The following essay by Julian Lee was stimulated by the discussion of our reprint of his “In Praise of the White Singing Voice.” The original version includes a number of side-bar discussions of singers including Pat Benatar, Peter Cetera, and Geddy Lee. I incorporated some of these sidebars into the text below. But for the full sidebars, see the original article, linked below.
Here I am going to address how the white singing voice has developed in rock music, the good and the bad. Along the way I will be critiquing some of its styles or tendencies that I consider as pathological or degenerative. When you love and defend your race, you have the right to criticize it. I am going to posit that the white singing voice in rock is a result of three main influences: (1) The existing white European musical melodic heritage, (2) the influence of straining and extreme singing first originated by blacks, and (3) the white position as masters of technology. That is, I will propound that the extreme rock vocals that reduce and damage the singing voice, in particular, are the product of our nature as a technological race. I am also going to try to show where old European singing values for the male also still have interplay and intersect with rock styles, as well as spotlight some of the great rock singers and comment on their vocal approaches. I am leaving a discussion of opera off, because it’s not my area.
I am going to list and describe nine different white rock approaches to singing. I have named them:
- the Singerly Occasional Strainer
- the Masculine Strainer
- the Feminine Strainer
- the Feminine High-Pitch
- the Screamer
- the Rasper
- the Growler
- the TransTenor
- the Special Highvoice (a ninth category for those that may not fit comfortably into the other categories that I call)
A little about me: I was a singer in rock bands starting at age 16. (Some of my songs can be heard below.) I once had to “front” for a band that loved to do numbers by Deep Purple, and I had to manage Ian Gillan’s screaming “Lazy!” and “C’mon! Let’s go space truckin!” and other extreme or difficult vocals of rock at the time. In the same show I might do an early Yes song called “Sweetness” and tried to sound like Jon Anderson. I know what vocal breakup is and how you get it. I know what it’s like when your falsetto gets tough and less sensitive from high-range singing. I know what it’s like to try to sound like Paul McCartney and sing “Eight Days a Week” at a dance, in their original key of D, and how tired it can make a voice. I know how men feel when surrounded by high-range singers and aspiring to be a rock singer, or even hoping to break into song with your friends and feel competent to sing. I have many times entertained friends by playing the piano at parties, inducing people to sing, and I know why you can always get them to join in for “Hey Jude.” I also know how difficult it is, and what a gift, to be able to sing beautifully — in any musical context and that most of the really pleasing singers are gifted by birth, but that training makes a huge difference and brings out much good in a voice. I have also spent 50 years observing white singers in rock, whether in the media or those known personally. This article is not an attempt to be scholarly; music and voice are not scholarly subjects but human subjects of the body, heart and gut. These are my my opinions. I focus more on male singers than women because I know that subject better.
Three singers mentioned on this page I consider are not part of any of these new singing categories, but express older white European singing values in the context of rock or pop. These are Felix Papallardi, Gary Puckett, and Tom Jones. They are placed here to show contrast with the other nine types.
A Summary on the Black Influence On Rock
First for the usual “black issue,” or the absurdity that rock is something whites got from black people, let me deal with that briefly. The question of where rock came from is beyond this article, but I’ll summarize my view: Rock involved the meeting of (1) European melodic, singerly, and chord structure ideals with (2) white technology (vacuum tube amplification), with (3) the queerification and sexualization blacks were bringing to guitar music involving higher pitched/strained vocals, amplifier distortion, the bent guitar note, and the so-called “blue note.”
Blacks were an important influence in the initial development of rock’n’roll, which later birthed rock. However, their contribution is of the nature of spices injected into an already elegant European musical substrate. Their importance in rock is overstated by tribal media. The fact that rock is 95 percent made from the European musical lexicon, only containing a few particular features brought up by blacks, is steadily ignored by these tribal pundits to propound the notion that whites simply take things from Blacks.
The highest values in rock remain melody and original chord structure. These are the same facets of music considered important in European music. Meanwhile, melody and original chord structure are not values of early black blues or rock’n’roll. In terms of songwriting content and song structure there is no Black Beatles. I will state here that rock music is white. A simple formula to understand this would be to say that Led Zeppelin epitomizes rock music; Led Zeppelin was four white men; there is no “Black Led Zeppelin.” That is to say, no black group has ever created music like that created by Led Zeppelin. A proof of this is that young white men love to listen to Led Zeppelin, but not to the simplistic, 3-chord repetitive primitivism of the black bluesmen who the tribe claims are the ‘fathers’ of Led Zeppelin.
Four Black Influences:
- higher singing
- the distorted electric guitar
- the bent guitar string
- the “blue note”
Briefly, there were four main features of black music that attracted young white ears and interested them in “rock’n’roll” and then to their development of “rock.”
First was a higher-pitched vocal that sounded different than the disciplined sound of singing white ears were accustomed to (and bored with). It was often strained, but blacks also used their falsetto voices. It sounded like boys whooping it up and having fun. It was wild and emotive, and maybe “anyone can do it”? Emotionality is, indeed, the thing that blacks have in abundance that has long fascinated (and attracted) more cerebral and emotionally controlled whites.
The second item was the distorted sound of the electric guitar through overheated tubes. This was a true case of poverty turned into art. This, also, sounded wild and spoke to male hormones.
