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Monday, December 10, 2012

Rock Gods Spotlight #1: Frontman

The new music released this year from some of the biggest names in Rock, especially the live DVD package "Celebration Day" from the one-time reunion show Led Zeppelin performed in 2007, has inspired me to start a new series called "Rock Gods Spotlight".  In each series I will breakdown what I feel is the composition that makes up the greatest Rock figures in each key role in the band, and who I feel deserve the top honors.  The first post in the series will be focused on the most recognizable figure in any band, the Frontman.  I prefer that title for all it implies, which is far more than a "singer" but the person out in front, the one most responsible for connecting with the crowd, the face of the band.  It is for this reason that many of rock's best vocalists may be overlooked in this post as they're more known for vocals over showmanship and adversely some of Rock's top frontmen aren't necessarily known for their vocals but their presence and delivery.  Let me be clear about one thing, I am not claiming this to be the definitive list of Rock's ultimate members, but who I believe to be among the very best in their role.

Coming back to Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant is arguably one of the most powerful voices and respected figures in the history of Rock.  Since the release of "Celebration Day", Plant, along with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, has answered countless questions about the experience of playing together again for the event.  The success of that performance raised the burning question asked by every reporter at every press conference regarding whether more shows would follow, which Plant has vigorously dismissed.  His lack of enthusiasm to continue playing as Led Zeppelin has the fans split into two main groups, those who support his integrity and those who call his usage of Zeppelin material in his solo endeavors hypocritical.  To Robert Plant and many others, nobody in Led Zeppelin has anything to prove, especially after the 2007 show.  To Robert himself it's his loyalty and respect for his dearly departed friend, original drummer John Bonham, that has him prepared to let that show stand as their curtain call.
Following the death of Bonham in 1980, the band agreed to stop out of respect for him, at which time Robert began a very experimental solo career throughout the 80's and early 90's.  In 1995 Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page reunited for a special edition of MTV's popular Unplugged show, re-named "Unledded", followed by a tour, all excluding Zeppelin bandmate John Paul Jones, a move he addressed at their Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction with the quip "I'm glad my friends finally remembered my phone number".  In talking about the ultimate Rock frontman, Plant is near the very top of the ranks.  His presence, mystical and sometimes ethereal, is countered by his delivery which can quickly erupt from a smooth bluesy drawl to a blistering howl.  Plant has explained that he feels less connected to the Zeppelin catalog over time, as it has been diluted with other projects such as his recent Bluegrass efforts, but as he proved in 2007 the connection is definitely still there, ready to be conjured at will.  He has been named the quintessential rock frontman in a number of publications, a deservedly lofty honor. 

Of course, Plant is not in a class of his own, even if he may be considered the head of his class.  There are a number of Rock's most prolific singers worthy of the frontman status and among them are Steven Tyler, Freddie Mercury, David Lee Roth, Mick Jagger, Michael Hutchence, Jim Morrison and an entry that may surprise some, Dave Grohl.  Again, this is my personal list of those I feel most defined their role, and as with any of my posts I encourage people to give their input and challenge me.

From that list, I have to start with Steven Tyler because since I first got turned onto Aerosmith during their "comeback" era in the 80's, and then even more after re-discovering their classic era, they have been one of my very favorite Rock bands.  Furthermore, of all Rock frontmen I find Steven Tyler among the most irreplaceable.  There is a stark contrast between powerful ballads such as "Seasons of Wither" and "Dream On" and the innuendo-laden "Love In An Elevator" or rap-style, in-your-face delivery of "Walk This Way" and "Eat The Rich" that Tyler balances effortlessly.  I find Zep's catalog much more consistently steeped in Blues-flavored Rock, while Aerosmith injects R&B and Funk to their sound, along with a heavy dose of sexuality, courtesy of Tyler's sharp tongue.  Their latest album "Music From Another Dimension" is the closest they've come in decades to their classic sound, but Tyler's insistent use of ballads continues to hold them back from making a real Rock record worthy of their legacy.  Regardless, Tyler is easily among the very best of all time.

