Since I started my career in live music, I have seen over 3,000 bands play live. Some of them have been good enough to put on the stage of a big arena, some have been worth watching again on the smaller stages and some I have ticked the box and moved on to the next. But I am left wondering, what it is that makes a band stand out from the rest? In this article I try to pull together the elements that make a band first class.
Because we are talking about bands that play their own music, we have to start with their collective ability to compose good music. The best bands are those that can turn out musical hits on a regular basis. Some bands have come up with one good song but have failed to equal it, even though they have produced new songs on a regular basis. What puts a band at the top of the tree, is their ability to turn out great songs, time and time again. That is true of the really great, world class bands, as it for the unsigned, unknown bands that grace the stages of the small venues.
Having said, that what then are the elements of a good song? Melodies and lyrics. The world's best loved songs have simple melodies that everyone can remember and sing on their way to work or in the shower or at the karaoke. Most of the great popular songs have simple lyrics that are meaningful to most people or that say something that speaks to most of us. Not that rock songs have to be simple or vapid. I prefer rock to pop because rock to my mind is more musically rich and vigorous. The lyrics of Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" is not simple; the words are full of captivating visual images and highly ambiguous phrases. One of my favourite singer-songwriters, Don Mclean, wrote lyrics that I have never been able to understand (“American Pie”) but I have been listening to with wonder for many years. The US band Staind wrote song lyrics that completely changed my attitude to rock music and were a revelation to me. “It's been a while” was one of the most emotional and haunting lyrics I have ever come across in rock:
Its been a while
Since I could look at myself straight
and it's been a while
since I said I'm sorry
It's been a while
Since I've seen the way the candles light your face
It's been a while
But I can still remember just the way you taste
But everything I can't remember as fucked up as it may seem
I know it's me I cannot blame this on my father
he did the best he could for me
The early albums of Staind had a profound affect on my attitude to and appreciate of nu-rock.
Lyrics are great if you can read them and they strike you as being poems even if you have not heard the music. They have a quality that is free standing from the music. Some great iconic songs have been based on lyrical material that was far from simple – using metaphor, imagery and iconography to great effect. So, for example,
And all the roads that lead to you were winding
And all the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
I don't know how
might on the face of it seem simple but what does it really mean, if anything? People like this song because they can make of it what they will. There are a million interpretations of it.
Some bands have written totally unintelligible lyrics, following in the footsteps of Lear, but have made them work inside the context of the song (Muse, Led Zeppelin, Bowie). The regurgitating of age old clichés is a big no no for me. I hate songs which refer to persons of the female gender as “baby” or “babe” and yet our fathers were totally happy with this.
Put together captivating lyrics with memorable melodies and you have a hit. People are going to love it. The melody has to be easy to remember. The rhythm of the song has to do something to our pulses. The lyrics have to be hearable – you have to be able to hear what is being sung about. If the song has a chorus, then it should be iconic – the audience should be singing it on the way home from the show. Sadly few rock vocalists articulate their words clearly enough for most people in a crowd to hear what they are singing. If the same applied to guitar lines, the band would be a flop.
The song should have dynamics – the rise and fall of the mood, the use of catchy phrases and breaks that amplify the flow of the song and tensions that build up to a break. It needs to attract a cross section of music lovers. A good band is one that can play or sing to a wide variety of people and capture their attention, irrespective of their age, sex or cultural background. Contemporary music is, in my view, too tribal, too limited to one particular group or segment. Much modern music celebrates age, class, gender or race. It's not the genre or idiom of the music that matters. It's not about rock versus pop, or pop versus hip hop, or hip hop versus r'n'b. It's about music that can reach across boundaries.
I often ask bands, what comes first: the melody or the lyrics. I regularly get a “don't know” answer. It is however true that both of these need to fit together. There was a time when lyrics were truly shocking, absurdly trivial and a reflection of the complete inarticulate illiteracy of the songwriters. Some of these are still being sung today and are fondly remembered by fans and music aficionados alike. But modern music lovers are much harder to please than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Today you have to be able to write lyrics that appeal to audiences who are generally well educated, articulate and intelligent.
