Saturday, November 10, 2012

Popstar 101: Solo Acts Aren't Always Better Off Alone

Solitude, like silence, is golden, but in music it doesn't always yield gold and platinum rewards. If you're used to being part of a group, and fans are accustomed to seeing you that way, too, going solo can be risky. Even if you manage to scrounge up a hit or three on your own, Peter Cetera and Steve Perry style, chances are you'll still end up crouching in the shadow of your former band, Peter Cetera, and Steve Perry style.

There's commercial -- and sometimes creative -- safety in numbers. That might be why Chrissie Hynde has never released an album that wasn't a Pretenders effort, even if in name only. And why Bobby Brown keeps going back to New Edition? Why a singer as accomplished as Jennifer Warnes is better known for her collaborations with others -- Joe Cocker (1982's No. 1 Oscar-wining "Up Where We Belong"), Bill Medley (1987's No. 1 Oscar-winning "[I've Had] the Time of My Life") and Leonard Cohen (numerous albums, including 1984's Various Positions) -- and not her own formidable solo output (which included the 1977 No. 6 hit "Right Time of the Night" and the barely known 1979 Oscar-winning Norma Rae track "It Goes Like It Goes").

Why Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton sounded even better in near-perfect harmony together (on 1987's Trio) than they did at the top of their games apart (on 1974's Heart Like a Wheel, 1977's Luxury Liner and 1999's The Grass Is Blue, respectively). Or why the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, like New Edition, remain bigger draws than any of the solo projects they spawned. And don't get me started on Duran Duran, whose four spin-offs acts -- Arcadia, Power Station and one-Top 40 hit wonders John and Andy Taylor -- were no match for the main attraction.

Leonard Cohen featuring Jennifer Warnes "If It Be Your Will"

Steve Perry will go down in history as the voice behind Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," not his own "If Only for a Moment Girl," one of his strongest ballads and track 2 on the 1985 We Are the World album. I adore Gwen Stefani and Fergie, but even at the height of their solo success, it was hard not to think of them in the context of No Doubt and the Black Eyed Peas, respectively, possibly because both wisely held on to her day job.

Some singers become so synonymous with the group to which they belong, that it becomes nearly impossible to separate one from the other. My friend Rodrigo recently spotted a celebrity lookalike and referred to him as Simply Red, unaware that he meant Mick Hucknall, Simply Red's lead singer, for whom the band ultimately became what was essentially a Hucknall solo project under the same name, and who has since taken Rod Stewart's place as the lead singer of a reunited Faces. Oh, and since we're on the subject of silky smooth '80s Britsoul acts that outlived that decade, Sade is the band, not just Sade Adu, its lead singer.

Steve Perry "If Only for a Moment Girl"

Rare is the bandmate-turned-lone ranger who manages relative longevity on the charts, becoming famous in his or her own right, without any immediate band affiliation in our minds. Today Eric Clapton is better known as Eric Clapton than as a former member of the Yardbirds, Cream, Derek and the Dominos and Blind Faith, which featured fellow multi-band member-turned-solo superstar Steve Winwood. Who besides rock critics, rock historians, baby boomers and Mick Hucknall remembers that Rod Stewart was once the lead singer of Faces? And many Patti LaBelle fans might not even realize that before she was in LaBelle, she was in Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles.

Perhaps it was easier for them to branch out from their group roots and prosper because Eric Clapton's former bands were all so short-lived, Stewart launched his Faces' and solo recording careers concurrently, and both of LaBelle's former acts bore her name -- Adam Ant/Adam and the Ants style. In a sense, there was never any real shadow from which they had to emerge. Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever was a huge hit in 1989, but was it really much different from a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, in sound and in credits? Nearly all of the Heartbreakers appeared on it.

Tom Petty "Running Down a Dream"

The former Beatles, Lionel Richie, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins enjoyed successful solo careers that in some cases (Richie's and Collins'), outshined their former bands commercially. With John Lennon and Paul McCartney, in particular, new classics were launched, while Sting's 1987 Album of the Year Grammy nominee ...Nothing Like the Sun is still the best thing he's ever done. But Lennon and McCartney will forever be first and foremost known as Beatles, and who would be a bigger concert draw today: Sting or the Police?

For every Paul Simon, Paul Weller, Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet, George Michael, Belinda Carlisle, Bjork, Wynonna Judd and Cher, there are stalled former Temptations, two Bee Gees (Barry and Robin Gibb, despite sporadic attempts, never quite took off as solo acts), Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, Gladys Knight, Peter Wolf, Vince Neil, Tommy Lee, James "J.T." Taylor, Susannah Hoffs, Jane Wiedlin, Daryl Hall, Andy Bell and so many more, including, sadly, Daniel Ash, Róisín Murphy, Richard Ashcroft and Tracey Thorn, all four of whom have released fine solo albums that failed to meet the commercial standards of their work with their respective groups. Meanwhile, ELO's Jeff Lynne, the Cars' Rick Ocasek, Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, 4 Non Blondes' Linda Perry, and Barry Gibb found their solo success not as recording artists but behind the scenes, as producers and/or songwriters.

