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Flying solo, and loving it

Some singers soar just as high without the band — except David Lee Roth
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Ah, the ubiquitous Paul McCartney. He’s on tour to support his new LP, “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.” His new single, “Fine Line” is featured in a Lexus car commercial. And a recent Fidelity Investments ad campaign reminds us that McCartney was not only a Beatle, in his nearly 40-year career, he’s been a Wing, a producer, a business mogul, a knight, and one or two things (Dad, etc.) to which mere mortals might actually relate.

But don’t feel bad if you’re not as successful as Paul. Neither is John, George or Ringo.

While fellow Ex-Beatles John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starreach have respectable solo discographies, none achieved McCartney’s mammoth commercial viability. Lennon may have been (arguably) the most talented of the group, but McCartney remained pop music’s darling.

Pop stardom is capricious. Whether it’s because of ego, infighting, or necessity, striking out on your own is a crapshoot. Career trajectories of solo artists — and the bands they leave behind — are the fascinating footnotes of rock music history.

Going it alone seems like the right idea when you consider these guys: Lionel Richie (formerly of the Commodores), Michael Jackson (formerly of the Jackson 5), Sting (formerly of the Police), Phil Collins (formerly of Genesis), Peter Gabriel (also formerly of Genesis), and Eric Clapton (formerly of the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith). Critically, some of these guys may have turned out their weakest material alone, but bigger record sales make that point moot.

Solo careers separate the wheat from the chaff. For example, what happened to Garfunkel or the members of the Police who weren’t Sting? Then there’s Andrew Ridgeley. You know, Andrew Ridgeley! The other guy from Wham. George Michael sure left him high and dry.

A solo career can be so huge that it eclipses an artist’s origins. Not a lot of kids know that there used to be a punk band called Generation X, long before “Generation X” was used to describe an actual generation. That band was fairly popular and pretty darn good too, and the singer was Billy Idol. Meanwhile, Bjork used to be in this kooky Iceland band, The Sugarcubes. They wore neon lights when they performed. It was way cool.

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Then there’s the flip side — the surprise successes of bands after they lose the member generally believed to be the most talented. Who expected New Order to rise from Joy Division after lead singer Ian Curtis hanged himself? Not long after Kurt Cobain pulled a Hemingway, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl switched to guitar and formed the inescapable Foo Fighters.

On a lighter note regarding hidden talent revealed, even Justin Timberlake is an interesting story. Rising to fame as a member of the prefab group N’ Sync, Timberlake ditched the kiddie music and put out a pretty OK pop album. Who knew he had some talent hidden away in there?

Then there are the goin’-solo artists who succeed despite being the least musically-talented members of an outfit. One could argue that Gwen Stefani (formerly of No Doubt) and Courtney Love (formerly of Hole) had bands just to get noticed so they could then move on to their true calling: Actress/Model/Clothing Designer/Famous-For-Any-Reason. Beyonce joins this category once her group, Destiny’s Child disbands after its current concert tour.

Which brings us to David Lee Roth. He quit the ultimate party band Van Halen to do what?! Lounge-lizard versions of “Just a Gigolo” and Beach Boy hits? Oh, David.

Coincidentally, Roth’s departure led to Red Rocker Sammy Hagar quitting his solo career to join Van Halen. Big egos put an end to that collaboration as well — not to mention the terminated double-solo tour Roth and Hagar attempted in 2002.

Rap groups seem to splinter less often then rock groups. The end of N.W.A. resulted in great careers for Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and an OK career for Easy E before his death. But mostly in hip-hop you get lots of guest spots and rap collectives, such as the Wu-Tang Clan. The Wu has like, a jillion members who make occasional appearances on the albums. The only real constant of the Wu Tang is Rza.

When it comes to classic rock, solo tours can be a boon to fans too young to have seen the original product. Lots of folks paid to see Robert Plant in concert not because they were fans of his sappy project, the Honeydrippers, but because there was a good chance Plant would sing some old Led Zeppelin chestnuts. Plant generally came through in the encore.

Sometimes former band mates get past their old differences and solo projects and try it again. Fans were thrilled last year when the Pixies rejoined to do a tour and some recording. An unexpected reunion, given leader Frank Black’s legendary self-importance and bassist Kim Deal’s other great band, the Breeders.

Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards tried solo careers, but soon realized it was more financially prudent to stick it out together and rake in those sweet mortgage-company sponsorships. Tickets for the Stone’s current Ameriquest-sponsored tour run more than $100.

And let’s not forget the Eagles. Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh all had relatively successful solo careers producing mediocre music for the masses. They also put aside their beefs so that they too could sell concert tickets for unconscionable prices. Unfortunately, there’s no scientific tool to calculate whether these guys did more damage to pop music together or apart.

That puts in mind an old Mojo Nixon song that bemoans the meteoric solo career of one Eagle in particular. “Don Henley must die” is the name of the cult classic, which also warns of a band reunion through its rhyming lyric “don’t let him get back together with Glenn Frey.”

Helen A.S. Popkin is the former chapter president of the New York Eagles fan club (OK, not really) and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.