With the enormous exception of N.W.A, this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was all about honoring guitar groups that reached the zenith of their fame around the time of Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. Chicago, Cheap Trick, the Steve Miller Band and Deep Purple have all been off the pop charts for decades, but they're all touring machines and came into Brooklyn's Barclays Center ready to play their hits and revel in long-overdue glory.
Sticking with the mid-1970s theme of much of the evening, the festivities kicked off with the Roots, David Byrne and Kimbra honoring David Bowie with an extra funky rendition of "Fame." This is one of the songs the Roots were supposed to play at the Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall Bowie tributes last week before a tussle over equipment-sharing caused them to back out of the shows. Their loss was the Hall of Fame's gain and it set the bar high for the rest of the evening.
Deep Purple were the first honorees of the evening, and they were inducted by Lars Ulrich, a man who reveres the metal pioneers so much that he has a photo of the group on his nightstand with his own face superimposed on drummer Ian Paice's body. "With almost no exceptions, every hard rock band in the last 40 years, including mine, traces its lineage directly back to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple," said the Metallica drummer. "So in my heart – and I know I speak for many of my fellow musicians and millions of Purple fans when I confess that – I am somewhat bewildered that they are so late in getting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
Current members Ian Gillan, Ian Paice and Roger Glover took the stage alongside 1970s singer/bassist Glenn Hughes and vocalist David Coverdale, but fans hoping for a last minute appearance by Ritchie were disappointed. The present-day lineup of the band wanted to play without any former members, and Blackmore didn't want to stand on the sidelines.
But even without the guitar god, the group ripped into "Highway Star," "Hush" and, of course, "Smoke On The Water." Keyboardist Don Airey played a bit of "Green Onions" as a tribute to the late Jon Lord, and guitarist Steve Morse replicated Blackmore's guitar parts with near-flawless precision. Still, had Gillan and Blackmore somehow put together a 15-minute peace it could have been one of the great reunions in Hall of Fame history.
Steve Van Zandt walked out next to present the late Bert Berns with the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement. The songwriter/producer is a criminally underrated figure in rock history that was responsible for "Hang on Sloopy," "Twist and Shout," "Piece of My Heart" and "Under the Boardwalk" as well as launching the careers of Van Morrison and Neil Diamond. "The music industry only had him for seven years before a damaged heart took him at the age of 38," said Van Zandt. "But I'll need the talking speed of Chris Matthews to mention all of the accomplishments of the incredible songwriter, producer and label boss."
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney then came out in matching leather jackets to induct Steve Miller. "It would be extremely hard to find a three-year stretch of hits from any artist in any genre that can hold a candle to Steve Miller Band's run from '74 to '77," said the Black Keys singer/guitarist. "A three-year stretch so prolific that it demanded its own Greatest Hits the very next year, one that has sold a staggering 13 million copies, more than classic albums like Abbey Road."
Somewhere around 30 men have come and gone from the Steve Miller Band over the years, so the Hall of Fame made the logical choice of bringing in Miller on his own rather than arbitrarily picking some over others. The Space Cowboy gave a brief account of his early days in San Francisco playing on the same stage as icons like Chuck Berry and Howlin' Wolf, wrapping up his speech with some thoughts on the Hall of Fame itself.
"I encourage you to keep expanding your vision," he said, "to be be inclusive of women, to be more transparent in your dealings with the public and most importantly, to do much more to provide music to our schools." He then strapped on a guitar and led the current incarnation of his band through jammed-out takes of "Fly Like an Eagle," "Rock'n Me" and "The Joker." "I’m Steve Miller, the space cowboy!" he said at the end. "Fly like an eagle!"
N.W.A sampled the Steve Miller Band a number of times on Straight Outta Compton, so it was only fitting they were the next group to get inducted. Kendrick Lamar delivered their speech. "The fact that a famous group can look just like one of us and dress like one of us, talk like one of us, proved to every single kid in the ghetto that you can be successful and still have importance while doing it," he said. "That was N.W.A. That was their true message."
