I recently enjoyed an evening at The Fleece in Bristol, a suitably dark and atmospheric venue for an evening of 80s-retro entertainment with two tribute bands – These Smiths and The Cureheads. I loved The Smiths and The Cure as a teenager, but never got to see either band play live, and as the vegetarian Morrissey famously declared he’d rather eat his own testicles than revisit The Smiths, a tribute act is as good as it will ever get for legions of devoted fans. My husband stayed at home, not tempted by an evening of shoe-gazing Goth miserableness (the perfect throwback to my teenage years) but I was far too intrigued to give it a miss.
I’m fascinated by lookalikes – the whole concept of transforming yourself into a carbon copy of another person is clever, creepy and slightly pathetic, all at once. My first novel Lookeylikey centres on a woman who gets so good at the impersonation, her own life effectively ceases to exist; the fatal lure of not just looking ‘like’ a celebrity, but of actually becoming that person. It’s a tricky line to tread without losing your identity (and maybe your mind) and Tribute bands straddle that line all the time. Are they performing music ‘in the style of’ their chosen artiste… or are they true impersonators? Are they doing it because they love the music or because they’ve been told they look like the celebrity in question? It’s a chicken and egg situation, but one where the egg looks a bit like the chicken and the chicken looks rather like an egg…
Scan through the listings of any entertainment agency (such as MusicZirconia, named after the lookeylikeys of the jewellery world) or watch Channel 4’s new programme Lookalikes, and you can marvel at the acts on offer. In Lookeylikey, the heroine calls them “a flock of Captain Jack Sparrows created with wigs and lashings of eye-liner,” and says, “There were far too many photos where I had to read the captions to see who the hell they were supposed to be… some could have passed for a star only in the dimmest of dimly-lit rooms.” So what drives someone to become an asian Amy Winehouse? A white Whitney Houston? To form a KISS tribute band made entirely of dwarves? And would you really hire someone calling himself Luther Van Dross? Possibly the most tenuous and insubstantial is the lookalike of Chantelle Houghton, the first non-celebrity (arguably) to appear on Celebrity Big Brother, who was in her turn, a lookalike for Paris Hilton (are you keeping up with this?)
It obviously helps if you bear a passing resemblance to your chosen celeb, which These Smiths’s ‘Morrissey’ did, though he was also faintly and disturbingly reminiscent of my old English teacher. It’s easier to impersonate someone with the iconically raddled look of The Cure‘s Robert Smith – most of us could wear a ratty black wig and apply our lipstick without a mirror and look sorta like him…
Vocally, with both groups, it was hard to tell the difference between the fakes and the originals – both lead singers had the right sound, and carefully copied their lying down on the floor, back to the audience stage tricks. The Cureheads reminded me how many great tracks The Cure released, but I was still longing to hear my favourite school disco record, the one that always got the baby-Goth girls onto the dance floor. One of my companions for the evening, the divine Miss P, shook her head. “They won’t play Lovecats,” she said wisely, “It was overproduced in the studio and is really hard to replicate live.” She was totes right; she’s a DJ, she knows this stuff.
These Smiths‘s lead guitarist couldn’t manage Johnny Marr’s bright inimitable jangle, sounding like he’d rather be homaging Guns ‘N’ Roses, but he mostly redeemed himself by nailing the amazing shimmery dopplering guitar effect at the start of ‘How Soon Is Now’. Never having seen them live, I hadn’t realised quite how amazingly, foot-stompingly, uplifting Smiths songs can be. These were real floor-fillers, with a venue-full of people singing along with delight as the fake Morrissey twirled his plastic gladioli and pirouetted across the stage.
The real shocker was how many people enjoying the concert weren’t even born when Morrissey and Marr last shared a stage. Talking to blue-haired, multiply-pierced 23-year old Charlotte in the interval, I wondered how she’d started listening to these bands from the Indie past. She took a drag on her roll-up and shrugged. “Great music is great music,” she said, “Even if it’s really ancient. A friend showed me all this old 80’s music on YouTube and it just, you know, spoke to me.” It gave me a shiver of incipient old age to realise The Smiths are for her are what The Beatles were for me – a legendary band from my parents generation, shrouded in myth and second-hand nostalgia.
It’s a weird world, but there’s a huge demand for the Tribute act. It’s not only bands who are dead, or disbanded, or past their best – cover groups are huge here in the West Country where big stadium bands rarely, if ever, appear. Ticket prices and travel arrangements to see a group at the O2 or NEC are so painful and protracted, it’s not surprising there’s an appetite for the knock-offs that spring up like mushrooms.
And what’s in it for the bands? For some, it’s a chance to hang out with mates and play the music they like, a regular source of pocket-money and a good night out with the lads. For some, it becomes all-consuming as personal validation; fame at second hand, but a kind of fame nevertheless. Steven Kurutz’s funny, revealing book Like a Rolling Stone is well worth a read, exploring the ‘tributitis’ that can afflict successful cover acts – becoming more ‘Keef’ than Keith Richards himself. My favourite tale of cover-band stardom is the Hull-based builder and David Bowie impersonator who was chased down the streets of Amsterdam by mob of crazed Bowie fans and had to take refuge in a brothel. For three hours. At least, I’m guessing that’s the excuse he gave his wife when he got home.
As for our evening of 80’s nostalgia, it ended with a stage invasion. The mostly 20-somethings clambered up to seize the microphone and sing along drunkenly, joyfully to ‘There is a light that never goes out’, the small stage so swamped with people that the only sign of Morrissey was his gladioli still twirling bravely above the crowd. The young girl behind me had tears in her eyes, “Can you feel it?” She sniffed happily, “The room is full of love.” I don’t know about that, but enjoyed myself almost as much as I would have done in the 80s seeing the real deal – and rediscovered my love for the music of my teenage years. I think even the grumpy old Grinch-meister Morrissey would approve of that.