By Gabriela Kalter
It was 1980 when AC/DC released Back in Black, the album of hard rock legacy that went multi-platinum and launched the London-based Australian musicians into international super-stardom. Lead singer Brian Johnson’s voice most definitely shook audiences all night long, awaking metal fans to the raw appeal of the band’s seventh album. But the thick blackness of the cover art was more than just a bad-ass creative choice, it was a solemn sign of mourning for the former AC/DC frontman, Bon Scott.
Bon Scott died in February of the same year after an excessive night of drinking that culminated in his being left a friend’s car, completely passed out and unconscious. It wasn’t until the next evening that the friend found a lifeless Scott in his passenger seat, having allegedly suffered from alcohol poisoning and dying by choking on his own vomit.
The death of the 33-year-old AC/DC singer remains a tragic story in ’80s hard rock, but as the cliché goes — the show must go on, and go on it did. With the encouragement of the grieving Scott family, the band enlisted Brian Johnson (formerly of British rock group, Geordie) as the new vocalist and decided to continue making music.
Brian Johnson of AC/DC performing in London, 2009. Photo by Twak.
Losing the frontman is an all-too-common occurrence in music, forcing a band to face the challenge of either finding a replacement or breaking up entirely. Whether due to creative differences, death, sickness, or simply a desired change of pace, band members come and go, changing with the tides and tweaking the artistic vibe of the group. Even the beloved Bon Scott was a 1974 replacement for AC/DC’s initial frontman, Dave Evans. The band member shift is just a part of the program sometimes, and the struggle to regroup and reidentify is what determines their longevity on the rock and roll timeline.
Though riffs and hairdos may never change — the ways of contracting a new front man certainly have. Take the American rock group, Boston, for example. These New Englanders saw a period of immense success in the ’70s and ’80s, making a name for themselves on the classic rock circuit as progressive visionaries with soulful guitar riffs. The talented Brad Delp fronted the band, with occasional support from vocalist Fran Cosmo. But, in 2007, Delp committed suicide in his New Hampshire home by carbon monoxide poisoning. The rest of the band was obviously in mournful shock, unsure of how to proceed.
Without the lead singer, a band is inevitably never going to be the same. Some musicians would take it as a sign, pack up their equipment and move on, but the remaining members of Boston trudged on. With the combined pipes of Michael Sweet (of the Christian glam metal band, Stryper) and Tommy DeCarlo, an admiring fan named whom Boston-founder Tom Scholz heard through MySpace, the band continued touring. Eventually, Sweet left to return to his musical labor of love, Stryper. But, after the heartfelt tribute concert to Brad Delp, it was clear that Boston wasn’t done rocking.
Unfortunately, not all bands that lose their frontman are so quick to reassemble. In fact, the younger the band, the less willing they seem to forge on. The Cali-based ska punk band, Sublime, still hasn’t quite recovered from the death of singer Brad Nowell. It was 1996 when Nowell died from a heroine overdose at age 28. Just hours before Sublime was scheduled to play a sold out show, drummer Bud Gaugh found the singer dead in his San Francisco motel room. The remaining two members sort of fizzled out, falling back into their excess lifestyles of getting high and dazing off. Not until 2009 did they attempt some sort of reunion, recruiting Rome Ramirez as their new frontman. But, Nowell’s family sued the group for trademark infringement, forbidding them from using the name “Sublime.”
If having to change their name to “Sublime with Rome” wasn’t discouragement enough, it probably didn’t help that the attitudes of Sublime fans were apprehensive and resistant to accept the new musical venture. It often occurs in instances such as these, where a group tries to reintroduce or recreate themselves with a new lineup, that audiences aren’t receptive to the unfamiliar. Regardless of the fact that Brad Nowell would have probably wanted his friends to keep making music and having fun, fans of the classic Sublime lineup usually frown on any attempts to resurface.
