The road to rock’n’roll’s Hall of Fame is long – and with many a winding turn. James Medd asseses the greats and the ones who got lost on the way.
It's now 30 years since Bon Scott declared, on behalf of his colleagues in AC/DC, that it's a long way to the top when you wanna rock'n'roll. Fortunately, he was good enough to detail just how he had come to this conclusion, namely: by gettin' robbed, stoned, beat up, broken-boned, had, took, old, grey, ripped off, underpaid and sold second-hand… What he didn't mention (probably due to time constraints or that serious drink problem) is that there's more than one way of gettin' to the top and that, once there, it's possible to fall off.
What we're dealing with here (and we're not discounting the possibility that the late and much-lamented Mr Scott was thinking of something else) is "The Canon" - the bands or artists who are generally agreed to be "good" at any one time, the bar of quality, the kind of name you can drop in complete confidence in the presence of even the greatest music snobs. Every art form has this imaginary list; it's often disparagingly referred to as Dead White Males. This is because most critics are white and male, and it is chiefly a critics' thing - generated by the kind of thinking behind those "100 Best Albums of All Time You Must Hear" lists. That's chiefly, but not wholly - the fans do play a part too (aw, bless).
But never mind the why, what about the who? Let's start at the summit, as it were, where you'll find only The Beatles and Bob Dylan. These are the Sacred Cows: you can attack them, but it's like saying Shakespeare's rubbish - however much you believe it, deep inside you blame yourself. At other times, these two might be joined by The Rolling Stones and/or The Beach Boys. But at the moment Keith Richards' perceived coolness isn't quite balancing out the perceived uncoolness of his band and, with alternative music going through a folk and rock, rather than a pop, phase, The Beach Boys sound isn't quite as pervasive as it used to be. Beneath them are the artists that many perfectly sane people might claim were the greatest ever, but lots of other people despise without experiencing that nagging doubt that they're just missing something. Examples here are Led Zeppelin (on the way up to the next level after that reunion), Bob Marley, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and David Bowie.
And how is this decided? Well, there are a few bands that have reached the heights largely on fan-power - U2, Queen, Bruce Springsteen and the aforementioned AC/DC - but that's the long way, as Mr Scott so helpfully pointed out. In 1985, only air-punching meatheads took Bruce Springsteen seriously, Queen were the favourite band of people who didn't actually have a favourite band, U2 were for Christians and post-pubescent girls, and AC/DC were just a patch on the denim jacket of your lank-haired cousin who smelled of moss. Respect wasn't even in their vocabulary, but the people spoke (and yes, giant postmodern lemons and some "great sets at Live Aid" helped too), and the critics had to give in.
By far the most who reach the top, however, start off as critics' favourites. For this, they need to attract a consensus, so it's helpful to seem clever, but not too clever: Steely Dan and Patti Smith make it because they took time out from reciting beatnik poetry or charting pentatonic jazz scales to write some tunes. Another way is to become shorthand for a subgenre - The Clash (punk), Velvet Underground (alternative rock), Gram Parsons (alternative country), Kraftwerk (electronica) - or to be used as token entries in those 100 Greatest Album lists, like Miles Davis for jazz, Public Enemy for hip hop and Marvin Gaye for soul.
After that, it's generally a case of dogged persistence, keeping going until your cult audience gets big enough to be referred to as just an audience. Yes, popularity is important too, and it comes easier to some than others. Tom Waits, for example, staged a gruff, goateed and often incomprehensible war of attrition against the record-buying public for 30 years until, a couple of years ago, everyone just gave in and started calling him a genius. Others, like Nirvana and Nick Drake, find an early death is a handy shortcut, or a key member of your band could go mad, as with Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett (though they are effectively in twice, with the later, Dark Side of the Moon version voted in by the fans).
Because both quality and quantity are needed, there are some surprising omissions. No Elvis (face it, he's taken about as seriously as an Elvis impersonator now), no Eric Clapton (blues-bores only), and none of those hugely popular but unrespected perennials like Rod Stewart, The Eagles, Abba and Blondie. And even those that do make it may not be there forever. They can mess with their legacy by reforming like The Sex Pistols or the Pixies, drift into noodling tedium like Van Morrison, Prince or R.E.M, fall in and out of fashion like T.Rex, Love and The Smiths, make a record expressly designed to alienate their fans like Portishead or simply fade away like Sly Stone. It makes you fear for recent arrivals such as Radiohead, Massive Attack and The White Stripes. Still, probably beats gettin' sold second-hand.
James Medd writes for The Guardian, The Independent and Esquire.