Saturday, September 5, 2015

How to Avoid Lead Singer's Disease / Lead Vocalist Syndrome

September 5th marks the 69th birthday of the late Farrokh "Freddie" Bulsara. His alter ego, the great Freddie Mercury, lives on forever and ever. While Fred succumbed to an actual disease, the greatest frontman of rock history never succumbed to lead singer's disease.

Lead singer's disease is a real problem (if you've ever been in a band). Short definition: Lead singer's disease -- or lead vocalist syndrome, lead singer's syndrome, frontman's gonorrhea (I made that one up), etc. -- happens when all the attention that society generally gives to the frontman of a band goes to his/her head, and the band -- and their music -- suffer for it. Lead singer's disease can also infect non-singing band leaders, and sometimes non-singing virtuoso players, typically the lead guitarist. Sidemen who are not band leaders, usually in the rhythm section and almost always the bass player, are fairly immune to this disease. If the band has a keyboardist who is stuck in the way back onstage, then he/she is also immune to lead singer's disease.

Solo artists, by definition, cannot be affected by lead singer's disease as it affects band dynamics, but they can suffer ego-related infections that can affect relationships with the audience, friends, family, associates, etc. It's ironic that many solo artists who fancy themselves as powerhouse singers often cite Freddie Mercury as an influence, and someone they want to emulate in their careers.

If they really wanted to follow Freddie Mercury's footsteps, they would have joined a band. When I say "band," I don't mean a singer-songwriter and his/her backing band, I mean a band of true collaborators, songwriters, checks, and balances. Fred's band Queen was a band of bands. By many accounts, they argued plenty, but they cooperated more often than not. Queen consisted of a showman who sometimes played the piano (Fred), a guitar hero (Brian May), a master bassist (John Deacon), and a cool drummer who sang really high backup notes (Roger Taylor). All four members wrote songs for the band. When Bri or Rog sang lead in a deep cut in an album (Deaky didn't sing), it wasn't weird at all because the songwriting style of the song was already familiar -- Bri or Fred could have sung a Brian May song; Rog or Fred could have sung a Roger Taylor song. In contrast, for example, it was kind of weird when the bassist for Muse, Chris Wolstenholme, wrote and sang a couple songs near the end of The 2nd Law because the underlying songwriting style wasn't familiar; it could have been resolved if he continued to write for the Muse in their latest album Drones, but singer-songwriter Matt Bellamy was basically the only songwriter for that album.

I think two things prevented Freddie Mercury from getting lead singer's disease: (1) Founding band members Bri and Rog had the ability to outvote Fred, and more importantly (2) Fred was a supporter of Deaky's songwriting. Deaky was the quiet one in the band (literally, as he didn't sing on anything), last to join, and probably at the bottom of the totem pole of band leadership, so the band was wise to use his undeniably great pop songwriting in Queen's albums -- for example, "Another One Bites the Dust" was a Deaky song. It's no surprise that Deaky retired from performing in the band, and retired from music in general, a few years after Fred died. Also, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, most of Fred's solo work sounds like Freddie Mercury with a department store Casio keyboard -- awesome vocally, songwriting-wise, and that's about it. Most of Fred's solo work really needed Bri's harmonized Red Special, Deaky's complex basslines that miraculously didn't step on any toes, and Rog's signature stopped cymbals.

Where Fred succeeded in being an ideal frontman and band member, lesser lead vocalists have succumbed to lead singer's disease. There are about four outcomes to lead singer's disease:

1. The lead singer is healed! It rarely happens, but when it does, the band goes into a band renaissance. Of course, there might be a relapse of lead singer's disease. I read somewhere that Mick Jagger acquired the disease, tried to screw over his Rolling Stones bandmates business-wise, then failed miserably as a solo artist. And now the Rolling Stones still tour after all these years, and they probably kind of hate each other as much as they love each other.

2. The band breaks up. It's confusing when a band has more than five players on stage because only the most hardcore of fans could tell who is in the band (a shareholder in an actual corporation or a partner in a partnership) and who is just a touring member who sometimes recorded on the albums (an employee of the company). At the end of the Black Crowes' run, there were three full band members standing: Lead singer Chris Robinson, guitarist Rich Robinson, and drummer Steve Gorman. The rest of the band were probably salaried employees of the band's business structure. It seemed that Chris didn't really want to tour with the Black Crowes any more, so he allegedly and apparently unleashed a poisonous deal to guarantee this: Chris wanted full ownership of the Black Crowes. That's pretty much lead singer's disease in a nutshell: Leave me alone to continue my solo career, or if you really want the band together again, let me own the band. Of course, the remaining partners outvoted the lead singer, and the band broke up.

