Los Angeles Times, 1/14/98


POP MUSIC: The induction ceremony, formatted for TV, lacks the spontaneity that once made it so exciting.

NEW YORK--Unlike last year, when two key artists, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, stayed home, all the living honorees showed up here for the 13th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner.

Yes, all seven of the sometimes feuding past and present members of the Eagles stood side by side at the podium Monday night and then joined--all smiles--for a pair of songs, including the landmark "Hotel California."

Yes, everyone in the most famous edition of the sometimes fragile Fleetwood Mac, also was on 'best behavior, toasting the black-tie crowd in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with one of their most infectious tunes, "Say You Love Me."

And yes, John Phillips and his ex-wife Michelle Phillips set aside differences, to join with former bandmate Denny Doherty for a reprise of "California Dreamin'," their signature 1966 hit with the Mamas & the Papas.

But there was still something important missing at the dinner: a spark.

For most of its three hours, the event seemed little more than just another awards show.

Young may have been right last year when he boycotted the evening, when his old band the Buffalo Springfield was being inducted, because he believes the ceremony has become just a TV show.

One problem with videotaping the affair for later broadcast--a practice begun in 1996--is that the cameras work against the spontaneity that once helped make the induction dinners the most engaging and thrilling night on the annual pop calendar. Instead of the free-form jams that generated all sorts of unexpected combinations, the musical segments are now blocked out in advance.

In 1988, for instance, the same ballroom was electrified when Bob Dylan sang "Like a Rolling Stone" with a backing chorus of Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and ex-Supreme Mary Wilson, who in turn, were supported by a once-in-a lifetime guitar army of John Fogerty, George Harrison, Young, Jeff Beck and Les Paul.

About as daring as it got Monday was Fogerty trading lead vocals with Lloyd Price on the latter's 1958 smash, "Stagger Lee."

Nice, but no highlight film.

Even some of the induction speeches made it obvious that this was a TV show. Singer Tony Rich, inducting Price, seemed confused over whether he was supposed to read the speech off the TelePrompTer or from his notes.

But there may be a deeper reason for the evening's flatness than the presence of VH1 cameras (the two-hour highlights package will be seen on Monday, with repeats later in the week). It involves the issue of standards.

Just as a record label survives on the quality of the acts it signs, the induction dinners rise and fall on the validity of the honorees, presenters and performers it selects.

For much too long, the hall directors have been inducting too many artists, partly to guarantee "lively" ceremonies. What they need to realize is that the evening's vitality is determined not by the number of inductees, but by their caliber. Fewer acts would result in more ambitious salutes to them. As it is, the time allotted to each act is so short that justice can't really be done to a career's worth of work.

Monday's induction class--the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Santana, the Mamas & the Papas, Price and the late Gene Vincent--brings to 100 the number of artists who have been inducted since the ceremonies were begun in 1986. The baseball Hall of Fame has installed only 175 players in 62 years.

As a result, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is ending up with too many stocking-stuffers--artists who don't have the top-level credentials to be feted alongside the field's greatest figures. Monday's ceremony was a prime example.

Similarly, presenters should be Hall of Fame caliber artists--or as close as you can get. The dinner works when Mick Jagger inducts the Beatles or when Pete Townshend inducts the Rolling Stones. It doesn't work when country best-seller Shania Twain, who has no noticeable ties to rock 'n' roll or artistic greatness, inducts the Mamas & the Papas, as occurred Monday.

The same principle should apply to performers.

One of the evening's highlights came when a Hall of Fame member, Fogerty, began his induction speech for Gene Vincent by singing a cappella the opening lines of Vin-cent's biggest hit, "Be-Bop-a-Lula." Capturing brilliantly the spirit of Vincent's dark, mysterious vocal, Fogerty smiled at the crowd and said: "It's what they call attitude."

By contrast, teenage blues star Jonny Lang might have been over his head even if he hadn't been suffering from the flu in his performance of the song, which offered no attitude at all.

There are still some isolated reasons to tune in the dinner highlights on TV. Among the classy induction speeches: Robbie Robertson's praise for New Orleans producer-composer Allen Toussaint, who was inducted in the hall's non-performer category, and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun's passionate salute to jazz great Jelly Roll Morton, who was honored in the early influence category.

Summarizing Fleetwood Mac's long, sometimes troubled history, group co-founder Mick Fleetwood reminisced proudly in his acceptance speech about a journey that has included moments of "lunacy, heartache, happiness, unhappiness and, thank God, a sense of healing."

Oddly, Fleetwood Mac's co-founder Peter Green, who left the group in 1970, sat in with Santana on a stirring version of that band's hit remake of Mac's "Black Magic Woman," which Green wrote--but he didn't join the contemporary Fleetwood Mac lineup later in the evening. In the latter segment, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham came out by themselves for acoustic versions of "Landslide" and "Big Love." Then the entire band joined on "Say You Love Me."

The most endearing musical moment, surprisingly, came from the Mamas & the Papas. The quartet's Hall of Fame credentials may be suspect, but their performance was joyous as leader John Phillips became so moved by the music that he laid down the cane he had. been using and stood proudly as he joined in singing "California Dreamin'."

Given the history of tensions in the Eagles, many in the audience braced themselves for a round of fireworks when the band stepped to the podium. But everyone was well-behaved. Rather than dwell on his much publicized frustrations with the record business, Don Henley thanked those who have contributed to the success of the band and his parents for "getting me that drum set and letting me play it in the house."

After the speeches, the seven musicians joined together for the first time ever on stage, for a 10-minute set that also included "Take It Easy."

At one time in the history of the dinners, you would have seen all the evening's performers then assemble for a freewheeling celebration. You might have had Henley, Fogerty, Robertson and Price team on the seminal Price hit "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," or maybe Santana, Buckingham and Toussaint lock into Toussaint's "Southern Nights."

Instead, we simply had someone at the podium say, "Good night, folks."

Rock’s greatest artists over the years have shown the ability to reinvent themselves. It's time for the Hall of Fame induction dinners to do the same.

Thanks to Phil for posting this to the Ledge.