Is BLACKIE LAWLESS Using Backing Tapes For His Lead Vocals? 'When I'm Up There, I'm Singing My Ass Off', He SaysMay 26, 2023
During a May 25 appearance on SiriusXM's "Trunk Nation With Eddie Trunk", W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless was once again asked about complaints from some of the band's fans about the use of backing tracks during the group's live performances. He responded (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET): "About 10, 12 years ago, we did 'The Crimson Idol' the first time in its entirety with orchestration. Now, prior to that, we had just done — I call it the 'Live At Leeds' version… Because if you look at what THE WHO did with the 'Live At Leeds', which we all thought was live at the time, and we now realize there are overdubs on those as well, like most live records. We would take the bare-bones approach to doing it. Well, we decided to take an approach where we tried to make it sound exactly like the record. And we had never used orchestration or anything like that. So we went in the studio, we took all the tracks off the record as far as the orchestration, we took the background vocal tracks, we took doubles on leads — we did everything. And we took it and we tried to make it sound as much like the record as we could. I stood in the middle of the room that first night in rehearsal, and I swear to you it was like an out-of-body experience. I had never heard anything sound like that before. I had never played with a live orchestra before. And so this was the closest thing you would get to doing something like that.
"Listen, I understand both sides of the argument on it," he continued. "For me personally, when I'm up there, I'm singing my ass off. But what's wrong with having enhancement to make something sound exactly like the record? Because you're not gonna get a band like QUEEN or any other band that does big productions like that… Four guys cannot go out there and reproduce that record. It's impossible. It won't happen. So do you want it to sound like the record or do you want it to be just a general live performance? And that's a question of taste.
"If you're gonna start making records where you have a lot of orchestration and things like that going, it is impossible to make it sound like that record unless you have that," Lawless added. "And you can also make the argument, which has been going on Broadway for the last 20 years, the musicians' union has been fighting this fiercely but technology rolls on and it's not gonna stop, where they no longer have live music in Broadway productions. And the musicians' union has had a fit over that. Well, even before that happened, when you had keyboards introduced that had entire orchestras in them, you've got one guy now replacing a hundred and twenty different people. So where do you draw the line?
"Like I said, I understand if somebody wants a true, organic experience, but from my perspective, I looked at it and I said… Once I heard it sound exactly like the record, I thought, 'I cannot go back to this again.' I mentioned THE WHO a second ago, the 'Live At Leeds' approach. THE WHO used tapes for years until they started hiring all these other guys to go out with them. But even still, a lot of the keyboard stuff — 'Won't Get Fooled Again', things like that — that's all on tape."
"When I go out on that stage, I take a lot of pride in this gift that God's given me," Blackie added. "And I like to show it off; I'll just be flat-out honest with you. But I think people wanna see that or they wanna hear it. So I don't think there's anything wrong with it. If you've got a guitar player that is really, really good, people are going there to see that. But again, when I went into rehearsals that one night and I heard what it sounded like when it sounded like the record, I thought, 'I can never go back.' Like I said, it was a flat-out out-of-body experience."
Asked what percentage of the vocals during W.A.S.P.'s live concerts are on tape, Blackie said: "You mean from my lead vocals? For my lead vocals, I would encourage people to go… We did five shows where I was sitting. Go look at those last couple. You're gonna hear it loud and clear. 'Cause when we were in Sofia, I cracked a couple of times, which I normally don't do. But it was getting towards the end of the tour. I mean, it wasn't anything catastrophic, but for me, I don't normally crack. But it happens. It's part of the live experience. But when we start doing the choruses and things like that, myself and Mike Duda and Doug Blair, we're all out there singing, but we're using backups behind that too. Because when we did it in the studio, we were using three and four tracks at a time to create that. You cannot make those choruses sound huge like that with just individual vocals creating that, because when you're doing it in the studio, you double and triple tracks. I mentioned QUEEN a while ago — they were using 24 tracks of vocals to create those sounds. You cannot create those chorus sounds by two or three guys doing that. It is impossible… Unless there's 20 guys in that room doing that, it ain't gonna sound like that… If you're doing 24 tracks of vocals to create that chorus effect, a handful of guys cannot do that, even with electronic doublers. And then you can get into that argument — okay, you're using mechanical effects to enhance one guy out there. I mean, where do we draw the line with this now?"
W.A.S.P. has been criticized for the group's supposed use of backing tracks, including for Blackie's lead vocals, for at least several years, as Metal Sludge pointed out in 2019 after Lawless and his bandmates performed at the Helgeåfestivalen in Sweden.
