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Rock Hall 2020: Welcome to the Machines

For this first time in the Hall of Fame’s history, a majority of inductees, including Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, and the Notorious B.I.G., built their careers with synthesizers and drum machines

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Depeche Mode (above), Nine Inch Nails, Notorious B.I.G., and Whitney Houston are ushering in a new era of synthesized music.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

According to the late rock & roll historian Bon Scott of AC/DC and his barnstorming Old Testament scripture “Let There Be Rock,” the genre was born around 1955, when Pyotr Tchaikovsky said, “Let there be sound … light … drums … guitar,” all leading up to the revelation, “Let there be rock!” And while he may have gotten the timeline and provenance of rock & roll utterly and completely wrong, Scott captured the genre’s generally accepted origin story perfectly on the 1977 track. Within a few years, though, that definition was already changing, as new-wave and pop artists started giving synthesizers and drum machines a more prominent place in their music. Now that shift is being reflected in a major way in this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class.

For the first time in the organization’s history, a majority of the year’s inductees built their legacies with more synthetic, machine-made rhythms than any traditional means of providing a backbeat. Of the 2020 class, only the Doobie Brothers and T. Rex had official members who sat behind drum kits, while Whitney Houston, the Notorious B.I.G., Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails all regularly built hits out of sampled instruments and/or drum machines. For all of the hullabaloo surrounding which acts Gene Simmons says belong in the Rock Hall and which ones don’t, this group of musicians makes a statement about how rock is much more than drums and guitar — and how it’s been that way for decades now.

Although the granddaddies of electronic rock, Kraftwerk, once again missed the cut — they’ve been nominated an astonishing six times without making it in — their influence is palpable among the artists who will be getting inducted this spring. Kraftwerk formed half a century ago in Düsseldorf and settled into lineup of four musicians who stood in a neat row and performed their mechanical masterpieces like robots — and it’s incredible. Synth music had already crossed over into pop territory in the Sixties with hit recordings by Wendy Carlos and Gershon Kingsley (“Popcorn”!), but it was Kraftwerk and a few of their peers who made that sound undeniably cool and a viable avenue for music creation in the Seventies. Even so, some artists resisted. For years, Queen included the words “no synths!” in their album credits, until new-wave became fashionable and they realized they could write a pretty great song like “Play the Game” with the help of machines.

Each of the synth-friendly artists in this year’s class got their starts in or after the Eighties, when it would have seemed crazy to fully write off an instrument capable of anything. Depeche Mode formed in the early Eighties with an all-synthesizer lineup, and scored hits in their native England right out of the gate with drum machine–rattling singles like “Dreaming of Me,” “Just Can’t Get Enough,” and “See You.” The opening notes of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney Houston (an artist whose Rock Hall inclusion is sure to raise Gene Simmons’ eyebrows) are an array of machine handclaps and cowbells before the synths come in. Trent Reznor built his 1989 debut and breakthrough LP, Pretty Hate Machine, and the hard rocking hit “Head Like a Hole,” with samplers and synthesizers. And the Notorious B.I.G. became a rap phenomenon on tracks like 1994’s “Juicy,” which sampled the song “Juicy Fruit” by Mtume — a 1983 hit that didn’t have a live drummer on it to begin with.

All these choices reflect something that John Sykes, the new chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, told Rolling Stone last year about the changing nature of the institution. “I’ve always thought that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — having been involved in it myself for 25 years now — is no longer about a single genre of music,” he said. “It’s about a spirit that connects with young people.”

What’s more extraordinary is that that spirit is appealing to the Rock Hall’s once-rockist voters, and electronic music is finally getting a foothold in the Hall. In recent years, synth- and sample-friendly artists like the Cure, Radiohead, Roxy Music, 2Pac, N.W.A, Public Enemy, and Madonna, among many others, have helped open the doors for this year’s class, and the definition of the Rock Hall will surely keep evolving in the years to come.

That change is something that especially appeals to one of this year’s inductees, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor. “[The spirit of rock] can be a turntable, a computer, a synthesizer, sequencer,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “They are all tools. It’s the spirit of expression and, to me, freedom and no limits to expression. That’s my version of what rock means and the method of achieving doesn’t need to be quantified to where it has to have this instrument.” If you don’t know, now you know