The egomaniacal frontman is dead – at last
When indie rockers Wolf Alice were announced as winners of Group of the Year at the Brit Awards last week, bassist Theo Ellis immediately offered the microphone to Ellie Rowsell, the band’s singer and only recognisable member. She politely waved it away, leaving Ellis to give an acceptance speech. Standing beside him (and then at one point trying to hide behind him) at the podium, Rowsell smiled but did not speak.
Rowsell’s Brits non-acceptance speech confirmed her as a quintessentially 21st century frontperson. She sings and writes the music and lyrics, but she has pointedly declined the job of generational spokesperson.
Nor is she alone. Much the same dynamic can be observed in another acclaimed indie outfit, Black Country, New Road. Lashings of hype had preceded the Cambridgeshire group’s second album, Ants From up There, released on February 4. But the seven-piece, whose work incorporates elements of jazz and neo-classical music, struck a speed-bump several days before the LP appeared as singer Isaac Wood announced he was stepping away. He was doing so, he appeared to suggest, so that he would be in a better place to deal with his mental health issues.
“I have been feeling sad and afraid too,” Wood announced on social media. “I have tried to make this not true but it is the kind of sad and afraid feeling that makes it hard to play guitar and sing at the same time.”
That Wood would wish to put music on hold as he concentrates on his emotional health is hardly controversial. The surprising thing was that Black Country, New Road immediately announced that they were carrying on anyway. And fans didn’t seem to mind. For a band to overcome the loss of their singer would once have been regarded as a triumph over daunting odds. What a novelty it was in the Seventies, for instance, that Genesis should slog on after the departure of Peter Gabriel – and that they should have the steely resolve to replace their elfin poet with balding drummer Phil Collins.
Today, it would almost be a bigger shock were a band to call it quits when their singer left. One of 2022’s hottest new groups, Wet Leg, is a duo in which Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers divide front person duties down the middle. Mercury winners Alt-J, who returned with a new album last week, consist of three interchangeable nerd-types, none of whom you would recognise in a police line-up. In the case of Black Country, New Road, Wood’s exit, though obviously a setback, doesn’t seem to have caused undue trauma, with bassist Tyler Hyde (daughter of Underworld’s Karl Hyde) stepping in immediately as replacement.
And, while Black Country, New Road have cancelled their spring tour, with the band saying they won’t go on the road again until they have written new material, that's as far as it goes. Six months from now, they’ll be putting on shows again and it will be essentially as if nothing had changed.
It’s hard to understate how seismic a shift this represents. In the alternative milieu where Wolf Alice and Black Country, New Road operate, the cult of the front person has long reigned unchallenged. Mention The Smiths and nobody thinks of Johnny Marr’s dexterous riffs. They think of Morrissey on Top of the Pops waving shrubbery over his head.
In the same way, Radiohead are synonymous not with Jonny Greenwood's angular noodling – but with Thom Yorke looking massively miserable as he lets his falsetto soar. And while REM’s lasting contribution to human civilisation is probably Peter Buck’s mandolin riff at the start of Losing My Religion, the image that is burnished in our minds is of Michael Stipe gurning in hugely angsty fashion in the accompanying video. REM were able to stagger on for a few years after the departure of drummer, Bill Berry. But losing Stipe would have been a swift reckoning for the four piece.
That’s because Stipe’s duties went beyond merely singing. As with Morrissey and other great frontmen and women, the job, above all, was to be an embodiment of the band. The music, rightly or wrongly, was seen as an extension of their personality. Its angst was their angst, its euphoria theirs.
And yet somewhere on the way to the present day, the focus on the front person faded drastically. Rowsell has been largely absent from many of Wolf Alice’s recent interviews. Nobody is all that bothered. The rest of the line-up can speak to Wolf Alice’s hopes and fears just as meaningfully. When Black Country, New Road were promoting their new LP, Wood was, similarly absent. There was no sense that only he could advocate on behalf of the music.
The ailing status of the “iconic” front person is underscored by the American indie group Big Thief, who today release their fifth album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. Big Thief are a quartet but their songs are typically written by singer Adrianne Lenker. Nonetheless, they have gone out of the way to stress they are an ensemble and that no one individual has prominence.
“It was something we figured out early on. The “bandness” is a big part of it,” drummer James Krivchenia said recently. “Even if we fail it will be like us failing together.”
At the Brits Ellie Rowsell appeared to enjoy her moment in the quasi-public eye as she beamed alongside Ellis. Still, it was apparent the last thing she wanted was for the spotlight to fall on her. Shortly afterwards, there was a reminder of the way things used to be when former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher took to the Brits stage to bash out Oasis-esque new single, Everything’s Electric.
Wearing a funny hat with prominent ear-flaps and an oversized coat, he seemed to have beamed in straight from the 1996 Brits at which Oasis swept the board. A big ego strutting back and forth, Gallagher looked and sounded like the ghost of pop music past. The future, meanwhile, clearly lay with Wolf Alice and their peers – bands that have a lot to get off their chest but who don’t necessarily feel the need to turn their lead singers into icons in order to do so.