MACHINE’S-EYE VIEW OF...
FRONT MEN BY A DA M D
Before I start, I just want to say that this article only discusses people I have seen live. So before anyone says “but what about Mick Jagger/Bono/ Iggy Pop/Elton John/the name of my favourite live artist who you haven’t seen,” I’m not commenting on them because I can’t. Ok, so let’s try this.
y band, Photostat Machine, has never played live. We may or may not ever do so, but I have been thinking about what makes a great front man. Not so I can begin to dream about copying them, rather so I can think about performing from the audience perspective. This is not exactly the same as thinking about the best bands/concerts I have seen live. It's perfectly possible to be blown away by a gig without really noticing or thinking much of the front man. For the record, gigs I have seen that fall into this category include: Blur, Massive Attack, Beck, Fun Lovin' Criminals, De La Soul, Peter Gabriel, The The, 50 Cent, The Wedding Present, Blancmange, and OMD. All of these acts put on a great show and I wouldn't hesitate in going to see them again if the opportunity arises. There are also acts that seem to thrive on a lack of front man 'action.' Kraftwerk and Komputer, for example, stand stock-still. Yet the music moves you and the show works. Kraftwerk also uses a lot of visuals to support their shows. The Pet Shop Boys rely on this to a large extent, although Neil Tenant has added 'talking to the audience' to his repertoire of minimal movements and raised eyebrows. Madonna surrounded herself with a circus act. You sometimes forget who you came to see. This brings me to the people at the front that bring the gig to you. The ones who draw you in and keep you 'present.' For all the gigs I have been to, I have noticed a few main characteristics that go into making a great front man.
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1. THE MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Dancing. It's something many of us only do when we're drunk. That can be a problem. The image you have in your mind is usually not the one you would see in a mirror, or worse, on someone's camera. So how can someone who has to remember all the words to all their songs and possibly play an instrument at the same time also think about 'throwing shapes?' Well, we have the 'manic dancing puppet' approach, best encapsulated by Tim Booth of James. Tim Booth started off as a 'dancer' for the band. Basically, a distraction on stage usually flinging himself around on the periphery as though having a fit. He still dances like this, only now he's centre stage and singing. James' songs are particularly anthemic. They tend to rumble, build, and climax. This lends itself to someone who starts off almost still then slowly coming to life twitching then flailing arms and jerking his body like he's being machine-gunned. Tim Booth clearly gets drawn in by his own band's music and you can't help but feed off the energy. We also have the 'shimmy and shake' approach. I think Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode does this best. He is almost always on the move slithering like a snake, bending his sinewy body around the microphone stand, high-kicking and strutting like (I imagine) Mick Jagger, or particularly during “A Question Of Time,” holding the mic stand aloft and spinning at breakneck speed never falling over. Like Tim Booth, he gives the impression of someone who loves the music he is performing and simply can't stand still whilst delivering it. 2. THE WITTY BANTER: There are some people who aren't built for dancing or if they are, they tend not to bother. For these people, engaging with the audience in between songs is their skill. The two best proponents of this I have come across are both Northern Englishmen, like me. I am sure this is not a coincidence. There is Guy Garvey from Wigan's finest, Elbow. Here is a huge hulk of a man, always stooping down to sing into the mic, dishevelled in appearance, smoking and drinking, yet singing like a giant, homeless angel. In between songs, Guy shares his thoughts about the venue, the way the band is feeling (usually very happy and it shows) and how he likes the audience. He draws you in so that when another huge anthem begins all he has to say is “hands” and everyone raises their arms aloft palms up.