Take a look at the listings of pretty much any music venue, and chances are you’ll see cover bands - tribute acts – on the bill. The Bootleg Beatles and the Australian Pink Floyd Show are set (again) for the Birmingham National Indoor Arena. At Symphony Hall, Dweezil Zappa performs his dad’s repertoire in November. Tons of places have acts doing other acts, getting paid – quite well paid, in some cases - for their troubles.
Sometimes the original bands are happy to have tribute bands covering their material. UB40, who tour with a lead singer who looks and sounds like their original lead singer – he’s a cousin - seem happy with Johnny2Bad. Years ago, I worked with a member of Fred Zeppelin, and they appear to have had a genial nod of approval from the great ones. On the other side of the coin, Meatloaf famously confronted one Dean Torkington, who was doing a tribute act to the great Loaf. Part of the problem was Torkington's use of a domain name url – Meatloaf.org – which, quite frankly, the Loaf himself should have registered in the first place.
For a long time, TalkSport broadcaster and classic rock fan Ian Danter drummed for veteran Kiss tribute Dressed To Kill. If you check the live video further down this post, you can see the trouble they go to; it's perversely impressive. He’s only recently had to give the gig up because his Saturday radio duties on Talksport. He’s given the area a lot of thought.
Then you have the bands who do offer a full accurate band line-up, with little if any ‘cheating’. But it’s the covers bands who are out there five nights a week. The full bands are rarer, and there’s certainly not that many pro outfits. When you think of Limehouse Lizzy, who’ve been around for over twenty years, Jean Genie, T.Rexstasy…. these are full bands who’ve cemented their reputation. These are the heritage brands, Robin. They fought their way up.
Ian Danter: There‘s two separate things here. There are bands who cover an act, but don’t offer a show, because there’s only one or two musicians present, and everything else is on tape.
This is Ian Danter in civvy street...
So in your book, the guys with the backing tapes are, essentially, cheating, especially in comparison with bands like yourselves?
Often the cut-down line-up works well for corporate gigs, while the heritage venues that have been going a long time ask for the full band.
That’s exactly what I’m saying. I know of a band that pays ‘tribute’ to the Seventies, that actually has two line-ups. They’ve got a full band, and they’ve got a singer/guitarist combo with everything else on tape. It depends on the gig that they’re doing.
And this is Ian Danter tooled up with slap, lycra and drumkit
Another important thing to say is – I seem to remember, about ten years ago, people were launching tribute bands for pretty much anything. I remember rehearsing at Robanna’s rehearsal rooms one night, and I heard a lot of Travis coming from the next room... it was a Travis tribute act, based on one hit album, and some moderate success with the previous album. Other than that, they had no back catalogue with which to toy! So the band had one set to play, and nothing to fall back on.You’re saying that a tribute band needs a LOT of material?
Yes. You’re paying tribute to the show, the whole idea of the band. The quid-pro-quo with tribute bands, and Gene Simmons understands this, is that somebody will go and watch Dressed To Kill, who maybe had not seen Kiss at all, and really get into the original band. I’ve had Facebook messages telling me that people who saw us then went out and bought 'Kiss Alive' the next day.Why did you join Dressed To Kill? Was this a money-making exercise, or because you simply adored Kiss?
I always adored Kiss. When I was growing up in the mid 70s, I listened to my older brothers‘ stuff: Thin Lizzy, Rainbow, Deep Purple. But I wanted something of my own, so when Kiss came along, I was absolutely hooked. And when Dressed to Kill asked me to join, in 2005, it was wonderful. I jumped at it.What were in you before then?
I’d been in several tributes. I’d given up on trying to be original, trying to be a rock and roll star…Why? Tell me why you gave up?
A moment of clarity, I suppose – age! Right or wrong, you get to a certain age in your life, in your late 20s. And you think to yourself, ‘well, if it’s not going to happen now…’ The disappointment of not making it made me think, that I’d had my shot, and maybe I should think about doing this for fun. So I joined New Jersey, a Bon Jovi tribute band. The two guys who played Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Zambora guys in the band looked the part.Surely it was really only Jon and Richie the audience cared about?
Correct. The remainder of the band were utterly irrelevant visually, but of course you had to be up to the mark musically.
Kiss are all about fireworks, ridiculous costumes, big dumb rock riffs, OTT make-up, and, frankly, not taking themselves exactly seriously. And the fireworks play a big part. That's one thing in an arena, another thing in a small club. How do DTK handle onstage pyrotechnics?
They have a very good relationship with Lemaitre, who are the pyro company in this country. It has be on a smaller scale. You have to buy the right ones for the venue. On the occasions when we’ve played to six thousand people at the NEC, we’ve scaled it up a bit. We knew we had the ceiling capacity and the risk assessment cleared us to load up on bigger effects. It’s all fairly easily done – the band’s been doing it for twenty years.And are there new bands who will provide the inspiration and the back catalogue for the tribute bands of the future?
