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
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn