The Dying Art of Being a Frontman

"Gone are the days where individuals’ stage presence could transcend genre and make them national heroes..."

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Image courtesy of Stefan Brending (Wikimedia Commons)

By now we’ve all watched the video of Liam Gallagher making a cup of tea at a festival, talking about the differences since he was touring with Oasis about 70 times, but the re-emergence of Liam Gallagher as a force in current music has highlighted other changes in the face of British groups since Oasis. The most significant, but possibly overlooked, of these is the distinct lack of a ‘traditional frontman’ persona in today’s music scene.

 

In the days of Oasis and before, you weren’t really able to start a band unless you had a central figure to hold the attention of the audience on stage and off it. If you look at the massive bands from yesteryear this is true, as if most people were asked to name a member of The Doors, The Police, Red Hot Chilli Peppers or The Sex Pistols, of course they’d be able to tell you about Van Morrison, Sting, Mick Jagger and Johnny Rotten; but after that the majority would begin to struggle.

In this sense, being a frontman tends to mean being the vocalist and the face of the band in the media. Most of them, such as Gallagher and Jagger for instance, didn’t play instruments or write the songs. This meant their job was essentially to look cool on stage and perform someone else’s music (although admittedly, they did a brilliant job); which gave them the time to be true ‘rock and roll stars’, partying, taking drugs and causing media storms.

The central figures in bands nowadays tend to be identifiable only by being the vocalists, rather than just another band member; and memorable for their music rather than their antics away from the stage. Gone are the days where individuals’ stage presence could transcend genre and make them national heroes, most are more concerned with the music or known for their individuality (in terms of voice or fashion), never a mix of the two. As there isn’t really a massive star to compare to, I’m going to illustrate using examples from my favourite bands: Vann McCann of Catfish and the Bottlemen and Keiran Shuddall of Circa Waves are the creative force in their respective bands when it comes to song-writing. Matty Healy from The 1975 and Oscar Lulu from Sundara Karma are both most identifiable for their unconventional appearance and character. These frontmen are typically only known by their fans, not the wider music community like their earlier counterparts.

What these all have in common is their distinctive vocals, suggesting that to be a successful frontman you need this and one other positive or identifiable aspect or skill. This is very far from the full-package (minus instrumental ability) and cool, commanding character and exciting social life that you had to have in order to work as a frontman in a successful band back in the days of ‘rock ‘n’ roll’.

The generation of bands that started in the 1990’s was probably the last to be inspired to be this image of a frontman: as can be seen by Gallagher and Oasis, Bono in U2 and to an extent Chris Martin in Coldplay and Damon Albarn in Blur. At this point, being in a band became less popular – being labelled ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ – whilst pop and rap music was taking over from rock ‘n’ roll as the natural choice of the youth. This meant that kids listening to music, who couldn’t play instruments, could become performers as soloists in their own right, not needing a band behind them.

This issue has been exacerbated by the rise of TV talent shows, limiting opportunities for bands to try out (on The X Factor, they can’t) and grouping weaker vocalists together, implicitly placing inferiority on those in bands – discouraging people from getting into bands. This creates a lack of bands and this has meant that ‘indie and alternative’ music has become even more niche than its label suggests. Such a lack of bands has changed the goalposts in the genre to mean that the achievements of Oasis and The Rolling Stones will never be matched or topped, and therefore frontmen now don’t have an opportunity to grow their reputation or stature to the levels of their forebears – whether they are more rounded musicians or not.

 

Some would say that the industry is better off without such an arrogant and divisive figure, but it can rarely be argued that Liam Gallagher’s talent is anything other than remarkable and that his antics are often dramatic and entertaining. In my opinion, he is the best frontman ever.