The Who's Pete Townshend in 1970 with his synthesizers (Photo: Chris Morphet/Getty Images)

The recent PBS docuseries Soundbreaking is a must-see for any music buff, primarily because of the way it challenges conventional notions of “authenticity” when it comes to pop, rock, folk, and R&B. The whole process of recording and distributing songs is inherently artificial, requiring machines and electronics to serve as intermediaries, ensuring that what the fan hears at home will be either subtly or radically different from what the performer did live in a studio. Once listeners accept that premise, it really becomes just a matter of degrees between a balladeer with an acoustic guitar, singing plainly into a single microphone, and someone with a drum machine, a sampler, and Auto-Tune, producing sounds that don’t exist in nature.

Or, at least, that’s been the logic over the years for even some of our most traditionalist rock and soul stars. Believing that true artistry requires keeping up with the times—and sometimes getting out ahead of them—many of the musicians most associated with today’s classic rock and oldies radio went through periods where they incorporated synthesizers into their sound. These weren’t the prog-rockers, new wavers, or hip-hoppers who integrated synths almost from the start of their careers. These were established old-school acts trying something beyond the old guitar/bass/drums. Some experimented with unusual electronic textures, while others just layered them in an attempt to stay relevant. Some dabbled in synths for a record or two, while others kept the faith for years and years. Either way, the history of their endeavors tells the story of how the cultural significance of a single instrument changed from the late ’60s to the end of the ’80s. Here are some of the most interesting case studies.

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1. The Monkees, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (1967)

If 1967 hadn’t already been dubbed the “Summer Of Love,” it could just as easily be called the “Year Of Moog.” In June, the Monterey International Pop Festival featured a booth that showcased Robert Moog’s invention: an electronic noisemaker that was easier for everyday musicians to use than the earlier models of synthesizer (which had largely been in the hands of tinkerers and avant-garde composers). By the end of the year, some of the biggest American rock and soul acts—including The Byrds, The Doors, The Supremes, and Simon & Garfunkel—were putting the otherworldly sounds of the Moog into scattered songs on their latest albums, trying to compete with other pop explorers in the age of psychedelia. The most famous early adopters were The Monkees, who didn’t just play with the synthesizer on three tracks of their more experimental fourth LP, but also put one into a performance of “Love Is Only Sleeping” on their TV show. Although the Moog is mostly saved for the instrumental bridge, Micky Dolenz’s on-camera knob-twiddling introduced the country to the device that was making their favorite music trippier, giving it physical form. [Noel Murray]

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2. George Harrison, Electronic Sound (1969)

A prime example of how musicians used synthesizers throughout the late ’60s, this far-out effort from The Beatles’ guitarist—released on a subsidiary of the band’s Apple Records—consists of two extended instrumentals, pieced together from Moog-generated ambient noises and abrasive sounds. Following the lead of the introduction of the sitar to rock, George Harrison and his ilk were initially drawn to the synthesizer because of its potential to create a new kind of exotic drone. It took a while for them to start using it for melody and rhythm. [Noel Murray]

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3. The Who, Who’s Next (1971)

Like a lot of his peers, Pete Townshend initially saw the synthesizer as an instrument capable of something spiritually deeper and more forward-thinking than mere pop hooks. After the success of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, the band’s primary songwriter experimented with a process wherein the biorhythms of an audience would filter through a machine, producing its own, in-the-moment pulsing sound. Townshend never could realize the vision he had for this project (known as Lifehouse), but he salvaged some of the best songs for what’s widely regarded as The Who’s best album. The ARP synthesizer lines and loops on Who’s Next merely approximate the kind of universal thrum that Townshend had hoped he’d get from a real crowd, but the distinctive repetitions and wiggy freak-outs in the songs “Baba O’Riley,” “Bargain,” “The Song Is Over,” “Going Mobile,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” proved revelatory, suggesting another, more creatively and commercially profitable way to fuse electronic music with rock ’n’ roll. [Noel Murray]

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4. Stevie Wonder, Music Of My Mind (1972)

In the early 1970s, Stevie Wonder fought to be freed from Berry Gordy’s rigid Motown formulas and strove to keep up with the trends in rock, pop, and R&B by treating his albums as unified artistic statements, rather than as collections of singles and filler. One of the ways Wonder exerted control was to function almost as a one-man band in the studio, relying heavily on the versatile, room-sized TONTO synthesizer (and its engineering masters, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff) to help him flesh out his songs in ways that made them wholly his own. After a first effort at musical independence with 1971’s Where I’m Coming From, Wonder really found the style that would define his next decade of work (and the pop charts) with Music Of My Mind, which makes strong use of the TONTO on songs like the warm, jazzy hit “Superwoman.” In the masterpieces that followed—Talking Book, Innervisions, and Songs In The Key Of Life—Wonder and his producers would do as much as anyone in the industry to prove the synthesizer didn’t have to be a chilly, robotic instrument, but could instead give already catchy songs a little extra buzz. [Noel Murray]