In recent years, more and more artists have been given a pass for relying on pre-recorded tracks, drum triggers and other assorted technology that makes concerts more synthetic but also more consistent. For better or worse, pre-recorded tracks are becoming increasingly common for touring artists of all levels and genres and they're not just used in pop music — many rock artists utilize playback tracks to varying degrees.
KISS frontman Paul Stanley, who has been struggling to hit the high notes in many of the band's classic songs for a number of years, has been accused of singing to a backing tape on KISS's ongoing "End Of The Road" tour.
Back in 2015, KISS bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons slammed bands who used backing tapes for not being honest enough to include that fact on their concert tickets.
"I have a problem when you charge $100 to see a live show and the artist uses backing tracks," Simmons said. "It's like the ingredients in food. If the first ingredient on the label is sugar, that's at least honest. It should be on every ticket — you're paying $100, 30 to 50 percent of the show is [on] backing tracks and they'll sing sometimes, sometimes they'll lip sync. At least be honest. It's not about backing tracks, it's about dishonesty.
"There's nobody with a synthesizer on our stage, there's no samples on the drums, there's nothing," Gene continued. "There's very few bands who do that now — AC/DC, METALLICA, us. I can't even say that about U2 or THE [ROLLING] STONES. There's very few bands who don't use [backing] tracks."
This past March, KISS's longtime manager Doc McGhee defended Stanley's vocal performance on "End Of The Road", explaining that the "Star Child" "fully sings to every song" at every concert. He explained: It's enhanced. It's just part of the process to make sure that everybody hears the songs the way they should be sang to begin with. Nobody wants to hear people do stuff that's not real, that's not what they came to hear."
When McGhee was asked to clarify if he was "actually saying there are backing tracks that [Paul is] singing to," Doc said: "He'll sing to tracks. It's all part of a process. Because everybody wants to hear everybody sing. But he fully sings to every song."
In March 2020, SHINEDOWN guitarist Zach Myers said that "90 percent" of rock artists use at least some pre-recorded tracks during their live performances. He told Rock Feed: "It bothers me that it bothers people. I'm, like, 'Why does this bother you?' It's the way it is. People have been doing this since the '80s. And we want the sound to be the best it can be. Could we go up there, just the four of us, and put on the best rock show ever? Of course. But that's not how we wanna do it."
Former SKID ROW singer Sebastian Bach has previously said that he is "one of the last people" who are still not using pre-recorded tracks at their live shows. "I don't know how much longer I can say to you that I don't use tapes onstage, because I don't, and I never have," he told Consequence Of Sound. "And I still don't. When I have opening bands, and they're using tapes, and then I come out and I don't use tapes… sometimes, it makes me feel stupid, because I'm like, 'What am I doing, when all these kids half my age can come onstage and do all of my moves, but they don't have to warm up for an hour before the show, or weeks, before the first show?' Sometimes, I'm like, 'Why do I even bother, if the public is so used to this other way?' It's becoming very rare to come see a good band that's actually a real band — that's not miming or doing silly moves while a tape is running. It just becomes more rare as the years go on."
In 2019, IRON MAIDEN guitarist Adrian Smith said that he doesn't "agree" with certain rock artists relying on pre-recorded tracks during their live performances. "I tell you what, I see it with a lot of younger bands, and I don't think it's a good thing at all," he told the New York Post. "I mean, the music is getting too technical now. You have computerized recording systems, which we use, but I think we use them more for convenience than because we need to. We've toured with a couple bands that use tapes — it's not real. You're supposed to play live; it should be live. I don't agree with using tapes … I think it's a real shame."
One musician who has been open about his band's use of taped vocals during live performances is MÖTLEY CRÜE bassist Nikki Sixx, who said: "We've used technology since '87." He added the group employed "sequencers, sub tones, background vox tracks, plus background singers and us. [MÖTLEY CRÜE also taped] stuff we can't tour with, like cello parts in ballads, etc.... We love it and don't hide it. It's a great tool to fill out the sound."
In a 2014 interview, MÖTLEY CRÜE guitarist Mick Mars admitted that he wasn't comfortable with the fact that his band used pre-recorded backing vocals in its live shows, claiming that he preferred to watch groups whose performances are delivered entirely live. "I don't like it," he said. "I think a band like ours… I have to say '60s bands were my favorite — '60s and '70s bands — because they were real, like, three-piece bands or four-piece bands, and they just got up there and kicked it up. Made a mistake? So what? Sounded a little bit empty here or there? So what? It's the bigness and the rawness and the people that developed and wrote the songs and made them and presented them. To me, that's what I really like. I mean, I could put on a MÖTLEY CD and play with it all day long. I don't wanna do that."
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