Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Battle Royale for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Cultural Impact


Today we’re going to try to assess the cultural impact of each of the candidates for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This is different from their status as musical influence, asking questions like: How often were they on the cover of Rolling Stone? Or better yet, the cover of Time? Did they ever become the proverbial household word? Were they on Saturday Night Live? Or The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries? (As far as I know, the only Hall of Famer with that distinction is Mama Cass Elliot, although Sonny and Cher and Jerry Reed still have a shot.)

This isn’t an easy thing to assess, since people like the New York Dolls (only there aren’t any people like the New York Dolls) had an exceedingly narrow but nevertheless noticeable impact on the culture. So, as with most of this categories, there will be a great deal of judgment involved. As President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Let’s do something that’s hard:


  1. Carole King A true superstar in the early 1970s, at that moment when Long Island housewives started wearing caftans and getting divorced. The best-selling album of all time at one point, Tapestry was on the charts continuously from April 1971 to January 1977. Lorne Michaels wanted her to appear on the first episode of Saturday Night Live (he settled for Janis Ian instead).
  2. Tina Turner Tina became an icon in the midst of her solo comeback in the 1980s, with not just hit records but a best-selling book and even an Oscar-nominated movie based on her life. What she did with Ike may have been more important musically, but her solo career was more impactful on America as a whole.
  3. Jay-Z Playing off a lyric in “Empire State of Mind,” my friend Rob Sheffield has made the case for J-Hova as the Frank Sinatra of rap. It’s a bold claim, and I am not in a position to say it’s wrong. At the same time, you could call Jay and Bey the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of the modern age. 

  4. The Go-Go’s 
    They came along at the perfect time, just as MTV was happening, but they also did an awful lot to create that moment. A greatly enjoyable, photogenic band with a sneakily original sound, welding together punk and pop and surf music in Gina Schock’s drumming. They posed for Rolling Stone in their underwear, like many other women had done, but nobody ever had more fun doing it.
  5. Dionne Warwick The sophistication she brought to the pop charts with her string of Bacharach/David hits in the 1960s was something that didn’t really exist aside from Ms. Warwick herself. That impact lessened as her career went on, although her biggest hits came in the 1970s (“Then Came You”) and 1980s (That’s What Friends Are For”).
  6. LL Cool J A huge figure in the first wave of rap that crossed over to not just the pop charts but mainstream American culture. He headlined a sitcom that ran for two seasons and has been on one form or another of NCIS in recent years. I’m not sure whether any of that counts toward the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though.
  7. Devo They were on Saturday Night Live in 1978, when that was the hippest show on TV, and the nerd on Square Pegs (where they made a guest appearance) claimed his Devo helmet as his dearest possession. In between, they became MTV superstars with “Whip It.”
  8. Chaka Khan Chaka has the respect of everybody who’s anybody in R&B: Stevie Wonder and Prince wrote songs for her to sing, and she made huge hits out of both of them. She also has a street in Chicago named after her, but having said all that, I don’t see very many ways in which she has impacted the culture.
  9. New York Dolls Had a shot at being the Velvet Underground of the 1970s. But they weren’t.
  10. Rage Against the Machine One of the leading acts of the late 1990s, with a great deal of notoriety among the MTV crowd. My sense is that they were a bit of a supernova, whose fame diminished very quickly, although “Some of those who work forces are the same who wear crosses” has had a bit of a comeback lately.  
  11. Fela Kuti An international superstar who never had a lot of impact here in the States. Frankly, I don’t know what to do with him in this category.
  12. Foo Fighters Dave Grohl is a big star, and seems both well-liked and well-respected throughout the world of music and with the public at large. But let’s be honest: Foo Fighters will always be his second best-known band.
  13. Todd Rundgren Rundgren was part of that Seventies series of rock stars who were basically faceless; if anyone today remembers what he looked like, it’s probably because he was so homely.
  14. Mary J. Blige Despite all her hitmaking, Mary never became a household name, or even very visible. She didn’t really make a lot of magazine cover, aside from Essence.
  15. Kate Bush She was probably a big deal in Great Britain, right? I don’t live in Great Britain.
  16. Iron Maiden Ugh.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Battle Royale for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Musical Influence

One of the things I really like to see in a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer is someone who has influenced other artists, which to me is the true sign of innovation and stature. To that end, I’ve tried to uncover artists who claim, in the first person, to have been inspired by these candidates. I'm not convinced when some random schmo says, “Oh yeah, Lady Gaga is totally influenced by Kate Bush”; tell me what Gaga has to say on the matter.

This ranking is obviously heavily subjective, and my knowledge for may of these artists' legacies is limited. If you know of people who patterned their vocals after Chaka Khan, by all means, let me know.

