- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

Diana Ross did it. So did all four of the Beatles. Ditto for Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown and each of the gangsta rappers in N.W.A.

It’s the secret ambition of every collective-bound musician: going solo.

Take Gwen Stefani. Recently, the sexy lead singer of No Doubt landed high atop the Billboard albums chart, selling 309,000 units of her first solo effort, “Love, Angel, Music, Baby.”

In a normal week, one not dominated by the staggering success of U2’s latest album and other big holiday movers, that would have brought Miss Stefani a No. 1. In fact, “Love” outpaced the first-week sales of every No Doubt album.

Which brings up a riddle: Why do some band escapees make it on their own while others fail to cut a distinct figure or, worse, fall flat on their faces?

Why can Beyonce Knowles so thrive that we question why the singer would even bother reuniting with Destiny’s Child? Why, on the other hand, is Mick Jagger so ineffectual outside the Rolling Stones?

Here, then, are a few suggestions. The first is to leave while the wind’s at your back.

Miss Ross, according to the indispensable All Music Guide Web site, went solo almost immediately after the Supremes scored their 12th No. 1 hit. She capitalized on the trio’s success before fans got tired of it.

This isn’t an option for everyone. Paul Westerberg of the Replacements and Frank Black of the Pixies, for example, never had much wind at their backs, if by wind we mean album sales and commercial exposure. So their solo careers, though interesting and distinct, can pretty much be viewed as extensions of their work within bands.

The wind-at-back timing is, however, what helped launch Sting, who disbanded the Police in 1983, when the trio was a stadium act. Some, including Sting himself, considered this a gutsy move — hiking while the iron’s hot, so to speak. But how heroic is it? The alternative, after all, is splitting after the iron’s gone cold.

Cold iron is what happened to Mark Knopfler, the guitar-picking singer of English rock band Dire Straits. He quit the band in 1995, long after its days of radio hits and vast MTV exposure in the mid-‘80s. Mr. Knopfler quietly releases albums and does soundtrack work today, but he has never approached the stature he enjoyed within the band.

Peter Gabriel has a better claim on gutsy. Mr. Gabriel left Genesis while it was still a mask-wearing prog-rock quartet with no hits to its name. He then built a highly successful solo career from scratch. Genesis’ Phil Collins, though a drummer, more or less moved into Mr. Gabriel’s place and became a huge star in his own right.

Why the frontman slot in Genesis was such a sweet spot is a mystery for another day.

The point for now is our second suggestion: Be the frontman.

There’s a reason why Aerosmith guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford failed so miserably — and so quickly — as solo artists, why Mr. Collins lasted longer than bandmate Mike Rutherford’s Mechanics, why Rod Stewart was better off without the Faces.

Audiences identify with the frontman, usually the singer — the job that requires the most charisma and audience interaction — in the same way they identify with quarterbacks. Ozzy Osbourne is Black Sabbath, and Black Sabbath is Ozzy Osbourne.

Eric Clapton is an exception that proves the rule. His guitar-god talents within Cream and, before that, with the Yardbirds and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers were so incontrovertible they simply couldn’t be confined to a group. The problem was that he was shy. Sometime collaborator and friend Delaney Bramlett had to encourage Mr. Clapton to sing and assume the responsibilities of the frontman. It worked.

Things get a little tricky when bands have multiple singer-songwriters, such as the Eagles. But even here, the frontman rule still applies, if imperfectly. Don Henley — another drummer-singer — sang lead on most of the Eagles’ hits. Mr. Henley’s share of the band’s vocal identity corresponds roughly to his share of success compared with Eagles singer-guitarist Glenn Frey.

These are solo successes. What about failures? Led Zeppelin is an interesting case. One of the highest-selling, most-beloved and influential rock bands in history, Zeppelin never produced a long-running solo success. Most likely, that’s because the man most responsible for the band’s galvanizing sound — guitarist Jimmy Page — can’t sing.

During his fitful solo career, Mr. Page tried various Robert Plant clones such as Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale as singers, to little advantage and even some ridicule. Frontman Plant enjoyed a few hits on his own in the mid-‘80s and with a brief side project called the Honeydrippers but fizzled without a steady supply of god-hammer guitar riffs.

This mutual dependence would seem to explain why John Lennon and Paul McCartney outlived the Beatles’ 1970 breakup: They were self-sufficient songwriters who could hack it on their own. George Harrison and Ringo Starr both had hits, but neither saw the sustained acclaim and achievements of their counterparts (tragically cut short in Mr. Lennon’s case).

Interdependence is also a handy explanation for Mr. Jagger’s lackluster track record as a Stone alone. The singer is said to be useless without his harder-edged songwriting partner, guitarist Keith Richards (who dropped out of the solo game after recording two mostly well-received albums between 1988 and 1992).

But Mr. Jagger wrote hits such as “Brown Sugar” and “Miss You,” chords and all, without Mr. Richards’ input.

There’s a better explanation, and thus our final piece of advice: Be young and in your prime. Mr. Jagger waited until 1985, at the advanced age of 42, before venturing outside the Stones.

Youth might be the most important criterion of all for the solo breakout.

If it weren’t, we might otherwise still care about David Cassidy.

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