Every year since 1986, a handful of artists have been inducted with great fanfare into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on the basis of the influence and significance of their music.
And every year, another list grows: The artists you'd think would be members, but aren't. The artists on that list — many of whom have been nominated but not voted in — include Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, Kiss, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Grandmaster Flash, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, the MC5 and many others.
Is that because the bar of influence and significance is set so high that even those legendary artists don't qualify? Well, take a look at who is in: James Taylor, the Dells, the Flamingos, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel, the Young Rascals, the Ink Spots, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Four Seasons, the Orioles and — just inducted this year — soul singer Percy Sledge, whose one major hit occurred in 1966.
Without demeaning any of these artists, what the f---?
There's been no shortage of bellyaching on this subject, but there hasn't really been an examination of why it's happened.
We tried to find out what's up — and although we didn't get a definitive answer, we dug up a lot more dirt than we expected.
Let's start by taking a look at the rules.
Candidates for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are nominated by a committee of "music historians" — currently numbering 75 people, mostly executives and journalists — and are then voted upon by approximately 750 people (formerly around 1,000) from "across the spectrum of the music industry, including artists, broadcasters, writers, historians, producers and industry executives who are involved with making music," according to the hall's executive director, Suzan Evans.
Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record and are judged on the basis of "the influence and significance of the artist's contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll," according to the hall's Web site. (Categories include Performers, Non-Performers, Early Influences and Sidemen; we'll just examine Performers.) The performers who receive the highest number of votes, and more than 50 percent of the vote, are inducted.
So how have the Sex Pistols and Black Sabbath, whose "influence and significance" are beyond question, been denied induction several times?
After speaking with hall of fame executives and several members of the nominating committee, two theories emerge.
One generally blames it on the baffling results that democracy, combined with a lack of education, can produce. Dave Marsh, a pioneering music journalist and nominating committee member, subscribes to this notion. "There are 25, maybe 50 people in the world who have paid attention to all of this music from the beginning, and I would say the majority of those people are represented on the nominating committee. We come up with a pretty good list every year, and that list is then [voted upon] by an electorate that is not very knowledgeable.
"I don't think there's anything inherently bad about democracy," he continues, "but I do think there's something bad about asking a broad group of people to make judgments on something when they're not very well informed. The hall of fame is failing in not educating them."
Although the hall sends out a CD every year containing two songs by each of the nominees, you do wonder why these 750-odd people are voting members if they need to be educated.
The hall's flaws are readily admitted by President Seymour Stein, who co-founded the hall and was inducted in the Non-Performer category this year.
"We're not perfect. We try to be so fair by having such a big nominating committee," explains Stein, who co-founded Sire Records in 1966. "It infuriates me sometimes. I wonder why [some of the artists named above] aren't in. I get frustrated too."
Indeed, judging from the heated conversations one can get into with members of the nominating committee, the debates are refreshingly geeky. Lines like "So you're saying that the Sex Pistols were a better band than the Dells?" are stated with all the fury of a divorce hearing.
That passion can play as much of a role in keeping artists out as it can in getting them in.
"Kiss is not a great band, Kiss was never a great band, Kiss never will be a great band, and I have done my share to keep them off the ballot," Marsh says. "And there's your problem: There's a wide discrepancy in points of view about who should be in, and there's an enormous field of candidates. There's nothing you can do to change the fact that other people's taste is different."
However, there's a second theory. According to two members of the nominating committee who prefer to remain anonymous, there's more at work here than fanboyism.
The main players in the hall are its primary officers — Stein, hall Chairman/Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, Vice Chairman/Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, and Senior Vice President Jon Landau, who also manages Bruce Springsteen — and the list of inductees includes a strikingly large number of people they've worked with, people they've championed, and their personal friends. To a degree, this is inevitable — the world of multi-decade rock and roll veterans is pretty small — but one anonymous member says a line is being crossed.
"These people really do love rock and roll, and they want to push the things they like," nom-anon #1 says. "But there are also personal and financial agendas as well — and even personal vendettas.