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5. Cat Stevens, Izitso (1977)

Unlikely as it might sound, the king of the hummable folk-rock earworm was also an electro pioneer. Shortly before his religious conversion, the future Yusuf Islam set down his acoustic guitar in favor of an assortment of synthesizers and primitive sequencers, producing an album of ditties and instrumentals that would become one of the earliest examples of electronic rock in the pop mainstream. It was clear the singer-songwriter’s interest in the music business had run its course; the second side of Izitso even opens with a song titled “(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star.” Although it’s far from being one of his more lyrically accomplished records, Izitso showed him channeling his restlessness into playful and sometimes downright silly experimentation, as exemplified by the album’s most enduring track, the proto-hip-hop instrumental “Was Dog A Doughnut?” [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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6. The Beach Boys, Love You (1977)

Brian Wilson’s mental health had been shaky for nearly a decade by the time The Beach Boys’ promotional team announced the band’s boy genius was “back” for the 1976 LP 15 Big Ones, which saw him returning to the producer’s chair. But that album’s collection of vintage rock covers and tentative originals just laid the groundwork for the creative explosion of Love You, for which Wilson wrote a batch of songs as charmingly eccentric as his late-’60s classics, then performed most of the instrumental parts himself on a Minimoog. The rest of The Beach Boys helped with the vocals and some of the lyrics, but on the whole, Love You is Brian’s show. He took advantage of his new toy’s childlike chiming to make a piece of primitivist pop art. [Noel Murray]

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7. Marianne Faithfull, Broken English (1979)

Marianne Faithfull seemed destined to be a casualty of the 1960s. Launching her career with the Jagger-and-Richards-penned “As Tears Go By,” she became the female voice of the British Invasion, only to lose her career and personal life to heroin and anorexia. By the early 1970s, she was homeless, living on the streets or in squats between sporadic attempts at a comeback. The country album Dreamin’ My Dreams was a minor success in 1976, but it was the dark, unsparing Broken English that re-established Faithfull as a force to be reckoned with. Ingeniously pairing Faithfull’s cracked singing voice with tense art-rock and burbling synthesizers (played by Steve Winwood, a onetime ’60s wunderkind who would soon have a synth hit of his own with the Multimoog-driven “While You See A Chance”), Broken English remains the high-water mark of her career. Its bleak electronic textures provide a perfect counterpoint to a voice that betrays years of tragic wear and tear. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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8. Led Zeppelin, In Through The Out Door (1979)

Recorded in Stockholm at the personal studio of Swedish pop titans ABBA, Led Zeppelin’s final album of new material was an outlier, a transitional marker for a career phase that never happened. While guitarist Jimmy Page withdrew into heroin addiction, bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones picked up the slack, eager to try out his newly bought Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer. (The instrument would acquire quite a history; Jones would eventually sell it to the late Keith Emerson, who sold it to film composer Hans Zimmer some years later.) Hard-driving and often dominated by Jones’ synth and piano, In Through The Out Door showcased a shift in the band’s creative dynamic; its two best tracks, the incessantly rocking “South Bound Suarez” and the mournful “All My Love,” were also the only Led Zeppelin originals to be written without Page’s input. Although it became one of the band’s biggest commercial successes, the album’s sideways approach to hard rock has often left it overlooked. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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9. Paul McCartney, McCartney II (1980)

Twice in his career, Paul McCartney marked the end of a band by making an album all by his lonesome. With The Beatles on the ropes, he withdrew to Scotland to produce 1970’s McCartney; a decade later, he preceded Wings’ breakup with a spiritual successor, McCartney II. It’s a follow-up in name, recording location (Macca’s Scottish farm), and technique only: The technological advances that enabled McCartney II’s creation also distinguish it from the more straightforwardly classic-rock sound of McCartney, from the Speak & Spell bleeps of “Temporary Secretary” to the disco-dub of “Darkroom.” Presaging the electronic experiments that McCartney and Martin Glover would later conduct as The Fireman, McCartney II is a curious acknowledgment of passing time, with one of rock ’n’ roll’s defining voices sampling the style of the new wave and synthpop acts that were beginning to supplant him on the radio. There’s a lot of stoned dicking around to be heard on McCartney II, but there’s also “Coming Up,” an alternately thumping and chirping dance number that counts as one of the artist’s most underrated singles. Even the synth-spiked egg nog of “Wonderful Christmas Time”—recorded as part of the McCartney II sessions—deserves more respect than it’s usually given. [Erik Adams]

