Friday, December 16, 2016

The Walking Dead: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part X

Back in 2003 I was privileged to work on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. As part of this project, we sent each of the voters a short of cheat sheet listing what we thought were the thousand or so likeliest LPs to show up on our list.

When the votes started coming in, there was one album that drew consistent support from the voters but had been overlooked when the august RS panel of experts (not including yours truly) compiled that list of all the canonical albums: the Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle. By the time all the ballots had been counted (by yours truly), Odessey & Oracle landed at Number 80 on our list, which makes it arguably the best under-the-radar album of all time.

In fact, the Zombies had split up before the album, their second one, was even released. Clive Davis originally chose not to release the record in America, but Al Kooper eventually persuaded him to release it on Date, a small CBS subsidiary label. It turned out to be a bit of a hit, featuring the Top Five single “Time of the Season.” But the Zombies were still kaput, and until a largely unnoticed reunion album in the 1990s, Odessey & Oracle was their swan song..

The Case For The Zombies were nominally a member of the British Invasion, but their sound was jazzier than any of the other bands in that group, featuring Rod Argent’s distinctive organ. Nobody else sounded like the Zombies. Their singles manage to be both fresh and emblematic of their time – “Tell Her No,” “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season” have never really gone away, and no one has ever wanted them to.

The Case Against The Zombies’ career was very short. They released a debut album, called Begin Here in the U.K. and The Zombies in the U.S., then Odessey & Oracle, and that was it. Rod Argent went on to form his own band, called Argent, that had hits of its own, but I wouldn’t count that in the Zombies’ favor.

The Cool Factor The Zombies’ first album featured covers of songs by both Muddy Waters and the Gershwins. The band appeared in Otto Preminger’s Hitchcockish 1965 thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing; they’re listed right there in the opening credits: “Keir Dullea… Carol Lynley…. Noel Coward… the Zombies.” It’s quite good, although to be honest, the Zombies don’t do a whole lot in it - they’re just playing a song on TV in one scene. But it’s still worth seeing. Otto Preminger’s movies usually are.

The Verdict The Zombies were literally my last cut before I sent in my ballot. Their sound is so much their own, and their songs still sound so good, that I felt like I wanted to reward them for that. Then I checked their discography. I figured they must have had some substance to their body of work outside the recognizable three singles, but those were the only Top Forty action. Surprisingly enough, in the U.K., “Tell Her No” was their only Top Forty hit. More in sorrow than in anger, I vote no for the Zombies. But still, go see Bunny Lake Is Missing.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Fun, Fun, Fun on the Autobahn: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part IX

The pioneering German electronic music group Kraftwerk has always been as much an art project as a band. In their native Dusseldorf back in the 1960s, when founding member 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.

So no one should have been surprised when the band was enshrined in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in April 2012. Kraftwerk played an eight-night stand it called the Catalogue, performing songs from one of its eight studio albums each night, 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.

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.”

The Case For Kraftwerk 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 Franz Ferdinand and LCD Soundsystem.

The Case Against They didn’t really have any hits in the U.S., aside from "Autobahn," which went to Number 25 on the Hot 100 back in 1975. You were likely to hear “Tour de France” at a fashion show, but never on the radio.

The Cool Factor Come on. They're Kraftwerk. Here's something you may not know: In "Autobahn," 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. Ralf Hutter says, though, that the Beach Boys were an influence on Kraftwerk, and I believe him.

The Verdict 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. They need to be in there. I vote ja on Kraftwerk.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Can't Forget the Motor City: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part VIII

The MC5 was featured in a very early article by Eric Ehrmann that helped put Rolling Stone
magazine on the map; when they 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 position was to serve the men, although the article did praise the “total destroy barbecue” they prepared for them.

At that point, the MC5 was one of the hottest acts in rock, even though their debut album, the live Kick Out the Jams, hadn’t been released yet. 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.” It reached a rather wan Number 30 on the album charts, with the title single going to Number 87.

