Send in the Clones: A Cultural Study of the Tribute Band

Les Gofton reminds us that in popular music as in life, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

July 26, 2012

The most trenchant critique of "tribute" acts I have encountered was the work of Louie, the Jack Russell terrier who accompanied our bass player Mickey G to gigs in the late 1960s. Supporting Billy Fury on the club circuit, the band members were "relaxing" in the dressing room when loud cheering interrupted Billy's faux-Elvis performance of Halfway to Paradise, his hit. To the applause of the Sunday-night revellers, Louie was making stately progress backstage, having micturated over the mike stand and shoes of the aggrieved bill-topper.

Although we musicians considered this fair comment on one of Larry Parnes' stable of puerile tributes, the desire to imitate the icons of popular culture is easy to understand. As Archie Leach himself remarked: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." Most bands, from the Beatles down to us, played covers, and "authenticity" and "integrity", now invoked when tribute acts are being rubbished, were simply inappropriate terms in the early days of rock'n'roll. While the "dance" musician's job, as Howard Becker wrote of his days as a teenage pianist in the Chicago nightclubs of the 1940s, was to entertain the "squares", the audience's "taste", de facto, was thought so limited as to hardly deserve the name. The popular music industry rests on the inventiveness of artists, but immediately incorporates and commodifies it to satisfy markets. The white recording industry begat Pat Boone to "cover" Little Richard's records after it was discovered he was un-white.

In this interesting study, Georgina Gregory describes how processes of theft, imitation, appropriation and incorporation were ubiquitous in the development of popular music throughout the 20th century. White boys, as Mose Allison sings, actually did steal the blues, as well as jazz and rock'n'roll; "ghost" bands toured under their names for years after Chick Webb and Glenn Miller died, while even today, "spin-offs" from popular acts multiply like cells in a Petri dish. Tributes are neither unusual nor new, but Gregory usefully describes distinctive elements of the tribute industry and the fans involved. The physical appearance of the performers and note-for-note, look-for-look replication is central, using the original "gear". The chagrin of the Bootleg Beatles because their bass player is right- rather than left-handed is noted, but in general, members are more easily replaced than vintage Gibson guitars or Vox amps.

Death and old age loom fairly large here, but Gregory notes that many very successful acts - for example, the Carpenters - have not generated tributes. This is a parallel system, with its own trends and segments, rather than simply a tributary, and it fosters the capacity to sustain and indulge appetites otherwise consigned to the depths of memory as surely as Proust's madeleine or Glenn Miller's Dakota. As talent shows and social media create "mockstars", and every other style from the 20th century is routinely recycled, the line between "real" and "tribute" is increasingly blurred. Jean Baudrillard's "simulacrum" is invoked, but Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of "carnival" and his cavalier indifference to the sanctity of the original text is surely more apposite. Someone who used the only copy of his opus magnum as roll-up paper would surely understand tribute bands.

As always with analysis of working-class culture, anything that cannot be easily sucked into the orbit of bourgeois notions of taste and consequently robbed of its value as cultural capital (think football or beer) has to be trashed. This is not about authenticity: witness the obvious self-consciousness of the fans and musicians involved. As Gregory's use of fan emails and testimony from members of tribute groups shows, bands such as Tin Lizzie, ABCD or the Benwell Floyd serve a genuine need and foster a real sense of connection and involvement between audiences and musicians. Love of Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones is widespread and enduring, but the experience of their live performances in their pomp is no longer available to fans 40 years on. As we baby boomers are so fond of saying, you had to be there, whether describing the Summer of Love or Jimi Hendrix playing Hey Joe. A concert by Motown or Stax survivors; or rebels who did not die before they got old, but decided instead to get the band back together; or worse still, a film of Elvis backed by some still-breathing Nashville session guys offers less of the spirit of the times than the kids bopping to the Sex Pistols Experience or headbanging to Blackest Sabbath.

If Louie were still around, I'd be back on the road myself in a heartbeat. As Bill Hicks might have said: "Vesti la Goober..."

Send in the Clones: A Cultural Study of the Tribute Band

By Georgina Gregory

Equinox Publishing

184pp, £55.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9781845532635 and 532451 Published 17 May 2012

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