During my college years, I worked at Music Plus Records in Westwood. My co-workers and I created our own sections in the store. Categories included Velvet Underground Wannabees (Dream Syndicate, Feelies), Women Who Sound Like Men (Marianne Faithfull), Rockers in Drag (Bowie & Eno), Hopeful Gloom Rock (The Cure), Mellow Punk Rock (Meat Puppets), Political Rockers (Midnight Oil), Laurel Canyon Legends (Joni Mitchell).
My favorite was one called Talker Rockers. This refers to singers who speak rather than sing their lyrics. (I avoided rappers and hip-hop artists since this is about rock ‘n’ roll.) There’s a German word for this type of singing. It’s called Sprechgesang. It translates to “spoken singing” and originates from an 1897 children’s musical called Königskinder written by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (no relation to the British pop singer).
Not surprisingly, talker rockers are often poets who use music to reach a larger audience. John Cooper Clarke was a struggling English poet who found fame after performing with punk bands. Fred Schneider wrote a book of poetry before becoming lead singer for the B-52’s. Talker rockers sing at times but their predominate vocal style is spoken word. (This rules out Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Nick Cave and John Cale who all sing more than they talk.)
Here are my favorite Talker Rockers.
Bill Callahan — The singer/songwriter behind the band Smog is an experimental poet who sings apocalyptic country tunes. His music consists of simple guitar riffs played beneath a baritone voice. His lyrics are ironic and intimate as when he sings, “The only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you.” His best-known song is “Drover,” a tragic ode to cowboy cattle drivers dreaming of a better life. The song was used for the opening titles on the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country about an Oregon cult that launched the first bio-terror attack in America.
Tom Verlaine—Verlaine was lead singer of the band Television. He yearned to be a poet/writer before taking up the saxophone and guitar. He dated Patti Smith and played early gigs at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Verlaine perfected a recognizable minimalist guitar style. His ferocious solos underpinned a jagged vocal delivery that was an acquired taste. His tremulous expressive voice elucidated lyrics influenced by classic poets like Rimbaud, Paul Valéry and his namesake Paul Verlaine. He influenced bands like U2 and REM and was producing Jeff Buckley’s second studio album before Buckley tragically drowned.
Tom Waits — Waits has been called Jack Kerouac with a piano. In his early albums, he croons like Springsteen singing a ballad. Later, he adopts a deep, gravelly voice reminiscent of Captain Beefheart. He mumbles like a drunk piano man or screams like an old school preacher. His music tends toward blues and jazz with hilarious lyrics. Listening to Waits is like watching a Coen Brothers film. You need a note pad for all the quotable lines. My favorite Waitsisms include “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” “I’m so damn horny, the crack of dawn better be careful,” “the large print giveth and the small print taketh away” and “it ain’t no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones.”
Mark E. Smith — Smith was lead singer for The Fall. He was an alcoholic curmudgeon whose angry punk monologues reflected his misanthropy. He despised dogs because “they make people happy.” He sang about “filthy backstabbing Bolshevist bastards” and lifted lyrics from classic novels. Smith was confrontational, once firing a guitarist for dancing to “Smoke on the Water” at a night club. In his 42-year run with the Fall, he utilized more than 60 musicians. He was critical of fellow rockers, saying Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth “should have his music license revoked” and decrying Kate Bush’s recent comeback with the words, “I didn’t like her the first time around.” James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem said, “The Fall are my Beatles.” In response, Smith called Murphy a “New York arsehole.”
David Byrne — The Talking Heads burst onto the scene with Talking Heads ‘77. The band name embodied lead singer David Byrne’s spoken word style, layered over West African rhythms inspired by Fela Kuti. Byrne was an art school graduate from RISD in Rhode Island and his experimental music allowed him to channel surreal poetic lyrics. With the 1983 song “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” Byrne’s voice became more melodic. By the time the band released Little Creatures in 1985, Byrne embraced a falsetto singing tonality and his talking style fell by the wayside. The Talking Heads disbanded in 1991 and Byrne launched a solo career. His vocals became an amalgam of spoken word and song perfectly accompanying a herky-jerky spasm dance style.
Jonathan Richman — Richman is a Boston musical legend and his song “Roadrunner” is the unofficial rock song of Massachusetts. He was a painter who turned to music after hearing the Velvet Underground. In 1972, he formed the punk band the Modern Lovers. Richman’s songs were spoken word vocals over simple three-chord guitar. His song “Pablo Picasso” included the memorable lyrics “some people try to pick up girls and get called assholes. This never happened to Pablo Picasso.” In 1975, Richman went solo and wrote happy songs, saying he no longer wanted to make music that hurt a baby’s ears. His songs were included in the film Something About Mary. He runs a business on the side making pizza ovens in Chico, California.
Laurie Anderson — Anderson is an avant-garde performance artist and electronic music pioneer. She broke onto the scene in 1981 with her Top 10 song “O Superman.” Utilizing digital voice encryption, she articulated vocals with a futuristic cadence as if carrying on a conversation with an unseen robotic voice. The lyrics are haunting as when a phone voice says, “Here come the planes. So you better get ready.” When she asks the voice, “Who is this,” it responds, “This is the hand that takes.” Anderson invented a violin using magnetic tape on the bow (instead of horse hair) and a tape head in the bridge. She’s also an artist who sketched the 1970s underground comic Baloney Moccasins published by George DiCaprio (Leonardo’s father). She married Lou Reed in 1992 making the couple the greatest talker rocker pairing in history.
Lou Reed — Lou Reed was the definitive talker rocker. He couldn’t sing but boy could he write. As lead singer of the Velvet Underground, his talking-head style utilized a shaky baritone voice. He was a storyteller documenting the underside of America. In “Waiting for the Man,” he describes a journey to purchase heroin in Harlem with “26 dollars in my hand” feeling “sick and dirty more dead than alive.” He began using drugs as a teenager and had sexual trysts with men he didn’t know. During college he had a mental breakdown. His parents agreed to give him electroshock therapy. His songs depict his raw life experience like William Burroughs with a guitar. He wrote about streets hustlers, transvestites, sadomasochists, heroin dealers. His counterculture musical anthem “Walk on the Wild Side” told of male prostitution, drugs and blowjobs. After Reed’s death from liver cancer in 2013, Bono eulogized him in Rolling Stone. He wrote, “Lou Reed made music out of noise… He was a songwriter pulling melodies out of the dissonance of what Yeats called ‘this filthy modern tide.’”
Leonard Cohen — Cohen was a Canadian poet and novelist. He was on a path to become an academic when he met a Spanish flamenco guitarist in a Quebec park. The man taught Cohen a few chords and he began penning music for his poems. He moved to New York in 1966. He had a deep baritone voice reminiscent of Orson Welles. He wasn’t a natural singer and employed a talking-head style with R&B female backing vocals. Artists with beautiful voices often covered his songs. Judy Collins had a Top 10 hit with “Suzanne.” Roberta Flack sang “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” as the B-Side on her first single. Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is considered one of the greatest songs ever recorded. When Cohen gave up cigarettes, his voice grew even deeper. He toured into his late-70s and died of leukemia at 82. His final album You Want It Darker was released posthumously.
Honorable Mention: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, John Lydon, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes.