Friday sees the release of Bachman Cummings: The Collection, a stylish seven-CD collection of five albums by the Guess Who, along with best-of compilations of Bachman-Turner Overdrive and solo Burton Cummings material. I have my copy of the box set. Does the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame have theirs? Because the collection makes a compelling case for the inclusion of the Guess Who into the Cleveland-based shrine to backbeats and barre chords.
On Saturday, the Hall inducts its 2021 class. Not only is the Guess Who not among this year’s laureate crop of Tina Turner, Carole King, the Go-Go’s, Jay-Z, Foo Fighters and Todd Rundgren, the Canadian wheat-field rockers didn’t have a real shot of inclusion. Despite being eligible since 1991, the Guess Who has never been so much as nominated for the honour.
What makes this year’s omission more glaring than usual is that Turner and King are being inducted for the second time each. Turner is already in as a member of Ike & Tina Turner; King was given a non-performer award in 1990 as a songwriter with her writing partner and former husband, Gerry Goffin.
So, while Turner and King make return visits, Bachman and Cummings (and assorted other Guess Who members) only gain entry into the hall by purchasing tickets. On the face of it, the band’s snubbing by the more than 1,000 voters – comprised of critics, historians, industry members and artists – is puzzling. After all, the Guess Who scored six Top 10 hits in the United States, including No. 1s American Woman and No Sugar Tonight at the turn of the 1970s.
According to a pair of Canada-based Rock & Roll Hall of Fame voters, however, the Winnipeg-born band’s chart success may work against them. As a Top 40 singles band, the Guess Who lacked FM gravitas and the approval of taste-making rock critics of the era. Today, American classic-rock radio probably gives more airplay to Bachman‘s post-Guess Who solo project BTO.
“In the United States, the Guess Who has a very different image than it has in Canada,” says Larry LeBlanc, a former Toronto-based Billboard magazine writer and, in the mid-1970s, the Guess Who’s publicist. “Down there they’re thought of in the same way as Tommy James and the Shondells. They were considered an AM bubblegum band, as was Creedence Clearwater Revival for so many years.”
Like the Guess Who, Tommy James and the Shondells were singles specialists, with seven Top 10 hits. The group’s most well-known song, 1968′s Crimson and Clover, is associated by many with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, for their 1982 cover version. Tommy James and the Shondells are not in the hall; Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were inducted in 2015.
The same irony applies to the Guess Who’s signature hit, famously covered by another artist.
“The only Guess Who song most voters under 45 would know is American Woman, and a sizable percentage would think that it was a Lenny Kravitz tune,” says J.D. Considine, a hall voter and a veteran music critic who was based in the United States before moving to Toronto. “These days, the Guess Who occupy about as much space in the non-Canadian rock consciousness as Steppenwolf, and I don’t think John Kay is working up an acceptance speech right now,” he said, referring to Steppenwolf’s German-Canadian front man.
Soul-rock enthusiast Kravitz, who had a hit with American Woman in 1999, isn’t enshrined in Cleveland either. According to the hall, factors considered by voters include “an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique.” Kravitz’s recycled riffs and bell-bottomed flashbacks are the opposite of innovation.
Likewise, though the Guess Who’s impact in Canada is significant, its status south of the border is less than, say, the Zombies, the British psychedelic popsters who had fewer hits but more influence and a higher cool quotient. The She’s Not There scene-makers were inducted in 2019.
The hall is considered an international institution. Its voters hold an array of passports. And, yet, Canadian bands and artists have not fared well. The only True North types in the hall today are Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Band, Rush and Leonard Cohen.
One of the few major rock critics in the United States who championed the Guess Who when the band was active was the inimitably irreverent Lester Bangs, who wrote for Creem magazine and The Village Voice. Reviewing the band’s Live at the Paramount album, Bangs considered Cummings and the anti-U.S. screed that is American Woman.
“Wouldn’t you be offended by this Canuck creep coming down here taking all our money while running down our women?” Bangs asked. “Sure you would!” was his own answer. Who knows, perhaps American voters still hold a grudge over lyrics about “ghetto scenes” and “war machines.”
Bangs ultimately wasn’t offended at all by the song’s cranky rumination. The live album from 1972 was recorded in Seattle, where Cummings was unafraid to challenge the red, white and blue crowd. The gutsiness and anti-diplomacy “is exactly what makes the Guess Who great,” Bangs wrote. “They have absolutely no taste at all, they don’t even mind embarrassing everybody in the audience – they’re real punks without even working too hard at it.”
Bangs isn’t around to rally the vote for the Guess Who. He’s long dead, and so are the band’s chances of ever making it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
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