By Martin Popoff
It certainly looks promising, given the recent announcement of the nominees for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for next year. As has been tradition (see my rants on Judas Priest, Deep Purple and Yes), it’s time to chime in on the state of the much embattled genres of hard rock and heavy metal when it comes to the Hall. First off, I must say, I’m loving the entire list. I’m not going to disparage the four choices I don’t think should be there, but the rest, have at ‘er! Seriously, congratulations on a vibrant and varied list of worthy (and mostly quite creative) contenders. But yes, as I say, my task is to weigh in on the heavy end of things, and for me, that means focusing on five bands: Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Motörhead, Soundgarden and the MC5.
I’ve written a long and impassioned screed on why Rob Halford & Co. should get in (go read it here), and not much has changed, except the argument has just gotten bolder, with a well-received record in 2018 called Firepower. The sad news of Glenn Tipton’s Parkinson’s disease diagnosis just adds resonance. Also adding “firepower” is the fact that the band ably toured that record, selling tens of thousands of more tickets, making a lot more people happy that the Priest still lives. As well, there’s been no talk of hanging up the skates. In fact, there are rumbles about framing 2020 as a 50th anniversary year.
Yes, please read the original post from back in May of 2017. Of all five of these bands, they are still far and away my top choice in terms of worthiness of induction in 2020. Okay, I can’t resist, if you’re not going to go read that other article, here’s a quick recap: around since 1969, first record in 1974, took heavy metal to a higher, unexpectedly intelligent level with Sad Wings of Destiny, Sin After Sin, Stained Class and Hell Bent for Leather, and then became one of the biggest bands of the ‘80s, from roughly 1982 through 1986, with that year’s Turbo maintaining career heft at platinum. As well, the band championed heavy metal unflagging, really, beginning as the forefathers of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. People love the return to form album from 1990, Painkiller, even more today than it was then. Lastly, they kept Iron Maiden on their toes.
Seeing the name of the Thin Lizzy, one of this writer’s favorite five bands of all time, was a blissful surprise. No question, among radio and Facebook debates with the rock faithful, I’ve had Lizzy brought up many times for induction, but I’ve always argued within my metalhead camp that it’s too soon. As much as we all love them, if we keep an open mind, many, many other bands deserve induction before them. My thoughts, essentially, haven’t changed that much. Thin Lizzy lasted from 1969 to 1983, and had one US gold album in that span. More than half of those records were frankly, very, very obscure. And even, unlike many hard rock and heavy metal bands that didn’t sell a lot of records, Thin Lizzy didn’t sell a lot of tickets either. Nor did they circle the globe—a fondness for cocaine and heroin tends to limit one’s mobility. And even though they continued without their dear Leader Phil Lynott sporadically in recent decades, there has been no new music.
As well, to be sure, dozens of our favorite hard rock and heavy metal performers worship Thin Lizzy and were inspired by them. But it’s not like their gorgeous twin-lead sound and Springsteen-level sense of storytelling mushroomed up whole subgenres. Look, they are my favorite band on this list of five. I love that they are here and it says good things about the Rock Hall. But if I had to be sensible about it, they’d be fifth of these five in terms of quailification. Er, I mentioned that there were four choices I don’t think should be here, right? I’d still put Thin Lizzy above those four. So for me, again, trying to be sensible, that would designate them bottom third.
I’m feeling somewhat the same way about MC5 as I do about Thin Lizzy. But of course, they have the US cachet and the critic’s darling cachet that tends to put obscure US acts over the top. MC5 would be secondary to the Stooges in terms of that original pioneering clanging Detroit heaviness, mostly through their 1969 debut Kick Out the Jams (a live album), and then really, frankly, less so through the thin and retro Back in the USA and the jazzy and unfocused High Time, the last of their three albums, from 1971. To be sure, people never stopped talking about them, and they have done these complicated reunions, complicated because there was never any new music, and indeed, there was never an actual stable replacement for deceased singer Rob Tyner.
So yeah, the narrative is of course MC5, the Stooges and New York Dolls as the proto-punks, also part of the invention of heavy metal, blah blah blah. But the MC5 never sold any albums, they only had three albums, and they came and went in a flash—and a really, really long time ago at that. Again, being sensible, I love MC5, but you’d have to put them in the muck of those four acts that I don’t think should be here. Okay, dammit, I’ll tell you who they are so everything is aboveboard: The Notorious B.I.G., Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Todd Rundgren and T. Rex. So yeah, so far, I’m think Thin Lizzy and MC5 should be just about those four, or near the top of that list of four, making it a list of six.
I love this choice, and I would put them second to Judas Priest, maybe even a close tie with Judas Priest. Soundgarden were right there at the beginning as one of the very first grunge bands, along with the likes of Green River, Mudhoney, Melvins and Nirvana. But I also think they were the most creative, had the most talent, had the coolest lead singer, and were the most fearless and pure in terms of their creativity. As well, they pretty quickly got quite big, currently sitting with two double platinum studio albums in the US, plus a five times platinum for the sprawling and shockingly dirty Superunknown, which made them the “it” band of 1994.
So yes, Soundgarden were both massive and extremely artistic, with a crazy musicologist list of collective influences. Heck, they were practically a progressive rock grunge band. As well, they reformed and put out King Animal in 2012, and continued touring, getting solid crowds. The shocking death of Chris Cornell adds over horrible resonance. Absolutely a worthy choice, again, basically for two reasons: they were a Mensa metal band for the music nerds and they were also massive. I’ll never forget the magic of getting the Screaming Life EP in 1987 at Zulu Records in Vancouver. That thing just lit a fire. Of note, all this talk about Soundgarden has me jonesing for Alice in Chains to get the nod(s) next.
