Most musical bands have one lead singer with maybe an occasional guest vocal on a deep album cut by another band member. The Lead Vocalist often becomes the face of the band, taking the center spot on album covers, doing most of the interviews, and acting as the “frontman” at concerts. Yet, the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Monkees confounded that logic by having multiple lead singers. When we talk about bands that have more than one lead vocalist, we aren’t talking about the many bands who changed vocalists over the years, think Peter Gabriel/Phil Collins of Genesis, but rather bands that for all or most of their run, would switch between two or more active singers. It’s a unique group of bands but includes some mega-successful groups. Here are some of our favorites.
For me my musical tastes started with my dad’s music growing up I heard a ton of The Beatles. The Beatles had Paul and John doing most of the singing setting the template for this post despite George and Ringo getting some songs here and there. As tempted as I was to incorporate The Beatles into this I will leave them for a different time. My three choices come from three completely different places and three different times showcasing my eclectic taste in music.
As a kid in the late ’70s and early ’80s if I didn’t have MTV I would have never been introduced to the New Zealand band Split Enz. They were never played on American radio. Split Enz’s vocalists for their biggest successes were brothers Tim and Neil Finn, but for their first two albums, Mental Notes and Second Thoughts, it was Tim Finn and Phil Judd. Those are great albums in their own right but very avant-garde. My first experience was seeing their video for their 1979 one hit wonder “I Got You”. It had a great hook, a wonderful melody and something very different. I was hooked forever after also seeing the videos for “History Never Repeats” and “One Step Ahead”. Once I was old enough to go and buy music the band had split up but I bought a Greatest Hits and loved every song. Through the ’80s. I sought out everything in their collection, but the problem was they weren’t popular here and some of their output was never released in the US. I spent some cash on imports at Tower Records or Newbury Comics and also found out they were more prolific than I thought. Since then they have become one of my favorite all-time bands. Neil is more famous now for his second band, Crowded House and for recently joining Fleetwood Mac. In Split Enz, Neil and Tim were fully sharing duties by the album Frenzy but hit their stride with True Colors, Corroboree/Waiata, and Time and Tide. Tim left the band before their last album the Crowded House tune-up See Ya Round. Despite being brothers they clearly have their own style and sound. They were able to put out solid albums by balancing each other. They have a great harmony backing each other up. They have been called the New Zealand Lennon and McCartney and you can hear the Beatles influences in their melodies. They were hugely popular in Australia, England, and even Canada. Tim did rejoin Neil in Crowded House for their best album Woodface, utilizing the same style as Split Enz but with a more mature sound. Split Enz started their career using theatrics and crazy costumes to stick out but their music endues and was way ahead of its time.
Bonus: Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam was a huge fan of Split Enz, so while touring Australia he asked to meet them and after a couple of them came on stage they later went surfing. Eddie had to be rescued by Tim Finn. Tim and Neil have been close friends with Eddie since.
MG: I can’t believe it took this long for one of us to write about Split Enz – one of my favorite bands as well. I came to like the Enz via Neil Finn and Crowded House, so it admittedly took me a while to appreciate the contributions of brother Tim. Neil’s songwriting and the tone of his voice definitely makes his tracks more approachable and radio-friendly, but Tim was just as talented. He wasn’t afraid to take risks and push the boundaries, both with his song compositions, and use of his singing voice. I’ve always loved his first two tracks of Dizrythmia: “Bold As Brass” and “That Was My Mistake”. The brothers reteaming on Crowded House’s Woodface was magical, and made for one of my top five albums of all time.
For me after the big four of the sixties – The Rolling Stones, Beatles, Monkees, and Beach Boys – the Hollies are next. I have always known their hits but have recently gotten a better appreciation for them (thank you Spotify). The Hollies were part of the British Invasion of the ’60s along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and many other bands. They were huge in their home country and often recorded right next to the Beatles at Abbey Road. They even replaced them in some of the local clubs when the Beatles came to America. The Hollies were formed when Allan Clarke and Graham Nash met in elementary school and later decided to start a band. Nash is more popular for being part of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and sometimes Young. The Hollies had a string of hits in the sixties and early seventies relying on the harmonizing of Nash, Clarke, and guitarist Tony Hicks. Their sound was distinctive due to this 3-part harmony which they are noted to have started. Both Clarke and Nash shared writing duties and singing lead. Hicks is a criminally underrated guitarist, he even started incorporating banjo into the music. Early on they did what most British bands did and sang remakes such as earlier hits “Searchin” and “Just One Look“. They moved to writing their own stuff pumping out hits like the Clarke led “Bus Stop” and the Nash-led “On A Carousel”. Other hits included “Stop Stop Stop” and the combined singing of Clarke, Nash, and Hicks on “Carrie Ann”. They have such a clean fresh sound even today. Nash eventually started to get into some different ideas and left eventually joining Stephen Stills and David Crosby. The Hollies continued recording having their biggest hits without Nash, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress“, “The Air That I Breathe” and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother“. They were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago and rightfully so.
Bonus: The Hollies still tour today with Tony Hicks and drummer Bobby Elliot being the only original members, Clarke retired and Nash is solo.
