Even more than most awards shows, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finds itself boxed in by ceremony. Realistically, there’s only so much you can do with a template that rarely veers from performance / induction speech / acceptance speech: At best, you’ll have mind-blowing performances and touching speeches of genuine gratitude, grace and humor; at worst, the opposite, with speeches that more resemble interminable wedding toasts.
And despite Queen guitarist Brian May’s comment on this evening that rock music is “alive and well,” the sort of rock and roll that’s celebrated in this 33-year-old institution is rapidly becoming a museum piece itself: The last culturally galvanizing rock band was Nirvana, over a quarter-century ago. Thus, the Rock Hall’s job has become less about recognizing talents that have finally reached the 25-year-since-first-record eligibility and more about a second chance — or third, fourth, fifth or more — for the ones that were passed over in past years, along with a shamefully token nod to other genres, most often R&B and hip-hop.
Yet the excruciatingly long 34th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Friday night did manage to produce some genuinely moving moments, especially a dignified speech from Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott about the astonishing ups-and-downs of the band’s career, and some trademark hilarious and historically fascinating battiness from Stevie Nicks. The Cure, Roxy Music, the Zombies, Janet Jackson and Radiohead were inducted as well; the latter two did not perform. (A source tells Variety that Jackson decided not to perform because the Rock Hall show will be broadcast April 27 on HBO, the network that produced the controversial “Leaving Neverland” documentary containing multiple allegations of child abuse against Michael Jackson, Janet’s late brother.)
The evening started off with one of the show’s strongest performances — and definitely the most amusing speech — from Nicks, who was joined in song by both former paramour Don Henley and current friend and fanboy Harry Styles. She brought a bevy of her inimitable bon mots to a nearly 15-minute acceptance speech and lots of between-song banter. Nicks talked at length about the “original ‘Stand Back’ scarf” that she was wearing and how her mother said it was too expensive but “look at how well it’s held up over the last 35 years.” She talked about how “Leather and Lace” (for which she was joined by Henley) was originally written for star country couple Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter “but they didn’t stay married so I took the song back,” and how “Edge of Seventeen” was about John Lennon’s death and “something that happened between Tom Petty and his first wife, and it’s so heavy that each time you play it, it feels like you’ve never played it before. So ladies and gentlemen,” she concluded, “go with pain.” Okay then!
Styles, clad in an electric blue suit, took Petty’s duet role for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and inducted Nicks, who he said was an early musical influence — he recalled hearing her songs with his parents when he was barely five — and raised eyebrows when he said, “She is everything you’d want in a lover and a friend,” although their long embrace seemed more familial than romantic. At the end of her set Nicks picked up a tambourine bedecked with streamers, swirled her scarves and casually did her trademark witchy dance from one side of the stage to the other — a true pro making sure the audience got what they came for.
Radiohead got a strong induction speech from David Byrne, who said he was “surprised and very flattered” when he first learned that the group had named themselves “after a song I had written, and I couldn’t help wondering why that song?,” he paused. “I don’t want to know!”
While the members of Radiohead were famously on the fence about whether or not they would attend, what was surprising on this night was that the one member who’d said he definitely wanted to go — bassist Colin Greenwood — was not in attendance, but two who were ambivalent — guitarist Ed O’Brien and drummer Phil Selway — did. Both were extremely gracious and grateful: “We may not be the best musicians and we’re certainly not the most media-friendly band,” Selway said, “but when we connect with people it feels amazing.” O’Brien added, “I just want to say this is such a beautifully surreal evening for us, and it’s a very far cry from where we come from. It is a big f—ing deal and I wish the others could be here because they would be feeling it too.”
The evening’s first middle-aged screams erupted when Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon and John Taylor took the stage to induct Roxy Music, recalling being teenagers in the summer of 1972 when David Bowie and Roxy electrified their Saturday television shows. “Their sound was a shock to the system, a psychedelic Sinatra, pulp science fiction,” Le Bon said, with Taylor adding, “I am always proud to say that without Roxy Music there would be no Duran Duran.” The band’s supremely classy frontman, Bryan Ferry, spent most of his speech thanking musicians (including the absent founding members Brian Eno and Paul Thompson), producers, engineers, managers, and of course designers the group has worked with over the years. The group — with classic-era members saxist Andy Mackay, guitarist Phil Manzanera and keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson — played a tight set that included abbreviated versions of “Out of the Blue,” “Avalon,” “Love Is the Drug” and “More Than This.”
A different tone of audience enthusiasm greeted Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who inducted the Cure. He recalled the group’s music breaking into his alienated rural childhood, “Immediately this band struck a chord with me — a lot of darkness I felt in my head was coming back at me through the speakers.” He concluded by saying, “In the past I’ve been ambivalent about certain award ceremonies, and thought ‘How can I take this awards ceremony seriously if they don’t even acknowledge The Cure?’ And then not so long ago I got a phone call I wasn’t expecting and here we are. Let’s just say I’ve never been as happy to eat my words as I was on that day.” (Read his full speech here.)
