Anyone who’s had a longtime preset for a rock or pop oldies station is well aware of the generational shift: “Oldies” now almost entirely means the late ’70s and especially 1980s and ’90s, with rarely a pre-1970 tune to be found that isn’t the Beatles. Even given the recurring resurgence of the Fab Four, you’re still more likely to hear “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Here Comes the Rain Again” or even “Hey Ya” than “Hey Jude” on an oldies station.
So maybe it should be no surprise that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be subject to the same gravitational forces, more interested in artists that still have active careers, or as active as the 25-years-since-first-commercial-recording eligibility rule allows, rather than the dearly departed or semi-retired. Mind you, early-rock wild cards could still be found regularly sneaking onto the ballot until a decade or so ago… only to usually be rejected by the wider contingent of voters in favor of artists who still walk and rock among us. Nowadays, if an artist who started recording in the ’60s wins induction, it’s almost always someone who had her greatest successes in later decades, like a Tina Turner. When the Zombies were voted in three years ago, that might have been a last call for acts that really had their most significant impact in the Woodstock era or before.
But is that because the Hall already exhausted worthy candidates from rock’s first decade and a half? Well, no. Consider the artists that got overlooked, after the initial rush to get golden-era greats in: The Shangri-Las. Joe Cocker. Link Wray. The Monkees (controversial, but a deserving, “Head”-y pick). Love. Johnny Ace. The Flying Burrito Brothers. The Chantels. Dick Dale. The Grass Roots. Sonny and Cher. The Turtles. Mary Wells. Harry Nilsson. Phil Ochs. Petula Clark. Tim Buckley. Paul Revere and the Raiders. Peter, Paul and Mary. The Meters. The Marvelettes. What these artists have in common, beyond the fact that a majority of them were never even nominated, is that, barring a miracle, none stands to ever get in, barring a deus-ex-machina move by the Hall to sneak them in through a non-voted side door. Most won’t even be remembered as “snubs”; take a look at the twittersphere and you’re far more likely to see impassioned gripes about why the Smiths or Iron Maiden or OutKast aren’t in than you are complaints about a lack of Canned Heat, Glen Campbell or Cliff Richard.
There may be an underlying assumption among most music fans that everyone worthy from the first 15 years of rock already got in on the first or second wave, and so of course we’re left with Depeche Mode and Dave Matthews as today’s golden oldies of choice. Obviously, from the short list above and the longer one below, that’s not really the case. But the nominating committee may have just gotten tired of throwing older nominees into the mix, only to have them rejected by a 1,000-member voting bloc that inevitably is made up of fewer boomers as younger reinforcements with less institutional memory are brought in to the voting ranks.
Occasionally the Hall leadership hangs on to a more aged nominee like a dog with a bone, year after year, even if the wider roll call of voters continues to show disinterest. That’s the case this year as, in an exception to the rule we’re talking about, the MC5 has been put onto the ballot for the sixth time. It’s probably not going to happen this time, either, but God bless the committee for going ride-or-die with Wayne Kramer and company to the bitter end. There really aren’t any other ’60s vets they haven’t already thrown in the towel on after repeat failed nods. Imagine a time when the Hall of Fame committee went and put Chuck Willis — an artist fairly obscure even to your columnist — on the ballot a good six times before finally admitting they were licked.
Arguing over the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has become an especially competitive sport since the proliferation of social media began, but there’s a lot more heat in profanity-spewing debate over whether the Red Hot Chili Peppers belong in than about the alleged criminality of leaving Otis Rush out. Let’s face it, even if you’re over 65 or 70, it may be more fun to argue about whether Madonna or Lionel Richie is really rock ‘n’ roll than it is about whether Ben E. King or the Blues Project got screwed. We get that, and we get that an montage devoted to a long-gone rockabilly pioneer or modestly famous counterculture figure is not going to make for peak HBO. And older isn’t automatically better, of course — Eminem likely getting in in his first year of eligibility, versus the Big Bopper failing to in his 36th, may or may not be as it should be but it’s not one of life’s great injustices.
