Music purists love to trash the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a creaky institution run by out-of-touch guardians of all that is old and irrelevant.
And yet, music writers can’t stop talking about the Hall, which, ironically, makes the organization relevant to the ongoing conversation about music. Take, for instance, a May 2 article from Vulture’s Bill Wyman that ranks every single Rock Hall of Fame member from best to worst. The article went viral shortly after Wyman unleashed this sprawling analysis that attacks and praises Hall of Fame members with equal passion, depending on his personal preferences.
The tone of his article, alternating between bitchy and smug, invites the kind of anger-laden debate that characterizes a well-written ranking. Wyman mercilessly attack Bon Jovi (ranked 214 — dead last) for producing “only one passable chorus in a 30-year-plus history” while fawning over the Ramones, a band he ranks in greatness above Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Along the way, Wyman makes some mighty controversial choices. Here are some that stand out:
- Prince, Ranked Number 6. Prince created his own style of rock and funk crossover — but are we prepared to accept a world in which Prince is ranked ahead of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Little Richard, and Otis Redding? Seriously? Prince was great, but how many Prince albums and songs do you regularly listen to from his catalog post-Sign ‘O’ the Times?
- The Doors, Ranked 172. The Doors represent everything that is great about rock: pushing boundaries, rebelling, and embracing inner chaos. Jim Morrison was not only one of rock’s greatest front men, he also created the template for musicians as visual artists. Anyone who aspires to captivate an audience through the power of live theater — Arcade Fire comes to mind — owes a debt to the Doors. The Doors also created an incredibly diverse and influential body of music in just five years, fusing psychedelia, jazz, and blues. But Bill Wyman dismisses them as nothing more than a “dreary band.” I get, it, though: when you challenge the status quo and redefine a genre, you anger people who want to keep rock in a well-defined box.
- The Ramones, Ranked 7. The Ramones are the kind of band that critics love to hold up as the shining example of “real rock,” as in some stripped down kind of music devoid of pretension. And don’t get me wrong — I love the Ramones, or, more specifically, two or three highly listenable Ramones albums from the band’s peak. But they’re more famous for representing a movement, which elevates their music too high on Wyman’s list. The Ramones did one thing really well, but they were limited to their loud-and-fast formula. The Rolling Stones, ranked 15, were punk before the Ramones defined Punk.
- The Rolling Stones, Ranked 15. Wyman’s ranking is a head scratcher. First off, let’s names some of the groups he ranks ahead of the Stones: the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and, as noted, the Ramones and Prince. Really? Nirvana is more important than the Stones? But rather than defend his rationale, Wyman dives into a puzzling harangue about why the Stones’s original keyboardist, Ian Stewart, was allowed to be inducted along with the group — sort of like a historian ranking Millard Fillmore as a greater president than Abraham Lincoln and then launching into a discussion about the vagaries of the Electoral College. I’m left mystified as I listen to Beggars Banquet for the 500th time.
- Michael Jackson, Ranked 58. In Wyman’s view, Michael Jackson is guilty of not being Elvis or the Beatles (“virtually everyone who bought a Presley or Beatles record was doing something they’d never done before. That’s different from what Jackson did.”) Fair enough. Jackson was neither Elvis nor the Beatles, both of whom are ranked reasonably in Wyman’s Top 5. But Jackson didn’t need to be Elvis or the Beatles. He reinvented pop music with his own sound. He also transformed pop for the visual age, turning the medium of video into a cultural phenomenon. Songs such as “Beat It” crossed racial boundaries in powerful ways. I think Wyman’s beef is not so much with Jackson as his fans. And Wyman takes out his resentment on the king of pop.
But however confounding Bill Wyman’s list is (and this isn’t the only one he has written), the music world would be a lesser place without it. Lists trigger arguments. Discussions. Agreements. The creation of more lists. Lists act as gut checks on our own tastes. So, check out his list and let me know what you agree with — and disagree with. Long live rock.