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Posts Tagged ‘The Beatles’

Most rock bands have one primary singer. Though other members might contribute background vocals, harmonies, or an off-beat album track, it’s somewhat unusual to see different vocalists in the lead role, on a consistent basis.  There are some bands that consistently featured two lead singers (e.g. Cream – Bruce/Clapton, Simon and Garfunkel, Styx – DeYoung/Shaw, The Cars – Ocasek/Orr), but few who exceeded that.  Even more uncommon is to see a band have a string of hit songs, featuring different lead vocalists.  The bands listed below have done just that.

  1. Chicago (Robert Lamm – “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, Terry Kath – “Colour My World”, Peter Cetera – “25 or 6 to 4”)
  2. The Doobie Brothers (Tom Johnston – “China Grove”, Patrick Simmons – “Black Water”, Michael McDonald – “Takin’ It to the Streets”)
  3. Pink Floyd (Roger Waters – “Another Brick in the Wall”, David Gilmour – “Money”, Richard Wright – some lead vocals on “Time”, Syd Barrett – “Astronomy Domine”)
  4. The Monkees (Micky Dolenz- “Last Train to Clarksville”, Davy Jones – “Daydream Believer”, Michael Nesmith – “Listen to the Band”)
  5. Jefferson Airplane/Starship (Grace Slick – “White Rabbit”, Marty Balin – “Miracles”, Mickey Thomas – “Jane”) Founding member Paul Kantner also sang lead on many of the groups popular album cuts.
  6. The Mama’s and the Papa’s (Though they almost always sang as an ensemble, you can find some lead vocals, like John Phillips – “California Dreamin”, Michelle Phillips – “Dedicated to the One I Love”, Cass Elliot – “Dream a Little Dream of Me”)
  7. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Stephen Stills – “Woodstock”, Graham Nash – “Our House”, David Crosby – “Wooden Ships”, Neil Young – “Helpless”)
  8. Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks – “Dreams”, Christie McVie – “You Make Loving Fun”, Lindsey Buckingham – “Go Your Own Way”, Peter Green – “Black Magic Woman”)
  9. The Eagles (Don Henley – “Hotel California”, Glenn Frey – “Tequila Sunrise”, Randy Meisner – “Take It to the Limit”, Joe Walsh – “In the City”, Timothy B. Schmit – “I Can’t Tell You Why”)
  10. The Beatles (Paul McCartney – “Yesterday”, John Lennon – “All You Need is Love”, George Harrison – “Something”, Ringo Starr – “Yellow Submarine”)
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After spending the first thirty years of my life being glued to the radio, collecting record albums, and reading Rolling Stone magazine, I took about a twelve year hiatus from that whole scene. In recent years, as I’ve revisited some of that old music, I’ve been surprised by how different some of it sounds to me now.  A few of the bands I used to love don’t sound that good anymore, and others seem even better than I remember them.  Here are a few examples:

 

Under-rated:

 

  • Steely Dan – I always enjoyed this bands completely unique approach to their craft. The complex jazz influenced arrangements, the exquisite musicianship, the cryptic lyrics and the sparkling production made them standout against the rock/pop music landscape. These attributes also give their best work a timeless quality that has allowed it to become classic.
  • Chicago – In its heyday, this band was one of the brightest and most innovative groups in rock music. Through their first ten albums they produced a library of compelling music, much of which remains vibrant today. Though the exploitation of the band’s name in later years diminished their stature in the rock community, a listen to their earlier work is a great reminder of what a special group this was.
  • Bad Company – Formed from the ashes of the bands, “Free”, “Mott the Hoople” and “King Crimson”, Bad Company was something of a super-group and it showed immediately on their classic (self-titled) debut album. Though their run (with the original lineup) was relatively brief, it produced five solid albums filled with a lot of great music.
  • The Guess Who – This legendary Canadian band has taken on many forms over the years, but it was the combination of Burton Cummings remarkable vocals and guitarist Randy Bachman’s copious musical skills that created their most memorable music. Between 1969 and 1970 they released classics like, “These Eyes”, “Laughing”, “Undun”, “No Time”, “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature”, “Share the Land”, and “American Woman”. Those songs alone give them a Hall of Fame worthy resume.

