“Caught in the Act” — Styx, 1984

“Rock operas” aren’t thin on the ground by any means, but with one exception these attempts uniformly fall short. Rock is generally focused on the instruments, often lead guitar and drums. Their heros are “axes” and “skins” as they call them, and the job of singing is all too often left to the one member of the band who sounds least bad, or else it’s shared around democratically like an unfortunate chore. At best, voices are often considered a “chick thing” or else somewhat cheap and commercial.

Because of this, the rock opera is often a contradiction, since an opera isn’t quite a “play in music” despite its initial characterization as such in Peri and Monteverdi’s day. Opera is a play in voice — not just a musical story but specifically a sung one. The voice must be at the heart of the music, and few rock bands have made the musical choice to put a voice at their centers, with limited exceptions.

One of those exceptions was the popular rock band Styx during the 1970s and 1980s, which boasted not only excellent songwriters and musicians, but a lead singer with a strong, high voice and some charisma, and a very strong bent toward glitzy theater. Taken together with a healthy dose of melodrama, these qualities resulted in (in my humble opinion) the only rock opera to truly achieve operatic status even without sung recitative, “Kilroy Was Here.” It’s not a perfect work by any means — any more than Peri’s “Euridice” was in 1600. And lead singer Dennis DeYoung’s voice, while excellent for rock, does not approach either the hall-filling power and icy purity of Freddie Mercury nor the baritone-like belt and near-obsessive refusal to go off the center of the note of Steve Perry.

It is, however, a clear third in the triumvirate of Rock Altinos, the old-school countertenors using the pre-Alfred Deller definition of men who sing in the alto register in a full and natural chest voice (or nearly in DeYoung’s case, more of a half-and-half along the lines of Art Garfunkel than a true natural male alto). A pretty, clean instrument with good penetration and ring, DeYoung’s voice and his love of the concept album (the spiritual inheritor of Baroque opera) goes a long way to making “Kilroy” succeed where most other rock operas have failed to make a dent. Good pieces of work they may be; I know many people who love “Tommy,” and much of the music from it is excellent. But “opera” isn’t quite the right word for it.

For many people my age, the story of Kilroy is one the broad strokes of which we know already: rock singer Robert Kilroy (full name: Robert Orin Charles Kilroy, or R.O.C.K.) was framed for murder and put in jail by a totalitarian government determined to do away with rock music. It’s important to keep in mind that, at the time, many rock bands were feeling a bit persecuted during the heyday of evangelical types insisting that they had found backward satanic messages inserted in the songs of most popular bands (and uncertain of the legal ramifications of any potential legislative action). The inoffensive Styx was among the top targets for this sort of accusation.

A young rebel named Jonathan Chance (lead guitarist Tommy Shaw) intercepts coded messages from Kilroy after the latter escapes from jail, and the two meet at the eponymous Paradise Theater where Kilroy recounts the tragic tale to Chance. Midway through the story, the scene shifts to a live performance, and the band whose history we are following becomes simply Styx in concert.

The conclusion, with Kilroy bequeathing a guitar to Chance and a reprise of the well-known “Mr. Roboto,” is played out before the concert audience itself, which has become part of the story.

The general plot is as loose and campy as any during the heyday of Baroque opera, and the artifice fades away completely during the concert, reasserting itself periodically. The musicianship is excellent, and with the exception of Shaw who was not pleased with the theatrical direction that the band had taken, the other band members throw themselves enthusiastically into their assigned parts, with the brothers Panozzo playing both prisoners and brownshirted thugs and guitarist James Young as the face of censorship, the dictator Dr. Righteous.

Just as in the heyday of the surgically altered high male voice though, the vocal soloist is at center stage for most of the story (although he does not dominate the concert unduly). It’s this that makes “Kilroy Was Here” most like the operas that it takes after. Again, DeYoung’s is not a trained voice in an operatic sense, but it’s a clear, pretty instrument with respectable power and the range necessary to turn heads. And it’s not every day — certainly not in the world of classical voice! — where the owner of a respectable voice is also a gifted composer with an innate sense of storytelling.

The music consists of the hits that most people today recognize from the album itself plus several from previous albums such as the infectious “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Snowblind,” an anti-drug anthem that was ironically one of the songs said to contain masked nefarious backwards messages. (DeYoung replied to the accusation with the acerbic comment that the band already had its hands full making the music sound right forwards.)

