By Mike Greenblatt
The artists who have been overlooked by the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame will always be a contentious issue. As a longtime rock journalist, now is as good a time as any to throw my two cents in. Let’s start off with classic rock stalwarts Jethro Tull.
When Jethro Tull’s This Was debuted in 1968, we were wowed by the band’s twin leads of guitarist Mick Abrahams and flutist/singer Ian Anderson. Filled with blues and jazz, it stood out from the rest of the British blues-rock bands. In ’69, Stand Up stood tall in a year of unforgettable discoveries. Benefit (1970) and Aqualung (1971) were also amongst the best of those years (the title song of the latter contains arguably one of the greatest riffs in all of hard rock). But they were just getting started. Under the heavy hand of musical dictator Anderson, the band’s revolving cast put out eight more albums in the 1970s, each one marked by a sophistication of craft, a mingling of folkloric Celtic strains, rock and jazz, productions of which were finely etched with the kind of attention-to-detail we loved.
Total road warriors, and continuing with five solid 1980s albums (including Crest Of A Knave in 1987 which inexplicably won a Grammy for “Best Hard Rock/Metal”), they’ve had their share of anthems; their live shows are always dramatic; and none of their dozen more albums failed to deliver. Anderson goes ever on today, now marrying classical with rock plus jazz with folk. His following has reached Grateful Dead proportions with fans criss-crossing the globe to see him.
We reached Anderson about his obvious omission and this is what he had to say: “It matters that America glorifies, values and recognizes the huge talent that is part of American music. In a nutshell, it’s there for American music. If you’re not American and your music isn’t stylistically American, then I don’t think, necessarily, you belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so I’m perfectly happy to sit out on the periphery looking in. I think it is terribly important—especially for the unsung heroes of American music that have not been inducted. I can only hope for their sake and (for the sake of) American people who do value the culture of American music, they are recognized. I’m not worried about my not being inducted. I don’t think Jethro Tull should be because we’re not particularly American. Some of us from over here owe more to American music than I do. They sing with American accents, and their music has more American influences from rock‘n’roll and blues. I can see how Rod Stewart might fit, but Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer don’t have American influences.”
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
When Keith Emerson of The Nice, Greg Lake of King Crimson and Carl Palmer of Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown formed one of the first supergroups in 1970, we were skeptical at first until their live shows became so totally outrageous, that each show became a talked-about event. Emerson would go so crazy onstage from within a fortress of keyboards and synthesizers, it was carnivalesque rock‘n’roll theater of the highest caliber, stabbing his organ with a knife, throwing a 300-pound Hammond B-3 around the stage, kicking it, and even having it fall on top of him. Sound-wise, he revolutionized how synthesizers would be used by prog-rockers over the next decade. Palmer has to be looked upon as the equal of Bonham or Moon. Lake was the constant, a producer-singer-songwriter with that beautiful voice, and compositional chops to match. Their 10 albums together were serious affairs that we listened to diligently and with an increasingly high level of awe. That hasn’t changed.
From the time of his 1966 debut to his 1993 swan song, Harry Nilsson put out a string of wildly divergent genius pop albums but never toured. He was a one-man American Beatles, totally charming, with the voice of an angel.Eccentric, and enamored of true rock‘n’roll shock value rebelliousness, his albums got weirder and weirder, funny, over-the-top, with nuggets of brilliance. There’s been tribute albums, a book, a box set, a movie, and, hopefully, those of us who love Harry will live long enough to see his music grace the Broadway stage. His life story is tragic. His art is timeless, Even now, 25 years after his death, his body of work sounds as fresh and vital as ever.
Willy DeVille was an American original. He burst out of the ’70s CBGB punk scene yet his band, Mink DeVille, was hardly punk. Willy was always larger-than-life with his gold tooth, Italian shoes, precariously dangling cigarette, stylized clothing and pompadour. He was every inch the rock star. Even after heroin addiction almost killed him, even after the band broke up, his string of solo albums mashed up New Orleans, Paris, New York City and the Mississippi mud into his own idiosyncratic funky worldview of blues, soul, rock and a Bruce-like propensity for epic grandeur. It all came complete with a personal flair that cooked up sax, accordion and Latin percussion with that unforgettable voice.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Lowell George (at right) from Frank Zappa’s band and keyboardist Bill Payne put together this classic 1969 band, an Americana foreshadow. Their seven ’70s albums remain as beloved now as when they were first recorded. George broke up the band just prior to his accidental cocaine-related death at 34 in 1979. In 1988, they reformed without him for nine more solid albums. Their shows are always celebratory and filled with hot licks, solid musicianship, organic roots-rock and a down-home ambiance that eschews commercial trappings in favor of what can only be compared to an atmospheric feel-good revival tent show.
They started in 1969 as a biker band in San Jose, CA that would jam incessantly. Their first five albums (’71 to ’75) were all gems but the Doobies were always first and foremost a live band. TomJohnston is a Fogerty-esque blue-collar everyman who can rock with the best of them and when his electric leads combine with the nimble acoustic fingerpicking of Patrick Simmons, it’s a kind of magic. But in ’76, he quit, replaced by soul singer Michael McDonald who brought the band into platinum territory but diluted their original premise. They were done by ’82.
Yet in ’87, with McDonald out and Johnston back in and rocking harder than ever, they resumed their mastery of three-part harmony and the kind of stand-up-and-shout anthems that straddle country-rock and roots-Americana. Today, a half -century after inception, they’re better than ever.
It took Linda Ronstadt recording his “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down The Wind” and “Carmelita” to make him a star. A songwriter’s songwriter with a biting sense of sarcasm, his songs work well in different contexts while stars as diverse of Fleetwood Mac, David Letterman, Bruce Springsteen, Hunter S. Thompson, the Everly Brothers, Jackson Browne, Eagles, Bonnie Raitt and R.E.M. all rallied around him at different times of his career. Cancer killed him in 2003 at 56. His 1991 Mr. Bad Example featured “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” which was made into a movie. When people today sing his “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” Zevon is smiling somewhere. He’s still dead, but his wicked sense of humor remains intact and his life was like a rock‘n’roll song.