The MC5 released their second album Back in the USA, produced by future Springsteen honcho Jon Landau, in 1972. It didn’t do as well as Kick Out the Jams. Their third album, High Time, from 1971, did even worse, and the band was shortly no more.

The Case For 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 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.

The Case Against When was the last time you heard an MC5 song? Their music hasn’t aged well, and their career was really short. All that White Panther Party rhetoric seems silly now.

The Cool Factor They covered Sun Ra on Kick Out the Jams. Guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith went on to marry Patti Smith.

The Verdict Given the choice between cultural significance and musical quality, I’ll go with musical quality every time. I just don’t see enough of it in the MC5’s case. I vote no for the MC5.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Some'll Win, Some Will Lose: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part VII

Journey was part of a family of rock bands who were big as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, along with Styx, Foreigner, and REO Speedwagon, who were variously called corporate rock or faceless rock or some other mildly pejorative name. They tended to be popular among suburban high school kids, ignored by the coastal critics,  unseen on their album covers (hence “faceless”) and victimized by especially poor bass playing.

Journey was clearly the best of these bands; guitarist Neal Schon and keysman Gregg Rolie were alumni of Santana and boasted some serious hops, and then they added the leather-lunged Steve Perry in time for their fourth album, Infinity, from 1978. Perry brought Journey a whole new level of success ,with “Lovin’ Touchin', Squeezin” becoming their first Top Forty hit in 1979. (Rolie was soon replaced by Jonathan Cain from the Babys, but I presume I'm the only Babys fan around here.)

From that point on, Journey was one of the most popular rock bands in the land, with 17 more top Forty hits, six of them reaching the Top Ten. And one of them was “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

I am old enough to remember when “Don’t Stop Believin’” first came out, and it was obvious from the beginning that this was a schlock classic. Among other things, it has a brilliant structure, building through verse after verse while not entering its chorus (and not using its title phrase) till the cathartic coda. Since its release on October 6, 1981, it has never disappeared, not even for an instant; according to Wikipedia, it is the most downloaded song from iTunes that was not recorded in the 21st century. The song has so overwhelmed the Journey catalog that I have heard a knowledgeable music fan (my son Jack) refer to the band as a one-hit wonder.

That’s unfair. “Don’t Stop” (I hate having to squeeze the apostrophe in before the close quote) was arguably not even Journey's biggest hit: It peaked at Number Nine, while “Separate Ways” went to Number Eight, “Who’s Crying Now” went to Number Four, and "Open Arms” spent six weeks at Number Two in early 1982. I wouldn’t even say it’s their best song, giving “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” (you’re doing it to me again, Journey) that honor. I can remember being at high school marching band practice and hearing that song roaring out of the rec center across the street, causing the senior tenor sax player standing next to me (who was so cool he smoked) to remark laconically, "Journey's kicking ass."

But if you have to be remembered for one thing and one thing only, “Don’t Stop Believin’” isn’t half bad.

The Case For It starts, obviously, with "Don't Stop Believin'," but Journey was the dominant MOR rock band in America from 1979 to 1986, if that kind of thing floats your boat. They had an awful lot of minor hits that still sound pretty good on the radio, like “The Party’s Over” and “Lights.”

The Case Against Let’s face it folks; Journey is a pretty schlocky band. They didn’t really transcend or transform MOR as much as they simply embodied it. They didn’t end up exerting much influence on the world of music, aside from the fact that we will never be rid of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

The Cool Factor I’m stumped here. Neal Schon's mustache?

The Verdict When I told people I was voting this year, the most common response was “Ooh, Journey is on the ballot! You have to vote for Journey!” And given the class that was inducted last year, I have no doubt that they’ll get in. This is, improbably, Journey’s first time on the ballot, but the landscape is obviously ripe for them. Looking over my ballot, there are acts I will have to leave off with a great deal of regrets, while I have just mild misgivings about omitting Journey. I vote no on Journey, but don't worry, folks - they're going in anyway.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pros and Khan: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part VI

When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, I happened to drive past Chaka Khan Way, angling off of 53rd Street.  I took this as a sign that I needed to reassess Chaka’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame. She was on the ballot last year, and I voted no for her, noting, “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.

