Steely Dan is absolutely one of my favorite bands. The designation roams around, but they have at times been what I would call my desert island band. As in “If you could only listen to one band if you were stuck on a desert island, who would it be?”. Probably right now it would be Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler (he has now put out far more solo albums than as head of the band). During another span of time I would have said The Cars. Really, it’s kind of a spurious discussion, because I like so many types of music, and I don’t appear likely to be stranded on a desert island.
But each of those three acts has something in common that has been far more of a hallmark of music of the rock and roll era, than of any other musical genre. That is embracing less, and sometimes far less than classic singing voices. Prior to the mid-1960’s, there were some examples of this, but the far more common practice was for songwriters with average or less voices to just pen songs for others.
Hollywood was notorious for dubbing in vocals for actors or actresses they deemed not worthy of singing. The most famous purveyor of this was Marni Nixon, a vocal stand-in for numerous actresses, most famously for Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”. It is still very prevalent in country music for major acts to use the songs of songwriters who don’t record their own material.
An earlier example of allowing “non-singers” to croon was in big band music. Leaders of bands that mostly played numbers with no lyrics would sometimes talk-sing or skat to certain numbers. Sometimes side men would do the same, like Tex Beneke in the Glen Miller orchestra, although he was a pretty damn good singer in addition to his saxophone playing. Perhaps the best example of this would be Louis Armstrong, clearly not a classic singer, but a wonderful interpreter of a song.
But rock and roll took it to a new level. Not right away mind you. From the Brill Building in New York to the Motown sound in Detroit, songwriters cranked out hits for others. Some of them could really sing and eventually would get to, like Neil Diamond. Some of them never did, and some had to wait until the tastes of the public were deemed ready by record executives.
Arguably the most famous in this regard is Carol King. King wrote or co-wrote a staggering 118 Top 100 hits, dozens by the time she started recording her own material in 1970. She clearly does not possess a great voice, but the feeling and passion she incorporates into the songs she does sing is tangible to this day. Her recent concerts with James Taylor are gems.
King was at the vanguard of the singer-songwriter movement, where artists would perform their own songs, but not in the context of a band. My earlier blog “Bullet Train to Velveeta” delves quite a bit into this area, since quite a bit of this music is in the wildly varying in quality soft-rock genre.
If there is a godfather of this movement it is clearly Bob Dylan. His often-imitated nasal drone, which has only become more pronounced and added growl as the years go by, is the most exaggerated version of letting great songwriters perform their own works. Dylan’s songs have been recorded by others often, and covered countless times, and I’ll say it, they usually sound better. Sometimes they are just different, like Jimi Hendrix take on “All Along the Watchtower”.
A real descendant of this is Neil Young. Some might go as far as to say his singing is torturous, but I would say it just works. It’s so unique that sometimes covers of his songs are so different you can hardly believe he penned them. Think of Nicollette Larson’s recording of his “Lotta Love”.
Let’s get back to the desert island. Steely Dan is completely unique in this discussion in one regard. They became famous with their debut album “Can’t Buy a Thrill” which doesn’t much sound like anything that they followed with. That’s in large part because Donald Fagen only sings about half the songs, and even the ones he sings, his vocals are ultra-produced. David Palmer is enlisted as a lead singer on four tracks including “Dirty Work”, and drummer Jim Hodder does the lead on the wonderful “Midnight Cruiser”. Neither of those fine tunes really sounds like a “Steely Dan” song.
Fagen was reticent about his quirky voice, but was convinced after this album to do all the singing, creating the extremely unique sound that for me is one of the bands greatest strengths. I really like “Can’t Buy a Thrill”, but is almost seems like it shouldn’t even be in the bands catalogue.
The Cars have a somewhat similar dynamic. While most people think of main songwriter and leader Rick Ocasek as the lead singer, he only sings about half the songs. Bassist Benjamin Orr is basically the co-lead singer and has the mike for big hits like “Just What I Needed” and “Let’s Go”. He sings the final three tracks on “The Cars”, which are kind of one piece. They weren’t the biggest hits, but the run out of “Bye, Bye Love”, “Moving in Stereo”, and “All Mixed Up” is my favorite part.
I will admit to being completely against the grain in the fact that I actually like the band’s second album “Candy-O” more than the debut. It’s a little grittier, a little weirder, and rocks a bit more. But I once owned a double cassette (hahahahaha) of both, and somewhat came to consider them once piece. On Candy-O, the back to back heartbreak songs “Since I Held You” and “It’s All I Can Do” and the closer, the film nourish “Dangerous Type”, are buried treasures.
Neither Orr, and especially Ocasek, have great voices, but they perfectly fit the band’s sound. New Wave music in general lends itself to clipped vocals anyway, sometimes leading to really bad stuff, but The Cars were top shelf in the genre.
Dire Straits was a band whose sound was not really New Wave at all, but was reacting to the same thing, the overblown arena rock of the late seventies and early eighties. Anything but thunderous, the irony would become that Dire Straits would become the biggest arena act in the world at one point.
Which is pretty funny since in the context we are exploring Mark Knopfler has anything but an arena voice. Most of his songs are almost spoken more than sung, and if I was going to try and explain what he sounds like, I might say it would be as if Bob Dylan took about a zillion voice lessons.
Knopfler’s post Dire Straight music, which I love, is quieter and sort of British Americana music, if that makes any sense at all. Considered a guitar icon, he plays leads sparingly, but with the same skill. That’s why going to his solo concerts is vital, since he does play a lot of lead there. But don’t go expecting a greatest hits show. He and his fabulous band, most of which have been with him for years now, usually only play 3–5 Straits songs, although, yes, he always plays “Sultans of Swing”.
Bands or artists with unconventional voices can create wildly different reactions. It is understandable. While I can listen to Neil Young’s raspy squeal all day long, Geddy Lee’s super high-pitched vocals always made Rush a tough pull for me. I enjoy their musicianship immensely, but never was a fan because of his singing. Thankfully for me, his voice has mellowed with age some, so I would gladly head to a show with my buddy Kurtis Seaboldt, a complete diehard.
Of course, there is no real downside to having great pipes at the front of a band. Part of the many delights of one of my favorite bands, The Mavericks, is the operatic quality, Roy Orbison meets Elvis, voice of front man Raul Malo. Nothing quirky or offbeat about his wonderful singing.
There is a place for all of it, where perhaps once it wasn’t much tolerated. My wife is an accomplished opera singer, a genre of music where perfection is requisite. But while she will gladly point out when some singer who is said to have a good voice does not, she also is a huge fan of Bob Dylan. And one of our new bucket list bands to go see is The War on Drugs, who’s lead singer Adam Granduciel (while he never cites Dylan as an influence) channels a more on-tune version of him.
From Buddy Holly to Van Morrison to Lou Reed to Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to today, when the water is more murky since technology can save about anyone, all kinds of voices can work. Music is a personal thing, there is no right or wrong. You can laugh (or cry), but Justin Bieber’s latest album just became his fifth million seller, and he can’t sing a lick.
But he can undoubtedly afford his own desert island.