The sincerest form of flattery?
One night in the mid-'90s, former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett was playing in Montreal to an audience of a few hundred fans. He had enjoyed a successful solo career for the two decades since his departure but, on leaving his gig that night, he discovered that the Genesis tribute band Musical Box were performing just down the road in a huge venue to an audience of thousands. At that moment, Hackett uttered the immortal words, "F***, I'd make more money pretending to be me than being me”. A few months later he resolved to jump on the tribute bandwagon himself, and recorded the Genesis Revisited tribute album which, I understand, has been at least as successful as anything else he has released in recent years.
So... what is it about tribute bands? I recently found myself at an Enid reunion gig chatting to Francis Lickerish, a former guitarist with the band and now leader of the folk/medieval/rock group Secret Green. We were discussing everything that had happened to us since we last bumped into each other in a street in Cambridge in the mid‑'80s, but when I mentioned that I am now the keyboard player in a Pink Floyd tribute band called the Floyd Effect he exclaimed, "Oh no, how could you?” In his view (and possibly it's a valid one) every bum on a seat at a Floyd Effect concert takes revenue away from up‑and‑coming (and often struggling) musicians.
My dear departed mum, as I have stated in these pages before, believed that real musical composition died around 1850, and by that I don't mean a little after tea‑time. She was quite happy to attend orchestral concerts of Chopin, Beethoven or Brahms (ie. classical tribute bands), but wild horses would have been unable to drag her to a concert of contemporary material from 20th Century composers such as Vaughan Williams, Gershwin or Bernstein, let alone the more experimental noodlings of Cage, Tippett, Ligeti or Stockhausen.
So... what is it about tribute bands? Ultimately, people listen to music that they like. They also attend concerts that they enjoy, and a scan of the 'What's On?' pages reveal that numerous venues up and down the country are more interested in putting on gigs by Björn Again, ReGenesis or the Bootleg Beatles than in taking a risk by booking new music. Yet there is no mental process that impels a potential member of an audience to avoid a new band and go to see a tribute instead. There is, however, a very strong process that says, "I don't fancy this new stuff, let's go to see the Floyd Effect tonight, because they perform music I like and they put on a good show”. Surprisingly, this attitude is not confined to doddery old buffers whose best days predate the first moon landings. The following comment appeared on my band's Lemonrock review page after a recent performance. "I took my 18 year old son with me: he had not listened to Pink Floyd before. Mightily impressed, he borrowed my copy of 'Dark Side' to play in his room. Preferred the live performance,” he said. "The music was exactly the same but watching it live was better.”
But can it really be that simple? I like Mozart but I don't like Messiaen, I would have liked to have seen the Beatles but I don't care for Arctic Patrol or the Snow Monkeys? In truth, it's exactly that simple. People still revere Beethoven nearly two centuries after his death, yet I have no doubt that Harrison Birtwistle will be nothing more than an academic footnote in musical history by the time that the 23rd Century rolls around. Likewise, people (and their children and grandchildren) will still be listening to Sergeant Pepper, Tubular Bells and Dark Side Of The Moon long after the short-lived bands of recent years are forgotten.
Indeed, if new bands continue to fail to provide music that lasts beyond memories of last summer's Glastonbury festival, and the tribute bands remain willing to invest the time, trouble and considerable cash to recreate the sound, lighting and spectacle of some of the best shows ever seen, it's the latter that will continue to flourish, often filling large venues while contemporary acts struggle to fill smaller ones across town.
So... what is it about tribute bands? Could it simply be that Chopin wrote better music than Cage, and that the music and shows of bands such as Pink Floyd, U2, Led Zeppelin and Abba were better than almost anything that has come since? Surely not…?
Gordon Reid is an award-winning composer and keyboard player. He has also penned the odd article for Sound On Sound over the years, including the classic 63-part series 'Synth Secrets'.