She’s back this year, for what is really the third time, because Rufus was on the ballot in 2011. Chaka joined Rufus as a teenager, had just turned 20 when their first album came out, and was only 21 when they broke through with “Tell Me Something Good,” written by Stevie Wonder.  (She and Stevie later duetted on “1999” at the tribute to Prince [who also wrote a hit song for Chaka) in October of this year. )

Khan wrote Rufus’ “Sweet Thing” with guitairst Tony Maiden, taking it to the Top Five in 1975 – it was later covered by Mary J. Blige. After Rufus’ last big hit, “Ain’t Nobody,” Chaka hit solo with Prince’s “I Feel for You,” then on Quincy Jones' "I'll Be Good to You," in 1989. All in all, her hitmaking career spanned nearly 25 years, and all the hits are indelible, holding up very well.  

The Case For The Queen of Funk has left a huge imprint on the world of R&B. You can get a sense for how highly regarded Chaka was by the caliber of people who wanted to work with her: In addition to the aforementioned names, there was also Grandmaster Melle Mel and Steve Winwood and Ray Charles and even Rick Wakeman. All of her hits are great, but “Tell Me Something Good” is just spectacular.

The Case Against Rufus only had three Top Ten hits, and Chaka solo had just “I Feel for You.” There were 12 other Top Forty hits, but for a singles artist, that’s not a great deal of chart action.

The Cool Factor Here’s Rufus in their natural habitat, on Chicago’s own Soul Train, in what may be the coolest, funkiest, sexiest video I’ve ever seen. At first I thought Chaka was rocking a treasure trail here, but then I realized it was actually a C-section scar (her daughter, Milini, had been born earlier that year). Bono called Frank Sinatra “the champ who would rather show you his scars than his medals,” but Chaka got there long before Bono did.

The Verdict When I was compiling my framework for how to think about each vote, I realized that in a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, coolness is the paramout virtue. Nobody was cooler than Chaka Khan. Chaka Khan and Rufus have been on the ballot once each, and fallen short; I don’t know if there will be another go-round for either. The time to vote for her is now. I vote yes for Chaka Khan. 


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dance Pop a la Mode: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part V

Depeche Mode seems like they ought to be the epitome of something, being one of the most popular and certainly the most long-lived of the British synth-pop groups that emerged in the early 1980s. They were stars in England almost from their first release in 1980, although they didn’t break through in the U.S. until “People Are People” went to Number 13 in 1985. But “Just Can’t Get Enough” – which, let’s face it, is a much better song – had hit the dance charts in 1981, coming off the band’s first album, Speak & Spell.

The primary songwriter on Speak & Spell was Vince Clarke, who wrote nine of its 11 songs, including “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but he left the band after that first record came out. “We basically just weren't getting on,” Clarke said later. "We were really young, and we did quite well very quickly, and it all became too much.” Starting with their second album, Martin Gore took over the songwriting, and he proved to be almost as good at it as Clarke. (Clarke, by the way, was born Vincent Martin, but changed his name because he was on the dole and would lose his benefits if the government knew he was making money via his band.)

Changing chief songwriters is as fraught a move as changing frontmen, and even moreso for a synth-pop band, where the material is pretty much the entire band. Pink Floyd changed primary songwriters and thrived, but it’s pretty rare for a band to succeed that way.

Certainly, Depeche Mode only got bigger with Gore as its composer, although it’s arguable whether they got better. The band’s 1990 album Violator spawned three hit singles in the U.S., including “Enjoy the Silence,” their only Top Ten hit, and “Personal Jesus,” arguably their best post-Clarke song. They had Top Forty hits as late as 1997, and had a Number One hit on the U.S. dance charts as late as 2013 with “Heaven.”

