The rock musicians battling against AI: "If they can do it to Steve and they can do it to me, what's next? How far will they go?"

A live shot of Steve Marriott
(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

"It sounded like a half-decent white soul singer trying to sound like Steve Marriott – and failing." Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley is talking to Classic Rock about an AI-generated track produced by Cleopatra records that attempted to emulate Steve Marriott's vocals. "It didn’t sound anything like Steve," he says. "I felt so strongly that I turned down twenty thousand dollars.” 

Shirley and former bandmate Peter Frampton are speaking to Classic Rock as the debate over AI-generated vocals rumbles on. As reported last month, Frampton and Shirley are among a growing list of celebrated musicians objecting to plans by the estate of the pair’s late Humble Pie colleague, frontman Steve Marriott, to release so-called ‘new’ recordings from the singer, who died in 1991 at the age of 44.

Those registering their objection include Marriott’s singing daughter Mollie and her siblings Lesley, Toby and Tonya, Steve’s former Small Faces bandmate Kenny Jones, plus Robert Plant, David Gilmour, Paul Rodgers, Bryan Adams, Glenn Hughes and Paul Weller.

Los Angeles-based independent label Cleopatra Records have been in discussions with the Marriott estate about completing some of Steve’s unfinished demos using AI technology, although they plan to release the recordings in their original form “for now” – those two words being crucial – via three as-yet-unscheduled compilation albums. Chris France, the managing director of Marriott’s estate, told Variety that while “there are no confirmed plans to use Steve Marriott’s voice on AI recordings, that does not mean a deal will not be done with one of several suitors who have made offers”.

When Mollie Marriott voiced her objection in the strongest terms, France responded: “I am afraid that [Mollie’s] opinions are of no consequence to me or Steve’s estate.”

As the current owner of the band name, Jerry Shirley has liaised many times with Cleopatra and France over previous Humble Pie re-release projects. Six months ago, Shirley received a proposal to include future AI amendments in their deal. The drummer knew right away that this was a non-starter but, in the interests of exploring all possibilities Shirley invited Cleopatra to apply the technique to the song Georgia On My Mind, made popular by Ray Charles. 

“I only asked them because I knew it couldn’t be done, but I was curious,” he explains. “I also knew that song with Steve singing it doesn’t exist on tape.”

Shirley was utterly dismayed by the results. “It was horrible – not even close,” he says. 

Unperturbed, technicians tried again. “Second time around it was even worse,” Shirley says. “There were slight improvements in the backing track – I’ve no idea who played on those, by the way – but it sounded like a half-decent white soul singer trying to sound like a white soul singer trying to sound like Steve Marriott – and failing. It didn’t sound anything like Steve.”

Shirley chose not to be involved. “I felt so strongly that in doing so I turned down twenty thousand dollars.” 

Awareness of AI in music has boomed since last year when the new technology was used to create the ‘new’ Beatles song Now And Then. The unexpected bonus of a previously non-existent song from the Fab Four helped to normalise the process. But Shirley believes the circumstances surrounding the Marriott songs to be completely different.

“The Beatles song was made with the original demo, using John Lennon’s voice and building the backing track around it by the surviving members of the band. And it was done with the permission of John’s family,” he points out.

Frampton, for his part, is yet to hear the version of Georgia On My Mind, “so I don’t know how bad it is,” he tells Classic Rock. “But for Jerry to say what he did it must be really bad.” He also shares Shirley’s defence of Now And Then, “and that’s because Paul McCartney knew how John Lennon sang”, he reasons. 

Frampton’s concerns were raised when he was emailed an AI-sourced reboot of Baby, I Love Your Way, his own hit from 1975, sung in the voice of John Lennon.

“This was the version from my acoustic album [Acoustic Classics, 2016],” he explains. “John never used much vibrato at the end of a line, and I do. It was pretty good actually, and I found that kinda freaky. It scared me to death.”

We are really mad about this. If I have to go to Congress here to stop it in America, we will get as many artists as possible and we will do that.

Peter Frampton

For Frampton, it raised some significant red flags. “If they [AI technicians] can do it to Steve and they’ve done it to me, what comes next? How far will they go?” he wonders. “For me there is no place for such fakery. Using somebody’s immortal voice for anything other than its original purpose is just wrong.

“Here in America, Congress is working against AI, and I have signed on to be a part of that,” Frampton continues. “The process can also be used to compose songs and write literature. Now AI can generate a thesis on any subject you like: ‘Write me a thesis in the style of Shakespeare.’ It’s plagiarism by any other name. A piece of work should be the personal property of the artist.”

When Classic Rock approached Cleopatra Records to comment, CEO Brian Perera explained that the company was pushing on with releasing Marriott’s demos in their existing form, with no AI manipulation. The label are also weighing up repeating the blueprint for the recent album from Cactus, on which drummer Carmine Appice is joined by guests including Ted Nugent, Joe BonamassaPat Travers and Dug Pinnick from King’s X. According to Perera, Appice is “enthusiastic about supporting a venture that could reintroduce Marriott’s voice to a broader audience”.

Cleopatra are also preparing an album of unfinished demos by the late Stiv Bators, the much-loved Lords Of The New Church frontman who passed away in 1990, with a current-day cast that includes Blondie drummer Clem Burke, Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols, and James Williamson of The Stooges.

Keen to emphasise his point, Perera added: “I remain optimistic about the potential of AI in music. Just as remixing tracks for the EDM scene and sampling in hip-hop have revitalised dormant pieces, AI has the power to celebrate and perpetuate musical legacies in a respectful and innovative way.”

So what message would Frampton and Shirley like to send to the gatekeepers of the Steve Marriott estate, who are so intent to ride roughshod over his daughter Mollie’s wishes?

“It’s not just Mollie’s feelings, we are talking about the rights of just about every musician and singer on the planet,” Frampton exclaims. “All of us should be aware of this. I’m very glad that Robert Plant, Paul Rodgers and all these other great musicians are standing up for the cause. We are really mad about this. If I have to go to Congress here to stop it in America, we will get as many artists as possible and we will do that.”

“Why are [the Marriott Estate] considering potentially taking the reputation of arguably the best white blues singer of our generation to come out of England and completely ruining it,” Shirley fumes. 

“The simulation of somebody’s talent is abhorrent to me,” says Frampton.

“I will do all I can to prevent what’s being proposed,” Shirley continues. “I saw a quote from a fan on the internet that, for me, summed up the situation: ‘AI, by definition, has no soul. Steve Marriott was pure soul.’”

An exasperated Robert Plant commented: “This is a far cry from what any of us dreamt of when we set off into this wonderful world of music. We just can’t stand by and watch this unfold.” 

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.