The 20 Biggest Rock ‘n’ Roll Stories of 2020
For all its faults, 2020 certainly provided an ongoing stream of newsworthy stories.
From the coronavirus pandemic to the Black Lives Matter protests to one of the most contentious presidential elections in history, the year was unlike any other. Since music has always reflected the society in which its made, these major events naturally affected the rock world. Still, there were plenty of headline-grabbing stories emanating from the music industry.
The year saw the deaths of two legendary rockers: Neil Peart and Eddie Van Halen. Meanwhile, other luminaries - including Brian May and Ozzy Osbourne - faced their own series of health woes.
The return of AC/DC and a reunion from Genesis were both welcomed tidbits of good news, even if the latter's tour had to be postponed (like the majority of the year's live events).
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a battle within Aerosmith and a long-awaited release from Tom Petty were among the year's other major moments. Check out UCR's roundup of the 20 Biggest Rock 'n' Roll Stories of 2020 below.
Neil Peart Dies
Three and a half years after being diagnosed with brain cancer, Rush’s Neil Peart died on Jan. 7. Tributes to the departed drummer poured in from throughout the rock world. The Band’s Robbie Robertson called Peart an “icon and musical genius,” Def Leppard stated his “legendary drum work and inimitable style will always resound in rock 'n' roll” and the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins declared that “Neil Peart had the hands of God.” Celebrations of the drummer’s life would continue throughout the year, with an all-star tribute at the Modern Drummer Festival and the naming of a park pavilion in Peart’s hometown among the honors.
David Lee Roth Goes to Vegas, Tours Solo
David Lee Roth took his flamboyant brand of rock to the city that does flashy best: Las Vegas. In January, the Van Halen singer kicked off a residency in Sin City, his first full solo concerts in 13 years. A month later he’d embark on a tour alongside fellow classic rockers Kiss, a trek that would be cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. Things would be further turned upside down when Roth’s friend and former Van Halen bandmate, Eddie Van Halen, died of cancer in October. Diamond Dave paid tribute to his departed comrade with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow Bar and Grill,” an original song released two months after the guitarist’s death. Even while in mourning, Roth eyed the future - and a return to Vegas once things are safe again. "I’m gonna be the king of Las Vegas,” he responded when asked about his plans for the next few years.
Doobie Brothers and Nine Inch Nails Lead 2020 Rock Hall Class
In January, the 2020 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame class was unveiled. The Doobie Brothers, T-Rex, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. made up the inductees, while Motorhead, Soundgarden and Judas Priest were among the notable nominees who did not earn enshrinement - leading to several notable bursts of outrage. Still, 2020 being what it was, nothing besides the nomination announcement went as planned. The Rock Hall induction ceremony, usually a live event featuring performances and career retrospectives, was postponed and then canceled. In its place, a pre-recorded television special was held in November. Ringo Starr, Iggy Pop, Eagles and actress Charlize Theron were among the stars who helped induct the Hall’s newest members.
Ozzy Battles Parkinson's, Releases New Album
It was a mixed bag for Ozzy Osbourne in 2020, as the rocker returned with one of his most celebrated albums in decades but also battled continuing health issues. The Prince of Darkness announced in January that he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a condition he’d quietly been battling since 2003. Osbourne subsequently canceled his 2020 performance plans, once again postponing his farewell tour. Despite these problems, he still managed to release his 12th solo album, Ordinary Man. The LP featured a bevy of high-profile collaborators, including Elton John, Duff McKagan, Chad Smith and Post Malone. It was met with positive reviews and strong sales, ranking among the best rock releases of the year.