Live music is a form of entertainment. To reach out to an audience, a band has to live its music on the stage, it has to infect the audience with its passion for its music. I have seen bands who play well, from a technical point of view, who make good music, but stand on the stage like cardboard cut-outs. I have listened to bands who have potentially top class songs but for what ever reason they have not come alive. Stage craft is as important as song craft. It's no good being able to write a great song if you can't perform that song. Bands playing live on stage have a strong visual element. You go to see a band as must as you go to listen to them. Some lead singers have been referred to as great entertainers, because their performance is half an hour of working a crowd. Bad vocalists don't sing to the audience; they sing to themselves, the ceiling, the other band members but they fail to engage the people in front of them. Singing always has an element of acting. Even if you can't see the audience (blinding stage lights in your eyes) you should still act as though you can see them and you know they are there.
Does a band have attitude? Whether its the attitude of the lead singer or of the whole band, rock bands do sometimes portray something in their act that suggests aggression, cool, petulance and so on. Punk in some of its forms works a recognisable set of attitudes, as does death metal and nu-rock. Some young bands manufacture attitude, throwing their instruments on the stage at the end of the set and storming off the stage but this can easily look very false and contrived.
Most small bands sound like a bigger band. Bands that are not covers bands or tribute bands, need to play music that is recognisable but not a simply clone of a currently popular big band or one of the greats from the last 20 or 30 years. There are some really good bands out there that have popular appeal, but still sound too much like The Libertines, The Kings of Leon, AC/DC, Green day, Blink 182, or some other band. No band can write music in a vacuum. I remember being at a gig where a band played that I had not heard before. Half way through the set, I stood there scratching my head and thinking – I know they are good at what they are doing but I have never heard anything like this before. They are not like anything I have ever heard before. Then the penny dropped. I realised that I was listening to a band that was truly original. Suddenly, it all became very exciting. This is not something that happens very often.
If a band really does invent original music, they can find themselves struggling to find people who like it. The sound-alike bands do well because fans easily identify with what they are hearing. Play something that no one has heard before only the musical sophisticates applaud it.
This article discusses: “what makes a good band”. There are some acts out there where a star quality front man or woman puts on a truly amazing singing experience but the rest of the people on stage are just backing musicians. It's all about the lead vocalist. If the lead singer leaves the band, there is not enough left to go on to success. This is still a band, may be, but what makes a band, as a whole, a first class act? Teamwork. Firstly let me say that I have a strong opinion about rock bands: in my view the best rock bands have at least three good vocalists. In a standard four piece band I would expect there to be a strong lead singer and at least two backing vocalists. In a trio, all of them have to vocalise. For me, the top quality rock band is one has adds vocal depth to good instrumental arrangements. Rock bands are, with few exceptions, singing bands.
Some bands put on a really sparkling show because they all work together to make it happen. Even when not singing, a guitarist and even a bassist can be dancing on the stage. The stings section can all jump up at a break in the music. The drummer can put on his own show at the back of the stage. The guitarists can assume postures that are familiar to that style of music. There is so much that instrumentalists can do to turn a band concert into an act which entertains the crowd as much visually as it does aurally.
I have seen bands where there is an amazing front man but where he is backed up by the musicians who sing, dance, play their instruments and create a total package that makes their set have a special magic.
This is difficult. I can remember when bands during the 1970s tried to out do each other in the costume department and rock became theatrically camp. Today, most rock musicians want to look like they have just walked on to the stage from their day job or their bedroom. Now and then a band wears black shirts. A band that starts putting on a costume or uniform can be regarded with suspicion. One or two metal bands wear costumes, a trend set by Korn.
