Psych Prog in the Hall Of Fame

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When the nominees for the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were announced last week, voting was also opened to the public. While millions of people will vote for a top 5 ballot that will only count for one vote among approximately 600 ballots, it seems that other voters pay attention, as some otherwise unlikely bands got inducted in recent years, Kiss (2014) and Rush (2013). Both bands have had their rough patches with critics, but also enjoy massively dedicated and loyal fanbases. I definitely agree that Rush are worthy, but I also love the fact that Kiss made it, as long as Alice Cooper got in first (2011). Even though 80% of their songs are turds, they add some colorful, populist fun to the Hall. I also wonder if we don’t have the single-mindedness of Eddie Trunk bitching about it through a decade of That Metal Show to thank. Perhaps he’ll gift us with Thin Lizzy or UFO next?

People have been voting with a vengeance, and in the beginning, competition was fierce. In the first afternoon, Chicago lead with 17.06% over Yes (16.58%) and Deep Purple (16.42%). That night, Janet Jackson leapt to the lead with 28% and a couple million votes. The next day, Chicago was back in the lead with 18% and 4.7 million votes! At some point, The Cars might have vied for the lead. At this writing, Chicago seems to have it in the bag with 24.2% and 35.5 million over Yes’ 16.26% and 23.8 million, followed closely by Steve Miller, Deep Purple and The Cars all around 16%. Janet Jackson has 6%, and the rest, Chaka Khan, Cheap Trick, The Spinners, Chic, N.W.A., Nine Inch Nails, The Smiths and Los Lobos are way down in the 1% to 0.22% range.

I had no idea people were so passionate about Chicago. At best, they have some decent Latin jazz rock fusion jams on their first few albums. I even saw them accidentally this summer at Ravinia — I thought we were going for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, ha ha! At worst, Peter Cetera and those ubiquitous 80s soft rock MOR hits that make you want to stab yourself in the ears. You’d think Mahavishnu Orchestra or Chick Corea’s Return To Forever would be inducted first. Or on the pop side, Electric Light Orchestra. I’d totally get behind that! But the people have spoken.

There’s hope for the others, as some years they have inducted many more than five artists, which would allow for a pretty solid batch that should definitely include Deep Purple and Yes. There’s really no reason at this point to complain about all the worthy artists left out so far. Of course there are far more than 5 worthy artists that become eligible each year, and of course that will leave an increasingly large reservoir of talent, legends and underground influencers.

To be honest, the first decade of the HOF from 1986-95 was kind of boring, as most of the inductees were obvious no-brainers, the original architects of rock ‘n’ roll, and the big boomer bands. However, starting in 1996, things started to get interesting. You had Pink Floyd, who of course were huge sellers, but overall their music was much less accessible than what had come before. Their 1967 debut The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was a psychedelic classic, with Syd Barrett at the peak of his powers, and qualifying them for the Hall right then and there. But for the next few years they navigated the gray areas between psych, progressive and cosmic rock, with widely varying degrees of success. While The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) was another set of accessible songs, Animals (1977) was quite challenging, and The Wall (1979) was not just difficult, but arguably incoherent and wildly overrated. The Velvet Underground were also inducted that year, despite the fact that many of the voters probably had no idea who they were until relatively recently. And while the Bee Gees did create some Beatlesque psych pop in the 60s, they became far more well known in the disco era, which had people arguing about their rock and roll credentials.

So suddenly there was stuff to argue about, and while it was also the start of a load of insufferable whining on the part of artists and mostly their fans who felt slighted and left out, it also made the Hall of Fame that much more interesting, and lead me to look forward to every year’s announcements of nominees and eventual inductees. The classics, the undersung mavericks, the ridiculously popular and the just plain ridiculous, they’re all part of rock ‘n’ roll.

So back to my interest in the fascinating era of 1968 to 1972 when psychedelic rock was morphing into progressive rock in a swirling haze of gray mixed with a rainbow of day-glo colors. The Who’s Tommy (1969) is arguably a part of that era. Santana (inducted in 1998), had a bit of prog and cosmic rock mixed into their classic rock and psych brew in the first half of the 70s — see their double live album Lotus (1974). Traffic (inducted in 2004) are particularly interesting, as pretty much all of their six studio albums delved in psych prog, along with some blues and jazz. I didn’t realize they were that popular, as I did not grow up hearing their songs on classic rock radio. Perhaps it was the strength of Steve Winwood’s commercially successful solo career that pulled them into the spotlight over similarly great peers like Free, Procol Harum, King Crimson, Family, Spooky Tooth, Wishbone Ash, Hawkwind and Arthur Brown.

