Rock-and-roll has often been synonymous with surrendering control: losing yourself in the beat, riding the lightning, letting the music carry you away. On the manufacturing side, though, some of rock’s mightiest purveyors are said to be micromanagers of the most ferocious order.
Although these stars may fly free when crafting songs and cut loose in concert, behind-the-scenes they rule as hyper-intense dictators who sweat blood over the tiniest details, crush any dissent with iron-fisted fury, and fanatically analyze ever scintilla of anything and everything associated in even the remotest manner with their musical undertakings.
However unpleasant such practices may have proven for those directly involved, it’s tough to complain as fans on the other side, as the end result has been mammoth volumes of magnificent music.
So bear that benefit in mind as we recount the top 10 control freaks in classic rock and heavy metal—or Don Henley might come to your house and yell at you.
As the lead guitarist, chief songwriter, and overall mastermind of the Who, Pete Townshend had plenty of moving parts to oversee from the get-go. Once the band added human tsunami Keith Moon, though, all possible expectations of laissez-faire approaches detonated on the spot like Moonie’s drum kit on The Smothers Brothers.
Townshend wrangled the group with stunning efficacy through their combustive rise to rock’s hugest and headiest of heights. One area always eluded Pete’s grasp, though: his proposed notion for a science-fiction rock opera by the Who titled Lifehouse.
Townshend’s initial plan for Lifehouse was to have the Who develop the material on stage for both an album and a movie, with audience members actively taking roles in and alongside the opera’s post-rock apocalyptic plot about the transformative power of vibrations as inspired by Sufi philosophy.
To achieve the full Lifehouse concept—which no one around him could quite fully comprehend—Pete imagined studying the backgrounds of every concertgoer, simultaneously feeding their personal information into a massive computer, and having the machine emit one massive musical note.
That endeavor, as it maybe not surprising, never came to be. Lifehouse then became to Pete Townshend what the Beach Boys’ Smile was to Brian Wilson: an impossible pinnacle that ultimately had to be abandoned. “The fatal flaw,” Townshend later observed, “was getting obsessed with trying to make a fantasy a reality rather than letting the film speak for itself.”
Pete never fully let go of Lifehouse, though. Elements of it run through later Who works and he’s translated portions into a radio play, a website, and other multimedia projects. Will it ever end? Not as long as Pete’s in charge (and he always is!).
John Fogerty captained Creedence Clearwater Revival to unique rock greatness alongside his older brother Tom Fogerty, although it was clear from early on that the younger Fogerty ran the show. That’s how it remains to this day, with the Fogertys ranking alongside feuding musical siblings such as Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks and Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis: one brother rules, the other fumes.
CCR’s electrifying swamp rock generated hit after hit throughout the late 1960s and into the ’70s. That the band performed at Woodstock remains largely overlooked because their set does not appear in the famous documentary or its soundtrack album. The reason? John Fogerty felted their playing that day wasn’t up to snuff.
As CCR’s star ascended, so, too did John’s monolithic hold over their doings. At one point, after announcing that the group would no longer play live encores, John even said that a “democratic” approach would only lead to CCR’s undoing. That undoing, of course, came anyway.
Money played a huge factor. The band was incensed with Saul Zaentz, the owner of CCR’s home label Fantasy Records, over a deal that John Fogerty himself had brokered. John remains scabrously unforgiving of Zaentz to this day—and nor has he eased up on the other members of CCR.
“I was alone when I made that [Creedence] music,” Fogerty said in 1997. “I was alone when I made the arrangements, I was alone when I added background vocals, guitars and some other stuff. I was alone when I produced and mixed the albums. The other guys showed up only for rehearsals and the days we made the actual recordings… The result was eight million-selling double-sided singles in a row and six albums, all of which went platinum. And Melody Maker had us as the best band in the world… And I was the one who had created all this. … They were obsessed with the idea of more control and more influence. So finally the bomb exploded and we never worked together again.”
Punk guitar god Johnny Ramone ran New York’s legendary rough-and-tumble quartet with military precision bordering on fascism—an observation that the politically right-wing (and sardonically funny) former John Cummings would have smilingly accepted as a compliment.
Indeed, the notion is daunting of someone having to wrangle and be responsible for the group’s roster weirdoes, ranging from profoundly odd and OCD-afflicted singer Joey Ramone, narcotics-addled bassist Dee Dee Ramone, and a revolving series of upstart drummers dominated by Tommy Ramone and Marky Ramone. So perhaps Johnny’s jackboot force was required. Still, it’s no recipe for warm feelings.
Over the group’s two-decade run, Johnny called all shots regarding business, travel, set lists, appearances, and the overall Ramones aesthetic. The one area where his band-of-pseudo-brothers could sneakily tweak him was via music.
Johnny and Joey’s relationship exploded in permanent ruin in the early ’80s, after the former won over the latter’s girlfriend, whom he eventually married (making her officially Linda Ramone). As revenge, Joey wrote “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” which socked it not just to Johnny’s romantic dealings but also his archconservative philosophy.
A related donnybrook erupted over one of the Ramones’ best-loved anthems, the 1985 single “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.” Joey, Dee Dee, and the Plasmatics’ Jean Beauvoir wrong the protest number in response to President Ronald Reagan’s visit to a Nazi soldier cemetery. Johnny, who would later announce, “I think Ronald Reagan was the best president of my lifetime,” was incensed, but the song was just too great for him to kill entirely.
The final result was not so much a compromise but a sheer force of Johnny’s will (as he controlled the band’s packaging): when the track was included on the 1986 album Animal Boy, its title was officially and permanently changed to “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg).”
When you Google “Billy Corgan” + “control freak,” two amusing headlines result near the top. One from 2012 reads, “Billy Corgan Says He Had to Be a Control Freak in Smashing Pumpkins” while a 2013 story ranked right below it declares, “Billy Corgan Denies That He Is a Control Freak.”
Corgan launched the Smashing Pumpkins in 1988 and, as he may or may not make it clear (as evidenced by the articles referenced above), he alone ushered them to the zenith of 1990s alt-rock mega-stardom, generating an onslaught of enduring radio staples and moment-defining music videos. In fact, Corgan himself played almost every instrument on the group’s 1991 near-breakthrough, Gish.
While the Pumpkins skyrocketed during the Lollapalooza era, Corgan exacted tight handling of all the bands doings, a task that became daunting as all-too-familiar vices took hold of some other members. Of the decision to record Siamese Dream in Georgia to elude the reach of the group’s hometown Chicago pushers, Corgan says, “Some of that came from being in a band with drug addicts back in the day. So you’re control freaking over drug addicts, you do the math. I mean you have to kind of figure out when they’re not on drugs to get them in the studio.”
In 2000, Corgan unilaterally dissolved the Smashing Pumpkins and then, five years later, he unilaterally reassembled them, although only he and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin returned from the original lineup. They’re still blazing onward, with Billy Corgan all the way out front, just like he’s always been.
Eddie Van Halen
As rock’s supreme six-string deity by way of a band that bears his own last name, Eddie Van Halen has more than earned every conceivable right to decide and design every direction that dictate’s said group’s destiny. Reportedly, he is also in no way shy about it, either.
Coming off the monster success of their 1984 album, Van Halen stood as the hugest hard rock band in the universe, poised to continue on into infinity their mighty rock-and-roll circus with the superhuman musical acrobatics of Eddie on guitar, brother Alex Van Halen on drums, and Michael Anthony laying thunderous bass and providing angelic backup vocals. In the center spotlight loomed ringmaster Diamond David Lee Roth, large but decidedly not in charge. That status became abundantly clear in 1985 when Van Halen announced they were looking for a new lead singer.
