Paul McCartney is not an easy man to impress, but a little over four hours into the 2021 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony — which saw surprise appearances from Dave Chapelle, Eminem, and Jennifer Lopez, along with incredible performances by Taylor Swift, LL Cool J, Carole King, Jennifer Hudson, Christina Aguilera and the Go-Go’s — he genuinely seemed a little awestruck when he stepped onto the stage to induct the Foo Fighters.
“Rock and roll is a magical thing that contains so many elements,” he told the capacity crowd at Cleveland, Ohio’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. “It’s like all of the people we’ve heard tonight. I mean, it’s just unbelievable. I feel super privileged to be here.”
It was a sentiment shared by everyone in the arena, especially after a dreadful year and a half that saw shuttered concert halls, wildly unsatisfying attempts to recreate the live music experience via virtual events, and a 2020 Rock Hall induction ceremony that existed only on the HBO airwaves and didn’t contain a single performance.
The 2021 event was a return to the grand in-person events of years’ past, and the first one to take place since John Sykes took over as Hall of Fame chairman. He had a real challenge on his hands since a whopping 13 acts got in this time, which is about double the number in a standard class. If he stuck to the old playbook, that would have meant a roughly 8-hour show.
But this time around, “The Early Influences” and most of the no-shows were honored with brief tribute videos. That may not be ideal if you’re related Randy Rhoads or Billy Preston and wanted to give a speech, but it sure sped the evening along and gave ample time for the Go-Go’s, Foo Fighters, L.L. Cool J, and Carole King to rock the place. It also led to one of the most entertaining Hall of Fame ceremonies in recent memory.
After introductory remarks by Sykes and museum President/CEO Greg Harris, the evening began with Taylor Swift taking the stage to sing a synth-pop rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” as a tribute to Carole King. Swift hasn’t played to a live crowd for quite some time, and her fans are desperately waiting for her to announce any sort of a tour, but her performance chops are undiminished, and a beaming King watched the whole thing from her seat.
When it was done, Swift addressed the crowd. “I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know Carole King’s music,” she said. “I was raised by two of her biggest fans, who taught me the basic truths of life as they saw it: That you should treat people the way you want to be treated, that you must believe that you can achieve whatever you want to in life, and that Carole King is the greatest songwriter of all time.”
King generously spent much of her acceptance speech thanking people like Gerry Goffin, Lou Adler, and James Taylor that helped her along the way. “I keep hearing it, so I guess I’m going to have to try to own it, that today’s female singers and songwriters stand on my shoulders,” she said. “Let it not be forgotten that they also stand on the shoulders of the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. May she rest in power, Miss Aretha Franklin!”
With that, Jennifer Hudson, who played Franklin the recent biopic Respect, took the stage to belt out “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” King then came back out to lead the arena in a singalong rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend,” which featured drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar, and guitarist Danny Kortchmar from her Tapestry days. King says that she never plans on touring again, so this could wind up being one of her last major performances. If that’s so, it’s hard to imagine wrapping up her live career in a more triumphant way.
Ringo Starr’s brief video address for Billy Preston and a mini-documentary about the pianist’s amazing, Zelig-like career led right into Dr. Dre’s speech for LL Cool J. The good doctor isn’t always the most animated public speaker, but paying respect to one his greatest hip-hop influences brought out the grinning fan in him, and he made a strong argument that LL is indeed the G.O.A.T.
“He’s hit that unique space that crosses and bridges generations; the rare artist beloved by you, your mama and all of your kids all at once,” he said. “How ’bout that? How many artists in the rap game are relevant after 30 years?”
LL was rejected by Hall of Fame voters six times before the institution grew tired of waiting for them to come to their senses, and simply gave him the Musical Excellence Award so he could take his rightful place alongside Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Tupac, Biggie, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
But he wasn’t even remotely bitter about the long wait. “A lot people, when I told them when I told them I got inducted, they’d say to me, ‘Isn’t it is about time?,” he said during his induction speech. “What people don’t realize is, I wasn’t thinking about the people who voted against me. I was thinking about the people who voted for me. It was love. Like what I was feeling was, ‘Wow, here’s some people over there who won’t take no for an answer.’ They like, ‘Yo this guy got to be in here and we’re going to keep fighting for you till we get him in here.’ So I thank you.”
LL is known as an incredible live act, but few people in the arena were prepared for what went down when it was time for him to perform. It began with 1987’s “Rock Around the Clock” and a little snippet of “Going Back to Cali” before surprise guest Eminem strolled onto the stage for an explosive rendition of “Rock the Bells” where they traded lines and fed off the incredible energy and shock they created in the house.
