Last week the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame welcomed a foursome of wily, troublemaking bands — The Clash, Elvis Costello and The Attractions, The Police and The Righteous Brothers.
The Clash, The Police, and Costello rode the wave of early British punk and new wave, but revealed them-selves to be bigger than trends and classifications and proved that good songs and good musicians transcend styles. The Righteous Brothers, for their part, almost single-handedly invented what came to he known as "Blue Eyed Soul" — and proved that white men can groove.
Artists become eligible for induction into the Hall 25 years after their first record was released — and so as Punk comes of age, the hall finds itself opening its doors to more and more upstarts, rebels and people our generation might actually find in their own record collection.
The Righteous Brothers weren't exactly punk progenitors — but they did break from the pack to record traditionally black music without "whiting it down" ala Pat Boone — blurring the color barrier so that radio listeners often had no idea the duo was white until the saw them in concert or press photos. Their masterpiece, "Unchained Melody" stands as perhaps the definitive blue-eyed soul recording and the standard by which decaffeinated vocalists like Michael Bolton prove their inferiority.
The Righteous Brothers? Okay. But the idea that The Police, Elvis Costello and The Clash would ever he lined up side by side with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and The Beatles for posterity would have sounded like the mad fever dream of a college DJ twenty years ago — but looking hack on the musical tumult of the seventies and early eighties, a few shining stars do appear as the others lade away.
While The Police may have made the world a safer place for new wave pretenders like Culture Club and The Knack they also proved that at a time when music splintered into factions of slick pop and rock and raw, impassioned punk it didn't have to he a battle between angry, nonsensical noise and overproduced, under crafted corporate product.
Costello was just as important in showing the world that a willingness to he rebellious — both musically and socially — doesn't have to mean turning out records that sound like your brother recorded them on a 4 track in his garage. In his first ever U.S. TV appearance Costello changed the song his hand played on Saturday Night Live — banging out the anti-corporate, anti-network anthem "Radio, Radio" in a stunt that got him banned from NBC for 12 years. It was the sort of thing The Sex Pistols were capable of — but they couldn't have followed it up by recording a traditional country record, an album of ballads and torch songs and a one-off with the Brodsky Quartet before capping it all off with a hard charging, Grammy nominated straight ahead rock record this year.
The Clash billed themselves as "The Only Band That Matters" — and in the musical ruckus of the early English punk scene, it seemed to fit. Twenty Five years later they stand out as perhaps the only of the original wave of British punk rockers who even attempted to grow, change and embrace new musical styles and directions. From hard rock to reggae to metal to rap, The Clash wanted it all — and before melting down in the early 80's very nearly had it. Signing to a major label, they managed a few radio hits in America before imploding, but have only grown in stature since their disintegration. The tragic death of bandleader Joe Strummer this year of a heart attack made The Clash's inclusion particularly poignant.
In the end, this year's induction proved (as last year's induction of The Ramones hinted) that The Rock and Roll Hall of fame isn't just for your father's rock and roll.