 

 

 

Over-rated:

 

  • Kiss – No one is likely to dispute their credentials as world class entertainers, and I would list a Kiss concert (with makeup) as a must-see event for any avid rock music fan. But as I revisited the old studio recordings it’s been hard to miss the mediocre songwriting, singing and, in many cases, playing. Other than Kiss Alive I & II, I’d be hard pressed to get through a whole album anymore.
  • Eric Clapton (Solo) – There’s no doubt that Clapton is a guitar virtuoso, and that he has played on numerous classic recordings. But as I’ve listened with fresh ears it’s difficult not to notice the huge disparity between the work he did in bands such as the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Domino’s, and his solo recordings. His limitations as a songwriter and vocalist become far more apparent when he was not surrounded by great musicians/vocalists like Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Duane Allman, Steve Winwood… His best solo recordings have generally been songs written by others (e.g. JJ Cale).
  • Jimi Hendrix – I know that I’ll likely be lynched for including his hallowed name on this list, and it is in no way meant to disparage his amazing talent. In truth, it is more a lament over the circumstances that surrounded his brief recording career. Though every fan cherishes anything they can get their hands on, most of the Hendrix catalog is made up of poorly recorded, poorly produced snippets of songs and ideas. All of them point to the limitless potential that Hendrix possessed, but sadly, few of them represent the realization of that potential.

 

Lives Up to the Hype:

 

  • The Beatles – These guys are the gold standard by which just about everyone else is judged and after years of not hearing them, their music still sounds fresh and innovative. With all due respect to their notable individual accomplishments, none of them consistently approached this artistic level as a solo artist.
  • The Doors – Like everyone else, I was a big Jim Morrison fan, and was often mesmerized by his persona. But in revisiting the Doors catalog I was struck by the incredible talent and contributions of the rest of the band (keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger).   They were by no means simply Morrison’s backing band.
  • Led Zeppelin – English bands that loved to play the blues were a dime a dozen back in the 1960’s, but none of them quite reached the heights that Zeppelin did. Their eclectic mix of blues, folk and hard rock could be at times tender, haunting, or even bludgeoning. Going back and listening to this music only enhanced my respect for this one of a kind band.

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I must clarify that I was not attempting to list the ten “most epic” songs of the rock era.  Indeed, there have been many more “epic” recordings than these; especially by art-rock bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes and Pink Floyd.  Even bands such as Led Zeppelin and The Beatles had more ambitious works than the ones I’ve listed here; but what makes these songs extraordinary is that they were able to stand on their own merit (in some cases apart from the concept albums that spawned them) and that they achieved a level of notoriety (including substantial radio airplay) that is rare for such intricate music.  Most of them are structured more like classical compositions than the standard three minute pop anthems that generally rule the airwaves and yet these songs still managed to carve a niche for themselves in pop music lore.