That shock continued when Jennifer Lopez, another unannounced guest, joined him for a revival of their 2003 hit “All I Have.” And it all ended with a wild “Mama Said Knock You Out” where dancers in white hoodies moved from the arena floor onto the stage. The crowd was in an absolute frenzy by this point, and it can easily be said that this will join Prince’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” guitar solo, the 2002 Talking Heads reunion set, and Led Zeppelin’s jam with Neil Young as one of the best Hall of Fame moments in history. He crushed his entire career down to just a few minutes, and created an absolutely impossible act for anyone to follow.
That might have happened had Tina Turner flown in from Switzerland to accept her award in person, but we had to settle for a short video speech. She was inducted by Angela Bassett, who played her in the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It. “Now let us remember Tina is already a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame from her earlier work with Ike Turner,” she said. “However, what brings us here tonight is Tina’s journey to independence. For Tina, hope triumphed over hate. Faith won over fear. And ambition eclipsed adversity.”
Nobody can sing Tina like Tina, but Mickey Guyton did her absolute best by strapping on a jean jacket and black leather dress and delivering “What’s Love Got To Do With It” like she had just stepped out of a time machine from 1984. Prior to that, H.E.R. and Keith Urban teamed up for “It’s Only Love,” which Turner originally recorded with Bryan Adams In 1985. (The night originally called for Adams himself to sing it with H.E.R., but he reportedly came down with a case of COVID.) Urban was a splendid last-minute sub, even though it felt a little odd to spotlight this tune as opposed to one of her better-known hits. All was forgotten when Christina Aguilera wrapped up the Tina portion of the night with a sensational “River Deep, Mountain High.” It was a great reminder that Aguilera was, by far, the greatest vocalist of the TRL era.
Most of the evening’s attendees probably didn’t know much about Ahmet Ertegun Award winner Clarence Avant, but Lionel Richie explained just how important the Sussex Records founder was in the history of Black music. “He’s a teacher,” Richie said. “He’s a master communicator. He’s the perfect marriage between street sense and common sense. What he did for us, the sons and daughters of the Afro-American community, he was the one that brought us to some understanding of what the music business was all about. What we learned was that there are two parts to this industry: the music business and the business of music. One, you sweat your ass off. Two, you bank the money. He taught us how to bank the money.”
Todd Rundgren has made it clear for many years that he has no interest in the Rock Fame, and he hammered that point home by booking a concert in Cincinnati the night of the ceremony. That meant his moment was limited to a virtual speech by Patti Smith, where she looked back at their early days on the New York music scene, and his innovative work as an engineer, producer, and recording artist in the years that followed. By the end, it was hard to not agree with Rundgren that he should have gotten into the Hall of Fame two decades earlier.
Similar videos were put together for Charley Patton, Kraftwerk, Randy Rhoads, and Gil Scott-Heron. It felt a little odd to shortchange such titanic musical figures, but perhaps they’ll get a little more love from the HBO broadcast. Gary Clark Jr. did come out to play Patton’s “High Water Everywhere,” but the crowd was a little restless during the Delta blues song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1929. Maybe things would have gone a little better had they brought out “Crazy Train” or even “Autobahn.”
The audience perked up when Drew Barrymore came out to induct the Go-Go’s, especially when she recreated the Beauty and the Beat cover by wrapping her body in bath towels and smearing white makeup on her face. “Beauty and the Beat blew the doors of my life off,” she said. “It opened me up to a whole new dimension. I dropped the needle and I felt instantly connected to the punk pulse of this record. It sounded like pure possibility. It rattled up my walls and straight through to my heart. I spent hours staring at that cover and the back side, all of them in the bathtub. The coolest girls in the world taking a spa day in cool-girl heaven.”
The Go-Go’s waited a long time for this moment, and all of five them seemed overwhelmed by the enormity of it. “Being in a band is a trip,” said bassist Kathy Valentine. “It’s not like anything else — it’s kind of like being married. In our case, a polygamist same-sex marriage that ends up getting divorced and remarried and divorced and remarried. Our band has been, at different times, like the most rinky-dink traveling circus you could ever imagine, like a snarling wolf pack, and very much like family.”
She went on to say that the Hall of Fame needs to do better about bringing in female acts. “By honoring our historical contribution, the doors to this establishment have opened wider and the Go-Go’s will be advocating for the inclusion of more women,” she said. “Women who have paved the way for us and others. Women who started bands, who sing and write songs, who excel on their instruments, who make and produce records. Because here is the thing: There would not be less of us if more of us were visible.”