The entire short film, taken from what is obviously an old analog source sadly and thus with all the image quality of an old VHS tape, can be found along with the concert that it leads into on the DVD “Caught in the Act,” together with many promotional videos for older songs by the band before the days when such things were called “music videos” and made to be widely broadcast. The entire package is a great look into the high water mark of an excellent rock band as well as a tantalizing peek into what the world of opera might truly have felt like two and a half centuries ago to audiences in the pit and pigeon loft at the Teatro di San Carlo on Carnival night. Kilroy’s entrance and dramatic reveal would have been the envy of Marchesi and Caffarelli, and every librettist in Italy would have been rushing home to their quills and paper to pen stories of mechanical men and martyred musicians in a world where the government exerted infinitely more control over artistic expression than any rock band could ever have imagined.

The most brilliant contemporary musicians you’ve never heard of

The Wrecking Crew — web site for the yet-unreleased documentary film

American Heritage article on the Wrecking Crew

I’m often impatient with lovers of classical music and voice who seem to hold contemporary music, including the best pop and rock, in contempt as a lower form. Critics are often terrible this way, audiences slightly less so — and performers not at all. The best classical and operatic performers know the best music when they hear it no matter the genre as many of them were inspired themselves by pop songs or musical theater, and nearly all of the best contemporary vocalists and instrumentalists are classically or at least formally taught. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, a master of downright disturbing alternative music, was formally trained as a pianist, and is an excellent one. Not the easy stuff, either — the finger-fracturing Liszt was his composer of choice. Virtuoso rock guitarist Neal Schon grew up in a household with a formally jazz-trained father and a music teacher mother. Bubblegum pop singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka is a Juillard graduate and an award-winning classical pianist who was once barred from a classical competition in the old USSR since, as a pop singer, he was considered illegitimate and tainted. Rock vocalist and 80s hitmaker Pat Benatar was the daughter of a woman who sang in the chorus of the New York City Opera and originally trained for opera, and it shows in both the power and the longevity of her voice. And these four people are only the tip of a very large, very ignored, iceberg.

And whether some classical music lovers want to admit it or not, some of the finest performers in the history of recorded music have appeared on some of the most well-known pop and rock pieces that every single one of us knows by heart.

Many of these performers were members of what has since become known as the Wrecking Crew, a group of (well-compensated) studio musicians, nearly all of whom were formally trained in classical or jazz music, and who were known as the “go-to” group for just about anyone during the 1960s and 70s who wanted to record a song but who didn’t have the band to go with it — or who needed a band so tight and talented that they could get it right the first time from beginning to end in the days before ProTools, cut-and-paste, and infinite multitracking. They backed everyone and played everything. They were the Tijuana Brass and the Wall of Sound.

Legitimate vocal soloists often fall into the category of people in search of a nameless band, but there are also a lot of openly “fake” bands (the Monkees and the Partridge Family, for example) who nevertheless released real music. Sure, the bands in the photos were fake, but someone was playing that music. Even if the Monkees weren’t actually singing or playing, I’m a Believer is one of the catchiest, most charming pop songs in the last few decades, as are most of songwriter Neil Diamond’s hits, and we have the astonishing gifts of the Wrecking Crew to thank for it and so many others. Taken together, the loosely-defined group of between 10 and 30 men (and one woman, brilliant bass guitarist Carol Kaye) brought to life more #1 hits than Elvis and the Beatles combined.

One of the anchors for the group was the ubiquitous and almost entirely unknown guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Three decades after his father and some 30 other people created what amounts to “the soundtrack to our lives,” his son Denny has created a documentary film describing the breathtaking achievement of these musicians.

It’s important to understand the true nature of this film’s revelation. The shock isn’t that major stars weren’t playing their own instruments. (Although it may stun you to learn that, during the recording of the legendary Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds,” producer Brian Wilson was the only Beach Boy in the studio. The rest? The Wrecking Crew of course.) Neither Simon nor Garfunkel was a drummer, and yet there were drums on their music. It stands to reason that they hired a session drummer for their albums.

The shock is that, for over twenty years worth of music hits, nearly all of which we know by heart, it was the same couple drummers.

The crashing-surf drums in the reprise of “Bridge Over Troubled Water?” That kicky intro to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby?” That gorgeous thump-thump-thump that anchors Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey?” Yep. Hal Blaine. He can claim up to thirty-five thousand recording sessions, a string of 40 #1 hits, 350 top tens, and six consecutive Records of the Year. Like Lou Gehrig’s record, his may never be surpassed. His skin-bashing colleagues were named Earl Palmer and Jim Gordon. (Ever heard “Classical Gas?” Earl. And by the way, he was also behind jazz composer Lalo Schifrin’s 5/4 masterpiece, known to anyone with a pulse, the “Mission: Impossible” theme. Palmer did not keep track of his hits as closely as Blaine did, which is a pity as he is probably the only other human being who could approach, meet, or surpass Blaine’s record.)

