James Fleming asks that crucial question: Is it the singer or the song?
The year was 1965. The Summer of Love was still two years away. Its untimely demise with Altamont was two years even further down the line. It could be described as an innocent time, mop-topped and entranced as it was. But more likely, it was a time of quiet dysfunction…
The Stones’ first drug bust came in 1967, a teasing hint of the darkness to come, during all the free love of that year’s legendary summer. The Beatles’ first smoked, and most certainly inhaled, on a joint with Mr. Dylan in 1964. But only later admitted to drug use of a much heavier sort in ’67. The Summer of Love, like all love, was tinged with blackness. But, for now, it’s still ’65 and all is just swell. Dandy, even.
The Rolling Stones, yet to be branded “the world’s greatest rock n’ roll band,” had just released Satisfaction a mere few months previous. The pressure of celebrity and the frustration of success that they experienced birthed a great, great song; Get Off of My Cloud. You can argue that the Louie Louie “I, IV, V” riff that carried the verse is a rip off. But, an argument can also be made that it’s timeless. For, with a song that great, who cares about the chord progression? But, it’s the UK B side and US album track that we’re here to talk about.
It’s called The Singer Not The Song.
With its out of tune guitars and sickly harmonies, it’s a woeful pastiche of the Beatles. The sixties bore rotten fruit as much as any other decade. Fruit that stank of dated production techniques and stale creativity. But, its hook, which is the title, as is the case with many songs, when taken at face value, poses an interesting puzzle for those who care to solve it:
Is it the singer, or the song?
Simon Cowell claims that the only thing he knows about music is whether or not a singer sounds good. Any fool can tell you that. Even if you never heard them and just went by the law of averages, a person would figure out that a handful of his misguided hopefuls on that accursed X Factor can sing. It doesn’t take a Beethoven to figure that one out. But, is it the singer that carries the song like Christopher carried the Lord, or does the song ferry the singer down the river Styx?
Which brings us back to Mr. Dylan. By no stretch of the imagination has Bob a brilliant voice. Original? Yes. Idiosyncratic? Definitely. But, a Pavarotti he is not. Yet, Like a Rolling Stone is Rolling Stone magazine’s number one greatest song ever written. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door has been covered numerous times. And Blowin’ In The Wind is even sung in primary schools. There are more versions of Dylan’s songs than there are possible games of chess. And yet, while his voice is no doubt iconic, it is far from perfect.
And why should it have to be? Part of the charm of rock n’ roll is that it’s lightyears from perfection. A thrill for those who seek chaos and a nightmare for those afflicted with OCD.
The Sex Pistols are yet another example. John Lydon’s infamous sneer/howl kicked a generation up the arse and spearheaded not just a genre, but a whole subculture in the form of punk. His vocal predecessor, Alice Cooper, similarly scared society shitless with his shock rock stage show and kitsch lyricism. Between them, they can just about carry a tune. Yet, God Save the Queen remains an iconic anthem of youthful discontent. And School’s Out, just like Blowin’ In The Wind, is sung at least once a year by rejoicing children across our humble blue-green planet.
And then there’s Adele.
Adele’s 21 album was ubiquitous for what seemed like an age upon its release in 2011. Songs like Rollin’ In The Deep, Set Fire To The Rain and Someone Like You raked in the awards and swept up the public’s cash like wildfire. Just reading those song titles has you humming I’m sure. And yet, a few critics claimed that it was her voice that lifted the songs from a quagmire of pain. Slant Magazine’s Matthew Cole wrote that Adele’s extraordinary voice masked the “blandness” of many of the tracks. And Allison Stewart, writing for The Washington Post boldly stated that many of the tracks are remarkable “only because Adele is singing them.”
Rap is another example, albeit, an example that swings both ways. Rappers are notorious for their vocal style. It’s far from tuneful, but the emotional impact of the vocal styling carries the song. And each rappers voice is as unique as a finger or tongue print, lending a stamp of individuality to their work that is often missing in this day and age from even rock n’ roll, and certainly from the majority of pop music. However, without the great songs, and the likes of Eminem with his outstanding lyricism and comedic timing are full of excellent tunes, the voice would merely seem ridiculous. A parody of a style.
A song without a singer is a ghost. It’s a soul without a vessel. Left to linger in a notebook and to fade away with the echoes of the piano that spawned it.
Likewise, a singer without a song is an empty book, waiting to be filled with the words that will carry it down through the generations.
For decades, singers and songwriters were two very separate entities. The songwriter wrote, and the singer sung. It was a terribly symbiotic relationship and it continues to this day. Bacharach and David wouldn’t be that holy duo they are today without the likes of Dionne Warwick to bring their creations to life. And the Shangri-Las wouldn’t have had such thrilling stories to tell if Shadow Morton hadn’t written them down.
But, who would have breathed life into Morton’s stories? Who would have communicated the heartache to us but Ms. Warwick?. The singer raises the song from its rubbish bin grave. But the song, the song keeps the singer from their own.