MG: I can’t say I know too much of their catalog, outside of “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”, which is a great tune, but I used to think it was by CCR. Listening to some of their hits there are definitely some heavy Beatlesque tracks, so I can see why the band appeals to you.
The Indigo Girls
I’m not sure how I got turned on to the Indigo Girls, as they were not very radio popular outside of their first hit “Closer to Fine” in the late ’80s. My guess is that it was probably because of a girl around 1994 with the release of their best album Swamp Ophelia. I knew “Closer to Fine” prior, but nothing else. It was their first CD I purchased and then, of course, I had to get their back catalog and going forward everything else. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers formed the Indigo Girls in 1985 just outside Atlanta Georgia. Georgia also supplied us with two other great bands R.E.M. and The B-52’s. The Indigo Girl albums contain songs written and performed from both Ray and Saliers and they provide harmonies for each other on the other songs. I read once that they don’t write the songs together but play on each others’ working it out then. They are a band that has a huge cult following but not a lot of chart success. “Gallelio” and “Least Complicated” were played on mainstream radio but their biggest success was at the album level, going gold and platinum three times each. They are labeled “folk rock” which I don’t get. Their songs are beautifully constructed often very personal and sung with passion. They compliment each other perfectly, Ray is harsher with a deeper voice, more of a rock and roller while Saliers is softer, better for their ballads. The Indigo Girls not only play great music but are also active in many causes, including gay rights, protection of the earth and Native American rights, to name a few, all things that I find worthy as well. They often sing about these issues such as on the songs “Hammer and a Nail” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” as an example. They continue to churn out strong albums every couple of years. Their best albums are Rites of Passage, Swamp Ophelia, and Shaming of the Sun, probably no coincidence they came out one after the next. Their latest album is 22 of their songs performed with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. They are an important band and hope they continue for many years, I just wish they were more widely known.
Bonus: They were nominated for 8 Grammy Awards, with one win in Best Contemporary Folk Recording for their self-titled album.
MG: I’ve enjoyed their music quite a bit, especially back in the late 90’s. They are great at harmonizing together. I haven’t explored enough of their music, however, outside of Swamp Ophelia and other hits. I guess Atlanta, Georgia was a hotspot for bands with multiple lead singers.
Listening to the radio in the ’80s, I was always fascinated by bands that had songs with more than one singer. We talk about some of the bigger ones here, but there were many others too, especially in the ’80s where bands such as Animotion, Human League, Jefferson Starship, and Roxette would switch between male and female lead vocals. The prog rock band from the ’70s, Yes, came back big in the ’80s with a new sound by adding vocalist/guitarist Trevor Rabin to sing with John Anderson. I thought it was both odd and cool that one band would choose to have more than one person sing vocals. Here are three of my favorites.
One of the remarkable things about The B-52’s is how effortlessly the three lead singers pass the vocal duties amongst them. When their first single “Rock Lobster” broke big in 1978, followed a few years later by “Planet Claire”, it seemed like Fred Schneider was the band’s clear frontman, with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson providing back-up vocals (and some screeching noises). Plus, in their early videos you see Schneider front and center – and since he didn’t play an instrument, it made him look like the lead even more. However, by the 1982 album Whammy!, the women had taken on an equal, if not larger, role on the vocals, starting with the first single “Legal Tender”. From there, Schneider, Pierson, and Wilson would mix and match vocal duties, as seen on another of their big hits “Your Own Private Idaho”, which bounces between Schneider and Pierson. The video still featured Schneider in the lead singer’s spot, flanked by Pierson and Wilson – which at best is the director/producer falling into old habits of how a traditional band should look – and at worst a sexist approach to arranging the performance.
By the time the band broke REALLY big in 1989 with the multi-platinum Cosmic Thing, the women were finally getting properly featured in videos – such as in “Love Shack” where the three of them are finally lined up in a row with microphones, fronting the band. On Cosmic Thing, Wilson and Pierson harmonize so well together, taking almost all of the vocal duties on the second huge single “Roam” and on “Deadbeat Club”, one of my favorite tracks of theirs. To be clear, I’m not blaming Schneider for any of the possible earlier limelight-stealing, I think it was others outside the band trying to fit them into a traditional “one-man-fronts-the-band” mold. However, if it caused any strife in the band, it didn’t show in their songs or jaunty videos over the years. They are one multi-singer band that seemed to keep harmony throughout their time together. Cindy Wilson did leave the band after Cosmic Thing, which I do think caused a bit of creative dip on the follow-up Good Stuff, but it wasn’t reported her departure was due to any infighting.
Bonus: DJ and I had the chance to see the B-52’s on their Good Stuff tour, in a college gymnasium of all places, and it was a fantastic concert experience, even if it would have been even better to see them with Cindy Wilson.
DJ: Yeah it was a pretty good show, I think Julie Cruise stepped in for Cindy Wilson. Big fan of The B-52’s outside of “Loveshack”. I love the albums Wild Planet and Cosmic Thing. Kate Pierson is great, she also performed with Iggy Pop on the only Iggy Pop song I could ever enjoy “Candy”.
