Tribute bands dwell in artistic limbo, condemned forever to wander the misty twilight between their own artistic sovereignty and the widespread recognition contingent upon slavishly perfect imitation of their heroes. Getting it right in a cover band that recycles a relatively heterogeneous mix of classic rock favorites is one thing. Even playing in a mostly-original band that trundles out the occasional Zep or Sabbath crowd-pleaser poses a pretty low risk to rock credibility compared to staking everything on the successful theft, however affectionate, of a legendary band’s identity.
Suppose, however, that you and some fellow musicians wanted to get together—as did the members of No Quarter, a Led Zeppelin tribute band performing this week at the Blue Heron—to start a tribute band to your exalted rock idols. Are you truly prepared for what you’re getting yourselves into? Allow us to help you gild the lily by providing the following list of guidelines for successfully tapping into the burgeoning market for nostalgia acts. Budokan, here we come!
Make sure you pick a suitable band to mimic: As a general rule, the older, more broken-up or currently irrelevant to prevailing tastes in mainstream music your model is, the less ludicrous and/or redundant the tribute version is likely to look. KISS, for example, is supposedly planning yet another reunion tour, but it’s doubtful that anyone who goes to a KISS show nowadays really cares about anything the band did after the makeup came off. Not surprisingly, most if not all of the KISS tribute acts out there model their look and sound on the Destroyer-era band. It never hurts if at least one member of the original band is dead, e.g. Led Zeppelin and AC/DC.
Make sure you select just the right name: Tribute bands usually name themselves after a song title, album title, or particular lyric by the original, e.g. Escape (a Journey tribute band, and one that I don’t mind telling you I sincerely regret not seeing when they played at a local bowling alley a few summers ago). In special cases like that of all-female AC/DC tribute band Hell’s Belles, clever puns reflect an appealing twist on the standard tribute formula. There’s also Crack Sabbath in Missoula, but these instances are somewhat rare and reflect a break from orthodoxy. Naturally, arriving at the right name is a process that requires a balance between soul-searching and sound commercial judgement. The chosen name should be resonant of the original item without being too specialized, and then it can only be so obvious before it just looks dumb. Burnin’ for You would be an okay choice for a Blue Öyster Cult cover band, as would The Red and the Black (possible confusion with Stendhal concept band notwithstanding); Disciple (after the Disciples, the first incarnation of BOC) might be a bit too esoteric. Don’t Fear the Reaper—however clarion the intent—is simply way too obvious and unwieldy besides. The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria simply wouldn’t fit on a marquee. How about Extraterrestrial? Or maybe just Reaper?
Look the part: There exist a number of Beatles tribute bands whose members bear shocking resemblances to the original Fab Four, a quizzical “coincidence” which begs the question whether, at some point, certain musicians realize that their musical lot in life is to seek out others with similarly Beatleseque mugs and form tribute bands. What must this do to a musician’s sense of self-worth? Regardless, looking the part is half the job if a tribute band hopes to succeed as a touring act (obviously, studio potential is limited at best). A singer who can shriek like Robert Plant is half a blessing if he looks like Ernest Borgnine and can’t fit into a pair of size 34-long flared denim nut-huggers. Likewise, a singer the spitting image of Robert Plant who sings like Ernest Borgnine is also only partly useful. Ideally, the right looks and the right skills (a talent for faithful imitation, if nothing else) should coexist in balanced proportions. On that note, it’s worth suggesting that prospective tribute band co-founders employ professional considerations over personal ones in selecting friends with whom to form a band.
Know your typefaces: Smart tribute bands pick logo fonts that practically holler the name of the original band, fonts that immediately call to mind the real McCoy, even if the name of the tribute group is Swahili for “shameless posers.” Again, the unmistakable quasi-Nazi KISS font (did you know that German KISS posters are legally obligated to modify the shape of the SS in the band name?) and Led Zeppelin’s gracile Art Deco typeface (the same favored by No Quarter) are good examples of how letters can speak louder than words.
Round up those endorsements: The official thumbs-up from a member or members of the original band (or at least its legal department) is solid gold—KISS Army boasts the distinction of being the only officially-sanctioned KISS clone in existence. In the likely event that no such endorsement is forthcoming, there’s still no reason for a tribute band not to go, hat in hand, to somebody who can lend classic-rock credentials to the cause. Check out what No Quarter has to say for itself:“...Fans and members of Nazareth have said they could have sworn they were watching the real thing.”
Nazareth, eh? Well golly, if Nazareth says it’s just as good as the real thing, then mission accomplished!