Tribute bands

Tribute or not tribute?

Until recently this had seemed an irrelevant question. In the Technicolor suburbs of my mind tribute acts inhabited a cosy, cranial cul-de-sac. On the few occasions they popped out to say hello I would always enjoy the fleetingly familiar company. There was no need to question their existence, they just were. But everything’s changed. Their ranks are growing. Before you discard my feverish scribblings as incoherent rambling consider that, according to a recent study, by 2010 one-in-three of us will be an Elvis impersonator. Factor in the rest of the musical charlatanry, as practised by the likes of Still Collins and The Rolling Clones, and the overall impersonation figure could be much higher. You’d better get used to it. There’s a strong possibility that in the near future, a close friend – or even you – will turn to tributing. With the frosty grip of the tributers’ favourite season firmly upon us, City Lights has taken-up the reigns of moral duty. Armed with the following information you will be better prepared to face the mirror image future, where everyone is not who they seem.

For centuries music has been written, imitated and passed on. Acoustic folklore would wander the countryside with bare-footed abandon and acclaimed orchestras continue to interpret towering, classical tomes – written by someone else. So what sets the double-take world of tribute apart? To try and understand we have to go back to the explosion of pop – a time when the sun-lit dawn of youth and young adulthood promised a never-ending yellow brick road of creativity and new direction.

In the mid-fifties, not long after one generation of Americans had left our shores, another returned. But this time they were wearing the silky-black lure of lip-curling vinyl. Pop had literally exploded, littering the future with three-minute shards of inspiration. And lustily independent adolescents wasted no time in seeking them out and using them. The pioneers of this bright new epoch turned their backs on the safe familiarity of variety shows and dancehall, instead plugging in to inject their perspectives with a devil-may-care amplification. Covers were the staple diet of many fledgling bands. However, they weren’t harking back to a bygone era but reflecting the sharp, cutting nowness and newness of everything.

The Beatles became the beacon of invention and reinvention, with many following in their mop-topped wake. Slices of pop history were being cut in unforgettable, freeze-frame moments. And the momentum showed no signs of abating. Having played George Harrison in the West End hit Beatlemania, Andre Barreau entered the eighties as part of The Bootleg Beatles. But there seemed to be few opportunities for a band recreating the hits of pop’s recent past. “The first couple of years, ’79 to ’81 were funny. Pop music was accelerating. People really believed in progression. The new movements such as Goth and the New Romantics didn’t really get us. We gave ourselves six months.” For the next few years the Bootleg Beatles toured the world and honed their act. They even got a foot in the heavy red door of The Soviet Union, becoming one of the first western acts to play there. “We did 50 gigs in 60 days to packed, 10,000 seater stadiums, full of screaming kids. We felt like trail blazers.”

Back home, however, enthusiasm for their brand of bootleg musicianship was still limited. But as the ‘90s loomed the path of pop began to change course. New popular movements started to look over their shoulders with dewy eyes. But why? Andre points to record industry conservatism as a possible cause. “In the 60s Noel Redding was given a hundred grand to record Fat Mattress – a bad album – but the companies were prepared to experiment. These days the accountants don’t really go for the risky releases.” Or it could have been down to The Australians. Frustrated by the lack of western bands visiting their shores, musicians started their own versions of famous acts, giving birth to the likes of The Australian Doors and Bjorn Again. Or perhaps the inspirational shards littering the pop highway had all been used.

Whatever the combination of reasons, it slowed pop’s progress. Suddenly there was time to reflect on all that had gone before. Some developed their own brand of morning glory retro. Others simply mimicked the originals. The result is a tribute-friendly environment where musicians and audiences can revel in knowing pastiche. New entertainment ventures have flourished in this atmosphere. David Allen, General Manager at Bistro L!ve has been booking cover and tribute bands for the past few years. “We look for a number of aspects when choosing our bands – musical talent, play-list, popularity and appearance. As long as the customer can recognise the music and tap their feet along…”

Tribute has become a serious and profitable business. At one end of the spectrum acts such as Atomic Kittee are making the most of mass appeal opportunity. At the other, enjoyably skilled musicians are crafting perfect mirrors to reflect past glories. Whatever your tastes there seems to a double-take world ready to grab your hand, coat and cash. But don’t cast too cynical an eye. As Ian Michael, a full-time industrial designer and part-time Beatle demonstrates, there’s warmth and purpose behind the phenomenon. “I feel at times like a roving troubadour, keeping the authenticity of the music alive (and live) and passing it onto future generations – just as they did hundreds of years ago.” Perhaps a tribute-laden future is not the Orwellian nightmare I first envisaged. So with our fate already decided, to ask tribute or not tribute is, after all irrelevant. But who will you be? Now that it the question.

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