Bands I see on the television playing at huge festivals, have, I guess, chosen their wardrobes carefully with the aim of not looking like they have dressed differently just because they are on stage. They have, I suspect, chosen their jeans and tops carefully to fit with the latest fashions. No big band member wants to look like a nerd. They want to be wearing what all their fans are wearing, or at least the best dressed of them. Hip Hop and Rap singers seem to have gone in for uniforms big time. They have to be wearing the latest in-clothes to have any chance of getting anywhere. No matter how badly they perform, they can be sure of getting booked because they are wearing the right stuff. This is tribalism. These artists are buying into an art form which is more about iconography
than it is about music.
Indie rock artists just need to look ordinary and everyday but even that requires taste. The majority of the bands that I have seen have literally gone on stage in the same clothes they always wear to work or college. Indie bands do often change their shirts from what they came to the venue in, changing in to something that they imagine is more in keeping what their act.
I have come across bands that have sought the services of a professional stylist, but this rare.
Finally let me say that it is not common to find a group of band member who look the part. Pop moguls have been manufacturing boy groups (singing groups) by picking four or five young men who are all the right height, shape, age and facial cute-ness. They have been manufactured as products for pre-pubertal female consumers. It smacks of musical pornography but some labels have made a lot of money out of it.
When Liverpool four lads happened to come together in the early sixties, they were not manufactured, they just happened. They grew to be one of the greatest musical legends of all time. During the sixties, they happened to be the most iconic youth act imaginable. Yet there were not selected for their looks.
If you read the stories of how most of today's rock bands formed, you see processes at work that are largely about friendships, mates meeting up a college or people being introduced informally because they could play a guitar, drums, bass and so on. There is never any reference to their appearance. Looks are almost irrelevant when it comes to the formation of young rock bands. If a band happens to have members who look the part, that is likely to be the result of happy co-incidence or maybe, because this particular group of mates all look fairly alike.
Once in a while a band comes along with four people who co-incidentally look the part. They all look right for the style of band and its music. If they are good at all the other elements of a first class band, they are probably going to make it. They are the same age, wear the same style of clothes, have hair styles that match and share common musical tastes. None of this was intentional or planned by managers.
I have seen bands where three of the members look spot on but one stands out like a sore thumb. If that one is the lead vocalist then they are not likely to get very far. The exception to the rule is the drummer – the one who sits at the back and can look like anything because they are hidden away and its doesn't mater that much. Equally, there are bands with really good looking male drummers who sweat copiously, rip of their T's and suddenly because a key part of the show.
Sex has always been used to sell music. It's either sexy female vocalists who are there to lure male fans or handsome male leads who are there to appeal to anyone who has an eye for male looks. Take That climbed to fame in the gay clubs of Manchester because, at that time, they were all regarded by fans of either gender, as being really good looking guys. They had sex appeal and they they used it to sell their music. Some young bands deliberately get naked on stage because they know that their teenage audiences think them hot enough to get away with this. It's a trap for the unwary. At one gig a band member took off his shirt only to be greeted by a chorus of “put your shirt back on” from the crowd.
There are many bands out there that either innocently use sex to sell themselves, or, in some cases are in a band only because of their hormones. It's said that there are so many male bands only because the guys in them see this as being the way to get girls. To what extent is this realistic? I've been fortunate enough to know a few, good looking guys for long enough to find out about their private lives and I didn't see them getting laid at every gig. In fact many of them have steady girl friends to whom they are faithful, even though they could pull any one of a dozen or so girls who are standing in front of the stage wetting their knickers at them.
In a good team, all the band members need to have equal degrees of talent. Some bands have average musicians but one stands out – a star lead guitarist or an ace drummer. This makes up for the lack of ability in the rest, in some cases. But the best bands are all good at what they do to more or less equal degrees. But does a lead vocalist need to have an x-factor voice? This is interesting. Some great singers don't have the best voices but they have voices that have character. The only bottom line requirement is that they can sing in tune. Sadly I have seen bands with lead singers who desperately need either to have a good voice coach or who need to find something else to occupy their time. Singing out of tune is not acceptable. It's no good blaming the stage monitors.
