Monday, December 2, 2013
Dead End Chicago
I keep coming back to the parallels between music and football. Both are full of bad singers (Terry Bradshaw) and bad athletes (Terry Bradshaw). Both have an essential disconnect between reputation and true greatness, and ultimate success versus perceived ability. Both are rife with injustices, and that leads me to my favorite whipping boy in this particular lineup of athleto-musical serfs and vassals, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
The essential disconnect between the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and reality was brought to the forefront again this past week when I stumbled across Billboard magazine’s list of all-time top Hot-100 performers.
Now, I am the last person to say that chart success should decide who gets into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame – after all, my ulterior motive in writing about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is always to point up the essential unworthiness of my one-time favorite band, the Eagles, one of the best-selling bands in history – but I am also not against factoring in chart success when evaluating hall worthiness. Without chart success, the Beatles would have been, I don’t know, Steeleye Span. Given the benefit of the doubt, Fairport Convention.
Just the same way a great losing quarterback is still a losing quarterback (cf. Jeff George) or a wide receiver who runs the most beautiful routes in the world but couldn't catch fire from a blowtorch is still named Aundra Thompson, a performer with absolutely no direct or indirect chart success is a failure, an experiment of indeterminate nobility that no one cares to repeat. Arthur, Hurley, and Gottlieb. Wilburn Blanchette. Hasil Adkins. Sixto Rodriguez. Out of all the modern-era Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers, Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits have had the least amount of chart success, and they’ve sold hundreds of thousands of recordings. They’ve been successful recording artists, just not top-selling recording artists.
You have to include chart success when considering hall-worthiness. What the Billboard Hot 100 says is completely relevant in these discussions. And when Billboard lists the top 100 Hot 100 artists of the last 55 years, it’s an open invitation to compare the inhabitants of that list to the list of RnRHOF members and see where the discrepancies lie.
No discrepancies at the tippy-top, with the Beatles, Madonna, Elton John, and Elvis Presley claiming the top four spots. After that chart success and Hall of Fame success start to diverge.
Mariah Carey is No. 5. One would think Mariah would make the hall based on her multiple comebacks, her 18 No. 1 records, and her … uh, charms, but she’s borderline – not Madonna “Borderline” or Bette Midler borderline, but somewhere between the two. What did she bring to rock ‘n’ roll that wasn’t there before? Nothing. Mariah is as AORnB as it gets. Softness sells (just ask another inhabitant of the top 100, Olivia Newton-John), but it doesn’t necessarily get you in the golden doors.
Janet Jackson (#7) outpoints her brother Michael (#8) and presents another interesting case. While nowhere near the phenomenon her brother was, Janet has produced a body of music that’s similarly revolutionary, though not as spectacularly revisionist (while introducing that nagging question of who’s most responsible – the performer or the producer – that will nag her and all the Rhiannas and R. Kellys and Katy Perrys to come after).
Assuming Janet and Mariah make it along with Whitney Houston (#9), the next puzzlement shows up at No. 13: Chicago.
Of all the Hall-eligible performers on Billboard’s list, none is as potentially polarizing as Chicago. Voters who vote for Chicago At Carnegie Hall Chicago get “No Tell Lover” Chicago in the bargain. No band’s descent from creative genius to schlockmeisters was quite as precipitous. Genesis came closest, but they started a notch below Chicago and ended a notch above. Plus they had Phil Collins and were British and really pretentious, and they did theme albums. (Think that’s unfair? The Moody Blues were Bread, but they were British and pretentious and did theme albums. Jethro Tull was Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band, only British and pretentious, and they did theme albums. Deep Purple was a pretentious, British Blue Cheer that did theme albums. The Electric Light Orchestra was Tommy James and the Shondells with a British accent and a string section, and they did theme albums. The Steve Miller Band and Queen had roughly the same amount of chart success at roughly the same time, but Queen was British and pretentious and – you guessed it – did theme albums. The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, and ELO – and yes, Yes – will join Queen in the hall long before any of their American counterparts get so much as a sniff.)
The problem with dismissing Chicago is 1) you can’t ignore the chart success, and 2) you can’t ignore how profoundly they affected popular music.
Chicago is second only to the Beach Boys in overall chart success, and outpoints the Beachers on Billboard’s list. Out of all the bands that tried to make jazz-rock work – Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Pure Food and Drug Act, various Al Kooper efforts, even rockier jazz bands like Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra – only Chicago really made it work for more than one album, and people bought into it. Chicago created ambitious soundscapes and challenging pop music that young people listened to, over and over again. I guarantee you that if you were to walk into any band room at any high school in America from 1970 to 1980, when the band wasn’t rehearsing Chicago was playing. Every pep band and a whole lot of stage bands had “25 or 6 to 4” in their repertoire. A lot of pep bands still do, 40-plus years after the fact. Every little combo that played at proms had “Colour My World” as the slow-dance song. “Make Me Smile,” “Saturday In The Park,” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” were in every song folio bought by every budding pianist, with the song titles written out in that distinctive Chicago script. Especially in the first half of the 1970s, no band combined so much artistic ambitiousness with greater chart success.
Given that, why is there next to no love for Chicago these days?