"Let me give you an example," he continues. "[A major hall of fame officer] wanted me to get a favor from an artist, and it was above and beyond what this artist was willing to do, and rightfully so. I went back to this guy and said, 'Look, he doesn't wanna do it.' And he said, 'Well, you tell him he's never gonna get into the hall of fame.' To me, that's an example of how these guys run the hall."
He also feels that the befuddling exclusion of the Sex Pistols may be due to a personal slight. "Whenever the Sex Pistols come up, the attitude is, 'No, we're not putting them in!' " he says. "Somewhere along the line, did John Lydon tell [one of the officers] that he's a big fat pig? I don't know if that happened, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did, because when the Sex Pistols are brought up, he goes ballistic."
"Why do you think Patti Smith isn't in?" nom-anon #2 says, alluding to an alleged beef between the legendary punk singer and one of the hall of fame's officers. "Don't you think that's odd?"
By the same token, the personal interests that have kept certain artists out have gotten others in.
"There are forces at work there which I hesitate to call political, but I will say are political or personal, that put voters on [the nominating committee]," says nom-anon #2. "When the Talking Heads and Ramones were inducted at the same time [in 2002] — my, my, there couldn't be any coincidence about Seymour Stein [who signed both artists] being the head of the hall of fame?"
"I did not nominate the Talking Heads, the Ramones or [Sire artists] the Pretenders," Stein says. "I voted for all of them. However, I have one vote in the nominating committee and one vote in the [voting committee]."
Hall Executive Director Evans also denies the role of personal favoritism in the process. "The board of the museum is made up of the heads of the record companies, top managers, artists. I think everyone necessarily has relationships with people who want to be inducted, [but] I really don't think that relationships with members of the board have ever gotten anyone into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Obviously we're going to know people, but the nominating committee is a pretty purist group of writers and critics — the majority of them are journalists — and I really doubt that they are swayed by anybody coming in and saying, 'I want you to induct so-and-so.' "
Evans attributes the glaring exclusions to the vagaries of the voting committee. "I know sometimes the voting results seem to be more purist than populist," she says. "But I can't pretend to know why people vote the way they do, at all. Everyone has different tastes in music, and I think every genre in rock and roll is well represented in both our nominating committee as well as the larger voting group. And if you listen to any of our historians' discussions in the nominating procedure, you would hear a wide variety of tastes and judgments as to who is influential and who should go in before whom, depending on that person's personal preferences of the rock and roll genre — one person might put a name into a nomination and another might say, 'That's not rock and roll!' I get that all the time."
So we're to believe that more than half of the hall's voters, and its nominating committee, feel that Kiss and Sabbath aren't significant or influential enough to be in the hall of fame?
Indeed, nom-anon #1 says, "With Kiss and Black Sabbath, I don't believe those are conspiratorial cases. I think [the nominating committee members are] very split and very acrimonious about them. Kiss is brought up every year, and some people feel very passionately that they should be in, and some people feel very passionately that they shouldn't, based on the fact that they hate Kiss, and it's a similar thing with Sabbath. Some people think the hall of fame is invalidated by not having them in there, and other people just think they stink."
Lydon and members of Black Sabbath have spoken bitterly about the hall of fame. Neither group responded to requests for comment — Sabbath's publicist even said "the band as a whole is no longer interested in commenting on the hall of fame" — but they don't really need to. Lydon has called the hall "the place where old rockers go to die," and both Ozzy Osbourne and guitarist Tony Iommi have been outspoken in their displeasure at Sabbath being passed over.
After the group — which has been nominated and not inducted three times — was passed over in 1999, Osbourne issued a press release asking that the band be removed from consideration. "Just take our name off the list," he said. "Save the ink. Forget about us. The nomination is meaningless, because it's not voted on by the fans. It's voted on by the supposed elite of the industry and the media, who've never bought an album or concert ticket in their lives, so their vote is totally irrelevant to me. Let's face it, Black Sabbath have never been media darlings. We're a people's band, and that suits us just fine."
Interestingly, none of the people interviewed for this article said they felt those comments had played a role in keeping Sabbath or the Pistols out of the hall.