  1. Nights in White Satin – The Moody Blues:  Though the use of orchestration within pop music was nothing new, the Moody Blues took that element to a whole new level with their 1967 album “Days of Future Past”.  This song’s darkly poetic lyrics (which seem to tell a tale of unrequited love), combined with the dramatic epilogue of “Late Lament”, form the perfect match for the roiling symphonic waves of the musical accompaniment.  Considering the state of pop music in that era, it seems doubtful that many executives at their record label had this song pegged as a potential chart topper.
  2. Day in the Life – The Beatles:  Taken from the 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, this song was a defining moment in the Lennon/McCartney collaboration.  Part lament, part wry humor, part political commentary; it hinted at the ever expanding musical landscape the Beatles would go on to explore on 1968’s “The Beatles” (a.k.a. The White Album) and 1969’s “Abbey Road”.  It also created an appropriately grand finale to one of the greatest albums of the rock era.
  3. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen:  Easily one of the most elaborate recordings of all time, there is no popular song from the rock and roll era that remotely resembles this classic from the 1975 album “A Night at the Opera”.  While each member of the group made invaluable contributions to the songs creation, it was first and foremost a reflection of the band’s enigmatic lead singer Freddie Mercury.  Like Mercury himself, the song is at once theatrical, frenetic, oddly humorous, tragic and ultimately unforgettable.
  4. American Pie – Don McLean:  While Don McLean’s folk balladry may seem out of place on a list of “epic” songs, it would be hard to deny that the intense cultural poetry of this classic doesn’t qualify.  While much has been made of McLean’s use of the phrase “the day the music died” (which is purportedly a reference to the plane crash that claimed the lives of rock pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper), that line is merely a thread in a much broader and richer tapestry.  Though the author has steadily refused to offer a literal interpretation of the song’s lyrics, their vivid imagery remains nonetheless profound and compelling.
  5. Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin:  Though Led Zeppelin is primarily thought of as a hard rock band, their music was just as much rooted in blues, folk, psychedelia and mysticism.  With virtuosic musicianship and Robert Plant’s otherworldly vocals, they seemed to effortlessly flow from genre to genre.  Several of those elements came together on this landmark track, as the song builds from is haunting intro to its exhilarating crescendo.  Like the band itself, there is little that could legitimately be compared to it.
  6. Jungleland – Bruce Springsteen:  This nine and a half minute opus, which creates the emotional centerpiece of the classic “Born to Run” album, takes the listener on an emotional journey like no other rock track.  At points hopeful, haunting, exhilarating, and ultimately heartbreaking, Bruce and his brilliant band create an unforgettable slice of rock opera.
  7. Roundabout – Yes:  When it comes to sheer musical ability, few bands could approach the incredible array of gifted musicians who’ve passed through the membership of the band “Yes”.  At the time this tune (from the 1971 album “Fragile”) was recorded, the group could rightly boast at least three of the finest players in rock music; Steve Howe on guitars, Chris Squire on bass and Rick Wakeman on keyboards.  Their collective talent, combined with Jon Anderson’s distinctive high register vocals, made for a sound that pushed the boundaries of conventional rock.  Because of the dizzying intricacies of their music, it was likely the relatively fluid and lucid quality of this song that made it more palatable to the masses.
  8. Scarborough Fair / Canticle – Simon & Garfunkel:    Like Don McLean’s, “American Pie”, some might disagree with the application of the term “epic” to this arty folk song; but I would suggest that few songs from this period can boast such a lush and complex musical/vocal arrangement (especially within a standard 4:00 minute pop format).  With their voices seamlessly joined, they begin the old English folk song “Scarborough Fair” and then almost immediately begin trading leads to the delicate counterpoint of “Canticle”.  As the song builds, layer upon layer of vocals are weaved over a fabric of guitar and harpsichord.  Both beautiful and haunting, it is a great example of all that made this collaboration so memorable.
  9. Aqualung – Jethro Tull:  Despite a lack of radio-friendly singles, Ian Anderson and his band “Jethro Tull” have enjoyed a hugely successful career, that’s spanned five decades and resulted in records sales in excess of 50 million worldwide.  Anderson’s infamous theatrics, wry sense of humor, unique vocal style and deft musicianship have been at the core of that success.  In what is perhaps their best known song, from their most popular album, this entertaining portrait of the eccentric title character (Aqualung) is the perfect primer for those not familiar with the bands larger body of work.
  10. Us and Them – Pink Floyd: Few albums in the history of recorded music have been more successful than Pink Floyd’s 1973 release, “The Dark Side of the Moon”, which stayed on the charts for 15 consecutive years and has sold over 45 million copies worldwide.  Along with the classic “Money”, this song was one of two singles released from the album.  An unpredictable collage of David Gilmour’s ethereal vocals, Roger Waters manic lyrics, unexpected saxophone solo’s, choir filled choruses and a dazzling array of studio effects; it seemed to be an unlikely candidate for significant radio airplay and yet today stands as one of the bands most popular songs.

