Monday, April 20, 2015

I hate these blurred lines.

There are several reasons why I'm slow to start a new post: busy work schedule, difficult to get started, jumbled thoughts that I'm having trouble organizing, general laziness.  In this case, all of the above, with two new stitches: desktop computer gone kaput, and medical issues.  All that to say, sorry I didn't get this one up sooner.

In the previous entry, I lamented the pigeonholing of Ringo Starr in the Award For Musical Excellence category.  You may have also missed that I similarly lamented the induction of the "5" Royales in the Early Influence category.  However, the "5" Royales are only the most recent, and not even the most blatantly wrong example, of an act that should have been inducted in the Performer category, only to get the side door induction of the Early Influence category.  Other fairly recent and more unpopular inductees in this category have been Wanda Jackson (in 2009) and Freddie King (in 2012).

In all fairness, while also perhaps most damning, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame has always had a little bit of a problem with the line between the Performer and Early Influence categories.  On the Rock Hall website, before they changed the layout, the timeline for 1986 Early Influence inductee Jimmie Rodgers included the charting of songs "Honeycomb" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine."  Not good.  And the next year, the induction of Big Joe Turner was in the Performer category, but the Top Pop Singles books from Joel Whitburn always include a special notation of "Blues pioneer" next to his induction as a Performer.  Next, look at the 1990 class on the Rock Hall's website right now.  Click on the link for Charlie Christian.  A guitarist for the Benny Goodman orchestra until his death in 1942, he's listed on the Rock Hall's website as a "Performer" inductee, which is just plain factually inaccurate.  However, as bad as those examples are, and as bad as the side door inductees of Wanda Jackson and Freddie King were, perhaps no class decries the lack of clarity more so than the Class Of 1991.  Indeed, fellow monitors, as I have also done, have scratched their heads wondering how John Lee Hooker, a blues musician whose career began in the '40s, who recorded most of his discography in the '40s, including his most innovative and influential recordings, gets inducted as a Performer; while Howlin' Wolf, a bluesman whose first recordings were in the early '50s, whose signature songs were in the mid-to-late '50s, gets inducted as an Early Influence.  To add further confusion to that mound, nominated for that same class as a Performer, but didn't make it, was blues guitarist Elmore James, whom you might recognize as an inductee in 1992, in the Early Influence category!  Why Performer one year and Early Influence the next is a baffling question that only came to a head when people started asking why Wanda Jackson was nominated as a Performer but inducted as an Early Influence.  Add to that Pete Seeger's illustrious solo career, despite beginning in 1954, meriting Early Influence status, though there it's much more obvious that this is simply the worst, yet-to-be-corrected case of Front Man Fever.

So the Hall has a clear and established record of fudging with this category.  Why only in the past ten years have people started calling attention to it?  I suspect a good deal has to do with the Internet making things easier to track and discuss, but part of it also may be the confusion in drawing lines of distinction in what's rock and roll and what isn't, and that it wasn't until the induction of Wanda Jackson as an Early Influence in a class where she'd been nominated as a Performer that people perked up and noticed those very circumstances and started to cry foul.  It certainly has been no help that the Hall had been mired in murmurs in previous years: Miles Davis inducted as a Performer in 2006, even though the man himself denied being anything other than jazz--not even jazz fusion (and that his career as a billed artist began in the '40s); the accusations of ballot tampering in 2007 leading to Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five getting in instead of the Dave Clark Five (or both together); and the coincidental induction of the Dave Clark Five the next year.

But what I suspect made Wanda's situation different was that not only was she unquestionably rockabilly in the beginning, only to go full country later on, but that she was initially under the wing of none other than Elvis Presley himself.  Practically being the protege of the King should most likely result in disqualification from being called "Early Influence."  Take that however you wish, it's really intended more as a timeline than anything else.  Needless to say this only made things more confusing with Freddie King's induction in 2012, especially given that Freddie's first release wasn't until the late '50s, and that fellow bluesman Buddy Guy was a Performer in 2005, while another fellow bluesman Albert King was inducted as a Performer a year after Freddie got the side door treatment.  While Freddie was more blues than blues rock, he was no less rock than Buddy or Albert, and it still seemed bad form to shoehorn him in as an Early Influence when he also had been on the ballot for Performer.

Which brings us to the "5" Royales.  What to do?  In all fairness, there's a solid argument to be made for Early Influence.  Steady releases beginning in 1952, which most music historians call "pre-rock", certainly helps; however, perhaps most favorable for the Hall is the fact that if you listen to their records, their sound is much more primitive or "proto" as an R&B styling than it is the well-known version we got from Performer inductees like the Flamingos, the Moonglows, the Platters, and even the first incarnation of the Drifters.   It's a fair evaluation to say their sound was rawer than the sounds that really reached out across racial barriers, from acts less likely to be inducted such as the Five Satins, the Harptones, and even the Five Keys.