This is not a drift that is reversible, any more than KRTH-101 is going to start putting “Pushin’ Too Hard” into heavy rotation ahead of “Karma Chameleon.” Americans, we love our nostalgia, but our near-present nostalgia most of all. The Rock Hall is what it is — and it’s not a place where Delaney and Bonnie are going to get pushed to the front of the line in 2022.
But maybe it’s not too late to have some reevaluation of which acts from that era would really have a shot with the wider votership if they ever got put on the ballot. The Monkees, I’m convinced, would get voted in the very first time they appeared, if they ever could, and if the Hall didn’t harbor some kind of terror about what would happen if they put up an act that still has a slight “made-for-TV” black cloud over its head. Because if “influence” is a major consideration, as well as talent, what counts as more influential in the present day than a group whose synergistic origins practically invented the modern-day sync? (And didn’t the entire blogosphere just recently declare, upon his departure, that Michael Nesmith was one of the cooler musicians on the planet?) And — to really go out on a limb — what if the Hall embraced rather that stood terrified of nominating Pat Boone? Yes, he was a white guy who appropriated and further popularized Black music. Which, if we want to talk influence… Eminem, anyone? The whole history of rock ‘n’ roll, anyone?
All right, advocating for Boone is the very definition of a quixotic, maybe slightly perverse quest. But the Turtles? Yes, their being allowed their very first (!) nomination would represent one serious crawl to the finish line. But if the Hall can only find room for one or two pre-1970s acts a year out of a field of 17, the time might be ripe to look at some classic artists who never got a nod, even at the expense of waiting a year or three to give the MC5 another try in that slot.
Kudos to the keepers of the Hall for finding ways to get some pre-Duran Duran veterans in, by simply declaring that some older artists can get in in non-competitive, non-“performer” categories. That’s what happened last year, with Kraftwerk and LL Cool J being inducted for Early Influence and Musical Excellence, respectively, after the Hall realized it might be futile to keep putting them on the regular ballot. There’s certainly a hope of that happening with some of the ’60s acts that were tried multiple times and never had a chance, like the Meters or the Spinners.
Here’s a list of a hundred-plus artists who had part or all of their impact before 1970 who’ve been touted at one time or another for the Hall (with notations added for those that did get nominated). It could serve a one-stop shopping list for the Hall to mine for future “early influence” consideration. Barring that, it’s just an excuse to consider who might belong in the Hall that rock fans just maintain in their hearts.
Johnny Ace (nominated 2 times, in 1986 and 1987)
The Big Bopper
Blood, Sweat and Tears
Gary U.S. Bonds
The Box Tops
Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio
The Chambers Brothers
The Chantels (nominated 2 times, in 2002 and 2010)
Country Joe and the Fish
Danny and the Juniors
The Spencer Davis Group
Delaney and Bonnie
The Dominoes (nominated once, in 1997)
The Fifth Dimension
The Five Keys
The Five Satins
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Gerry and the Pacemakers
The Grass Roots
The Guess Who
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
The Incredible String Band
Tommy James and the Shondells
Jan and Dean
Ben E. King (nominated 3 times, in 1986, 1987 and 1988)
The Kingston Trio
Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles
The Marvelettes (nominated 2 times, in 2013 and 2015)
The Meters (nominated 4 times, in 1997, 2013, 2014 and 2018)
Peter, Paul and Mary
Esther Phillips (nominated twice, in 1986 and 1987)
Procol Harum (nominated once, in 2013)
Quicksilver Messenger Service
Paul Revere and the Raiders
Cliff Richard and the Shadows
Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels
Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs
The Sir Douglas Quintet (nominated once, in 2006)
Sonny and Cher
The Spinners (nominated 3 times, in 2012, 2015 and 2016)
Steppenwolf (nominated once, in 2017)
Ten Years After
Joe Tex (nominated 5 times, in 1998, 2006, 2007, 2017)
Big Mama Thornton
Three Dog Night
Conway Twitty (nominated once, in 2005)
Townes Van Zandt
Junior Walker and the All Stars
Johnny “Guitar” Watson
Mary Wells (nominated twice, in 1986 and 1987)
Chuck Willis (nominated 6 times, in 1986, 1987, 1988, 1990 and 2011)
Link Wray (nominated 2 times, in 2014 and 2018)
The 13th Floor Elevators