Why unknown singers joining famous rock bands are almost always doomed to fail.
In the last quarter-century or so, the whole ‘plucky unknown joins huge rock band as frontman’ story – previously the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll fantasy – has been played out several times, and rarely with the sort of happy ending that people might hope for. Replacing any band member after years of success as a stable unit is hard enough, but the singer is usually the face of the band – the only member that non-fans might recognise. Swapping vocalists is fairly common early in many a band’s career – but once they have become established and successful, it becomes a much more difficult proposition and rarely seems to end well.
Some bands, like Black Sabbath or Van Halen, have changed their frontman for someone who was, at least, already an established star in his own right – but even Ronnie James Dio found replacing Ozzy Osbourne hard going (at least in terms of fan acceptance at the time) and lasted just two albums. Sabbath, of course, is a great example of the dangers in bringing in a big name as a vocalist – when they replaced Dio with Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, the resulting album was neither fish nor fowl, and the live shows notoriously included performances of Smoke On The Water just to keep Gillan and his fans happy. Bringing in someone who no one has heard of comes with its own risks and rewards – for the band, they are at least getting someone who is not going to be dragging the baggage and ego of having been in a band just as well known as the one he is joining, and many a replacement frontman is simply a waged employee rather than a full band member, his career forever on a knife-edge and his creative input into the band strictly limited to his time on stage. Even if the new singer is granted full membership rights, he will always be the new boy joining a long-established gang with their own set ways of doing things – either he fits into that way or his career will be a brief and unhappy one.
Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Genesis all signed relatively (or entirely) unknown replacements – often a generation or several younger than the rest of the band – for their errant lead singers, only to kick the new guy out unceremoniously when sales declined and the old guy decided to come back – the new singer being little more than a stop-gap while family estrangements were worked out. The whole thing reached some sort of nadir when INXS managed to get an entire reality show out of a search for a new singer that they clearly weren’t going to make a real part of the band. It’s the sort of thing that gets a lot of headlines for an ageing band who might not otherwise get much media attention (in the case of Priest, the replacement of Rob Halford with the frontman from a Priest tribute band even inspired a terrible feature film, Rock Star) and the hapless new singer, who really ought to know that he’s on borrowed time, at least gets to make a bit of money, boost his profile and perhaps go on to get a record deal with his own band once the gravy train stops rolling. The downside, of course, is that you will forever be seen as a footnote in history, their input to the band dismissed by fans and critics alike. For performers looking to be seen as credible artists, replacing a household name is probably not the best career move and almost always seems to coincide with a career slump.
Of course, it can work out. Reality show star Adam Lambert has been fronting Queen for almost a decade now, but is notably not a member of the band – there have been no studio recordings and the live performances are billed as ‘Queen + Adam Lambert’, a move that both allows the band to pretend that they haven’t replaced their iconic frontman and means that Lambert will only ever be a guest with no creative say in what they do. For him, it’s probably a good deal – as well as the financial rewards, his name being listed as on a ‘separate-but-equal’ footing with one of the best-known brands in rock history has undoubtedly given his career a longevity and (in some circles) credibility that most reality TV stars could only dream of. Of course, he also had the luck to be replacing a dead frontman, which considerably reduces the likelihood of his predecessor returning to the fold (though with hologram performances becoming common, even death does not necessarily remove that possibility entirely).
And then there’s the case of Arnel Pineda, a Filipino street kid who was plucked from cover band obscurity in Manila to performing arenas across America with Journey in 2008. Pineda’s experience of joining the band was, uniquely, captured in a documentary film, Don’t Stop Believin’, a fascinating record of how everyone – the new singer, the band and the fans – struggle to adapt.
Journey was an American 1970s jazz fusion/prog band that attracted fans and critical admiration but sold very few records until their record label demanded they change their sound to something more commercial. You can tell a lot about a band by how they react to such an ultimatum. Whatever soul and authenticity Journey might have had was lost at that moment as they cheerfully sold out, smoothing and polishing their sound until they became the ultimate radio-friendly AOR band, the very essence of everything wrong with American rock music at the start of the 1980s. Of course, like any polished and carefully constructed act, the band immediately began pumping out records that were irritatingly catchy – as a rock act, Journey was a horrible corporate nightmare, but as a pop act, they were undeniably skilled at pumping out memorable, slick songs. Don’t Stop Believin’ is the most downloaded song recorded in the 20th century. It’s a song everyone knows and a karaoke favourite. Even if you hate it and everything it stands for, you probably still know the words.
When frontman Steve Perry left the band at the end of the 1990s, they immediately lost momentum and popularity. When Perry’s replacement also quit in 2007, they could’ve just called it quits – I doubt they are short of cash. Why keep going if not for money? To satisfy your ego? Because, despite it all, you actually love music? Who knows? But guitarist Neal Schon was searching the internet – of course – for a potential new singer when he found YouTube videos of Pineda singing Journey songs in a covers band. He was impressed, and it’s easy to see why. The guy has a set of pipes on him and, more importantly for a band who are not looking to fix what ain’t broke (and, indeed, recapture past glories), he sounds remarkably like Perry. With his long black hair, he probably even looks like Perry if you squint or are sat right at the back of the arena. Pineda was invited over to the US to audition and got the gig. The band were probably desperate by this point, with a tour planned.