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10. Foreigner, 4 (1981)

Like a lot of late-’70s arena-rockers, Foreigner included synths on its earliest hit albums almost as an afterthought, as part of its overall state-of-the-art sheen. But for the band’s massively successful fourth record, producer Mutt Lange replaced recently departed keyboardist Al Greenwood with British wunderkind Thomas Dolby (pre-“She Blinded Me With Science”), part of his one-man mission to shift rockers away from the predictable synth stings and washes that had become a standard part of the genre post-Who’s Next. The percussive effects and expressive sound that Dolby achieved on the Foreigner hits “Urgent” and “Waiting For A Girl Like You” created a new blueprint for how to work synthesizers into punchy rock songs and power ballads, influencing how a lot of hard rock music would be arranged and performed over the next five or six years. [Noel Murray]

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11. Neil Young, Trans (1982)

Never one to do anything by half, when Neil Young played around with synthesizers for his 12th album, Trans, he went full Kraftwerk/Devo, using a synclavier and a vocoder to completely change how his music sounded. He even covered his own hippie classic “Mr. Soul” with the new instruments, further scandalizing conservative rock critics. At the time, Trans struck some of the era’s tastemakers as ugly, misbegotten, and possibly career-ending. (It was one of the reasons Young’s label, Geffen, sued him in the ’80s for making “unrepresentative” music.) But a few major rock scribes, like Robert Christgau, appreciated that Young didn’t turn to synths solely for their commercial appeal and instead tried to test what they could do. Trans has been reassessed favorably since the end of the ’80s, especially after Young revealed that a lot of what he was working through at the time was how to communicate with his profoundly disabled son, Ben. Today Trans doesn’t really sound like a goofy lark; it sounds like a man yearning to find a new voice as an act of parental love. [Noel Murray]

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12. Don Henley, I Can’t Stand Still (1982)

The synthesizers on Don Henley’s first solo album were a way of distancing himself from the laid-back California country-rock he’d been playing with The Eagles for the previous decade. The electronic clank and bloop in songs like the hit “Dirty Laundry” established ’80s Henley as being very different from the shaggy ’70s guy. Nevertheless, I Can’t Stand Still’s roster of synth players does include veteran session men Steve Porcaro and Danny Kortchmar, as well as The Band’s Garth Hudson—all of which represents some serious bet-hedging by the still fairly old-school Henley. The sound they were all making may have been manufactured for the Reagan era, but the men themselves had been noodling away since Nixon. [Noel Murray]

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13. Jackson Browne, Lawyers In Love (1983)

Coming out of the wistful singer-songwriter work of his fertile ’70s period, Jackson Browne’s creative fallows also produced his greatest commercial success, with 1980’s Hold Out and 1982’s “Somebody’s Baby” (recorded for Fast Times At Ridgemont High) bringing him his first No. 1 album and his biggest single, respectively. But if the inclusion of hesitant synth stabs had been in on the joke of Hold Out’s “Disco Apocalypse” or marked Browne’s surrender to predominant pop sounds on “Somebody’s Baby,” their full-bodied arrival on 1983’s Lawyers In Love felt like Browne’s genuine bid for MTV pop stardom. Oddly, the synths take a backseat to piano and organ on the title track, even though they would have added another plastic layer to Browne’s commentary on yuppie emptiness. But they make themselves known by blaring through Browne’s echo-laden entreaties on “Cut It Away,” providing the movie-montage-ready, bustling-city-streets energy of “Downtown,” and pulsing like a Geiger counter on the no-nukes protest of “Say It Isn’t True.” The political activism of the lattermost song would come to the forefront—along with the synths—on 1986’s Lives In The Balance, that combination of agitprop and synthpop sheen creating a sound that was Browne’s most instantly dated, yet most widely remembered. [Sean O’Neal]

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14. ZZ Top, Eliminator (1983)

Critics—even fans—often saw ZZ Top as a simplistic fusion of barroom boogie and heavy rock, but the Texas trio ultimately proved to be less of a retro act than many in the ’70s assumed. The band’s lean, forceful grooves made its early albums sound more relevant to the punk and new wave eras than any of its Southern rock contemporaries did. And after dabbling with synthesizers on the 1981 single “Leila,” ZZ Top went all in on electronics with 1983’s Eliminator. A near-perfect party album—and an efficient hit machine—the multiplatinum LP still sounds like a science-fiction movie version of the blues, complete with drum machines and almost wall-to-wall sequencers. The downside to Eliminator’s popularity is that songs like “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Legs” brought in new fans, who then expected all of the band’s records to sound that way. Not only did the next few Top albums fall into a synthesizer rut, but an abominable 1987 box set of its earlier work was remixed and electronically enhanced to match the chart-busters. [Noel Murray]