Lastly, at the heavy end, there’s loveable rogues Motörhead. First off, the Hall shoots itself in the foot here by tainting the inclusion of the band—not to mention its wider lively and commendable list for 2020—by suggesting that the induction is for the original band only (and I’m using that term short form: the classic lineup is not exactly the original lineup—long story), namely, Lemmy, Fast Eddie Clarke and Philthy Animal Taylor. Ask any cursory or obsessed Motörhead fan, and none of them would pick those three, and none of them would pick Lemmy, Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee. Every last one of them would say that it’s those five guys combined. To a man and tattooed biker gal, they would all name exactly the same five Motörhead members. And they would of course be correct.
Again, it’s pretty surprising Motörhead has been nominated, but as Phil Campbell rightly intimates, they wouldn’t have been nominated had the band not gone on, and been a steady touring act with rock-solid records right up until Lemmy’s death at the end of 2015. The decades-long lineup with those three guys, Lemmy, Mikkey and Phil, brought so much joy to so many metalheads. They were a large club and theatre act, and could headline many bigger places with a strong under-bill, and did—and around the world. People adored Lemmy, but they also adored Phil and Mikkey.
The original band, sure, they were pioneering, genre-straddling and super-heavy for the times—in fact, I’ve often called Overkill and Bomber two of the five heaviest albums of the entire 1970s—and those are the leather banditos who gave us “Ace of Spades” and Ace of Spades. As well, the original band was good for fully five studio albums and a British-chart-topping live album… which sounded like a vacuum cleaner with drums (the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll swindle, despite what Johnny Rotten would say).
But, you hear Motörhead in TV commercials and you hear “Ace of Spades” in football stadiums because of the ongoing top-shelf work of Lemmy with Mikkey and Phil. So here’s a controversial viewpoint: I think Motörhead should get in over and above both Thin Lizzy and MC5 just because they were so damn rock ‘n’ roll, so magical and electric, so inspiring to so many people in their lives, not to mention musicians. In fact, pretty much neck-and-neck with Judas Priest, of these five bands, they were the most important in terms of turning angry bed-headed teenagers into music makers and Metallica.
So there you have it. But wait, there’s more. What else from the kerranging guitar class could have or should have been on this list? Well, if you’re going to cite Thin Lizzy, then I don’t see why you can’t bring up sister act UFO. I’d actually put them above Thin Lizzy, because of the continued career, essentially, without going to into it. Because the contribution in the ‘70s is pretty much a dead heat.
Glaring omission—and only glaring because, like I say, it’s really quite pleasantly surprising to see these five bands here but not them—is Blue Öyster Cult. Pretty darn big band from about 1975 through to 1982, critic’s darling, American as well, and in the literary department, one of the most interesting and creative hard rock bands ever. They also did many interesting things at the music end, exhibiting great range, from pop and psych and blues to metal, utilizing keyboards and harmonies and the tasty licks of Buck (and now I want to talk about Uriah Heep, but that’s for another day!). One negative is how the material dropped off in quality and quantity after The Revolution by Night, but still, given how many bands completely frozen in time get into the Hall, this seems like an omission that should be fixed soon.
Lastly, the huge, huge omission at this point is Iron Maiden.
I argue that in terms of the importance of moving the genre further vis-a-vis smarts and quality… well, that was accomplished more so by Judas Priest. But I can understand fully the throngs of Ed Heads that would put Maiden above Priest. To be sure, that absolutely godly run of records for Priest in the ‘70s makes it no contest for me: it’s Priest above Maiden. But in the opposing argument, Maiden and Priest were essentially neck-and-neck in terms of their commercial imprint throughout the ‘80s. Both stumbled badly in the ‘90s.
But then Maiden has made this astonishing, completely inspiring rise to heavy metal dominance throughout the 2000s and 2010s that just screams out for their induction into the Hall. Not only have they sold hundreds of thousands of tickets and made massive armies of metalheads happy, they’ve written and recorded lots of music of pretty high quality. They really are the ultimate example of a Grateful Dead of heavy metal: completely crazy obsessive fans who have seen the band dozens of times, massive concerts, but pretty unimpressive record sales. So yes, as we sit here on the cusp of 2020, they are the biggest and boldest heavy metal band that is not yet in the Hall.
Actually, putting aside how it goes for these five, my personal list of “nexts” in order (yeah, I know, I didn’t write about them all) would go: Iron Maiden, Jethro Tull, Blue Öyster Cult, Uriah Heep, Pantera, Alice in Chains and UFO.
Okay, so, back to the topic at hand, to summarize, I don’t think we metalheads can expect all five of these bands to get in. That would be asking too much. It would be reasonable to see Judas Priest, Motörhead and Soundgarden get the nod. Obviously, the Soundgarden story is much different than that of these other bands. Well, frankly, there’s Soundgarden set apart, MC5 set apart, and then a sort of symbiosis between Judas Priest, Motörhead and Thin Lizzy, not least of which is the fact that they were all British acts, although every one of them has certain aspects of American-ness to them.
Still, that is my version of making sense here: Judas Priest absolutely, Soundgarden, not exactly a victory for heavy metal, but yes, sensible, and then thank you, thank you for Motörhead. But hey, Hall, seize the handle and open the window of opportunity. This is your chance to show some agility and humility and responsiveness. Fix this very quickly and induct Lemmy, Phil, Eddie, Phil #2 and Mikkey. Hell, Phil and Mikkey have already proven how grounded, down-to-earth and rock ‘n’ roll they are by saying they would show up—and play!—regardless. How cool is that given the diva behavior that has scarred past Rock Hall inductions?
LOOK FOR THE ROB HALFORD CHRISTMAS ISSUE, ON NEWSSTANDS* NOVEMBER 5, 2019.
*Find at select Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, etc.