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Same old tunes, but with a new singer

Van Halen fans may forever debate the merits of singer David Lee Roth versus his successor, Sammy Hagar, but both camps offer a unanimous verdict on the tenure of the band's third vocalist, Gary Cherone: disastrous.

As a result of the backlash, Cherone bowed out of Van Halen after one album and tour during the late1990s.

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This year, three well-known bands - INXS, Queen, and TLC - are taking a similar risk. They are all hiring new singers to take the place of deceased vocalists.

Queen has begun touring with rock vocalist Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company), who is taking over the microphone from Freddie Mercury. Australian rockers INXS and pop stars TLC are heading down an even more controversial path: They're auditioning new singers, "American Idol" style, on reality TV this summer.

Critics offer different theories on how many pieces of a band can be replaced before the group loses its signature identity (the decision to substitute drummers seems to be a no-brainer). But they all agree that finding a new front man is never a sure thing. It remains to be seen whether INXS can prosper without the charismatic Michael Hutchence, or whether TLC can find a third member to replace the harmonies of Lisa Lopes.

"The singer's voice is the single most personal characteristic of any band," says Jacob Slichter, the (irreplaceable?) drummer with Semisonic and author of "So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star." "I don't necessarily frown or smile when I hear about singer changes, but I start to wonder, what is this going to mean? It's really hard to imagine Oasis without Liam Gallagher or Nirvana without Kurt Cobain."

Rock pundits are similarly pessimistic about TLC's show on UPN later this month, and the INXS experiment, which debuts next week on CBS.

"The idea of INXS coming back now seems really desperate to me," says Doug Brod, executive editor at Spin magazine. "It almost seems humiliating. [Hutchence's] death was so tragic and they've been gone eight years. Is this really necessary?"

Yes, says David Goffin, an executive producer on the INXS-CBS collaboration, appropriately called "Rock Star." The way Goffin sees it, why shouldn't the remaining band members do what they have done all their lives, which is play rock music?

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"Michael Hutchence was a great singer and his death was tragic, but music is what [the remaining members] do," Mr. Goffin says. "This is different than 'American Idol' because we're dealing with rock music, not pop. Rock requires a much bigger commitment and it requires taking chances."

From death (INXS, AC/DC, Queen) to disagreement (Van Halen, Judas Priest, Creedence Clearwater Revival), examples abound of relationships that ended, leaving the remaining band members to either dissolve the group or continue on in a diminished state, struggling for relevance and identity.

Even in those rare instances where the version 2.0 bands strike commercial gold, it's never quite the same. In the cases of Genesis (Peter Gabriel, followed by Phil Collins), AC/DC (Bon Scott followed by Brian Johnson), and Pink Floyd (a rotating cast), each version of the band has its own distinct identity.

"It's considered two separate eras," says Jim DeRogatis, rock critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. "Take Van Halen. Your hard-core devotees refer to the Roth era as Van Halen. With Sammy, it's Van Hagar. They're not the same thing."

Singers define the sound of rock bands to the point that many find it easy to overlook the departures of other members. For that reason, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page can attract Led Zeppelin fans in droves even without their former rhythm section in tow. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey continue as The Who, despite the deaths of drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle.

Still, even that scenario can be tricky. Axl Rose has laid claim to the band name Guns N' Roses even though he's the sole remaining member of the original group. Some bands are defined by more than one member - it's difficult to conceive of U2 continuing if they were ever to lose a performer.

"They're our Beatles," says Spin's Mr. Brod. "I don't think there is any way people would accept U2 without all four guys. It just doesn't work."

A few splintered bands have opted for a new name altogether, as Velvet Revolver and Audioslave have done. The former's appetite for reconstruction led three Guns N' Roses alums to team with Stone Temple Pilot's former singer; Audioslave combined a Soundgarden singer with Rage Against the Machine members.

Many bands can retain their name and at least a few shards of their former popularity even without a steady lineup. A spate of '70s and '80s acts - including Styx, Journey, The Allman Brothers, Chicago, and Lynyrd Skynyrd - have soldiered on for years with as many replacements as originals. Band members may require "My name is..." tags, but the overall band moniker can help sustain a life of touring in some cases.

For many acts touring without their "classic" lineups, selling fewer CDs and playing smaller venues spurs a rapprochement. Mötley Crüe ditched Vince Neil, went nowhere and, just this year, rehired him for a tour that's a sellout (in all senses, some argue). Judas Priest followed a similar path, recently reuniting with estranged singer Rob Halford. And Billy Corgan is making noises about re-forming the Smashing Pumpkins.

Mr. DeRogatis, among others, says the answer for the endless recycling and reunions is simple: money and fame.

"Beyond greed, the single most addictive drug in rock is adoration," he says. "So even if you have to go from 30,000 fans a night to 300, in the end, most people will take it. They can't live without it."