Matt Wake of reports:

“From the very beginning, we said I’m the frontman and you’re the guitarist with mystique. That’s the dynamic we agreed on: Page, Plant; Mick, Keith.” Actor Jason Lee delivered these lines while portraying Jeff Bebe, lead singer of fictional ’70s rock band Stillwater, during a memorable backstage scene in “Almost Famous.” Writer/director Cameron Crowe based the 2000 film on his own experiences as a teenage Rolling Stone reporter covering such bands as Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers.

Many rock fans immediately recognized the template Lee’s character referenced.

While The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards forged it and Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page furthered it, many other bands rode that template to stadium-sized success, including: Aerosmith (Steven Tyler and Joe Perry); Van Halen (David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen); and Guns N’ Roses (Axl Rose and Slash).

If a rock band is truly massive, chances are casual fans can’t just name one musician in that band. They can name two.

But now in 2016 those flashy frontman and dark guitar hero “dynamic duos” are a dying breed. The few newer rock bands able to make somewhat of a mainstream dent, like say critical and commercial faves Alabama Shakes, mostly only have one legitimate star in them, while the rest of the band, no matter how musically sharp, exude Bill Wyman-levels of onstage charisma. (No offense to Wyman, a tasteful bassist but a profoundly solemn performer.)

Which means fans have a significantly less chance of identifying with a member of the band. And thus, a significantly less chance of getting into the band at all.

The impact goes way beyond star power. Without these sort of dynamic duos, bands lose a creative and often volatile push-pull that’s often vital to making great rock music. And this is something rock critics, fans and even musicians tend to miss when trying to explain rock’s diminished mainstream cultural clout. Or if you’d prefer, why “rock is dead.” More common explanations for the “death of rock” range from young creative people who would’ve started rock bands in decades past now go into more commercially viable genres like pop, R&B, rap and electronic music or even into technology careers instead, to a perceived increase of careerism over musical passion, to dramatically reduced album sales.

Asked about the prominence of singer-and-guitarist star tandems in classic bands, influential rock radio and TV host Eddie Trunk says, “I think a lot of bands saw that model and went with it. From a public standpoint, I think a lot of it has to do with what they were sold. The record labels, the managers of the time they were very much about pushing those guys to the front, making sure all those guys did all the press. So, as a result, they were on the covers of all the magazines. If you’re an Aerosmith fan as I am, there were times you’d be hard pressed to think there were three other guys in that band besides Perry and Tyler…”

…Trunk adds, “You pull Steven Tyler out of Aerosmith and it’s not nearly the same thing. You pull Joe Perry out as on artist on his own and he’s basically playing clubs. As big a stars as these guys may be, if you take them out of the umbrella of the name of Aerosmith the same percentage of fans do not follow…”

After having witnessed three shows on Guns N’ Roses’ Not In This Lifetime Tour earlier this year, it’s difficult for me to believe rock is dead when fans are filling stadiums to hear powerful guitar music. “Rock is taking more naps than it used to” is probably a more accurate assessment of the genre’s state.

Of course, the big appeal of the GNR tour was seeing Axl and Slash perform live together for the first time since 1993. It’s literally something many fans – and Rose himself, hence the tour’s name – never thought would happen again…

With these frontman/guitarist duos, there’s an appeal beyond the singing and playing. During one of the encores at Guns N’ Roses’ second of two homecoming Dodger Stadium concerts, Axl Rose leaned up against Slash’s shoulder. It was just a small but appealing moment of onstage chemistry. Kind of like when Jagger and Richards used to sometimes share a single mic to sing ragged-but-right harmonies at a Stones show. It just looks cool…

Another reason classic singer-guitarist star tandems are so effective is because they bring in two different listeners groups: fans primarily attracted to melody, hooks and vocals and fans drawn in by musical flair. Those fan groups often overlap. But other times they do not. As Greg Renoff, author of the excellent 2015 biography Van Halen Rising, puts it, “My sister wasn’t going to go pick up (the Deep Purple album) Machine Head and listen to it but she was going to listen to (Aerosmith’s) Permanent Vacation.” Renoff adds, “Jagger, Roth, Tyler, Axl all had this sex appeal that got people interested. There’s a great story. Rodney Bingenheimer, who was a DJ for (Los Angeles radio station) KROQ and was around the Sunset Strip, (notorious Runaways manager) Kim Fowley had brought him to see Van Halen (during the band’s club days) and (Bingenheimer) said he immediately knew the band was going to be huge because the girls were all crazy for this band. There was like this army of girls. Even though (Van Halen) were playing cover songs he knew they were going to be huge because girls set the trends…”

“If they didn’t end up with a singer like Roth, the Van Halen brothers could have done a more conventional (rock) thing,” Renoff says, “but I can also see a record company going, ‘We’re going to make Eddie the next Jeff Beck.’ They could’ve had a nice career like that. But, then what we would have gotten? I’m guessing, would have been much more of the improvisational, out-there song structures that Eddie and Alex were actually really into when they met Dave.