Cure frontman Robert Smith, sporting as ever rats-nest hair, heavy makeup and red lipstick, gave a slightly awkward but grateful speech, saying that speaking is “completely different to singing onstage and much more difficult” and comically closed by saying “Where’s my ‘wrap it up’ sign?” The group then paid tribute to former drummer Andy Anderson, who died of cancer earlier this year, by opening their brief set with the cataclysmic “Shake Dog Shake,” a deep cut from their crazed 1984 album “The Top,” before launching into the crowd-pleasers “A Forest,” “Love Song,” “Just Like Heaven” and “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Janelle Monae, rocking black leather, fangirled shamelessly over Janet Jackson, who she called the “queen of black-girl magic” and recalled first hearing about from her mother: “It was so refreshing to see someone who looked like me.” She admitted that Janet’s picture has been the screen-saver on her phone for seven years, and “every time I look at it I remember to focus,” and thanked her not only for her musical and cultural influence but also for being a leader in the LGBTQ community.
Jackson, wearing a black outfit with orange plumage on the pants, talked about how she’d originally wanted to go to college and become a lawyer but “it was my father’s dream for me to become a wonderful performer,” and recalled him bringing her to A&M Records as a 14-year-old, where she signed her first record deal. She spoke about “always tagging along with my brothers” yet “as the youngest, I was determined to make it on my own.” She also recalled her pride at seeing her brothers inducted into the Rock Hall, and said, “But never in a million years did I expect to follow in their footsteps — and tonight your baby sister is here.” She thanked many people but told Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the hitmakers behind her breakthrough album “Control” and many other hits, and Roots drummer Questlove to stand up and be recognized; when thanking her choreographers, she said I never thought I was a good dancer” to uproarious laughter from the crowd. She concluded with a “personal thank-you to every fan,” and finished by saying, “Please Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2020 induct more women.”
The Zombies could have found few truer fans than Bangles singer Susannah Hoffs to induct them. She recalled hearing their songs on the radio as a child in her parents’ car, and said “I’ve loved the Zombies for as long as I can remember.” The bandmembers gave overly long but gracious speeches, noting that it was 50 years ago to the day that their single “Time of the Season” reached number one, but they’d already broken up because the album from whence it came, the classic “Odessey and Oracle,” had stiffed on the charts. They then performed four songs, also including “Time of the Season” and their first hit, “She’s Not There.”
Queen guitarist Brian May took the stage for the final induction: his longtime friends Def Leppard. He recalled first meeting them backstage at a concert in 1981, saying, “Hi, I’m Brian May from Queen” and they replied, “No sh–.” He singled out singer Joe Elliott as one of his best friends and noted that when Leppard guitarist Steve Clark died of alcoholism-related illness in 1991, May was one of the first people to call Elliott, and that when Freddie Mercury died not long after, Elliott was the first to call him. Elliott gave a gracious and very well-written speech in which he gave considerable credit to the contributions from Clark as well as founding guitarist Pete Willis, producer-cowriter Mutt Lange and early managers Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch.
Yet the evening’s most emotional moment came when he addressed the lows that have come with their spectacular highs: Clark’s death, guitarist Vivian Campbell’s ongoing battle with cancer, and drummer Rick Allen losing an arm in a 1984 car accident.
“Although there seemed to be a looming sense of tragedy around every corner, we just wouldn’t let it in,” he said. “It did seem that every time we made some musical headway, life would knock us back down somewhat. [The group’s 1983 album] ‘Pyromania’ is a raging success, then Rick has a life changing accident. He survived it and came out the other side stronger.”
He paused as the crowd gave a rousing standing ovation that didn’t stop after the usual standing-ovation timespan — it grew as everyone gradually realized, seemingly in unison, that this guy really overcame odds that anyone would consider unbeatable. The applause grew louder as Allen noticeably teared up, giving a thumbs-up sign to the crowd and getting hugs from his bandmates, a couple of whom were weeping as well.
Elliott then picked up the narrative of the band’s wildly dramatic career, which has seen them rise and fall in popularity along with the tragedies. “[The 1987 blockbuster] ‘Hysteria’ gave us the global success that we’d always craved… and then we lost Steve. But we survived and came out the other side stronger people. And that’s the way it’s always played out throughout our career. So let’s face facts here, if alcoholism, car crashes and cancer couldn’t kill us, the ’90s had no f—ing chance!”
The group then knocked out four of their biggest hits, “Hysteria,” “Rock of Ages,” “Photograph” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and although the performance could not match the drama of the speeches, it made for an irresistible final scene for the inevitable Def Leppard biopic.
After a few desultory minutes, Def Leppard was joined onstage by May — brandishing his trademark red guitar — Hoffs and various Zombies and, surprisingly, Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter, for a finale of Mott’s 1972 hit “All the Young Dudes.” The song, penned by David Bowie, has only a tangential connection to the evening’s honorees (May and Def Leppard performed it at Freddie Mercury’s tribute concert in 1992) — and the fact that they’re all actually quite old dudes was not lost on anyone — but it was a fine one to have resonating in the crowd’s collective heads as they exited the arena, more than five hours after most of them had entered. And with that, a few minutes after midnight, the show wrapped.