In Focus

Cheap, cheerful, and close enough: Inside the tribute band boom sweeping the UK

Cover bands started out as a novelty, all hip-swivelling Elvis impersonators and bootleg Beatles, but tribute nights are fast becoming sellout events as music fans seek out cheaper alternatives and greatest hits set lists. Robyn Wilson chats to the bands channelling their heroes every night – and the people who love them

Saturday 20 April 2024 07:41 BST
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Even better than the real thing?: Just Radiohead are never going to skip ‘Creep’ or ‘Karma Police’ to focus on ‘the new material’
Even better than the real thing?: Just Radiohead are never going to skip ‘Creep’ or ‘Karma Police’ to focus on ‘the new material’ (Shavorne Wilbraham Photography)

On stage, a man throws his shaggy blond hair back and forth in time with the four-chord assault of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. A mosh pit swells in the middle of a crowd of thousands. The air is laced with catharsis, as pints and fists are launched into the air on every churn of guitar. But of course, the man on stage is not Kurt Cobain, who has been dead for 30 years, and the band in question are not Nirvana: this is Nirvana UK, the self-proclaimed number one cover band of the Seattle grunge gods.

“Thirty years ago today a little band called Nirvana were supposed to play here,” says the man to the crowd. “But they couldn’t make it, so we’re here instead. Can I say what an honour it’s been for our tribute band to play on a stage as prestigious as this?”

This was the scene on Friday night at the O2 Academy Brixton where, alongside The Smyths (you guessed it: a cover band of The Smiths), Nirvana UK headlined. More than a year after being forced to close due to a crowd crush in December 2022, which killed two people, the venue opened its doors once again, with the owners agreeing to meet no fewer than 77 “extensive and robust” safety measures to regain its licence.

You might think an iconic venue such as Brixton Academy – which has hosted Grace Jones, David Bowie, Snoop Dogg, and Pulp – might have its pick of bands for its inaugural show, which begs the question: why tribute acts?

“I keep on having these ridiculous pinch-me moments,” says frontman Graham Sampson, The Smyths’ very own Morrissey. The band have played more than 900 shows across the UK, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, but tonight’s gig holds a special significance; it was here, on 12 December 1986, that The Smiths performed their final show. “I mean, I was at that last ever Smiths gig,” says Sampson. “It’s a bit mad to step onto that stage.”

Mad though it is, tribute acts are nabbing more and more high-profile spots. These acts are growing in popularity, despite groups like The Smyths and The Bootleg Beatles having been around for decades. This year alone, The Smyths will play some of their biggest shows yet with headline gigs at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the Electric Ballroom Manchester, Cardiff Tramshed, Newcastle City Hall, and Manchester’s historic venue, the Ritz.

Once largely a gimmick for Elvis impersonators, whose only resemblance to the King is a penchant for leather, today’s tribute bands pay homage to a whole range of music from mainstream to niche – and they do it well. (According to The Smyths, they’ve got fans in both Morrissey and Johnny Marr.)

It’s not only old bands getting the tribute treatment. In January, more than 1,000 people braved the cold to see Fell Out Boy (Fall Out Boy) and The Black Charade (My Chemical Romance) at the O2 Ritz up north. A few months later, with support from Angry Hair (Alice in Chains), Pearl Scam (Pearl Jam) played a sold-out show at the O2 Academy Islington as part of a series of Academy gigs across the UK.

Despite bearing zero physical resemblance to the wide-eyed, blond-tressed Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley, who died from an overdose in 2002, Angry Hair frontman Luke Williams effectively resurrected the late musician that night with an uncanny rendition of his yearning growl on the 1992 grunge classic “Rooster”. The crowd ate it up.

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Pretty much Morrissey: Graham Sampson of The Smyths takes the stage (Kevin Frazer)

“We’re not a fancy dress band,” Williams told me after the gig. “I think Layne Staley would cringe if there was someone dressed up pretending to be him and mimicking his voice. I think he’d absolutely hate it. That’s the grunge scene for you, though. I reckon Kurt Cobain would probably find it funny, though.”

Their refusal to indulge in cosplay makes it harder to secure bookings, said Williams – but it does speak to a new seriousness with which tribute acts are carrying themselves these days. “When people see pictures of us, they think, ‘he doesn’t look like Layne Staley’ because I’ve got a mohawk and vest on and I’m jumping in the crowd,” admitted Williams. “But as soon as we got our foot in the door, more people were asking for us and travelling to see us.”

In December, more than 150 people descended on east London brewery Signature Brew to listen to Just Radiohead, the self-proclaimed leading Radiohead tribute band in the UK. In a time when emerging acts struggle to shift tickets, the group (only three years old, having formed in lockdown) managed to pack out the room.

Pearl Scam (Pearl Jam) whip up a frenzy at the O2 Academy Islington (Robyn Wilson)

“We probably got audiences of about 50 people when we first started and now we’re regularly getting over 250,” says guitarist Shaun (their version of Johnny Greenwood) who didn’t want to give his full name, while the band is still building momentum. “For a lot of the venues we’re playing there’s been an increase in tribute bands and a decrease in original. My view is that the tribute scene is actually keeping a lot of these grassroots venues open.”

