[28 June 2010]
According to common wisdom (and recent criticism of the Tony awards), actors should act, and singers should sing. Yet, in an age when a downward economy coupled with rapid technology shifts has created a double whammy in the entertainment industry, the ability for the multi-talented to move among genres and media is a necessity. Nevertheless, cross-pollination, especially between acting and music, seems to breed fans’ and critics’ contempt or suspicion, rather than nurture creativity (which, pragmatically, is needed to keep sales up everywhere).
The industry hasn’t always been that way, and singers who can act and actors who can sing often have won awards for their cross-talent. Frank Sinatra received a Best Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity in 1954 and, two years later, received another Oscar nomination for The Man with the Golden Arm. Although the Grammy Awards began two decades after Sinatra’s wildly popular heyday as a crooner, he nonetheless won 11 Grammys for his later work. Barbra Streisand’s many awards recognize her multiple talents as singer, actor, director, and producer, whether in concert or film, on stage or TV. Although Cher is better known to the public as a singer, her acting awards emphasize her dramatic talent in Moonstruck, for which she won an Oscar in 1987, and Silkwood, which garnered an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win in 1983. Conversely, Sissy Spacek (in 1980) and Reese Witherspoon (in 2006) are primarily categorized as actors, yet they won Oscar gold, as well as other awards and nominations, for their song-filled roles as Loretta Lynn and June Carter Cash.
Despite this abbreviated list of Who’s Who among Actors/Singers, the stigma attached to a singing actor, especially one forming an “actor’s band”, is still hard to overcome. The public has long had an affinity for the strange and less than wonderful, and the concept of an actor recording a CD invariably brings up the ghosts of dead music careers past. After the novelty wore off, just how many music buffs bought albums (in ye olde record shoppes) by singers William Shatner, Clint Eastwood, Lorne Greene, David Soul, Tony Danza, or Steven Seagal?
Even so, somehow a single actor/singer is more acceptable than an actor who has singers placed around him. That bias may be a lingering result of the “manufactured” ‘60s and ‘70s bands like the Monkees or the Partridge Family (or the recent equivalent of the Glee cast, whose soundtracks sell millions). For these groups, networks hired actors who can sing or singers who can act. Their music sells, but the musical success isn’t “real”—it’s merely another product of a TV show.
Actors with musical talent just can’t seem to win when it comes to forming a legitimate band, in part because a highly successful TV or film star doesn’t financially need the cash from a musical career. The music automatically becomes perceived as a hobby or lark, not an artistically serious venture. If an actor hasn’t had a hit in a while, then a band seems like a desperate attempt to get back in the public eye. The idea that actors may like to stretch different creative muscles or experiment creatively isn’t usually played up in the press.
Thus, when a well-respected dramatic actor like Russell Crowe went on tour with 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, even the actor’s fans, let alone the press, perceived the music as a famous actor’s pastime. The band received mixed reviews for its musicality, and it gradually faded away. Crowe’s musical interest, however, did not. He collaborated with award-winning Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle to produce his 2006 CD, My Hand, My Heart. A second band, formed with Doyle as well as former members of 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, called themselves the Ordinary Fear of God on their Tonight Show debut, but nothing much happened afterward. The actor and his fame overshadowed the other band members. (Other than Great Big Sea fans who know Doyle’s stellar work as a singer/musician—or saw his recent role in Robin Hood—how many other band members are known to the public?)
Then there’s the case of the Official Band from TV—no, really, that’s their name. Band members include Greg Grunberg (Heroes, on drums), James Denton (Desperate Housewives, on guitar), Adrian Pasdar (Heroes, guitar), and Hugh Laurie (House, on keyboards). Their mission is to raise money for worthy causes, and their CD and DVD, as well as personal appearances, further that mission. They play music for their own and others’ enjoyment, but their purpose is not strictly to make music. Theirs isn’t a bad reason to create a band, but it isn’t most musicians’ reason for collaboration and performance.
With the recent trend of reality TV’s instant-celebrity singers, who often disappear soon after their CD falls off the charts, and “actor’s bands” perceived as just a sideline until the next big role comes along, it’s no wonder that a group of musicians who happen to include an actor has to overcome critics’ and TV/film audiences’ low expectations before they can begin to win over music fans.