The third black item was the “bent note” of the blues guitarist. That is where he would stretch or “bend” a string in the course of a fingered melody, usually at the higher register, creating a squawk like a rude, tortured, or crying voice. It had been unheard, and it perked up the ears.
The fourth feature was the “blue note,” usually a flatted third. The ear was not sure if it was a major or a minor third; it was somewhere in-between. An ambiguous note in-between the 6th and the minor-7th was also a feature. In some sense, these two oddly flatted notes are the very gist of “soul” singing. It was something white musicians were too polite to do.
In the context of the time, bending guitar notes or singing this way sounded wild and vaguely obscene. In point of fact, the “blue note” and the bent guitar squawk are very evocative of the vocalisms that people emit in sex. These sounds of the black bluesmen were definitely sexual. This would not be the first time, or the last, that Africans injected sexual innuendo into the music at hand.
Freeing the Falsetto
The “liberation” by black singers of white males to use their falsetto voices is an interesting subject in itself. It relates to rock’s role in challenging mores, as a vehicle for cultural rebellion, and to the idea of males employing feminization as rebellion. Why didn’t white men sing with falsettos before rock’n’roll? Because it was considered unmanly. So what the early black rock’n’rollers were doing was basically breaking rules regarding what manhood had to look like, or sound like.
Thus from the very beginning, white males attracted to rock culture found themselves putting on feminine airs as a way of expressing teenage rebelliousness. They didn’t want to think of it as “feminine airs,” but that’s what it was. Just as using the falsetto voice was once considered feminine for a male. This became a way to challenge the culture, whether for good reason or out of teenage idiocy.
Now, that rebelliousness itself was a masculine instinct: The son challenging the power of his father as a necessary development into manhood. In rock’n’roll, putting on of feminine airs became part of how this was done; that of rebelling and expressing manhood. Is there any other more central symbol in the development of rock culture than growing male hair long? What was our fathers’ main complaint about it? That long hair on a man was a feminine trait! No less with the use of the falsetto voice back in the pure days of white conformist culture of the 1950s.
Thus from “singing in falsetto voice” and growing the hair we soon had singers like Robert Plant parading about in bare midriffs and little blouses, yet he was seen as the ultimate macho man by males. The alpha male says, “I can do whatever I want” and even be pretty. So these “feminization-as-rebellion” and “feminization as macho” trends were there from the beginning, and much of it originated by blacks. But there may may have been something lost in the translation. Little Richard may not have put on feminine airs for the same reason that Robert Plant did. The point is that the use of the falsetto voice was a symbol for this. It was feminine, and one more odd thing in rock’n’roll to hit young white ears in an exciting way.
Because of it, white ears got to hear more of the beautiful falsetto voices of white males. (See the section on Eric Carmen, below.) It was a giddy feeling for males to discover that they had a falsetto voice that could go way high, and that it sounded musical, and that in rock’n’roll they could use it and be cool. whites made quick use of it. You can hear four Englishmen having a grand time indulging in their falsettos in this early hit by the Tremeloes, “Silence is Golden.” The early black rock’n’rollers, certainly, can be credited with encouraging white males to use their falsetto.
These above were the salient features of the black influence in rock’n’ roll, at least the items white males found most fascinating. Not that they are minor. We can’t comprehend how in the quiet social atmospheres of the past, when everything had been heard and music had settled into stale forms, how these small things sounded to young white ears and the excitement they created. These black musical features had a “naughty” sense to them, and in the context of the well-ordered white society, a “wild” sense. Further, the sounds had sexual connotations, as did many lyrics of the black bluesmen. The pent-up sexual potential of “Baby Boom” males met with these sexually suggestive and exotic black influences and rock’n’roll was born.
As whites became interested in “R&B” and “Rock’n’Roll” it evolved it into Rock. Rock, as distinct from Rock’n’Roll, is a white forte. What was later known as “rock” came from the application of the white musical personality. Rock is cut from the whole cloth of European musical values: Chiseled melody, chord structure, harmony, song structure, and experimentation. This happened rapidly. Thus there is no black “I Feel Fine” (an early Beatles song) or black “I am the Walrus.”
It’s not insignificant, too, that blues musicians who overheated their tubes were actually using a technology created by whites. Not only the Sears Silvertone amp and its vacuum tubes but the guitar itself was created by white men. Even with the music of bluesmen, they were starting with a basic white musical substrate of melody and chord structure. Something called an “E Chord,” then something called an “A Chord.” These were not African.
Finally the things that young whites love about Led Zeppelin, perhaps an epitome of Rock music, are not particularly black things. What black bluesman ever created a piece like “Kashmir,” one of LZ’s signature recordings? Neither its eccentric time signature, it’s connective motifs using diminished 5ths, or it’s cascading string interludes, or it’s oddly feminine vocals — were ever heard from Black bluesman. It is the creativity of the white Europeans. Plus, as much as he may fawn over and play tribute to black musicians, there is no black Robert Plant.
Now on to our subject: to the white singing voice in rock . . .
Rock raised the standard for the male vocal pitch — higher and higher
The one outstanding trend that rock music induced was the singing at ever higher pitches by males. Straining higher achieves a raw emotional provocativeness. It is attention-getting at a basic, instinctive human level. Somebody’s shouting! Somebody’s yelling! Somebody’s screaming! Everybody turns heads. From the start, that is from the founding influences of the blacks, the vocals stood out by being higher pitched. Whites imitated this.
