Sing falsetto, skip the chorus: How ageing rock stars keep their voices in shape

Axl Rose on stage in 1990
Axl Rose on stage in 1990 - Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Following an appearance at a house-full Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, on April 19 2022, Jon Bon Jovi did something he rarely does – he read the subsequent review in the city’s leading newspaper. Long aware that his band, Bon Jovi, are the kind of outfit beloved of millions of people rather than a smaller constituency of broadsheet music critics, nonetheless, the headline knocked him sideways. It read, “What’s going on with Jon Bon Jovi’s voice?”

Writing in the Indianapolis Star, reviewer Rory Appleton addressed the issue further. “Among the universally agreed upon qualities of an excellent rock’n’roll frontman are: a charismatic stage presence, iconic songs to belt out, a hot band at your back, and a one-in-a-million voice,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, for Jon Bon Jovi, those first three things struggled to carry the final one.”

It’s worth noting, I think, that at age 63 Jon Bon Jovi is but a babe in arms in the field of veteran rockers who have yet to retire from the road. It’s hard to give it up, it seems, at least if one is to credit 75-year-old New Jersey son Southside Johnny’s description of the touring life as being “like a disease [that] never really leaves you”. This reasoning in part explains why septuagenarian Bruce Springsteen, perhaps the most famous citizen of the Garden State, is about to begin his current European campaign. In what looks like a kind of geriatric cultural exchange programme, just last week the Rolling Stones kicked off their US tour with a performance at the NRG Stadium, in Houston.

The list goes on. But despite increasingly lucrative earnings (at the top end of the market, at least) and a willing desire, time and tide wait for no one, not even rock stars. Singers, in particular, are especially prone to the indignities of older age. In July 2022, over the course of two nights at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, I watched Guns N’ Roses rejig their set on the fly on account of Axl Rose’s now notoriously sketchy voice. That same summer, at the Hammersmith Apollo, I witnessed my favourite singer, Elvis Costello, struggle to keep pace with the beat of his older songs.

When it comes to battling his own ageing larynx, Jon Bon Jovi appears to have explored every avenue this side of black magic. As revealed in this month’s four-part documentary Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story, on Disney+, the singer has utilised sports therapists, three different vocal coaches, and a pair of space-age looking machines that beam lasers onto and into his throat. He has a masseuse lay magic hands on his neck and thorax. In pursuit of results that might generously be described as mixed, he’s also swallowed so many pills he’ll likely be buried in a coffin fitted with a child-proof lid.

I happen to be just old enough to remember when Bon Jovi joined the multi-platinum jet-set with their third album, the 17-million selling Slippery When Wet, from 1986. Although I was never really a fan, even my callow young ears couldn’t fail to notice the epic range required to reach the very high notes in the chorus of a song such as Livin’ On A Prayer. Consider, please, that this smash-hit single was recorded prior the advent of studio trickery and computerised performance-enhancing technology. Back then, even corporate rock was largely organic.

The Who's Roger Daltrey on stage at the O2 Arena in 2023
The Who's Roger Daltrey on stage at the O2 Arena in 2023 - Getty

The problem, though, is one of diminishment. Whereas footballers concede a yard of pace to older age, singers tend to sacrifice the top end of their register. As one of the rock biz’s better strategic thinkers – a man, in fact, whose evident and rather ruthless careerism has often counted against him in the eyes of idealistic critics – I’m rather surprised that Jon Bon Jovi didn’t stop to consider whether his future self might curse him for recording material in a key that could shatter a chandelier at 70 paces. Livin’ On A Prayer provides nowhere to hide. Were he to sing its chorus an octave lower, the shortcut, and the reasons for it, would be obvious to all.

“If I can’t be the best I can be, I’m out,” he declares on Thank You, Goodnight. “I’m not here to drag down the legacy for the ‘Where Are They Now?’ tour. I’m not ever going to be the fat Elvis.” (He wishes. To my ear, at least, Elvis Presley’s later renditions of Suspicious Minds, belted out on the supper-and-a-show circuit in Las Vegas, are at least as impressive as anything he ever recorded.)

“We know aging affects multiple systems of the body – the skeletal system, the muscular system, among others,” Dr Michelle Adessa, a clinical speech-language pathologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Voice Center, told the website Ultimate Classic Rock. “A lot of those same concepts apply to the aging of the voice… With singers, especially rock singers, we [can never] discount the idea of vocal cord trauma, which just means injury. People who use their voice a lot tend to injure their voice a lot – not every singer, but you’re at greater risk if you use your vocal cords more.

“The top layer of the vocal cord is not as forgiving compared to other muscles in the body,” she continued. “And the particular requirements of roc singers – increased volume, certain kinds of stylistic things they do with their voice, may lead to the increased risk of vocal trauma. There’s more chance for things like scarring.”

In order to keep their show on the road, older bands employ all manner of tricks to mitigate the effects of aging voices. Songs are played in lower keys – sometimes much lower - than their studio equivalents. Wily performers know that enthusiastic audiences will happily take up the invitation to holler out a tricky chorus without pausing to ask, “Hang on, we’ve each paid £150 for these tickets, any chance you could sing it?” Should it come to it, as often it does, there’s even the safety net of backing tracks and other pre-recorded embellishments. In old fashioned language, this is called cheating.

