One of the riskiest things a band can do is replace their lead singer, their focal point musically and visually. Sometimes it works (Bruce Dickinson joining Iron Maiden), sometimes it doesn’t (Blaze Bayley joining Iron Maiden), but it’s never more of a risk than when the reason for the change is that the previous incumbent has died. But still, some bands try it, and the results, unsurprisingly, are very mixed.
A few classic bands have been tempted into trying to recapture former glories by bringing someone in to replace their fallen leaders. The Doors even persevered for a couple of forgotten (but actually decent) albums after Jim Morrison’s death, with Ray Manzarek taking over vocal duties, but when they tried reforming in the 21st Century with Ian Astbury filling in for Morrison, it was much more controversial.
Legal action followed that resulted in various name changes, and nobody really thought that Astbury was a good stand-in. Queen also tried bringing in an established name when they reformed in 2004 with Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, having to perform and record as Queen + Paul Rodgers. An album and a series of tours were financially successful, for nostalgia as much as anything, but Freddie Mercury was as irreplaceable as Jim Morrison, and the link-up came to an end last year.
INXS tried replacing Michael Hutchence traditionally, with Jon Stevens, before taking an entirely 21st Century approach and getting a new lead singer through reality TV. Things have hardly been smooth though, with new boy JD Fortune either in or out of the band depending on who you talk to or what time of day it is. Morrison, Mercury and, to a lesser extent, Hutchence were all icons, and replacing them has proven impossible, but that’s not always the case.
Bon Scott was and remains an icon of rock music, but AC/DC barely missed a step when they replaced him with Brian Johnson, and have gone on to maintain their standards as one of the biggest and best bands in the world. Scott will never be forgotten, but the band released Back In Black just three months after his death and Johnson had just about the smoothest transition any new singer could ever have.
What of more modern bands? The likes of Alice In Chains and Sublime are currently touring with new singers after the deaths of Layne Staley and Bradley Nowell respectively. Sublime have had to call themselves Sublime With Rome after legal action from Nowell’s estate, but seem to be enjoying a successful tour with Rome Ramirez filling in, and have an album planned for release.
Alice In Chains have already released a new album with William DuVall, and Black Gives Way To Blue has been a huge success, both critically and commercially. They are still touring it, but already have tentative plans to record a follow-up. So what’s the lesson here? Well, it seems to be that, if you’re going to replace a fallen lead singer, you’d better make sure you do it right…