Dokken's Health Woes
Don Dokken suffered his own health problems in 2020, and the way information about it came out made things even more complicated for fans. First, Dokken was quoted as saying his “hands are dead” due to complications from spinal surgery. That interview was conducted in January but not widely circulated until February. As news about his condition began to spread, Dokken issued an update, letting fans know that his outlook had improved in the time since he gave those quotes. At that point, the guitarist said he expected to “fully recover” the use of his hands - only to come back four months later to reveal he no longer had the ability to play guitar. "It’s over. My right hand is paralyzed," he declared in a July interview. Exactly to what degree Dokken is able to move forward remains to be seen, but a positive sign may be coming in the form of a new album. The rocker’s namesake band is reportedly preparing an LP for release in 2021.
Aerosmith Battle With Drummer Joey Kramer
In January, Aerosmith were set to be honored as MusiCares Person of the Year 2020 during a star-studded ceremony held the night before the Grammy awards. The occasion should have been a reason to celebrate, but instead it was wrought with drama. Drummer Joey Kramer sued his bandmates, claiming they were preventing him from performing at both the Grammys and the MusiCares event. Kramer had shoulder surgery in 2019 and was still working his way back into form ahead of the performances. He said it was "insulting and upsetting" that his bandmates asked him to audition for his job, while the band insisted it had no other choice. Things escalated when the drummer was denied entry into the group's rehearsal space, with video of the incident leaked to TMZ. Still, things worked out in the end: Even though Kramer did not perform with Aerosmith, he joined the group onstage while accepting the MusiCares honor. He would return to the band in a performing capacity by mid-February, rejoining Aerosmith for their Deuces Are Wild Las Vegas residency.
It was the highly anticipated reunion more than a decade in the making - and then it wasn’t. Timing was definitely not on Genesis’ side when the legendary prog-pop pioneers announced their return in March. The group - with a lineup of singer Phil Collins, keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist and guitarist Mike Rutherford - planned a tour of the U.K. and Ireland, its first trek in 13 years. However, only weeks after Genesis’ announcement, the U.K. would find itself in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Theaters and live event spaces shut down, halting the concert industry. By July, the band had rescheduled its tour to 2021, with hopes to embark on the trek in April.
The story of 2020 cannot be written without discussing COVID-19, the worldwide pandemic that completely altered daily life. The rock world really began feeling its effects in February, when Green Day became one of the first headlining acts to postpone their tour due to the outbreak. An avalanche of tour postponements and cancellations would follow as the coronavirus brought concerts to a grinding halt. The effects of the pandemic echoed throughout the music industry all year, with venues struggling to survive and artists searching for new sources of revenue. Lockdown and social-distancing efforts forced artists to go online for performances. Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Jon Bon Jovi were among the long list of artists to appear at various COVID-relief virtual benefits. Meanwhile, musicians such a Queen's Brian May and Kiss' Paul Stanley, became more active on social media, teaching followers how to play some of their classic hits. Drive-in concerts became a viable option for those in need of a concert fix, with Metallica, Night Ranger and the Struts among those performing in front of fan-packed vehicles. Controversially, some events ignored safety guidelines and pushed forward with traditional concerts, most notably the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held in August. Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, Christopher Cross and Motorhead drummer Mikkey Dee were among the notable artists to contract COVID-19, only to recover. Others, such as John Prine and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, weren’t as lucky.
Brian May Recovers From a Heart Attack
The year was tough for many people, but for Queen’s Brian May it was downright painful. In May, the guitarist was hospitalized after ripping his gluteus maximus “to shreds” while gardening. Weeks later, May was still in overwhelming pain, with doctors discovering a compressed sciatic nerve as the cause. While in the midst of treatment on this malady, May experienced a “small” heart attack. "It was about 40 minutes of pain in the chest, and tightness and that feeling in the arms and sweating," he explained on Instagram. May was diagnosed with three congested arteries and eventually had three stents implanted to maintain proper blood flow to his heart. Despite these setbacks, he remained in high spirits. “I'm good, I'm here and I'm ready to rock."