One of the most exciting band vocalists I know is not a good singer. He can't sing but he can put on a stunning performance and he has has genuine star quality as a front man, but there's no way I can see him as a singer. He shouts, growls and screams his way through his set, accompanied by three of the most technically exciting musicians I know and the band is always thrilling to see. In rock, there many flavours of vocalisation and I do not put down screamo bands because they appear to have opted out of singing in favour of screaming, which is a specialised art form that is very hard to do well and correctly.
Some bands are good at playing together, writing listen-able songs and also give their guitarists or drummers solo spots where they can demonstrate their virtuosity. Completely acceptable but not a requirement. Good singing, thrilling guitar work and drumming add up to an exciting package, that makes rock what it is.
When it comes to the voice, size doesn't matter; it's what you do with it that counts. Some world-class singers have had horrible voices but absolutely tantalising personalities; they can make bad songs into great ballads. Springsteen was noted for his rough gravelly voice.
It is said that the voice is another instrument that has to be played like a guitar. But the guitar is a standardised instrument. All guitars sound more or less the same. Guitar-heads won't agree with me but you know what I mean. When it comes to the voice however, there are huge variations of colour, timbre, range and tone. One band I know was generally regarded as making good popular songs, which they performed well but the front man, who sang in tune and put on an acceptable stage performance, nevertheless bored me because his voice had little character. It was too plain and didn't suggest anything. Another band was generally ok at making music but insisted on always having one female lead vocalist whose voice was annoyingly penetrating. High pitched and piercing, even though could sing in tune, I couldn't bear to listen to them. Their recordings were even worse than their live shows because of this one flaw, and they just couldn't see it.
The other thing about team work is that the band members should be able to work together effectively, particularly when off-stage, in the rehearsal room, making songs. All bands have fights now and again. Some bands fight like cats and dogs all the time but somehow manage to stay together and produce some really good music, despite the conflicts going on internally.
Young bands are particularly vulnerably to in-fighting because the band members do not have the worldly skills or experience to know how to manage differences of personality or opinion. One very young band I know well are still together and doing really well after two years, during which time huge blow ups have occurred with various members threatening to walk out of the band because they weren't getting their own way.
There's a difference between team work and four people who have a chemistry. I have seen bands where the live performance is a joy to experience because the group of musicians on the stage feed off each other, giving out a vibe that even non-musicians like me can only wonder at and which takes music making on to the next level.
Too often bands stay firmly within their comfort zone and don't want to challenge themselves. Part of talent and a desire to reach for originality involves being ready to leave the comfort zone behind and try something new. Great bands are those who want to push the boundaries of what they are doing and reach deep inside themselves to draw on their talents to produce something that is fresh and ground breaking. Such bands will make it because the industry is always on the look out for something new.
By industry I mean hard work. Talent can easily go hand in hand with laziness. Equally, there are some bands who are not that great in the talent department, but who are succeeding because they work hard, believe in themselves have know how to manage themselves to climb the ladder.
The music industry is going through a sea change. We have moved away from the age of the record label, where a band made it only because a label signed them. The Internet has created the infrastructure for bands d.i.y their way to a reasonable of commercial success. As I have always said, behind every successful band there is a team of people who are off-stage but contribute to the band's success.
Hundreds of bands have contacting me wanting management because they believe that a manager is going to carry them up the ladder. This is the subject of another article and I have a lot of say on this subject. Many hundreds of small bands are self-managing and actually do a good job at it. The downside of this is that while they are spending hours and hours each week booking gigs, doing publicity and artwork and coping with the huge range of things that need to happen behind the scenes, they are not concentrating on music. Some bands have at least one member who demonstrates considerable excellence at undertaking most of the duties involved in good band management. No wishing to pre-empt my future article on band management, the biggest single fault in most of the bands have I have followed, is this lack of programming. I'll come back to that point another time.
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