Resurrection shuffle

As Queen step out on tour with Paul Rodgers at Freddie's mic-stand, Fiona Sturges explains why a singer's death needn't be the end of a band
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The Independent Culture

It is, it goes without saying, a tragedy when a singer dies before their time. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, premature death is an occupational hazard among rock stars, but what of their fellow musicians, the poor saps who are left behind? One minute, they're the toast of the town, the living embodiment of the rock'n'roll dream; the next, they're facing imminent obscurity and a trip to the DSS. Do they take the honourable way out and call it a day or make the best of things and soldier on?

It is, it goes without saying, a tragedy when a singer dies before their time. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, premature death is an occupational hazard among rock stars, but what of their fellow musicians, the poor saps who are left behind? One minute, they're the toast of the town, the living embodiment of the rock'n'roll dream; the next, they're facing imminent obscurity and a trip to the DSS. Do they take the honourable way out and call it a day or make the best of things and soldier on?

A change of singer can often spell disaster for a band. While guitarists and drummers are, in many cases, dispensable, it's the vocalist with whom the fans identify and who represents the brand name. Replace them and a band risks losing its identity for ever. One imagines the future of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was never in peril after the guitarist Hillel Slovak overdosed on heroin in the late Eighties. Ditto The Pretenders, after the death of the guitarist James Honeyman-Scott. Conversely, there was no question of Nirvana making music without Kurt Cobain or The Carpenters carrying on without Karen.

With that in mind, Queen's decision finally to replace Freddie Mercury, the most flamboyant front man in rock history, seems ill advised. As far as their fans are concerned, the band ceased to exist when Mercury died in 1991. Nevertheless, the remaining members, doubtless spurred by the success of the bewilderingly popular Queen musical We Will Rock You, have decided to hit the road for one more tour. Stepping into Mercury's diamante-studded catsuit is the conspicuously butch Paul Rodgers, the man who sang "All Right Now" with Free before fronting Bad Company. That the gigs sold out in a matter of hours shows that Queen's commercial instincts were on the mark, though the effect on their reputation remains to be seen.

The history of rock is littered with bands who refused to call it a day when the Grim Reaper came calling. Phil Lynott was the face of Thin Lizzy. He died from a drug overdose in the mid-Eighties, but the remaining members continued touring without him. Now, 20 years on, the line-up contains only one original member.

More absurd are INXS's attempts to replace Michael Hutchence. Terence Trent D'Arby, Jimmy Barnes and Jon Stevens have all stepped up to the mic in the past eight years, and now the band have decided to turn their search for a singer into a TV talent show. Due to be aired later this year, Rock Star, produced by the reality-TV titan Mark Burnett, is a 13-part series about their worldwide hunt for a front man, a tall order given that Hutchence was acknowledged as one of rock's most charismatic stars. The show may well have improved INXS's finances, but, by entering into such a farcical auditioning process, they have killed their credibility stone dead.

There are, of course, more reputable examples of a band moving onward and upward after the loss of a singer. Speed was clearly of the essence when it came to replacing the AC/DC singer Bon Scott after his death in 1980. Scott's larynx-lacerating vocals were the band's trademark throughout the Seventies, so when he drank himself into an early grave, it was assumed that the band had also reached the end of the road. But within two months, the remaining members had drafted in a new singer, Brian Johnson, whose gravelly voice and penchant for doubles entendres meant he was the perfect replacement. A month later, AC/DC recorded Back in Black, their best-selling album to date.

The 21st Century Doors, featuring two members of The Doors and the Cult singer and would-be shaman Ian Astbury filling Jim Morrison's snakeskin boots, also proved a successful touring proposition in 2003. But singers don't necessarily have to be six feet under to be traded in. Internecine warfare within Motley Crüe led to the singer Vince Neil being dumped in favour of John Corabi. But, after a catastrophic tour in which the band played to half-empty stadiums, the bassist Nikki Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee went grovelling back to Neil.

There are the rare occasions, however, when a band has prospered after parting company with their most influential member. Pink Floyd survived the departure of not one but two founder members, Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, a turn of events that their manager Peter Jenner described "like the Stones losing Mick Jagger, twice".

Van Halen's career managed to stay on track when they replaced the singer Dave Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar and his identical haircut, and Genesis's decision to use their drummer, Phil Collins, after Peter Gabriel left proved their greatest career move. And when Judas Priest's singer, Rob Halford, was replaced in the Eighties by Tim "Ripper" Owens, the lead singer from a Judas Priest tribute band, the band went from strength to strength.

In manufactured bands, if one member goes, the rest must follow. The Spice Girls' fortunes took a downward slide as soon as Geri Halliwell departed, and Take That were consigned to the bargain bucket the minute Robbie Williams went Awol. Even Hear'Say couldn't manage without Kym Marsh.

Perhaps the most honourable route for a band when they lose one of their own is to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. After the suicide of Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook began New Order, now one of the most fêted bands of the era.

Queen with Paul Rodgers play Brixton Academy, London SW9, tonight

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