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15. Van Halen, 1984 (1984)

Having wept for there were no more guitars to conquer, Eddie Van Halen turned his talented fingers to keyboards—a musical direction that caused plenty of friction within his guitar-heavy rock group. Recording sessions for 1982’s Diver Down exacerbated that clash, with most of Eddie’s synth compositions flat-out rejected (or relegated to a cover of “Dancing In The Streets,” a song he publicly disavowed). So when it came time to build his 5150 studio, Eddie spent his downtime during construction messing around on synthesizers—and in the process, producing the pop-rock sound that would make the band’s sixth album a huge crossover hit. That sound was embodied by “Jump,” a song whose synth line had been kicking around (and kicked down) for years, and whose bouncy, new-wave buoyancy won them fresh fans. Although it was characterized as Van Halen’s “synthesizer” album—despite the fact that Eddie had been working synths into the mix since Women And Children First—with the exception of “I’ll Wait,” most of 1984 remains stolidly guitar-centric. But the success of “Jump” proved Eddie Van Halen right, finally allowing him the leverage he needed to play those synths in concert, opening the door for even more synth-driven songs (especially during the Sammy Hagar era), and giving amateur keyboardists something to annoy Guitar Center employees with forever. [Sean O’Neal]

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16. Jefferson Starship, Nuclear Furniture (1984)

The dying gasp of the labyrinthine, ever-shifting collective known as Jefferson Starship (itself an offshoot of ’60s acid-rockers Jefferson Airplane), 1984’s Nuclear Furniture would be the final album under that name for 14 years, and the last one before the group morphed fully into ’80s cheese-mongers Starship. While there’s only the barest hint of the “We Built This City” bombast to come—tempered, for the last time, by the sci-fi sociopolitical commentary of Paul Kantner—Nuclear Furniture is nevertheless a quintessentially ’80s commingling of radio pop sounds, thanks largely to the synths sharing equal billing. The group had dabbled in synthesizers before, but never with such gusto—adding pomp to “Layin’ It On The Line,” driving the moody power ballad “No Way Out,” and even entering before a single note of guitar on “Assassin” (a song that, for its first 15 seconds at least, could be mistaken for Kraftwerk). While those chintzy pop sounds might have finally driven Kantner away, effectively ending Jefferson Starship for more than a decade, it also marked an inarguably successful new direction for the group—one that built its rock ’n’ roll city on a bed of synthesizer. [Sean O’Neal]

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17. Bruce Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A. (1984)

Announcing itself with a reverb-drenched martial snare and one of the most famous blaring synth lines in rock, the gazillion-selling Born In The U.S.A. represented a complete about-face from the Boss’ previous album, the haunting, lo-fi Nebraska. Springsteen was no stranger to keyboards or to instrumentation that was considered outside the rock-band norm; Born To Run, his breakthrough, was written entirely on piano and features what has to be the definitive use of glockenspiel in American rock. Born In The U.S.A. is a rock ’n’ roll record through and through, but one whose mood is set in large part by the Yamaha synthesizers of E Street Band keyboard Roy Bittan—from the defiance of the title track (originally written as a solo acoustic guitar number) to the pulsing, pent-up energy of “Dancing In The Dark” to the eerie aura of “I’m On Fire.” Although Springsteen wouldn’t officially record another album with the E Street Band until The Rising in 2002, synths (and especially synth pads) would texture many of his biggest hits for the next decade, providing moody backdrops for the likes of “Tunnel Of Love,” which again featured Bittan on keys, and “The Streets Of Philadelphia,” with keyboard by Springsteen himself. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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18. Bob Dylan, Empire Burlesque (1985)

As the experimental use of synthesizers of the late ’60s and early ’70s gave way to the more commercial concerns of the late ’70s and early ’80s, older rock fans clung fast to the belief that synths and drum machines were “plastic” and that “real” musicians eschewed them. Then one counterculture legend after another released their own synthed-up ’80s album, culminating in ultimate hippie hero Bob Dylan confounding his fans with Empire Burlesque, a record sporting all the modern conveniences. A big part of the Dylan mythology rested on him making the leap from folk troubadour to garage-rocker in the mid-’60s, but this move almost exactly 20 years later felt, at the time, more like a retreat than a radical step forward. Time has been kinder to Empire Burlesque, mainly because Dylan was in the middle of one of his more creatively fertile periods as a songwriter in 1985. In a way, the album’s electronic sparkle is evidence of how committed he was to the material. He felt passionate about these songs and wanted to present them in a way that might actually get them played on the radio. What could be more real? [Noel Murray]

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