What do we love about golden gods and guitarists with mystique? For starters … everything.
“From the very beginning, we said I’m the frontman and you’re the guitarist with mystique. That’s the dynamic we agreed on: Page, Plant; Mick, Keith.” Actor Jason Lee delivered these lines while portraying Jeff Bebe, lead singer of fictional ’70s rock band Stillwater, during a memorable backstage scene in “Almost Famous.” Writer/director Cameron Crowe based the 2000 film on his own experiences as a teenage Rolling Stone reporter covering such bands as Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers.
Many rock fans immediately recognized the template Lee’s character referenced.
While The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards forged it and Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page furthered it, many other bands rode that template to stadium-sized success, including: Aerosmith (Steven Tyler and Joe Perry); Van Halen (David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen); and Guns N’ Roses (Axl Rose and Slash).
If a rock band is truly massive, chances are casual fans can’t just name one musician in that band. They can name two.
But now in 2016 those flashy frontman and dark guitar hero “dynamic duos” are a dying breed. The few newer rock bands able to make somewhat of a mainstream dent, like say critical and commercial faves Alabama Shakes, mostly only have one legitimate star in them, while the rest of the band, no matter how musically sharp, exude Bill Wyman-levels of onstage charisma. (No offense to Wyman, a tasteful bassist but a profoundly solemn performer.)
Which means fans have a significantly less chance of identifying with a member of the band. And thus, a significantly less chance of getting into the band at all.
The impact goes way beyond star power. Without these sort of dynamic duos, bands lose a creative and often volatile push-pull that’s often vital to making great rock music. And this is something rock critics, fans and even musicians tend to miss when trying to explain rock’s diminished mainstream cultural clout. Or if you’d prefer, why “rock is dead.” More common explanations for the “death of rock” range from young creative people who would’ve started rock bands in decades past now go into more commercially viable genres like pop, R&B, rap and electronic music or even into technology careers instead, to a perceived increase of careerism over musical passion, to dramatically reduced album sales.
Asked about the prominence of singer-and-guitarist star tandems in classic bands, influential rock radio and TV host Eddie Trunk says, “I think a lot of bands saw that model and went with it. From a public standpoint, I think a lot of it has to do with what they were sold. The record labels, the managers of the time they were very much about pushing those guys to the front, making sure all those guys did all the press. So, as a result, they were on the covers of all the magazines. If you’re an Aerosmith fan as I am, there were times you’d be hard pressed to think there were three other guys in that band besides Perry and Tyler.”
Another reason classic singer-guitarist star tandems are so effective is because they bring in two different listeners groups: fans primarily attracted to melody, hooks and vocals and fans drawn in by musical flair. Those fan groups often overlap. But other times they do not. As Greg Renoff, author of the excellent 2015 biography “Van Halen Rising,” puts it, “My sister wasn’t going to go pick up (the Deep Purple album) ‘Machine Head’ and listen to it but she was going to listen to (Aerosmith’s) ‘Permanent Vacation.'” Renoff adds, “Jagger, Roth, Tyler, Axl all had this sex appeal that got people interested. There’s a great story. Rodney Bingenheimer, who was a DJ for (Los Angeles radio station) KROQ and was around the Sunset Strip, (notorious Runaways manager) Kim Fowley had brought him to see Van Halen (during the band’s club days) and (Bingenheimer) said he immediately knew the band was going to be huge because the girls were all crazy for this band. There was like this army of girls. Even though (Van Halen) were playing cover songs he knew they were going to be huge because girls set the trends.” And there are female rock dynamic-duos too – Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson, for example.
The extensively researched “Van Halen Rising” chronicles Van Halen’s formative years up through the band’s first national tour, in 1978 opening up for Black Sabbath. Renoff, who lives in Tulsa, Okla., sheds fascinating new light on the R&B and showmanship Roth brought to the band, which brothers Eddie and drummer Alex Van Halen began in 1973 and at that point was still called Mammoth. The Van Halen brothers had been covering dexterous groups like Cactus and Captain Beyond, and Eddie often performed while wearing a flannel shirt and jeans – a far cry from the catchier sound and flashier look they’d adopt with Roth on board.
“If they didn’t end up with a singer like Roth, the Van Halen brothers could have done a more conventional (rock) thing,” Renoff says, “but I can also see a record company going, ‘We’re going to make Eddie the next Jeff Beck.’ They could’ve had a nice career like that. But then what we would have gotten, I’m guessing, would have been much more of the improvisational, out-there song structures that Eddie and Alex were actually really into when they met Dave.
“For all of Roth’s limitations and all of his goofy ways of doing things, he knew how to bring the party to a show. He knew how to get people interested and focused. He knew how to bring attention to the band. And the other thing I think Roth brought to the table was he understood that the best vehicle for delivering those (Eddie Van Halen) licks and riffs was more of a pop format.” Listeners who might’ve rolled their eyes at Roth’s flamboyant persona could still be drawn in by Eddie Van Halen’s virtuosity and become fans based on that aspect of the band. Even though the band is defined by Eddie’s groundbreaking finger-tapping guitar technique, Van Halen’s pop-sense was evident immediately, on their 1978 self-titled debut album, with strong, hook-driven rock songs like “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and “Jamie’s Cryin’.” (Bassist Michael Anthony’s high-harmony vocals were another hallmark of the signature VH sound.)
Read the full article at AL.com.