Although I said in an earlier post in this topic that there’s no reason the standards for singing in rock should be so low — or, to be more generous, so flexible — but that’s not precisely true. There is a reason, but it’s not really a satisfactory one. And it has a lot to do with this guy:
That’s Bryan Ferry, fronting Roxy Music on “Love Is the Drug,” from 1975′s Siren and the band’s only U.S. hit during their prime period in the ’70s. And it illustrates one way in which RM was one of the most influential acts in rock history. Because they answered this critical and, until then, seldom asked question: What do you do when your handsome frontman, who writes or co-writes nearly every song you play, is not really much of a singer?
Well, what you do if you’re Roxy Music is forge on regardless, playing spectacularly well while allowing song after song to be weighed down by vocals that ranged from mediocre to terrible.
To be fair, Ferry’s pitch is usually pretty decent, but otherwise, there’s nothing to his voice at all but a certain dense, half-spoken quality that gives it a distinctiveness of sorts. And he was also kind of fearless, as illustrated on the (glorious) “Thrill of It All”:
Postage-stamped to minimize risque image. Linked video shows NSFW cover!
And fearlessness is something; he got the most possible mileage out of that very limited voice. But Ferry had no range, no real control when he started airing it out, and his diction was plain wretched. And, alas, his pushed-down, through-the-nose, marble-mouthed style — if that is the word — was strikingly easy to emulate, and often was, particularly given the enormous influence RM had in the UK and Europe overall.
Though interestingly, the first act to pick up on the Top 40 possibilities of what Roxy Music was doing was not an English act. Which is to say, these guys:
Benjamin Orr’s vocal on “Candy-O” is pure Ferry-izing, and the song, from 1979, is for all practical purposes a Roxy Music record, except with a hook. “Let’s Go,” also with vocals by Orr, is another extremely Roxy-esque effort. And what the Cars caught on to first, a million bands with prettier, more fashionable vocalists — who were less capable singers than Orr and Ric Ocasek — would, within a couple of years, pick up on as well.
Like these guys:
And these guys:
And these guys:
And dozens of other acts from the ’80s and well beyond that have permitted middling-to-bad singers with video-friendly looks to stand up and provide only an approximation at best of what the songs are supposed to be getting at, without the technical ability to make real artistic choices, and nearly indifferent to pitch, diction, and the standards of musicianship that apply to the guys standing behind them. All of it complicated, as noted above, by the fact that these dubious singers are often the principal songwriters — a contribution that has come, far too often, to excuse incapable singing. (Singer and frontman are not equivalent terms, or don’t have to be. Pete Townshend wrote music he couldn’t sing, so the Who hired someone who could. Is Townshend any less a frontman? Or Carlos Santana?)
And that is, sad to say, the most lasting contribution of the great Roxy Music. They were the anti-Bob Dylan in a lot of ways, but, a pop generation later, they caused a new variation on the same problem. We’ve mentioned this before, but Dylan — who was a fine, if unconventional, singer himself — made it easy to excuse sloppy singing in others as a mark of earnestness and authenticity. (“Just listen to the message, man!) Whereas Bryan Ferry, as a really pretty bad singer, was even easier for bad singers to imitate. And as the video era rolled in, he opened the door for every well-dressed pretty boy who could quack or bellow along more or less in time with a tune. (“But look at that hair, dude!”) Ferry and his artistic followers, with the ample and eager assistance of the record labels and MTV, finally made the quality of the vocals in rock music all but irrelevant. Now if the singer can sing — and it does happen now and then; both Linkin Park (are they still a thing?) and the otherwise alarming Nickelback have/had very capable vocalists — it’s a nice bonus. But the days of expecting a professional singer to be able to sing are probably over in rock ‘n’ roll for good. People don’t even know it when they hear it anymore. And, though it couldn’t have been anticipated, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music are a big part of the reason for that.