Little Richard, both a Feminine Strainer and a Screamer and highly unusual for the time, was a pioneer for it and was an influence on John Lennon. Keep in mind, however, that this was just one element in John Lennon’s voice. Lennon’s basic vocal mode was melodic, singerly, and European in contrast to Little Richard. It was the element of higher pitch and strain, alone, where the black singer inserted an influence on Lennon. Whites considered the music and singing of the Beatles utterly different compared to Little Richard, because it was. However, high pitch became a value in rock’n’roll and then rock.
The rock vocal sound comes from the untrained effort to sing at higher ranges without consideration for the spiritual possibilities of tone or the longevity of the vocal chords. Higher ranges have always been a part of white male singing, and we used to call them tenors. In the case of the strainer, the singer is forcing his voice to sing out of his natural range without any techniques to avoid voice damage or distortion of tone.
A good example of a strainer is Stevie Winwood, originally of Traffic. He has stated that he was consciously imitating the sound of a black strainer, in this case Ray Charles, and that is easily seen. However, he tends to sing more musically than Charles and hews to a composed melody more than the improvisational Charles. The basic sound of rock vocal straining, inspired largely by blacks, is demonstrated very well in Stevie Winwood, who went after the black strain-voice with gusto. Hear it on Traffic’s “Mr. Fantasy.”
Young white males, starting in the later ’50s and early ’60s, found themselves in a strange cultural situation: The songs that they loved, which were sung by men of their own race, were often pitched so that they couldn’t sing along. Almost all the recordings that came out featured singers singing much higher than an average male could sing. I would say this is an unprecedented cultural phenomenon.
I remember standing outside of a dormitory at Grinnell College many years ago waiting for a friend. Some fellow was in a nearby shower and a window was open. It was the proverbial singing-in-the-shower moment, and apparently he could hear a radio somewhere, for he was singing along to Elton John’s “Rocket Man” in the key in which it was recorded. Oh my, how much he loved that song, and oh how much he tried to sing it! But he simply couldn’t reach the notes. Now, the fellow may have had a very good singing voice. Yet it sounded terrible because, you see, “Rocket Man” though recorded by a male was not really sung in a male’s natural key range.
That was around 1975. Elton John had gone beyond Lennon-McCartney in high-range, already unreachable for average males. Elton John was noted for highly-pitched vocals during his heyday. But have you noticed that he now has a husky, thick voice that is much lower? He lost his ability to sing those songs in their original keys long ago.
Since that time the trend toward higher and higher male singing continued until we have male singers fronting bands who sound exactly like women emitting terrible screams. What do you think their vocal longevity will be? Yet it has come about that many males don’t feel they are worthy to sing before others unless they are singing at an unnaturally high pitch. Why has this come about?
A high-range vocal style was, in part, a sonic and practical corollary to amplification. Singers had to find a way to compete and be heard. They raised their pitch and sang harder to stand out among electrified guitars. Thus we can see, right on its face, that it’s a style of singing evolved by a technological people associated with their very involvement in technology.
White rock has led to at least nine forms of highly pitched masculine singing. (With women in similar categories.) Eight of the nine are straining voices. One, the “Feminine High-Pitch” is not strained. Let’s first analyze these new white vocal styles in general.
Any shouting, yelling, or screaming gets human attention. Rock was emotional, just as teenagers are emotional. Now with the progression into rock Screamers, the kinesthetic is that of an enraged, tired and wife (and perhaps bourbon steeped) yelling at her boyfriend outside some bar at 2 am. Everybody turns their heads to that! Heavy metal singing represents these trends at their ultimate conclusion, fostered further by the loud heavy metal guitar. In its most extreme form the singing style sounds like someone undergoing torture. There was a progression from the occasional strainer, to the Robert Plants and Ian Gillans who sang at unnaturally high ranges most of the time, and finally to the heavy-metal screamer who basically “screams in tune.” An early example of a screamer was the singer for “Nazareth,” who had a hit called “Love Hurts.” As you hear him “sing” that song, you think: “This guy’s hurting himself singing this way!” That take was probably the last time he was able to sing quite that way.
A voice that strains and breaks up in places has some theatrical and emotional value. Carried to excess it makes the listener jaded, cheapens life, and leads to an uglification of music. It is also a significant fact that this style of singing is more unsustainable than other styles and can’t last beyond a few years; it actually destroys the singing voice. In a sense, what you are hearing in a harsh, high-pitched and forced rock voice is that very destruction of the voice in real time. If you don’t believe this, toneless, scratchy voices like those of Rod Stewart and Kim Carnes are nothing but the result of this forced singing. They didn’t originally sound that way. Now we have situations in which rock music itself sounds literally like factory noise or the sound of a war, and singing styles to match. Nine types of new white vocalist will be discussed.
Nine New Types of White Singing Voice
Among rock singers we can find different grades of extreme singing. While a singer might occupy any of these nine types throughout his career, the first seven of them also can be seen as a progression over time: Occasional Strainers turn into Strainers then Screamers, and Screamers turn into Raspers and Growlers, which represent a near-nadir in the debasement of the human singing voice.
