Day 309: 1000 Morphemes, 1000 Diurnal Courses

originally published November 4, 2012

Nobody picks up a guitar and searches clumsily for their first proper E chord, hoping someday they’ll play in a Bay City Rollers tribute band. But they might figure out the progression to “Saturday Night”, and it’s possible that they’re pretty good at it. And when they’re older, struggling to get a record label to invest a little faith in their prog-fusion-house-alt-disco jam band, they might be able to pull in their rent money by pretending to be Eric Faulkner.

That’s the guitar player from the Bay City Rollers. I had to look it up.

The vote’s not completely in on who was the first tribute band. The fad started with one of the acts most aspiring musicians wanted to be: Elvis or the Beatles. Elvis impersonators could (and truly might) be worthy of an entire kilograph to themselves someday; the first Beatles tribute band was launched in the mid 60’s. People knew their chances of seeing the real thing were slim. This was the next best thing. Well, the next best thing apart from simply seeing another good original band then going home and listening to one’s Beatles records.

One British journalist believes that the tribute band phenomenon has its roots in Australia. Because a lot of acts would pass over the lengthy flight to the island nation, local musicians founded an industry on simulating the absentee stars. I think I’m disagreeing on this one; the oldest evidence of tribute band-dom I can find is this:

That’s The Beetle Beat, by Omaha, Nebraska band the Buggs, released on Coronet Records in 1964. I’m willing to bet that dozens, if not hundreds of grandparents bought this album for their grandkids, believing it to be the actual Beatles, and not an album with two Beatle covers and a heap of Beatle-inspired ‘comedy originals’.

Some acts take their role a little too far, like the two men in a Blues Brothers tribute show who legally changed their names to Jake and Elwood Blues in 1998. Others achieve a surprising level of success. For example, the Australian Pink Floyd Show was invited to perform for actual Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour on his 50th birthday. Oasis tribute band No Way Sis (the gag is in the pronunciation) scored a top 20 hit in the UK with their version of “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing.” I like the fact that I live in a world where a pretend Oasis has a hit with an old Coke jingle. It’s that kind of blatant weirdness that pries my eyelids open every morning.

So which is the more likely route to success? Playing your own music or standing in as someone else? There are a number of arguments for the latter.

Just look at Tommy Thayer, who slathered himself in makeup for paltry bar-room earnings in the Kiss tribute band Cold Gin, then wound up taking Ace Frehley’s spot in Kiss in 2002. When singer Jon Anderson had to duck out of Yes in 2008 with health concerns, bassist Chris Squire came upon a tape of Benoit David singing in the Yes tribute band Close To The Edge. When David left the group earlier this year, they replaced him with yet another singer from another tribute band.

This is fantastic. As the great bands lose their members to retirement, disinterest, or the Great Beyond, we can simply sift through their imitators and keep the bands going. This could mean another fifty years of Rolling Stones tours.

(though if nothing has killed Keith Richards by this point, I suspect nothing ever will)

The first great success story like this happened in 1992 when singer Rob Halford ditched Judas Priest. It took four years before the other members of the band started running low on royalty money, so they recruited Tim “Ripper” Owens from the tribute band British Steel. Halford returned in 2003. Owens, who had proven his vocal chops on the biggest of big stages, has had a successful career ever since.

I think that’s the deciding case study here.

Kids, assuming you’re among that minority of young people who actually listen to music made by people who play instruments, and if you someday dream of forming your own band, then pick your role model. Learn his moves, wear his stage clothes, practice every guitar lick, every solo, every little nuance of his performance. Sure, you may want to pursue the expression of your own artistic voice, but until that magical day when the world wakes up and “gets you”, you’ll haul in a lot more interim money playing in the Saskatchewan Skynyrd Experience.

Here are a handful of tribute acts who may disappear from notoriety the moment they hang up their guitars, but for now are happy earning a steady income doing what they love. And speaking as someone who earns nothing doing what he loves and instead squeaks out a living coating the inside of his lungs with printer toner fumes, that’s a pretty impressive feat.

  • There is no shortage of Beatle bands, which have filled a sizeable void since the actual Beatles stopped touring 46 years ago (apologies to anyone in my audience who feels old after reading that). The Fab Faux, the Beatnix, Rubber Souldiers, Beatlemania and RAIN are just a handful I’ve heard of.
  • If ABBA is your thing – and I pointed out here last week that they aren’t mine – try out Bjorn Again, or Gabba, an ABBA tribute band who plays in the style of the Ramones.
  • If you’re into AC/DC, there are two all-girl tribute acts, AC/DShe and Hell’s Belles. For a wholly different experience, check out Hayseed Dixie, a bluegrass salute to the Aussie rockers. Seriously, these guys don’t stick to AC/DC covers, and they are awesome.
  • The Iron Maidens are the all-female tribute to Iron Maiden. Of course.
  • Mini Kiss is a quartet of little people who perform frighteningly good renditions of Kiss songs. Not sure they’ll pull from this resource if Gene Simmons ever decides to retire, but how awesome would it be if they did?
  • If you are a Led Zeppelin fan (and if you’re not, you clearly missed out on the immense joy of chemically-enhanced laser light shows at your local planetarium), you can try out Fred Zeppelin (from the same part of England), Lez Zeppelin (all-female tribute, naturally), or Dread Zeppelin (reggae style Zeppelin covers, fronted by an Elvis impersonator).

Tribute bands may never be held in high esteem so far as music notoriety is concerned. But it can pay the bills and pay them well – some acts, like Dread Zeppelin for example, have built up their own impressive following. I still haven’t ruled a tribute act out of my future: I’m thinking “We’re The Inspiration”, a Chicago tribute band. Maybe “Basil ‘N Corrianda”, a Salt ‘N Pepa tribute. How about Judas Geese? Motley Jew? Marty Goes To Hollywood?

Don’t rule out the glory of the tribute band. If it’s something you want to do, go for it. Let the purists scoff at your lack of individual artistic achievement. Then go collect your paycheck for having played music you love in front of appreciative fans for a couple hours. It’s not a bad living.

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