There seem to be two camps of people when it comes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: those who feel that rock and roll deserves a permanent place to showcase the important effect it’s has had on popular culture, and those who believe that the intention of rock music was rebellion against the mainstream; that a stuffy old shrine goes against everything the music stands for, and screw you if you don’t agree with them. I belong to the former group, partly because I’m from Cleveland, Ohio and got caught up in the hysteria of bringing the Rock Hall to the north coast, and also because I feel that there needs to be a place where people can look at rock and roll as an art and examine its history. I’ve been to the museum, and could have stayed for days marveling at Hendrix’s guitar and fragments of Keith Moon’s drum kit.
This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and there’s a star-studded concert in Madison Square Garden to celebrate the occasion. In conjunction with the anniversary, Time-Life has released a nine-DVD collection called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Live. It includes eight discs of Hall of Fame inductions and a DVD featuring some of the performances from the 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert that took place in Cleveland. Since the very first induction back in 1986, we’ve seen and heard about the induction ceremonies (usually in New York) that are a gathering of music legends. They get up on stage and perform their biggest hits; give speeches that are sometimes emotional, sometimes raucous, sometimes spiteful, and at the end of the night all of the inductees and presenters come together for one kick assjam session. With this DVD collection, it appeared as if music aficionados — you know, you and I, the people who made these rock stars legends — were finally going to be included in these events, and not just through the chopped-up versions we’ve seen on VH1.
Well, not quite.
First let me say that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Live collection has enough great moments to warrant checking it out if you’re a music junkie. Check it out, yes, but buy it? I’m not sure. You see, this box set doesn’t live up to the hype and certainly not my expectations. With so much talent to showcase, how could such a huge set go wrong? That’s part of the problem: there’s so much ground to cover in the 25 years that not every inductee receives attention. In fact, some vital artists, such as Led Zeppelin, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Talking Heads, are missing altogether. While the designers of this collection have culled together a remarkable set of performances, including Bruce Springsteen, U2, Jeff Beck, Metallica, Solomon Burke and Bonnie Raitt, the collection feels more like a highlight reel for the Hall of Fame rather than a music lover’s dream.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a thrill to see the members of Cream putting aside their differences to jam again, then watch Tom Petty and the original Heartbreakers (“mach 1” as he calls them) play together one last time, to see Roy Orbison singing alongside Springsteen, Springsteen joining U2 on stage to perform “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Billy Joel and Bonnie Raitt singing “Runaway” and Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard receiving the respect they deserve. Even better are the induction speeches: Mick Jagger poking fun at his old rivals the Beatles and then the awkwardness as George, Ringo and Yoko Ono accept the award while Paul is notably missing (due to bad business); McCartney giving a moving induction speech for John Lennon (as a solo artist) with sincerity and nostalgia; Jakob Dylan telling the story of how he told Tom Petty’s daughter how cool it was that her dad was Tom Petty. And then there are Bono and the Boss, who deliver poetic statements for their heroes and humble acceptance speeches when they were inducted. Most fascinating to watch is the footage from the early induction ceremonies, when the cameraman wasn’t sure where to stand, the stage seems too small and there is a genuine sense that no one knows what’s going to happen next. As the years have progressed, the induction ceremony appears better organized and more — I hate to say it — corporate.
My chief complaint is the way this set has been organized. Instead of sequencing the artists in chronological induction order or even by musical genre, songs are grouped together like a mixtape, or one of Time-Life’s many CD compilations you can order for mail delivery. They try to create themes, with titles like “Feelin’ Alright,” “Light My Fire” and “I’ll Take You There.” It didn’t work for me; it didn’t feel cohesive. I feel that devoting DVDs to particular years would have better shown off the history of rock and roll and how it’s progressed as an art form. But the bottom line is that I expected more. After 25 years and so many historical moments to choose from, I expected the packaging and the design to be something that blew me away like the latest U2 concert: a mixture of spectacle, great music and a message. Instead, it’s like seeing John Fogerty performing Creedence hits at the Oxnard Strawberry Festival. The music’s great, but it feels a little cheap. Furthermore, the packaging itself is kind of flimsy. I’ve seen better packaging on DVD collections for failed TV sitcoms.
Furthermore, with so many passionate speeches every year, we should have received the full speeches, instead of edited versions, which is what are presented here. Am I the only one who finds it annoying as hell to be watching McCartney talk about his fallen mate John Lennon, only to have the moment interrupted by a jump cut in the video and audio? As a viewer I want to feel like I’m in the audience; I want to see that these music legends are human, not just mythic figures the press and record companies have created for us to admire.
Maybe I’m being a crank; maybe this collection wasn’t intended for music critics, but for the casual rock fan. There are definitely stellar performances and anyone looking to explore the early era of rock will get to see icons like Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison and Wilson Pickett own the stage while people like Springsteen, Jagger, Joel and Costello stare on in admiration and awe. And each disc (save for the concert DVD) contains at least 80 minutes of bonus features that include (edited) speeches, behind the scenes footage and rehearsals. But at $120.00, I’m curious who will buy it.
I’ll admit that I feel a little guilty about giving the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Live collection a mixed review. I know there are glowing write-ups in the mainstream press (five stars from Rolling Stone). However, I’m just continuing the long tradition of rock and roll: I know what I like, I’m opinionated about it, and if you don’t agree with me, we can debate it until we’re blue in the face.
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