On the rebound: when bands replace their lead singer

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Freddie Mercury

Freddie Mercury

A band who replace their lead singer can change their entire fortunes for better or worse, as the Getintothis team can testify.

The lead singer in a band is generally the band’s most visible member, their mouthpiece and the one everyone wants to shag the most.

Often, the singer’s image, voice and lyrics seem so integral to the band’s identity that it is difficult to imagine one without the other.

We are reminded here of Carl McCoy from goth also-rans Fields of the Nephilim declaring “I am The Nephilim” when his bandmates deserted him as quickly as their cowboy boots would carry them, or of Mark E Smith’s classic proclamation that “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall

But what happens when singers leave?

It is not uncommon for a singer to think that, if they’re so good and so important, why do they even need a band at all? Or sometimes singers reach a level of bulshittery that the rest of the band can no longer cope with and they are fired from their own group?

Well, occasionally, things turn out better. Sometimes a new singer brings a new image, a new lease of life and a new audience to a band. Other times, the cuckoo in the nest is so wrong, in idea if not execution, that the band are reduced to a shadow of their former selves. So we at Getintothis have decided to peer into this conundrum and bring you the best and worse replacements singers.

Ultravox! Original Singer – John Foxx. Replacement – Midge Ure

Ultravox!

Ultravox! with John Foxx

Ok, ok, Ultravox went on to enormous success when they lost both original singer John Foxx and the exclamation mark of self belief that went with their name but, and let’s be honest here, they also lost all their nuance, art and credibility.

Ultravox! released a trio of forward-looking, well crafted albums in their original incarnation. Coming together in 1976, their self-titled debut album sounds like it was written before the onrush of punk, but recorded after it, straddling both the new wave and 70s Bowie-esque textures Songs like My Sex and I Want To Be A Machine marked them out as a band who were unlikely to let themselves be straightjacketed by any emerging rules of the punk scene they were attached to.

John Foxx was the perfect frontman for their futurist sounds. Aloof, with an air of intelligence and great cheekbones. Also blessed with a voice that suited the futurist times, he laid the groundwork for a lot of what was to follow, both in terms of music and fashion.

Their third album, the magnificent Systems of Romance, was the sound of the future. Using synthesizers well before their New Romantic offspring, Ultravox! stood out from their new wave peers. This writer can well remember the band playing Eric’s in 1978 and the keyboards hitting the audience squarely in the chest in a way no guitar could hope to do.

It was also a commercial flop. After a self financed tour of America in 1979, the band split, only to reunite later in the year without Foxx. His replacement was, surprisingly, Midge Ure. Ure had previously achieved some level of fame with Bay City Rollers copyists Slik, before joining Glen Matlock’s post-Pistols outfit Rich Kids. Prior to joining Ultravox, Ure was playing guitar for Thin Lizzy, giving him one of the more curious CVs in modern music.

As history tells us, Ultravox with Ure went on to find the success that eluded their more arty incarnation with John Foxx, with their anthem Vienna proving to be one of the 80s defining songs. The move to replace Foxx is a hard one to call, as it led to huge success, but left the band a soulless shell of their former selves. Let’s call this one a draw.

 Faith No More. Original Singer: Chuck Mosely Replacement Singer: Mike Patton

Faith No More

Faith No More with Chuck Mosely

Discounting the fact that Courtney Love and others occupied the lead singer slot for a brief time, Chuck Mosely is remembered as the band’s first lead singer, having sang on their first two alums, We Care A Lot and Introduce Yourself. Mosely was a great frontman for a band who were a meeting of punk, metal and rap. The band were way ahead of their time., as it took the rest of the world a good while to cotton on to the fact that this idea might just work.

The band, with Mosely, were clearly aiming at the big time, as demonstrated when a Liverpool date was arranged at the prestigious Royal Court when, truth to be told, Faith No More were much more of a Planet X sized band at the time. Unsurprisingly ticket sales were very low and the band played the Royal Court’s bar rather than the actual stage. Mosely did not seem to be put out by this turn of events, saying from the stage “So we didn’t sell enough tickets to play upstairs and we have to play in the bar. Well fuck upstairs man, fuck upstairs!”

Mosely was also a loose canon, getting into an onstage fight with bassist Billy Gould and suggesting that FNM record an album of acoustic songs. The end came when Gould quit the band in protest at Mosely’s antics, closely followed by keyboard player Roddy Bottum and drummer Mike Bordin. The result of this was that the band members decided they all still wanted to play together, but not with Mosely.