The fans, of course, were less enthusiastic than the band because rock fans are nothing if not stuck-in-their-ways curmudgeons who find any sort of change hard to take and demand the return of old members, even when said members have left the damn band by choice and have no interest in returning. New members will always been seen as inferior by some fans, often for the most ridiculous and reactionary of reasons. The Journey documentary rather glosses over the racist reactions from some fans to Pineda (though we briefly see him addressing the negative comments on forums) but it can’t hide the truth – one bit of vox pops interview has some dopey girl saying “I wish he was from here, though”. Fuckin’ rednecks.
Fans might be the people that keep a band going – sometimes long after common sense says they should just let it go – but they are also the very worst people for accepting change. They are the people who keep acts stuck in a musical rut because even the slightest change leads to howls of “sell-out”; they are the ones who reject new members out of hand, shouting “we want Ozzy!” (or whoever) between songs. This always baffles me – if you hate the new singer and think that the band no longer has authenticity with the new guy, why even go to the gig? What sort of person buys a concert ticket just to shout abuse at some poor bastard who is not in the least bit responsible for the fact that your idol has chosen to leave?
Pulling in some new guy as a hired gun probably makes a lot of sense to bands who either believe that they still have more to say or else don’t want to let go of the gravy train. Perhaps they really do see it as a fresh start, a way to bring new life into a well-flogged horse. It’s the point where the desperation of rock stars to remain rich and famous clashes with the inherent conservatism of fans who want everything to remain the same forever. Genesis screwed up because they replaced Collins with Ray Wilson, a rock singer who was half their age and never going to simply be a duplicate. It was clear from the get-go that this was essentially going to be a new band – but of course, millionaire rock stars have exceedingly thin skins – as soon as the sales figures drop, they panic even though they could afford to simply carry on and allow the new version of the band space to develop its own identity across a few albums, even if that meant losing some of the traditional fans along the way. While Genesis might have once embraced change – from the Peter Gabriel prog era to the ultra-mainstream Collins years – in their older years they clearly didn’t feel comfortable with the new.
Did Genesis really need to carry on when Phil Collins left? Surely they have enough money to retire, and there is nothing to stop individuals from collaborating on new projects if they still want to work together. It’s ultimately both money and ego that keeps an act going beyond the point when they should just pack it in. As many a rock star has found to their shock, the band is the thing that people know and love, not the individual members, and even if you are the band leader who sang and wrote the songs, you’ll never sell as many tickets or albums as the group did – just ask Roger Waters. The fact that AC/DC determinedly kept going even after losing most of the members including frontman Brian Johnson – going as far as to replace him with Axl Rose for a US tour – shows just how desperate some acts are to cling onto the success and adulation that comes with the name, no matter what. When you become a parody of yourself, a band where most original/classic line-up members have long gone, bowing out gracefully seems sensible – but few bands have the self-awareness and integrity of a Led Zeppelin or Beatles and will drag out their careers even to the point where they are little more than tribute bands to themselves, playing small clubs to dwindling bands of nostalgic fans, often with a succession of increasingly anonymous new musicians backing the one surviving original member.
Of course, for some bands, the arrival of a new singer coincides with a creative slump. It might not actually be a coincidence – removing part of a creative collective obviously changes the dynamic. But equally, it’s often the case that members leave in the first place because they believe that the group has become creatively exhausted. Many bands would benefit from simply taking a break for a few years and only recording when they have something worthwhile, rather than sticking to the rigid album-tour-album-tour routine of their youth. The injection of new blood rarely has the rejuvenating effects that we see in the movies. Bands, in the end, are just as conservative as their fans, and once the excitement of a fresh start has worn off, they increasingly crave the familiar and the safe. When the arrival of a new singer doesn’t result in the hoped-for revival, but instead sees the decline of fortunes simply continue, then who will the group blame? Themselves or the new boy? Well, there’s no contest. And as the former singer finds that his solo career is not as glittering as he might have hoped, with albums that don’t even go Gold and venues the size of his former dressing rooms, he too might have second thoughts. A few years apart and reduced circumstances are often enough to allow old wounds to miraculously heal.
In the Journey story, you sit waiting for the inevitable. Every bit of fulsome praise the band heap on him, every moment where he is reassured he’s doing a great job, you cringe a little because you’re waiting for that point at the end of the tour when they shake hands, part ways and never call him again. Except that doesn’t happen, and as of today, thirteen years later, Pineda is still the lead singer of Journey and has recorded two albums with them and they released a new single – with more line-up changes – in 2021. The band don’t do much of course, and even now, if Perry suddenly decided to come back I have no doubt at all that Pineda would be given the boot – but even if he loses his job tomorrow, he has had a pretty good crack of the whip. It’s more than most replacement singers get.
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