That should have made them some kind of grizzled legend in the electronic-dance music world, but they never quite seemed to attain that status. They were never as good as other 1980s dance titans like New Order or Pet Shop Boys, even though they outlasted those groups as hitmakers. God knows Depeche has its fans, especially in Europe, but here in the U.S., they never quite felt like they had much substance.

The Case For Depeche Mode blazed trails in EDM, arguably laying the groundwork for a genre that continues to be vital today. “Personal Jesus” is 26 years old and still sounds pretty fresh. They even established themselves as a must-see live act, which you wouldn’t expect from a synth-pop band.

The Case Against After Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode, he formed Yaz with Alison Moyet and released “Don’t Go” and “Situation,” both of which are better than anything in the Depeche catalog. Then he went on to form Erasure, which was a lot more fun than Depeche, especially with “A Little Respect.” And neither of those groups was the best British dance-pop group of the 1980s; New Order was.

The Cool Factor Lead singer Dave Gahan was a heroin addict. In 1996, he overdosed on a speedball at the Sunset Marquis, apparently not realizing that the place to overdose on a speedball is the Chateau Marmont across the street.

The Verdict I like Depeche Mode; honestly, I do. I just don’t see what they’ve done to differentiate themselves from other bands of their ilk. New Order hasn’t even ever been nominated, for pity’s sake. I vote no on Depeche Mode.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Howdy, Tex: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part IV

Although he’s largely forgotten today, Joe Tex was a hugely popular R&B singer for about five years
in the late Sixties, notching eight Top Ten hits on the R&B charts between 1964 and 1968, including three Number Ones. Most of his pop success followed in the 1970s, after his R&B career had cooled off a bit. But he was perhaps most famous for his feud with James Brown. Each man claimed the other stole his dance moves and mike-stand tricks, and Brown covered Tex’s “Baby You’re Right,” just after Tex’s version came out, then had the temerity to have the bigger hit with it.

In 1960, Brown cut a duet with Tex’s ex-wife, Bea Ford, a song called “You’ve Got the Power." Then Brown sent Tex a letter saying he was done with Ford, and that Tex could have her back. This prompted one of the greatest answer records of all time: Tex’s “You Keep Her”:

James, I got your letter
It came to me today
You said I could have my baby back
Well, I don’t want her that way
So you keep her

Brown eventually showed up at a nightclub where Otis Redding was singing, while Tex was in the audience, and started firing a shotgun in Tex’s general direction. Several members of the audience were hit while Tex ran outside and hid in the bushes. That appeared to be the end of it, thankfully.

Tex went on to have a handful of crossover pop hits, starting with “Hold What You’ve Got,” which went to Number 5 in 1965. “I Gotcha” went to Number Two in 1972, and after the fluke semi-novelty “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)” in 1977, that was it for Joe Tex. He died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of either 47 (per Wikipedia) or 49 (per Billboard).

The Case For Anybody that James Brown considers a rival has to be a pretty great singer, and Tex was. “Hold What You’ve Got” is a great single, as is “I Gotcha,” which Quentin Tarantino featured in Reservoir Dogs. He wrote all of his own material too.

The Case Against Tex never had all that much success on the pop charts – just three Top Ten hits. He didn’t have a particularly long career, either. He didn’t land a hit on even the R&B charts until he had recorded 30 singles and was pushing 30. Then he retired in 1972 to work as an Islamic minister, after having changed his government name to Yusuf Hazziez, although he made a comeback in 1975 before quitting for good in 1981, and then dying very young.

The Cool Factor “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)” is a pretty unlikely hit for an Islamic clergyman. Joe Tex (he was born Joseph Arrington in Baytown, Texas) is a great name.

