Tom Waits. Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Tom Waits. Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Voices soaked in bourbon

Freddie Mercury may have employed vocal wizardry, as a recent study found, but great, envelope-pushing music doesn't always sound pretty

In the bitterly contested battlefield that is pop culture and music criticism, Freddie Mercury is one of the few figures who demands almost universal respect. Whatever you think of Queen and its brand of grandiloquent arena rock, Mercury was the archetypal rock frontman—with a flamboyant stage persona and a voice that The Guardian’s Caroline Sullivan once called “a force of nature with the velocity of a hurricane".

The latter received scientific backing in April when a group of Austrian, Czech and Swedish researchers published an acoustic analysis of Mercury’s voice in the journal Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology. Lacking a living test subject, the study’s methodology was hardly perfect, but it did come up with some interesting conclusions. For one, it seems Mercury was a baritone, despite his fame as a tenor. For another, he likely employed subharmonics, a rare vocal technique in which the larynx’s ventricular folds vibrate alongside the vocal folds. It’s a technique more usually found in Mongolia’s Tuvan throat singers, known for their rumbling, droning singing style that attempts to mimic the sounds of nature.

This is an intriguing bit of information about the artiste, who died in 1991, and would have remained unremarkable if it hadn’t been picked up by a bunch of publications that ran articles with headlines like “Scientists explain why Freddie Mercury was such a good singer" and “Freddie Mercury Scientifically Proven to Be Awesome". This sort of thinking betrays an awful underlying assumption about music—that creativity and inspiration can be plotted on some sort of “artistry" graph; that music can be explained like gravity; and that great music is, after all, nothing more than the sum of its parts.

Great artistes are great not because they thrill us with form, but because they captivate us with the substance of what they’re trying to say. Many influential singers of the past century didn’t follow the “good vocalist" rule book—they knew the rules but achieved greatness by breaking them and pushing popular music out of its comfort zone of pretty voice and melodious harmonies. Here is a completely unscientific list of five of the weirdest, most distinctive and undeniably great singers in popular music.

Tom Waits

Tom Waits is a Grammy award-winning musician who has performed with the Dalai Lama at a peace concert. He has influenced the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His shows sell out worldwide. And all this with a voice that sounds like he’s gargling razor blades and broken glass. Though he started off as a fairly conventional crooner, years of heavy booze and cigarettes left him with a voice that music critic Daniel Durchholz once described as “soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car".

Waits’ ravaged growl rarely features on best-singer lists, but there’s no voice better suited to his chronicles of the grotesque, seedy goings-on in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. It’s also inspired some of the best descriptions of any voice ever. My favourite is by American writer Glenn O’Brien, who suggested in a 1985 Spin article that Waits’ voice “could guide ships through dense fog".

Johnny Rotten

It’s 1977 and the Summer of Love is well and truly dead. The economic conditions in Britain are the worst they have been since 1976, unemployment is at 6.4% and the future holds little promise for working-class youth. But the music scene is still dominated by the leftovers from the 1960s, with their optimistic—and deluded—message of love and peace. John Lydon and his snotty, tuneless yowl swept all the detritus away, declaring war on good taste, melody and all the other sacred cows of bourgeois pop music.

Johnny Rotten (forefront, right) and the Sex Pistols. Photo: Richard E Aaron/Redferns via Getty Images
Johnny Rotten (forefront, right) and the Sex Pistols. Photo: Richard E Aaron/Redferns via Getty Images

Kate Bush

When 19-year-old Kate Bush emerged in 1978 with Wuthering Heights, the first thing that struck people was the sight of her rake- thin body in a red dress, spinning and flailing around in a meadow. The second thing was her voice—a haunting soprano that was part precocious child, part Gothic woman and fully helium soaked.

Inspired by Emily Brontë’s famous novel, the song earned her the honour of being the first female artiste to achieve a UK No.1 with a self-written song. She would earn many more over the course of a career that included 10 studio albums, which established her as one of the most innovative and idiosyncratic musicians of her time. Tim Adams once compared her to a psychic medium, saying she has been “variously possessed by voices that range from a Viet Cong insurgent to Harry Houdini’s wife". You can see the impact of Bush’s many weird and surreal voices on a succession of quirky, whimsical female singer-songwriters, including Joanna Newsom, Alison Goldfrapp, even Regina Spektor.

Diamanda Galás

Mike Patton

Patton rose to fame in the 1990s as the maudlin vocalist of alternative metal band Faith No More, before something sent him careening through a wide range of vocal styles and many bands. His genre-defying bands—Mr Bungle, Fantômas, Tomahawk, Peeping Tom—all come with the experimental tag and feature him excelling at crooning, death metal growling, scatting, rapping, operatic singing and high falsettos.

He’s got a fantastic six-octave voice (Mercury’s voice had a four-octave range), but instead of using it to sound melodic and pretty, he’s chosen to deploy it as an avant-gardist vocal instrument. And no matter what style he’s using, it’s instantly recognizable. Weird and often dissonant, Patton boasts of the most versatile and innovative vocal cords in modern rock.

Honourable mentions: Captain Beefheart, Thom Yorke, Annie Lennox, Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain.