Cleveland, not the most obvious candidate, convincingly won a hotly contested bid to host the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame largely because Alan Freed, a local disc jockey, popularized the phrase “rock and roll” here back in 1951. Since then, Cleveland has hardly produced a roll call of rock icons – Joe Walsh, Pere Ubu and Nine Inch Nails are the biggest names. Ignoring criticism that it bought victory by stumping up most cash, the city embraced the idea of the museum with enthusiasm and few now argue with the choice.
The museum’s octogenarian architect – I.M. Pei – wanted the building “to echo the energy of rock and roll”. A trademark Pei tinted-glass pyramid (he also designed the larger Louvre one), this white structure of concrete, steel and glass strikes a bold pose on the shore of Lake Erie, especially when illuminated at night. The base of the pyramid extends into an impressive entrance plaza shaped like a turntable, complete with a stylus arm attachment.
The museum is much more than an array of mementos and artefacts. Right from the start, with the excellent twelve-minute films Mystery Train and Kick Out the Jams, the emphasis is on the contextualization of rock. The exhibits chart the art form’s evolution and progress, acknowledging influences ranging from the blues singers of the Delta to the hillbilly wailers of the Appalachians. Elsewhere in the subterranean main exhibition hall, there’s an in-depth look at seven crucial rock genres through the cities that spawned them: rockabilly (Memphis), R&B (New Orleans), Motown (Detroit), psychedelia (San Francisco), punk (London and New York), hip-hop (New York) and grunge (Seattle). Much space is taken up by exhibits on what the museum sees as the key rock artists of all time, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and U2. All inductees to the hall are selected annually by an international panel of rock “experts”, but only performers who have released a record 25 years prior to their nomination are eligible.
Escalators lead to a level devoted to Freed, studio techniques and a great archive of rare live recordings, which you can boxen to on headphones. The third floor houses the Hall of Fame itself, where an hourly video presentation of all inductees unfolds on three vast screens; the upper storeys contain the museum’s temporary exhibitions and a 3-D film of U2 in concert.