While the members of the nominating committee are often lobbied extensively by managers, executives and artists themselves (the list of people on the nominating committee is made public; the voting committee is not), all agree that it doesn't make much difference. "I think Chicago sends a lot of things, and the Moody Blues and the Doobie Brothers, but no one has bought me lunch or sent me a case of champagne," says nom-anon #2. "I get a lot of letters, but I'm not influenced by them."
However, the lobbying within the committee — where one person's influence can get an artist nominated — is another matter. "In the meeting itself, there is some heated debate," says nom-anon #1. "And there'll be someone who's really an advocate for somebody — year after year after year, they'll hone their arguments and make their case. Every year [one nominating committee member] was bringing up ZZ Top. I honestly believed that they would never get in or get past the nominating committee, but he was indefatigable and he got it through. There was a lot of resistance, but he overcame it. It happened just because of him."
Some members may defer to other members' greater knowledge of a genre, which goes a long way toward explaining the presence of '50s acts like the Flamingos and the Ink Spots in the hall. "My hunch," says veteran journalist Bud Scoppa, a member of the nominating committee since 1998, "is that some of the more vintage acts that have gotten in, particularly in doo-wop, have been little heard by the majority of voters, but tastemakers don't want to think of themselves as ignorant or — more crucially — biased. Seymour, who does know this stuff, has been a big supporter of the doo-wop groups, and I suppose it's possible that some voters defer to his greater knowledge of the dim past.
"But as for the [absence of certain] punk bands," he continues, "I don't get it either."
Although both anonymous members say the nominating committee's nominations are "pretty true to what we've voted on," there have been a couple that don't add up.
"Sometimes, in one or two cases, [the results] don't necessarily feel right to me," says nom-anon #1. "There's usually a moment at the very end of the meetings [where it's like] 'This doesn't quite make sense, maybe one person out of the ones we nominated didn't really have that many votes,' but I have no proof of that."
So what you've got is a hall of fame that no one seems to be happy with, yet no one seems to be working to fix, either. After aging prog-rockers Jethro Tull won the Grammy for Best Heavy Metal band — over Metallica — in 1989, the RIAA underwent at least an outward revision of its procedures and established some new categories. Nom-anon #2 feels the hall of fame is beyond saving.
"It's already a total joke," he says. "The more the 'institution' disgraces itself with Percy Sledges [and other marginal inductees], the less interesting it will be, and in two or three years, nobody will care anymore."
But for nom-anon #1, there's a simple solution.
"I walk into this room and it's full of old men," he says. "There's no young people, there's like two women, there's no people of color — well, I shouldn't say none, but there's a preponderance of old men. I look across the table and I see people sleeping — I'm just waiting for someone to die at the table — and they're making the decisions! They have their point of view, and it's a legitimate point of view that should be represented, but it's the whole thing."
Stein, however, attributes the hall's flaws to the impossibility of quantifying art. "Rock and roll is a hybrid," he says. "You ask 50 experts what it is and you'll get 50 different definitions. It's not baseball or basketball, where there are stat sheets. There are no scorecards, it keeps changing all the time.
"From his deathbed, Johnny Ramone sent me a letter advocating that Cat Stevens get in, and he got John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eddie Vedder to send letters saying the same thing," he continues. "From his deathbed, he said that — and there couldn't be anything more opposite the Ramones than Cat Stevens. It just goes to show the kind of music people do is not always indicative of our taste. I think the age of the voters has a lot to do with it — obviously we're influenced by the things we loved when we were 13."
Yet despite Stein's touching words, what all of this seems to indicate is that, with the exception of a strikingly large number of comparatively young Rolling Stone staffers, the majority of the hall's nominating committee — the members of which are overwhelmingly over 50 — has no idea what it felt like to be 13 and hear the Sex Pistols or see Kiss on TV for the first time, or at least they're failing to translate their own experiences to it. It's very different to experience music as a pure fan, especially a young one, than it is as a seasoned, if not jaded, music executive or journalist; this, despite the obviously juvenile arguments that go on during the meetings.
"Are you a voting member?" Stein asks. "Let me send you the materials. We can use a few more voters. Maybe you can help!"