There are always people who do well in a recession. Pawnbrokers. Companies that offer you payday loans at 13,000 per cent. And people who imitate pop stars. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of performers all over the UK dress up and impersonate pop stars for a living. More than 300 of these tribute acts are on the books of Steve Lowrey’s Shout agency near Manchester, and he says the tribute phenomenon is not just bigger than ever: it’s growing.
‘I started focusing on tribute acts ten years ago when the demand really began, and it has grown since the beginning of the recession,’ he says. ‘It’s the one area of entertainment that has increased.’
While no one will ever get to see Elvis or the Fab Four again, it’s never been easier to find a band that looks and sounds just like them. All across the country there are hundreds, if not thousands, of tribute acts paying homage to the stars.
And you don’t have to break the bank, or enter a ballot, or spend two hours on the phone and internet to be at the gig. No wonder this is the one sector of the entertainment industry that is actually growing in a recession. It might not have the same cachet to tell your friends you saw Mandonna, the all-male tribute group, Baby Gaga or The Kings of Lyon, but it’s cheaper, easier and can be a whole lot more fun.
Why would you spend upwards of £100 on a night watching The Rolling Stones from the back of a stadium, queuing for overpriced refreshments and unspeakable loos, when you can watch its tribute band across the road and come home with change from a tenner? That’s what I did when the Stones last played Wembley Stadium. I went to a pub only yards from the stadium to watch the Counterfeit Stones. Not only did I save a pile, I could see ‘Nick Dagger’ up close and buy a sensibly priced pint. And there weren’t any of those dreary ‘new songs’.
Of course, as music fans, we do still flock to vast arenas to see tiny figures in the distance, or pixelated close-ups on a video screen, with sound that makes every lyric indecipherable – just to say ‘we were there’. We’ll probably buy the (overpriced) T-shirt to prove it.
Because of that, there’s always been snobbery about tribute acts. We think they must be losers who couldn’t make it as ‘real’ singers and musicians, and are reduced to eking out a meagre living on the wedding circuit, dressing up as some long-dead rock’n’roller.
You wouldn’t want to say that to Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, who was singing in a Judas Priest tribute band called British Steel when he was offered a new job – fronting Judas Priest when singer Rob Halford took a break in the late 1990s.
Today there are tribute bands that are pretty big in their own right. Bjorn Again began in Australia in the late 1980s as a humorous take on Abba and was arguably the first tribute act to come to the UK (stepping off the plane in full Abba Arrival regalia). Since then the band has become a global brand, with touring troupes performing simultaneously all over the world. It has given private performances for Vladimir Putin and Bill Gates, while Russell Crowe hired the group to play at his wedding.
The Australian Pink Floyd is constantly on sell-out tours, staging spectacular reconstructions of Floyd shows, complete with 3D visuals and quadrophonic sound. And the occasional flash of humour: their props include an inflatable kangaroo. The band even has the seal of approval of the Floydians – David Gilmour hired it to play at his 50th birthday party.
Tribute acts can earn around £500 for a show, plus travel expenses, and demand is so high that there are different performers for each pop star. ‘I’ve got more than a dozen Lady Gagas and so many Adeles that I’ve been turning them away,’ says Lowrey. ‘And there are a few Jessie Js popping up now, too.’
The tribute market can be a cruel gauge of pop popularity, too. No one wants a Pixie Lott or Little Boots impersonator when their audience has moved on to Jessie J and Emili Sandé, and tribute singer Nicola Marie has moved through Madonna, Shania Twain and Amy Winehouse before settling on Baby Gaga.
But it’s important for the performer to keep up with the myriad changes of style of the person they are impersonating. Lareena Mitchell, a 32-year-old mother
of two whose Adele tribute is popular enough for her to have given up her day job, has spent years struggling with her weight and hours practising a Cockney accent. ‘I have to keep up, whether it’s the music or the look,’ she says. As Lowrey puts it, rather more bluntly: ‘You can’t have a 16-stone Katy Perry or a six-stone Adele.’ Not many tribute acts would be recognised on the street without their costumes and make-up.
When tribute singer Willie Scott dons his ‘Jim Kit’ of leather trousers and takes the stage as lead singer of The Doors Alive, suddenly the girls go crazy. A jobbing songwriter by day, he spends weekends jetting off to gigs with the band, who play regularly to up to 2,000 fans of all ages. They even get groupies, who seem undeterred by the fact that the real object of their affections has been dead for 40 years. It’s one thing to be wanted for your body alone – but at least it’s yours.