1. The Singerly Occasional Strainer
When Lennon and McCartney strained a little higher to sing the words “I wanna” at the chorus of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” that was the technique at its most basic. That more aggressive and extreme aspect of their vocals (for the time), which all-in-all were more melodic and toneful than the likes of Little Richard, was an important part of their sensational impact. But by-and-large they sang in the singerly, melodic, European toneful manner. So the Beatles were Singerly Occasional Strainers. In one early case John Lennon kept a strain style up throughout an entire song, “Twist and Shout.” Elvis Presley was a Singerly Occasional Strainer but indulged the sound a lot in his influential “Jailhouse Rock.” (Also a main influence on Lennon-McCartney as well. Lennon famously said they wanted to be “bigger than Elvis.”) In the time context any strain, and especially vocal breakup, the equivalent of distortion, was sensational to young ears, plus offensive to the grownups. But in the Singerly Occasional Strainer class there is a baseline of melodic, toneful singing with some strain and distortion as dramatic touches. The Singerly Occasional Strainer keeps the basic character of his natural voice intact. The unique personality of his tone remains obvious even if he strains up high now and then. That’s because, for the most part, he stays close to his natural range, only occasionally pushing its edge.
Nowadays when a singer strains just a bit for a slight rasp and sharpness, it goes unnoticed, like cultural wallpaper. But there was a time when nobody could sing like John and Paul. As bands competed, that attention-demanding higher range came into demand. Eventually we had appearances like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, who can easily be classed as a Feminine Strainer with masculine touches.
2. The Feminine Strainer
In a rock culture that was employing jarring feminine motifs for shock value and cultural fascination, Plant became a new benchmark for high-range. In a sense the skillful and aggressive rock guitar of his guitarist, Jimmy Page, provided the counterbalancing masculine content for Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant’s Feminine Strainer sound became very influential. In the 1970s Rolling Stone magazine had a classified ad section where unknown rock groups ran ads looking for members. When seeking a singer, a great many used the word “Plant.” They were looking for a “Plant-like” singer, etc. Another seminal white rock singer coming from the same period was Ian Gillan of Deep Purple. These two, Plant and Gillan, represent two divergent paths in pitch-raising. Plant sacrificed the masculine voice. His tone is basically feminine (with an occasional “rocks in the lungs” rattle for masculine effect).
As a Feminine Strainer, Robert Plant not only helped foment rock’s trend in androgyny by wearing feminine clothes; he achieved his high vocal range by cultivating only one limited part of his voice and letting himself sound womanish. Because Jimmy Page was a great guitarist and their music was so aggressive this gave the band a decidedly masculine feature in the eyes of young men. Plus, Plant was actually masculine. He was straight and also a womanizer, like all rock stars of the period. His feminine touches were part of that peacock strutting mode known to all nature. The womanish queerified voice was, in a sense, even an aspect of male strutting. “Real Alpha Males and creative men can do whatever they want” was an aspect of rock “glam.” Plus, it’s aggressive quality couched in the sensationally masculine rock guitar of Jimmy Page allowed Plant to be seen as part of a basically masculine operation. So young, straight, white men found it fascinating and had no unease about it. They get angry if you refer to Plant’s style as feminine. But just like his clothes, that’s what it was. What the feminine trends in rock music mean about the state of white European culture would make another article. Robert Plant compensated for the basically effete quality of his singing with much macho posturing, plus a kind of trademark “gravel in the chest” that he would occasionally set under his unusually high and sharp-frequency banshee like howls. Artfully placed rough (broken) patches and Plant’s trademark growling ‘lung rattle’ helped maintain a sense of manliness in his singing notwithstanding the female voice range. Young men loved it.
But what about Plant’s voice itself? To our parents’ ears he had to sound like some kind of banshee or graveyard ghoul. Indeed, Plant’s high vocals were not natural, were somewhat stripped of humanity and sincerity, were like a caricature, and nearly toneless. But the goal in rock was higher range! high range! higher range! It is easier to raise one’s pitch if willing to sacrifice the male voice and its tone. Certainly to our fathers’ ears, Robert Plant evoked the sound like an eerie woman’s voice. Certainly upon hearing his weird, high-pitched and aggressive voice they wondered: “What’s happening with our sons?”
Plant was influential, because that very feminization trend was one of the degenerative cultural trends rock was selling; the voice was all part of the strange. (A subject worthy of another article.) Many singers strove to emulate Plant. David Coverdale with his group Whitesnake was such a complete reproduction of Robert Plant’s vocal sound that you couldn’t tell them apart.
The basic difference between the Feminine High-Pitch and the Feminine Strainer is that the latter finds it difficult to sing at that pitch, and it shows as strain. For the Feminine High-Pitch, it’s easy. It’s his actual natural range. There is a possibility that Robert Plant is actually a Feminine High Pitch who simply introduced edgy toughness or male affectations into a basically feminine voice. When Plant sings in in a lower, midrange key he seems to be in weak territory. His voice lacks rich bass tone and resonance natural to grown men.
Other examples of Feminine Strainers have been Geddy Lee, Peter Cetera, and Dennis DeYoung (Styx), and Phil Collins. These last three are of a special class I could call “One Note Trumpets.” Their voices have little variation in tone because of the unnaturalness of their key choices for their own voices.