The Verdict Twenty years ago, or even five years ago, Tex would have had a shot. Bobby “Blue” Bland is in, as is Solomon Burke and Percy Sledge, and Joe Tex fits in nicely with that group, although I don't see anything to particularly recommend him above any of those gentlemen. In the current landscape, I can't imagine how he gets in, and as great a singer as he was, I just don’t see the impact or the influence that would warrant the honor. I vote no on Joe Tex.  

Monday, November 28, 2016

Miss You Much: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part III

Here is the list of the artists who have had the most Top Ten hits in what Casey Kasem used to call the rock era:

  • o   Madonna: 38
  • o   Elvis Presley: 36
  • o   The Beatles: 34
  • o   Michael Jackson: 29
  • o   Rihanna: 29
  • o   Stevie Wonder: 28
  • o   Elton John: 27
  • o   Janet Jackson: 27
  • o   Mariah Carey: 27
  • o   The Rolling Stones: 23
  • o   Paul McCartney: 23
  • o   Whitney Houston: 23

That’s 12 artists, eight of whom were stone-cold locks for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and four of whom are women of color, with no overlap between the two groups. Hmmm. (Of course, Rihanna is not yet eligible.) (Also, please note that Paul McCartney has been an integral part of FIFTY-SEVEN Top Ten hits.)

Here’s another fun fact for you: There have been 22 albums that ended up having five Top Ten singles on them. That includes two by Michael Jackson, 16 single albums from various artists, one compilation  – and three by Janet Jackson.

The Case For Janet Jackson is simply one of the greatest hitmakers of all time. She had a Number One song in 1986 (“When I Think of You”) and a Number One song in 2001 (“All for You”). Rhythm Nation 1814 is the only album in history to have five Top Five singles. 

She’s also been a huge influence, especially among female R&B singers, but well beyond that: Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Adam Levine, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift – all of them were inspired by Jackson. It would be easier to list the contemporary pop singers who weren’t influenced by Jackson, although I’m not aware of any.

The Case Against Jackson is sometimes considered a puppet under the influence of her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and thus not a creator of her own music. While Jam and Lewis have done brilliant work with her, that should hardly overshadow her own contributions. She gets co-writing and co-producing credits on most of her hit records. 

Besides, let’s look at that list up top again: Madonna always used co-writers and outside producers, Elton John never wrote a single one of his own lyrics, and Elvis Presley didn’t write songs at all. Hey, you know who else always had an outside producer to steer things along? The Beatles.

The Cool Factor She invented the two-person hand bra. 

The Verdict I vote yes on Janet Jackson.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Get Your Motor Running: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part II

I am inclined to cut Steppenwolf a little bit of slack, because frontman John Kay was born in Tilsit, Germany, (as Joachim Krauledat) in April 1944, which can’t have been the best time and place to start out in life. His father had already died in a Russian prison camp. Little Joachim and his mother fled East Germany in 1949, helped along by some smugglers who cut through barbed wire fences for them on their way to a refugee camp in West Germany.

Despite the singer’s provenance and the band’s name, Steppenwolf was really a Canadian band, Kay’s family having moved to Toronto in 1958. The band formed in 1961 and knocked around Canada under a couple of names before releasing the album Steppenwolf in January 1968. “Born to Be Wild” was astonishingly enough, the third single from that LP.

The song went to Number Two in the late summer of 1968, and thus was already a big hit before it was used on the soundtrack to Easy Rider, which wasn’t released until July 1969. (“The Pusher,” from Steppenwolf’s first album, also appeared in the film.) “Magic Carpet Ride,” the lead single from Steppenwolf the Second, followed, reaching the Top Ten in late 1968. “Rock Me” was their third and final Top Ten single, although they knocked around the lower reaches of the Top Forty for a few years after that.

Steppenwolf broke up in 1972, re-formed in 1974 for no particular purpose, broke up again, re-formed as John Kay & Steppenwolf, ad infinitum.  The original working band was only around for about five years; as a cultural force, they lasted about two.

