Classic Rock: And the Brand Played On and On

This is a special treat for me, and the first in a series of guest blog posts from music writers I know and admire.  I’ve asked a few of my writer friends to submit some of their scribblings to this humble Delete Bin.  And some of them have agreed to do so.  In this case, Geoff Moore of Calgary Alberta, a novelist, music fan, and Montreal Canadiens nut, talks here about the milking of legacies in rock.  What happens when rock bands become rock brands?  Lots of things …

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Rock ‘n’ roll’s pushing 60 if you date its birth from March 3rd or 5th, 1951 when Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm cut ‘Rocket 88′ in Sam Phillips’ Memphis recording studio under the guise of Jackie Brensten and his Delta Cats. That culture-quaking distortion ripping through your speaker grille comes from a guitar plugged into an amp that had been damaged en route to Sun, somewhere out on Highway 61. Born to be wild maybe, but time manages to tame most of us.

Most rockers didn’t live fast, die young and leave beautiful corpses. No, legions of rock bands have soldiered on, advancing well beyond their best-before dates in ragged columns to the beat of their current drummers. Some have even returned from the dead, or hiatus. Some have been cloned. And some, God help them (and you if you bought a ticket), some are like demented zombies, they just won’t quit. ‘I hope I die before I get old.’ Pete Townshend wrote it and Roger Daltry spat it out, but it didn’t happen. Not to them anyway. They’re older than rock itself.

The Who is a duo by virtue of attrition however and many wholigans maintain they’re simply not the Who without Keith Moon and John Entwhistle. But when Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry do perform or record together the result is unmistakably Whooey. Because of this, it seems fair that the pair continue to leverage the band’s name and all the mod pop art iconography associated with it on their souvenir merchandise.

The outfit has been able to maintain its identity with a shred or two of integrity intact and still possesses enough cachet with music audiences that they’re able to work if the mood strikes Pete or Roger needs the money. There have already been umpteen farewell tours and at one point Townshend even retired from music to work for a book publisher. It seems odd to contemplate life without the on again/off again, phasing, battling existence of the the Who in some form or another. They remain a constant for fans of a certain age, something that was and somehow always will be.

But as fans of Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd and Genesis will sigh to you, they can’t last forever. Or can they? Amazingly, despite death or disbandment, you can still pay good money for a live performance of a Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd or Genesis show thanks to a hereto unforeseen back-catalogue marketing asset: the tribute band. They attract our sons and daughters who came of age listening to our old records. They attract some of us for various reasons, curiosity or nostalgia perhaps, or maybe it’s the sheer exhilaration provided by beloved music that’s not Memorex.

Some of these acts merely studiously replay the original material as recorded while others add an element of theatre and recreate their meal tickets both visually and sonically. Layers of disbelief must be suspended as that fellow up on stage in the dress and the fox mask is playing Peter Gabriel playing a character. A through the looking-glass choreographed illusion. It’s A Kinda Magic painstakingly recreates specific Queen tours – set lists, costumes, props – you name it. Endorsed by Freddie Mercury’s personal assistant! gush their newspaper ads.

You have to assume a neophyte would come away with a good sense of the spectacle that was Queen and that a lifelong fan could have some hazy, pot-marred memories enhanced by the performance. It looks like Queen, sounds like Queen and even acts like Queen. But it’s not Queen. (Off topic but related: do tribute acts have their own, sort of, tribute groupies? And what of a performer’s ego, would it be, say, Zeppelin-sized? Questions best left to ponder on another day.) Things get down-the-rabbit-hole weird and maybe a little sleazier in that murky no band’s land somewhere between the resurrected Who and It’s A Kinda Magic.

When does a band cease being itself and mutate into something akin to its own tribute band? A brand, if you will. Or simply a rip-off. Thin Lizzy came through Calgary (AB) a couple of years ago – sort of. The newspaper ad featured a close approximation of the band’s familiar logo only, nothing else, no photos, no names. Phil Lynott, the band’s creative force, passed away in 1986. When the Thin Lizzy broke up in 1984 Lynott and drummer Brian Downey were sole remaining original members. The list of former Thin Lizzies is almost as long as the Montreal Canadiens’ all-time roster.

The group that put on a concert here was led by one John Sykes who joined Thin Lizzy in 1982. According to thinlizzy.org, the band’s ‘official’ web site, Thin Lizzy’s final performance took place in Germany in 1983. The existence of John Sykes’s Thin Lizzy is not ‘officially’ acknowledged, like black ops and cabinet-sanctioned wet work.

The Yardbirds played an Edmonton (AB) area casino this past winter. Singer Keith Relf has been dead as long as he lived, 33 years. As for Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page – whatever happened to those guys?. Shelling out to see rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja and drummer Jim McCarty will only guarantee you one thing, the backing vocals on their version of ‘Heart Full of Soul’ will sound authentic. You’re not getting the Yardbirds, you’re getting a couple of former Yardbirds (the ‘other’ guys in the group’s 60s promotional photos) who call themselves the Yardbirds covering the Yardbirds.

Wonder how the new material goes over (even the Who had trouble selling Endless Wire to its middle-aged audiences)? Beware Mike Love this summer, state fair aficionados and rural casino habitues. The ticket reads Beach Boys but only one guy up on that stage actually sang on every track included on that new compilation you purchased last week at Wal-Mart. Enjoy the last original Beach Boy in his dotage. Funny, he probably hasn’t changed his stage wardrobe in 45 years and went from California teen to retired Arizona snowbird in no moves. Hawaiian shirts get old fast.

Nothing’s as it was or as it seems. Enjoy the show. Caveat emptor.

Geoff Moore is the author of Murder Incorporated, a novel about the advertising industry. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

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6 comments

  1. “The Who” really need to call it quits. It’s beyond embarrassing at this point. I think Roger and Pete are capable performers, but calling them The Who is like calling the recent “reunion” of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (at the Change Begins Within concert a few weeks back) a Beatles reunion.

  2. I’ve seen that Genesis tribute band, The Musical Box many times. I know it’s not really Genesis. I don’t care. I’m too young to have seen Genesis play those concerts from the early 70s. What am I to do as a fan? Sit back and pine for somebody to invent a time machine? The show itself is entertaining. And I think that’s the whole point.

  3. Brilliant article. My favourite brand is the Rolling Stones. They’ve stayed true to what Andrew Loog Oldham hyped them to be and it’s worked for them.

    Tribute bands contribute nothing to music – they pander to this Karaoke culture that American Idol has created. BTW – I’ve got tickets to a William Hung impersonator tonight… wanna go?

  4. I guess I feel differently about tribute bands than bands that don’t know when to quit. I’m not a fan of either, but at least with the tribute band there’s no expectation of getting the genuine article. You know they are fugazi. Townshend/Daltrey calling themselves the Who however…

    They can do what they want, tour until they’re 6 feet under. I don’t care. I’m just not going to pay to see it.

  5. A band that loses its main man can do one of 4 things:
    1. Quit.
    2. Find a a new creative centre internally (Carl & Dennis era Beach Boys; Phil Collins era Genesis).
    3. Bring in new talent from outside (Fleetwood Mac – several times – after Peter Green).
    4. Continue embarrassingly (Queen – despite the undoubted talents of its surviving members, no band without Freddie should play under that name).

What are your thoughts, Good People? Tell it to me straight.

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