For reasons that remain unclear, the surviving members of N.W.A opted not to perform, even though the Roots were in the house and certainly could have helped them put together a killer set. But the group did deliver some of the best speeches of the evening, beginning with Dr. Dre. "There were a lot of people against us [when we started], probably because of what we were saying," he said. "I get it. I understand. They weren't ready for us. The name of our group alone was a shocker. Niggas with Attitudes, you feel me?"
MC Ren took his brief moment at the mic to respond to Gene Simmons, who recently told Rolling Stone that he is looking forward to the death of rap. "And I want to say, to Mr. Gene Simmons, hip-hop is here forever!" he said. "Get used to it! Get used to it! We supposed to be here!" Ice Cube also addressed the many people who have argued that hip-hop doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. “You're goddamn right we're rock and roll,” he said. “Rock and roll is not an instrument. Rock and roll isn't even a style of music. Rock and roll is a spirit that's been going since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock and, yes, hip-hop. What connects us all is that spirit."
The in memoriam segment followed, and it was a packed montage considering all the enormous figures we've lost since last year's ceremony. Merle Haggard's name was worked in even though he passed away just two days earlier, and it wrapped up with David Bowie and enormous cheers. Before it began, Sheryl Crow and Grace Potter sang a moving, countryfied version of "New Kid in Town" to honor Glenn Frey.
Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas then stepped up to the podium to induct Chicago, making a passionate argument that they've been unfairly maligned and overlooked over the years. "People say a lot of things about Chicago," he says. "And I know that 'badass dudes' is not one of them. But remember this: when Jimi Hendrix met them for the first time he told them their horn section sounded like one set of lungs and that their guitar player Terry [Kath] was better than him. That, kids, is badass. If you think Chicago is your mom's band, then I want to party with your mom."
Former Chicago bassist and lead singer Peter Cetera stayed home, partially due to a dispute over what key they'd perform the songs in, but the rest of the classic lineup was in the house. They all gave gracious speeches, but it was former drummer Danny Seraphine - who was booted from the group back in 1990 - that delivered the best lines. "We lived together, as most bands do, we cried together, we fought together, we fucked together," he said. "'Please wrap it up?' Screw you. I’ve waited 25 fucking years for this!"
In the first reunion of the night, Seraphine took his old spot behind the drum kit and helped the band play "Saturday in the Park," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and its famous answer song "25 or 6 to 4." Even Chicago's haters have to recognize the power of that last tune, and as unlikely a band as Green Day liked it so much they borrowed generously from it for "Brain Stew." But this is a Cetara song, and it would have been a truly stellar moment had he played it with his old buddies one last time. This was an opportunity for him to really step back into the spotlight and create something magical, and the opportunity was squandered.
Cheap Trick were not about to make the same mistake. Relations with former drummer Bun E. Carlos are absolutely toxic, but all four men graciously took the stage as a unit. But first, Kid Rock delivered the funniest induction speech of the evening. "When disco and soft rock had taken over our radio – thank God I wasn't alive then – they were exactly what we needed, a garage band in sheep's clothing," he said. "They had a punk soul, a pop heartbeat and Beatles ambitions."
Despite not playing with Carlos for six years, the quartet fell right back into their old routine for blistering versions of "I Want You To Want Me," "Dream Police" and "Surrender" that had the entire arena on their feet and screaming along to every word. They've done these songs literally thousands of times, but they still bring amazing energy and heart to them as Robin Zander's voice remains ageless.
When their set wrapped, they stayed onstage and were joined by David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes, Steve Van Zandt, Sheryl Crow, Rob Thomas, Steve Miller and members of Deep Purple and Chicago for the Cheap Trick version of Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame." Nearly every singer took a turn at the mic, though in typical Hall of Fame jam fashion, it was chaotic and marred by the occasional sound issue. It was still a lot of fun, even though one group was absent.
"I'm a little pissed off because I wanted to have N.W.A [up here]," said Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen. "I wanted to do a song with those guys! We could be like Aerosmith and Run-DMC and then we'd be famous!" It wasn’t to be, though as the Hall of Fame induction window moves into the 1990s and acts like Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. start becoming eligible, hip-hop will probably play an increasingly large part of induction ceremonies, whether Gene Simmons likes it or not.