However, there is also sufficient cause to say they should have been a Performer inductee, namely that they were nominated twice for that honor in the past.  As with Elmore James, we are left asking why they were Performer then and an Early Influence now.  Even worse, vocal R&B, aka doo-wop, is that territory that most music historians would also recognize as rock and roll at its most basic and earliest.  So now you're breaking up a stone that is critical to the foundation of rock and roll.  Is it really smart to go down that road?  How will they handle this in the future?  It's all but certain that if the Clovers are ever inducted, it will also be as an Early Influence.  But what about acts like the aforementioned Five Keys, Five Satins, and Harptones?  Some would argue that I'm putting the cart way before the horse, as it is unlikely those acts will ever be nominated, let alone inducted; however, not only have all three been Previously Considered, it's an important question to ask because the slope is already getting a little slippery to keep credibility intact (and even then some would say that ship has sailed).  They've already hammered at other stones, like rockabilly with Wanda Jackson.  What if they decide they owe something to lesser-known-but-still-important '50s guitar hero and rock outfit Buddy Knox And The Rhythm Orchids?  What if they want to induct Chubby Checker as an Early Influence because he was an early precursor to EDM?  Or Lesley Gore for being an original standout figure that paved the way for "riot grrls" like Joan Jett?

This is why I oppose fellow monitors who suggest the "movable timeline," that Early Influence is best applied to those who predate, but helped laid the groundwork for major patches of musical mini-epochs.  By that logic, the MC5 are a prime candidate for Early Influence induction for predating, but heavily influencing punk.  It's ridiculous: rock 'n' roll music is constantly evolving, and everything that is current is potentially significant in its pre-dating of something to come.  That doesn't make what we have now, "not rock."  And that's the latent effect you're ultimately having when you call a musician or group "Early Influence" instead of "Performer."  You are decidedly declaring it as "not rock 'n' roll."  I've already dealt with people in real life who think that REAL rock 'n' roll didn't exist until the Beatles came along or until Bob Dylan plugged in, or think that if it ain't hard or metal, it ain't rock.  And every once in awhile some chucklehead will spew ignorance stating that soul, reggae, and rap have nothing to do with rock 'n' roll.

This is why I can only be marginally happy for the "5" Royales when they get inducted as an Early Influence, instead of Performer.  Or Wanda Jackson.  Or Freddie King.  (Or Ringo Starr as AME, but that was last entry.)  When you get an award, it's supposed to mean something.  But when you play the game the way the Hall is doing it now, it becomes less meaningful.  Its integrity is compromised.  It's why I'm infuriated when the inductees or surviving family members (and fellow non-affiliated fans and even fellow Monitors) are so gracious about induction.  It pains me to know that they're not getting their full or proper due.  I'm told I should just be thankful that they ARE getting official recognition in some capacity.  But I'm not.  I can't be.  Earning the award you're given within its proper parameters is rewarding.  This is a pity induction, and it shouldn't happen this way.  Do it right, or don't do it at all.

I won't go so far as to say the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Foundation owes it to us to get it right.  No, but they DO owe it to the inductees, the inductees' surviving families and loved ones, history itself, and even to themselves, for their own credibility's sake.  Having rabid fans howl about their favorite acts getting snubbed is one matter.  They're like the fans at a football stadium cheering their favorite teams.  By claiming to have guidelines and categorizations for inductees, the Foundation sets themselves up as refs, so to speak.  And I won't even go into the mess you get when, by that analogy, Jann S. Wenner is posturing himself as rock 'n' roll's Roger Goodell.  Nope, not gonna go there.  I'll let Tom Lane do that.  The point is, we as fans hate bad calls, and that the Foundation owes it to the players (of instruments, including voice) to make the correct calls, for the good of the game (music history).  When they can't do that right, the whole league suffers, especially when a quick peek at Future Rock Legends' Revisited & Projected project shows a plethora of worthy candidates for Early Influences still not inducted into the actual Hall, including but not limited to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers, the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and the Four Freshmen.

So let's make a point to be more consistent, shall we?  Maybe a rule that says once they've been nominated for Performer, they can never be inducted as an Early Influence?  That sounds like a pretty reasonable idea to me.  As is, the Rock Hall loses esteem for every year they continue to make the distinctions even blurrier.

And to quote Robin Thicke, I hate these blurred lines.