The Return of AC/DC
After more than a year of speculation, AC/DC officially returned in 2020. The group welcomed back drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams, as well as longtime singer Brian Johnson. The fact that the frontman could even contemplate a return was thanks to an experimental medical procedure that solved the hearing-loss problems that forced Johnson into retirement four years earlier. Still, a gaping hole in AC/DC’s reunited lineup was left by Malcolm Young, the rhythm guitarist and band cofounder who died in 2017. Material originally written with Malcolm would form Power Up, the group’s 2020 LP. Meanwhile, Stevie Young would take over for his uncle in the band.
Artists Selling Their Publishing
A growing trend in 2020 saw artists selling the publishing rights to their work. Normally considered the most lucrative aspect of the music industry, these rights traditionally helped musicians get paid when their songs were licensed for things like movies and television. Some of music’s biggest names forked over these rights in major deals, with some eye-popping money changing hands. Bob Dylan sold more than 600 songs to Universal Music Publishing, earning something in the neighborhood of $400 million for his effort. Stevie Nicks netted approximately $100 million for an 80 percent stake in her catalog, which included both her Fleetwood Mac and solo work. Journey, Blondie, Richie Sambora, Chrissie Hynde, Nikki Sixx and Steve Winwood were among the other artists to sell part or all of their publishing. The poor payouts from streaming services and increased economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic were among reasons cited for the trend.
In March, the ugly divorce between Journey and their long-tenured rhythm section came to light. In court documents filed as a lawsuit against the musicians, Journey accused bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith of launching an "ill-conceived corporate coup d'etat" in an effort to take control of the band's name. The suit was soon met with a countersuit by Valory, who accused his former bandmates of breach of contract and causing emotional distress. Meanwhile, guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain maintained that only they control the band and its trademark. The duo flexed its muscles by soon replacing Valory and Smith with bassist Randy Jackson, drummer Narada Michael Walden and keyboardist and singer Jason Derlatka.
Roger Waters Tried to Make Pink Floyd Peace
The former members of Pink Floyd haven’t always been on the best of terms. Still, in April, Roger Waters revealed an attempted peace meeting. “I wrote out sort of a plan,” he explained to Rolling Stone, “but my plan didn’t bear fruit.” This “plan” was presented in person by Waters to David Gilmour and Nick Mason, and focused on reissues from the legendary band. “[The conversation] was just can we release the remastered vinyl of Animals without it turning into the third World War?” Waters noted, referring to the 5.1 surround-sound mix of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album, which has been in the works for years. “I said, ‘Why don’t we just have a vote? There’s only three of us. And then we can decide all those like that.’ And at least we can just get on. But they wouldn’t have that. They didn’t want it.”
Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ Finally Fully Blooms
After years of rumors and hopeful speculation, an expansive box set dedicated to Tom Petty’s legendary Wildflowers LP was finally released in October. Petty had originally envisioned Wildflowers as a double album but was eventually talked out of it. While some of the abandoned material from the 1994 LP would appear on later works, the 2020 box set marked the arrival of several previously unreleased tracks - as well as outtakes, home recordings, demos and live cuts. In his review of the set, UCR’s Michael Gallucci noted that the expanded material provided “a more complete portrait of an artist coming to a musical crossroads at the end of a century and forging forward by following his heart.”
Wolfgang Van Halen Debuts
After years of rumors surrounding his debut solo album, Wolfgang Van Halen signed a record deal in February. Even as COVID delayed the release, and Wolfgang prepared for a “wave of hate” around his solo LP, he seemed poised for the next chapter in his career. But all of that would be overshadowed months later with the death of his father and bandmate, Eddie. Suddenly, Wolfgang was forced to deal with salacious rumors, magazine lies and companies looking to profit off his father’s legacy - all while confronting his own grief after losing one of the most important people in his life. Showing poise through it all, Wolfgang released his first solo single in November, a track dedicated to his father called “Distance.” The bassist also announced that his solo project would be under the moniker, Mammoth WVH, a name with family relevance that Eddie was reportedly “stoked” about before his death.
