"It's a very good night to be British," said Elton John last night at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He wasn't kidding. At the heart of the evening's festivities was the nineteen-year-old institution's honoring of the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Police, a trio of U.K.-based rock and roll acts who led a second British invasion. Two of the three (the Clash, who lost frontman Joe Strummer in December, didn't perform) and AC/DC, the Hall's first Australian-born band, offered some of the most energetic mini-sets since the founding of the Hall.
The ceremony, which will air March 16th on VH1, began with introductions by a triumvirate of Rock Hall founders -- chairman Ahmet Ertegun, vice chairman (and Rolling Stone editor and publisher) Jann S. Wenner, and president Seymour Stein. Wenner gave a status report on the Rock Hall's museum in Cleveland (which will include a George Harrison exhibit next year) as well as leading a moment of silence following the reading of those in the industry who died in the past year. Wenner also made the first of several anti-war statements that peppered the evening, saying, "It would be nice for a few hours to ignore the drums of war in Washington, D.C.," and then quoted from John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."
As Stein admitted in his remarks a few minutes earlier, the Hall is "still to a certain degree, catching up." Part of that catching up was the induction of the evening's first act, the Righteous Brothers, who opened with "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," before being saluted by Billy Joel, who prefaced his speech by assuring all in attendance that despite a recent car accident, "I'm in one piece . . . but I want to let [Police frontman and noted environmentalist] Sting know, no tree is safe on Long Island. I've had it with the frickin' trees."
"I don't know how these guys aren't in already," Joel said, recalling his first encounter with the duo of Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, and how he was knocked out as a kid by "that huge Phil Spector Wall of Sound." In reference to Spector's recent arrest in the fatal shooting of an actress in Los Angeles, Joel quickly added, "I'm not going there right now."
"Bill Medley comes in with this ode to our favorite topic of conversation at that age," Joel said of "Lovin' Feelin'." "It was a triumphant moment for guys of that age everywhere. The recording lasted something like four minutes, which in that era was like sitting through [Wagner's] 'Tristan und Isolde.'" Perhaps the greatest lesson he learned from the band, Joel said, was that, "White people can be soulful. This was a life-changing idea."
Backstage, the non-sibling Brothers were among the evening's most enthusiastic honorees. "What does it mean to us?" Medley said. "It's everything. This is forty-one years in the business. If it ended tomorrow, it's still amazing."
Paul Shaffer introduced and led the house band through iconic snippets by Nashville pianist Floyd Cramer, drummer Benny Benjamin of Motown's Funk Brothers, and saxophonist Steve Douglas of Spector's famed Wrecking Crew.
Elvis Costello then took the stage for a charged run through "Pump It Up," before taking a break for Elton John's induction speech, which ribbed his counterpart for his handle ("the cheeky fucker chose Elvis . . . what fucking nerve!"). "He's like a chameleon," John said of Costello. "His songs have no musical boundaries. He's completely his own man. Elvis did his homework. He was influenced by the greats, but didn't give a shit."
Costello, for his part, thanked John for his "very eloquent, very complete and deeply profane speech," before introducing the Attractions, with whom he was inducted. Two Attractions -- keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas -- performed with Costello, while estranged bassist Bruce Thomas appeared only for the induction. "It's no big secret that we haven't always gotten along," Costello said, "but seeing Joe Strummer's daughters made me realize this isn't the place to air petty grievances." Bruce Thomas added only, "Thanks for the memories . . . that's it."
"Can we get any more fucking pleased with ourselves," Costello said before leading the band through "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror/You Really Got a Hold on Me" and the staple cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
Perhaps the evening's least abrasive personality was next to be honored. Reprise Records founder and former Warner Bros. head Mo Ostin was first introduced by Paul Simon and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels in an exchange of comic facts and quasi-facts about Ostin's storied career. "Anybody who was at Warner Bros. during the Mo years knew it to be a wonderful time," Simon said, "except for Prince, who was enslaved."
Neil Young prefaced his glowing comments about Ostin by bluntly stating, "War sucks. We're having a good time tonight, but we're gonna kill a bunch of people next week. We're making a terrible mistake. I feel like I'm in a giant SUV and the driver is drunk as a skunk."
Tom Morello, who inducted the Clash (represented by guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and original drummer Terry Chimes -- drummer Nicky "Topper" Headon wasn't present), clearly spent more time on his speech than the other presenters -- quite possibly more than any presenter in the Hall's history. The Audioslave guitarist recalled his first Clash show as a teen. "I was used to buying heavy metal t-shirts that had lots of pictures of garish wizards and dragons on them," he said. "This Clash shirt was very different. It had just a few short words written over the heart. It said, 'The future is unwritten.' And when I saw the Clash play, I knew exactly what that phrase meant. The Clash performed with passion, commitment, purpose righteousness and an unflinching political fire. I'd never seen a better band before that night and I've not seen a better band since."
Perhaps it was the specter of the recently departed Strummer, particularly in a time of dubious international climate, that moved Morello to describe the band in a speech that echoed Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath: "Joe Strummer and the Clash will continue to inspire and agitate well into the future. The Clash aren't really gone at all. Any time a band cares more about its fans than its bank account, the spirit of the Clash is there. Whenever a band plays as if every single person's soul in the room is at stake, the spirit of the Clash is there. Whenever a stadium band or a little garage band has the guts to put their beliefs on the line to make a difference, the spirit of the Clash is there. And whenever people take to the streets to stop an unjust war, the spirit of the Clash definitely is there."
U2 guitarist the Edge picked up where Morello left off. "The last thing that Mick or Paul or Topper or Terry or Joe, bless him, would want is for me to stand up here tonight and sell you a load of emotional hype or blarney about the Clash and how fantastic they were," he said. "Sorry about that, lads, because that's exactly what I'm going to do. Not because they need to hear it, but because I don't think the rest of you know how great they were."
The evening's next inductee, AC/DC, couldn't have provided a more acutely different counterpart. The band ripped into "Highway to Hell," with the school uniform-clad Angus Young up to his usual lewd mischief, at one point sticking the neck of his guitar through the legs of singer Brian Johnson.
"Thank God for the power chord!" said Steven Tyler, who inducted the band, and later joined it on "You Shook Me All Night Long." "There was no greater purveyor [of it] than AC/DC. The sparks that flew off the heavy metal and the primal stink behind 'You Shook Me' lit the fire in the belly of every kid who was born to break the rules."
During their induction, the reunited Police (described by presenter Gwen Stefani as "a fruit salad of sound all coming together") were itching to hit the stage. "We haven't played together in eighteen years," Sting said, "and we're very keen to do that, so we're not gonna make any fancy speeches." A short series of thank-you's ensued before the singer/bassist was joined by drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers.
The Police then made perhaps the best argument for a reunion tour in rock and roll history. The trio's chemistry was pulled from the crypt as perfectly preserved as a jar of honey, and all three members seemed to relish the opportunity to dust off "Roxanne" and "Message in a Bottle," with Copeland's cymbal taps and guitarist Summer's efficient and thoughtful guitar fills sounding timeless more than twenty years after the fact.
The evening ended without its trademark all-star jam, fitting because three of the newest inductees are as reliant on reggae as they are on the old R&B standbys. So the Police closed with "Every Breath You Take," joined on the final round of choruses by Stefani, Tyler and John Mayer. And, now that the Clash, the Police, and Elvis Costello have ushered new sounds into the Hall, future jams may just resemble that fruit salad.