Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Singer And The Song: Making It Real

“Blame it on Eric Clapton and the myriad hordes who followed in his bluesbreaking creamy footsteps, but the present-day perception of the blues is that it’s all about guitars, mostly brandished by men.  But while many of the blues greats wielded the six-string razor (alongside those who blew the harp and those who pounded pianos), most of those Real Guys would tell you that the Real Deal was about the singing and the song, rather than the solo: the instrumental flourishes were the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself.”
-  Charles Shaar Murray, The Blues Magazine Issue 10, November 2013
I couldn’t have put it better myself.  No really, I don’t think I could.  But I’m still going to bang on about it for a bit.

When I was in my early teens back in the Seventies, getting into hard rock, the greatest acclaim was reserved for the “axe heroes”.  Sure, there were some singers who stood out from the herd for their voices, and/or for being cracking front men.  But still – guitarists were the real gods.  
Put that fag out Bob - it'll ruin your voice!
And a lot of the time, listening to current day blues albums and going to gigs, it seems to me that that the belief that the guitar is the main thing still prevails – except now among middle-aged blokes rather than impressionable teenagers.
But with all the music I’ve listened to in recent years, I’ve begun to think that, as Charles Shaar Murray (a self-confessed guitar geek) put it in that intro to a piece on Etta James - the Real Deal is about the singing and the song.  Often nowadays though, the vocal duties are taken on by the guitarist/band leader, regardless of their aptitude.  Sometimes they're great, of course.  But sometimes, to these ears, it’s the wrong move.  Maybe they don't think the singing bit is that difficult, or that important.  Maybe they just don't want to split the pay check another way.  But for me, whatever potential there may be in their music, they’re hamstrung if the vocals don’t cut it.
But here’s the thing.  What does “cutting it” mean when you’re singing popular music?  It can’t always mean being technically perfect with a four-octave range.  If it did then half the blues, rock’n’roll and rock music over the last 80 years would have gone straight in the bin.  And for many music fans, me included, the ironing out of vocal imperfections with auto-tuning is a sin, not a virtue.  So what is it that works then?

A couple of years ago I heard Ian Hunter, of Mott the Hoople fame, talking to Johnnie Walker on his Sounds of the Seventies radio show.  He said that if hadn’t been for Bob Dylan, he could never have made it in rock music.  Dylan was nobody’s idea of a quality singer, Hunter suggested, but he made it okay to be a “personality” singer.  Keith Richards, in his autobiography, also commented on the impact of Dylan’s vocals:
“Bob has not got a particularly great voice,” says Keef, “but it’s expressive and he knows where to put it, and that’s more important than any technical beauties of voice.  It’s almost anti-singing.  But at the same time what you’re hearing is real.”
Guess who?
In other words, if you’ve got something to say, and your voice can communicate that to people whatever its weaknesses – I mean, really get it across like you mean it – then that’s an instrument as valuable as any guitar.  That “something to say” though, brings us on to the matter of the song.
Okay, I know I just mentioned Dylan.  But a rock’n’roll song doesn’t need a Nobel Prize-winning lyric to be great.  Take Little Richard and ‘Tutti Frutti’.  The lyrics of ‘Tutti Frutti’ are pretty much doggerel, but it still takes off like a runaway train, powered by Richard’s urgent, whooping delivery.  If this song and singer convey anything, it feels like pure exhilaration – amped up, maybe, by the knowledge that in its original, illicit version, the lyric was a paean to gay sex.  Did “getting away with it” add to the rock’n’roll thrill?  A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!
A singer has to have a certain something to make a song like ‘Tutti Frutti’ work – so-so just won’t do.  (Okay, so the godawful Pat Boone managed to shift shedloads of his cover of ‘Tutti Frutti’, but who gives a shit about his recording now?)  Maybe too, it needs to be just the right “certain something”.  The voice needs to fit the song and the sound.
In a more subtle vein than Little Richard, the song that first turned me on to King King was 'A Long History Of Love'.  It's a smouldering, slow bluesy affair, and Alan Nimmo's warm, soulful voice brings the emotion of the lyric to life with total conviction, aided and abetted by a guitar solo that weaves its way deliciously around the melody.  Alan Nimmo isn't the only singer who could have done this - I can well imagine Paul Rodgers delivering the goods, for example - but
Alan Nimmo - I second that emotion
it's still a vocal performance that really makes you believe every word.