Mick Jagger, leader of the Rolling Stones, who are celebrating 50 years together this year, is one of the more flamboyantly energetic frontmen like the late great Freddie Mercury of Queen.  Jagger dances jubilantly across the stage, swaying his hips and waving his arms like a Rock marionette, inspiring "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5.  Jagger's range is something of an enigma, as he really doesn't have any power in his voice but can be just as tender on "Wild Horses" as he is fierce on "Shattered".  Freddie Mercury was the ultimate showman, with an operatic voice and larger than life persona that could turn any song into an anthem, which the band wrote plenty of.  Of all Rock singers, the frontman whose lofty status has always confused me is David Lee Roth.  Yes, the scissor kicks and stage persona are right in line with the best showmen in the business, but his antics remind of the cheap glamour of Las Vegas and a one-man Cabaret act completely unaware that there is a band playing behind him.  He's never been considered a strong vocalist and I think the classic material wouldn't sound right with someone else, but really for other reason than it's how we first heard it.  He is widely regarded as one of the top frontmen of Rock so I felt a responsibility to include him, despite my opinion.

During my early teens I spent a lot of time turning back the clock to discover music from previous generations, mostly Classic Rock like Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Led Zeppelin. 
I got the double disc "Best of the Doors", knowing only a few of their biggest tracks, and became fascinated by how uniquely different their sound was.  Jim Morrison died, allegedly in a Paris apartment bathtub, 5 years before I was born which certainly lends a greater sense of mystery to hearing his music posthumously.  After learning more about him, he reminded me of another very well-known musical figure of my generation, rapper Tupac Shakur.  This is where most people would have expected me to say Michael Hutchence, and I'll get to that.  There was one thing that tied Tupac and Jim together that not many people are aware of, and that is Poetry.  I find a striking similarity in the way these two figures were incredible artists with words, yet chose to express themselves through music and died tragically very young as the result of the lifestyle that was associated with it.  INXS's Michael Hutchence had far more in common with the late Jim Morrison than leather pants, and many considered him a re-incarnation of Morrison, or even the Jim Morrison of our generation.  The sexuality that eminated from them both in concert could make many wonder if women fans ever realized there were other members of the band on stage and that translated to all forms of publication as well, with both men photographed mostly alone.  There was a similar mystique about Hutchence and the way he presented himself that always led to comparisons between the two, but not only in life.  Controversy surrounded Hutchence's death, an alleged suicide, just as it did Morrison's and neither case was really closed conclusively.  Not only was their sense of style and swagger alike but they shared the same smoky baritone and gave their music an added layer of drama and effect that is not existent in many singers today.

My final inclusion in this first spotlight post focused on the Rock frontman is Dave Grohl who, after becoming well-known as the drummer for one of the biggest bands of the 90's, turned a self-made demo tape into a new musical chapter that is now 17 years and running, called the Foo Fighters.  Grohl is a fierce drummer, regarded even as a superior to the late John Bonham by Kurt Cobain himself, and even showed some vocal abilities while in Nirvana on tracks like the B-side "Marigold".  The 1994 death of Cobain, quickly labeled a suicide though widely speculated as murder, brought Dave out from behind the drums to be the frontman for a new band, but he didn't have a band, he had a demo tape.  He reserved space from a friend and recorded a tape, and then formed a band to tour the music, which was officially released in 1995 as the debut album from the Foo Fighters.  The band was immediately compared to Nirvana which visibly annoyed Grohl as he pushed to be recognized as a new band.  Following some internal conflicts which almost led to the end of the band before their fourth album was finished, they pushed through and released "One By One" in 2002 featuring the track "All My Life", one of the band's biggest hits to date.  In 2011, they released "Wasting Light", recorded on analog tape in Dave Grohl's garage, which was documented in the film "Back And Forth".  The album won 4 Grammy Awards including Best Rock Album and has been widely recognized as one of the best albums of 2011 across many publications.  In watching the documentary film and seeing their VH1 Storytellers episode, it's evident that Dave Grohl was always intended to be a frontman, even if he was content behind the kit with Nirvana and on many of the guest appearances he's made or side projects he's done throughout his time with the Foo Fighters.  Underneath the Rock God exterior though, what has me most impressed about Grohl is just how human he still remains.  Watch the "Live At Wembley" DVD and you'll see him become overwhelmed at the magnitude of the moment after performing an encore with John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, or watch him playfully respond to his daughter asking him to break from the recording of "Wasting Light" for a swim on "Back And Forth".  Dave Grohl is most likely not someone who thinks of himself as a Rock God but when he plugs in, he instantly embodies the Frontman status and does not let up until the last note of the last song.

This concludes the first post in my "Rock Gods Spotlight" series, with more to follow very soon.  Stay tuned for Spotlight #2: Bass, just because I'm sure Lead Guitar was expected next and I'd hate to be that predictable.

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