Speaking to the music website The Quietus, Peter Gabriel explained his own onstage methods for mitigating the effects of encroaching older age. “[I] cheat on occasion,” he admitted. “I use falsetto rather than [my] full voice in some bits, like on a particularly high note on Don’t Give Up. But I think my voice has probably dropped a tone, and most of the songs that have high notes I’ve had to lower a tone for the set. On the other hand, you get given some notes down at the bottom end. You only have to look at people like Johnny Cash [or] Bob Dylan… who have done more with their old voice than they were able to do with their youthful voice.”

It’s the range that seems to be the problem. Voices that rang high in younger years are prone to the same gravitational forces as any other part of our aging bodies. Reporting to friends that I’d seen Simon & Garfunkel at Hyde Park in 2004, in what was probably the best concert I’ve ever witnessed, everyone – and I do mean everyone –  asked about the state of the then 63-year old Art Garfunkel’s voice. No one asked the same question after I’d been to see Leonard Cohen at the 02 Arena nine years later.

“There was a moment back in [the 1990s] when I said goodbye to that high note in An Innocent Man,” Billy Joel once said. “It was there, but I could tell that was probably the last time I’d hit it, so it was, like, ‘See ya! That’s it for Billy’s high note. It happens to all of us. That’s just reality.”

Simon & Garfunkel playing Hyde Park in 2004
Simon & Garfunkel playing Hyde Park in 2004 - Redferns

It can be a perilous business. In 2020, in the middle of a concert at the Mount Smart Stadium, in Auckland, Elton John was forced to abandon his set after his voice gave up the ghost completely. In tears, he told an audience of 47,000 people, “I can’t sing. I’ve completely lost my voice. I’ve got to go. I’m so sorry.”

Dr Michelle Adessa was keen to stress, however, that the matter is far from a “one size fits all” problem. Speaking to the journalist Gary Graff, in 2019, Roger Daltrey revealed that after two surgeries his voice is “better now than it’s been in 25 years”. Reporting a similar uptick in fortune, Biff Byford, the singer with English heavy metal band Saxon, tells me that his vocal range is actually higher than it was in the quintet’s initial heyday in the early 1980s.

“Back in the day I used to smoke and stay up all night and things, but about 30 years ago I stopped smoking, which obviously helps,” explains the 73-year old from a hotel room in the USA while on tour with Uriah Heep (some of whom are even older than they are). “I don’t really drink hard liquor, so that’s not on my throat. If I’m going to drink I’ll have a wine or [an alcoholic] ginger beer, that kind of thing, to get a bit merry and have a laugh.

“But you just get into your rhythm,” he adds. “You have your routine through the day. You don’t want to be staying up late and getting up early, for instance, [as] that can mess up the routine. If you’ve got an early flight and you were late onstage the night before, that can be a problem. But you have to deal with it. You just have to roll with it, and hopefully your body will come up with what you need so you can perform.”

The need to perform – more, even, than the money, I think – is what keeps them going, of course. I’m not surprised that Saxon, in particular, seem determined to ride their horse into old age proper. Rock and roll can often be a circular business in which once popular acts plummet from grace before attaining the respect of a new generation of bands and listeners.

In 1994, at their lowest ebb, as a very young music journalist I travelled by car with Biff Byford and guitarist Graham Oliver between gigs in Colchester and Fulham at which the audiences numbered no more than 300 people. The pair shared a room at a budget hotel. If the group didn’t call it quits during these times, they’re hardly likely to do so now.

I suppose the adulation of crowds vast and small propels bands through the decades. Touring drives people crazy in all manner of different ways, but perhaps the prospect of walking away after riding across continents aboard the kind of “steel horse” about which Bon Jovi sang in Wanted Dead Or Alive is unimaginable so long as demand exists. Two years after telling an audience at Hyde Park that they “probably won’t be coming back this way again”, the Eagles are set to visit the UK once more next month. After attracting criticism for the state of his voice at the Platinum Jubilee Concert, at Buckingham Palace in 2022, Rod Stewart is back on the road until September.

Biff Byford of Saxon performing at OVO Arena Wembley on March 21, 2024
Biff Byford of Saxon performing at OVO Arena Wembley on March 21, 2024 - WireImage

It’s like the world turned upside down. Once a young person’s game, rock and roll is today the preserve of older artists who made their bones during an age when the infrastructure of the music business allowed them the space and time to amass both a legacy of recorded music and an audience that was in it for the long run. Whether or not younger bands will enjoy their own autumn and winter years in anything like the same exalted circumstances is, I suppose, a question for another time.

But the clock is counting down to a final reckoning that cannot be forestalled. Whether rich or poor, famous or obscure, the great equaliser of physical deterioration is coming for the music maker, just as it’s coming for you and me. Lemmy, from Motorhead, was wrong when he said, “If you think you are too old for rock and roll, then you are”. His mind and his soul remained passionate, but his body did become too old. With a voice that sounded like an aerosol can gasping for air, a million Marlboro reds really did a number on his lungs.

In what I think is the most poignant moment in Thank You, Goodnight, Jon Bon Jovi trudges through the curved concrete corridors of yet another vast Midwestern sports arena. His mood is disconsolate; the show hasn’t gone as well as he would have liked. “If I had all my tools,” he says, “I guarantee you I’d be the best frontman in the business.” He then pauses to consider the matter. “If I had all my tools,” he adds.

Hell, Fire And Damnation, by Saxon, is available now via Silver Lining Music