1. Fela Kuti “They blew us – The JB's – away, so we told them that they were the funkiest cats we ever heard,” said Bootsy Collins of James Brown’s band and Funkadelic. Brian Eno said: “I told the Talking Heads that this was the music of the future, and it still is. This is what I’d have liked jazz to have become.” BeyoncĂ© covered Fela’s “Zombie” at  Coachella. You may notice that Fela’s followers are some of the biggest artists in the genre.

2. Devo Toni Basil and Neil Young worked with them; Rage Against the Machine, Moby and Nirvana covered them. David Bowie once introduced them onstage by declaring them “the band of the future,” 

3. New York Dolls The great music writer David Fricke told me that he was once interviewing Morrissey and let it slip that he had seen a New York Dolls show during their meteoric career. Morrissey just about plotzed; he was president of some sort of New York Dolls fan club, and was in awe that he got to meet someone who had seen them live. Morrissey, you may have noticed, is not easily impressed. 

4. Jay-Z My sense is that Jay’s influence has been stronger than that of LL Cool J (who we’ll get to later), through hitmakers ranging from Drake to DJ Khaled to Timbaland. I’m not an expert, though.

5. The Go-Go’s "The best songwriters of the 20th century [sic] have both cited the Go-Go's as being an influence — and they're not female,” said Jane Wiedlin. “That would be Kurt Cobain and Billie Joe Armstrong.” Their influence on females, though, is undeniable: “The Go-Go's music is deeply in our DNA,” said Danielle Haim. “One of the coolest things about the Go-Go’s and their music, for me, is how fun they make femininity feel," said Hayley Williams of Paramore. "They’ve never undermined their own identities to placate any notion that rock genres have to feel a certain kind of ‘tough.’ They’re so badass.”

6. LL Cool J “One of the rappers I studied and learned line for line bar for bar style attitude and class on the mic,” said Snoop Dogg. “Goat is why I still here. L. L. Cool. J. Is hard. As hell." 

7. Carole King A tremendous influence on the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, as exemplified by her friend and collaborator James Taylor, whose biggest hit was his cover of King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Remember, we’re considering here her strictly as a performer. 

8. Todd Rundgren Rundgren’s biggest influence is arguably on the acts he’s produced, which include Cheap Trick, the New York Dolls, Hall & Oates, Alice Cooper, Patti Smith and Grand Funk. But his biggest hit was Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell, which is not a plus.

9. Dionne Warwick Obviously her work with Bacharach and David was very influential, but that was in large part because of the material. Strictly as a vocalist? I’m not seeing a whole lot there. 

10. Mary J. Blige “On behalf of all the women who came after you like myself, thank you for being you,” Rihanna said of the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. “So we could feel comfortable with being ourselves.” 

11. Tina Turner We’re looking at Tina’s solo career, so think “Private Dancer”: Was that a very influential record? Were there a lot of singers who wanted to sound like “What’s Love Got to Do With It”? Anita Baker, maybe?

12. Chaka Khan Chaka cut a single with Ariana Grande, and it strikes me that there’s where her influence lies, with pop/R&B vocalists. As well-respected as she is, I don’t think she’s left that strong a legacy. 

13. Rage Against the Machine They began the rap-metal/nu metal movement that included such luminaries as, uh, Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit. I am hard-pressed to think of this as a plus.

14. Kate Bush "She appeared out of nowhere at the tail end of punk and sort of embodied the punk spirit by just being completely herself,” said Boy George. “She blew things apart with things like ‘Running Up That Hill,’ because it defied the classic logic of pop.” She’s so British that I’m sure there’s a lot of her work that lingered on the U.K. charts, but I don’t know a whole lot about that. Her avowed fans included Tupac and OutKast’s Big Boi, although I honestly don’t hear a lot of her in either of their work.

15. Iron Maiden  "They have always been, [among] the hard rock bands, the one that's probably inspired Metallica the most,” said Lars Ulrich. “They had cooler record covers.” 

16. Foo Fighters Foo Fighters seem to me like the last in a line – the last of the big guitar bands. There aren’t a lot of bands trying to sound like them these days. 

Friday, March 5, 2021

Battle Royale for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Chartbusters


To start things off, we’re going to look at the hitmaking prowess of each of the nominees, which seems like it ought to be straightforward to measure, but it really isn’t. You can't just arrange the acts in the order of their total Number One hits. Artists like Mary J. Blige and LL Cool J dominated the R&B charts, while the Foo Fighters dominated the Alternative and Mainstream Rock charts – are those achievements as strong as Chaka Khan’s 12 Top Forty hits?

