In the late Robert Altman’s satirical film The Player, Hollywood executive Larry Levy proposes that his studio can save money on hiring writers by developing scripts themselves, tearing ideas right from front page newspaper headlines. To which the film’s anti-hero, fellow executive and competitor Griffin Mill, retorts: “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”
That same wisecrack can now be applied to lead singers — after all, who needs someone with a famous face to deliver the words? With the near departure of vocalist Steven Tyler from Aerosmith on the eve of their 40th anniversary, his bandmates immediately began contemplating who might take his place. That seemed like a rather hasty move, but then again this is a group that is in middle age and would not have years to wait for their frontman to decide to return. And these days famed rock gods, particularly vocalists, are becoming more replaceable than ever, something rarely heard of twenty or more years ago.
Replacing famous singers is not without precedent. When Bon Scott died, AC/DC brought in an equally distinct but different screecher in Brian Johnson, and they became huge. That’s a rare exception, but there are others. After Peter Gabriel departed Genesis, the British art-rockers soldiered on with drummer Phil Collins as frontman (so to speak), but he did make them more commercially viable and generated bigger hits. (For true progressive music fans, though, that was heresy.) Sammy Hagar’s turn in Van Halen allowed them to go more pop as well (not that everyone liked that). Hagar was also a star in his right when he joined VH, but lightning did not strike twice for them after he left their ranks. Remember the Gary Cherone era? Further, Ronnie James Dio kept Black Sabbath successful for two albums (and subsequent reunions) after they fired Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, and their music remained as hard and heavy as ever, even today under their new moniker Heaven & Hell. Dio also gained fame previously fronting Rainbow.
My friend Eric Vitoulis went to see Journey three years ago at Jones Beach Theater on Long Island. Prior to the show it was announced that former Yngwie Malmsteen vocalist Jeff Scott Soto would be filling in for Steve Augieri, who was having vocal problems that soon lead to his departure after eight years with the group. A woman in front of Eric turned to her friend and said, “Steve Perry’s not here?” (Not since 1996, my dear.) That ironic statement is proof that many fairweather fans — i.e. the casual listeners who turn musicians into platinum hit machines — do not really pay all that much attention to the lives of the artists they listen to. It’s what I call the “Rock Of Ages syndrome”. The opening night crowd for that Broadway hit were true ’80s fanatics, right down to their attire, while a subsequent audience months later was mainly comprised of suburbanites, many of whom clearly do not often listen to the songs that were performed nor always remember who performed what. But they love the nostalgia and kitsch factors that Rock Of Ages represents.
There are many Journey fans who would vehemently argue that no one could fill Steve Perry’s legendary shoes. Yet three vocalists have since, and the latest one, Filipino native Arnel Pineda, has helped boost their careers once again, both in terms of album and concert ticket sales. Journey are admittedly an anomaly, a beloved institution who do not seem to get sidelined for long due to limited warranties on replacment singers, two of whom have purposely sounded very close to Perry. Conversely, when revered metal bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motley Crue, Ratt and Black Sabbath replaced famous frontmen who left — in Sabbath’s case there were two — fans did not respond as well. They were still there but in diminished numbers. More commercial bands like Foreigner, Styx and others seem to be able to pull this off a little better. Queen certainly made it be known that they were not attempting to diminish or tarnish the legacy of the late Freddie Mercury by bringing in former Bad Company and Free singer Paul Rodgers, and fans responded favorably. They also performed songs by Rodgers’ previous groups to hammer home their point that they were Queen + Paul Rodgers, rather than with. Similarly, ’90s rockers Alice In Chains have soldiered on with William DuVall as original frontman Layne Staley died of a drug overdose in 2002. Like Journey did last year with their platinum Revelation, AIC’s latest album Black Gives Way To Blue hit #5 on the Billboard charts.
Could anyone truly replace Steven Tyler in Aerosmith? Of course not. When guitarist Joe Perry was gone from the band between 1979 and 1984, the group experienced a dip in popularity. Imagine what would happen with a Tyler-less line-up? Plus he has always been the singer. Groups that have experienced downtime between singers often were going through a quiet phase (the ’90s comes to mind for many) and were a little younger when it happened and thus have been able to cope with such a transition better. A decade after the departure of original frontman and songwriter Dennis DeYoung, Styx has persevered with vocalist Lawrence Gowan. Guitarist Mick Jones has been the lone original member of Foreigner since singer Lou Gramm departed in 2003, and they had been the two lone original members for years prior. And Perry hasn’t been in Journey since 1996, nor performed live with them since 1987. (And who knows when he’ll reemerge publicly.)
We should not begrudge a group that wishes to continue once a famous member, usually the frontman, departs. This is their livelihood. They deserve to make a living. And there are people who still want to hear the music, regardless of who sings it, as long as they’re good. The irony that the aforementioned Journey follower did not even know who she would be listening to onstage may be ironic — some casual KISS fans probably do not know that Ace Frehley and Peter Criss are long gone — but the upside of this situation shows how some fans really just want to hear the music. Purists will certainly argue that point and are certainly free not to attend the shows or buy the new albums. In terms of replacing iconic singers, the cliché business concept “what the market will bear” comes to mind — even if some people think the results are unbearable.