Fleetwood Mac (the “Rumours” line-up 1975-1987)
Oddly enough, it wasn’t until last year on a three-hour bus ride in England, that I finally appreciated the brilliance of Fleetwood Mac (and, ironically, I never realized they originated in London). Anyone who listens to music knows their hits – they are the epitome of radio ubiquitous over the last four decades. So even though I knew most of their singles, in the 80’s I really only liked the “Lindsey Buckingham songs”. I particularly gave little thought to the Christie McVie tracks and passed them off as too light and fizzy, and I appreciated Stevie Nicks’ solo tracks more than her band songs. The reality is, Fleetwood Mac had three lead singer/songwriters that easily could have fronted successful bands on their own. Indeed, they all saw success in solo careers, although Nicks had the most extensive commercial success. It’s hard to think of another band stacked with this much talent, and while it led to incredible creative and commercial success, conflict was virtually unavoidable. The well-documented troubles in the band are now legendary, but that only adds to the magnitude of their accomplishments.
Even though Buckingham, McVie, and Nicks almost always sang back-up vocals for each other, there was rarely any question about which singer owned which song. Most of this is probably due to the fact that each had their own writing/singing style and they each primarily wrote their lyrics individually. There are some rare songs that are more of a vocal collaboration, such as 1982’s “Hold Me” which is a McVie-written track but she co-sings the verses with Buckingham. “Don’t Stop” is another McVie track where she splits the vocal duties with Buckingham – to good effect (even if this song has worn out its welcome with me). Considering the acrimony of the break-up of their personal relationship, there aren’t any true Buckingham/Nicks collaborations on any Fleetwood Mac albums, at least none I’m aware of. For the best vocal collaboration between all three leads, one would have to point to “The Chain”, which is the rare track credited to the whole band for songwriting. All three co-sing the verses, with Buckingham taking a more prominent role only on the chorus. When it came to videos and live performances, it was always all three out front, although with McVie often at the piano, and Buckingham with lead guitar duties, it sometimes seemed like Nicks was fronting the band.
Bonus: The band’s 1987 album Tango In The Night, the last of this line-up, originally started out as a Buckingham solo project. It ended up being their best-selling album since Rumors.
DJ: I was probably overloaded with Fleetwood Mac as a kid, always on the radio, and therefore did not care for them much. Like you I was more drawn to the Buckingham songs. But later in life I realized how good they were. The self-titled album and Rumours are brilliant. I still prefer the Buckingham tracks, but also really like McVie. “Go Your Own Way”, “Blue Letter”, “Secondhand News” and “Crystal” are some of my favorite tracks.
For my third band I thought about The Eagles but realized their profile and career arc was very similar to Fleetwood Mac, so I chose The Cars, a band I wrote about a while back as an overlooked inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (they since have made it in). The use of multiple singers in The Cars is very different than the arrangement in The B-52’s or Fleetwood Mac. If you are a casual fan or only know their hits from Heartbeat City onward, you probably think Rick Ocasek is the lead singer and you might know Ben Orr sang one song, “Drive”, the highest charting single of their career. However, for most of The Cars career, Orr and Ocasek shared singing duties. In several pre-Cars band iterations, Orr was the only lead singer, not even playing an instrument, with Ocasek on guitar (in the Cars Orr took on bass guitar). When you look at their pre-Heartbeat City hits, you can see that their lead vocal duties were split almost down the middle. For example, from 1978-1983 Orr was the lead singer on some of their biggest radio hits like: “Just What I Needed”, “Bye, Bye Love”, “Let’s Go” and “It’s All I Can Do”. What’s odd about this, is that almost all of the Cars songs were written by Ocasek, and their voices are fairly similar, so I’m not sure how they decided who would sing which songs. It seemed to work, though, at least for a while.
For a variety of reasons, the release of Heartbeat City thrust Ocasek into the lead singer spot. Orr sang lead vocals on three album tracks, but only “Drive” was a single, whereas Ocasek sang lead on four huge singles. Moreover, their groundbreaking video for “You Might Think”, in constant rotation on MTV, clearly showed Ocasek in the frontman role, with the rest of the band relegated to playing on a digital bar of soap in the background. Ocasek’s high profile relationship with model/actress Paulina Porizkova also increased his celebrity status. During that time, you could almost feel Ocasek’s persona eclipsing the rest of the band, whether he intended it to or not. Perhaps this was part of the acrimony that caused the band to break up in 1988. Ocasek vehemently refused any talk of a reunion during the ’90s, and with Orr passing away in 2000 from pancreatic cancer, the Cars with two lead singers would never exist again.
Bonus: The video for “Drive” was directed by actor Timothy Hutton, then 22 years-old. Ironically, Hutton cast Porizkova as the female lead, and that is where she and Ocasek first met.
DJ: I always leaned towards the Orr tracks. Not sure why since they were Ocasek’s songs. I know the voices were similiar but still preferred Orr’s. Glad to see The Cars get into the Hall of Fame. They were a great underrated band that had an in-between rock and New Wave sound.
Head to the sequel –