Fine, John Phillips did not play that exquisite guitar opening to “California Dreamin’.” In a cynical age, that will surprise no one. What will surprise is learning that the same man (Tommy Tedesco) played not only that, but the well-known riffs from the “Green Acres” and “Bonanza” themes, as well as literally countless others that we would all recognize instantly.

That is this film’s revelation. This isn’t a cynical, tell-all expose of the Ugly Truth Behind the Contemporary Music Industry. This movie seeks only to reveal that over a decade of music, massive in scope and known by heart to anyone who speaks English worldwide, was brought to life by the same people.

The documentary about this extraordinary group of musicians has yet to be picked up for a theatrical release. Please visit the documentary website and learn a bit about them, and what can be done to shed some light on some of the world’s most gifted and hardworking contemporary musicians, who have brought all of us so very much joy.

Be sure to sign up for the e-mail DVD updates as the figures from such signups will be used to prove the existence of an audience to the powers that be, who can decide whether this extraordinary little film will see a general theatrical release. As a bonus, you will gain access to a selection of outtakes from the film itself.

Speaking highly personally, I was stunned to learn that the following pieces of music — many of which reside in my iTunes and which I and countless other have loved all my life — were all performed by the same people. Listen to them again. You will be hearing them as they truly are for the first time in your life, and you’ve probably heard them all your life. Note the unimaginable breadth of styles. And remind yourself that they were all played by the same people:

  • “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin'” — the Mamas & the Papas
  • “A Little Less Conversation” — Elvis Presley
  • “Mission: Impossible” theme song
  • “Up, Up, and Away” — The 5th Dimension
  • “Good Vibrations” — The Beach Boys
  • “Close to You” — The Carpenters
  • “You Send Me” — Sam Cooke
  • “Come On Get Happy” — The Partridge Family
  • “Everybody Loves Somebody” — Dean Martin
  • “River Deep, Mountain High” — Ike and Tina Turner
  • “Hawaii 5-0” theme song
  • “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” — Nancy Sinatra
  • “Mrs. Robinson” — Simon & Garfunkel
  • “Half-Breed” and “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” — Cher
  • “The Pink Panther Theme” — Henry Mancini
  • “Classical Gas” — Mason Williams
  • “A Taste of Honey” — Herb Alpert
  • “Windy” — The Association

In terms not only of popularity but the vast gulf between the various styles, even this tiny sampling of their catalogue is staggering. Ike & Tina Turner, and Henry Mancini? Suggest that to most professional musicians, and they would gape. Take roughly thirty of some of the most gifted musicians in the world, work them together day in and day out, unpredictably tossing every genre of music at them known to humanity for decades, and much more is possible.

In fact, I have a suggestion for any readers. I’ve gone to YouTube and (my apologies to those who are sensitive to copyright issues) created a playlist of all but one of the above pieces of music brought to life by members of the Wrecking Crew. Waylay an unsuspecting friend, and tell them the premise of this documentary: the astonishing fact that much of the music that has played in the background of all of our lives was actually performed by the same group of studio musicians, but don’t tell them what the songs are.

Sit them down, and — sight unseen — play the playlist. Then, send them to the website.

I’ve heard these songs — these people — all my life, and at the age of 43, I feel like I’m listening to them for the first time. If this documentary gets the theatrical release it deserves, these songs will be heard and loved anew, even by people who grew up surrounded by them. Put bluntly, the possibility for record labels to recognize new revenue from these songs as new audiences gape at the revelation that they were all performed by the same people — and old audiences gape at the same news! — is mindblowing.

I truly do hope that this film sees an official release.

Cass Elliot — mezzo-ish

Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot

My father had been an opera fan from the time he was a little boy. He based most of his early life on the Victor Book of the Opera and could pretty much name and place any aria you threw at him.

What this meant was that he had a rather ecumenical love of music that included popular music; as working-class Italian-Americans, we tend to grow up with a sense of ownership about opera that is also very working-class. To us, opera is not an elitist thing but is very much music of the people, in effect “popular” music. As a consequence, if a vocalist was good, that was all my father cared about. When the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, he was the only person in his family to insist that they were quite good, when one looked past the long hair and the screaming girls. He adored Sam Cooke, and was quite disappointed at both his death and the way he died. Another of his favorites was Cass Elliot, and I still remember his wistful disappointment upon hearing of her death. It continued for years afterwards, and up to my father’s own death, he couldn’t hear the name “Cass Elliot” without expressing some sort of disappointment and nostalgia. “Cass Elliot,” he would say, “died with a voice.”