The Case For “Born to Be Wild” is a landmark song, used to great effect in one of the cultural touchstones of the Sixties, living on via rock radio for several decades, and lending its lyrics to an entire genre of music. Really, inventing the term “heavy metal” might be Steppenwolf’s most significant achievement.

The Case Against “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” is a great one-two punch, but after that, their only Top Ten hit was “Rock Me,” which is terrible, and that ought to count for something. Steppenwolf had four other songs slither into the Top Forty (none going higher than 29), none of which I’d heard before researching this article, which may not mean much, except that I’ve heard them now and they’re not good, except possibly for the swinging “Hey Lawdy Mama.”

And they didn’t even invent the term “heavy metal.” “Born to Be Wild” was written by a guy calling himself Mars Bonfire, whose previous stage name had been Dennis Edmonton, but was born Dennis McCrohan. His brother Jerry Edmonton was Steppenwolf’s drummer, and Dennis had been part of an earlier version of the band called the Sparrows, but he wasn’t in Steppenwolf when he wrote the song.

The Cool Factor Jerry Edmonton is a very cool stage name for a Canadian, kind of a Great White North version of Randy California. Bass player Rushton Moreve, who co-wrote “Magic Carpet Ride,” was fired from the band when he stopped showing up for gigs and rehearsals in California, convinced that an earthquake was going to plunge it into the ocean. He was eventually killed in a car accident in Los Angeles, so maybe he knew what he was doing.

The Verdict “Born to Be Wild” is not only a great single (Rolling Stone had it at No. 129 in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time) but has had a huge footprint on the culture in the nearly 50 years since its release. But that’s basically all Steppenwolf has in its dossier for immortality. I vote no for Steppenwolf.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Passion of Saint Joan: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part I

In his book Positively 4th Street, David Hajdu tells the story of when Joan Baez was hosting a dinner party for her friends, and spent the afternoon cooking a big pot of stew for them. Bob Dylan, her boyfriend at the time, came over early, and methodically ate all the meat out of the stew pot before anyone else arrived.

At this point, the career of Joan Baez is viewed almost entirely through the lens of her relationship with Bob Dylan. At first she was his champion, bringing him up onstage during her concerts, becoming his lover, paving the way for him to become one of the leading protest singers of the moment. Soon, however, he would overshadow her, although they continued to be connected - she released a double album of Dylan covers, Any Day Now, in December 1968, after he was already married and relocated to Woodstock.

It is a bit unfair to view her this way, because Baez was a big star prior to her association with Dylan, Her first album, Joan Baez, went gold before Dylan ever left Minnesota. 

On the other hand, would Baez be as well-known today absent her relationship with Zimmy? She only ever had two songs in the Top Forty – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a cover of a song done by a band closely associated with Dylan, and “Diamonds and Rust,” a chronicle of her romance with Dylan.  Her resurgence in the 1970s was helped along by her appearances on the Rolling Thunder Revue, where she sang some astonishing duets with Dylan, as eventually released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue(She didn’t get as much of a boost from appearing in Renaldo and Clara.) Her scarce hits don’t get played too much on oldies radio stations these days. Without the Dylan connection, she probably wouldn’t be much better remembered than Judy Collins, or maybe Phil Ochs.

That’s the thing about hitching your wagon to Dylan: He’ll help make people remember you, but along the way, he’ll eat all the meat out of your stew.

The Case For Baez was arguably the leading light of the folk revival of the early 1960s; her first three albums all went gold, and she was hailed as the Queen of Folk. She maintained her stature throughout the decade to the point that she performed at Woodstock, then even had some hits in the 1970s. Folk isn’t rock & roll, but it had a huge influence on the rock music of that decade and beyond, and Baez personally influenced some of its most important artists. She had an extraordinarily pretty voice. Those Sixties records may not have been pop hits, but “There but for Fortune” and “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” (among many others) are wonderful songs.