Eddie himself landed the new frontman when he crossed paths at a mutual auto mechanic with “I Can’t Drive 55” rocker Sammy Hagar. A decade of even huger hits followed. By 1996, though, Eddie decried Hagar’s work ethic and “cheesy” songwriting. His booting of Sammy setting off momentary rumblings of a reunion with David Lee Roth that got smashed to smithereens following the original band members sharing the stage on the MTV VMAs. DLR clowned around, Eddie appeared mortified, and the Van Halen brothers emphatically shut down the notion of Diamond Dave in their immediate future.
Numerous years of fumbling happened next (the less said of Van Halen III with Gary Cherone, the better), leading to the group making professional peace with David Lee Roth for a reunion—albeit not one that was fully scaled. Driven by rage over Michael Anthony’s ongoing friendship and collaborations with Sammy Hagar, in 2006 Eddie axed the bassist from the group he’d been in from its earliest days. Replacing him was Eddie’s son, Wolfgang Van Halen. What better way is there to control any situation than by keeping it in the family?
Despite writing and singing on most of the group’s best-known and most beloved works, bassist Roger Waters is not, in fact, the founder of Pink Floyd. That status goes to guitarist Syd Barrett, a musical visionary done in by drugs and mental health issues followed the band’s 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
From that moment onward, though, Waters seized control of Floyd and personally oversaw the group’s every move for the next two decades, when the other members sought to break free of his grip, and took the band’s name with them. It may well have been necessary, but since then none of the involved parties have produced music on par with what they did when they were all together.
Under Waters, Floyd’s psychedelic prog-rock blew up to unprecedented impact and influence, culminating in 1979’s The Wall, an epic that Roger based on his own life story. The 1982 movie version of the album proved to triumph as well, although the 1983 LP The Final Cut, consisting largely of material excised from The Wall, landed with a thud. Individual Floyd members moved in solo directions, and Waters just kept on going.
Ever since that schism, fans have clamored for Floyd to bring back the original lineup. In 2005, it happened, albeit quite temporarily. Waters joined Pink Floyd onstage at the G8 charity concert, the world momentarily went wild, but that was it. As Waters reiterated not long ago: “I left Pink Floyd in 1985, that’s 29 years ago. I had nothing to do with either of the Pink Floyd studio albums Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, nor the Pink Floyd tours of 1987 and 1994, and I have nothing to do with Endless River. Phew! This is not rocket science, people. Get a grip.”
Gene Simmons may be the most demonically visible and outspokenly fire-breathing member of Kiss, but an in-depth 2014 Rolling Stone article just prior to the group’s Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame induction implied that the Starchild, Paul Stanley, actually functions as the hottest band in the world’s big man in charge.
The brouhaha surrounding that Rock Hall ceremony, in fact, illuminated how tightly guarded the ins-and-outs of Kiss actually are, with Stanley running the whole huge machine. At specific issue, then, was the prospect of the original Kiss roster—who were, in fact, the only members of the group to get honored—donning their classic makeup and performing live.
Guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss announced repeatedly that they wanted to play, but Stanley held fast: they had departed the band more than once, and unhappily on each occasion, so if Kiss were to perform, it would be with Tommy Thayer as the Spaceman and as the Catman.
The end result: no Kiss performance at all. So Paul won. But didn’t we, the fans, end up losing?
Glenn Frey/Don Henley
The Eagles’ chief songwriters and co-lead singers Glenn Frey and Don Henley are reputed to be angry, petty, domineering, unreasonable, and even despotic in their pursuit of total control of every single element in any way connected to the band. What’s more, they not only don’t deny it, they tout it openly throughout the killer four-hour documentary, The History of the Eagles.
The 1994 Eagles reunion hinged on one condition: that Frey and Henley would be paid more money than the other members. Prior to that, income got split equally but Glenn and Don dug in their cowboy boots and proclaimed that it had to be this way because composed and sang the overwhelming bulk of the group’s multiplatinum catalogue, plus they were the only members to continue having serious solo hits after the Eagles’ initial 1980 breakup. It was an offer nobody could refuse.
