Why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Now Embraces Classic Rock Favorites

And will that come at the expense of lesser known, but very influential, artists?

By Brian Ives

For years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame told the story of rock music through the lens of Rolling Stone magazine; that’s no surprise, since Rolling Stone‘s co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner is one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s co-founders.

The Rock Hall held its first induction ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City on January 23, 1986; to be eligible, an artist had to have put out their first release 25 years earlier. The first year’s honorees included Elvis Presley, James Brown, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. No matter what strain of rock music you preferred, you really couldn’t debate that any of those artists were seminal in shaping rock and roll (although you could easily argue that Aretha Franklin, who was honored the following year, should have been part of that first class).

But as the years went on, the Rock Hall’s choices were more open to argument. Over the years, critical favorites generally trumped multi-platinum stadium headliners, particularly if those headliners weren’t bands that Rolling Stone championed. Artists that didn’t seem to have much relevance in the ’90s—but who were near and dear to the hearts of voters who came of age in the ’60s—such as the Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful, were all inducted between 1996 and 2000, although you would have been hard-pressed to see how those artists influenced younger generations during that era (with all due respect to those groups and their amazing catalogs).

Things started to change a bit in the new millennium. In 2001, Aerosmith and Queen were inducted alongside Steely Dan and Paul Simon. Two years later, AC/DC got in alongside critical favorites Elvis Costello, the Police and the Clash. 2006 saw Black Sabbath and Lynyrd Skynyrd honored with Blondie, the Sex Pistols and Miles Davis. In next few years, Van Halen, ABBA, Neil Diamond and perhaps most shockingly, Genesis, were all voted in.

But generally, those popular, populist artists were the exception rather than the rule. That seemed to change in 2013 when hell froze over. That was the year that Rush was inducted. Rush, of course, was a band that Rolling Stone never paid much attention to, much to the chagrin of their fan base.

That year, the event took place at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles on April 19, and the public was able to buy tickets to attend the event. (Up until 2011, the induction ceremony was usually a private affair.) The inductees, besides Rush included Heart, Public Enemy, Randy Newman, Albert King, Donna Summer and Quincy Jones.

Related: Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction 2013: Photos, Interviews

Jann Wenner greeted the audience from the stage, listing the names of the inductees, and the cheers when he got to Rush were deafening, as if the fans were shouting him down for giving the band the cold shoulder for decades.

Alex Lifeson later told Radio.com, “[When] He said, ‘And from Toronto, Canada…,’ and the place blew up. It was unbelievable. And that wasn’t lost on Jann either. We were holding back tears. It was incredible, I’ll never, ever, ever forget that moment.”

Geddy Lee added, “We all teared up at that moment, it was quite something to see. It became apparent pretty quickly that a large portion of the audience was there for us; it was a Rush crowd that night. But that moment took us as much by surprise as it did Jann.”

The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins were on hand to present Rush, and Grohl joked about Rush’s relationship with RS. “They did it from the ground up: no hype, no bulls—, without any help from the mainstream press – COUGH! Rolling Stone!” That line that got huge cheers.

Lifeson pointed out, “It’s not lost on us that they used to have the induction ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria, and our year it was at an arena packed with Rush fans paying a ridiculous amount of money for tickets. We had to smirk a little bit at that.”

Lee and Lifeson are right: if you were in—or even around—the Nokia Theater that night, you could have been excused for thinking it was a Rush concert. There were some Heart fans, and some Public Enemy fans. But from a ticketing perspective, it was a Rush concert with a lot of big name opening acts.

Was seeing the power of a loud, engaged and passionate fan base a turning point for Mr. Wenner and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame board? Maybe, maybe not. But the following year, KISS was finally inducted. KISS, the band who were the subject of the most contentious debates that the Rock Hall’s nominating committee ever had. Hall and Oates were inducted that year as well, after being passed over for years.

Last year classic rock/classic hits radio mainstays Deep Purple, Steve Miller, Cheap Trick and Chicago were all inducted; N.W.A. was the only 2016 inductee that most music critics could really get behind. And this year Yes, Electric Light Orchestra and Journey—three bands who are pretty much the opposite of “critically acclaimed”—will enter the Hall of Fame alongside Pearl Jam and Tupac Shakur.

It’s interesting to note that this trend is taking place as a wave of populism is being credited for being a deciding factor in not only our Presidential election, but in elections all over the world. Perhaps elitism is losing its sheen for the Rock Hall’s nominating committee and the voting body.

But we are also living in an era when rock music is as far from the cultural zeitgeist as it’s been in decades, leading to inevitable thought pieces which ask  “Is Rock Dead?” Perhaps some of the voters who might have turned their noses up to certain popular bands decades ago, now begrudgingly appreciate the endurance of those bands’ catalogs, not to mention their ability to headline large venues, decade after decade. The last twenty years or so have yielded relatively few rock bands who can consistently made cultural impact with their music; that thought may give way to a new appreciation for the likes of Journey. Will Twenty One Pilots or the 1975 be pulling huge crowds in 2040? Time will tell, but perhaps the lack of new huge rock bands has inspired a sort of grudging respect for bands like Yes, Chicago and the Steve Miller Band, whose songs are still constantly played on radio, and who play to big crowds, summer after summer.

And that’s good. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that makes ardent rock and roll fans feel like they’re not cool enough, probably isn’t a very healthy institution. If 2016 has taught us anything, its that people don’t like feeling like their tastes and views aren’t being respected.

Related: Six Metal Icons Who Should Be In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 

Hopefully the Rock Hall’s recent populist inductees aren’t a product of the voting body’s Boomer bias. That bias is seen in some glaring omissions in both metal and punk/alternative. Judging by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inductees, nothing happened in heavy metal between Black Sabbath and Metallica. Sure, a lot of hard rock bands have been inducted, including Aerosmith, KISS, AC/DC, Guns N Roses and Van Halen, but some seminal metal bands—namely Motorhead, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, artists who have shaped the genre, which remains popular today—have been ignored and have never even appeared on the ballot.

Related: Fourteen Alternative Rock Icons Who Should Be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Similarly, the story of punk and alternative seems to jump from the glory days of CBGBs—the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Pretenders, Elvis Costello & the Attractions—straight to U2 and R.E.M. and then right to Lollapalooza-era multi-platinum acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Green Day and Pearl Jam. This ignores the massive influence of British post-punk bands, including Joy Division, New Order, the Cure, Depeche Mode and the Smiths. It ignores many of America’s greatest “left of the dial” bands of the ’80s whose influence far transcended their record sales, including the Replacements, X, Sonic Youth and the Pixies, not to mention hardcore bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag and Minor Threat. It ignores some less easily categorized artists who were also hugely important and who helped the stretch the boundaries of what rock music could be: Bjork, Kraftwerk, Massive Attack and Devo.

A seminal punk rock band called the Germs—who are unlikely to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—led off their 1979 album (GI) with a song called “What We Do Is Secret,” a title that doubled as something of a mantra to punk rockers and anyone else who avoided the mainstream. But in the post-Nirvana era, where big name bands constantly exposed their fan bases to influential cult acts (recall Nirvana inviting the members of the Meat Puppets to play with them on MTV Unplugged), and certainly in the internet era, where almost all music is instantly available, almost no music is “secret” anymore. Here’s hoping that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will shine even more of a light on some of these bands in the next few years, inducting some lesser known groups along with the superstar acts. It’s great that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has dropped a bit of its snobbery, but the bands from the underground deserve their due too.

The 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place on Friday, April 7, 2017 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

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