Baby, baby, bay-BEE!...The greatest sreaming singers

Sometimes a singer just can't resist unleashing an almighty, no-holds-barred, throat-scraping, take-no-prisoners scream. Anthony Quinn selects his favourite lung-busters

Supine in the dentist's chair recently and trying to distract myself from the squeal of his drill, I fell to pondering the scream – one of music's least discussed vocal signatures. When I think of my favourite moments in pop and rock, it's surprising quite how many of them can be distilled to a singer throwing his or her head back and letting rip a lung-bursting scream. I'm not talking about wailing, or yelling – any buffoon can do that. Screaming is a skill, a test of the vocal range that can be purely enlivening, even ennobling. It can take a sung note – of pain, of rage, of entreaty, of untrammelled joy – to a higher plane, an abrupt, piercing shock that transforms the moment dramatically. It's a delicate and volatile substance. Like chilli in a sauce, a little of it goes a long way.

I've never had much time for the glass-shattering sound of the opera diva. The technique of it is impressive but still sounds to me like showing off, a bit like being able to hold your breath under water. The scream is something to be practised sparingly: too much and you end up wanting to stuff socks down the singer's throat. Yoko Ono, who once practised scream therapy, unwisely transferred it to performance. Her screaming on "Don't Worry Kyoko" – about the daughter she was trying to get back from her first husband – is, more or less, unendurable.

The following list, is a salute to 10 of pop music's great screams. It is an entirely personal selection. You may have your own favourites – these are mine.

'SHORE LEAVE'

Tom Waits

From his transitional and marvellous 1983 album Swordfishtrombones, this offbeat tone poem tells the story of a lonely sailor mooching around an Eastern port, like a refugee from a Conrad novel, and wondering "how the same moon outside over this Chinatown fair/ could look down on Illinois/ and find you there". The stalking marimbas seem to be fading out when, in a bizarre coda, Waits – no stranger to vocal mannerisms in the 25 years since – quietly sobs/screams the title words over and over, like a cat lost in a junkyard at the dead of night. It takes the song to a whole other level of magnificent strangeness.



'DO ME, BABY'

Prince

Prince has always shown a talent for screaming – there's a real lung-buster in the middle of "Purple Rain" – and this slow-tempo come-on, from his infamous satyr-in-satin-underpants phase of the early 1980s, is perhaps rivalled only by his "It's Gonna Be Lonely". At 2:46 minutes in, the last word of the line "I just want you so bad... so" takes off into the spheres, with Prince experiencing a moment of erotic abandon.



'I FEEL FOR YOU'

Chaka Khan

Prince wrote this song, of course, and sang it on his first album, way back in 1979, but it was Chaka Khan who made it famous. Revved up by Arif Mardin's whizzy production, with rimshots ricocheting off every surface, the song was played almost by law at discos in 1983-84. Just listen to the way she has two passes at the note before nailing it on the third go (time 4:34) – not quite a scream, either, just a beautifully modulated high note. Great female screams are quite scarce, it seems. Joplin does a good one at the end of "Piece of My Heart", but the song itself is draggy and repetitious. I listened carefully to favourites –Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro – but found nothing suitable. Do women singers simply have better self-control?

Watch Chaka Khan's video for 'I Feel For You'







'LOVE IS THE ANSWER'

Todd Rundgren

I owe a debt here to Giles Smith, whose magisterial essay on Rundgren in his memoir Lost in Music first alerted me to this formative moment. This pop hymn originates from his experimental sideline outfit Utopia, on their 1977 album Oops! Wrong Planet, and features one of those gospel clap-along endings that would usually make me duck for cover. This being Todd, however, he sings over the crescendo like a man possessed, and on the line "If you need a friend" his voice cracks into an impassioned scream (time 3:02) the likes of which could probably never be repeated: believe me, I've tried.



'YER BLUES'

The Beatles

Was Lennon the Great White Screamer? He made an early bid for the title with his terrific dancehall howling on "Twist and Shout", and later on Plastic Ono Band he screamed over the closing moments of "Mother" to alarming effect. Unlike his wife, he had an instinct for what you could get away with. I think he reached his apogee on "Yer Blues" (from The White Album), "a gutbucket 6/4 blues in E" as Ian Macdonald describes it in Revolution in the Head, his half-satirical, half-desperate vocal bursting out on the final refrain, "Wanna die... YEAH-EAH-EAGH wanna die..." He sang it again with the Plastic Ono Band on Live Peace in Toronto 1969, by which point he probably had more than enough screaming at home.

'SOMEBODY SPECIAL'

Bobby Womack

With James Brown gone, Bobby Womack can truly claim to be the Great Soul Survivor. Brown would perhaps feature in many a Best Ten Screams list, but his stuff still leaves me rather cold – too strident, too boastful, too familiar. Womack, aside from an illustrious past that includes collaborating with The Stones, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett, has one of the greatest voices in R&B. But he also has a kind of humility, as this 1968 song shows. The husky, pleading tone, which eventually breaks out into a stuttered scream (at 2:14 and 2:29) sounds almost as if he's about to be sick with longing. "There ain't no harm to moan sometime"... Or, indeed, to scream.



'(YOU CAUGHT ME) SMILIN'

Sly and The Family Stone

Womack also played guitar on Sly Stone's seminal 1971 There's a Riot Goin' On, from which this is taken. Stone's voice is extraordinary on this album; disinhibited by drugs, he swoops crazily up and down (and occasionally off) the register, stretching and bending notes until they practically beg for mercy. This loose-limbed, bubbling, funk squib is by no means the strongest track on it, and his voice now and again distorts by being too close to the microphone, but at 1:42 minutes it soars, gloriously, into the ether – no matter the relative inconsequence of the remainder. You want to hear that scream again.



'CHILD IN TIME'

Deep Purple

Heavy rock has done more to discredit the scream than any other musical genre. A wine-dealer friend of mine, who's also a heavy-metal freak, insisted that Rob Halford's screams on Judas Priest's "Victim of Changes" should be on this list, but one listen had me reaching for the ear-muffs. The spandex-wearing posturers who front these bands have turned screaming into a joke, apparent as long ago as This is Spinal Tap. "Child in Time" is afflicted with the generic faults – po-faced solemnity, extravagant length – yet Ian Gillan's screams are incontrovertibly musical even as the song spirals into absurdity. There's a proper vocal concentration there.



'THESE THINGS'

Robert Cray

The command and reach of Cray's vocal on the Midnight Stroll album is staggering. This track, bolstered by its ringing guitar riff and ominous Hammond organ, unfolds a familiar story of romantic indignation ("You're gonna miss me," he warns, "one of these old days") and builds to such a pitch that by the last verse he's positively steaming. The identical double scream, at 3:24 and 3:28, unleashes a blast of pent-up grievance that will have his loved one immediately calling for security.



'TOO MUCH HEAVEN'

The Bee Gees

The brothers Gibb practically invented the male falsetto, and this misty-eyed ode comes from a period when their voices were indeed reaching towards an almost celestial perfection. The Bee Gees touch the parts other lyricists can't, and perhaps would rather not – "Love is such a beautiful thing", they warble – but you'd pardon the cheesiness for the honey of those harmonies. The screams on this one aren't markedly more accomplished than those on "Tragedy" or "Stayin' Alive" – by the end they're just freestyling falsettos, the way other men crack their knuckles. They're still going strong over the fade: fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and The Bee Gees just carry on screaming.

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?