The Height of Pretence
Jan 06 2016
Never seen the Beatles or The Stones? One Direction or The Arctic Monkeys not playing round your way in the near future? No problem – name virtually any top band or artiste from the past fifty years and the chances are you’ll find their doppelganger equivalents available for hire. The Bootleg Beatles, The Counterfeit Stones, The Antarctic Monkeys or Only One Direction – all now taking bookings for your birthday, wedding, office or Christmas party.
It’s a curious development in popular entertainment. Tribute bands and performers are now a mini-industry, occasionally eclipsing the acts they’ve set out to emulate. These days it appears that an act hasn’t really made it until it’s achieved the respectability of at least a couple of imitators trying to cash in on its fame.
Granted, musicians have long been masters at stretching brand loyalty – The Who have only 2 of their original 4 members, The Stones 3 of 5, The Beach Boys, depending on what day of the week it is, 1 or 2, yet they all still tour and charge eye-watering ticket prices to see the ‘real thing’. Nostalgia sells.
Famous legal cases – Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and, er, Buck’s Fizz – have been fought over who ‘owns’, and therefore has the right to tour and record, under the given band name. The Drifters used to have, at a conservative estimate, around fifty versions of the group touring as the ‘one and only’. There’s no percentage ruling to state what constitutes ‘authentic/original’ and, in any event, fans are generally happy to pay, especially as it may be ‘the last time’.
So watered down versions of top bands are an everyday occurrence, but when did we start to accept that a blatant forgery – the tribute act – was not only acceptable, but in some cases preferable? The Grim Reaper certainly had a hand in this development – after all, once Elvis had left the building for the last time, who was going to fill his blue suede shoes? The first tribute bands, from the early 1980s, could just about justify raiding the dressing up box on account of the original being out of circulation. It wasn’t just the inconvenience of death; back in those days, when a band split – Abba, The Beatles – it created a void that could be filled.
But filled for whom? Eager fans, desperate to consume anything with a vague link to their former heroes? Wide-eyed acolytes turned impressionists as an act of love and devotion? Or opportunistic agents and musicians, calculating that it was easier to make a quick buck by jumping in a famous act’s grave? Perhaps it’s not surprising that the first ‘name’ tribute bands were in fact The Bootleg Beatles and Bjorn Again. It perhaps is more of a shock to learn that these two groups are still making a very nice living out of the imitation game four decades on – far longer than the originals endured.
But have they lasted that long if you delve into the line-ups? If a tribute act is just that, an act, then actors can come and go in that role. The current John and George in The Bootleg Beatles line up started in 2011 and 2014 respectively. The current Paul – the third Paul – first plugged his Hofner in three years ago. These are not so much musical acts as musical franchises.
But if that’s so, who owns the franchise? What benefits accrue to the original act, the artistes being copied? The bottom line is ‘not very much’. While, depending on which country the band is operating in the songwriters will generally earn music performance payments, the acts being copied receive precisely nothing to have their image/music used in this way. Certain bands – Journey, Bon Jovi – in the USA have issued ‘cease and desist’ letters to tribute bands aping them but it appears that this is a trend few bands are willing to pursue, mainly because legal costs are high, and being litigious isn’t considered very rock ‘n’ roll. Especially when it can alienate fans.
Tribute bands are very careful to ensure that they are not mistaken for the real thing, as that would be trademark infringement. Hence the inventive names that are a feature of the tribute scene. Nobody is going to confuse Amy Housewine with Amy Winehouse, even assuming news of the latter’s demise had somehow not reached their ears. The Clone Roses kindly remove any fear of misunderstanding with their moniker, while Fan Halen is also keen to keep letters from Van’s solicitors to a minimum. On the other hand, you can be assured that Bjorn Again and The Bootleg Beatles have now copyrighted and trademarked their copycat names.
Puns predominate in the ‘we’re them but not really them’ naming stakes – take a bow Regenesis, Proxy Music, Fake That, Motorheadache, Oasish and Nearly Dan. All great fun, but what do they actually sound like? Or should the question be, ‘what do they look like?’ because how far should authenticity go? As one tribute band agency says, ‘many audiences are convinced that they’re watching the real deal.’ Hard as it is to give credence to such a claim, the suspension of disbelief doesn’t only belong in the theatre and, after all, isn’t that what we’re dealing with here, theatre not music?
Can Dirk Jagger be a convincing frontman for the Counterfeit Stones if he’s bald? Can you go along with an Afro-Caribbean Liam Gallagher? An Asian Blondie? A female Morrisey? It’s the Iago/Dr Who/James Bond question all over and one that the bands trouble themselves over to differing degrees. Some acts even turn it to advantage. An overweight Robbie Williams tribute act simply calls himself Blobbie Williams. Try suing him for that.
