SANTA CRUZ, March 11, 2014 — For hard working bands, the futility and chaos can often be overwhelming. Being in a full time band can feel like a daily repetition of one step forward and two steps back. At times, it is possible to become so consumed with the negative, so unable to see past the current crisis or obstacle, that bands lose sight of how fortunate they are.
Bands who believe they are constantly engaged in futile campaigns featuring poorly attended tours, stingy record labels, and music nobody wants to buy, would do well to understand that it could be worse – they could be a tribute band.
The 2001 film “Tribute: A rockumentary” documents four such acts, and it is essential viewing for any original band that is running low on optimism. After watching Tribute, it is impossible for a band to feel as badly as they did just a few short hours prior.
The ability to write original music is apparently not innate in all musicians. There are countless people who are able to play their chosen instruments, often quite dexterously, but are unable to craft their own music, lyrics, and melodies. For many of these people, tribute bands offer a modicum of rock glory without investing an inordinate amount of sweat. Being part of a working original band often means quitting stable jobs, putting all earthly possessions in storage and loading yourselves into a van, headed for the great unknown. It is an all or nothing proposition.
The saddest part about watching Tribute is witnessing these groups endure all the same heartbreaks, disappointments, infighting, and jealousy that original bands deal with, except that they are not even suffering through it for their own music. They are copying music which has already been written, and mimicking on stage personas of other, more talented people. For the tribute bands, the closer they believe they can get to the original band’s look and sound, the more successful they believe they are. It is the training wheels of the music world.
Tribute chronicles the tribulations of Larger Than Life, a KISS cover band from Modesto, Calif. (if you have ever been to Modesto than you already know what to expect), Albany, N.Y.’s Bloodstone, who singer Jeff Richards boasts “is about as close as you can get to Judas Priest on a low budget,” and Sheer Heart Attack, a Queen tribute from southern California, who, of the three, seem to have the most levelheaded and realistic view of themselves. There is also a Monkees tribute featured, although the film focuses solely on the petty, band-ending rift between two of its founding members.
Some of Tribute is difficult to watch, particularly if you have been in or are currently part of an original band. The shunned guitar player from the Monkees tribute decides to get back on the horse by finding a singer through the classifieds, selling him on the idea of a sixties cover band, only to foist Monkees costumes and a Monkees-only set list on the poor guy when he shows up for the first rehearsal. Meanwhile, Larger Than Life unexpectedly lose their Gene Simmons character and, in probably the most chills-inducing scene in the film, they invite a prospective replacement to come and try out. They have a gig coming up and they need to have a Gene for the show. They are so desperate and hopeful and then this guy shows up and, well… you will just have to watch it.
Sheer Heart Attack are a nice enough group of guys, but the real star of their segments is their self-proclaimed super fan, whose entire life appears to revolve around this Queen cover band. After watching Tribute, one wonders if super fan is still on the streets, or possibly locked up somewhere with a box of crayons and a wrap around wind breaker. Sheer Heart Attack are faced with losing their singer to a German production of the musical Cats and, while their audition scene is not quite as terrifying as Larger Than Life’s, it is still sad and almost unwatchable.
So for bands who doubt themselves and wonder if things are ever going to break their way, remember that it could be worse. Be grateful that you are at least writing your own original music, rather than aping somebody else’s work. The hardships you will invariably face and overcome will be solely in the cause of releasing and promoting your own original music, not jumping around on stage trying to imitate somebody else.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.