The quintet then banged through “Vacation,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” and “We Got The Beat,” transforming everyone in the crowd back to the Reagan era, and reminding everyone just how dominant they were in that time.
We were then reminded just how devastating this past year has been when the In Memoriam segment showed images of Charlie Watts, Bunny Wailer, Chick Corea, Phil Spector, Mary Wilson, Biz Markie, Dusty Hill, Jim Steinman, Billie Joe Shaver, and many others. It ended on Don Everly, and a beautiful version of the Everly Brothers classic “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by Brandi Carlile and two of her bandmates.
No information was given out about the Jay-Z segment in advance of the evening, but he didn’t wind up performing, and nobody played on his behalf. He also didn’t seem to bring Beyoncé unless she was hiding somewhere. But there was a brief virtual address by President Obama, and a tribute video that featured an absurdly large group of A-listers, including LeBron James, David Letterman, Diddy, Chris Martin, Ed Sheeran, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock and John Legend, along with Beyoncé and Blue Ivy.
If that wasn’t enough, it ended with Dave Chappelle walking onto the stage. He briefly referenced the ongoing controversy surrounding his Netflix special (“I would like to apologize…I’m just fucking with you”), before delivering an uncharacteristically serious speech about the brilliance of Jay-Z.
“You embody Black excellence, how great we can be,” he said. “When Barack Obama was running for president, I sat in an arena in Columbus, and watched you influence the crowd and make sure we’re unified and vote as a body. I understand who you are. And I understand what you do and I a very grateful for your contribution to this art. And I am honored to be the N—a that gets to say, “My N—a, welcome to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
A tuxedo-clad Hov then gave the longest speech of the night where he touched on nearly every era of his career and paid respect to rappers like KRS-One and Chuck D that inspired him early on. It ended with an hysterical story about getting a call from President Obama shortly before the 2012 election.
“He called me,” Jay said, “and he said, ‘You know, it’s the fourth quarter. We’re down two. I need you to assist me, give me the ball, I’m Michael Jordan and I’ll get this done. I need you to go to Miami, Philly, Atlanta, and Ohio.’ And I thought like, ‘Man, hip-hop was really an agent for change and how amazing is its reach that this man is calling me to help out when he campaigned…I thought, “N—a, I’m Michael Jordan.’ That’s what I really thought.”
Shortly before midnight, Paul McCartney appeared to induct the Foo Fighters. He spent much of his time comparing Grohl’s post-Nirvana career to his time in Wings. “We had a great time with our groups [the Beatles and Nirvana], but eventually tragedy happened and my group broke up,” he said. “Same happened with Dave. His group broke up under tragic circumstances. So the question is, what do you do now? We both were presented with that question. In my case, I said, ‘Well, I’ll make an album where I play all the instruments myself.’ So I did that. Dave’s group broke up, what’s he do? He makes an album where he plays all the instruments himself. Do you think this guy’s stalking me?”
Dave Grohl telegraphed in advance that he was going to give a short speech, and he actually followed through with it. “I’m usually the guy who talks too much,” he said. “I didn’t prepare any sort of speech because I figured I’d make it short because the last 25 years has been me, just like, ‘Blah, blah, blah … rock & roll … blah, blah, blah.’” (It was a wonderful echo of Alex Lifeson’s now-legendary “blah blah blah” speech from Rush’s 2013 induction.)
Prior to the speeches, the band ripped through “Best of You,” “My Hero” and “Everlong,” essentially squeezing a two-hour Foo Fighters gig into about 10 euphoric minutes. In a year where the Foos were seemingly everywhere, this was a very fitting capper.
The original plan for the grand finale was an all-star jam on the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” with the Foos and many of the evening’s other honorees. That would have been an incredible chance to see Pat Smear reunite with his one-time Germs bandmate Belinda Carlisle, not to mention a great way to honor Charlie Watts, but it wasn’t to be.
Instead, Paul McCartney and the Foos teamed up for a rollicking “Get Back.” This was McCartney’s first time playing to a live crowd in a long time, and he was a little hoarse, but there wasn’t even a single person in the arena that even remotely cared. The Hall of Fame had pulled off yet another magical evening. And with the Smiths, Devo, Carly Simon, Phil Collins, Pixies, Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Joy Division/New Order, and the Monkees all waiting to get in (not to mention Taylor Swift in 2032), there will be many more to come.