Tomorrow night’s ARIA Awards will for the second year running not bother inducting anyone from Australian popular music’s 60-odd years history into the industry’s Hall of Fame. Don’t worry though you’ll still be able to see if Ed Sheeran or Abba, Lil Nas X or Adele, Post Malone or Taylor Swift, Harry Styles or Billie Eilish, Drake or Post Malone – none of whom will be there, of course – can win an Australian Recording Industry Association trophy to take pride of place in their downstairs loo.
It hasn’t always been this way. In 2005, as Wind Back Wednesday rediscovers, there was a flurry of inductions, a pattern which would be reproduced for the next five years, and for the first time a standalone event from the hustle and noise of the regular ARIA Awards.
How was it done? Who was chosen? What did it mean? Let’s go from the corridor of uncertainty to the Hall of Fame.
SO, WHO WOULD YOU HAVE TO #%!$ to NOT to make it into the Australian music industry’s Hall of Fame?
The Australian Football League tied itself in knots for five years over whether to and then when to induct into its hall of fame one of the greatest names in the code, Gary Ablett. The problem was the so called “character test”.
From the first year Ablett was eligible to be inducted each season saw arguments rage between those who saw him as morally inadequate and therefore not to be lauded and those who said what he did when playing is what mattered. It was only this year that he was given the nod.
It’s a shame Ablett didn’t play music instead of footy: he’d have been an immortal already.
Next week the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA), the music industry’s peak body, will induct six more artists into its Hall of Fame. The six are the Easybeats, Normie Rowe, Smoky Dawson, Renee Geyer, Hunters & Collectors and Split Enz.
(2005 Hall of Fame inductee, Renee Geyer)
For the first time in the Hall of Fame’s 17-year existence instead of being a small part of the annual ARIA Awards night, the induction ceremony will be a stand-alone event with its own glitter and – ARIA hope – growing tradition of respecting and remembering the past.
At that ceremony you won’t hear anyone talking about character tests.
“I think rock’n’roll halls of fame tend to be quite forgiving in that respect,” says Ed St John, chairman of the ARIA awards and president and CEO of Warner Music Australia. “I don’t think there’s too much behaviour that disqualifies you.”
So, what behaviour could rule someone out?
“Looking at the people who have already been inducted, not much,” he chuckles. “Dame Joan Sutherland, she was a wild one. Percy Grainger another.”
Actually, Percy Grainger did like a bit of discipline firmly applied, but you’d hardly call him a musical Shane Warne would you? Even so the criteria for selecting the ARIA hall of fame nominees say nothing about character, good or otherwise.
To have a chance of entering the mythical hall for rock/pop, jazz, country and classical recording artists you need to have begun your career at least 20 years earlier, be “responsible for a significant body of recorded work” and be considered to have had “either a cultural impact within Australia and/or recognition within the world marketplace”.
Of course, all this talk of character or lack thereof in the music hall of fame begs the question that at least some of those who have been inducted or are about to be have been of questionable character. Even taking out the saintly Slim Dusty, Don Burrows and family favourites the Seekers, looking at the list of 38 artists or groups there isn’t anyone really who would qualify for shock horror headlines.
Sure, Cold Chisel liked a drink or 13, Paul Kelly had a heroin habit as did Renee Geyer, Normie Rowe punched Ron Casey (which may in fact be a recommendation), Joan Sutherland didn’t like dark skinned chappies processing her passport and Peter Allen married Liza Minelli. But in truth, those who have been inducted since 1988 were or are fine upstanding members of the community. Is that a coincidence or a deliberate choice to avoid trouble during the ARIA awards broadcasts?
“We’re always caught between the honest desire to honour the really deserving acts but also to give people who are watching the ARIAs on television a kind of a good easily grasped family TV moment,” explains St John. “If we’re choosing people to be the one highlight of a young awards show there is a tendency to choose pretty safe, widely known, widely recognised artists. There’s a whole lot of young fresh acts winning awards and it’s quite a nice change of pace to have Olivia [Newton-john] or LRB or [John] Farnham inducted.”
The “we” to whom St John refers is the eight member ARIA board, consisting of representatives from the major record companies. Each year they are given a list of potential candidates by ARIA’s events producer Mark Pope and make their selections from that. According to St John, self-interest doesn’t much figure here as unlike issues such as which artists will perform at the high profile ARIA Awards – when there are “robust discussions” among rival record companies angling for the publicity – the Hall of Fame isn’t seen as having any significant sales value, merely a warm inner glow.
Warm inner glow or not, there’s still plenty of robust discussion occurring outside the ARIA boardroom, beginning with who has been left out. For example, how is it that Australia’s first significant rock band, The Easybeats have had to wait 17 years to enter the Hall of Fame? And how does Nick Cave*, who either with his bands the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds or on his own has been one of Australia’s most visible and influential exports for 25 years, miss out while fellow Melbournians, Hunters & Collectors, make the grade?
While saying that “I don’t’ think anyone’s adequately explained to me” why The Easybeats have had to wait so long, Ed St John was keen to stress that there was no blackballing of particular artists or playing favourites and that this year’s move to large scale inductions opens up opportunities “to look broader”.
(Nick who? Original ARIA bad boy, Spankin' Percy Grainger.)
“I know we had talked about the Birthday Party more than once but in that particular situation when feelers have been put out Nick puts feelers back along the lines of not really believing in awards shows and not being inclined to turn up,” St John says. “We’re aware of the comment that possibly in the past at least ARIA has tended to possibly honour the more mainstream end of the market rather than the critically acclaimed leftfield, for want of a better term, acts and I think the Hall of Fame as a stand-alone event seeks to address that.”
It would be silly to expect the ARIA hall of fame to be radically different from the ARIA awards themselves which in the main recognise the most mainstream and popular acts. It’s “the nature of the beast” as St John puts it. Maybe there should be consideration of an annex to the hall for the less famous but deserving, the ARIA shed of semi-fame possibly.
Of course, the hall and shed could fill pretty quickly when it accepts “Australian” bands such as Split Enz, who were all New Zealanders except for their last year when Melbourne’s Paul Hester drummed for them.
“[They were] Australian residents at the time I think you’ll find,” St John laughs.
For it is true that one of the subsets of criteria for an ARIA award nominee of any sort is being either an Australian citizen or someone who has lived in Australia for six months during the eligibility period.
“The reality is with Split Enz they were all living in Melbourne and owned houses for four or five years while they were making records.”
So does ARIA have an investigator to check resident status and property ownership?
“Funnily enough we have asked to see people’s passports on a few occasions. You don’t want to penalise successful Australians who have been living overseas for some time.”
That wouldn’t be fair to Australians. Or to the 1997 inductees, the Bee Gees, the British-born brothers who spent four years of their 42-year recording career in Australia and have lived in the UK or USA for the past 38 years.
“What you’re commenting on is a larger issue than the ARIAs and the Hall of Fame,” says St John. “Australia’s fascinating ability to claim even the slightest connection if it suits them.”
Is there an international hall of fame for that?
*Nick Cave, but not the Bad Seeds or Birthday Party, was inducted into the Hall of Fame two years later. Also inducted that year were Frank Ifield, Hoodoo Gurus, Marcia Hines, Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons, Brian Cadd and Radio Birdman.
Interestingly, two years after this, Rolf Harris was inducted. Six years later he was removed from the Hall of Fame.