist who sang "Smoke on the Water," was gone by 1973.

Indeed, Deep Purple had two recognizable hits: "Hush," from 1968, and "Smoke on the Water," from 1973, both of which peaked on the pop charts at Number Four. (Their other Top Forty hit, strangely enough, was a cover of Neil Diamond's "Kentucky Woman," which slithered up to Number 38 at the tail end of 1968.)  Those songs had just three of the five band members in common.

My intuitive sense is that a group with so many shifting members couldn't possibly be among the greatest of all time. Was it possible that Deep Purple was immortal with Rod Evans handling the lead vocals, and then again with Ian Gillan doing the honors? The Beatles, you know, had four guys ever. I bet you could name everyone who has ever been in the Rolling Stones. Sure, it's unfair of me to compare Deep Purple to the greatest bands in pop music, but no one has ever accused me of being fair in these little essays.

There have been many Temptations over the years, but they had a small core of lead singers along the way, and were heavily producer-driven anyway. Fleetwood Mac may make a better comp for Deep Purple, but everyone knows the Buckingham-Nicks-McVie-McVie-Fleetwood lineup is the reason they're in the Hall of Fame.

The strongest argument in Deep Purple's favor is that there are a lot of hard rock performers, especially guitarists, who have a tremendous amount of respect for them. Tom Morello wrote the article on Deep Purple in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination booklet, the only musician to do that for any of the nominees, and I place a lot of weight on that. (Morello calls them the third-best heavy metal band of the 1970s, which to me is like being the third-best wide receiver in the AFL [Art Powell, probably].)

Slash has been quoted as saying, "How can you not induct Deep Purple?" Lars Ulrich of Metallica told rollingstone.com, "I got two words to say: Deep Purple. That's all I have to say: Deep Purple. Seriously, people, Deep Purple." That's more than two words, but you don't mess with Lars.

Tom, Slash, Lars, you guys are all free to vote for Deep Purple, if you have a vote, and I'm all in favor of you having one. I'm sure the first riff you all ever played on the guitar was "Smoke on the Water" (yes, I know Lars is a drummer, but I'm sure he can play "Smoke on the Water" on the guitar). Writing an extremely recognizable and easily playable riff isn't quite enough for me, though. I vote NO for Deep Purple.

Nine Inch Nails: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part VI

There is very little instruction given to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame voters, other than to select five choices out of the 15 nominees. We're not told that we have to consider an artist's influence, or originality, or popularity, or endurance, or even artistic worthiness.

So we're left to make these decisions on our own critieria. Popularity is something that is important to me but not the be-all and end-all; Leonard Cohen never had a Top Forty hit, but he is in and obviously belongs. Artistic contributions are not even of paramount significance. The Supremes basically came in at the end of the Motown assembly line, and laying down their vocals was their only contribution to those records. But I don't think anyone begrudges them their enshrinement.

But one factor that is a deal breaker for me, at minimum, is that I have to enjoy listening to their music. I would never vote for an artist I wouldn't want to listen to, and I don't think that's an unreasonable standard.

Which brings us to the pioneering industrial band Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor and his crew created the music that set the backdrop for much of the Nineties with their innovative use of blah blah blah, but does anyone actually enjoy listening to this stuff? It's not just that it's unpleasant; its very purpose seems to be its unpleasantness. Reznor badly wants us all to know about his seething unresolved anger, although I was never quite sure what he was angry about. As my friend Rob Sheffield said about Live, never underestimate the ability of teenage boys to feel deeply about nothing at all.

And I'm not even sure how much of the NIN stuff was brand-new. I would appreciate it if someone who enjoys this music a lot more than I do would explain what NIN did that Ministry hadn't already done back in the 1980s. Plus, I have to deduct points from their score for foisting Marilyn Manson on the world - not cool, Trent.

I vote NO for Nine Inch Nails.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Steve Miller: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications & Excuses, Part V

To me, the most interesting thing about Steve Miller is the fact that I don’t know what he looks like. He was one of the biggest rock stars of the 1970s, with three Number One hits ("The Joker," "Rock'n Me" and "Abracadabra") and albums like Fly Like an Eagle and The Joker in constant rotation on your best friend’s older brother’s turntable. But to most of the public, he remained faceless. The most memorable vision most people had of Steve Miller was of his face in a cheap Halloween mask – if that was even Miller at all.

