What makes a good frontman? Is it presence, persona or plucking out chords? Or is it simply a little bit of everything? Here is my countdown of the 10 greatest rock and roll frontmen ever!
Of course we had to have Farrokh Bulsara (aka The Killer Queen) on the list. His vocal bravado and seamless transition between rhapsodising and warming up the crowd made him a hero to millions. The moustachioed singer of Queen strutted around the 1970s and 1980s with his stage aura and has been often imitated, but rarely bettered.[video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgzGwKwLmgM]
Just listen to his performance of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, a real go-getting mix of energy and story-telling. Under pressure, he’s probably my number one. His legacy is almost as big as his celebrity, his death from an AIDS-related illness raised the profile and awareness of the debilitating disease.
One of my all-time heroes. The snarling, sneering singer of The Clash in his signature stance – electric leg like he’s plugged into the mains, pneumatic drill arm strumming out the chords of punk-rock and his sweaty, one-hundred percent commitment to being a rock and roll star. Famously the son of a diplomat, John Mellor (his birth name) became the spokesman for a generation of adolescents wanting action, a voice and something to call their own. His untimely death at the age of just 50 in 2002 brought an end to a great career at the forefront of the alternative rock scene.
The enigmatic face of The Stone Roses, Ian Brown was another that became a revolutionary rock icon for the ‘scallydelia’ generation. With pills, dance music and decay becoming the pulse of late eighties Manchester, the Roses took all of these elements, added in some baggy beats and bucket hats and turned it into their masterpiece of a debut album. Brown was the spiky and opinionated voice of Northern swagger, the middleman between ecstasy culture and good, old-fashioned guitar bands. If you can find footage of the Roses live in Blackpool in 1989, watch it.
Where would rock and roll be without the huge contribution of The Beatles as a whole and the confident, arrogant role that John Lennon played? To some he is a demi-god of musical spirit, to others he’s an overrated and over-confident parody of a rockstar with too much money. Whichever side you’re on, there is no denying that without Lennon’s laser-beam ambition to be a genius, British music could still be stuck in the skiffle age. Not forgetting his writing partnership with Paul McCartney, the band were as iconic as they were talented and there really is one song that defines John Lennon – ‘Imagine’.[video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRhq-yO1KN8]
You might think this is a bit of a squeeze, but under his guise as Ziggy Stardust he was a frontman of the Spiders From Mars. What can be said about Bowie that hasn’t already? Always changing his style, always changing his identity, making music and making waves by being shocking and gutsy. From Ziggy to the Thin White Duke, to the Goblin King and just plain old David he became a legendary figure. Dressing like a half-alien, half-woman in the early part of the 1970s was a massive thing to do and Bowie’s legacy saw glam rock, tight trousers and men caked in the Body Shop’s finest facepaint.
Folk hero, Rastafarian idol, Jamaican legend. Bob Marley is one of the most famous and influential singers of all-time. I know what some people are thinking, reggae is hardly rock and roll, but it is the music of rebellion. The voice of the Caribbean who fought long and hard for equal rights, before his untimely death that still has conspiracy theories attached to it. Marley bemoaned the ‘concrete jungles’, searching to find his redemption song via the three little birds. His struggle against oppression and faith were the perfect backdrop to his music. Along with his band, The Wailers, he created a legacy that inspired millions and is still the most famous reggae singer in the world, 35 years after his death.
The uniquely pitched rock singer from West Bromwich was part of one of the most explosive and talented partnerships in rock and roll history – his voice and the guitar of Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Take nothing away from the other two members (Bonzo and JP Jones) but Plant was the cog that powered Zeppelin to their early 1970s heyday.[video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHFxncb1gRY]
The lilting and lolloping ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is, arguably, one of the greatest songs ever written and Plant’s delivery of his Lord of the Rings inspired songs made their brand of heavy rock stand out from the industrial metal that they emerged from (Black Sabbath etc). Still touring with the band, Plant has always been a force to be reckoned with.
I know a few people who would moan if I didn’t include the swaggering Mancunian with the nasal voice. As the frontman of Oasis, he forged a rock and roll legacy for brawling, bickering and blustering, but behind that comes a voice of a generation. The mid 1990s, synonymous with Britpop, were heady times for Oasis. Liam, and brother Noel, became the most famous siblings in the world with their Beatles-inspired tunes, carving out a career with anthemic guitar rock. All of this with Liam Gallagher’s distinctive Manc monotone, set the tone for a sweeping change in British music during that crazy decade of the nineteen-nineties. I just can’t help but think (unpopular opinion perhaps) that he is scraping onto this list.
How could we not have the Grandad of rock in the list? I watch the Glastonbury highlights a few years ago and Jagger was still strutting his shoe leather like it’s the sixties all over again. The jerking Jagger moves and distinctive voice made the Rolling Stones the ideal challenger to The Beatles during the days of the Swinging Sixties. In a career spanning more than fifty years, he has become one of the most respected and inspirational rock singers in history. Even if he is moving into septuagenarian age of his life, he is still swaggering and performing on the top of his game. How many of the current generation of ‘stars’ will still be doing it when they’re seventy?
The distinctive voice of The Smiths frontman, Steven Morrissey is another of those faces that some loathe and some love. There must be a reason why Manchester produces great bands? With his punk ethos and melancholy discography, he became a massive influence for Britpop and ‘Madchester’ simply for being different. Rising out of the city’s post-punk culture, Morrissey, a former Inland Revenue worker, hit the heights of stardom with both his prickly personality and his slice-of-life lyrics. All you need is ‘How Soon is Now?’ by The Smiths as your starting point. You’ll get it.[video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEq8DBxm0J4]
Agree or disagree, these ten frontmen are definitely some of the most influential and iconic faces in Britain’s post-war popular culture. From the advent of rock and roll and the Teddy boys right the way past the explosion of punk and the rise of club culture, the Britpop years and into the twenty-first century, these are the people that are remembered.
Who are your favourite rock and roll frontmen? Let us know in the comments below!