Of the current crop, I imagine there will be Foo Fighters tributes. Same goes for Muse once they’ve released two or three more albums. Beyond that, the Killers, maybe? Then you’re struggling a little. It’s a question of what kind of show the present-day bands put on.Tribute bands seem to get good money and regular work - you can see why that might piss off bands who are trying to break through. Any comment?
Well… you have to reckon that once a tribute band is established, they have something to offer venue owners who know that a given number of fans will show up every single time. Lots of bands work very hard to carve out their place in the market.Ian’s a fascinating person to talk to. He paints a very precise picture of the various levels and pecking orders on the tribute and cover band world. While he’s now out of the permanent Dressed to Kill line-up, he’s stepped in to help out with Dizzy Lizzy, Whitesnake UK, and even an Aerosmith tribute. And, let’s note, he is still pursuing his own dreams, working on a solo album of his own stuff.
The Robin 2 in Brierly Hill in the Black Country features tribute bands regularly. Mike Hamblett has lovingly run it for years, developing it into a very widely used and much appreciated venue.
Mike Hamblett: I was in a band thirty odd years ago. I ended up with a concert venue, and I started putting on R and B. But I realised that a club doing blues isn’t going to survive. I’ve always tried to broaden the boundaries.
I know that it’s a cliché to say I don’t do it for the money, but it’s true! I wanted the Robin to be a broad thing, offering loads of different sorts of music, and bringing loads of different people through the door.
I opened the original Robin in 1992. Somebody came along and offered me a tribute. And I hadn’t head that word before. It was to David Bowie, Jean Genie. It was John Mannering, from Birmingham, and he still comes here today. I put them on and it blew me away. He’s got a really good band, and he sent shivers down my spine. John does the whole gamut, from Ziggy Stardust onwards.
That was the start, and I think I was one of the first ones to put tributes on. Now, everybody and his dog puts tribute acts on. But I only put the good ones on. If you think of Led Zeppelin 3, or Dark Side of the Moon – they’re classic albums, with classic songs that will go on forever. But you can’t go and see those bands anymore. So if you have a quality act putting those songs on live, there’s a lot of people who will go and see it.What about more recent tribute acts?
They don’t tend to work here. It’s the classic rock acts. The Counterfeit Stones – they’re A1 musicians. Nick Dagger is a great front man – very funny as well. You can’t go and see the Beatles any more, can you?Could you survive without tribute bands?
Definitely not. I’ve seen venues open up saying they weren’t going to put tribute bands on, and twelve months later they’ve shut down again. There’s a market, and you can’t not feed that market.Will you take a risk on a new band anymore?
I still do! I keep doing it. It is difficult to take too many risks. I the past I took some huge risks. I couldn’t do that today, in the recession, but I do take risks… not such big risks.In case your hackles are still well and truly up at the very thought of rip-off cabaret rock acts recycling other people’s hits, I can suggest some common ground. In the end, it comes down to having a product to sell: Yours, or one which you’ve made yours.
Plenty of artists still tour behind hits with which they have very little connection – there were dozens of Drifters at one time or another, and blow me, here’s another set of Drifters, scheduled to play the Alexandra Theatre this month. They look suspiciously young for a group... that was formed over 60 years ago.
You also could assert that this is all fraudulent low-budget stuff, but I'm not entirely sure. You could certainly argue that cover bands are creatively bankrupt and derivative. What you certainly can’t argue with is the fact that these acts meet a continuing demand for the known and the familiar. Technically they have to be up the the mark - or they'll get slaughtered by a knowing audience. And you can’t argue with the fact that they are responsible for a huge chunk of revenue in the region, which in many cases sustains venues that otherwise would have to close their doors, along with rehearsal rooms and music and pa equipment shops.
Personally, there’s only one cover band concept that I truly find despicable, and that's the rash of Blues Brothers knock-offs, featuring fat blokes in shades and pork-pie hats shouting soul hits. For all the goofy fun of the first Blues Brothers movie, it still cynically pimped its original vintage soul material. The follow-up movies were dire, but the damage was done, producing a package, ready on a plate, served up to people who never knew how sublime the original soul material was – and is. A knock-off of a knock-off. And, as usual, the originators who charmed us back in the day probably won’t see a penny of the money made off their talent. But even then, even though that's not to my purist tastes, those bands are meeting a demand.
Robin 2: listings of live shows - not just tributes
Dressed To Kill: their very own website, with more videos, tour dates, and more
Tribute Band: an exhaustively detailed site covering the world of tributes