The stars of the Sixties had had no such compunction about showing themselves. Everyone knew what Mick Jagger and Diana Ross looked like, even if you weren’t such a big fan of their music. In those days, rock stars conceived of themselves as showmen, or in Bob Dylan’s case, as a song and dance man.

It was sometime around the time of Moby Grape that rockers decided it was really all about the music, man, and they didn’t want their faces plastered on album covers or The Joey Bishop Show or on teenage kids’ walls. By the time of Steely Dan, and Chicago (q.v.), and the Steve Miller Band, it was considered a sign of your seriousness that no one knew what you looked like.

The age of MTV and music videos killed that off pretty good, but I'm not sure why anyone thought this was a good thing in the first place. Rock stars are entertainers, after all. The persona they present is a big part of why we love these performers in the first place.

It's kind of fitting, though, for Steve Miller, who churned out the most generic imaginable MOR Seventies rock. I don't mean that to be entirely negative: His songwriting was solid and unpretentious, his band rocked without being flashy. If you heard a Steve Miller Band song on the radio, you were unlikely to change the station.

But is that really what we want to be honoring here? A journeyman's competence? Is there anything distinctive or influential enough in the entire Steve Miller oeuvre to warrant immortality? I vote NO for Steve Miller.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Smiths: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part IV

There’s a club and you'd like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
Then you go home, and you cry and you want to die

I think “How Soon Is Now?” plays the same role for the Smiths that “Alabama Getaway” plays for the Grateful Dead: It’s the favorite Smiths song for people who don’t really like the Smiths. Most Smiths songs feature the chiming, swirling guitar of Johnny Marr, as opposed to the wall of electric guitars, centered around a single chord, that he amasses here. It’s actually a single guitar played back through four different speakers with heavy vibrato, in addition to the searing slide part, but it sounds like an army. It’s not like anything else in the band’s catalog.

It's out of step lyrically with much of their catalog too. Morrissey’s lyrics for the band tend to be mordantly funny – “Please, please, please, let me get what I want/Lord knows, it would be the first time.” Ain’t nothing funny about “How Soon Is Now?,” which is just chilling, and all too recognizable. The words are more in keeping with Morrissey’s image as a whiny, self-pitying grandee, although, y’know, the guy is pretty funny in real life too.  Special thanks to friend of this blog Gavin Edwards for unearthing the following exchange:

Interviewer: Did you hear t.A.T.u's version of 'How Soon Is Now'?
Morrissey: Yes, it was magnificent. Absolutely. Again, I don't know much about them.
Interviewer: They're the teenage Russian lesbians.
Morrissey: Well, aren't we all?

“How Soon Is Now?” was originally the B-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing,” which puts it in the “Hey Jude”/”Revolution” class of double-sided singles.  The record company knew what it was doing, though, because when it was eventually released as its own A-side, it went just to No. 24 on the UK singles chart. Near as I can tell, the Smiths never even creased the Hot 100 here in the U.S. of A., although “How Soon Is Now?” did appear on the U.S. Dance Singles chart.  

In my opinion, “How Soon Is Now?” is the band’s crowning achievement, but the rest of their stuff is pretty fantastic as well, as different as most of it is. Marr was a singular guitarist with a hugely distinctive sound, and an incredible composer. As a frontman, Morrissey had personality to burn, and was simply one of the best lyricists of the day:

Sweetness, sweetness, I was only joking when I said
I’d like to smash every tooth in your head

You know what rock & roll doesn’t have enough of? Humor. Morrissey could be a self-important prig, but being funny makes everything go down easy.

If there’s one drawback to the Smiths’ candidacy, it’s that their career was short-lived.   "We got on absolutely famously,” Morrissey has said of first starting to work with Marr back in 1982. “We were very similar in drive." Their first single, “Hand in Glove,” came out in May 1983, and the band was incredibly productive for the next four years, issuing four studio albums, a  live album, two EPs, and if my counting is right,  five non-album singles, all with terrific songs on both sides.

By 1987, they were done with each other. (One biography of the group was rather overdramatically titled The Severed Alliance.) Marr cited, rather charmingly, Morrissey’s fascination with Cilla Black as the cause of their breakup – he insisted that a cover of her “Work Is a Four-Letter Word” be the B-side to “Girlfriend in a Coma.”  "That was the last straw, really,” Marr said. “I didn't form a group to perform Cilla Black songs." 