Similarly, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel’s mainstream solo success probably helped Genesis (inducted in 2010). It’s been greatly exaggerated that Black Sabbath (inducted in 2006, with Metallica performing their songs at the ceremony) were critically reviled. Yes, Lester Bangs was critical at first, but he was enthusiastically on board by their third album, Master Of Reality (1971), as were other mainstream critics. The band were successful right from the beginning, with their debut album making the charts. From heavy blues to proto-metal to dipping into prog by 1973, Sabbath were rock stars from the beginning. Deep Purple were even more successful and sold six times as many albums, partially due to the fact that they had an early big hit right away with “Hush” in 1968. Of their early psych prog albums, which included an somewhat awkward partnering with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, their best is their self titled album from 1969. But it was In Rock (1970) of course where they made history as being the biggest influence just behind Black Sabbath, on what would become heavy metal. They put out six more albums that were good to great (despite some suspect forays into boogie/funk), including one more classic, Machine Head (1972) that definitely nails their worthiness to be in the Hall of Fame.

While King Crimson may be the most influential prog band that should eventually be nominated, Yes are certainly an obvious choice, and deservedly should be considered before ELP and Jethro Tull. After three exploratory psych prog albums from 1969-71, they hit the big time with Fragile (1971) and became hugely popular stadium rockers, while still maintaining their proggy cred, even when they toyed with AOR pop songs in the 80s. It’s a testament to their popularity that they still played sold out stadiums this year even without founding members Jon Anderson and Chris Squire, who died in June. With a fanbase nearly as fervent as Rush and Kiss, they should have a good shot of being inducted. And if you want some punk cred, you’ve got it. Public Image Ltd’s Keith Levine was a roadie and guitar tech for Yes, and a big fan. Many other post-punk bands came out of the closet as prog heads in Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-84 (2005) — I’m in the credits of that book for helping him fill in the gaps in his prog listening during his research phase. On the other hand, the Hall seems to have cooled on punk, perhaps ever since The Sex Pistols declined to attend in 2006, though proto-punkers The Stooges stole the show in 2010 (not to mention doing a bang up job playing Madonna’s “Burning Up” & “Ray Of Light” in 2008). Rather than give a nod to Wire, Buzzcocks, The Damned, X or Gang Of Four, they skipped ahead a generation and inducted Green Day in 2015.

In recent years, prog seems to have developed its own cred to the point of nearly being cool! Several bands have abandoned the genre they were most associated with to go full-on prog. While Swedish death metallers Opeth were long associated with progressive metal, they went in deep with Heritage (2011) and Pale Communion (2014), abandoning metal altogether (though they still play old stuff live). Sweden’s Katatonia and UK’s Anathema migrated from death and doom metal to a hybrid of prog and alt rock (or neo-prog) over a decade ago. Mastodon was pretty progged out for a couple albums. Norway’s Motorpsycho and Sweden’s Anekdoten have been at it for 25 years and are finally getting some recognition outside of Europe. New prog bands like Syd Arthur, Baron, Sammal, Agusa, Messenger, Soen, Knifeworld, Gazpacho, Diatessaron, Perfect Beings and Astra have appeared in recent years. There’s even Prog Charts tracking the top 30 prog albums now.

Judas Priest and Iron Maiden have been tapping into their pre-metal prog roots on recent albums, both having made sprawling double albums. The latter’s somewhat proggy Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988) has seen a critical reassessment lately, with many fans calling it their best album. These bands have probably taken note of the dedication of fans who have been funding Marillion’s tours and recordings since 1997, way before crowdfunding was used by any other bands, and before the term even existed. The lesson seems to be that ambitious progressive opuses are rewarded by loyal fan support, which far outweighs any critical ridicule in the press. Will we see prog albums from Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus someday? Who knows!

I’m pretty certain both Yes and Deep Purple will be inducted in 2016. If not, shrug, they will eventually. I’m already looking forward to the next round to see who will make the short list of nominees. Will Judas Priest and Iron Maiden finally enter the conversation? Both certainly have rabid worldwide followings. Technically Monster Magnet, Sleep and Kyuss are all eligible for nomination, heh. That’s probably not gonna happen, and that’s okay. Just because every important band from your favorite obscure subgenre are not represented doesn’t mean that the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame is a joke or irrelevant. It’s not the Nobel Peace Prize, so FFS lighten up and don’t forget to vote for your top five!

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