Being in a tribute band must be a pretty sweet deal. It really doesn’t sound that difficult to create one. There are only two essential requirements: you have to fund the overheads, and you have to incinerate your own artistic ambitions. Spiritually and financially, these are not easy obstacles to overcome. You may also have to throw your dignity onto the fire, since tribute bands are perhaps the most maligned professionals in the music industry.
But once you’ve got that out of the way, it’s plain sailing all the way to the bank. For each show, you can take temporary ownership of a vast pre-existing fan base, enough of whom will always pay to see you, regardless of the legacy of the band you hope to imitate. (For instance, Nickelback have a tribute band.) You get to take a shortcut to deification without the need for the whole ‘being a musical genius’ part. Theoretically, if all goes to plan, you’ll get all the things people start rock bands for: sex, glory, high quality drugs, and zero responsibility. The prospect of modelling your own life on someone else’s is an easier pill to swallow when that ‘someone else’ parties 24/7.
The only catch is that you have to get there first, or else weed out the competition. I’m not sure if there’s even one Steely Dan tribute band yet, but imagine if there were two—they’d be eternal nemeses. Steely Flan would sever the brakes of Steely Scam’s tour van. Steely Scam would spike Steely Flan’s drinks. In the world of tribute bands, competition is minimal in number, but it’s fierce, because your rival is literally going to be exactly the same as you.
You’d think the crowds for tribute shows would be replete with nostalgic old people. You’d be wrong. For one thing, I’ve been to my fair share of tribute shows. Probably more than my fair share, given that I’m only 21. The first gig I ever went to was to see ‘The Bootleg Beatles’. This was against my will—I was 9 years old, and had but a thin grasp on the concept of what music actually was.
I also believed that the four men before me were the actual Beatles. If fooling a 9-year-old is any kind of high water mark for the success of a tribute band (and I think this is a realistic aim), then the ‘The Bootleg Beatles’ were the tits. Having young children and misinformed people believe that you are the genius responsible for the set of songs you’re playing might just be the most gratifying aspect of being a tribute artist.
I also recall going to a Green Day tribute shortly after the release of American Idiot, the band’s commercial heyday. ‘Green Bay’ were living proof that your idols don’t have to be retired or dead before you inherit their identities. This must be an existential minefield: Do ‘Green Bay’ age concurrently with Green Day, or are they frozen in time as the 2003 incarnation? And if ‘Green Bay’ were to totally succeed in their goal of emulating Green Day, wouldn’t that override the ‘Green Bay’ members’ need for their own original personalities? I don’t know. It depends how deep these guys go.
You’d hope these bands were actually nurturing an intense love for their icons, rather than cynically riding someone else’s gravy train to success. I’d also hope to see more than just costume-baked mimicry. I want to see some authentic spiritual commitment in my tribute bands. I want to see a worthwhile duplication of the essence and lifestyle of the original band. When I stumbled across ‘Fleetwood Bac’ at a festival, I remember thinking: I hope these guys are going full method. I hope the fake McVies in ‘Fleetwood Bac’ are getting divorced, and I hope the rest of the fake members are all sleeping with each other.
As it happens, ‘Fleetwood Bac’ were brilliant. I’ve been told that ‘The Bootleg Beatles’ were brilliant, too. At their best, tribute bands are more than glorified karaoke singers: tribute bands are groups of actors submerged in the roles of their heavily studied heroes. They do their homework, and they never break character on stage. In fact, I’d sooner call members of tribute bands highly skilled method actors than musicians.
Regardless of this scant consolation, I can’t help but picture a barren music industry 100 years from now, fresh out of modern icons and perennially stalked by the living ghosts of Paul McCartney and John Lennon touring eerie renditions of ‘Yesterday’.