Arts: Once more into the bleach

Welcome to the small time. Welcome to the cheesy, self-deluding world of the tribute band - the place in which pop finally gets to eat itself. But wait. The figures say this isn't the small time at all. This is pop's Third Way.

Two friends of mine have a novel way of attracting the attention of young women in bars. One dresses up in a sharp suit and dark glasses and sits alone near a group of girls. After 10 minutes the second one joins him, introducing himself loudly as the man from The Times, and proceeds to conduct a mock interview about the new album and the pressures of touring.

According to the growing number of musicians who make a living playing in tribute bands, the claim that this routine facilitates many fruitful introductions may be true. The public do not know the difference, they say, between a pretend pop star and a real one.

John Mainwaring, who has been on the circuit for seven years with his David Bowie tribute Jean Genie, says: "For years I could not understand it. Everyone in the room knows I am not him, but women still scream and throw their knickers. It wasn't until I saw a really good Neil Diamond tribute that I understood that there is something a little spooky about someone who is that close to the original. It's the spookiness which gets the reaction."

Donna Trafford, who plays Stevie Nicks in the Fleetwood Mac tribute band Fleetwood Bac, concurs: "We get lots of crazy fan mail: `Stevie, Stevie, we love you.' They are totally nuts," she says. Even 25-year-old Sam Hill says she appears to get mistaken for Debbie Harry (52) when she is doing her Blondie tribute Once More Into the Bleach. "They ask me why I am no longer playing with the same band. They do not seem to understand that I am not really Debbie."

The public's willingness to suspend its disbelief in this way may go some way to explain the incredible growth in the popularity of tribute bands in the last couple of years. No longer are tribute artists regarded as little better than celebrity stalkers with a penchant for karaoke. Now, saluting your hero by forming a tribute band is regarded as both a legitimate step on the way to becoming a superstar for young musicians, or as a respectable bolt-hole for those who have given up trying with their own material.

Some testament to the new-found acceptability of this musical form of pantomime comes from last month's MTV Music Awards in Milan, the pinnacle of music fashion-consciousness, at which a tribute band, the Cheeky Monkees, was booked to play at the unfeasibly cool after-show party.

"Only recently has what we do become acceptable. What is happening would have been totally unacceptable in the Eighties. No one would have thought of being so uncool," says Jean Genie's Mainwaring.

This respectability has expanded the tribute market hugely. Most noticeably, it is not just acts with world-wide appeal and illustrious careers behind them that get the tribute treatment. Now, a couple of hits and an album are deemed to be worthy of tribute. Hence the 12 or so Spice Girl tributes of recent times: Spice it Up, Spiced, the Spicey Girls, the Spiceish Girls, Nice 'n' Spicy, the Brit Girls, Old Spice, Nearly Spice and so on.

And it is not just seasoned musicians looking for easy money who get involved. Often it is twentysomethings getting involved in their first band. Neil Cross, the guitarist in the T-Rex tribute band T-Rextasy, one of the oldest tribute bands, explains the attractions. "We have all been in original bands. It is a waste of time," he says. "You record demos and the record companies just throw them in the bin. This is much better. In our band we work every weekend. Last Christmas we played 24 gigs in 23 days. We go to Germany about four times a year. It's a good life."

Although those at the top of the tribute tree, such as T-Rextasy, Bootleg Beatles and Bjorn Again, can make pounds 10,000 a night, for many tributes life is far less glamorous. "We played lots of over-sized bingo halls in northern towns that looked like one big bus shelter," says Liz Norden, ex-keyboard player in Fleetwood Bac. "Places that you wouldn't even imagine if you lived in London.

"In some towns we would go down really well and it would be great fun. At other times we would get all dressed up to play half-empty halls and I would sit in the van on the motorway at 5am on the way home thinking: `Why am I spending my life in this stupid wig?'"

The Venue in south London is the tribute band mecca, this year booking acts exclusively from the 500-odd currently available. Gerard Kearney, its manager, says tributes bring bigger audiences than original bands and are easier to deal with: "For 90 per cent of the tribute bands it is a business, and they are very well organised, whereas for original bands, being in a band is often a lifestyle choice."

At a Generation Preachers gig at The Venue last month there certainly seemed to be no shortage of punters happy with the form. "It's Friday night, I am seeing a band I know I will like in a small venue," said one. The evening began with curious fans standing soberly with arms folded in a non-committal way, waiting to be impressed by the evening's stooges. Within half an hour the necessary buttons had been pushed, and the band had been accepted as worthy recipients of the audience's transferred affections. On the dance floor groups of student types made merry to the replicated sounds of their heroes. An evening with the real thing was an unfeasibly expensive proposition, but here in a medium-sized hall in south London, dreams of a sort were coming true. The evening had a slightly surreal air; everyone knew the band could not be the real thing, but they looked and sounded right.

The real test is how the stars themselves react to their tribute. Many tributes have met, or at least had contact with their originals. "That's one of the best bits," says Fleetwood Bac's Trafford, who at every gig wonders whether Mick Fleetwood might be there. He has indeed received a letter from the lanky drummer saying he will surprise them one day.

Jean Genie's Mainwaring has a relationship with Bowie of sorts, although they have never met. He has used the same backing band as Bowie and the same producer for recorded work, so they have mutual acquaintances. He also leaves the Thin White Duke notes. "I played the Olympia Theatre in Dublin the night before Bowie recently and left him a note stuck to the dressing-room mirror telling him I was just one step behind," he says.

The tribute business has the feeling of being pop's own Third Way. In the early days of pop its stars were simply performers for whom material was written by teams of professional songwriters in tin-pan alley. Then came the second generation, led by The Beatles, who demystified the songwriting process, paving the way for millions of bands keen to write original material. Now, it is all about either sampling other people's work or replicating as closely as possible the sound and style of past, great acts. Pop's Third Way is pop's future and, whether you like it or not, it works.

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