Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes a couple good decisions
It’s taken quite a long time, but it looks like art rock may be having its day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
One of the loudest criticisms of the Hall coming from the rock crowd has been its exclusion of Rush, a band with some of the biggest sales in all of music that has remained together now for nearly 40 years with only one change to its lineup, on the second album (and we can hardly hold it against them for bringing on Neil Peart). Their influence has been enormous, their sound is consistent and instantly identifiable, and the music itself is smart, complex, thematic, and at the same time radio-ready. Now, in their third decade of eligibility, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has nominated them for induction.
Of course, the first reaction is to say, “It’s about time.” Next is to wonder whether or not such a distinction this late in the game marks a blemish for a band that has for so long defied great odds (unrestrained hate from the music press and numerous personal tragedies) and continually turned out Gold and Platinum records. Perhaps at this point it is better to reserve them as unsung heroes of the underground, champions of rock for the nerdy, ours to cherish and share amongst ourselves without establishment approval.
But I’m not Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, or Neil Peart, and I won’t guess at what it means for them to be inducted nor try to begrudge them the recognition if, indeed, it does make them feel honored. The question I want to ask is, “What took so long?” Art rock as a whole genre has been woefully ignored or trampled upon by the establishment music press since it fell out of fashion in the mid-1970s. Some of the derision is deserved. Accusations of pretension toward art rock are easy to make stick. Making a song last an entire album side and putting in weird-sounding synthesizers and time signatures isn’t enough to make a masterpiece. But time and again, art-rock bands that have sold millions of records and influenced countless musicians get the old thumb-to-the-nose from both the creative and critical classes of music culture.
Why? Have the people who laugh and snigger at the very mention of Jethro Tull ever listened to Thick as a Brick, an album that predates this culture’s fascination with irony and delivers a very authentic, and relevant, message (despite its initial conception as a send-up of progressive rock concept albums)? Why do we revere The Who so religiously, but not the band whose debut album Pete Townshend called “an uncanny masterpiece,” King Crimson? What about Yes, whose hits proliferate the radio and whose futuristic sound was totally unprecedented in the music world, unlike anything that had been heard before and quite a ways ahead of most of what is produced even today? Emerson, Lake and Palmer began as one of pop history’s most-hyped bands and left a legacy of big hits like “Lucky Man,” and no one who we’re supposed to take seriously suggests they deserve the kind of immortality supposedly bestowed by the Hall.
With the exception of Pink Floyd and Genesis, and to a lesser extent Frank Zappa, progressive and art rock is as ignored by the Hall of Fame as it is by the other sectors of the music industry. And it isn’t hard to imagine that Genesis would be nowhere on the roster if it weren’t for the post-progressive Phil Collins-led era. The contributions to music made by progressive rock bands in the early 1970s cannot be overlooked without committing a serious travesty. Simply put, that music contains some of the greatest instrumentals (Rick Wakeman’s keyboards from Yes, Martin Barre’s guitar and Ian Anderson’s flute in Jethro Tull, Robert Fripp’s guitar in King Crimson, and many others I could mention if I didn’t fear being accused of simple name-dropping) and most thoughtfully constructed music of all-time, with a diverse range of influences concealed cleverly beneath distorted electric guitars. Aesthetically, much of it is alright to be enjoyed by your ordinary rock and roller, but those who listen closely might hear a bit of classical music or English folk or an African rhythm they’d have never heard any other place.
To many people, progressive rock isn’t “real” rock. It certainly doesn’t frequently take the form of fast, three-chord boogie rock. Often there are lengthy, pensive, instrumental passages, and they might use flutes or harps or other decidedly non-rock instruments. So I can sympathize to a big degree with people who think Ted Nugent’s or AC/DC’s brand of rock is the bomb and progressive rock is too pompous. But the Hall of Fame certainly shouldn’t make such a distinction, and hasn’t in other areas (they’re very friendly to pop music, for instance). What's to stop a Beatles fan from enjoying one of Caravan's pop numbers? Or anyone who enjoys David Gilmour's ethereal guitar passages from getting just as big a rise from some of Steve Hackett's records?
Thankfully, this year, not only has Rush finally gotten their due, but so has Procol Harum. It’s a little strange seeing Procol Harum beating Jethro Tull to the nomination, since Jethro Tull had so many more hit singles in the early 70s that still get heavy radio play today (“Teacher,” “Aqualung,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” and “Bungle in the Jungle,” to name just a few), but then Jethro Tull never had anything quite like “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” And Deep Purple, whose early career had them squarely in the midst of the burgeoning art-rock movement (well before King Crimson or Genesis) and whose Mark II incarnation contributed many of the most seminal tracks of classic rock, are also finally up for nomination.
Here’s hoping that Rush, Deep Purple, and Procol Harum all make it in this year, and that their inductions pave the way for King Crimson, Yes, and Jethro Tull to be rewarded for their millions of records sold, enormous influence, long list of big singles, sounds that haven’t aged, innovation, and diversity. These bands and countless others are ignored so that the industry can bring us Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, Madonna, and Marilyn Manson. This country is famous for its anti-intellectualism, and hopefully by these marginally thoughtful selections the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is coming around to bucking that trend.
Any fool can put on a leather jacket, smoke a cigarette, and act like he’s tough. I’m sick of seeing it rewarded. Putting a harpsichord passage from Ravel’s “Bolero” in the middle of a song with a 7/4 guitar riff takes real moxie. And that’s the real measure of good rock and roll.