My own tastes run to high male voices and lower female ones, and Elliot’s voice was not low for popular music. When compared to operatic voices, she was not high either, but her voice did not have the rich mocha-like darkness that some of my favorite female voices have (Carly Simon being the best example). The male voices that I prefer tend to have a signature “ring” to them, and Elliot’s voice is the only female voice in my opinion to have an identical bell-like ring to the high male voices that attract my ear.

This made her a standout in any ensemble, including the group most associated with her, the Mamas and the Papas. The work she did with them was stunning, with the addition of three other good voices and John Phillips’s delightful songwriting, but in all of those songs, Elliot’s voice clearly soars miles above the others and can be picked out in a heartbeat. A transition to a solo career was inevitable.

It was also more prolific than many people remember, with nine albums of solo work despite the tragically young age at which she died of heart failure (the “ham sandwich” tale is an urban myth) directly after taking the London Palladium by storm during a British tour.

Cass Elliot — Wikipedia entry

Clips illustrating Elliot’s singing voice (some lip-synced as these were taken from talk shows):

Words of Love” — Excellent illustration of the clarion “ring” in Elliot’s voice as well as a rare sweetness in such a clear voice. Often women’s voices that “ring” in this manner can be pungent to the ear, which Elliot’s never was.

It’s Getting Better” — Reveals the relatively untrained nature of her voice, but another great example of the ring.

Dream a Little Dream of Me” — an exquisite version of this song, which is normally performed quite a bit more up-tempo. A signature song for Elliot. Compare to a live version for a good example of her torch-singer qualities.

California Dreamin’” — The group lip-syncing their best-known song. Elliot’s voice is so clearly heard on its own that it’s difficult for the listener to ignore once they become aware of it, especially on the wide vowels.

Steve Perry — a bit confusing, frankly

This article’s been getting a bit more traction lately — any readers who want a more thorough background on the history of the high male voice should check out this article as well.

Steve Perry

Steve Perry

A slow recognition is beginning to coalesce around former Journey vocalist Steve Perry as one of the great voices of the 20th century. It’s matched by a slight giddiness on the part of his fans, as to be frank, rock hasn’t generated many of these. Whatever one’s opinion may be, Perry is also one of the more difficult to classify.

Considering range and technique presents us with a problem. In his range — high tenor and a solid alto, the only possible conclusion to draw is that he is a countertenor. However, his technique is not at all that of the most common counters: he hasn’t a hint of owly, woodwind quality to his lower register as he’s not producing sound the same way, and he has no baritone register. In these days when “countertenor” and “falsettist” are used interchangeably, many would not classify Perry as a countertenor.

Also, without similar classical training, there is no way of knowing what operatic label might have applied to Perry’s voice had he opted to go the route of “Giulio Cesare” and not “Raised on Radio.” The universe in which La Fenice staged “Crusader in Egypt” thirty years earlier with an Armando named Stephen Pereira robbing the production of its breeches role is not the one in which we live.

Perry is perhaps best considered as part “tenor altino” or “haute contre” (natural male alto, a rare form of countertenor and one of the rarest voice types), and part his own creature, and as he inhabits the worlds of rock and pop, which require far less stringent classification of voices (since labeled parts need not be assigned to equally labeled vocalists), strict classification may be outside of necessary consideration for him — although I imagine voice enthusiasts will continue to debate. Such high male voices are so much more common in the world of pop and rock than in classical or opera, so using the word “countertenor” to define such voices isn’t unreasonable, if only to draw attention to this predictable distinction.

No articles that I’ve found focusing on vocal training or quality exist for Perry, and most interviews concentrate on the somewhat acrimonious breakup between him and his former bandmates. Other interviews mention only in passing the difficulties of performing as a quasi-operatic vocalist for 180+ sets a year for years on end, well beyond that which is euphemistically called “punishing” or “grueling” in the operatic world and firmly in the realm of larynx-shredding insanity.

In comparison, the extremely focused and legendarily hardworking German operatic falsettist Andreas Scholl keeps what is considered to be a ridiculously demanding schedule at 60 performances per year. He is considering dropping that down to 40. No manager of an operatic vocalist could suggest anything approaching 180 sets a year without being immediately euthanized.

Perry made some accommodations for this, including his habit of not speaking at all between the time he came off-stage after one performance and 4pm the following day, as well as the typical tiring, on-the-fly mental arithmetic done by all high-powered vocalists and completely without parallel among instrumentalists. With few other performers in rock music who had to make that sort of accommodation and to whom he could be compared, Perry acquired the reputation of being distant and unapproachable.

