Last year's tour by British rock lords The Who allegedly required separate travel, lodging, staff and dressing room arrangements for frontman Roger Daltrey and guitarist/ songwriter Pete Townshend. Indeed, the two have long endured a notoriously contentious relationship, and—exactly 40 years after the band released its rock opera, Tommy—that presumably persists only because of the money at stake and Daltrey's distinctive, rich voice.
So it's good to see Daltrey reviving The Who's anthemic rock, even if it's without Townshend, the band's only other surviving original. Indeed, watching him perform even now, the strength of his voice remains stellar on classics like "Love Reign O'er Me" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," The Who songs that remain staples of his live set.
Daltrey doesn't make any pretense of being anything but a crowd-pleaser. While Townshend's always been more interested in foisting his latest creative endeavor on the audience, the singer plays to the fans, and his set lists are filled with those band hits, alongside a modest number of tracks from his largely unaccomplished solo career. He's even brought Townshend's younger brother, Simon, along to play guitar.
Lead singers are a strange breed. They're the focus and the spectacle around which the music revolves, so it's difficult to discern whether pomp and ego are a requirement or a byproduct of their job. While it's possible to have a great band without a spectacular singer—a defining lesson learned from over two decades of indie rock, which has produced precious few galvanizing singers or signature frontmen—mainstream appeal seems to depend on an engaging frontman, if only to serve as an identifiable head of state for a brand.
Of course, this cult of personality almost inevitably creates tension within the band when the singer begins to wonder if he'd be better off hiring mercenaries and going it alone. It's often hard for the players to go on without the singer; their choices are conscribed, particularly in later years after the band's fame has receded. Sure, you can hire a soundalike, like Journey did to replace Steve Perry (himself, a replacement), a placeholder sure to invoke the ire of fans (as the Dead Kennedys did), or even go on TV to replace the singer, like INXS or Pussycat Dolls. Alice in Chains' recent success aside, it's damn difficult to replace a popular frontman.
But if bands are generally stuck, solo careers are hardly a sure thing for lead singers. For every Peter Gabriel, David Byrne or Morrissey, there's a handful of David Lee Roths, Nicole Scherzingers or even Mick Jaggers trying to claw their way back into the fold or prove they're bigger than the band.
There's often some special energy between band members that's utterly lost when only one tries to put it to tape by himself. Thankfully many don't even try. May these five frontmen continue to avoid it.
GENE SIMMONS: The made-up man took a lick at solo work in 2004 with ***HOLE, which summarizes the pratfalls would-be solo artists face in 13 tracks. Self-produced, the project attempted to bridge full-on rockers with dreamy Beatle-esque ballads. It's less pale imitation, more multiple-car pileup. Simmons is a vital cog in the Kiss Army, but without his greasepainted harlequin mates, he's just an even bigger clown. Luckily, Kiss is busy again. For Simmons alone simply is what he is, and that's no Ozzy.
BONO: The Irishman's sense of proportion is scaled to the size of U2's sound. It's hard to imagine him gathering a bunch of ringers to properly back his heroic anthems. Edge's echoing guitar lines—not even riffs, but single-note runs embellished to the max by technology—share the stage with Bono's bombast, and the limber rhythm section provides a firm foundation for his expansive rhetorical reach. Can't you just imagine some whippersnapper going all Guitar Hero behind him and completely missing the mark?
JAMES HETFIELD: Here's another whose band seems to be as big a part of his presence as anything he's doing vocally. From that wincing, skin-pounding elf Lars Ulrich to Kirk Hammett and his high-wire shredding, Metallica feels like a package deal. It's just hard to imagine that growling vocal strut with a posse of studio sidemen, though perhaps he could front an act that's already established its rumbling pedigree, à la Chris Cornell's return via Audioslave. But would they be cool with band therapy? Doubtful.
BLACK THOUGHT: The Roots revolutionized live instrumentation in hip-hop, and as a result, it's hard to imagine emcee Black Thought with a DJ or a drummer without the sweet kick action of ?uestlove. Certainly, Black Thought's a fine-enough MC, but there's something about the connection between him and his high school friend, ?uestlove, that makes him that much better.
ANTHONY KIEDIS: He's perhaps the most surprising frontman not to try to make the jump, and thank the devil for that. While tracks like "Under the Bridge" certainly suggest he could make a Rob Thomas-like, big-ballad move, Kiedis seems dedicated to his mates, and rightly so. Flea and guitarist John Frusciante have continued to move the Red Hot Chili Peppers to new musical fields, and their interplay has served as a cozy bed for Kiedis' career. While Kiedis may be capable of solo glory, it's admirable he's saved his pepper for the band and spent his spare time acting and writing and, let's hope, improving his dance skills.
Roger Daltrey performs with his band on the Use It or Lose It Tour at Durham Performing Arts Center Wednesday, Oct. 28, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45-$85.