Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony: How to Throw a Party in a Pandemic

On an alternate version of Earth in which a pandemic is not raging around the country, the Doobie Brothers, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode and family members of Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G. and T-Rex’s Marc Bolan gathered at Cleveland’s Public Hall on May 2nd for an incredible evening of music, speeches and tributes to fallen icons. It would likely have been one of the most memorable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in recent years.

But the pandemic forced organizers to scramble and find a different way to honor the class of 2020. Wisely, they bumped the event six months beyond the original date (it debuted tonight on HBO), which gave them adequate time to create something far greater than the sort of shoddy, Zoom-style virtual events we’ve grown accustomed to this year.

Producers created mini-documentaries honoring the life and music of every inductee, including Ahmet Ertegun Award recipients and famed music executives Jon Landau and Irving Azoff. This could have come off like a bunch of cheesy VH1: Behind The Music episodes strung together, but Hall of Fame honchos Joel Gallen, John Sykes, Joel Peresman and Rick Austin brought in experienced filmmakers (including Thom Zimny, Morgan Neville, Rick Austin and Barbra Dannov) to create the clips with heft, heart and surprising moments of humor.

What the show lacked, however, was any new performances. It’s a surprising choice considering that living room concerts have become the norm this year, but we’ve already seen the Doobies play “Black Water” from their homes and songs like “Head Like a Hole” and “Personal Jesus” almost demand an arena-sized audience to work properly in a live setting. Brief glimpses of Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode playing to giant festival crowds in the films offer a glimpse at the Hall of Fame induction that could have been, but not trying to pull them off via Zoom was the right move.

On the flip side, a pre-taped show means none of the meandering, aimless acceptance speeches we’ve grown numb to over the years. Most addresses were limited to about 80 seconds and only core members of groups or surviving relatives of deceased inductees were allowed to speak. That may be unfair for the non-Trent Reznor members of Nine Inch Nails or ex-Doobies like guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and bassist Tiran Porter, but the horrors of the 2014 E Street Band filibuster are still fresh and difficult decisions had to be made.

The show began with Dave Grohl addressing the fact that this is going to be a very non-traditional induction ceremony. “This rock and roll family of ours, like so many others, unfortunately can’t gather in person to induct the Hall of Fame class of 2020,” he says. “Still, we honor this year’s inductees by telling their inspiring stories and showing how powerfully they’ve affected us all.”

Highlights from the inductee films include Iggy Pop breaking down the surprising funk influence he hears in Nine Inch Nails, Judd Apatow revealing that his favorite Doobie Brothers song is “Jesus Is Just Alright” even though he’s a “Jewish kid from Long Island,” Saul Williams on the influence of Reznor (“he made a lot of suburban white kids make sense of their lives, but in a great fucking way”) and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons coming out as a Depeche Mode superfan.

Depeche Mode were the only act to give their acceptance speech as a group, and it’s the funniest moment of the show by a long shot. “There’s so many other musicians that are a part of this that we grew up listening to,” Dave Gahan says. “David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Clash, just to name a few…” Keyboardist Andy Fletcher then cuts him off with flawless British sarcasm to add the Eagles to his list. “Don’t forget the Eagles,” Gahan says with a laugh. “Everyone loves the Eagles!”

Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. tributes provided the show’s emotional high points, with both clips showing stunning footage of the vocalists as preternaturally talented teenagers destined to change the world. Both films show familiar peak moments like The Bodyguard, Houston’s 1991 “National Anthem” performance and Biggie’s videos for “Juicy” and “Hypnotize” and both offer new testimonials from people like Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and Puff Daddy about their titanic influences. Cissy Houston and Voletta Wallace accepted on behalf of their late children and gave touching speeches alongside Biggie’s children.

T-Rex’s Marc Bolan received similar treatment, despite his music always having been more popular in Europe than America (with the exception of signature song “Bang a Gong (Get It On).”)  Ringo Starr delivered a great speech about their friendship and his musical legacy. “People knew him as a great musician, a songwriter, a guitarist, but he was also a poet,” Starr said. “And he was really proud of that. He was always telling me that he was the Number One selling poet in Britain. In fact, his poetry was as important to him as his music. He had great style and was really unlike anyone else I have ever met.”

Earlier in the show, Slash and Tom Morello honored Eddie Van Halen and set up the annual in memoriam segment. “Eddie Van Halen was a tremendously gifted musician. His style and his sound were completely unique to him,” said Slash. “He had a massive impact on guitar playing, and I don’t think there’s anybody that’s picked up the guitar since 1978 that hasn’t been touched in some way by his influence. I’m gonna miss his playing and I’m gonna miss him as a friend.”

Landau and Azoff, meanwhile, were given a chance to reflect on their long careers as rock managers. A newly white-haired Don Henley explained how Azoff has guided his career for the past 50 years, while Bruce Springsteen spoke lovingly about his close relationship with Landau that dating back to Born to Run. They both make the point that the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would not exist as we know them today without the stewardship of these two men.

The next Hall of Fame induction ceremony isn’t slated until November 2021. Odds are decent they’ll be able to hold some sort of public event by that point. But if not, they’ve created a new template for a ceremony that could easily be recreated. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that. As everyone in the 2020 class would probably agree, there’s just no substitute for live music.

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