3. The Masculine Strainer
Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan was on a different track grounded in the male balladeer and frontman musical culture of Britain. Early on he was aspiring to be something more along the lines of a Tom Jones, not just a shouter for a garage band. In fact, he probably consciously emulated Tom Jones at some point. So as he strove to raise his pitch for a rock group, he also tried to preserve the masculine sex and personal tone of his voice, immediately lost by today’s Screamers. A Masculine Strainer, like the more cultivated male voices strives to keep middle and lower frequencies in his voice even though he goes high. This is difficult to do. It is much easier, and lazy in a sense, to sing in upper registers if dispensing with male tone, as with Robert Plant. Gillan got way up there but still sounded like a male.
It was this quality, no doubt, that accounted for his selection to play Jesus Christ in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” His clearly male-identifiable voice had both humanity and manly nobility. That made Gillan more acceptable for that part for the public of the time.
Gillan originally went Gary Pucket’s route of trying to meet rock’s demands for higher pitch while preserving tone and a masculine vocal persona, but without any voice training or technique, it seems. Thus Gillan was forced to become a screamer. If you want to listen to the death of his shredding voice, as with fall colors and falling leaves, listen to “Highway Star.” You can only do that to your voice a little while. It’s a shame, too, because Gillan had a lot of personality and heart in his natural vocal tone. Gillan could easily be classed as one of the Top 10 most important rock vocalists.
Later his band replaced Gillan with a singer hand-picked for that same ability to sing at high ranges while retaining masculinity: Ronnie James Dio. Because of the demands of their rock milieu, both Gillan and Dio ended up as screamers, and the beautiful qualities of their voices were lost, even when singing at lower ranges.
A more current example of a Masculine Strainer is Bono of U2. Bono sounds like he could be classed a Bellower (mentioned below). However, he is really just a Masculine Strainer with Taurean qualities to the voice. I have found that male singers with any Taurean planets have a very “thick” voice that can bellow well without representing much strain, and voices that can take a great deal of abuse. Paul McCartney is one example of this. (Venus-in-Taurus.) It remains to be seen how long Bono’s forced voice will hold up. If Bono had had the voice training undertaken by Gary Puckett (see below) his voice would have likely been utterly sensational.
With the central value being that of higher male range, a 4th type naturally arose from these first three that is highly-pitched but relatively unforced. I’ll call this voice the Feminine High-Pitch.
4, The Feminine High-Pitch
These were males who were able to sing at a very high range without straining much. The tone of voice is more pure, often the singer’s natural voice, though only one part of it. They are often holding out on other qualities of their voice at the lower register which might be pleasant to the ear in other ways. Some are making an effort to be in that range (it would be interesting to hear some of these at their midrange.) Others simply don’t have much of a midrange or lower register, and this was their best range. The aesthetic value for the ear is the relative voice purity. These are grown men who sound like choir boys, and the sound is more musical.
One case would be Jon Anderson of Yes. A prominent Feminine High-Pitch was Freddie Mercury of the English band Queen. A modern example is James Mercer of The Shins and there are a many of these about. Myself, I don’t consider the style offensive or degenerate. But it should be pointed out that the male sacrifices tonal qualities at these higher ranges. There is a point at which you notice Jon Anderson sounds constantly the same; the male voice has less tonal variety and nuance when pitched high. And surely there is discussion-fodder in that submergence of the authoritative masculine voice; how it may be related to the submergence of maleness and male authority in society. Some of these singers, it seems, are rejecting their own masculinity. A Feminine High-Pitch may not be desiring to sound like a female, but he mostly does. In some case, they may deliberately sing with female affectations (as with the case of earlier David Bowie, usually a Masculine Strainer). An extreme example of a Feminine High-Pitch like this would be Nick Gilder (“Hot Child in the City”). Not only does the singer look oddly feminine; if it weren’t for a few low-notes you’d swear you were listening to a woman sing.
I listed Jon Anderson as a Feminine High-Pitch but that’s probably not technically accurate, because I think his voice was acquired. If you go back to very early Yes recordings, such as “Sweetness,” you can hear him as a Feminine Strainer. He’s singing out of his range, barely making it, and they had to double him (in multi-track) to make some of his lines strong enough. There you can hear the resonances of the underlying more masculine voice he started out with. So he was a Feminine Strainer who habituated his voice to that level until it appeared to be natural by its sheer consistency and the overcoming of evident strain. It is likely the same situation with Geddy Lee of Rush. These “fake” or acquired Feminine High-Pitches are notable for a lack dynamics and vocal texture. Every note sounds the same. A genuine Feminine High-Pitch like Freddie Mercury has more dynamics and expression at the high register.
5. The Screamer
From these four a 5th type emerged. There is no better word for them than Screamer. The tendency is for a singer, if staying in music a long time, to start as a Singerly Occasional Strainer, then move to Masculine or Feminine Strainer, then to degenerate into a Screamer. From a Masculine Strainer at first, Ronnie James Dio later degenerated into a screamer. Ian Gillan followed the same trajectory. Basically, the Screamer screams in tune. Or mostly in tune. Or as things go on, sometimes in tune. And now and then you hear a band and the singer just literally screams. Or bellows or howls, in the case of transitional Screamer stages. Generally speaking, nobody gets to be a real Screamer for very long. The heart of the sound is the assertion of power and anger. Heavy metal screamers represent for us Mars-like masculinity and bombast. This bellowing, throat- splitting approach conveys the attitude of anger, excess, aggression and violence. Lead singers for bands named AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Quiet Riot were early exhibitors. These raging vocals became favored by young American white males in the 1980s onward. My view is that their attraction to this (and I was attracted too) speaks of their emotional condition.