Barry Gibb "Shine, Shine"

Robbie Williams is the only member of Take That to enjoy sustained solo success in the UK, but now he's back in the boy band. Morrissey aside, rockers from the punk/post-punk era on have done best after leaving one ensemble by forming another one: John Lydon of Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd, Mick Jones of the Clash and Big Audio Dynamite, Bernard Sumner of Joy Division, New Order and Electronic (the latter of which featured Johnny Marr, previously Morrissey's cohort in the Smiths), Daniel Ash of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses and Belly, Kim Deal of Pixies and Breeders, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, and and on the poppier side, Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Erasure, and Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama and Shakespears Sister.

This doesn't bode well for the solo prospects of Michael Stipe, R.E.M.'s former lead singer, who has done tons of guest appearances over the years but, to my knowledge, has never released anything on his own. On the other hand, Jack White did score his first No. 1 album in the U.S. with April's solo Blunderbuss. But one year from now, he'll still be best known and most highly regarded for his work with Meg White in White Stripes. Maybe Stipe should give him a call...

Neneh Cherry featuring Michael Stipe "Trout"

And then there's Justin Timberlake, as much a rarity among bandmates-turned-solo superstars as he is among ex-teen heartthrobs. It's hard to imagine he would be a movie star today had he not extricated himself from the other four at the height of 'N Sync mania to go solo. Even if he never records another note of music -- his last studio album was 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds -- he'll go down in pop history as one of the greatest artists of this millennium based just on his brief period of musical activity post-Celebrity ('N Sync's final album).

Is there any doubt that his name on the record is the reason why "4 Minutes," his 2008 duet with Madonna, was a Top 5 hit. Speaking of which, before "4 Minutes," Madonna had never previously released a collaboration from one of her own albums as a single. Now she can't seem to get into the Top 10 without hitching her aging star to a younger one (like Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. on "Give Me All Your Luvin'").

Justin Timberlake "Senorita"

In some ways, Timberlake is the new Diana Ross, also speaking of former group members who soared solo. Ross is one of the few pop acts to score a No. 1 single and be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, both of which happened after she left the Supremes. But as much as I love me some solo Ross, and although her run of singles from 1980's "Upside Down" to 1985's "Chain Reaction" is as sturdy as anyone else's during that same period, it's her work with the Supremes for which she's best remembered. It's why she's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and if I were banished to a deserted island with only one Ross-associated CD for musical company, it would be one of the Supremes' definitive collections.

Diana Ross "Pieces of Ice"

Actually, I'd rather go there with something by Robert Plant, a frontman-turned-solo star who finally won the Album of the Year Grammy (an honor that eluded Led Zeppelin, his former band, which was never even nominated in the category, or any other besides 1970's Best New Artist contest, which it lost to Crosby, Stills & Nash, a classic example of a band whose sum was greater than its solo parts) for Raising Sand, his 2007 collaboration with Allison Krauss. Maybe it's because I was too young to really appreciate Led Zeppelin until after the fact, but I'd rather listen to Plant's solo output from 1982's Pictures at Eleven to 1993's Fate of Nations than any of his albums with Led Zeppelin, the sound of which he wisely never tried to reproduce on his own. But that's just me. In the general scheme of things, how do you top Led Zeppelin?

Robert Plant "In the Mood"

Which brings us to Destiny's Child, the reason why I began writing this post in the first place. Am I the only one who totally misses them? I might be the only living gay man who's never really warmed up to Beyoncé Knowles solo. She's a great singer and an even better entertainer, but she always fails to move me. Perhaps it's because she appears to be more concerned with putting on a dazzling show than connecting with her songs emotionally, the way someone like Adele always seems to do when she's onstage. She had the same shortcoming in Destiny's Child, but Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams grounded her, kept her from flying off into those fits of diva frenzy.

Beyoncé and Kelly have both had their solo moments, but the best thing about Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and Kelly's "Motivation" were their videos, not the songs themselves. Rowland still hasn't really caught on as a solo artist (her latest single, "Ice," has been frozen over for three weeks at its No. 100 peak on Billboard's Hot 100), and interest in Beyoncé's solo output has recently waned. It might be time that she return to her spot between Kelly and Michelle. Despite all that talk about autonomy on Destiny's Child's "Independent Women," we could all use another "Soldier" -- the song and the guy -- right about now.

Destiny's Child "Soldier"


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