But in those four years, they released more quality music than most bands who last two or three times as long. There was no slack period or decline phase; all their work is worth hearing. Every other marker is positive: the Smiths’ music remains durable and innovative, distinctive and eclectic, influencing bands from Oasis to the Shins to Hootie and the Blowfish. It still sounds fresh and engaging, 30 years after it was recorded. I vote YES for the Smiths.

Nothing's changed 
I still love you, oh I still love you
Only slightly, only slightly less than I used to
My love

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Chaka Khan: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part III

On his 1986 single “Higher Love,” Steve Winwood enlisted Chaka Khan to repeat the song's chorus on an extended coda. Winwood was generally considered one of the best of the British white blues singers, but asking Chaka to follow him was a terrible idea: She cleaned his clock, making him sound reedy and shallow with her effortless power. I used to sit through that whole song just waiting for Chaka to blow that skinny white boy away. Nobody upstages Chaka Khan.

Chaka Khan was just 33 at that point, but she was a veteran of the R&B wars, having assumed the lead vocalist spot with Rufus in 1972 at the tender age of 18. Her first chart success with the band was the classic “Tell Me Something Good,” written and produced by Stevie Wonder, from 1973, and almost from that moment on, there was talk of Chaka going solo. The nomination under consideration today is for Chaka Khan alone, but clearly we are intended to include her body of work with Rufus (or Ask Rufus, as they were initially known, after the advice column in Mechanics Illustrated). Rufus was a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee in 2011, but never got the big envelope.

Khan held on with Rufus through nine albums and 13 Top Forty hits (there were also three non-Khan Rufus albums, all of which stiffed), culminating in the dazzling farewell single “Ain’t Nobody,” from 1983, which set the template for ‘80s dance records. She then immediately hit big with “I Feel for You,” written and produced by Prince, with a harmonica solo from her old benefactor Stevie Wonder and an introductory rap from Melle Mel. The personnel listing alone confirms Chaka Khan as R&B royalty.

It concerns me that declaring I will not vote for a certain nominee might be taken as some sort of indictment of them, but I have nothing bad to say about Chaka Khan. Just think about that name, one of the great names in rock & roll: distinctive but not jokey, heavily rhythmic, exotic without being entirely foreign. These things matter. It’s not even completely made up, since the former Yvette Stevens adopted it upon marrying her first husband, bassist Hassan Khan. She wrote, too, co-composing Rufus' "Sweet Thing," a Top Five hit in 1976. And she’s easy on the eyes.

But we only get to vote for five out of 15 nominees, which means some worthies will not pass muster. If there’s a weakness to Chaka Khan’s candidacy, it’s that her resume is a bit thin; although Rufus spent most of the 1970s lingering around the bottom of the pop charts, the band only had three Top Ten hits, and Chaka solo had just “I Feel for You.” For a singles artist, that’s not an impressive showing. Compare her dossier to that of Gladys Knight, who was inducted with the Pips in 1996; Gladys had nine Top Tens, and seven Top Fives to Chaka's two. (They both even had a late-career all-star single, with Gladys’ “That’s What Friends Are For” balanced out by Chaka’s “I'll Be Good to You,” from 1990, credited to Quincy Jones and featuring Ray Charles as well.) 

We have to draw the line somewhere, and I guess this one falls between Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan. It is with a twinge of regret that I vote NO for Chaka Khan. 


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The J.B.'s: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part II

After James Brown died on Christmas Day of 2006, Robert Christgau wrote a tribute discography for Rolling Stone that opened with the following sentence: “James Brown was the greatest musician of the rock era, no contest. “ That took me aback, because I never think of James Brown playing an instrument at all, at least not onstage, although he played a lot of organ on his studio recordings.

Reading on, I came to understand what Bob was saying (I get to call him Bob because I met him once at a party): James Brown’s instrument was the band. “A bandleader on the order of Ellington,” Bob elaborates, “a master arranger who used Pee Wee Ellis and Dave Matthews the way the Beatles used George Martin,” and he knows way more about this stuff than I do. That band, for the funkiest part of Brown’s career, was the J.B.’s, who are the artist under consideration here.

In addition to backing up James Brown from 1970, when the name the J.B.’s was coined, through the mid-1980s, the band also released albums under its own name, most notably 1973’s Doing It to Death, which featured a Number One R&B hit of the same name. Officially credited to Fred Wesley and the J.B.'s, it also went to Number 22 on the Hot 100, and would be the group's only non-Brown pop hit.

