What happened to Paul McCartney's voice

interview - Pop stars are healthier today

Mr. Richter, do rock and pop stars live healthier today than they used to be?

I think so. You can take a look at the history here: rock and pop come from the poorest strata of the population, from the cotton fields where the black slaves invented the blues, so "from below" so to speak. The blues penetrated white music through people like Elvis Presley. But Elvis also came from the lower class. These people used to have poor health conditions. Our pop culture today has its origins there - in the cotton fields.

Even the modern pop and rock music business still had the smell of the unhealthy in the beginning.

That's right, the pop stars did not have a good health environment in the early days of this music. Think of the Beatles, where their producer George Martin wrote a very nice book called "It Started in Abbey Road". The clubs were badly ventilated, it was roaring loud and the water was running down the walls. One was amazed that there were not constant short circuits on the stage.

The Beatles in their early days at the Cavern Club. Source: imago stock & people

For a long time everything was not going professionally.

Because nobody was prepared for the success of this music. Biggest festivals like Woodstock were also improvised. One field, poor infrastructure, everything sank in the mud. Rock and pop music came from a corner in which health initially played no role at all and where health was also ignored.

Drugs were used to stimulate or raise awareness.

That is not to be underestimated. The Beatle George Harrison, for example, is known to have experimented a lot with drugs and then got a tumor in his mid-50s, which the doctor could certainly see in this context. Marijuana - taken in excess - can certainly promote carcinoma diseases.

Do drugs no longer play a role today?

Nobody really overlooks that. There will always be musical niches where this plays a role, and when a musical movement is still underground, it is difficult to gain an insight. A culture with certain customs emerges from the underground. In rock, which is already over 60 years old, alcohol and drugs were part of it in the beginning. But who of the old heroes still plays a role today had to change something. Mick Jagger supposedly only drinks chamomile tea, Paul McCartney is a vegetarian.

The old idea of ​​expanding your consciousness that you can write better songs under drugs is a thing of the past?

Eric Clapton writes in his biography that drugs did not have a positive effect on his work, but rather a negative one, and that he feels much better on stage today without drugs. The creative myth of the drug has largely been disenchanted.

How “healthy” do pop musicians sing?

In the early days of rock, the voice was often used excessively on stage. A Janis Joplin, for example, hadn't paid any attention to her voice in her great times. She stood on the stage, often under drugs and alcohol, simply screamed, bellowed, and let her voice cross over. A boundary violation that is still perceived as aesthetically interesting to this day, but which was an extreme overexploitation of the voice.

Janis Joplin in her 1965 Porsche 356 SC Cabriolet. Source: PR Sony BMG Yoram Kahana Shooting Star

Does that mean that whoever sings in this way today can expect to sing his voice broken?

Not necessarily. Think of Joe Cocker, who sang like that into his final years. These so-called "distortions" can also be created in a way that is gentle on the voice. At the Mannheim Pop Academy or in the pop course in Osnabrück, young pop singers learn to sing “as if”. A healthy “grunt”, “rattle” or “growl” that gets the voice going.

How does it work?

Such sounds are not only made with the vocal folds, but also epiglottis, pocket folds and other elements of the vocal apparatus can be made to vibrate. That sounds just as excessive, only the sounds are not loud, but rather very quiet and therefore have to be amplified electronically - which is not a problem at all with today's amplifier systems. What previously emerged as delimitation can be brought about in a completely controlled manner with appropriate training. These techniques are taught by many singing teachers today.

So no more overexploitation?

The consciousness has already changed a lot, one is more careful with oneself. With exceptions like Amy Winehouse, artists like Lady Gaga or Pink plan their careers with foresight. It is more likely to be observed that the forces are being managed.

What does it take for Lady Gaga to survive a grueling touring marathon?

There is incredible discipline behind a stadium concert with 70,000 people. It used to be more improvised and sometimes dangerous. At the Rolling Stones in Altamont, a fan was stabbed to death right in front of the stage. But this has long been a big business with strict controls, and in live business you do everything you can to not lose your protagonist on the way. Those who go on tour today usually do so in a very controlled manner.

Lady Gaga in concert. Source: Invision / AP

The last AC / DC tour had to be saved by the singer of the band Guns N’Roses because singer Brian Johnson had to quit because of danger of numbness.

Hearing is also a big issue in pop and rock. Eric Clapton also recently said in an interview that he is slowly going deaf. This is primarily a problem for older musicians. For many years they stood in front of the loudspeaker systems every day, completely unprotected. Today, the amplification of the music is directed past the musicians on the sides via PA systems. The musicians hear their voices and instruments via a button in their ear - so-called in-ear monitoring. There has also been a clear change here.

Is there a health check before a tour?

Not generally. This is more of a business issue than a health issue and depends on the management of a tour company. If there are any hazards, a check can be arranged to ensure that an alcoholic musician, for example, survives the demands of a tour.

And then there are doctors on tour who are there for the artists in an emergency.

(laughs) When the predecessor of the current Pope, Benedict XVI, came to Freiburg on his visit to Germany in 2011, the university clinic was obliged to name a contact person for every possible health aspect - including voice problems. The Pope, thank God, stayed healthy and did not have to use the help. Rock and pop artists sometimes also receive such inquiries. But, like the checks, this is not mandatory, there are no regulations. Pope and rock stars are private individuals.