Playing against (Stereo)Type
Against this backdrop, and in a highly competitive music market, two UK bands recently released very listenable CDs and began performing a series of summer gigs. Beecake, based in Glasgow, Scotland, and Blue Gillespie, based in Newport, Wales, have little in common beyond the facts that they have been playing together for a few years, they experimented with EPs before creating the more polished sound on their first CD, and their lead vocalist is not only a musician but an actor.
The two musicians/singers/actors working hard to develop the musical side of their multimedia careers are Billy Boyd and Gareth David-Lloyd. Although their bands have different styles (Beecake’s light rock/pop and Blue Gillespie’s harder rock/progressive metal), both CDs offer points of comparison. The as-yet-unsigned bands’ strategies for self-promotion illustrate how difficult it is to break the stigma of the “actor’s band”, even when the CDs are well made and the musicianship highly professional. For all members of Beecake and Blue Gillespie, not just the actors whose fame attracts the most attention, being mislabeled as an actor’s band proves to be the biggest blessing as well as stumbling block this summer. More than the quality of their music, this categorization can unfairly determine whether these bands will thrive or even survive.
Neither Boyd nor David-Lloyd may be a household name outside their fandoms, but mention the film trilogy Lord of the Rings or controversial TV series Torchwood, and most people will know them. When Beecake plays a gig, reviewers note that Boyd played Pippin in the popular movies. When Blue Gillespie gets press, David-Lloyd is asked about Ianto Jones’ tragic demise.
Such comments become that proverbial double-edged sword that can either entice impulse buyers to download the CD or create a backlash of eye-rolling and criticism. When Pippin wistfully sang “Home Is Behind/The Steward of Gondor” in The Return of the King (music that Boyd wrote for the film), critics and fans praised his voice and loved the scene. When Boyd takes the stage to croon “Lost Direction” or rocks to “Rip It Up”, he must meet greater musical expectations. It doesn’t matter that he’s equally good in both venues; for some listeners, he’ll forever be Pippin singing a pop tune. Perhaps it’s even easier for Boyd than David-Lloyd, however, because Beecake’s lighter rock sound easily plays into film fans’ idea of Boyd as a Pippinesque gentle soul. They might not so easily accept Boyd as a headbanger.
David-Lloyd faces a different issue. Torchwood fans who listen to Blue Gillespie or head to a gig expecting to see a mild-mannered teaboy as vocalist will be surprised to hear David-Lloyd growl in the throes of angry, driving rock/metal evocative of Tool.
Although each band owes a lot to an established fanbase and an easy hook for the press to write about their debut CD and upcoming gigs, the price is often high. Both bands are under far more scrutiny than the average start-up playing UK pub dates and summer festivals. They not only have to succeed with critics who may expect them to fail, but they need to win over new music—not just TV or film—fans. In short, they have to audition for a different crowd.
Beecake and Soul Swimming
Beecake is Boyd (vocals, guitar), John Crawford (drums, vocals), Billy Johnston (guitar, piano, vocals), and Rick Martin (bass, vocals). The band was formed in 2006 and released an EP in 2007, but these musicians have played in other bands individually and together for years. Their name reportedly comes from Boyd’s Lord of the Rings friend Dominic Monaghan, who sent Boyd a photo of a cake covered in bees—a bee cake. The band liked the name (and needed a change from the original “Angel’s Share”), so Beecake was born.
One of Soul Swimming’s selling points is its variety and timeliness, even for a band that often sounds retro with its uplifting beat and layered harmonies. Earlier versions of the CD’s tracks, made available as downloads via Beecake’s MySpace site and website, have evolved into a dynamic, professional sound. Among the 10 songs are “relationship” tunes about love lost (such as “Friends and Lovers”) and long looks back (“Boy”, “Lost Direction”). More important, though, are songs that, if not revolutionary anthems, at least reflect the modern frustration of living in a world edging toward self-destruction. “Rip It Up”, for example, looks at newspaper headlines about gun control and unrest in Africa. The mark of a real band is its voice—not just its musicality or quality of vocals but the importance of its lyrics. Beecake’s lyrics and range of styles increase the CD’s sophistication and relevance to the world-worried audiences of 2010.