Frankly, I don’t quite know what to make of the J.B.’s, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of their work. Most notably, it’s hard to know how much of their achievement was due to their own capabilities and how much was due to their mentor, James Brown. For one thing, every song on Doing It to Death was written by Brown himself, who also contributed vocals to the record – was it even really a J.B.’s “solo” record, or a James Brown album under another name? I bet plenty of people back in 1973 assumed "Doing It to Death" was a James Brown single, and they wouldn't have bene entirely wrong.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame issues a little booklet with thumbnail bios of each of the nominees, and the one for the J.B.’s claims they later formed the backbone for Parliament/Funkadelic, which I think is, as Mattie said in True Grit, stretching the blanket. Some people, like Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker were in both groups, but they weren’t billed as the J.B.’s in P-Funk, and not all of the J.B.’s made the switch. They don’t get credit for that any more than the Faces get credit for Ronnie Wood playing pedal steel on “Far Away Eyes.”

So we’re left with a group of musicians – incredible musicians, to be sure – who became famous working for one of the greatest bandleaders ever, but have little on the resume beyond that. They weren’t even on some of the most recognizable James Brown singles, like “I Got You” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

James Brown, of course, was inducted back in 1986 as one of the charter members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as he rightfully should have been. Inducting the J.B.'s would be quite a bit like inducting George Martin, to return to Christgau's analogy.

These guys were fantastic, and their work isn't as widely known as it ought to be. It's hard to listen to "Pass the Peas" without wanting to get up and camel-walk for your own self. Meaning no disrespect to these gentlemen, though, I can’t really get behind the idea that they should be summoned for this honor alongside their leader. I have to vote NO for the J.B.’s.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Chicago: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications and Excuses, Part I

On November 3, 1979, basketball great Bill Russell hosted "Saturday Night Live" in the third entry of that show’s misbegotten fifth season, and the musical guest was introduced as Russell’s favorite band: Chicago. (The show did feature one of the best sketches from that season: Russell coaching a high school team of white kids in “The Black Shadow.”) No one could have anticipated it at that moment, but it turned out to be a very awkward time to be celebrating Chicago. 

After charting 22 Top Forty hits throughout the 1970s, ending with “No Tell Lover” the previous January, Chicago was about to disappear from the charts for more than three years. The first song they played that night in New York, a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” was a bizarre choice, having been a B-side for one of their first singles back in 1969. It didn’t even have the group’s signature horn charts; all those guys played little handheld percussion instruments instead.

The first phase of Chicago’s career was definitively over by then. They had released many pleasant if not quite Hall-worthy singles – “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” the charming “Old Days,” the majestic “Questions 67 and 68.” “If You Leave Me Now” went to Number One on October 23, 1976, giving the band its only chart-topper of the 1970s.

Post-Bill Russell, the band spent three years in the wilderness, before deciding that “If You Leave Me Now” should serve as the template for the rest of the group's career. They finally returned to the charts with another solidly Adult Contemporary single, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” which spent two weeks at Number One in September 1982. From that moment on, jazz-inflected, horn-saturated pop was out, and Peter Cetera-soaked big ballads were in.

Cetera left the band in July 1985, which somehow goaded them into becoming even goopier, culminating in the egregious “Look Away,” the band’s third and final Number One single in December 1988. It’s hard to overstate how bad this record is. Lobo think it’s unmanly. Michael Bolton thinks the vocals are overwrought. Peter Gabriel thinks it’s pretentious. Dave Matthews thinks it’s poorly composed.

Chicago’s string of hits petered out in 1991, leaving the band with a very impressive track record of 35 Top Forty singles and 20 Top Tens. That’s as many Top Ten hits as the Supremes, and more than the Beach Boys. And if they were all at the level of “Questions 67 and 68,” or even “Alive Again,” they’d be an easy choice for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But it’s my judgment that the second half of Chicago’s career is without merit, even though I kind of like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” I think I’m doing them a favor by pretending their career ended that night onstage with Bill Russell. And as nice as those early singles are to hear on the radio, they’re more on the level of the Steve Miller Band catalog or the Hall & Oates catalog than the Beach Boys’.

