Monday, April 18, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame '22: Carly Simon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 11, 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Vote '22: Beck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame '22: Devo


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Vote '22: Eminem

This is Eminem’s first time on the ballot, 25 years after the release of his debut album, Infinite, which Em claimed sold a total of 70 copies. What I keep hearing is that he’s a first-ballot- shoo-in, which I tend to agree with – he’s got to be the best-selling artist in hip-hop history, right?

THE SONG: “Without Me” encapsulates Eminem pretty well for me – for all the horror and angst of songs like “Stan” and “Lose Yourself,” he makes a pretty great and lovable goofball. Nobody listens to techno, but we sure listened to this:


THE CASE FOR: Eminem is almost certainly the best-known rapper of all time. He’s had a whopping ten Number One albums and 17 Billboard Top Ten hits (not including “Stan,” which didn’t make the Top Forty despite being one of his most inescapable songs, and I’m sure there must be a reason for this but I don’t know what it is).

The fact that he is white certainly had something to do with Eminem’s explosion as a star at the end of the 1990s, but there was more to it than that. As Chuck Klosterman has pointed out, Eminem enunciated the best of all the major rappers, which contributed significantly to his popularity. He was funny, he was unpredictable, he didn’t take himself seriously. “You know the world is going to hell,” Em said, “when the best rapper is white and the best golfer is black.”

Most of the 21st century's rap world shows Eminem's imprint, but his influence goes beyond hip-hop; Lin-Manuel Miranda says he based Hamilton's rapping style on Em's. "My Shot" sure owes something to "Lose Yourself," doesn't it?

THE CASE AGAINST: The only real argument I’ve heard posted against Eminem’s candidacy was from my friends over at the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast. They argued that the Hall has done a poor job of inducting the hip-hop legends who paved the way for Eminem, and people like Eric B & Rakim and Snoop Dogg need to get in before we induct Eminem. While I have tremendous respect for those guys – it was mostly Brian Hiatt making this argument, and he knows way more than I do about contemporary music – I have to disagree with it.

Eminem is overqualified for the Hall of Fame, and it’s not his fault that Snoop Dogg hasn’t been inducted yet. It would be totally unfair to Em to deny him an honor he richly deserves just because others might deserve it as much, or even more.

And as a practical matter, denying Eminem a vote isn’t going to get Eric B & Rakim into the Hall one day earlier. It would more likely be the other way around: I could see Eminem praising those who came before him in his induction speech (he did do the honors already for Run-DMC), or maybe his entrance will reinforce the idea in other voters' heads that rappers are an important part of rock & roll. It's certainly not going to slow down the momentum for people like Salt-n-Pepa. 

If you want more pioneers of hip-hop in the Hall of Fame, vote for Eminem. This isn't Snow we're talking about; it's Emin freakin' Em.

Anyway, the whole podcast is worth listening to, even the parts I disagree with. These guys take the notion of the Hall of Fame very seriously, which is exactly what the Hall of Fame needs. I suspect I might be returning to it in the next few weeks.

MY VERDICT: Eminem is the kind of person the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was established to honor. I'm voting YES for him.