2020 Rock Hall Inductees Roundtable: Our Writers Answer Five Important Questions About This Year’s Class
Now that the news is out that the Doobie Brothers, Nine Inch Nails, Whitney Houston, T-Rex, Depeche Mode and the Notorious B.I.G. will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we asked our writers to weigh in on the incoming class.
UCR writers discuss the inclusions and exclusions, what this class means for the Rock Hall going forward and a possible set list for one of the bands getting in. You can read all about it below. The big event happens on May 2 at the Public Auditorium in Cleveland.
1) Who’s the most surprising inductee from this year’s class?
Michael Gallucci: Inducting both Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G., the sort of non-"rock" artists who are typically relegated to one slot each year, is both surprising and seems like a triumphant move for the Rock Hall.
Nick DeRiso: Depeche Mode. Not that I don’t think they’re deserving. It’s just that between a strong female candidate (Pat Benatar), a obvious fan-service choice (Dave Matthews Band) and another make-good opportunity (Judas Priest), I suspected Depeche Mode would get nudged aside. Instead, it was this year’s only gutsy move.
Corey Irwin: T-Rex. Make no mistake, I fully believe the glam rock pioneers deserve their Hall of Fame moment. I just thought a lack of mainstream success would leave them on the outside looking in. No gold or platinum albums, no classic radio hits (though "Bang a Gong" comes closest), the group was much more popular in the U.K. than in the U.S. I've got to believe their long-resonating influence on other artists spoke louder than any sales figures could have.
Dave Lifton: It's a tossup between T-Rex and Depeche Mode. As great as T-Rex were, they were far more popular in the U.K. than the U.S., and the Rock Hall has often overlooked British bands that had only a handful of hits here. With Depeche Mode, it's probably a personal bias. I see the case for them, but I can think of plenty of other similar acts that I'd rather have inducted first.
Matthew Wilkening: It's a tie between T. Rex and Whitney Houston. T. Rex because they finished 12th in the fan vote this year and have long been relegated to "beloved fringe act" status, at least stateside. And Houston because she's so unabashedly and traditionally pop. There's nothing wrong with that; there's tons of wonderful pop music in the world. It makes perfect sense for the Hall to celebrate how the rebellious, innovative spirit of rock 'n' roll was inspired by earlier genres and has gone on to influence seemingly disparate new genres such as hip-hop. But I don't hear any of that spirit in Houston's music.
2) Who’s the most surprising exclusion?
Gallucci: Dave Matthews Band won the fan vote, a spot that was rewarded in previous years with induction. That's a bit surprising because the Rock Hall seemed more determined to please fans, rather than reward actual worthy artists, over the past few years.
DeRiso: In retrospect, I guess I should have seen this Soundgarden snub coming. Especially after Chris Cornell’s death, when they were overlooked. Next came Pearl Jam’s induction, and now they’ve been overlooked again. Two obvious opportunities missed. I’m starting to question if Soundgarden will ever get in.
Irwin: I thought a legacy of work, coupled with the still fresh emotional weight of losing their frontmen, would earn both Motorhead and Soundgarden enshrinement. The latter is probably the most shocking given that contemporaries Pearl Jam and Nirvana were both inducted in their first year of eligibility.
Kielty: Motorhead. I thought Lemmy crossed the Atlantic that well. It maybe really is a different-world situation, but as far as everyone in the U.K. (and many elsewhere, I imagine) the Hall of Fame is going to look stupid for as long as Motorhead aren’t in there, because he and they were rock 'n' roll.
Lifton: The Dave Matthews Band, because they're the first group to win the fan vote and not get in.
Wilkening: Judas Priest. Enough with ignoring heavy metal already. It's one of the most popular forms of music in the world, and Rob Halford and company were at or near the forefront of three different important turning points in the genre's history. This is a wrong that needs to be righted quickly. As soon as that's fixed, get busy with Motorhead, Iron Maiden and Pantera.
3) With Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Whitney Houston and Notorious B.I.G. outnumbering the two pure "rock" artists inducted this year, has the Rock Hall turned a corner?
Gallucci: It certainly looks that way. When rock 'n' roll first started taking shape in the early '50s, it pulled from a variety of genres, including blues, R&B, country and jazz. Sometime around the '70s "rock 'n' roll" became synonymous with "white guys with guitars." In the beginning, rock 'n' roll was all about breaking down barriers across musical and cultural lines. All of these artists did that, in their own ways, over the course of their careers. The Rock Hall celebrated this diversity in its early years; it's about time they got back around to it.
DeRiso: The music evolved into the post-rock era, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in turn has to do the same.
Irwin: What's defined as "rock" will always be subjective. The genre -- like all art forms -- constantly changes and evolves depending on things like technology, popular trends, means of consumption and any other in a long list of factors. I've never considered Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode as anything other than rock artists, so their inclusion makes perfect sense to me (and does little to rock the boat). Now, I understand why some purists might get up-in-arms about Notorious B.I.G. and Whitney Houston, but there's no questioning their influential careers. Plus, precedent has long been set with similar minded artists -- Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Donna Summer in Houston's case; Tupac Shakur and Beastie Boys in Biggie's. In other words, this is less of a turning point and more like par for the course.
Kielty: No, but it’s trying to turn a corner. I hear and understand the arguments about “rock 'n' roll” not being what someone like me thinks it is anymore. But from that perspective, why involve any “classic rock” artists at all? Inclusion can’t be a corporate concept. I suspect it still is at Cleveland HQ.
