The relative value of band members, featuring Queen

First published at Time Out Sydney, 30 May 2014. Art by Robert Polmear.

Andrew P Street explains that band members are not equal. Not even a bit


A certain amount of Queen is coming to Australia later this year, and people are excited about it for reasons that I can’t entirely fathom. Then again, Queen fandom was always slightly out of my reach: I was just a bit too young to love them at the time, and just a bit too old to relive them through a dad’s car best-of, so I was right in their contemporary-with-their-late-period terrible-era sweet spot.

However, let’s be honest: the corpse of Freddie Mercury is more Queen than the rest of Queen – even if bassist John Deacon came back. And the reason for this is simple: regardless of what they say in interviews, no band is a partnership of equals.

In fact, the ranked importance of each member of almost any band in history can be illustrated thusly:

1. Singer
2. Lead guitarist
3. Rhythm guitarist
4. Drummer
5. Bassist
6. Keyboard player/saxophonist/percussionist/whatever

And here is that ranking as a pie chart, because I am very smart and talented:

(“Ringo” is the base unit of musical necessity. Ten Ringos is called a DecaRingo, or one Lennon.)

Note that the lead singer is only slightly less replaceable than all of the members combined. Note also that this is an approximation and does not apply to INXS.

This ranking, incidentally, applies only to bands that play instruments. The rules for boy bands are different: that ranking typically goes Androgynous Hottie, Masculine Hottie, Member With Most Mixed Ethnicity, One You Just Know Will Get Fat, The One Who Writes The Songs.

But back to rock bands: the lead singer is the thing that makes you connect with a band. Instruments are standardised: E major played on a Les Paul through a Marshall stack sounds much the same whether it’s Pete Townshend or your cousin Rebecca. Also, Beccy will take better care of the equipment involved.

However, voices are unique. That’s why bands who replace their singers almost always fail.

Sure, you get the odd AC/DC or Van Halen who keep on having hits, but be honest with yourself: has anyone ever sincerely expressed the sentiment “you know, they really hit their stride with Brian Johnson: Bon Scott was totally holding Acca Dacca back(a)”?

Let me answer that rhetorical-sounding question for you: No. No, they have not.

So let’s go through this one by one.

1. Singer
This is the only person in the band that 90% of fans can identify by name. They stand at the front in photos and have first pick of anyone who wishes to have sex with the band. They might write the songs, but it doesn’t matter, since that voice is the reason why anyone gives a shit. May reform the band after a split and be the only original member, because who honestly cares?
Examples: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Bono, Chris Martin, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, Courtney Love, Damon Albarn, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey, Karen O, Tim Rogers, Billy Corgan, Simon Le Bon, Bernard Fanning, Siouxsie, Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke, Grace Slick, Doc Neeson, Alex Turner, Eddie Vedder, Michael Hutchence…

2. Lead Guitarist
Second pick of the sex, gets near the front in photos, and is the member most likely to be referred to as “the architect of the band”. Statistically, this is the member most likely to either write the songs or co-write with the singer. Is legally obliged to have a largely-ignored solo career and/or do soundtracks.
Examples: Johnny Marr, Jonny Greenwood, Keith Richards, The Edge, Noel Gallagher, Eddie Van Halen, George Harrison, Pete Townshend, Pete Buck, Jimmy Page, Angus Young, Slash, Graham Coxon… all the people you know that are in bands but aren’t singers.

3. Rhythm Guitarist
If there are two guitarists, this is the one that stands slightly toward the back and mainly plays chords. If this member is not the main songwriter, they will be fired during the making of the second album and replaced on tour by a hired guitar/keys person. If you’re the second guitarist, you’d better have formed the band, written the biggest hit, or have some amazing dirt on the rest of the band and the steely fearlessness to use it when the time comes.
Examples: Malcolm Young. That’s literally it.

4. Drummer
The member most likely to be called “the heart of the band”. Also the member most likely to keep using drugs when everyone else has cleaned up, have the largest amount of visible tatts, and keep wearing a baseball cap well into middle age. Gets third pick of the sex; second if the band are in their heroin phase. Also is almost always the first member to die.
Examples: Chad Smith, Tommy Lee, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, John Bonham

5. Bassist
Most likely the housemate of the lead singer, or the friend who bought a van. Still there because they came up with the group’s name. The member most likely to be referred to as “who?” All bassists wake from dreams in which they are Flea, and are momentarily filled with hope and joy. Then they remember they’re actually in Weezer or Coldplay or Jane’s Addiction and that if they died on stage their tech would slot in after four bars and not a soul in the room would notice. In band photos, theirs is the face least in focus.
Note: if the bassist is female in an otherwise male band, she is immediately promoted to #2.
Examples: Kim Deal, Kim Gordon, Stephanie Ashworth, Tina Weymouth, some dudes.

6. Any other player whatsoever
The Fauves gave the world’s most eloquent statement on the importance of other players in their definitive rock’n’roll thesis, 1995’s ‘Everybody’s Getting A 3 Piece Together’: “Everyone’s trimming the fat,” Andy Cox powerfully opined. “Keyboards, percussion? Fuck that.”
Examples: none.

7. The audience
Bands sometimes say their audience are a member of the group. Those bands are patronising you. You are not a member of the group, otherwise you’d have got in for free. On the plus side: you will still get more sex than the bassist.

It’ll probably be with the drummer, though.

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