Baseball fans sometimes discuss whether it’s possible to play your way out of the Hall of Fame. If Albert Pujols hits .190 over the next three seasons, with 17 homers in total, does that detract from his case for Cooperstown? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know how you can play your way out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: record “Look Away.” With my deepest apologies to Kurt Blumenau, I’m going to have to vote NO on Chicago.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Long Distance Dedication: Bob Dylan and the Top Forty

Bob Dylan’s speech at the MusiCares benefit on Friday night has garnered a lot of attention for its attacks on legendary figures like Leiber & Stoller, Ahmet Ertegun and Merle Haggard, all of whom supposedly committed the sin of not liking Dylan’s songs. But I wanted to discuss his frontal assault on the somewhat hapless Tom T. Hall. Once considered a great country singer and songwriter, Hall's reputation has fallen on hard times, in part because of his lone pop hit, and that's what Dylan took aim at.

“Now some might say Tom is a great songwriter,” Dylan said. “I'm not going to doubt that. At the time he was doing this interview I was actually listening to a song of his on the radio.

“It was called ‘I Love.’ I was listening to it in a recording studio, and he was talking about all the things he loves, an everyman kind of song, trying to connect with people. Trying to make you think that he's just like you and you're just like him. We all love the same things, and we're all in this together. Tom loves little baby ducks, slow-moving trains and rain. He loves old pickup trucks and little country streams. Sleeping without dreams. Bourbon in a glass. Coffee in a cup. Tomatoes on the vine, and onions.

“Now listen, I'm not ever going to disparage another songwriter. I'm not going to do that. I'm not saying it's a bad song. I'm just saying it might be a little overcooked.”

Oh come on, Bob, you’re saying it’s a bad song. Man up.

The thing is, everyone thought it was a bad song, and a lot of people felt betrayed by it, because Hall was known as one of the most incisive storytellers in Nashville. Or I should say everyone thought it was a bad song except the American public, since “I Love” went to No. 12 in early 1974, becoming Tom T. Hall’s only Top Forty pop hit. After years of toiling in Nashville relatively anonymously, who can blame him for selling out and trying to garner a hit song? The 1983 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide noted, “Lately he’s seemed more interested in selling pickup trucks than in writing a good song.” No doubt, the pickup trucks pay a lot better. I sure hope Hall got some dough from the movie and TV series based on his song “Harper Valley PTA.”

In the MusiCares speech, Dylan unfavorably compared “I Love” to “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” by Kris Kristofferson, but hey, most songs are going to lose that comparison. Most Dylan songs are going to lose that comparison.

But at the same time, Dylan clearly knew “I Love” inside and out, to the point of recalling the rhythm of it, dropping that little “and onions” onto the last line. He clearly didn’t think much of the song, but he knew it. In February of 1974, Dylan was listening to treacly Top Forty country-pop crossovers. And remembering them forever. I wonder what he thought of "I Honestly Love You."

The Tom T. Hall episode reminded me of the song “Clothes Line Saga,” on The Basement Tapes, which Dylan and the Band recorded in 1967. The structure of the song – a youngster in a rural family overhears the adults matter-of-factly discussing a tragedy, in this case the vice president going mad (“When?” Last night.” “Where?” “Downtown.” “Hmm, that’s too bad.”) – is precisely the same as Bobbie Gentry’s wonderful “Ode to Billie Joe,” a Number One hit in the summer of 1967. Clinton Heylin discovered (at least that is where I first read about it, although someone else may have seen it first) among the trove of tapes stored somewhere up in Woodstock that “Clothes Line Saga” was originally titled “Answer to Ode.” Dylan’s song was an affectionate parody of what was happening on Top Forty radio that summer.

My point is that the man was engaged. Whether it was Bobbie Gentry or Tom T. Hall – or in our own century, Alicia Keys, upon whom Dylan drooled in “Thunder on the Mountain,” from 2006’s Modern Times – he knew what was happening in the world of popular song.

Dylan approached Sheryl Crow several years back, and ended up offering to help her whenever he could. She recorded Dylan's own “Mississippi” before it appeared on “Love and Theft,” and told Austin Scaggs of Rolling Stone, “The fact that Bob Dylan even knows who I am is shocking to me.” But Dylan has always known the Sheryl Crows of the world. And the Tom T. Halls of the world.

If I had a choice between Dylan knowing and disparaging my work, or Dylan having no idea who I was, I’d take the former in a heartbeat. And if Dylan remembered a forty-year-old pop hit of mine well enough to recite one of the verses in toto – well, isn’t that victory enough?