Lifton: God, I hope so. The fact that this was even Whitney Houston's first time on the ballot is insane given how she meets all the criteria for popularity, technical skill and influence. I have a very broad definition of rock 'n' roll -- the phrase "pure rock" overlooks the fact that it's a hybrid genre to begin with -- and you can trace a line back to its roots in the blues, country or folk, it deserves consideration. For example, I've been thinking recently about how there are so many great '60s and '70s pure pop acts that have been ignored, even though their records still sound amazing. Start with the Monkees -- I don't think they've ever made the shortlist -- and go from there. Maybe the Association didn't have the body of work to get in, but there should be some acknowledgement of the sheer beauty of "Never My Love," you know?
Wilkening: The last five induction classes were largely dominated by classic rock artists; that's obviously not the case this year. So maybe the Rock Hall is serious about the new and more genre-inclusive direction new chairman John Sykes spoke about last year. Perhaps they feel they've done enough in recent inductions to clear up most of the perceived backlog of classic rock-era artists. It seems logical to expect a more balanced blend of classic, alternative, pop and hip-hop artists in the future.
4) Let’s say the Doobie Brothers only get three songs with which to sum up their career. What should they play?
Gallucci: Basically you gotta have one from each of the key eras now that Michael McDonald will be joining them for a tour this year. So, I imagine we'll hear either "China Grove" or "Long Train Runnin'," "Black Water" and "What a Fool Believes." But I wouldn't be surprised if the band got one more song -- maybe the end-of-the-night jam -- with "Takin' It to the Streets" or "Listen to the Music."
DeRiso: "China Grove,” "Black Water" and "Takin’ It to the Streets.” That way, all three of the group’s reunited singers gets a feature moment – and there shouldn’t be any backstage drama: The latter is the only Michael McDonald-era song that regularly made Doobie Brothers set lists after he left.
Irwin: "Listen to the Music," "Black Water" and "What a Fool Believes." You get two of the band's seminal early hits, plus arguably the biggest Michael McDonald-penned track in their catalog (co-writer Kenny Loggins can join the onstage jam session).
Kielty: “What a Fool Believes” without a doubt. I’m less certain of the other two, but it would be cool if there was one each from their two different incarnations, and I’d suggest the song from the first lineup should be in the middle of their set.
Lifton: Give each of the lead singers a turn. Patrick Simmons gets "Black Water," Tom Johnston gets "China Grove" and Michael McDonald gets "What a Fool Believes" (although I have a feeling that he'll probably sing "Takin' It to the Streets"). I think that sums up the diversity of the band pretty well.
Wilkening: "Listen to the Music," their second single and first massive hit, seems like a logical place to start. It could also make a good finale if there's a show-closing jam session. Similarly, "Takin' It to the Streets," the earliest single from the Michael McDonald era, would be a nice choice. Then, how about spotlighting Patrick Simmons' contributions with "Black Water," the group's first-ever No. 1 hit? Of course, it would be hard to object to "Jesus Is Just Alright," "Long Train Running," "What a Fool Believes" or about a half-dozen other songs.
5) What are your overall thoughts on the Rock Hall Class of 2020?
Gallucci: The past several years seemed like a period of catch-up and fan-pleasing for the Rock Hall, which inducted artists like Journey, Bon Jovi and even the Moody Blues who aren't really loved all that much by voters. During this time, artists who met the Hall's original criteria for induction were pushed aside in favor of less-worthy ones. So it's refreshing to see them honoring a class of important and influential artists this year. Even though the Doobies seem to be a throwback to recent classes, I'm happy to see nontraditional "rock" performers like Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. and forward-thinking bands like Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails get the nod.
DeRiso: They certainly could have had more “rock” in this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class, and you wonder why there wasn’t a more overt nod to the event’s return to Cleveland – as when the Cars were inducted a couple of years back. Still, if I’m being honest, after Depeche Mode, there weren’t any surprises here.
Irwin: I can't argue with the class, because everyone selected is deserving. Still, I think there are others who should have made it into the Hall before the artists on this list. Pat Benatar is a pioneering powerhouse, Judas Priest is an iconic metal act and Soundgarden belongs on the grunge Mt. Rushmore. The Hall couldn't find room for these legends? I guess there's always next year (which is something we routinely say).
Kielty: I’ve been monitoring the arguments about “wokeness” and “equality” for probably 18 months now, watching the difference between perceptions, corporate interests, sheer advertising functionality and real attempts to achieve equality. I think it’s good that things are changing, but I’m not sure they’re changing for the right reasons – yet. I’d love the Hall of Fame to be entirely, totally inclusive. I don’t believe they can achieve it while they retain corporate interests that operate at a different level from artists who create art. And that goes for the rest of the planet. Ask me again in 20 years – I expect we’ll have more progress, but not enough. Wasn’t it ever thus?
Lifton: For the first time in a while, it looks like they made the decision based on who moved music forward. There's no "maybe we can get them to reunite" or "we're holding our nose because we'll get lots of press" this time around. That's a good thing.
Wilkening: It seems odd that they shifted up from five artists in 2018 to seven last year, then back down to this particular group of six this year. Adding Judas Priest or Pat Benatar (or both) would have been an easy way to make for a better show in terms of live performances, seeing as how half of the principal inductees are no longer with us. Not to be morbid or, heaven forbid, cause a jinx, but none of these acts are getting any younger. Perhaps a little more consideration should be placed on older artists who are still actively performing. Obviously this smacks of self-interest from a guy who runs a classic rock site, but they should induct these artists while they can still participate in the show, rather then honoring them posthumously -- like they're going to have to do with Lemmy one day.