Willie has called time on intimate relations with women who call him ‘Jim’ in the throes of passion. ‘I do get asked for autographs, but when I sign my own name people ask who Willie Scott is, so now I sign them Jim Morrison,’ says Scott.
Some tribute bands have even blurred the lines by being endorsed by the stars they impersonate. No Way Sis not only had a hit of its own with a version of ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’ (a song previously plagiarised by Oasis), but was asked to fill in for the real thing when Oasis cancelled a gig in Paris.
Peter Gabriel took his children to see The Musical Box, a Genesis tribute act specialising in the early years, ‘to see what their father used to do,’ and Phil Collins watched them perform ‘The Lion Lies Down On Broadway’, afterwards telling reporters that ‘they played it better than we did’.
Unlike the majority of tribute bands who inject humour into their work, The Musical Box perform precise replicas of early Genesis shows, re-creating every nuance, down to clothes, props and between-song banter. It has acquired not only Gabriel’s seal of approval but also access to his archives and the costumes (and fox head!) that he wore on stage in the early 1970s.
Genesis members are far from being the only musicians to endorse their tribute bands. Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice has regularly plied his trade with tribute act Purpendicular, and Jon Bon Jovi has even joined UK tribute act The Bon Jovi Experience on stage. He was less supportive of American all-girl tribute act Blonde Jovi (guitarist: Bitchy Sambora), instructing lawyers to force them to change their name, arguing strangely, but successfully, that the name ‘creates a likelihood of confusion with our client’.
That’s unlikely to be the case with Dread Zeppelin, which mixes its idol’s power chords with reggae rhythms and is fronted by an Elvis impersonator. What’s more, the band has received the seal of approval of Robert Plant himself, while Jimmy Page has enjoyed another tribute band, Led Zepagain, and the all-girl Lez Zeppelin has recorded with Led Zep’s own recording engineer.
The all-girl take on an all-male band is a twist growing in popularity. Also touring are The Iron Maidens (singer: Kirsten Rosenberg, aka ‘Bruce Chickinson’), and AC/DShe – not to be confused with fellow female AC/DC tribute act Hell’s Belles or a wave of other girl groups including Aerochix and The Ramonas.
Then there are the bands that pay tribute to more than one act, usually for comic effect, such as Gabba, which performs Abba songs in the revved-up style of The Ramones, Beatallica, which blends Beatles and Metallica (sample songs: ‘I Wanna Choke Your Band’, ‘All You Need Is Blood’) and The Beastles, which makes mash-ups of The Beatles and The Beastie Boys. Pink Floyd has also inspired odd variations including Punk Floyd and the quite brilliant reggae album Dub Side of the Moon.
Comedy, of course, is a crucial component of many tribute acts. Take, for example, Nude Elvis (who, disappointingly, wears gold lamé underpants) and the self-explanatory Take Fat. But when it comes to humour, surely the best (and oddest) tribute band of all is Mini Kiss, founded by four-foot-four Joey Fatale – a Kiss tribute band made up entirely of dwarfs.
And that’s the next trend, especially after Lin Doak, a four-foot-eight Ozzy Osbourne impersonator from Virginia, appeared on America’s Got Talent and brought a tear to the eye of the original’s fearsome wife, Sharon. So tributes acts are getting bigger – and a lot smaller too.
10 GOLDEN RULES OF TRIBUTE BANDS
As exclusively revealed to us by Jim Morrison of The Doors Alive
1. DON’T ever fall into the trap of believing you really are the person you’re emulating.
2. DON’T wear stage clothes offstage.
3. DON’T sleep with someone who thinks you are the person you’re emulating.
4. DON’T take liberties with the music.
5. DON’T tell anyone in the band they are better than anyone else.
6. DO treat the audience with respect.
7. DO make sure that everything in the band is divided equally.
8. DO accept gifts, but share them out.
9. DO try to go as far as you can – in terms of travel, and everything else.
10. DO try to remember you are not really a world-famous rock star… Yet.
11. DON’T fall asleep in the bath – especially in Paris.
(Sorry – we added that one.)
Tim Cooper - Do Not Disturb