Hard feelings surrounding that deal ultimately prompted the Eagles officially fire Don Felder in 2001 and igniting back-and-forth barrages of lawsuits. It seems to have been a long time coming.
On the “Hell Freezes Over” tour, Don Henley informed Felder and fellow guitarist Joe Walsh, via management reps, that they were forbidden to dance on stage when the band performed Henley’s radio smash, “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.” A truly seething animosity had simmered between Frey and Felder for decades, though, never truly cooling down after they lashed out verbally against one another onstage during a 1980 benefit concert. That fateful exchange was even caught on tape.
Glenn Frey: You’re a real pro, Don, all the way.
Don Felder: Yeah, you are too, the way you handle people. Except for the people you pay, nobody gives a s—t about it.
Glenn Frey: F—k you. I’ve been paying you for seven years, f—khead. Three more songs, a—hole.
Don Felder: When we get off the stage, I’m gonna kick you ass!
Fisticuffs never followed, but Glenn Frey decided then and there that he’d rather break up the Eagles than play with Don Felder again. That’s what he did. And that’s maybe the definition of a control freak.
Lars UlrichGetty Images
In fairness, the essential 2003 documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster paints a picture in which frontman James Hetfield seems every bit as determined to control everything in sight as does Lars Ulrich. Upon gazing at the bigger picture, though, it’s clear that Denmark’s most famous drummer is the more maniacal overseer.
As a matter of fact, VH1 Classic recounted 10 Times Everybody on Earth Got Pissed Off at Lars Ulrich not long ago. Chief among the grief was Lars allegedly ordering Jason Newsted’s bass volume reduced on …And Justice For All; Lars allegedly insisting that socks be put on his feet by handlers; and above all, Lars personally delivering the names of 300,000 Metallica fans to Napster headquarters as part of massive legal action he was spearheading against all of them.
Whatever Ulrich’s motivation in the whole Napster boondoggle, the fact that he called in the press to cover his big drop-off suggests that, above and beyond any copyright or even financial issues, he was hellbent on controlling the information.
Axl RoseGetty Images
From the shock of the 1987 debut Appetite for Destruction to the 1991 twin releases Use Your Illusion I and II, frontman, songwriter, and overall conceptualist W. Axl Rose piloted Guns N’ Roses to an unimaginable hard rock preeminence that credibly suggested the group could be nothing less than the new Rolling Stones. Then he pulled the brakes.
Along the way, Rose also cruelly delayed or casually cancelled numerous live performances based on his momentary mood, reaping results that ranged from co-founder Izzy Stradlin quitting in disgust and fans erupting into a full-scale riot in St. Louis.
Following 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident?, a collection of punk covers, GNR commenced writing new material, which really chapped the seat of Rose’s white leather pants as he declared that what they were working on as “mostly a Slash album.” Rose disposed of the new songs and fired guitarist Gilby Clarke in 1995 with glib brutality. Just prior to walking on stage, the singer informed the guitar player, “Hey! Enjoy your last show!”
Slash quit not long thereafter and Rose disassembled what was left of GNR. He then plugged the holes with a revolving parade of replacement players. All this began the long trudge through endlessly picked-apart mire toward Chinese Democracy, the 100% Axl-controlled, oddly industrial and forced-together-sounding GNR album that was announced in 1994, almost saw release in 2000, and then finally came out in 2008 to the delight of no one—not even, one imagines, His Lord and Highness Rose.
Use Your Illusion experienced delays over Axl stating that if “November Rain” wasn’t recorded to his exact specifications that he’d walk away from the music industry. Chinese Democracy proved to be an entirely different albatross around GNR’s neck though, as its famous delays even prompted pop-punks the Offspring to prank the media in 2003 by announcing that the title of their next album would be Chinese Democracy (You Snooze, You Lose).
Additionally, compounding the notion of Axl rose as being obsessed with micromanaging is how he has radically altered his appearance through plastic surgery like no other music star since Michael Jackson. There’s being in control. And then there’s being just a freak.