Feels Like the First Time, Sounds a Little Different
Sunday, October 12, 2008
A number of classic-rock bands are continuing to strike a chord with concert fans despite the absence of one seemingly crucial ingredient: the original lead singer.
Longtime rock warriors such as Journey, Boston and Foreigner are deploying next-generation vocalists whose greatest strength is their ability to gallop through the group's greatest hits with verve and excitement -- even if they had nothing to do with the tunes' creation.
"Music is so powerful to us that we want it to go on forever and ever," says Jerry Del Colliano, a professor at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. "Even if we have to patch it together, we will."
"The songs are the most important thing at this point," agrees Foreigner guitarist and founder Mick Jones, the band's only remaining original member. When it came time to replace Lou Gramm, the voice behind such 1970s and '80s megahits as "I Want to Know What Love Is," "Hot Blooded" and "Cold as Ice," Jones turned to former Hurricane frontman Kelly Hansen. Rather than try to be a Gramm sound-alike, "the key is that he's emotionally involved in the songs," Jones says. "If people really want to hang on to the original recording, that's fine, but if they want to hear these songs [performed] live, you have to present them in a way that they will feel."
Of course, the idea of revolving lead singers is older than the Carter administration. In the early days of R&B, various incarnations of well-known groups kept the hit machine going for years if not decades. The Temptations had a variety of lead singers (sometimes concurrently). The Drifters had hits under no fewer than four lead singers during their heyday. Vintage R&B and doo-wop groups continue to tour, often with none of the original members in the lineup.
Rock has a mixed scorecard when it comes to substituting singers: on the plus side (commercially, if not artistically), Sammy Hagar replacing David Lee Roth in Van Halen, Brian Johnson for Bon Scott in AC/DC, Phil Collins for Peter Gabriel in Genesis and Michael McDonald for Tom Johnston in the Doobie Brothers.
Notable failures include Tim "Ripper" Owens, of the Judas Priest tribute band British Steel, taking over for Rob Halford, Blaze Bayley for Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickenson -- and a big thumbs-down all around for Gary Cherone-era Van Halen.
But the current crop of rockers is different. Instead of attempting to take a still-vital band to a new creative level -- or even to a higher sales plateau -- for the most part, these singers are tasked with extending the shelf life of a veteran act's catalogue and keeping the legacy alive for existing fans.
The undisputed king of the replacement singers club is Journey, the Bay Area group best known for classics like "Don't Stop Believin,' " "Open Arms" and "Faithfully." Forget about next gen: Arnel Pineda is three steps removed from Steve Perry, who took his dramatic, soaring tenor and left the group in 1997. (For those keeping score, Steve Augeri and Jeff Scott Soto preceded Pineda. And Perry himself was a replacement for Robert Fleischman, who replaced Gregg Rolie.)
Although they're loath to see themselves as such, these bands are in the nostalgia business -- and business is good. On a recent tour with fellow veterans Heart and Cheap Trick, Journey routinely sold out 15,000- to 25,000-seat venues. The 41-year-old Pineda, whom original guitarist Neal Schon found on Youtube.com earlier this year, is a vocal doppelganger for Perry.
Similarly, Boston discovered a replacement for the late Brad Delp on the Internet. Band founder/guitarist Tom Scholz's wife came across clips of Tommy DeCarlo, a Home Depot credit manager, and was struck by his singing's similarity to Delp.
Faster than you can say "Don't look back," DeCarlo was enlisted to perform with the band at a tribute to Delp and then signed on for a summer tour, sharing vocal duties with former Stryper frontman Michael Sweet.
For DeCarlo, it was a long way from singing karaoke in bowling alleys. His first night onstage with Boston at the tribute, "I can remember going through the first song or two listening to myself in my in-ear monitors," DeCarlo recalls, "and I could hear myself singing through the nerves. . . . Now, I don't think twice about it."
Even though DeCarlo is a sonic ringer for Delp, he says his mandate from Scholz "wasn't so much sounding like Brad . . . as singing the song with the same conviction Brad did [and] following the melody lines the way they're supposed to be followed," DeCarlo says.
Bands may need to replace rhythm guitarists and drummers as well, of course, but the audience is more apt to notice the departure of the lead singer, who serves not only as the voice of the band but often its face. Often, but not always: As its co-founder, songwriter and producer, Scholz is considered Boston's brain trust and is the name most identified with the group. Similarly, Mick Jones is just as well-known as Lou Gramm among Foreigner faithful.
A new singer in a classic-rock group can function perfectly well as a human jukebox, "but don't confuse it with a growth stage of a band's career. It's definitely not," USC's Del Colliano says. "If you like Journey, you're going back there for the memories."
That's not keeping some of these bands from releasing new products and hoping for the best. Journey has a hit with "After All These Years," which reached No. 9 on Billboard's Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks chart last month. It is the band's first top 10 hit -- on any of Billboard's charts -- in a dozen years.
Furthermore, the group's Wal-Mart/Sam's Club-only "Revelation," a re-recording of its classic hits featuring Pineda, plus 11 new tracks and a concert DVD, has sold more than 485,000 units since its summer release, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Foreigner is pushing a new track, "Too Late," which is included on a recent greatest-hits set. Next month, Queen will release its first album of new material with Paul Rodgers, who replaced Freddie Mercury in 2004.
While these lineup changes may strike some as sacrilege (Van Halen fans scornfully dubbed Sammy-era VH as Van Hagar), Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke asserts that a band's sum is greater than its individual parts and, as a living, breathing organism, can morph. People "remember that great moment in 1976 when [they] first heard 'More Than a Feeling,' but that doesn't mean that feeling can't be re-created or summoned by going to see the incarnation that Tom Scholz has now," Fricke says.
That desire to revisit the past led Catonsville's David Warner and four friends to see Irish hard rock band Thin Lizzy a few years ago, roughly 20 years after lead singer Phil Lynott had died.
"It was a commemoration," says the lawyer-turned-grad student. "I didn't know who the lineup was. It was less about that than about, here was a band who was touring as Thin Lizzy and they're playing all their songs. [Guitarist/now lead vocalist] John Sykes got it right. He sounds different than Phil, but it didn't matter. 'Jailbreak' is 'Jailbreak.' "
In the end, what matters to fans, in the immortal words of Led Zeppelin, is that the song remains the same and, by hearing it live again, they are transported back in time. Says DeCarlo: "I can't tell you the amount of e-mails where people said they never thought they'd enjoy the music again without Brad and, I say this very humbly, [they say] 'After hearing you, my spirit is raised again. I'm happy again,' and that's the best compliment."
Is any band immune to a substitute singer? The Rolling Stones come the closest, say the experts, but don't ever underestimate the tug of the past. "I'm not prepared to say they couldn't go on without Mick Jagger," Del Colliano says. "I know I may sound like a nut case. I just think that in the world we're in today, the power of nostalgia is so great. We're all in denial anyway in every area of our life. Why not?"