Mike Patton was brought in as new vocalist after the band heard a demo of his high school band Mr Bungle. Within two weeks he had written all the lyrics for Faith No More’s breakthrough album The Real Thing, which reached platinum status in the US. Patton revitalized Faith No More, made them a more commercial proposition and was undoubtedly a better singer than Mosely. The success the Patton-led FNM experienced did not come at the cost of smoothing their rough edges or giving them a mainstream sheen; Patton was, and remains, an odd, left of centre guy and he never seemed to be prepared to compromise or contain his character or views.

Mosely went on to other projects, including a stint with much loved US hardcore outfit Bad Brains, but still tried to sue his ex-bandmates, claiming he was a share of the band’s revenue. He settled out of court, relinquishing all claims to Faith No More’s recorded work, assets or name.

Buzzcocks Original Singer: Howard Devoto.  Replacement Singer: Pete Shelley

Buzzcocks, with Howard Devoto. And friends

Buzzcocks, with Howard Devoto. And friends

The 1976 version of Buzzcocks was headed up by Howard Devoto on singing duties. He was to last for only one release – the seminal Spiral Scratch EP – before leaving, later to form Magazine. The raw energy of that release, especially Boredom, was to morph into the catchy punk / pop that became Buzzcocks’ familiar sound on later singles such as What Do I Get and Ever Fallen In Love.

In the meantime, having seen the Sex Pistols in London and then brought them to play Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, Devoto decided he didn’t like the direction punk was taking. Describing it, at the time as “clean old hat” he went back to college for a while and then formed Magazine with John McGeogh on guitar. He wanted a more progressive and less traditional rock band. Magazine’s style relied more on synthesisers and the clever, refined bass rhythms of Barry Adamson. Whereas Buzzcocks were bashing out 3 minute pogo friendly blasts of intensity, Magazine were much more avant-garde and not afraid to experiment. Motorcade, from the band’s first album, Real Life is a five-and-a-half minute exercise of changing rhythms and pace, McGeogh’s squealing guitars and synths.

The more radio friendly Shot By Both Sides is a showcase of a sort of Bowie-esque racket that takes cues from Roxy Music, Velvet Underground and Lou Reed rather than their (post) punk peers. Their Top of the Pops appearance at the time has Devoto looking like a juvenile Brian Eno – a statement of intent, perhaps. The Great Beautician In The Sky has a kind of Kurt Weil /Cabaret feel about it – music halls in 1930s Berlin would have booked this band. By 1978 this was a band so far removed from Buzzcocks’ sound it would be surprising to learn (if you didn’t know already) the two bands shared a common birth.

In the end, Magazine’s limited success lead to its disintegration. McGeogh left in 1980 to join Siouxsie and the Banshees, taking his distinctive guitar sound with him. Then in 1981, with the band having recorded their fourth studio album, Devoto decided to call it a day. Without two of the distinctive markers that made the Magazine sound, there was little left to offer and the remaining band members followed suit.

Magazine left a legacy of influence cited by others as disparate as Radiohead, Morrissey and Duff McKagan. It is not to denigrate Buzzcocks one inch, for theirs is an enjoyable romp of a legacy, but somehow the body of work for which Devoto was responsible seems just a bit more classy and always felt like it was trying to push boundaries. Although Devoto era Spiral Scratch laid down the ground for Buzzcocks, it is now clear he and Buzzcocks couldn’t have made it work together and we, as listeners, benefited from the result of two magnificent but very different bands.

 Judas Priest. Original Singer: Rob Halford Replacement Singer: Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens

Judas Priest

Judas Priest with Rob Halford

Judas Priest’s is a strange tale. They were one of the original heavy metal greats, graduating from blues to rock as they followed a similar musical path to their peers, such as Led Zeppelin. Mainstream success was to follow, with their live album Unleashed in the East going platinum and being followed by British Steel, a period which saw the unlikely spectacle of Priest appearing on Top of the Pops. Halford’s voice and his high vocal range was immediately recognisable and gave Priest the benefit of being easily identifiable.

Further success followed through the 80s, but by 1992, Halford left the band, preferring instead to play with his thrash band Fight. Then followed an unusual move; when the band decided to reconvene, the decision was taken to replace Halford with the lead singer of a Judas Priest tribute band, named British Steel, Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens. Owens’ time with the band was actually quite substantial, lasting from 1996 – 2003 and resulting in two studio albums and two live albums.

This premise was used in the move Rockstar, which follows exactly the tale of a tribute band singer replacing his idol. Priest distanced themselves from the movie, despite initially offering their help, with bassist Ian Hill saying “It had nothing to do with Rob Halford, Ripper Owens and Judas Priest, it’s got nothing to do with that, whatsoever. It was fiction

Halford rejoined the band in 2003 and continue to this day, despite this most unusual episode in their history.

