Thank you for the music

Queen, Abba and the Beatles are gigging again. Together. Will tribute mania ever end? Daniel Synge wallows in nostalgia
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When the first tribute bands arrived from Australia in the late 1980s, fans of all ages could at last attend what looked and sounded like an Abba concert one night, The Doors the next and maybe T Rex another. This month The Beatles, Abba and Queen are going on tour together. Is Macca really about to bury his differences with George and Ringo to appear alongside the sensational Swedes and a cryogenically-restored Freddie Mercury? Not likely, but on The Ultimate Tribute Show there is no harm in thinking so.

Leaning like a star-struck teenager against the crash barrier in front of The Forum stage, baby-boomer Kim from New York explains why she has spent £12.50 to see Beatlemania, The Royal Family and Abbamania. "I grew up with The Beatles and I am a big Queen fan too, so it's a good deal. It's all about nostalgia, besides the new music is not very good. I lost interest in the early 1980s."

Similar sentiments are echoed by Alan Tolhurst, 47, who during Beatlemania's set of pre-psychedelic hits remembers seeing the original mop-tops at the Hammersmith Palais. "Nights like these just bring the memories flooding back. I only wish there were more groups like this - they're better than a lot of the groups around today."

While more concert-goers choose to bury their heads in nostalgia, booking agencies like Universal, who signed their first tribute band T Rextasy two years ago, now boast four Queen and Abba soundalikes, two Madness, U2, Who, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Thin Lizzy and Beatles tributes, as well as a Hendrix, Bowie and Blondie act.

"We discover a new tribute band every week," says Paula Richards at Universal, referring to the latest Abba incarnation, Waterloo, and the possible signing of a Nirvana tribute. "The home grown tribute scene has really taken off since Bjrn Again and The Australian Doors showed them how to do it. Tribute bands will be around for a long while."

It would appear that a whole generation of bands are eschewing artistic integrity for wigs, false moustaches and mimicry to leap-frog the dreaded pub scene to the theatres and concert halls as fast as you can say Stars in their Eyes. Guitarist Paul Spink of The Royal Family, just one of the 15 Queen tributes doing the circuit, discusses the dilemma while a curly Brian May wig is carefully fitted over his natural hair. "Obviously we wouldn't get to play The Forum if we played our own stuff because there are so many other good bands around. We're only playing theatres now because we do songs that people already know." Shades and armband-wearing Karl Smalley, aka Roger Taylor, nods in agreement. "It's difficult to do your own material nowadays - at the end of the line you can do four years of hard work only to get ripped off at the end of it." Interest in nostalgia has taken Oxford's Beatlemania from The Abingdon Tea Rooms to London's The Forum in only a year. The last time Steve Mellin came here was as a punter to see The Saw Doctors. Now he comes in the remarkably authentic guise of a 1963 model John Lennon. "We see our role as keeping the legend of The Beatles alive and giving a chance for those that weren't around at the time to taste what it was like," he says, swapping Lennon's sardonic Scouse for his own affable Oxfordshire burr. George Harrison, who turns out to be Steve's brother Paul, a former student at catering college, chips in: "There are a million other bands out there playing their own songs that will never make it, but this pays the mortgage and gives us a comfortable living as well."

Life as Abba for Dave, Louise, Maureen and Simon is "hard work, but helps to pay the bills" for their respective homes in Nottingham. Otherwise occupied as "serious rock musicians", their spectacular Abbamania show features three Agnetha and Frida costume changes, Swedish accents from the Benny Hill school and a medley of hits which are recognised instantly by the crowd, many of whom must have been in nappies when "Waterloo" romped home to Eurovision victory. At the front singing along is Liz who has come with three friends, all in their twenties and dressed in glitter and feather boas. Another group of "virtually obsessive" Abba fans from New Zealand are doing a routine to "Dancing Queen" - everybody knows the words.

"It's nice to get all the applause at the end," says Simon, the band's guitarist later, removing the blond wig, panama hat and kimono once favoured by Abba's backroom boy Benny, "but when you come off-stage you realise it's not really you they're applauding - it's them."

The Ultimate Tribute Show continues at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, Saturday 29 April (0181-688 9291)