Also mentioned only in passing are the psychological performance pressures widely understood and even anticipated by operatic vocalists but of which Perry, his bandmates, and his management seemed entirely unaware at the time. The problems caused by this apparently took them all by surprise, when any such vocalist in the classical world would have anticipated and permitted for them years in advance. There was no community of like vocalists in rock to advocate for him or function as points of comparison. Having originated from outside all three common sources of high-performance vocalist (classical/operatic, musical theater, and gospel), Perry was left quite on his own in dealing with these issues and both he and his voice suffered for it. Often the only points of comparison for singers in rock are their instrumentalist bandmates, who while they are also subject to great stress while touring, can nevertheless do something singers can never do — buy new strings or new instruments when they play out their old ones. The already great stress of touring is magnified enormously when a musician is effectively playing an instrument that bleeds, ages, and cannot be swapped out, and the world of rock is not known for mentoring performers through this uniquely vocal stress.

There are no implications whatever that these pressures were acknowledged even by Perry until years after his first sabbatical. Due to the fact that neither the rock music industry, his management, his bandmates, nor Perry himself apparently had any profound awareness of how to caretake voices of that caliber, what should have been a luminous 35-year career was effectively burned through in what amounted to roughly one decade of active recorded performance. Like the largely self-taught Titta Ruffo, the great baritone of seven decades prior, Perry “did not have a voice, he had a miracle” — a brilliant, crystalline creation unmatched in the history of popular music — and it was squandered by an industry that had no idea how to manage it or the singer to whom it belonged.

The fact that Perry’s genre has very little experience with vocalists of his caliber goes a long way to explaining why, three decades after he began singing with the band most closely associated with him, both the public in general and the world of fine voice are slowly beginning to realize the magnitude of what he accomplished. The world of rock seems to regard a voice as either a “chick thing” or something akin to a musical condom: an annoying necessity that interferes with the “real action,” but you need one out front if you expect to get anywhere. It’s often tolerated better as an excuse for flashy showmanship than real talent. The world of fine voice is just as suspicious toward rock, often dismissing it as (to be blunt) heroin addicts screaming on pitch. Rock critics didn’t know how to regard a man with such stunning yet out-of-place virtuosity, often preferring to sneer at it, and opera lovers found it difficult to look past the long hair and blue jeans.

Thus as an operatic vocalist functioning in rock, Perry stood in a tiny area of overlap that did not exist until he created it, located between two of the most mutually suspicious forms of music. As high as the barriers to critical respect are between classical and popular music, they are a thousand times higher between opera and rock. This left only the fans themselves, who flooded toward his music by the millions, to recognize the monumental achievement that his musically tribeless voice represents. Those fans have now begun to achieve some position of authority as they (we) enter middle age, and their respect for Perry’s voice is beginning to be taken more seriously as a result.

As there are no articles or interviews examining vocal issues, I’ve linked only to clips here demonstrating range and clarity, the evolution of Perry’s voice as his preposterous early touring schedule took a far greater toll on it than it should have, the occasional leaps over his second passaggio, and his altino-like speaking voice.

Clips illustrating Perry’s singing voice:

Wheel in the Sky” — countertenor territory particularly with the high “ring” and almost eerie champagne clarity his voice was known for early on, and includes a leap into falsetto territory at 2:30. Late 70s. Contrasting this with Russell Oberlin’s non-falsetto male alto in his version of “Vivi, tiranno” from “Rodelinda” is extremely revealing. (Note also that lip-syncing on television has never been the exclusive property of pop or rock singers.)

Homemade Love” — multiple accurate leaps back and forth over the passaggio. Also late 70s.

Sweet and Simple” — good downward movement across the passaggio at 2:53 in what amounts to a short cadenza.

Open Arms” — performed live in Houston in 1981, and a clear example of the sort of vocal performance that, while thrilling, could not be reasonably sustained for nearly 200 sets a year.

You Better Wait” — a good artistic use of the “burr” that developed due to the too-strenuous performance schedule illustrated by the previous clip. Still fairly clean in the high end. Mid 90s.

Clips illustrating Perry’s speaking voice:

Absolutely delightful blues jam session — band instrumentalists only, with Perry introducing them and the blues greats who are joining them on stage. Late 70s.

Interview on Japanese television reminiscing about a performance in Chicago. Again, compare to the speaking voices of other natural and falsettist male altos. (It should be noted that if he were touring to perform, he would have taken care to speak very lightly in order to safeguard his voice.) Mid 90s.