“For all of Roth’s limitations and all of his goofy ways of doing things, he knew how to bring the party to a show. He knew how to get people interested and focused. He knew how to bring attention to the band. And the other thing I think Roth brought to the table was he understood that the best vehicle for delivering those (Eddie Van Halen) licks and riffs was more of a pop format…”

Of course, a frontman/guitar-hero duo isn’t mandatory for becoming an iconic rock band. The Beatles, Eagles and Pink Floyd are just a few of the many groups who followed different band-chemistry routes to superstardom. And there are plenty of bands like Rush where the sum musicality and catalog strength has been the engine, not stars. The ’70s and ’80s also produced notable acts that straddled Elvis Presley-type solo artist and Beatles-style band archetypes, all those “and the” bands: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; Joan Jett and the Blackhearts; Elvis Costello and the Attractions; etc. The “and the” band format is an interesting configuration because it still exudes somewhat of the “gang vibe” that appeals to rock fans while simultaneously establishing one person is at the controls.

Which begs the question: Could it be professionally advantageous for newer acts presented as a full-on group (and not merely a solo artist with backing musicians) to have just one “face of the band” instead of two or more? After all, that way, if band members come and go, as band members often do, it’s less impactful to the “brand.”

“Listen,” Trunk says, “that guy if he can get that over and sell it he’s going to run with it because he’s going to control the name, he’s going to control the money, he’s going to control everything and basically pay a salary to everyone else. I just interviewed (Jon) Bon Jovi for my show, and for the longest time people bought into this whole brotherhood of Bon Jovi – it’s this band from Jersey and it’s this gang of guys and blood brothers and all of that. Well, honestly, Jon Bon Jovi was the only guy ever signed to that record deal. And Richie Sambora was an enormous part – and going into your dynamic of the lead singer/guitar player star tandem, Bon Jovi is a band that certainly would fit that mold with Richie and Jon. But shockingly since Richie has been gone a few years, I talked to some guys in that band off-the-record and I said, ‘Hey how’s it been without Richie? I imagine there’s been some dip, some change in the interest level or whatever’ and they said, ‘Nope. Not one less ticket sold…’

So why did singer-and-guitarist dynamic duos die off in rock? Popular culture seems to have generally devalued guitar solos since Nirvana rose to prominence in the early-90s…For the all great songs – and great guitar playing! – and millions of records sold, I highly doubt most people you stop on the street could name another person from Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots or Smashing Pumpkins besides Eddie Vedder, Scott Weiland or Billy Corgan.

Even has a lifelong rock fan, I can’t name a non-frontman member from most the biggest bands of the last 15 years…

Trunk believes the demise of MTV as a musical force contributed to a reduction of Axls and Slashes. “The singer/guitar player dynamic was completely reinforced by MTV and turning on those videos in the ’80s and seeing those guys, that’s what made them stars, for sure. There was no bigger radio station in the world than MTV. In the beginning, MTV followed radio. And a year or two after it launched it became a complete 180 where radio followed MTV and there was nothing bigger for driving records and creating stars…”

…Trunk is encouraged about the future of rock music because he feels there are a lot of “really good” new bands, like the aforementioned Rival Sons, who served as opening act for Black Sabbath’s recently concluded final U.S. tour. “What I’m concerned about though is how much these bands are somewhat considered to be off the radar and don’t get the attention that they should,” Trunk says. Asked for his thoughts on why that’s the case Trunk says, “I think there’s a lot of things going on. I think rock radio in general is extremely conservative. They don’t want to lead. And the media world has changed. There’s so much information coming at people and it’s so oversaturated. There really aren’t those gate-keepers anymore to say, ‘This is the band you should pay attention to.’ How do you get someone to stand out of the pack?”

A charismatic lead-singer and “guitarist with mystique” would be a good start.

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One Response

  1. Spot on by Eddie, the demise of MTV (made) makes it difficult to connect visually with musical artists. While records and CD’s are passe’ for many folks, they do provide tangible association with artists. Reading liner notes, lyrics, seeing photos of the band while listening to their music is powerful.

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