A tribute night is also a guaranteed good time for the average music fan who just wants to hear the hits. You only have to look at the tepid response from the Arctic Monkeys crowd at Glastonbury last year to know not every fan wants to hear the deep cuts. Sometimes you just want to let loose to the punk riff of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” – and that’s OK, Antarctic Monkeys are more than happy to oblige.

You sort of lower your expectations thinking they’re just a tribute, but you can get some quite amazing musicians out there

Colin Freitag, festivalgoer

“If Radiohead were still touring today, they’d likely do two big stadiums in the UK, charge hundreds of pounds a ticket and probably tour the latest album,” Shaun says. “Whereas we’re doing two-and-a-half hour shows in grassroot venues for £15 and covering all the songs the average fan wants to hear.” You’ll never catch Just Radiohead skipping over “Creep” or “Karma Police”.

It’s not only pubs and music venues that are spotlighting tribute bands. Festivals, too, are booking more of them, hoping to give fans a little taste of the big acts they couldn’t secure themselves. At Glastonbury in 2023, the tent heaved with fans dancing to Elvana, a British group who perform the music of Nirvana in the style of an Elvis impersonator. (Their name is a portmanteau of the two.)

“I couldn’t get in because it was so rammed,” says Colin Freitag, a festivalgoer and passionate defender of tribute acts. “You sort of lower your expectations thinking they’re just a tribute, but you can get some quite amazing musicians out there who have spent a long time practising the work of their idols and it’s actually really, really good.”

The King meets Kurt Cobain: Elvana perform live on stage at Download Pilot festival, Donington (Alamy )

WV1Fest, Rockprest and Festwich, meanwhile, are exclusive tribute festivals that have been building crowds steadily over the years. The latter has even had to relocate to bigger grounds for its 2024 comeback due to demand. Stiff Bizkit, Link N Park, Smashed in Pumpkins, Machine Rages On, Fu Fighters, Arctic Manckeys, Kings of the Stone Age, Aka Noel Gallagher, Dire Streets, and Green Days are among the line-up.

Cost is, of course, another factor. Standing tickets for Pearl Jam’s latest UK tour, for example, are currently going for £198 in London and £163 in Manchester; a ticket to see Pearl Scam and Angry Hair was £22. Tonight’s gig at Brixton cost just £13.30. Obviously, seeing the real band is a different experience entirely, no one can argue otherwise – but in a cost of living crisis, the idea of shelling out hundreds of pounds for a ticket when you can see a quality replica for a fraction of the price is increasingly appealing.

For some people it’s nostalgia. For others, it’s to make up for missing out on seeing the band live at the time

Graham Sampson of The Smyths

Many of the original acts in question have also long since disbanded, The Smiths being a prime example of that. Tributes offer a nostalgia trip for fans who were there in the Eighties, says The Smyths’ Sampson. “‘It’s the closest you’re ever going to get’ is probably the headline,” he says. “For some people it’s nostalgia. For others, it’s to make up for missing out on seeing the band live at the time.”

Their gigs run the gamut of ages; it’s not just older generations who like The Smiths anymore. (A TikTok trend last year introduced a whole new generation of teens to Morrissey’s mesmerising musings by way of the 2009 romcom 500 Days of Summer). “Our shows have three or four generations in the audience and it’s quite lovely to see,” says Sampson. “You get parents coming who are saying, ‘we saw The Smiths, but our kids never did, so it’s fantastic to be able to bring them to this’.”

Down-to-earth costs: a ticket to see Pearl Scam and Angry Hair was just £22 (Chris Thompson)

At Pearl Scam, one audience member, Leah, had brought her teenage daughter to the show. “I loved Pearl Jam back in the day, I played them all the time. Now, my daughter loves them too, so I wanted to go to a show with her,” she said. “We got tickets to Pearl Jam too this year, so this is a bit of a warm-up.”

As for what the original acts might think of tribute bands flogging their material, Sampson sees no problem with it: “Imagine you were a big band in the Eighties and you didn’t have a tribute to you?”

In January, more than 1,000 people braved the cold to see Fell Out Boy and The Black Charade at The Ritz in Manchester (@properjobphoto)

Bands are coming around, too. Last November, Swedish rock band The Hives issued a callout for tribute bands to cover their songs in a legitimate (albeit tongue-in-cheek) announcement to say that they were, in fact, franchising themselves.

“The Hives can no longer keep up with public demand for concerts,” they said, scrubbing further away at the stigma that once seemed to stain tribute acts. “Help us create a world where The Hives are playing in every city, all the time.”

Freitag can’t see why bands would have a problem with acts paying homage to their heroes. “Lots of bands probably think it’s great because at tribute gigs, you’ve got the real diehard fans,” he says. “I mean, people enjoying your music… that’s got to be an amazing thing, right?” After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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