Eddie Van Halen Dies
One of the most acclaimed and innovative guitarists in rock history, Eddie Van Halen died in October at the age of 65. His death was met with an immediate outpouring of tributes and memorials, from billboards and marquees all across the country, to a cavalcade of celebrities paying their respects online. Eddie’s former Van Halen bandmates remembered him fondly, Jack White honored the guitarist during a performance on Saturday Night Live and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame remembered him with a video tribute during its virtual induction ceremony. Meanwhile, David Crosby found himself in hot water following a tweet regarding Eddie. Inevitably, news began to focus on what the guitarist left behind. Fans began speculating about expansive unreleased material housed in the 5150 vaults, though Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, cautioned that the family wouldn’t rush any posthumous releases. Fans also found out that Sammy Hagar and Eddie had reconnected before his death, a move spurred by an unlikely source: comedian George Lopez. Later interviews would reveal that Van Halen had discussed a Kitchen Sink tour, which would have seen all of the band's former members reuniting. But it was never meant to be, with fans only left to dream about what kind of rock spectacle such a show would have been.
All the President's Men
One of the biggest newsmakers of 2020 was Donald Trump, and the polarizing president’s presence was certainly felt throughout the rock world. Many artists made their distaste for Trump known. Axl Rose called him “repulsive,” Neil Young described him “a disgrace to my country” and Roger Waters labeled the president a “tyrant.” In April, Waters even went so far as to cover the protest anthem “The Right to Live in Peace,” replacing the lyrics with Trump-inspired words. A slew of rockers demanded the president cease using their music at his rallies, including the Rolling Stones, Guns N’ Roses and the Tom Petty estate. But there were still plenty of artists who publicly backed the president in 2020, including Johnny Rotten, former Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic. The November election stirred lots of emotions, with some artists even saying they’d leave America if Trump earned a second term. The incumbent was defeated by Joe Biden, with many musicians taking to social media to share their reactions.
While emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic will likely take months - if not years - to recover from, toward the end of 2020 several signs offered a glimmer of hope. With vaccine rollouts underway, tour dates and festivals have tentatively started being announced for the new year. A $15 billion COVID-relief package seems poised to be passed by the government, providing much needed support for live-event venues. Industry insiders have remained bullish on the future, suggesting that 2021 could see a boom of concerts, with fans itching to return to live shows. While such predictions need to be taken with a grain of salt, they offer a light at the end of the tunnel for fans yearning to get back to live music.
George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement
Racial discourse, inequality and the treatment of minorities by police grabbed the national spotlight this year due to a series of highly publicized incidents. None was louder than the killing of George Floyd, an African American man who died in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Protests erupted across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death, with the social and political impact resonating in the world of music. Rockers such as Sammy Hagar, Flea and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid took to Twitter to urge peace and equality, while also amplifying calls for change. Bruce Springsteen decried Floyd’s death as a “visual lynching,” while Paul Stanley opined that society had to be better. Bon Jovi penned a new song, “American Reckoning,” inspired by Floyd’s killing and its aftermath. Meanwhile, Stevie Wonder encouraged all races to stand together and end systematic racism in an impassioned video posted to social media.
2020's Top Albums
In a year in which nothing seemed to go as planned, artists still managed to deliver a wealth of new material. Bruce Springsteen took a hard look at mortality with his LP Letter to You, while AC/DC roared back with a vengeance on Power Up. Ozzy Osbourne showed he still has plenty of gas in the tank with his powerful Ordinary Man, while Drive-By Truckers released not one but two full-length albums, The Unravelling (in January) and The New OK (in October). Meanwhile, ‘90s rockers Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins returned with some of their most energized material in years, Gigaton and Cyr, respectively. Still, arguably the biggest rock albums of the year came from two of music’s most acclaimed songwriters: Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. With Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan unveiled his examination of the 20th century, delivered in his distinctive brand of poetic rock. Meanwhile, McCartney III - his third solo record in a series - displayed the former Beatle’s penchant for experimentation, weaving a variety of instruments and sonic styles through his collection of ear-catching tracks.