Bootleg Beatles

By Anne Iredale: I hate tribute bands – with a passion. Cover bands, I don’t have a problem with; I’ve seen some excellent ones, with accomplished musicians respectful of the music and bringing their own take to their versions. Even some so-called tribute bands don’t clone their heroes but simply cover the music. No, I’m talking about the ones that take it to extremes – the ones that sport the wigs and the clothes and practice every facial twitch, every vocal inflection, reproducing somebody else’s sound note for note. They stand in front of the mirror for hours…being ‘them’.

Tribute bands/artists are big business here in Britain, and as I go round my home town, I see countless banners advertising the coming acts outside venues, from small clubs to big theaters. Brochures from my local theaters come through my door and I excitedly open them to see which fantastic artists are scheduled, only for my heart to sink as page after page of tribute acts appear.

I don’t want to see a middle-aged ‘Rod Stewart’ trying to hold his stomach in, with enough hair product to blow a hole in the ozone layer the size of Texas. Nor do I want to see ‘Jim Morrison’; I have a vision of him trying to get his leather trousers off after the show, when he’s been sweating in them for two hours – it ain’t pretty.

I did once, inadvertently, come across a Rammstein tribute band. They’re from England and can’t speak German but sang in German nevertheless. Apparently, they learn the words phonetically. In other words, they don’t know what the hell they’re singing about!

One of the most successful tribute bands is The Bootleg Beatles. They have a big career. Perhaps, one day there’ll be a tribute band to them, in some kind of downward spiral to tribute hell. At least their ‘Paul McCartney’ plays left-handed. I once had an argument with someone when I complained that the ‘Paul McCartney’ in another Beatles tribute band was right-handed. “Well, what do you expect him to do? Learn how to play the bass left-handed?” he said. “Yes,” I replied! Not only does a right-handed McCartney look plain wrong, there is a significant point here. The fact that the real deal is left-handed meant that he and George Harrison could stand together at one microphone and do close harmony. It was a beautiful thing. Also, some Beatles tributes get to the ‘psychedelic/Sgt. Pepper’ part of their act and they’re still wearing their early Beatle suits. It looks ridiculous.

It’s true that you can’t go see The Beatles anymore or Freddie Mercury and countless others. But the most annoying tributes are those to artists that are still around and performing, and not all of those are ones getting on in years and past their prime.  Hell, there are tribute acts to One Direction and to Adele! Another phenomenon is original band members getting in on the act. Bassist Bruce Foxton, formerly of The Jam, plays in From the Jam, in what amounts to a tribute act to his own band. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any more annoying – up pop tributes to stand-up comics. Yes – comics! Peter Kay is a comedian with a huge following in the UK; he fills arenas and sells DVDs by the truckload. Can’t get a ticket to see him? No problem, you can go see his copycat. Come to think of it, hundreds of people line up to see fake versions of The Queen and David Beckham cutting the ribbon on stuff, but that’s another story.

Tribute acts even have their own festivals, one ingeniously called Glastonbudget. Now, I actually approve of this. For one weekend, they’re all in the same place and we know what they’re up to. In fact, I would go further than this. My fantasy is an island somewhere out in the middle of an ocean where all the tribute acts in the world could live, playing to their heart’s content. I would call it Tribute Island, and eventually it would sink under the weight of its own mediocrity.

Admittedly, there is one thing I do like about some tribute bands and that’s their names. Some of them are very inventive, my personal favorite being Oasish.

There is a serious point to all this. Surely the plethora of tribute acts must affect the ability of original acts to get a gig? I wonder how hard-working musicians and singers with original songs feel about it. Tribute acts bring pleasure to thousands of people, I know, but if there are any live music promoters reading this – I’m begging you; please, just every now and then, give someone original a chance. Just imagine if The Beatles had formed themselves as a tribute to…say, Buddy Holly and the Crickets or Elvis to Hank Williams….where, oh where, would be now?