Queen. Original Singer: Freddie Mercury Replacement Singer: Adam Lambert

Queen with Adam Lambert

Queen with Adam Lambert

Freddie Mercury is, it must be said, a one off. With one of the most versatile voices of his generation and charisma by the metric ton, he is quite simply irreplaceable. Sadly, this does not mean that, since his untimely death in 1991, his bandmates have left well alone and seen fit not to try to replace him

Emerging fully formed in 1973, Queen were the subject of much hype and their impact was immediate. Their eponymous debut album featured such Queen classics as Keep Yourself Alive and a rudimentary version of Seven Seas of Rhye, which later saw them on Top of the Pops for the first time.

Subsequent albums saw them increase in popularity, with their second album breaking them in the UK. By album three their star had risen, but album number four, A Night at the Opera saw them conquer the world. Releasing their first seven albums in six years, the band were not exactly workshy either.

Mercury became a well known face, featuring in poster magazines of the time, and his flamboyant behavior and pronouncements saw him set the blueprint for future frontmen for years to come. The video era suited Queen, and Mercury in particular. The image of a cross dressing Freddie Mercury singing I Want to Break Free has since become one of the era’s most immediately recognizable images.

Mercury’s death from AIDS in 1991took one of music’s most singular characters. His popularity since then has never faltered. So the surviving members of Queen’s decision to replace him seemed somehow wrong. The initial choice was Paul Rodgers, famed for his efforts with Free and Bad Company, although the band were billed as Queen featuring Paul Rodgers, to avoid accusations of trying to replace Mercury. Rodgers was a rocker of the old school variety and his gruff vocal style seemed at odds with Queen’s music. Nevertheless, a tour of the world’s stadia and an album were soon completed.

Rodgers left the band in 2009, and in that same year, Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor appeared on American Idol, backing contestant Adam Lambert. In 2011 Lambert performed a few gigs with Queen, turning these into a European tour the following year.

The idea of one of the world’s most loved bands replacing their equally adored front man with a loser from a Simon Cowell reality show has proved a bitter pill to swallow. The band have played to large audiences throughout the world, but there is definitely something out of place replacing Freddie Mercury at all, never mind with a reality show also ran. Rumours of a forthcoming album are to be greeted with further concern about the diluting of a legendary back catalogue.

Mercury Rev  Original Singer: David Baker Replacement Singer: Jonathan Donohue

Mercury Rev with Dave Baker

Mercury Rev with David Baker

Formed in the late 1980s, Mercury Rev were a very different animal in the days before they ousted original frontman David Baker in 1993.

Shambolic and experimental, the group were a chaotic and avant-garde antidote to the polished pop grunge which was flooding over the Atlantic at the time and it was in the UK where Mercury Rev found their initial success. Dominated by Baker‘s deep voice and dark impulses, the band became unlikely cult stars over here with their brilliantly strange debut LP Yerself Is Steam and distorted art pop epics like Chasing a Bee and Coney Island Cyclone.

But all was not well in the Rev camp anyone who saw them back then will remember how wildly unpredictable Baker could be as he regularly wandered off stage for a drink sometimes mid-song.

After 1993’s Boces and a spectacularly disastrous stint on the Lollapalooza line up during which they were kicked off the bill for making “excessive noise”, Baker was sacked and the band reconvened with Jonathan Donohue taking on frontman duties. Donahue‘s earnest, high-pitched vocals and concentration on relatively concise, melodic songs gave the band’s material an entirely new feel and much increased popularity – with 1998’s Deserter’s Songs spawning three top 40 singles – something quite unthinkable during the Baker era.

Sugababes

Sugababes/MKS

Sugababes/MKS

Special mention must go to the Sugababes here.

For a band made up entirely of singers, the ‘Babes have replaced every original member, resulting in a version of the band that bore no relation to one that actually first broke through.  This is some special kind of ruthlessness that rock bands could only dream of.

In fact,at one point there were effectively two versions of the band treading the boards – the Sugababes themselves and a second outfit called MKS, consisting of the original lineup, who were now denied use of their own name. This time though, they took the time to register their band name.  Even pop puppets can learn the rules of the game it seems. If you think being in a rock band can be tough, pop music can be fucking savage.

Sometimes a band is more than the sum of their parts ; a group of people who have chemistry together and who can create great works together.  Replacing a part can easily change the whole thing.  Sometimes this change can work for the best, but other times, ohhhh boy, it can ruin a band forever.

We here at Getintothis are sure you can all think of your own examples – please let us know of any bands who have sunk or swam after changing their leader singer.

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  1. Great article. I’d like to add a couple of Liverpool bands to the list:

    Echo and The Bunnymen – replacing Ian McCulloch with Noel Burke of St Vitus Dance before reforming with Mac again.

    Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who tried to make a go of it, post-Holly, with Ryan Molloy, better known for singing in musical theatre both before and since.

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