Not so long ago, your only chance of hearing an isolated vocal track by your favourite singer was to book a studio and access the master tapes on a professional mixing desk. Nowadays, the internet is awash with vocal-only takes of rock classics, each affording us new perspectives on - and new appreciation for - these much-loved singers and songs. Here are 11 of the very best.
Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love
You can see why former Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant isn”t so keen on singing this these days. Barely out of his teens, his voice has such flat-out, volatile sexual power you fear he’ll do himself an injury. The isolated vocal track flags up several previously unheard ejaculations, including a comical cry of “Timber!” at 2:47.
Iron Maiden – The Number Of The Beast
After producer Martin Birch forced Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson to do dozens of takes, his opening verse sounds convincingly haunted and harassed, leading up to that spontaneous, blood-curdling 13-second scream of pure frustration. New to the band, Dickinson continues to impress throughout the song, vigorously spitting out words of demonic possession with commited abandon.
Metallica – Master Of Puppets
James Hetfield hadn’t wanted to continue as Metallica’s singer, but audibly the 22-year-old’s voice was maturing beyond the hoarse yelp of the band’s early days. There’s still plenty of raw aggression and street attitude in those youthful pipes, but here they sound perfectly commanding and scornful, with increasing control, depth and bags of character.
Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Many of these isolated vocals offer new ways of connecting with overplayed favourites. Few songs are more overplayed than Nirvana’s breakthrough song, yet it brings up fresh goosebumps starkly reduced to its bare bones, as well as new respect for Kurt Cobain’s emotional range, individuality, sensitivity and seldom-credited vocal professionalism.
Kiss – Shout It Out Loud
No one but the most devout Kiss Army fundamentalist would ever say Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley were the greatest singers in the world, but in mercilessly stripped-down form their strengths are clear. Paul sells every word with party-time energy and attitude, while Gene bawls like a grumpy man shouting abuse at his neighbour’s dog.
Heart – Barracuda
Many of the subtler nuances in Heart singer Ann Wilson’s unique, vituperative delivery were hidden under Barracuda’s thunderous gallop: the dismissive snap on the end of the first chorus, the eerie high notes, the folk-gone-mad harmonies on the bridge. So separating out the then-26-year-old singer’s unorthodox phrasings almost feels like supernatural archaeology.
Dio – Holy Diver
TeamRock’s Malcolm Dome once gushed that Ronnie James Dio’s voice “soars with the grace of a thousand golden eagles”, and you can almost hear the swish of their wings on the title track of Dio’s classic debut album. RJD brings effortless power, class and serene clarity, but also a gritty, animalistic attack on the words, as well as a playful, spontaneous energy.
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The Who – Won’t Get Fooled Again
Fascinating how The Who’s Roger Daltrey seems to get more and more worked up with each verse, starting out as an earnest, declamatory storyteller, gradually proceeding to a bullish, belligerent sneer and THAT hair-raising shriek at 7:00, arguably the most powerful hair-raising shriek in rock, alongside Little Richard’s Lucille and Slayer’s Angel Of Death.
Deep Purple – Child In Time
Ian Gillan was Deep Purple’s new boy, and the first major contribution to the group he’d just joined is a masterclass in how to impress new bandmates. From the mystical hush of the opening verses to the deep lungfuls between each banshee wail, this spellbinding vocal marks out Child In Time, for all time, as a timeless classic.
Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
No matter how many times you’ve heard Queen’s ubiquitous epic, Freddie Mercury’s isolated vocals find new ways to chill, beguile and flabbergast. YouTube user Mike Mitchell puts it best: “Freddie is the closest humanity will ever get to being able to say one of us was a god.”
Merry Clayton – Gimme Shelter
Perhaps the most chilling isolated vocal of all, this last-minute nocturnal improvisation on the Rolling Stones classic finds backing singer supreme Clayton channelling the apocalyptic darkness of the line ‘Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away’ with primal emotional force. Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage later that night, some claim as a result of her strenuous efforts here.