But a lot of money is at stake when it comes to major concert tours. Helene Fischer recently had to cancel seven concerts.

She had concerts in the middle of the flu season and - presumably - had a cold like many. That happens, it cannot be predicted, and no check in advance would help. Most managers react quickly and responsibly to the situation today, and do not want to saw off the branch they are sitting on. In the event of such failures as with Ms. Fischer, we medical musicians could be asked.

What was done

I didn't look her in the throat personally. It was probably a banal infection. She has a very clear singing voice and does not work with strenuous vocal techniques. You are then absent for a week or a week and a half and you have to make sure that you don't strain your voice again too soon. That's why people like Ms. Fischer have voice coaches, and that seems to have been done responsibly with her. Some others still go on stage with their heads under their arms. Still others work with playback in such a way that is gentle on their voice.

One wonders that someone like Bruce Springsteen sings live for four hours day in and day out in wind and weather - sweating, working hard, for weeks and months, completely without the flu.

I think it's because of the adrenaline. Orchestra musicians or soloists on stage are less likely to get sick at the premiere than during the concert tour. And people like Springsteen have their premiere almost every evening. There is a high level of adrenaline associated with high levels of cortisone, which is protective for the immune system.

How do you nurse an attacked voice back up?

You have to have good doctors who know what they're doing. A banal infection is treated differently than a vocal cord hematoma, but it usually heals well. A permanent swelling that has to be surgically removed should be tackled with a phonosurgical procedure, a voice surgery in which the focus is on the voice function and not on cutting everything away. Then you have to send people into good voice therapy and slowly build them up again with coaches. Then, as a rule, none of this poses a threat to your career. Caruso had two successful vocal folds operated on at the beginning of the 20th century.

Can you still ruin your voice today?

Usually not, because the voice is an important communication tool and is particularly robust. It is important for our emotional togetherness and usually does not remain permanently ill, always tries to recover. But if you try long enough, you will break it.

Elton John sings in the upper registers, Phil Collins was welcomed ten years ago at concerts in the high registers by his background singers, who covered up his deficits.

Yes, the men are well over 60, so these are more aging effects than signs of wear and tear. You can hear this particularly clearly with Paul McCartney. With the song “Blackbird” he has to go very high, he sang it live again about two years ago and almost couldn't do it anymore. These are not diseases, but it is probably due to the changed hormone concentrations. That's not typical of the genre, Maria Callas had it too. And some singers never suffer from it. Ringo Starr still sounds like the Beatles did back then, while Paul McCartney's voice has changed a lot. You can also hear that in the speaking voice when he gives interviews. This is a "typical" grandpa who speaks there.

What does a musician do in a stormy open-air season or in the freezing cold season to protect himself from illness?

It is beneficial if he keeps his body fit - Mick Jagger has his washboard abs because he works hours in the gym every day -, goes to the sauna regularly and eats a healthy diet.

Michael Jackson and Prince also kept fit, followed a healthy diet, and then died of medication, one from the anesthetic propofol, the other from an opioid called fentanyl, which he was given for back pain and which was 50 times stronger than heroin.

These are prescription drugs - in America too. If you believe the media reports, Michael Jackson pleaded with his personal physicians for the anesthetic propofol, for "my white milk". From all that is known, there was more likely to be a drug abuse here. I have less information with Prince. But of course Jackson didn't go to the pharmacy and say, "One time propofol, please!" Somebody must have got it for him. It can also be administered by a nurse, but actually only a doctor or pharmacist can provide it.

Prince died of an opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin. Source: imago stock & people

Is a “personal doctor” more inclined to turn a blind eye to medication in order not to upset or lose the prominent patient?

One always has to ask the question about these famous pop stars: who had more power, the doctor or the patient? Normally the doctor has greater power than the patient and should be free to choose according to his medical conscience, his medical art, his Hippocratic oath. However, if there is an imbalance in the power relationship, abuse can also occur. Then it becomes a question of personality. Personally, no one from the employer or the patient has asked me to do things that I did not want to do. But if I have the feeling that something is unethical, it is my medical duty to say: No, I am not.

To person

Bernhard Richter, born in 1962, is Professor of Musicians 'Medicine at the Freiburg Institute for Musicians' Medicine (FIM), which he and Prof. Dr. Claudia Spahn is in charge. In addition to studying medicine in Freiburg, Basel and Dublin, he also studied singing at the University of Music in Freiburg (concert exam 1991). After two specialist training as an ENT doctor and phoniatrist (voice doctor), he completed his habilitation in 2002. In addition to teaching voice physiology and hearing, he is primarily responsible for the medical care of musicians and singers at the FIM. His main research interests are vocal physiology in singers and hearing protection in orchestral musicians. In addition to numerous scientific publications, he is the author of the book “The Voice” and co-author and editor of the textbooks “Musicians Medicine”, “Musicians' Health in Practice” and “Lexicon of Singing Voice”, the instructional DVDs “The Wind Instrument Game” and “The Voice - Insights into the physiological processes when singing and speaking ”and the book“ Music with body and soul ”(see www.fim.mh-freiburg.de).

By Matthias Halbig / RND