The huge trend in tribute bands, however new in the focus of music fans and those who follow live music, has been with us quite a while.
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The first tribute band I remember hearing of was back in my high school days, around 1981. It was a Doors/Jim Morrison trib band called ‘Crystal Ship’ (after a Doors song, of course), and advertisements for their shows ran fairly often on Philadelphia radio. Their fanbase was considerable, since some of my classmates even had managed to see them, and the Doors (and, posthumously Jim Morrison were having a renaissance in popularity.
While I know that the people holding the rights to the Doors’ music must have been paid well by these musicians to use the songs, I believe that band must have made a good deal of money.
Today, as throughout the 1990’s, there is an ever-increasing number of these bands and they have a very loyal and profitable fanbase. It’s an industry.
For example, I follow a Black Sabbath tribute band which calls itself ‘Sabbra Cadabra’. I know from my observations in the Black Sabbath online community that there are four bands in different corners of the United States using this name. All of them are Sabbath trib bands. I was even emailed a question by the Sabbra Cadabra in California inquiring about the talents of their rival here on the East Coast, as a matter of professional comparison. (It was like industrial espionage, as it were.) My boys (East Coast ‘Sabbra Cadabra’) are from New York City, and while the band doesn’t look absolutely exactly like Black Sabbath (except for the guy playing as Ozzy, who is amazing), they sure as hell sound like them. I just saw their 666th show last night, and they sound better and more like vintage Sabbath than they did even when I last saw them in 1998. Ozzy himself – the real Ozzy – was even seen on his show ‘The Osbournes’, wearing one of their t-shirts, which they sent him. (Of course it’s a point of pride for them. Their logo is the image of Ozzy from the cover of the Vol. 4 album, 1972.)
Their following is far and wide on the eastern US coast, ad as they’ve gained fans as Sabbra Cadabra, their ‘leader’, drummer Tom Capobianco has expanded his successful venture into the demesne of two other classic hard rock bands, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. (These trib bands, which have partly different lineups due of course to differing styles, are called ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Riff/Raff’ respectively, after classic songs by each band, which is how trib bands are typically named.) They sometimes even play as these different bands back-to-back.
The picture I’m painting for my reader is one of a new industry in music. I have not yet seen anyone do a documentary of any type on this phenomenon. It exists in more than one sector of the music industry, in fact. I point out the huge trend in ‘tribute albums’, which as I’ve written before has gotten well out of hand. It also exists on the television – in the form of ‘Performing As…’, which is a cross between ‘Star Search’ and… tribute bands… and karaoke.
Where did this all begin? Of all the phenomena that happen in popular culture, this one is closest to coming straight from the fans as a response to artists they love. Its true roots lie in all the kids who emulated a rock’n’roll singer behind a microphone or jamming out on air guitar. I remember when I was in seventh grade, I saw neighborhood kids pretending to be Aerosmith at a girl’s birthday party. They lip-synched but they had the image all down, all the way to Steve Tyler’s mic strand with the Romani gypsy bandanas.
But where and when did the tribute industry begin, in the arena for the struggle for the audience’s dollar?
As far as I can tell –
It started in Vegas, with the Elvis impersonators.
It’s rather fitting, to tell you the truth. Elvis sits in the world’s memory at the beginning of rock’n’roll.
So, where does it go from here?
With the expansion of public awareness of the phenomenon of imitative performance tribute, I believe that the ‘trib band scene’ will simply explode into other musical genres.
So far, I’ve seen or heard of multitudinal trib bands for legends like KISS (called ‘Knights In Satan’s Service’, ala the scandal exploded by religious zealots exhausted from beating up on Sabbath); Blue Oyster Cult (‘Red Lobster Sect’ in Allentown, PA. in the early ‘90’s); bands for different eras of Sabbath; Ozzy and Dio trib bands and even Ramones trib bands. (The first tribute album I ever laid eyes on or bought was the very first Ramones tribute, ‘Gabba Gabba Hey’.)
Finally, what has driven the increasing success of tribute bands, especially for musician-entrepreneurs like Tom Capobianco of Sabbra Cadabra (East Coast) and his three tribute bands?
Look at Ozzy Osbourne, KISS and all the other rock artists who have aged so poorly over the years: casualties of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, lineup changes and even changes in style make people who remember the glory days of these artists come out to venues to relive them with these fellow fans, and new fans too young to remember this era (largely the ‘70’s and ‘80’s) want to experience what they otherwise never can.
Mortality and legend drives the success of bands like Sabbra Cadabra, and the Elvis impersonators.
One wonders what will happen when we pass into eras many generations from now; but it is impossible to know what music and its attendant fandom will resemble in fifty years. I know my mother, a Glen Miler fan in 1941, could never have imagined her daughter and then her son banging their heads to heavy metal.
But I have the advantage of knowing that I’ll be bringing my kids to see Sabbra Cadabra to bring home to them the magic of Sabbath’s music, as I just did for my ex-Deadhead girlfriend last night.