Many of the lyrics sung by such singers also have angry, aggressive or violent themes. In a sense there are really masculine themes. The vocal style of the Strainers and Screamer can be viewed, moreover, as an attempt to keep a masculine voice alive. Only in this case it’s an enraged masculine voice, in burning-and-pillaging mode, or perhaps in terrorizing-wife-and-kids mode. I can look at the Screamer style as reflecting a desperate male impulse to maintain or regain masculine authority. (Nowadays we can see the same shrill, over-the-top voice presentation in Christian preachers as well.) At the same time this sound is a loss of humanity and true male authority. True male authority will retain humanity, personality, nuance, and spiritual qualities and not just an assertion of power through unrestrained intensity.
6 & 7. The Rasper & the Growler
A Singerly Occasional Strainer can last a long time. Look how long Paul McCartney lasted. (And yet his strain took it’s toll; already by his forties he couldn’t match his older takes.) A Feminine High-Pitch can also last a long time. (Witness Jon Anderson and Geddy Lee, sounding still the same.) But the Screamer must degenerate into a Rasper. He has no choice.
Rock singers have long tried to get an occasional roughness or rough sound in their voices, voice breakup, at key moments. You can hear John Lennon getting lots of rasp at the high notes as he sings “Twist and Shout.” Elvis Presley gave us a famous early exhibition of this in “Jailhouse Rock,” such as when he sings “The whole rhythm section is the Purple Gang . . .” This is a vocal effect that occurs naturally in life when people shout or have arguments, especially if often. For example, the actress Gillian Anderson has a rasp in her voice if she raises it. This is likely from having many raised-voice arguments in life, or having to yell a lot as an actress. So there is an emotional atmosphere about a rasp in the voice. Usually a singer will try for it only now and then, in touches. If the voice becomes damaged by overuse, straining, or alcohol the singer begins to lose the tone aspect of his voice — the singing part — unable to carry a note except with force and louder volumes. Then when attempting to sing at anything less than blaring volume, their voice comes out as gravelly rasp, as with the speaking voice of Alex Jones. If forcing that maximum volume, there is a note but it’s harsh. Eventually, even that dies. I think this is one of the most interesting forms of pathological white singing vocals that came out of rock.
We can see examples of speakers and news commentators who got this voice by mere overuse in speaking: These include Alex Jones, Rita Cosby, and Chris Matthews. At the early side of this degeneration for singers the sound is a roughness, similar to distortion in a guitar. The best example of that condition is Rod Stewart as he sings on the recording “Maggie May.” (Nasty song.) Later, with continued abuse, the voice degenerates into a toneless rasp. An early example of a Rasper was Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas. Another famous singer who fits this category is Joe Cocker. A famous song featuring a female rasper on the way to the rasping state was “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes. This recording is one of the most intimate pictures of a damaged voice. Even at her young age, still beautiful and blond, her voice appears to be in shreds.
Basically, the natural singing tone is gone in the rasper; the singer is giving us more and more rattle of their nodes, nodes which have been created on the vocal chords through force-singing at high ranges. As a singer forces his voice to get that “breakup” sound, he (or she) can eventually have more breakup than tone. Bonnie Tyler is an obvious example of a damaged voice on her way to Rasper. Sometimes we can catch them in their transitional process as they are destroying their voices, having singerly tone left, but getting a great deal of spectacular breakup.
This is the case with the recording “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Bonnie Tyler, in that recording, has sensational breakup of her voice going on; she had to have been developing it a long time, but on that very recording she is likely damaging her voice still further right before our eyes by forced singing. The point is: The singer can’t sing that way more than a few times, because eventually there’s nothing left to tear up. Just as with Alex Jones, too much talk or singing, too many gigs, too many concerts, not enough rest, and alcohol, which dessicates the vocal chord, create a rasper. You can hear Jim Dandy (James Mangrum), one of the original American raspers, here. The Rasper for a time can carry on convincingly in his own special category of Snarler.
When one is becoming a rasper, tone and the sustained-note singing effect is dying. Rasper is, I assume, the last stop before one’s voice becomes a growling sound. We have now seen that emerge. Nowadays you can hear lots of distorted, toneless “metal” guitars and crashing drums over which a fellow is sort of roaring in a heavily broken up, harsh and toneless voice like an actor playing a disembodied Sauron. It’s very close to the sound of a growl. I think it’s clear what I mean. When I hear it I always laugh. If I say it’s part of “metal” I get corrected and informed that I don’t have the right “term” for the various kinds of obnoxious “music,” but I can’t be tired with this absurdity. I mean loud, explosive, heavily compressed, highly distorted recordings that are often chaotic in nature. The entire musical value seems to be “extremity.” The singing style is just what the name suggests. The “singer” is literally growling, roaring, or snarling. There is no attempt to hold a melody. The “music” itself is like factory noise, a machine exploding or breaking apart, or the sound of battle such as the Battle of the Bulge. Just as the voice has no tonality, the instrumental sound also is generally distorted to the point that no tone is present, with the guitar sounding like a chain dragging across a fence or the movement of tractor tracks.