Then there’s the fact that you have to do some pretty serious era adjustments on these chart feats, since hardly anybody buys records anymore. That means that any contemporary album with any sales at all is going to show up on the album charts, even if its sales are next to nothing. To take one example, Carole King’s 2010 album Live at the Troubadour reached No. 4 on the charts on the strength of 78,000 sales in one week, which would have been a disappointing number for Head East two generations ago. A real hit album of today, like Taylor Swift’s Folklore, sells ten times as many units in a single week.

So there’s going to be a little subjectivity in this ranking. But as I see it, here’s how I’d rank the current crop of candidates in their chart impact: 


  1. Dionne Warwick Thirty-one Top Forty hits, ten of them reaching the Top Ten, two Number Ones (both collaborations: “Then Came You” with the Spinners, and “That’s What Friends Are For” with Stevie, Elton and Gladys).

  2. Jay-Z Nineteen Top 20 hits, with “Empire State of Mind” as the only Number One. Eleven of his 13 solo albums have gone to Number One on the charts.

  3. Chaka Khan Twelve Top Forty hits counting her work with Rufus, and eight hits that went to Number One on the R&B chart.

  4. Foo Fighters They’ve pretty much dominated the U.S. Alternative Airplay (26 Top Tens, 10 Numbers Ones) and Mainstream Rock (27 Top Tens, 9 Number Ones) charts. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the top performers on each of those charts, both of which debuted in the Eighties.

  5. Mary J. Blige Just four Top Ten hits on the Hot 100, and “Family Affair” is her only Number One single. But 20 Top Ten singles on the R&B chart, and most impressively, all 13 of her albums made the Top Ten on the albums chart, even her Christmas LP.

  6. LL Cool J Eight Number One R&B hits, nine Top Ten albums.

  7. Carole King More impressive as an album artist than a singles artist: Just four Top Twenty hits, but seven Top Ten albums (counting the aforementioned Live at the Troubadour), including three Number Ones.

  8. Tina Turner She and Ike are already inducted as a team, so this is strictly about her solo career, which consists of six Top Ten hits and two Top Ten albums.

  9. Todd Rundgren Six Top Forty hits, including a cover of “Good Vibrations” that peaked at No. 34 in 1976; can’t say that I’ve heard it.

  10. The Go-Go’s Five Top Forty hits, two of them in the Top Ten, including “We Got the Beat,” which peaked at Number Two.

  11. Rage Against the Machine Two Number One albums, no Top Forty hits but eight singles on the Alternative Rock chart.

  12. Kate Bush “Running Up That Hill” is her only stateside Top Forty hit, although she’s had seven Top Tens in the U.K., including her first single, “Wuthering Heights,’ which went to Number One.

  13. Devo Well, there’s “Whip It”…. The theme from Doctor Detroit didn’t even make the Top Forty.

  14. Iron Maiden They’ve had ten albums make the Top 20 on the U.S. albums chart, but never had a single even make the Hot 100.

  15. New York Dolls The self-titled debut album peaked at No. 116.

  16. Fela Kuti Nothing at all on the U.S. charts as far as I can see.


Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Battle Royale for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Foreword


Once again this year I have been entrusted with a vote for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and as befits an honor like this, I intend to make a thorough review of the candidates before I cast my ballot. There are 16 nominees this year, competing for five slots, and it occurs to me that perhaps the best way to approach this is as a real competition, with five winners and 11 losers. Let’s stack the candidates up and let them battle it out against each other – that seems more sensible than just saying “Oh, Tina Turner, she’s great, I’ll vote for her.” None of that is to insinuate that Tina Turner is anything less than great, of course.

So this year we’ll rank each candidate according to the categories that seem most relevant to the Rock Hall: hit making, musical influence, cultural impact, coolness, etc. Rather than compare, say, Fela with Iron Maiden along a single vector of worthiness, we’ll stack all these qualities up and see how they turn out. Then at the end, the five acts that score the best will get my vote.

Part of the reason I want to do it this way is because every year people say things like, “Devo, man! How can you not vote for them?” With the nominees listed in order for each category, knowing that only the top five will make the cut, it’s much easier to offer up a reason: They’re nine slots less sexy than Kate Bush.

Here are the artists we’ll be considering this year:

  • Mary J. Blige
  • Kate Bush
  • Devo
  • Foo Fighters
  • The Go-Go’s
  • Iron Maiden
  • JAY-Z
  • Chaka Khan
  • Carole King
  • Fela Kuti
  • LL Cool J
  • New York Dolls
  • Rage Against the Machine
  • Todd Rundgren
  • Tina Turner
  • Dionne Warwick

I took this list directly from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame site, so don’t blame me for the way they put JAY-Z in all caps. It’s not an acronym! From here on out, we’ll be calling him “Jay-Z” just like Beyonce does.

We’ll get started in the next couple of days. Thanks for being here.