For as much of rock history has been written on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean — with many of the era’s most renowned and accomplished bands hailing from the U.K. — the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has long remained a staunchly American institution.
Though a large number of British groups have proven undeniable to Rock Hall voters over the years — starting with The Beatles in 1988, and going up to Dire Straits and the Moody Blues in 2018 — the burden of proof has always been on U.K.-hailing artists to prove their worthiness via American standards. It’s been historically difficult for artists with impressive overseas achievements, but middling-to-lackluster U.S. resumes, to make headway at the Cleveland-based institution. T. Rex, The Jam, Kate Bush and The Smiths are some of the many acts to have amassed tremendous commercial and critical success in the U.K., while proving influential on future rock artists worldwide, that still see their Hall of Fame chances undercut by their muted mainstream profiles in the States. Of that prior list, only Bush and The Smiths have ever been nominated for the Rock Hall, and none have been inducted — or appeared on the 2019 ballot.
That’s what makes the returns for this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations a little bit stunning. Of the seven artists who were announced this Thursday (Dec. 13) for 2019 induction, five of them hail from the U.K., making it the most Brit-heavy class in the Hall’s 33-year induction history. It’s a pretty wide-ranging set of British rockers, too: goth godfathers The Cure, stadium rockers Def Leppard, alt-prog critical darlings Radiohead, art-rock trailblazers Roxy Music and psych-pop hitmakers The Zombies. Only a pair of American solo female artists — Janet Jackson and Stevie Nicks — prevent it from being a clean sweep for the English.
Now, some of these British inductions aren’t that surprising, even by Rock Hall standards. Despite a lack of conventional stateside hits, Radiohead have long thrived in the U.S. as the most acclaimed band of their generation, a legacy live act and a regular festival headliner — it was downright shocking when they didn’t get through for 2018, in their first year of eligibility, and it simply feels corrective to see them get in for next year. Meanwhile, Def Leppard’s American success — which includes two Diamond-certified albums in 1983’s Pyromania and 1987’s Hysteria — actually dwarfed their status in their home country, and their induction follows that of ’80s mainstream peers Bon Jovi and Journey the past two years. And The Zombies… well, there’s just not a lot of ’60s-era acts of unimpeachable acclaim left for the largely Baby Boomer-comprised voting body to induct, so it’s not terribly surprising to see them pushed through.
The Cure are a little more unexpected. They certainly have the American hits — 14 Billboard Hot 100 entries from 1986 to 1996 — as well as a trio of Platinum-certified albums, and a long history as a reliable live draw. But the cultural moments they belong to have had a hard time getting Rock Hall respect: whether you consider their closest U.K. contemporaries to be proto-goths Joy Division and Bauhaus, new wavers New Order and Depeche Mode or early indie rockers The Smiths and The Jesus and Mary Chain, few of their peers have ever drawn much consideration for Cleveland, and none have ever been inducted. Despite their impressive resume and wide-ranging influence, the image of The Cure as cartoonish, heavily mascara’d mopers has been hard for the band to shake, and it seemed likely their 15 years of Rock Hall snubbing would continue until the museum’s standards for more dramatic brands of the post-punk era loosened a little.
And if The Cure are an unexpected induction, then Roxy Music are close to jaw-dropping. Their resume in their home country is about as undeniable as it gets: ten top 10 hits, three No. 1 albums, and influence that’s spanned generations of British art rock, while setting the visual and sonic template for most of the bands who’d come to define the early days of MTV. But although countless artists they’ve influenced have gone on to major stateside success, Roxy have mostly remained a cult act themselves — with just a single U.S. top 40 hit (the No. 30-peaking “Love Is the Drug” in 1976) and one Platinum-certified album (1982 swan song Avalon). They’ve been eligible for the Rock Hall since 1997, and hadn’t even been nominated until this year, a pretty clear sign that this band just wasn’t really on the radar of most voters.
So what does it mean that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally opened their doors to these more theatrical British artists of the ’70s and ’80s? Well, it might mean that the voters are finally advancing along the rock timeline a little. You never want to get too far ahead of yourself in drawing progressive conclusions from Rock Hall voter trends, but after spending the last few years seemingly emptying the bench of all remaining classic rock acts of the ’60s and ’70s with decently credible resumes — Chicago, Deep Purple, Steve Miller, Electric Light Orchestra, Moody Blues — this year’s class does suggest that voters are a little more open now to what else rock history has had to offer.
The fact that Roxy Music got in before the MC5 seems emblematic of something: Though like Roxy, the MC5 had minimal mainstream presence in the U.S., they fill a more conventionally Rock Hall-friendly space as confrontational Detroit garage-rockers — and they even had a fairly high-profile year in 2018, with a 50th anniversary tour and a well-received memoir from guitarist Wayne Kramer. Until proven otherwise, they would have seemed the safer bet for induction than Roxy — and this year, Rock Hall voters indeed proved otherwise. Now, you have to wonder if a similarly long-overlooked ’70s U.K. peer like T. Rex or Mott the Hoople might finally get their first legitimate consideration in the next year or two.
And of course, it’s worth noting that the true signs of progress to be found in this year’s induction class really come from the two non-British inductees, anyway. Janet Jackson’s ticket for Cleveland is a particularly meaningful one — though she’s been eligible since 2007, and nominated twice before, she’d previously been denied entry, likely because voters were more concerned about her “Rock and Roll” credentials than her “Hall of Fame” case. Finally, though, the latter seems to have won out — as it always should have, considering that Jackson’s wide-reaching impact on popular music was as substantial as that of any of her peers, and considering that the induction of prior pop stars like Madonna and Donna Summer had long set the precedent for a performer of Janet’s genre to be considered eligible. Her inclusion could shortly open up discussion for the cases of some of her not-quite-rock star peers — Whitney Houston, George Michael, maybe even Mariah Carey or Garth Brooks.
Stevie Nicks’ induction as a solo artist seems a little less game-changing, since she’d already graced the Rock Hall stage as a member of Fleetwood Mac, and her getting in on the strength of her impressive-but-not-quite-transcendent solo discography appears to be more a victory of name recognition than anything else. But that in itself is its own kind of historic advancement for the institution — of the now-23 performers to be inducted twice as part of two different acts, Nicks is the first and only woman. Moreover, to have a female rock star whose name rings out as so iconic that voters skip past the particulars of her resume and push her through immediately upon nomination also feels like a minor win for greater gender equality at the Rock Hall, a topic that has subject to some much-deserved scrutiny in recent years.
All this said, there’s no guarantee that these signs of marginal progress within the historically change-resistant Rock Hall voting block will swell into an overall sea change in the years to come, or that next year won’t see a resurgence in boomer bands and classic rock safeties on the ballot and at the induction ceremonies. (It’s also worth noting that even this year, a few recurring nominees in electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, legendary rapper LL Cool J and funk paragons Rufus featuring Chaka Khan were all again denied Rock Hall passage, missing a chance to diversify the inductees even further.) But this year’s class does at least feel like the start of something different, a willingness to think a little less traditionally about this most staid of musical institutions. And good thing, because the most logical nominees aren’t exactly going to be getting more old-fashioned in the years to come.