The Case of the Missing Guitar Heroes
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Snubs The Ventures Again
Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted another round of deserving artists — including some who couldn’t be bothered to show up — March 12 at NYC’s Waldorf-Astoria.
For the umpteenth year in a row, however, one name was conspicuously absent from the roster: The Ventures. Yes, those Ventures, of “Walk Don’t Run” fame. Despite their undisputed bona fides as the greatest instrumental band of all time, somehow the hallowed (or is it hollowed?) Hall continues to overlook the Pacific Northwest-spawned legends.
A lack of innovation can’t be the reason; The Ventures are recognized far and wide as one of the most influential acts in rock history. Don Wilson, Bob Bogle, Mel Taylor and Nokie Edwards literally defined the sound of a four-piece rock band, with Wilson’s super-aggressive rhythm chords and Edward’s intricate leads foreshadowing Southern California’s surf-guitar phenomenon. Heck, Edwards recorded with a fuzz pedal (“The 2,000 Pound Bee”) before anyone else.
The Ventures Play Telstar & The Lonely Bull. Walk, Don’t Run Vol. 2. The Ventures In Space. The Ventures Knock Me Out! Live in England and Japan. Let’s Go! The Ventures A Go-Go. If you haven’t heard these classic albums, chances are most of your rock heroes have. The Beatles were fans, for Chrissake. So was Keith Moon. Joe Walsh, Gene Simmons, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry – the list of celebrity admirers is almost as long as the Ventures’ discography. Just about everyone who learned to play rock guitar in the 60’s and early 70’s were inspired by the band. The group’s best-selling Learn to Play Guitar With The Ventures instructional albums certainly helped.
Why then, this glaring omission, this unbelievable snub?
It has been occasionally suggested that the Ventures are merely a great cover act – even “Walk, Don’t Run” is a reworking of Chet Atkins’ cover of a Johnny Smith number. This contention has a bit of validity, but it’s not the band’s fault that their versions of “Pipeline,” “Telstar” and others sometimes outperformed the originals. It can also be pointed out that the Ventures aren’t the only ones who popularized someone else’s composition. Fats Domino didn’t write “Blueberry Hill,” the Supremes didn’t dream up “Stop! In The Name of Love,” and Hendrix sure as hell didn’t write “Hey Joe” or “All Along The Watchtower.” Interestingly enough, most of the Ventures’ albums are peppered with great original material.
Despite the quartet’s astounding record sales, they have had a few things working against them. While hardly a collection of ugly mugs, the group isn’t a gang of guitar-toting pretty boys, either – and image has always been at least half of the game. The Ventures have always placed music at the forefront; millions of people can hum “Walk, Don’t Run” or “Hawaii 5-0,” but very few could identify Don Wilson in a lineup.
Additionally, the Ventures’ image has always been unusually squeaky-clean. No arrests for drug possession, no public meltdowns, no high-profile divorces or controversial political stances. They let their lyric-less albums do all the talking, so to speak – and a mind-boggling number of people have listened. By 1964, it seemed that everyone in the U.S. between the ages of 16 and 26 had at least one Ventures record in their cabinet. They were America’s party band, if not the world’s. Their music was and is so hip (The Ventures in Space and Surfing can be singled out as two of rock’s coolest records, ever), perhaps the band didn’t feel the need to overdo the glitz-and-glamor publicity bit. Or maybe they were too busy making records. For almost 50 years now, The Ventures have never pretended to be anything other than a bunch of blue-collar guys who are obsessed with playing music and pleasing their fans – the epitome of a hard-working, constantly touring band.
Yes, The Ventures still perform – they never stopped. Long gone are the suits and the trademark Mosrite guitars, but the band still kicks as much ass as ever. Go to one of their concerts, and you’ll find yourself rubbing elbows with just about every guitarist in town. They all make a pilgrimage to soak up a phenomenal, impossibly energetic live show, to see some of rock’s first guitar heroes at work.
The Ventures also still adhere to their semi-annual schedule of touring Japan, where they are revered as demigods for introducing the electric guitar to the Land of the Rising Sun. The group’s initial trips there could be compared to the Beatles’ first crossings of the Atlantic. The Ventures remain the number one pop/rock band of all time in Japan, and are treated as royalty during their visits. Meanwhile, these living legends seem to be taken for granted by their fellow countrymen. An odd situation, indeed.
Although rock ‘n’ roll has had a bit of a Neverland effect on The Ventures, they’re not getting any younger. Wilson and Bogle weren’t fresh out of high school when they began playing gigs after work in 1959; Edwards was working in Buck Owens’ band when he was recruited shortly afterwards. Longtime drummer Mel Taylor passed away suddenly in 1996, to be replaced by son Leon, a phenomenal percussionist in his own right. Bogle recently quit touring, and session collaborator Bob Spalding has taken his place onstage. Bayou guitar sensation Jerry McGee, who has played on-and-off with the Ventures for 40 years, seems to be semi-retired from the group.
So it would be nice to see The Ventures inducted while they’re all still on their feet and on the stage. Compared to all of their accomplishments, a slot in the Hall of Fame is small potatoes. But what a treat it would be to see them on national television again, almost five decades since their first American Bandstand gig. American viewers – from baby-boomer fans and young hipsters to those who just ritually pull out The Ventures Christmas Party album every year – could finally, officially recognize the faces behind all those songs we’ve been listening to.
2008 is not too late.