It is likely that Rasper is a transitional state on the way to Growler. I think there is another transitional state on the way to these we could call the Bellower. The Bellower is usually a Masculine Strainer who is undergoing progression. As his voice starts to lose its natural tone and power, he begins to bellow, further destroying it. I didn’t think it fit to list him as a category because he is transitional. David Lee Roth of the band Van Halen was a Bellower. He never became a screamer because he didn’t stay in music long enough. The Bellower soon becomes a Screamer, then a Rasper, then I suppose if he stays in music, a Growler. Bruce Dickinson is one who managed to have a somewhat extended Bellower stage before turning into a Screamer. One gets the impression, indeed, that Growlers are former Screamers who no longer can carry a melody.
Then I suppose the next progression will be singers who weakly howl, bark, or merely hiss and spit. Then silence. Of course, they will do it into the best three thousand dollar Neuman microphone, a five thousand dollar Manley pre-amplifier, and the best Compression plug-ins and hardware available to make that spitting and hissing maximally impressive, with synths and strings compensating where melody should be. We’ll soon see. I’m not joking. In my mind, the pathology of these vocals is already as absurd.
8. The TransTenor
So as not to end on a negative note, I’ll put the category of TransTenor near the end. These are men who, in an age in which a high-pitched male rock voice is so sought after, are naturally gifted. These have an ability to sing at a higher range without much strain, but without losing their masculine tone or the personal color of their voice. I would consider these rare. Two of the best for last. Outstanding examples are Brad Delp of Boston and Eric Carmen.
Why not simply call them tenors? Because they go higher than a traditional tenor would normally go, and they don’t have the sound we associate with traditional tenors. This category is for naturally gifted singers that have beauty, masculinity, and personal color at high ranges without the sound of strain who don’t sing in the traditional tenor mold. It it would not surprise me if Eric Carmen had vocal training. One feature of the TransTenor is a long graduation between their lower, firm voice and their upper voice or falsetto. They seem to be able to overlap their two voices and blend them together more.
Eric Carmen had one of pop’s best voices. In his exquisitely sung “Let’s Pretend” you can hear a number of outstanding vocal features. His lower voice can go very high without strain while retaining masculine sound plus his personality. He has a very high falsetto and he is able to smoothly-integrate it with his lower voice. When he switches between the two voices, you can barely tell. But the falsetto itself is very firm, not wispy, and can ring like a bell. If you listen you can hear how he treats his own voice with exquisite respect throughout. With every note he’s avoiding strain and bringing out maximum tone, character, and emotional expression.
Listen to even the first four notes. The Beatle-esque harmonies and ringing 12-string guitar, are delights. (I particularly like the voicings and suspensions in the “Come run away” and “We’re all alone” from his backing men.) The performance is full of detail. For example, vibrato is employed only once, and very skillfully, on the word “all” in “we’re all alone” at 1:23.
There is a great deal of vocal nuance and tone throughout, even though he’s at high range. Such voices are rare. Though Carmen was striving to have a band with the vocal character of The Beatles, this American’s voice was superior to both John and Paul’s voices and more cultured. There’s almost never a moment where his voice loses grace. At the bridge (“So take me now…”) Carmen switches to the Masculine Strainer mode to cater a tough rock sound, then switches back to non-force mode. It’s as if you can hear the old and the new singing ideals in one song. Were he to have to strain like that very much the other better aspects of his voice would die. Carmen’s range would have surely been appreciated by many metal bands. But the nature of a metal band’s volume overkill buries all the nuance in voices of singers like this, forcing them to become Strainers, then Screamers, etc.
Carmen achieved maximum tone and beauty from his voice at high ranges. You can hear how he treats his own voice with respect and continual awareness. That same respect and sensitivity gets transmitted as a message to the listener.
Eventually after decades of prominence given to males with high singing voices, it was bound to happen that someone with a natural gift for it would come along. Brad Delp, of Boston, managed to keep a manly tone and the coloration of his personality at very high ranges. I am not aware of him having any vocal training. It may be a case of a Masculine Strainer who didn’t have to strain much because an unusual gift for singing high and still sounding good. It’s sad that Delp committed suicide. He was certainly one of the greatest rock singers ever produced by both America and England. The great Brad Delp on “More Than a Feeling.”
9. Special Highvoices
As I wrote this piece the problem came: “What to do with Brian Wilson?” (Of the Beach Boys.) He was a very influential singer. Wilson was, like others, influenced by the high-pitched blacks of the 1950s. But his vocal approach was far more melodic, musical, and unstrained than they. To call his voice Masculine Strainer isn’t right. He didn’t strive for a masculine sound in the sense we think of it. (Bass tone, authoritative.) But to call him Feminine Strainer isn’t right. The persona was distinctly male.
The mystery is solved when we realize that Wilson was trying to sound like a white male teenager. The spirit of the Wilson vocal sound was youth and innocence. He was even, I would say, capturing the sound of the male voice at the time that it changes. In songs like “Don’t Worry Baby” his tone is that of a tender-hearted teenage male comforting his girlfriend. Wilson was an influential singer with many imitators, partly by the simple fact of his higher pitch. His voice sometimes has a childlike quality. His “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is a great example of both high-pitch and a childlike sound. But nobody can sound quite like him. That’s because his personal character was present in his sound, which means he was not really a strainer.