The Case Against Folk isn’t rock & roll. She never really crossed over into pop, much less rock & roll; as I said, she only had two Top Forty hits, and one of those peaked at Number 35.  It’s also easy to overstate her position spearheading the folk movement; the Kingston Trio took “Tom Dooley” to Number One in November 1958, while Baez was still in high school.

The Cool Factor In the early 1980s, Baez dated Steve Jobs, who was 14 years younger than her. She had enough juice to be on the cover of Rolling Stone as late as 1983; I bought that issue as a wee tot, read the interview, and still don’t quite understand what she had done to deserve that honor.

The Verdict I keep thinking of Baez in relationship to Loretta Lynn. Country music isn’t rock & roll either, but Lynn influenced generations of rock stars, from Linda Ronstadt to Jack White. She wrote much more of her own material than Baez did, and some of those were stone classics like “Fist City” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” She was at least as big a star in country as Baez was in folk, and country is a bigger deal than folk. What is the argument for inducting Baez and not Loretta Lynn? Can you make the case without saying "Bob Dylan"?

Meaning no disrespect to an important, accomplished artist and a highly admirable person, I vote no on Joan Baez.

Tom Nawrocki is a former editor at 'Rolling Stone' and the author of the novel 'What I Don't Know About Love.' You can read a sample chapter here

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Balloting, Class of 2017: An Introduction

When last we convened, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame had just announced its 2016 class, consisting of the undeniable N.W.A along with Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple and Steve Miller. These latter four acts range from the eminently worthy to the inexplicable, but all fell under the general rubric of Seventies Classic Rock. Out of a fairly diverse pool of candidates, ranging from the JBs and Chaka Khan to the Smiths, it was hard to miss how sharply focused the inductees were on one era and one type of music. The door seemed to be wide open for Foghat.

That brings us to this year’s crop of nominees, which includes holdovers Yes and the Cars along with newcomers Journey, the J. Geils Band and ELO, all of whom could be described fairly or unfairly as Seventies Classic Rock and have to be tabbed as favorites, based on last year’s results. Once again this year, I have been tasked, fairly or unfairly, with evaluating the pool of candidates. And once again, I will be sharing with you the reader my thought processes as to why I am casting my vote for certain acts.  

Before we embark on that journey, as it were, I thought I would elucidate some of the criteria I use in evaluating these artists and their work, and then I'll start trotting out the essays where I attempt to answer these questions on behalf of the candidates. Bill James once described the Baseball Hall of Fame as "a self-defining institution that has by and large failed to define itself,” but Cooperstown is the OED compared with the Rock Hall. At least everyone understands that baseball players' ultimate goal is to win games, but Leonard Cohen and Janet Jackson and Kraftwerk and Lloyd Price all seemed to be pursuing different goals. How can you measure them up for the same honor? 

To approach that problem, here are some of the questions I ask myself:

How good was their music? The most important question, and probably the most subjective one.

What kind of impact did they have on the culture? There are bands like the Velvet Underground and the Ramones who have a huge influence on the future of music without ever really having hits. On the other hand, someone like Lionel Richie can be unavoidable for years without leaving any trace of his work. In my opinion, cultural impact is exactly the kind of thing that the Hall of Fame should be recognizing. But it’s also critical to ask:

How many hits did they have? No matter what you think of Chicago, they had a staggering 35 Top Forty singles and 20 Top Tens, which is more than Rod Stewart or the Beach Boys or the Temptations. That kind of thing is hard to look away from. The number of hits often seems to work in inverse proportions to an act's cultural impact, which requires a bit of a balancing act. But hey, they can’t all be the Beatles.

How much responsibility did they have for their own music? An auteur like Prince is obviously going to get a lot more credit for his work than someone like the Marvelettes, who released some wonderful singles but didn’t do much more than come in and sing on them at the final stage of production. This question is the only reason I can think of that the Mamas and Papas would sail in easily, while the extremely comparable Fifth Dimension have never been seriously considered, despite twice as many Top Forty hits.

