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.

The author plays Joe Strummer in Black Market Clash - now booking for Christmas

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living