Pete having started the ball rolling yesterday, I shall roll us further downhill as we discuss rock singers who can — and rock singers who can’t. And I begin with someone who is widely regarded as one of the finest singers in rock ‘n’ roll…
…for no good reason at all.
First, the disclaimer: Freddie Mercury was a great and innovative artist, hugely original and a first-class showman. This is in no way intended to downplay his contributions to rock ‘n’ roll. But he was also one of rock’s all-time terrible singers, with a tiny voice and no range at all. His pitch was good — he was too much of a musician to sing off-key — but, particularly after Queen had reached their commercial peak, he made some of the ugliest sounds ever put on a record in earnest.
I am not trying to talk anybody out of loving Queen and Freddie Mercury, or trying to persuade people who love the sound of Freddie’s voice that they’re wrong. You like what you like, and it’s all good. I love a lot of Queen’s music myself. But our larger point here is that — and I say this with all the respect in the world — most rock fans know so little about singing that they have not a clue who is a capable singer and who is not. People who can dissect a guitar solo or analyze the rhythm of a bassline to the finest detail tend to mistake bellowing for singing and ineptitude for authenticity (thank you, Bob Dylan!).
Vocals are treated less seriously and with less respect than any other part of rock. The expectations of a rock singer are absurdly limited, and there is no reason that should be so. And with no real standards, some of rock’s best singers are consistently underrated or ignored while people of lesser abilities are praised to the skies. Indeed, we intend to accentuate the positive in this theme, talking more about good singers than the less able.
But it is the sort of thing that sets my teeth on edge to hear people cite Freddie Mercury’s “four-octave range” — not just because he had a tiny little range, even if falsetto counts, and it doesn’t. But because it’s nonsense for any rock singer, and nearly any singer at all. The great Roy Orbison may have had a bit better than two octaves. And that is plenty.
Sing the first two notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” That’s an octave. The range of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is well under two octaves. A solid octave and a fifth, from a capable singer with good vocal control, will get creditably around nearly any rock song ever written. If you start talking about huge multi-octave ranges, you are talking about opera singers, and they can’t sing four octaves either. (A soprano will have about three octaves, a tenor about three and a half — we’re talking about usable range, not vocalizing at the piano.) Rock singers do not have huge ranges, and they do not need them. Insane claims that someone has a massive multi-octave range do nothing but demonstrate that the person making the claim doesn’t really know anything about singing. (Feel free to laugh at fan-frenzied remarks like “She has a 12-octave range.” That is as silly a thing to say as, “She can run 100 miles per hour.”)
So. Listen closely to the vocal on the (loathesome, and yes, I know the bass player wrote it) “Another One Bites the Dust,” above. The first verse, with Mercury in his stronger lower register, starts out well enough. But by just 35 seconds in or so, listen to how he hits “this” on “Are you ready for this” and “rip” after that. He’s already slipped into speaking the last words of the lines because the melody, such as it is, has gotten away from him. It’s not even talk-singing — it’s just unmusical talking.
But that’s not the kind of detail I’d pick at on its own, if it weren’t for how things continue to deteriorate. When the second verse begins and Freddie gets into his higher range, that’s when you hear what the real problem is. Forget his reputation and just listen to his attack on that second verse. It’s strained and shouty and thoroughly unpleasant as he pushes through a melody that’s too rangy for him. By “How long can you stand the heat?” he’s topped out and become effectively unintelligible, and all you can hear is a tiny voice working really hard to sound like something it’s not. The shout-outs around the two-minute mark are embarrassing, they’re so strained and small. The last verse is even worse, cracking and straining and completely without musicality or control.
Not persuaded? How about this one?
I loved Queen in the day, but Freddie’s vocal on this is so unpleasant it absolutely makes me cringe, especially side by side with the super-smooth ’80s edition of David Bowie. There’s that idiotic shriek just after the two and a half minute mark … though OK, it’s studio-enhanced and I’m willing to blame that on the producer and a very bad idea. But before that, we’ve had nothing but yelping and yawping and pushing that wee little voice to do things it just can’t do. In the “Give love one more chance” section, Mercury is back in the lower register, and it’s not bad. But he always wanted to sing high and loud, and just did not do it well. Again, just listen. Imagine someone coming on, say, American Idol or The Voice and making exactly those sounds. How far do you think he’d get?
I’m not saying Freddie Mercury never sang anything well, not at all. When he stayed in his limited range, as on “Death on Two Legs” or parts of the magnificent “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he could be an effective rock singer. And the very slightness of his voice, a certain sweetness and flexibility, could be used to fine effect — most notably on “Killer Queen” or even “Dear Friends.”
On “Dear Friends,” he clearly knows he’s created a lovely melody and lyrics worth respecting. It’s not a technically good vocal, exactly — he’s working too hard for that, and he hits a rare off-pitch note on the last word. But he is singing with such care that the effect is very touching. But, in the way of so many rock stars, Freddie Mercury wanted most to do what he was worst at, and pulled the band in a metallic direction that simply did not suit him. He would never have been one of rock’s great voices — but had he not chosen to turn Queen into a mediocre metal band, he would certainly not have been one of its worst.