How cool were they? No, wait – this is the most important question.

Monday, March 14, 2016

For What Is a Man?

At the tail end of 1968, the day before New Year's Eve, Frank Sinatra went into a studio in Hollywood and spent half an hour laying down the vocal for what would become the title track to his next album. The year had been a rough one for Sinatra; in August, his marriage to Mia Farrow ended after just 25 months. Frank had wanted her to quit acting and spend her life as his wife, but Mia had other ideas; Rosemary's Baby came out two months before they split for good. Frank was 52; Mia was 23. Still, most of us would say it's better to have loved Mia Farrow and lost her than to never have loved Mia Farrow at all.

Sinatra may also have been wondering if the hits had dried up. He and his daughter Nancy had gone to Number One early in 1967 with "Somethin' Stupid," but he hadn't reached the Top Twenty since. Fiftysomething-year-old pop singers rarely make comebacks.

Frank was going in that evening to record a song that had been specially written for him by Paul Anka. Anka had heard a French pop song called "Comme d'habitude," for which he wanted to write new English lyrics. Over dinner in Florida, Anka had had a conversation with Frank in which a weary Sinatra said, "I'm quitting the business. I'm sick of it; I'm getting the hell out."

"At one o'clock in the morning," Anka said later, "I sat down at an old IBM electric typewriter and said, 'If Frank were writing this, what would he say?' And I started, metaphorically, 'And now the end is near.' I used words I would never use: 'I ate it up and spit it out.' But that's the way he talked. I used to be around steam rooms with the Rat Pack guys – they liked to talk like Mob guys, even though they would have been scared of their own shadows."

The song was "My Way." With the year ending, his marriage ending, his youth ending, possibly his career ending, Sinatra went into the studio and put his whole sorry life into that vocal performance. As he faced the final curtain, Frank managed to sum up his sordid past and questionable future in the space of four minutes and 35 seconds. No matter what he had lost along the way, Frank had his dignity and self-worth, and no one would ever take that from him.

"My Way" is often interpreted as a boast, a challenge to anyone who would dare Frank to do things differently, but it's about his past, not his future. Bono called Sinatra "the champ who would rather show you his scars than his medals," and "My Way" is all scars. Regrets? He's had a few.  Whatever he lost along the way, and the song makes it clear that there had been plenty lost, he had faced it all and he stood tall. A man can't be expected to win every time; all he can be expected to do is to be himself. To be a man.

Sinatra's vocal is magnificent, starting out ruminative and inward, doing that soft-loud-soft thing long before Nirvana or even the Pixies. He carries out his vowels on "But through it all/When there was doubt," then bites off the consonants at the end of "I ate it up/And spit it out." With his impeccable breath control, he turns on a dime from "I did it my way" to "I've loved, I've laughed and cried."  The regret seeps into the space in the line "I've had my share of ... losing," as if he can't bear to say the word. But when it comes, the word itself is clear and forthright.

He finally builds to the song's climax when he sings, "I took the blows, and did it my way." The control of the vocal emphasizes that at no point does he seek to evade responsibility; admitting the occasional defeat has only made him stronger. It's made him his own man.

The other exemplar of 20th century masculinity, Cary Grant, embodied what every man aspired to be, but what none of us actually were, including famously Cary Grant. "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant," Cary once said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant." Sinatra, by contrast, was what every man was. Even after all our missteps and losses, it was never too late to reclaim our self-worth. None of us could become Cary, but we always had the chance to be Frank.

"My Way," of course, became Sinatra's signature song for the rest of his days, which consisted mostly of concert performances. He had only one more Top Forty hit left in the quiver: "Theme From 'New York, New York,'" in 1980. He retired, briefly, in November 1970, a year and a half after "My Way" had left the charts. It was in almost every respect a career-capping performance that couldn't be topped.

Yes, it was Frank's way. The rest of us can only hope to live up to that standard.