Blue Gillespie and Synesthesia
On Cardiff radio in June, Gareth David-Lloyd explained that “synesthesia” refers to “senses that make up for other senses”, what the band conceives as “a wall of sounds that attacks all the senses”. The CD’s themes “are about delusions”. Although the album is dark, as befitting the band’s alter-ego, Gilllespie, there are also a few smiles and tongue-in-cheek moments. According to the band’s website, Gillespie is the “angry voice inside, spitting and cursing at a world which never seems to offer a foothold as leverage to enlightenment.” Believing everyone is angry or frustrated about something, the band uses music to exorcise their own demons, and they hope their audience will find a similar release. The ideal result? With music as an emotional outlet, everyone will be able to deal in socially appropriate ways with life’s frustrations.
Band members David-Lloyd (vocals), Rhys Bryant (bass), Anthony Clark (lead guitar), and Nick Harrison (drummer) have been together since 2007, with two EPs (Cave Country, Parts 1 and 2) to their credit. Synesthesia peels layers of emotion, song by song, to create a multisensory musical experience, and each track offers something different. The CD’s 12 songs include “Sugarglass”’ driving, harder-edged desire to relive the past; the self-discovery of “Making Sound”; a haunting lost love in “Black Waltz”; and the emotionally raw “Skinned”. “Paradox” and “Time Knot” will be featured in the independent film, Casimir Effect, out next year, and Clark is writing incidental music and helping mix the film’s soundtrack. Clearly these musicians are serious about their sound, and their musical self-expression provides a unique voice to the rock scene.
In Blue Gillespie’s online description at the Green Man Festival site, they express gratitude to their existing fanbase as well as eagerness for new audiences to discover their music. They admit they were “blown away by the response to the first EP” and believe fan support “has focused and disciplined us.” On the other hand, they also emphasize that they are not the dreaded “actor’s band”: “We are a band and have our own identity. We are not TV stars here. We are musicians.”
The “Actor’s Band” Reconsidered
So, what should be the demarcation points between an “actor’s band” and an intriguing new band worth an evening at the pub or the price of a CD? Variety is one—a CD’s tracks should present a common theme or seem like they musically belong together—but they also should be easily distinguished from each other. The overused “relevance” is another point. A band should say something important or interesting—its lyrics shouldn’t be banal or repetitive platitudes. Blue Gillespie and Beecake both score well on these points. Their music presents their respective perspectives as global citizens and musicians. On their CDs they don’t cover other artists’ music or mimic other bands, even though they reflect the musicians and styles that most influenced their work.
Both bands’ cover art reflects their artistic sensibilities through abstract graphics, not glossy “actor” photos. Blue Gillespie’s blue background requires a second look to reveal “Gillespie” hidden within the swirling lines. His eye looks out unblinkingly, just as the band is unapologetic and unwavering in their musical perspective. Beecake’s cover is a bit busier, a crayon drawing of abstractions against a starry sky. Beecake tells stories about life and loss and the fear that our world may be closer to the edge than we want to believe. Like the cover art, their happier rock sound belies a deeper complexity of theme.
A band should be comprised of equals, not an actor and supporting players. Blue Gillespie’s home page and Beecake’s MySpace and Facebook sites each provide a black-and-white photograph of the foursome facing the camera as a united, equal front.
Bands that happen to include an actor/musician need to follow Beecake’s and Blue Gillespie’s example in self-promotion and marketing. While they may build on fan followings originating from one member’s film or TV fame, they can’t survive musically on borrowed glory—nor do they want to. They have made the most of press and fan interest to get a foothold in UK music, but they still have a long climb. Their original compositions and cover art, willingness to play smaller gigs around the UK to gain a wider audience, and dedication to their music prove that these bands just don’t act like musicians—they’re the real deal.
Lynnette Porter is the author of Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography (MX Publishing, 2013), The Hobbits: The Many Lives of Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin (Tauris, 2012), The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013), and the author/editor of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012), among many other books and chapters about television or film. She writes the monthly PopMatters column Deep Focus and wrote two essays published in PopMatter's Joss Whedon book (Titan, 2012). Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.