In speaking of staple ’90s rock acts from California, Blind Melon also suffered the loss of a 28-year-old frontman. Singer-songwriter Shannon Hoon died in 1995 from a cocaine overdose. His band mates found him on their tour bus and called the authorities upon being unable to wake him up.
It took over a decade for the band to come together again, grappling to find the right voice for their sound, a voice Hoon would approve of. In 2006 they hired singer Travis Warren as their frontman, and released For My Friends in 2008, their first album in over 12 years. Since then, however, Warren has left the group to pursue a solo career.
The classic pursuit of the solo career is one of the most popular reasons why the frontman leaves the band, it’s not always a tragic death that prompts the appearance of a replacement singer. The classic tale of Black Sabbath exemplifies the trope. The ’70s saw the British rockers’ rise to fame, led by the wacky presence of frontman Ozzy Ozbourne. After about a decade of sowing the seeds for everything we know today as heavy metal, Ozbourne left the group in 1979 to go solo.
His own name garnered clout, eventually outshining his former Black Sabbath mates. They brought in several singers to replace Ozzy, but none of them seemed to last long. Ronnie James Dio (then of early metal band, Rainbow) lasted until 1982, when he decided to go solo as well. Dio reunited with the band several times over the years, but he was temporary replaced by Ian Gillan, then Glen Hughs (both of Deep Purple), and then Roy Gillan (of Badlands).
The often incestual relationships between ’70s hard rock groups like Deep Purple and Rainbow was evident in the frequent band-hopping of various members, namely frontmen. Ian Gillan left his position as frontman of Deep Purple to do one album with Black Sabbath. Rainbow’s Joe Lynn Turner took over the vocals of Deep Purple along with David Coverdale, who later went on to form his band, Whitesnake.
Val Halen is also a famous participant in the game of musical chairs. In 1984, the only Van Halen frontman anyone cared about, David Lee Roth, quit the band to go solo and was replaced by Sammy Hagar. But, after tensions between Hagar and Halen grew too large, Hagar was replaced with Gary Cherone (of rock group, Extreme), leaving Hagar to return to his solo career. Val Halen reunited with Hagar in 2003, but then left before 2007 when the band finally reunited with Roth. The original lineup seems to be working since they’ve been touring ever since.
The rotation of frontmen made Van Halen look like a baseball team – constantly in play with a sort of drafting or recruiting process. Sometimes, though, there are more valid reasons (other than wanting to go solo) for a frontman to leave their group.
The Canadian group Barenaked Ladies was a commercial powerhouse of alternative rock in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the last decade hasn’t been nearly as kind to founding members Ed Robertson and Steven Page. After getting arrested in 2008 for drug charges, Page officially stepped down in 2009 as the band’s lead singer, handing the mike over to Robertson, who was recovering from a plane crash he endured less than a year earlier.
I guess the music isn’t always the priority, and appropriately so in the case of Justin Hawkins. The former frontman of the British glam rock band, The Darkness, decided to leave the group in 2006 so he could continue his drug rehabilitation. The remaining members reformed into a group called Stone Gods, allowing their former mate to adequately recover for their reunion last year.
Even though the love of music brings bands together, it isn’t always strong enough to hold them. When a lead singer leaves, it’s akin to losing a limb or a major organ, assuming the band is the human body. The dynamic shifts, the sound changes and the fans are bound to get judgmental of any attempts to deviate from the comfortable and familiar.
Sometimes a band gets lucky and replaces their frontman with an uncannily skilled singer from a tribute band. Such is the case with Journey and Judas Priest. Other times, it forces a band to retire, like The Troggs. They can try to reform but make little progress like The Talking Heads post-David Byrne or Lynyrd Skynyrd and replace their original singer, Ronnie Van Zandt, with a new Van Zant brother on vocals.
Whether the group is disbanded due to a death like in The Doors, The Cars, and Queen, or because of frontman getting fired like in Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, and The Stone Temple Pilots— rock and roll, if nothing else, is often free of reason. No matter how a group perseveres in their vision, the drive to push on in the face of adversity is totally admirable, even if it doesn’t always sound the greatest.