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1. Art Garfunkel (Simon & Garfunkel):  Undoubtedly Art Garfunkel possessed one of the most distinctive voices in popular music; but despite his moderate success as a solo artist, it was really his collaboration with Paul Simon that allowed his gifts to be fully realized. Simon’s amazing songwriting and his deft vocal interplay were the perfect vehicle for Garfunkel to shine. While Simon’s career continued to soar as a solo artist, Garfunkel never again scaled the heights he visited in this partnership.

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2. David Crosby (The Bryds, Crosby Stills Nash & Young):  Like Art Garfunkel, David Crosby possessed a truly unique and beautiful voice. Though he was also an able songwriter and musician, it was his collaborations with people like Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), Gene Clark (The Bryds), Graham Nash (The Hollies), Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield) and Neil Young that created a lasting impact.

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3. Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen):  Eddie Van Halen is not only a tremendous guitar player, but a multifaceted musician and the creative force behind the band “Van Halen”. Yet despite his ample talent, it is unlikely that he would have ever achieved the same level of success without finding someone to be the face and voice of his band. Needless to say, he found two of rock’s most memorable showmen in David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar.

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4. Freddie Mercury (Queen):  Almost the polar opposite of Eddie Van Halen, Freddie Mercury was a quintessential showman, in need of collaborators to create the proper setting to showcase his talent. He found that in Brian May and the other members of the band Queen. This highly underrated group of musicians provided an accessible context and added valuable substance to Mercury’s eccentric persona.

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5. Ric Ocasek (The Cars):  Undoubtedly the quirky pop genius of Ric Ocasek was the driving creative force behind the music of “The Cars”. And while it seems unlikely that they would have had been noticed without him, the band’s best work occurred when Elliot Easton’s edgy guitar and Benjamin Orr’s emotive vocals were allowed to balance out his off beat lyrics and synth-pop sensibilities.

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6. Dennis DeYoung (Styx):  Like Ric Ocasek of the Cars, Dennis DeYoung of the band “Styx” was the pop visionary behind their most successful music. His creative flourishes fueled the concept albums and stage productions that distinguished the band from its peers. But at its core, Styx worked best as a rock band and in those moments, Tommy Shaw and James Young were essential in balancing DeYoung’s more theatrical sensibilities. Neither DeYoung nor the remaining members of Styx (who perform without him), have been as compelling since they parted company.

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7. Elton John:  Without question, Elton John is a tremendously gifted musician, singer and performer in his own right; but it is through his 40+ year songwriting collaboration with Bernie Taupin that his most memorable work has been produced. It is difficult to know what his career would have been without Mr. Taupin’s contributions.

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8. Roger Waters (Pink Floyd):  Certainly Roger Water’s dark cynicism and disdain for standard musical conventions were at the heart of Pink Floyd’s most memorable recordings, but without the balancing contributions of his band mates (most especially David Gilmour), his solo work has been erratic and far less compelling. Considering his sizable contributions to the band’s collective identity, the remaining members have made some surprisingly worthwhile music without him.

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9. Eric Clapton:  Though Eric Clapton has enjoyed a long and successful career as a solo artist, his most notable moments have almost always come through his collaboration with other artists. His contributions to bands like “The Yardbirds”, “John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers”, “Cream”, “Blind Faith” and “Derek & the Domino’s” were legendary and even much of his most memorable solo work showcased other songwriters like J.J. Cale (After Midnight), Robert Johnson (Crossroads) and Bob Marley (I Shot the Sheriff).

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10. Lennon & McCartney (The Beatles):  While inferring that either one of these musical legends wasn’t talented enough to stand alone would amount to sacrilege in the minds of most people, I would submit that both benefited greatly from their collaboration. Though they each created some classic music on their own, neither consistently produced anything that rivaled their work together.

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