Dynamic Dynamite: Explosive Vocalists Who Changed Music Part I.

By Stevil, February 15th, 2017

Dave Smalley of ALL, with ALL, promoting quality Mexican food via the LA Times. His modeling career wouldn't last long, but fortunately, his music career has been much more successful. Photo by Rick Meyer.
The power of music is something that is often underappreciated. Music gets us through the full range of emotions in life, and each day, whether we're happy, angry, sad, hungry (yes, hunger is indeed an emotion, or should be), etc.. We strive to share our favorite songs with loved ones; use them to tune-out what we don't want to hear, and we tend to remember the melodic hooks far better than we do shopping lists, anniversaries, birthdays, and overdue bills.

Sometimes a guitar riff or lead, a drum intro, or a bass-led bridge finds its way into our brains and firmly plants itself in the well-fertilized garden of hedonism. But more times than not, it's a line from the vocals that resonates on repeat; words that we find ourselves relating with, or trying to relate with, while we're reflecting upon ourselves and simultaneously reciting these lines both silently, and not so silently. We subconsciously believe points are awarded when we manage to combine bodily hymns with our favorite lyrics for shower-based duets. Miles Davis has nothing on my trumpeteering.

There's something to be said about this endearing lifeforce, and as usual, I'll be saying far more than I probably should. The criteria is simple, though. I'm zeroing in on authenticity, originality, presence, and influenceability. This post would be incredibly longer if I were to include more of those who were/are strictly enamored with just entertainment and have larger, annoying fan bases to boot. But I'd still fail to properly cite everyone deserving of recognition anyway, and half the fun is the debate sparked by a post like this. So prepare your rebuttals and sharpen your wits before you litter my inbox. Think of me as a dart board that fires back!

With that said, I'll take the first few shots in random order...

Paul Hudson. The value of HR and Bad Brains can't be overstated. But I've often wondered if fans truly understood just how unique HR's range and ability to sell their message really was. Many well-known, respectable artists have been influenced by him, and that comes as no surprise, as he is one of the godfathers of Punk Rock and Hardcore. What might come as a surprise, is that even some of the not-so-greats, such as Mariah Carey, were enveloped in envy of him (think of that shrilling, vocal pitch-squealing that plagued the sound systems in supermarkets). But her plagiaristic attempts to match his uniqueness, failed. Good prevailed over Evil here, and HR will forever be one of punk rock's--make that music's--elite.  

Eric Boucher. Better known as Jello Biafra (which may or may not have been inspired by the Nigerian civil war), this is a vocalist who has undoubtedly brought attention to many deserving global social issues in a style all his own, and continues to lead attacks against injustice. He's no longer fronting Dead Kennedys, but you'll often find him backed by other great bands and musicians with all the satire we've come to expect and adore. But that wasn't always the case. When most people would hear the word "Jello", they likely thought of the All-American, gelatin-based desert. Or perhaps its All-American poster dad, Bill Cosby. My, how things have changed. Our Jello has proven to be much more enjoyable.
Dave Smalley. From DYS, to Dag Nasty, to All, to Down By Law, to The Sharpshooters, to the Farmhouse 5, to solo work--while still maintaining DBL--Dave's has had his hands in a little bit of just about everything as a pioneer of emotional hardcore. And few have shown the rational, love, passion, talent, or poise the way he has. The DBL "arrow" graces the bodies of 99% of fans (don't bother googling numbers), and for good reason: it represents the greater good, which happens to include great music. Don't let Dave's poor preferences for baseball fandom (Red Sox) be a deterrent here. Nobody's perfect, and I'm sure he would be the first to tell you that. Any Yankees' fan serves as evidence of just how far from perfect one can get.

Milo Aukerman. Few are probably familiar with this selection, or Descendents, but once you've properly researched both, surely you'll understand why he's on the list. That's right, it's his hair. Or is it the glasses? Seriously, Milo might be the most recognizable name and voice in punk rock among those who actually know what real punk rock is. Often using humor as a multi-dimensional tool to rant about failures and desires over the opposite sex and eatable endeavors, Milo's vocals resonate throughout many-a-stereos and listening devices, inspiring many (too many) to sing along. That may seem cool, and in a way it is. But when I see Descendents live, I swear, every single one of these karaoke-practitioners come out of the bushes and pollute the shows with their excessive billowing, leaving me wondering what Milo's voice actually sounds like live.
Peter McNeish. Long before Green Day existed, Buzzcocks, arguably the first true pop-punk band, were putting out one great record after another, and did so without the spotlight that future acts, such as Green Day, would relish. Pete Shelley very quietly established himself as one of the more melodic vocalists in a scene that was loaded with attitude at the time. That may have cost him some punk points then, but no doubt it left him with more phone numbers than his punk counterparts, and a heck of a lot of respect over time for sticking to his principles and offering an alternative to the common theme within the scene.

Joe Strummer, the punk legend and king of quotes.

John Mellor. Was there a more sincere or thoughtful frontman in the history of Rock 'N Roll than Joe Strummer? If your answer isn't no, stop reading, and go learn what a comparative is. There may have been someone as sincere or thoughtful, but certainly not more. I normally charge 80 an hour for English lessons, so consider yourself lucky for that little tidbit. Consider yourself lucky we had Joe as well. He might be the single most important singer/songwriter from our scene, as he offered both inspiration and direction towards independence and creativity, and away from the common consensus of what was horrifically acceptable in the 70's and early 80's (think disco and synth-pop). The Clash was the first to truly take punk rock beyond music and deliver a more meaningful message, but man, did they make music in the process.

Paul Weller. The Jam was one of the most diverse bands to come out of England within this genre. Paul, the principle songwriter, showed a range of influences that transcended a unique mix that gave The Jam they're own stamp on punk rock. While others were desperately trying to imitate the attitude of the 'Pistols, Paul, along with his bandmates, dared to show class, intelligence, and energy in a single package, and unlike British humor in film, it worked.

John Lydon. Known to the masses as Johnny Rotten (I shouldn't have to regurgitate his band), many believe he was the first punk rock frontman in existence. Anyone on the left side of the Atlantic knows that is incorrect, but he was the first to shove it down people's throats widescale, and the fact remains that many, many--arguably too many-- bands exist because of that attitude he displayed. They were short-lived, but the impact remains alive and well. There's a lot to be said about that kind of influence, and, well, I think I have. 

Jeffrey Hyman. Strong, steady, and unprecedented, Joey Ramone was not only one of punk rocks' godfathers before the label punk even existed, but was probably the single most influential vocalist as well. I shouldn't say that in the past tense, as he still influences aspiring singers by the droves. The Ramones were the turning point. It's a scary thought to think of what might have never been, had Joey never made it over the wall with that Puerto Rican passport in the GDR. Ever wondered where he got the name Ramone from? Well, now you know.

Dave Vanian. England's first real punk rock frontman, and probably the first to have actually changed his name legally. He's responsible for many other firsts as well, but the first thing that comes to mind is how much ass that first Damned record kicked. Their second and third albums kicked ass as well, and the third happens to be first on my list of favorite Damned records--and it contends for first on many other of my lists. But the point here isn't just that Dave was one of the first vocalists in the scene, it's that he kicked ass. The Damned were the UK's punk pioneers.

That's a pretty good pack to start with, but don't get too comfortable. Parts II-V will soon follow. Worth noting, this was originally supposed to focus on 20 names, but my efforts to narrow the selection proved counterproductive, as I kept remembering names I had forgotten. Before too long, I ended up with 32, then 40, and finally 50, hence the need to divide this into a small series.

With that said, enjoy.


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