3. The band ditches the lead singer. The guitarist, bass player, and drummer from Creed currently do not want to play with singer Scott Stapp anymore and are happy playing with Miles Kennedy in Alter Bridge. The DeLeo brothers and Eric Kretz actually fired singer Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots and are playing with Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington as Stone Temple Pilots, on an apparently part-time basis. When the now-former lead singer from Live wanted a lead singer's fee added to his contract, the rest of the band fired him and hired a replacement. Of course, you can skim though the band history of Van Halen to see this in action.

4. The lead singer ditches the band ... and keeps the name. The obvious example of this is Guns N' Roses, but there is confirmation that Axl and Slash have buried the hatchet (ax, slash, hatchet, get it?), and there are rumors of a forthcoming classic-era Guns reunion. This is pretty much the Smashing Pumpkins whenever singer-guitarist-songwriter Billy Corgan does not play with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. This is basically every band with a singer-songwriter and a revolving door of backing musicians.

In addition to Queen, there are several bands who have avoided lead singer's disease, or are fighting the good fight to continue as a true band. I'd like to think that if Kurt Cobain had lived, Nirvana would have evolved from a one-songwriter band to a band of collaborators. In the beginning, Kurt wrote songs, bassist Krist Novoselic probably wasn't interested in songwriting, and Nirvana had a revolving door of drummers. When drummer Dave Grohl joined, he and Kurt could have written some great songs together. Kurt could have done some solo "blues" albums on the side.

Pearl Jam has always been a band of collaborators. In the beginning, guitarist Stone Gossard was the main songwriter and de facto bandleader, with some contribution from bassist Jeff Ament. Eventually, lead singer Eddie Vedder became the bandleader, as it usually happens, but the precedent of multiple songwriters in the band continues to this day: Stone still writes, Jeff still writes, guitarist Mike McCready writes, and Ed apparently especially likes it when drummer Matt Cameron writes songs for the band.

When one mentions the band Blind Melon, the casual music listener knows about two things: (1) Lead singer Shannon Hoon is dead, and (2) they had the song "No Rain." "No Rain" is pretty much their only big radio song, and most people would be hard-pressed to name another song from the band. The bass player, Brad Smith, wrote "No Rain."

Off the top of my head, I can name three songs by the Blue Öyster Cult: "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," "Burnin' for You," and "Godzilla." All three were written or co-written by the guitarist, Buck Dharma, who sings lead vocals on two of the songs. The actual lead singer, Eric Bloom, sings on "Godzilla," which currently, as far as I've heard, does not get any airplay in classic rock radio in Southern California. Ironically, the non-lead singer sings on the band's two radio-friendly greatest hits. Of course, this implies that Buck Dharma is the bandleader of the Blue Öyster Cult.

I could continue on and on with examples, and I could wax poetic on Oasis, which I will. The bandleader and main songwriter of Oasis was the elder Gallagher brother, Noel, who sang lead vocals on arguably their biggest non-"Wonderwall" song, "Don't Look Back in Anger." The band's usual lead singer was Noel's younger brother Liam, who sang on "Wonderwall." The Gallagher brothers are famous for their constant in-fighting, which eventually lead to the demise of Oasis. The rest of the band was basically a revolving door of musicians. This sad story probably fits into the lead singer disease paradigm.

Long story short, here's how to avoid lead singer's disease. There are about four possible ways to be lead singer's disease-free, depending on your position in a band:

1. If you fancy yourself as a singer-songwriter, don't join or form a band. Pay your backing band, if applicable. Freddie Mercury's solo work would have sounded bigger than a Casio keyboard, had he lived long enough to play with GarageBand on an iPad. (I'm joking, of course.)

2. Alternatively, if you are a singer in a band, then collaborate with everyone in the band. Let them take your songs to a higher level, and don't be afraid (or narcissistic) to sing another person's song. Trust that the band has a signature sound, and that they can sign that signature onto anyone's song, lead singer's or not. If you can't sing like Fred, and no one with the normal amount of human teeth can, then try to emulate Freddie Mercury's creative process within the context of Queen.

3. If you are not a singer, do not join or form a band with a singer-songwriter-non-collaborator. If you are not allowed to collaborate, then you'd better get paid. If you are not paid, then you'd better collaborate. It's kind of funny how many incomplete bands are on Facebook and other social media, usually consisting of a lead singer and lead guitarist, perpetually "looking for" a rhythm section (bass and drums). Any rhythm section instrumentalist worth their weight in gold tends to avoid playing in a four-chord rock band. If you can groove on a bass or drum beyond a backbeat, there are more fulfilling genres to play. The obvious counter-example to this would be band mates who grew up together, sort of arbitrarily chose instruments to learn, and gained skill simultaneously. Bands who play well together are truly a rare thing, and lead singer's disease tends to screw things up.

4. Install A Little Thunder in a guitar, program a drum machine, plug a mic into a harmonizer, and play cover songs. Okay, perhaps that's just applicable for me. In any case, if you have your bases covered, and your basses (kick drum and octave below guitar) covered, then you can jam with pretty much anyone, drama-free.

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