During the genesis of rock and roll, it would be safe to say there were few classically trained singers among the early pantheon of great rockers. Sure, they could all carry a tune for the most part or they wouldn’t have become famous, but most either had an overwhelming personality or were overflowing with charisma which covered for their lack of vocal prowess and allowed the pure energy and anarchy which fueled the primitive power of the music to shine through without being saddled with the added nuisance of having to be a flawless singer. Of course, rock and roll was always considered to be musically rudimentary trash by those who loved “real” music such as classical or jazz. We know today these sentiments are untrue and a lot of classical and jazz musicians doubled in the studio as rock session musicians whenever the need (the musician’s need for money, mostly) struck but for years the opinion stood. And rock and roll artists and promoters didn’t mind. They were only too happy for rock and roll to be seen as the music of youth and rebellion (as long as the parents gave the kids money to buy the records) and to be known as a trained musician or vocalist was to betray rock and roll’s proletarian ethics. But, that all changed to a large degree when Elvis Presley hit the charts, as he became the standard for singers in the rock world for many years. While not classically trained, Presley’s voice was unique and he had a natural way with melody, possessing a pure tone which enthralled listeners. By the time the ’70’s rolled around and rock began to evolve into a more progressive music and led to bands such as Journey, Yes and the like, being a trained singer was seen as a benefit, since rock had now become part of the establishment and had embraced classical (Moody Blues) and jazz (Weather Report, Mahavishnu). While accepted at the time, the notion of claissically trained rock singers became a slippery slope. For every Freddie Mercury there was a David Hasselhoff. Not a good sign! While classically trained vocalists are still to be found in rock and roll, most wind up on Broadway or in Vegas where they rightfully belong.
Which brings us to Marty Rhone and his new release Born To Rock.
Rhone’s career includes an early stint as a well-known rock and roller in his native Australia, but Rhone is more well known in his native country now for his stints as a stage performer as well as for stints on television, radio and the movies. It seems while Rhone was known as a rock and roll pioneer in his native country, Rhone’s versatility has become his undoing as his pure rock and roll style which was heard on his early recordings has morphed into a grand, overblown style that he has cultivated in order to play to the cheap seats, totally belying rock and roll’s true immediacy and power. As his album shows, Rhone’s style of singing is now better suited for the cabarets and maybe Vegas, than for cutting hard rock and roll songs.
“Born To Rock And Roll” is both the seeming motif of the album and the lead-off cut. The song opens with some retro ’80’s style synth tones signaling a musical retro ride. The guitars come in and it’s obvious Rhone is heavily influenced by the big rock sounds of the ’80’s. This cut sounds as if it were something Hasselhoff would have released in Germany. Retro rock with a Vegas attitude. The next cut is the Foreigner classic “Feels Like The First Time” done by Rhone with a slower, more plodding tempo. Rhone does okay vocally, but brings nothing truly special to the table. Rhone’s saving grace is Foreigner’s original singer Lou Gramm was pretty much a plain Jane vocalist, making Rhone sound decent enough on this cut. John Waite’s “Missing You” is next and Rhone can’t quite match Waite’s distinctive vocal style. Rhone again channels his inner Hasselhoff on this cut, meaning Rhone oversells the vocals, and that’s not really make for good rock and roll. “Heartache Tonight”, first done by The Eagles, is Rhone’s next song and is the most Vegas-y yet. It’s easy to picture in your mind the female background vocalists decked out in glitter, feather boas, and spangly beads while the disco light shine and their legs kick in unison. To be honest, Rhone’s vocals are not bad, but I am not sure what he seeks to gain out of releasing Vegas versions of popular rock songs done in the ’70’s and ’80’s. This can’t help his career except if he is a show performer using this CD as something to sell after shows or as a demo to get work in other casinos. “To Love Somebody”, the early Bee Gee’s song, is up next and Rhone slaughters it. For the faster songs, his style is hokey but he can power through because they’re rockers. On a slow song, the singer usually has to actually emote and since Rhone is just singing songs he hasn’t written or hasn’t invested himself in other than trying to oversell them so the paying customers in the cheap seats get the idea, he vocally stomps all over the mood of the song. Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” is next and Rhone’s band manages to castrate most of the rock power of the original by replacing a lot of the guitars on the original with more cheesy synths. Rhone does okay here as Palmer was always a meat-and-potatoes singer and always showed more personality than range. Rhone does a call-and-response with a female background vocalist that cheeses the song up a little but the guitar solo is pretty rocking, so we’ll call it a draw. “Every Breath You Take”, made famous by The Police, is next and begins with a typical Vegas slow-opening, where Rhone talk/sings the chorus over a synth bed before the rest of the musicians kick in. Interestingly, Rhone’s band manages to come up with a credible Police-type sound, down to the staccato guitar strums and Stewart Copeland drum sound. Almost uncanny, actually, though Rhone’s just-about-average voice reminds you Sting is nowhere to be found. Steve Winwood’s Brit-soul chestnut “Gimme Some Lovin'” is up next and Rhone does alright with it, as the song is such a rousing rocker just about anyone could do alright with it as long as they don’t go out of tune. “Whatever You Want” is next and is another hard rocker, so Rhone does a decent enough job with it, albeit overselling it just a tad. To Rhone’s credit, he has a decent enough voice which doesn;t sound pitchy or anything, it’s just easy to tell he’s more a showman than a true rocker from his style and his delivery. Technically, there’s not too much wrong with Rhone’s singing. Unbelievably, Rhone closes the album with a glammed-up version of AC/DC’s “Long Way To The To (If You Wanna Rock And Roll)” which replaces a lot of the guitars with synths. This is just weird enough to work, actually, and you almost want to like it despite yourself.
A mixed bag of an album, to be sure. First, you have Rhone’s vocals which are showy and hokey while he goes seemingly out of his way to oversell a song instead of relying on subtlety or finesse. But, you can’t deny he has a decent voice and has a modicum of singing skills. Second, you have an album basically done for the sole reason of showcasing Rhone in this way. In other words, can you fault an album too much for being exactly as it is intended to be, that is, excelling at being a showcase for Rhone’s overwrought vocal style? While I would never purchase an album such as this to listen to and probably will never listen to this album again, credit must be given to Rhone. As an artist who has done a lot of stage work, he does well at that particular style. The question is why has Rhone decided to record rock songs in this way when he probably would have sounded more credible as an artist and probably better vocally all-around if he had recorded and album full of standards or show tunes. Now, maybe Rhone thought that would have been a cliche, or too easy. It’s not hard to see his point if that were the case. Plus, seeing as Rhone made his name as an Aussie rock and roller years ago, maybe this album was going to serve as a return to his roots. If so, Rhone has failed as he has seemingly adopted a more showman sort of vocal style which betrays any sort of rock and roll inspiration he may have had at the beginning of his career. For older folks who no longer really get the new styles of rock and want to hear someone singing a milder, more stylized, karaoke-esque version of it, this is the album for you. For those interested in real rock, stay away from this.