Different singers, different capabilities.  Jimi Hendrix, it's said, wasn't keen on his own voice, couldn't bear to be watched while recording his vocals, and used to insist on spurious extra takes because of his insecurities.  But as his engineer Eddie Kramer put it, "Jimi was not a great vocalist in the classic sense, but his vocal style was suited to what he did to the nth degree."  The warmth of his voice, his sense of rhythm, and his playfulness all combined to make his singing a perfect fit for his overall sound.  Take a relatively simple track like 'Freedom', for example.  If it weren't Jimi singing, how well would it work?  He even managed to take on Dylan's 'All Along The Watchtower' - as I've observed, another singer with a unique voice - and make it his own.

Whatever the limitations or idiosyncrasies of your voice, rock'n'roll will still give you a shot at the title, if you can find a way to make it work.  I don't mean that any old shit will do - my heart sinks when I'm sent an album to review and I encounter a vocalist who doesn't realise, or perhaps doesn't accept, that they're trying to sing in a key they can't handle.  No, getting it right demands awareness of your capabilities, and of the possibilities.
A little while back I watched the Joe Cocker documentary Mad Dog With Soul, in which Billy Joel said that there was such a thing as "shouting in key", but that wasn't what Joe Cocker did.  The thing is though, that "shouting in key" can be just peachy, if you understand the possibilities of
Sean Webster - emotional gold
what you can do with it, and "find a way to make it work".  Hell, just listen to Lemmy barking his way through 'Motorhead'.  His voice may be as rough as a badger's arse, but he fucking owns that song.
The opposite is true too though.  One can have a voice that's technically fine, but fail to be expressive with it.  For example, I'm not a big fan of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and one of the reasons is that his long-standing vocalist may be blessed with a good singing voice, but he leaves me cold.  His voice comes, and it goes, and it leaves no mark on me whatsoever.  The same is true of John Mayer, however good some of his songs might be.  His voice is frictionless, it generates no traction.  Whereas the criminally less well-known Sean Webster has a voice that takes Mayer's 'Slow Dancing In A Burning Room' and turns it into an emotional tour de force.
Personal taste comes into it too, naturally.  I really enjoy Ian Hunter's English-accented delivery, but a very credible fellow blogger once likened it to "a coalman shouting down a back alley."  Whereas for my part you can argue all day long that Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison were landmark artists, but I just don't like their voices.  You pays your money, and you picks your poison.

Some of my favourite lines in poetry are by Hugh MacDiarmind, in his epic poem 'A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle':
And let the lesson be - to be yersel's
Ye needna fashion it's to be ocht else.
To be yersel's - and mak that worth bein',
Nae harder job to mortals has been gi'en.
That's the challenge for the rock'n'roll singer.  To be yourself, and make that worth being - to do it your own way, but still connect.
Of course, you could argue that the same principles apply to a guitarist.  But the singer is more exposed, at the mercy of their physical abilities.  As Neil Peart said, the drummer has the hardest job in a rock band, but the singer has the worst job.
I remember asking the singer and guitarist Marcus Malone about the challenge of reworking studio arrangements of songs for live work.  "A song's a song," he said, explaining that he has stripped songs back to two-person acoustic arrangements at times.  "I think people go for the voice mainly, it's the main melody.  All those other things are good around it - it's like, y'know, dessert!"  The icing on the cake, as Charles Shaar Murray said.
I still love great guitar playing.  But it's not the be all and end all.  With most of the artists I've grown to love over the last decade - like King King, Samantha Fish, Ian Siegal, Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado - there's a distinctive voice in there, working its personal brand of magic.  There's a singer, and a song.

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