But not all tribute bands are after strict authenticity. In an effort to stand out some mash different acts together. For example, Dread Zeppelin play the songs of Page and Plant in a strictly reggae style. Beatalicca give the mop tops a heavy metal treatment in the style of Metallica, even changing song titles and lyrics to underline their point – Hey Dude; I Want to Choke Your Band.
Who is actually interested in seeing a tribute act? Is it the sort of night out you would boast about? (The same could be asked of the tribute musicians themselves who probably save embarrassment by telling their spouses they’re going out to rob a bank.) Initially audiences comprised ‘first time around’ fans fuelled by a yearning for performers from their past, with their kids no doubt being dragged along to discover what a live performance of Dark Side of The Moon was really like in 1974. But a longing for the past hardly explains the surge in contemporary tribute acts – Kasabian, Katy Perry, Beyonce, Lady Gaga carbon copies are all doing very nicely, thank you, co-exisiting with the ‘real’ artistes who are still very much alive and kicking.
Is ‘homage as entertainment’ at least keeping musicians in gainful employ? It’s one argument, but that discounts the possibility of, you know, aspiring musicians developing their own sound and performance. Tribute bands could actually be signalling the death knell of a vibrant music scene if all they do is caricature rather than create. Would we have had The Beatles if John and Paul had formed an Everly Brothers tribute duo? How could a plethora of Pink Floyd tributes ‘re-visit’ Wish You Were Here if it hadn’t been written in the first place (Roger, Dave, Nick and Richard too busy fulfilling pub gigs as ‘Donnie Lonegan’ to get round to composing ‘stuff’)?
Roger Taylor, drummer with Queen, took the unusual step of recruiting his own Queen Tribute band, Extravaganza, a couple of years ago, in order ‘to take the glorious music and live experience of legendary rock band Queen … to a new generations of fans.’ Taylor reckoned, not unreasonably, that there were too many substandard Freddies out there, and also that the show must go on. He also effectively employed former shoplifters to become store detectives for him.
Again, this franchise issue demonstrates the uneasy relationship bands have with their imitators. Issue a ‘cease and desist’ and reap the opprobrium of the fan base, or play it cool (while seething over the lost revenue)? Some bands go the other way – Judas Priest recruited singer Ripper Owens from their own tribute band when original vocalist Rob Holford left. Dave Gilmour hired the Australian Pink Floyd to play at his 50th birthday, while George Harrison quipped that the Bootlegs probably knew the chords to Fabs’ songs better than he did.
This commitment to authenticity often required considerable investment from the tribute bands beyond just learning the notes – instruments, light rigs, costumes all have to look and sound right and payback could take many months if not years. It’s not as if the tribute acts can insist on extravagant contract riders or swanky hotels. Groupies may still be a possibility, but it’s a fair bet most tribute bands would prefer a roadie to help shift their gear, as they’ll inevitably be doing the load out themselves.
Given the cost of staging a lavish tribute show you could imagine that income prospects would be improved by hitting on a solo performer who can be sung along to with backing tapes – one step up from Karaoke perhaps, but a bigger take home than if you’re in a ten-piece tribute band (probably explains why there are so many Elvis impersonators and so few ELO ones).
And what about the risk of picking a band that’s fallen out of favour to copy in the first place? Bands come and go in a flash anyway, so if you’ve decided to build your copycat career on say, Razorlight (we’re looking at you, Razorlike) then you could well find yourselves with an empty bookings diary or, worse still, being undercut by the originals on price.
If, as is often the case, a tribute band’s main raison d’être is sheer adulation, then consider the elation of U2 copyists, Acrobat, whom Bono invited up on to the B stage in Toronto earlier this year to knock out a passable version of Desire in front of the band and 20000 spectators. Great PR for U2, and an opportunity for Bono to tell imitator, ‘I’ve always wanted to meet you’. The ersatz Bono said afterwards ‘he could die happy’ after appearing on stage with his heroes (which is pretty much what Noel Gallagher said last month after he joined U2 on stage. See, we’re all fans really).
Will this current obsession with ‘it’s not really the real thing’ continue? It could be argued it has for centuries if classical music is taken into account. Nobody expects to see Ludwig Van or Wolfgang Amadeus treading the boards at an orchestral recital, yet their music endures and gives pleasure to millions still. Admittedly, the descendants of Little Chix (Little Mix tribute band) or Razorlike may not be selling out auditoriums in two hundred years, but there’s a fair bet there will be a Beatles or Pink Floyd show on somewhere.
A version of this article first appeared in Gafencu Magazine, December 2015