This is my article’s catch-all category to deal with hard-to-categorize voices. You can see it does not contain many entries. Special Highvoice can only be taken case-by-case. In some cases the voice may be have an otherworldly persona, highly androgynous, eerie, ghoulish and great for sci-fi themes. (Geddy Lee comes close to making this category, but I think that would be ascribing too much mystery to a simple, strained hi-reaching voice.) I almost placed Nick Gilder in this category. But upon re-listening to his “Hot Child in the City” there was no mystery there: He simply sounds like a woman. Some singers are so versatile they are hard to categorize. An example would be Stephen Stills. Another Special Highvoice would be Rudy Vallee of the Four Seasons. His deal was to sing in falsetto a lot and he developed a very toughened falsetto. It was not so much feminine so much as jarring and odd. It definitely stood out from the music, allowing the listener to firmly track the melody and get hooked by it.
1. Gary Puckett
In days of yore men strove for higher pitch while retaining the beauty of the male voice. Gary Puckett (2nd from left) had several hit songs in the 1960s and 70s, including “Young Girl,” “Lady Willpower,” and “Woman” and trained his voice under a voice teacher who worked with opera singers. He was a case of a pop singer who kept white European singing ideals for the male voice alive when strainers were beginning to dominate pop music. He sang at very high ranges while keeping a decidedly masculine tone.
Puckett was singing how Ian Gillan wanted to sing. Had metal Screamers had some of his knowledge about the voice, their recordings would have been more majestic, impressive, human, and spiritually uplifting. Imagine some of the metal singers having this sound on their high notes. Many of them, in fact, start out with this very sound, but because of the abuse to their voices can’t maintain it. Two other Gary Puckett Songs: “Woman” and “Lady Willpower”
2. Tom Jones
Tom Jones, like Gary Puckett, was a tremendous tenor who went into pop. Jones was a total natural. It is likely that Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, who became a Masculine Strainer, took early inspiration from Jones and originally was trying to sing like him.
3. Felix Papallardi
Why do the best singers die young? The New York Italian Felix Pappalardi was a natural tenor who sang high up but in a natural, manly way for the early metal band Mountain. He clearly intended to avoid strain and maintain natural tone. Pappalardi was also a great bassist and studied classical music. He was offed by his girlfriend in New York just as he was attaining success. Hear him sing at the 3 links below.
Listen to his voice particularly on the high notes of the chorus. He never loses grace or masculine tone. This song appears to be celebrating the westward march of European man through America.
In this song Pappalardi sings the verses, then guitarist Leslie West shouts the choruses in Masculine Strainer mode with lots of breakup.
Pappalardi is in a lighter, more feminine mode for the verses. Then he sounds majestic on every chorus which sounds quite like a church hymn. The song has a masculine theme, that of a sailor heading off on a long sea voyage, bidding farewell to his beloved. In the complexity of its structure this piece is also deeply European and has zip to do with black blues. This kind of song is, in my view, the cream of rock music. And it’s surely the creation of the white man.
The interesting question to me is: “Why the attraction to that higher-pitched, somewhat feminine male voice both in Lennon’s context and now?” What is the attraction to these other forms of voice? Especially the pathological and self-destructive ones? And why the progression to extremer and extremer forms of singing that are more destructive to the voice itself? I can understand the emotional impact and theatrical value of a shredded voice, sounding like it’s coming from a desperate person, at the end of her rope, a woman tried beyond hope, etc. But what does it say about our culture now that we listen to singers whose sound has come from the destruction of their voices by overuse or unnaturalness?
The blame can’t be laid at the feet of blacks. It is part of a condition that has beset whites from many sources, and some of the sources are their own. Whites became the masters of heavy-metal screaming because they are the masters of technology and the intimates of the social damage it brings. White males are angry over father-abandonment, plus the social alienation that technological development fosters. This fascination for such extreme singing and sound tells me that young whites have a lot to be angry about. And young men have little outlet now to express a warrior spirit and assert masculinity. They use metal music, including the screamer vocal style, to contact warrior spirit and manhood. That’s why they like hearing other men scream.
I believe that this form of singing, and “metal” music in general, is a manifestation of: (1) white technological obsession, (2) white male anger based on father-estrangement and the displacement of the male role in society, and (3) the natural need of young White males to express warriorship and masculinity in an environment that offers few channels for it.
White culture had help from other quarters in developing this style. Angry young men like to hear angry music. New York and L.A.-based music publishers music exploited the feelings of generations of young whites and gave them music that both reflected and stirred the bad feelings. Anybody who sounded angry, it seemed, received much promotion in music. Bob Dylan was a major example.
Any form of music that actually damages the human body (in this case the hearing) has to be classified as pathological, negative. Whites became the specialists with this sort of tamasic music. (That’s a Hindu word for ignorant, dense, destructive.) The screamer style, moreover, damages the voice itself and the singer cannot keep his voice beyond a few years. Thus in my opinion screaming is a pathological form of singing. Ian Gillan by his 50s has little of his voice left. It’s shot, gone. This kind of singing is not a higher European value.