The music hasn’t aged well. Listening to an entire early Chicago album is a willful act. If you’re not listening to one of the instantly recognizable Chicago songs, you only look forward to the next song because it gets you closer to the end. Still, that’s no different than listening to Caribou, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, Mystery To Me, and every single Queen album.
Critics didn’t care much for Chicago, but in a shrine that includes Elton John, Neil Diamond, ABBA, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Queen, AC/DC, and the Grateful Dead, the critics eat with the dustman.
Chicago was too prolific for its own good. It released an album a year from 1969-1980, and didn’t have enough high-level jazz-rock material to spread over 12 albums. Successful softer songs (e.g., “Just You ‘n’ Me”) begat more successful softer songs, with less and less innovative, challenging material to balance it out. (Even Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington countered every Helen Forrest ballad with a Ben Webster special.) Terry Kath died in 1978, depriving the band of its center. Post-Kath the band consisted of two softish songwriters (Robert Lamm and Peter Cetera) and a horn section, with session guys like Donnie Dacus holding down the guitar chair. Given Chicago’s loss of its edge and the success of its softer material, it was inevitable that the band would move away from jazz-rock.
Jazz-rock’s demise was equally inevitable. The problem with jazz is that by definition it’s always moving forward. For Chicago to move forward it would have had to have moved closer to Zappa and John McLaughlin and away from commercialism, and Chicago just couldn’t do it. It managed to move a little over five or six albums, and moved more than any comparable band, but in the end Chicago was like one of those Chuck Yeager experimental planes described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. It couldn’t keep going the direction it was going without blowing itself apart.
Surf music and the sort of prog favored by Genesis and Traffic imploded similarly, but not like jazz-rock. There are still surf bands and prog bands, but there are no more jazz-rock bands to speak of. The genre is for all practical purposes extinct. Chicago is the spitballer of rock bands, and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame has no desire to recognize the best example of a musical evolutionary dead-end.
It should, though, and so should the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Here’s what I’m talking about. According to Pro Football Reference, three of the four most highly rated players of all time who aren’t either in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or a sure Hall of Famer are Billy Howton, Billy Wilson, and Bobby Walston, and they all have one thing in common: They were ends who played in the 1950s.
Outside of the Los Angeles Rams, the Cleveland Browns, and (occasionally) the San Francisco 49ers, NFL teams of the 1950s weren’t too sure about the forward pass. If the forward pass was the iPad, most NFL teams of the ‘50s were just getting the hang of the fax.
The breakdown of ‘50s players in the Hall of Fame bears this out. The numbers say that football in the ‘50s was about running backs and line play, with the rise of the defensive back somewhere in there. The 42 HOFers who played primarily in the ‘50s include:
Four defensive ends
Four defensive tackles
Five defensive backs
Eight running backs
The interesting thing about the eight Hall of Fame running backs from the ’50s – Ollie Matson, John Henry Johnson, Joe Perry, Hugh McIlhenny, Frank Gifford, Doak Walker, Charley Trippi, and Marion Motley – is that none were truly transcendental. They range from high-level journeymen (McIlhenny, Perry, Johnson, Matson) to single-wing hybrids, either runner-pass-catchers (Gifford and Walker) or runner-passers (Walker and Trippi). The one remaining back, Motley, was the purest running back, and the best of them all.
The four ends from that same period, Pete Pihos, Tom Fears, Elroy Hirsch, and Dante Lavelli, are undistinguished for different reasons. Fears had three great seasons, all before 1950; Lavelli led the league in receiving only once, in 1946, and that league was the All-America Football Conference; Pihos led the NFL in receiving three straight years, from 1954-56, only after the Eagles moved him from defensive end; and Hirsch’s career was a yo-yo. He caught 66 passes in 1951 and 61 in 1953, but averaged 32 catches a year the rest of the decade.
Howton and Wilson were at least as good as Pihos or Lavelli; numerically, they were better. Walston was a different story, probably the best of the kicker/end combos. However, unlike the rest, Howton did not benefit from having a Hall of Fame quarterback on the other end. (This particularly hamstrung another talented ‘50s pass-catcher, Harlon Hill.) Put Howton on the receiving end of Y.A. Tittle or Norm Van Brocklin’s passes instead of Babe Parilli’s or Tobin Rote’s, and who knows how things might have shaken out.
So if the running backs and wide receivers were not the transcendental offensive players of the ‘50s, who were? Quarterbacks – Otto Graham and Van Brocklin early in the decade, Johnny Unitas and Tittle later on. The game was changing to favor passers; it just wasn’t always immediately apparent. (The rise of transcendent passers also led directly to the development of the three other transcendent positions of the ‘50s: the defensive back, the pass-rushing lineman, and the middle linebacker.)
In many respects the end of the ‘50s was a dead-end (so to speak), just like Chicago. The flanker became the pass receiver of the ‘60s, and the end’s duties were divided between the split end and the tight end. Many ‘50s ends found they lacked either the speed of a split end or flanker or the strength of a tight end. By the late ‘60s, “End” was no longer a position found on football cards.
As it turns out, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame don’t have much use for evolutionary dead-ends. They’d much rather reward those who rode the wave of innovation, regardless of how they got there.